Fear, Freedom and the Goodness of Creation

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #09a: Fear, Freedom and the Goodness of Creation

By Rav Yitzchak Blau


The Rabbis taught: For two and a half years, the house of Hillel and the house of Shammai argued. One said that it was pleasant for man to be created, and the other said that it would have been more pleasant for man to not have been created. They voted and determined that it would have been more pleasant not to have been created, but now that he had been created, he should investigate his deeds. (Eruvin 13b)

Everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven. (Berakhot 33b)

The pessimism about the creation of humanity reflected in the gemara in Eruvin seems to contradict an explicit biblical verse. After God creates Adam and completes the creation of the world, the Torah tells us that "God saw all that He had created, and it was very good" (Bereishit 1:31). Given the fact that the Torah clearly endorses the value of humanity and the entirety of creation, how could the schools of Shammai and Hillel raise the possibility that it might have been better for man to not have been created?

In truth, it is not clear that the biblical phrase "very good" refers to the creation of man. It may refer to the totality of the created order, and not specifically to the impact that the addition of people had on that order. Indeed, R. Yosef Albo argues (Sefer Ha-ikkarim 3:2) that all aspects of the created order, with the exception of mankind, received the "ki tov" evaluation. This stems from the fact that only humanity has free will. Every other creature fulfills the goodness of its purpose immediately upon coming into existence. Only humanity, with its freedom to corrupt its mission, cannot be called good until its goals are achieved. The drama of human freedom suspends the declaration of "ki tov."

However, we can accept R. Albo's interpretation of the first chapter of Bereishit and still think that the creation of mankind was a positive event. The goodness of mankind may come after time rather than immediately - but it is nonetheless considered to be "very good." Why does the gemara offer an apparently negative evaluation?

The answer may depend upon precise translation of the gemara. As the translation above reflected, the gemara employs the term "noach" and not "tov." In other words, the gemara refers to the "pleasantness" of creation and not to its "goodness." Some things in this world are both good and unpleasant. Nonetheless, even if the gemara is evaluating only pleasantness, the conclusion in favor of non-existence seems surprising.

In his Pachad Yitzchak (Rosh Hashana 7), Rav Yitzchak Hutner offers an insightful analysis that begins with the second gemara cited above. This gemara affirms the existence of human freedom, as it asserts that "fear of heaven" is not subject to divine control. While we could understand the phrase "Everything is in the hands of heaven except for the fear of heaven" as conveying that God controls everything with only one exception, this is not the way Rambam understood it. In his letter to Ovadiah the Proselyte, Rambam explains that "Everything is in the hands of heaven" refers to the natural order, while "except for the fear of heaven" refers to the totality of human endeavor. This leads Rambam to deny the idea of "bashert." Finding the right spouse falls within the province of human endeavors, and is therefore subject to human freedom, and not Divine decision.

This talmudic endorsement of free will raises a question. As serving God out of love represents a higher level than serving God out of fear, why does the gemara utilize the term "fear of heaven" to describe our human choices? It should rather have said, "Everything is in the hands of heaven except for love of heaven." Rav Hutner explains that there is an important difference between fear of heaven and love of heaven. The ohev (lover) desires the opportunity to freely choose service of God. The yarei (fearer), terrified of religious failure, starts by wishing the onus of choice would go away, thus removing the possibility of sin. Only after expressing this fear does the yarei come to terms with human choice, in order to select the good. The gemara selects the term "fear of heaven" because it wants to emphasize this initially frightening aspect of human freedom.

Rav Hutner tells the story of a scholar who was afraid to take a seat on a religious court, out of fear of making the wrong ruling. His teacher said to him: "Who should become a judge? A person not concerned about making incorrect rulings?" As this story illustrates, there are times when the healthy thing is to have an impulse to avoid a certain situation. The successful person, however, can express that impulse, and then proceeds to deal with the situation.

According to Rav Hutner's analysis, the fearful rejection of choice is a crucial prerequisite for the moving to the higher level of embracing the chance to make the right choice. Only those who truly understand the burden of responsibility can ably take on that responsibility. We can now explain that the pessimistic gemara in Eruvin refers to a stage that precedes "And God saw all that he had created, and it was very good." Mankind must first experience the weighty responsibility of free choice and declare that it would have been more pleasant to not have been created, and then move on to the loving fulfillment of responsible decision-making. After humans internalize the serious nature of their responsibility, and begin to make the right choices, they can then say that it was better to have been created, and that the world in which they participate is indeed "very good."

(For another approach to the gemara in Eruvin, see Sefer Haikkarim 4:29.)