SALT - Monday, 22 Tishrei 5780 - October 21, 2019

  • Rav David Silverberg
            The beginning of Parashat Bereishit tells of God’s creation of light, before which all of existence was in a state of darkness and “tohu va-vohu” (“chaos” – 1:2).  The Midrash, in a perplexing passage (Bereishit Rabba 2:5), interprets this description as an allegorical reference to God’s foreseeing the contrast between the righteous conduct of the pious people who would live in the world He now created, and the sinfulness of the wicked.  The “darkness,” the Midrash writes, represents the evil deeds of the sinners, whereas the “light” symbolizes the noble deeds of the righteous.  The Midrash then comments, startlingly, “But I do not know which He desires – the actions of these, or the actions of these.”  The Torah therefore tells us, “God saw that the light was good” (1:4), to teach that “He desires the actions of the righteous and does not desire the actions of the wicked.”
            Many writers wondered why the Midrash entertained the possibility that God “desires the actions of the wicked.”  Was there any question that God prefers the noble deeds of the righteous over the sinister deeds of the wicked?  Why did the Midrash need to find an allusion to the answer to this question in the form of, “God saw that the light was good”?
            A novel interpretation of the Midrash’s comment was suggested by Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, in Kedushat Levi.  He boldly proposed that when the Midrash speaks of “the actions of the wicked,” it does not refer to the sinful conduct of evildoers.  Rather, it refers to resorting to anger and sharp criticism – which are normally associated with “evil” conduct – as the means of eliciting positive change.  According to Rav Levi Yitzchak, the Midrash here sees “darkness” as an allusion to the use of generally “dark” measures – hostility and rage – out of a sincere desire to motivate people to improve.  And thus the Midrash asks, “Which does He desire more?” – whether God prefers the approach of “ma’aseihem shel tzadikim,” the approach of kindness, compassion and affection in trying to inspire change in others, or “ma’aseihem shel resha’im” – the approach of harsh condemnation.  Rav Levi Yitzchak writes:
They [the rabbis in the Midrash] said that…He desires more the “actions of the righteous,” that they should draw the entire world to serve the Creator through words of pleasantness and bring their hearts back to His service without anger…because the path and attribute of God, may He be blessed, is goodness, and He wishes for everyone to draw near to him through goodness, as the verse states, “Its ways are ways of pleasantness” (Mishlei 3:17).
The possibility of achieving positive results through sharp criticism led the Midrash to consider whether perhaps that might be the preferred method of influencing and motivating people to draw closer to God.  It concludes unequivocally that the method God approves of is “actions of the righteous” – the method of warmth and kindness.
Rav Levi Yitzchak here warns that even when we are driven by sincere and noble intentions, and even when we produce a desirable and significant outcome, there is no justification for “the actions of the wicked” – anger and animosity.  The famous verse in Mishlei, as Rav Levi Yitzchak cites, says of Torah that “its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace” – emphasizing that even the roads leading to Torah knowledge and performance must be pleasant and peaceful.  We must always adhere to the “actions of the righteous” and never allow altruistic goals to lead us to inappropriate conduct or attitudes towards other people.