Shabbat Rosh Hodesh
January 4, 2003
This week’s special haftarah, recited whenever Shabbat coincides with Rosh Hodesh, opens with the following declaration: “Thus said the Lord: The heaven is my throne and the earth is My footstool: Where could you build a house for Me, What place could serve as My abode?” This verse serves as an introduction to a series of verses in which Isaiah criticizes the people for assuming that God is interested in their worship when their moral behavior is unsatisfactory. Rabbi David Kimche, the 12th century Provencal interpreter, captures the connection between this verse and the verses which follow: “If you think that I [God] dwell in this house [The Temple] where you bring Me sacrifices and that I fill this House like a body fills a space, know that it is not so! This is why it says: ‘The heaven is My throne and the earth is my footstool’… I only commanded that this House be built so the people of Israel should be able to concentrate their hearts on Me and have a special place to worship Me and awaken their hearts to do away with evil thoughts and to purify their hearts in a manner similar to the sacrifices on the altar.” (adapted translation) In other words, God is disappointed that His presence has failed to have sufficient moral impact on the people.
This verse, however, takes on a “life of its own” as a proof verse for one of the positions in a famous debate over the order of the creation of the world. The Torah records two accounts of the order of creation. One verse records: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1), while a chapter later, it states: “When God made the earth and the heavens.” (Genesis 2:4) Which of these two verses should be adopted as an accurate description of the order of creation? This question forms the pretext for the following rabbinic debate: “[There was a difference of opinion between] the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel – The House of Shammai said: ‘the heavens were created first and only afterwards the earth.’ The House of Hillel said: ‘The earth was created first and only afterwards the heavens. One side brought textual proof for its opinion and the other side brought textual proof for its opinion. With regard to the opinion of the House of Shammai, the following parable was offered: This can be likened to a king who made for himself a chair and only after he made the chair did he make for himself a footstool, as the Holy One Blessed be He said: ‘The heavens are My throne and the earth is My footstool’ (Isaiah 66:1) Similarly, the House of Hillel defended its position: ‘ the earth was created first and only afterwards the heavens – this is similar to a king who built himself a palace. Only when he finished building the ground floor did he built the second floor, this [it is written]: ‘On the day that the Lord God made earth and heaven. (Genesis 2:4) (Genesis Rabbah 1:12)
What we see in the proofs offered for each of these worldviews is the introduction of logical categories to the debate. Each school of thought chose an analogy from everyday life that reflected the logic or manner of a human building project with the assumption that God’s “construction project” would not undermine what appears reasonable to human beings. Each school then brings a Biblical verse to illustrate its point. The verse from our haftarah is brought as proof that the world was created in the same order that a furniture maker makes furniture. What are we to make of this curious combination of elements in this debate since we do not see it as a reflection of our scientific reality? We note that the rabbis struggled to understand the stories of the creation within the context of the world in which they lived. They asked questions which could not have been conceivable to previous generations. They applied “contemporary science” to answer their questions. Still, it was universally accepted that God created the world. The details of creation were, however open to discussion.
This debate offers us insight into how we too must build our own Jewish worldviews. We must combine loyalty to the Torah with common sense. Only the interaction of these two elements will enable us to meet the challenges which face us.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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