Judaism is unique. Rav Breuer of Washington Heights, ZT”L, felt that to call Judaism a religion at all is to misrepresent it. Instead, he argued that Judaism is a Derech HaChaim, a way of life. It is all-encompassing; its focus is both body and soul, and it is action-driven. Judaism requires that we translate faith into deeds, that we keep Mitzvot. To that end, the Torah has provided us with 613 directives, which govern all our daily actions and interactions. Unlike some other religions, we are not content with theology or philosophy, although they serve as the motivation and impetus for our behaviors. Instead, we are obligated to act in a way that is consistent with our beliefs and moral principles.
Where specific Mitzvot are given, the directions for doing them are clear. In the absence of a specific Mitzvah, however, we are guided by a more ambiguous principle – that of emulating Hashem’s ways. The Talmud in Sotah (14a) teaches that to “walk after God” means to follow in Hashem’s ways. Just as Hashem clothed Adam and Chava, we should clothe the naked; just as He is kind and merciful, we should be kind and merciful. Our conception of Hashem therefore becomes our moral imperative, our code of human behavior. In our jargon, it becomes a question of “What Does/Did Hashem Do (WDHD)?” When we answer that question, we have a direction and a comprehensive moral compass for our own behavior.
The story of Beriah, Creation, is the quintessential example of Hashem’s actions. It is the story of His fashioning “Yeish Mei’Ayin,” “something from nothing.” Rav Soloveitchik questions why the Torah recounts the story of this creation for a full chapter, when it would have sufficed for the Torah simply to state that Hashem created the heaven and earth in six days and rested on the seventh. The question is strengthened by the fact that the account that the Torah does give, though detailed, leaves many questions of chronology and substance unresolved. The Rav offers the following hypothesis: “Perhaps this elaborate emphasis in the book of Genesis on God’s creation was meant to be converted into a moral challenge to man, that as God created, so should man.” He explains that man was meant to be a partner with Hashem, fashioning order from chaos. Of course, only Hashem can create (Beriah) Yeish Mei’Ayin, while man is limited to Yetzirah, the fashioning of one thing from another – “Yeish MeiYeish.” Man must have the material before he can “fashion” his product. Despite or perhaps because of such limitations, man often feels the task before him to be so awesome as to equal the creation of Yeish Mei’Ayin. As such, his perspective mirrors that of his Creator, and he is in the parallel position of making something from nothing.
The Rav exhorts us to imitate Hashem in both the material and the spiritual realm. We are to be creative in combating disease, Yishuv HaAretz, and the like. In the spiritual realm, our mandate to be “creative” takes the form of educating, parenting, and learning. Man is challenged through the Bereishit story to create, to transform the desert into productive life and turn faith into moral principle and action.
The Rav’s insight can be extended to include creativity on the personal level, as well. The timing of our reading of Sefer Bereishit – following on the heels of a period of intense self-reflection – is no coincidence. It is the tendency of man to feel insignificant, even irrelevant, after the Yamim Noraim. When man contemplates his frailty and his fallibility, he may come to perceive himself as “Ayin,” nothing – without substance and non-productive. This is precisely the moment when the Jew needs to imitate the Borei Olam, the creator of the world, who took nothing and made something from it. We are challenged by the detailed story of creation to take inspiration and direction from Hashem – to fashion ourselves anew, to make ourselves into “Yesh” from “Ayin.” Just as Hashem took nothingness and from it created a complex, multifaceted and extraordinary world, we are encouraged to do the same with ourselves. We are to be “born again Jews,” infused with the creative process and determined to make something of ourselves. Hashem gave us a blueprint and provided us with His example. By imitating Him, we bring the cycle of self-reflection, repentance and atonement to its completion, rebirth and re-creation.