L'Chaim - To Life?

June 24, 2009

5 min read


Tzav (Leviticus 6-8 )

Life is good. There is no doubt that the vast majority of us feel this way. This is why the most common Jewish drink toast is "L'Chaim," To Life. Sure, there are difficulties, but when all is said and done, we conclude that it's worth bearing the painful times in order to experience life's pleasures.

This week's Torah portion confirms our observation in describing the thanksgiving offering, the korban todah. Rashi (Leviticus 7:12) states (paraphrased):

A man offers a thanksgiving offering (in the Temple) when he is saved from potential danger. There are four types: sea travelers, desert travelers, those released from prison, and a seriously sick patient who has recovered. As the verse says in Psalms (107:22), "They should give thanks to God for His kindness, and for His wonders to mankind."

Interestingly and providentially, the mnemonic for this group of four is CHaYYiM - which means "life." [Chavush (jail), Yisurim (illness), Yam (sea), Midbar (desert)] (Shulchan Aruch 219:1). In our times, we fulfill this concept with the recitation of the blessing called HaGomel ("He who grants favors...").

Certainly, we thank God for delivering us from possible disaster because we wish to stay alive. We know that it is good to be alive.

This is what we express each morning when we arise to the Modeh Ani prayer:

"I am thankful before You, Living and Everlasting King, that You returned my life to me with mercy. Great is your faithfulness!"

Life is good.

Puzzling beyond words then, is the following passage in the Talmud Eruvin 13b:

"For two and a half years, the Academies of Hillel and Shammai debated. One school maintained that we would have been better off having never been created, while the other opined that we are indeed better off having been created. They finally concluded that we would have been better off having never been created but now that we are created we should examine and refine our deeds."

If ever a passage of Talmud needed explanation, this is it. The Talmud cannot mean what it seems to say. God is the Ultimate source of goodness. He decided to create the world. Can we now sit and debate whether He chose correctly? Is there any other possibility but to conclude that it was an absolute act of God's generosity and kindness for Him to create us? What kind of discussion could Hillel and Shammai have had?

Just as a passage in the Talmud that were to say that 2 + 2=77 cannot mean what it seems to say, so too with this passage of Talmud. There must be some explanation beyond what the simple reading of the words indicates. What then is the deeper meaning?

We may be tempted to suggest (a simple reading of Tosafot might imply this but it cannot be taken at face value) that while it is certainly beneficial for righteous individuals to be created, most people do not fulfill God's Instructions for Living, and they will be punished. Therefore, it would have been better for them not to have been created.

Even if we were to try to fit that into the language of the Talmud, which has no indication that it is only discussing the wicked, it will still be very difficult to tolerate such an explanation. Could God have created a world in which only one pious person out of 100 or so succeeds in making creation worthwhile, while for all others, creation is detrimental? If so, based on Imatatio Dei, we can derive that it is permissible to make 100 people suffer as long as one benefits. Could this be what is meant by God as the ultimate source of Kindness?

Rather, the explanation is the following. God created mankind and it is obvious that it was beneficial for all to have been created. Hillel and Shammai are not questioning God's actual choice to create. The only issue is whether specifically from our perspective, we should feel as if we should have been created.

Every person is bound to sin even if only once, as the verse in Kohelet 7:20 says: "There is no man so completely righteous on earth who always does good and never sins." Therefore, Hillel and Shammai wonder if all the benefits of being created are worthwhile from our human viewpoint, if it means we inevitably must disappoint and pain God through sin at some juncture.

If a baby knew that by being born he would be giving his mother intense pain he should believe that all the benefits of being born are not worth having to give his mother this pain. Even if the mother says it's worth it to her, the child should be of the mindset that he would never want to put the mother through any pain even though he benefits later.

So too, we should feel similarly when it comes to our relationship with God. We know that God's creation is an amazing kindness. But we are unsure, says the Talmud, if we should experience feelings of regret at having been created since creation must involve delivering God some pain as a result of sin. We conclude in the Talmud that from our human vantage point we would not have chosen existence since it does entail sinning and disappointing God, to some degree. But once God has created us, "we should examine and refine our deeds." We must do our utmost to avoid sinning so as to distress and dissatisfy God as infrequently as possible.

God is not merely a distant Creator. He is a loving parent. We must always be aware of this.

Children naturally like to please their parents. We should make it our business to naturally want to please our Father in Heaven.

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