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An Overflowing Cup. The World's First Murder, Part 11

May 9, 2009 | by David Fohrman

When you have more than what you need, it is natural to want to give.

Why did God create the world?

It's not just an idle, philosophical question. From a religious standpoint, this innocent, child-like query packs a big theological wallop. For if God is a perfect Being, a being who has no needs, then why would He bother creating a universe? What could a universe possibly give to a Being who doesn't need anything at all?

In the beginning of the 18th century, a Jewish thinker by the name of Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzatto proposed what has become a classic answer to this dilemma. His answer is deceptively simple. Luzzatto says that God created the world in order to be capable of love.

The words seem like a cliché, sort of like the "God is Love" bumper sticker you might see plastered to the back of someone's rusting VW Beatle; but rest assured that Luzzatto lived long before the beatniks, and he meant what he said seriously. His argument goes as follows:

One of the axioms that most religions, Judaism included, accepts about God is that He is good. But those are just words. What does it actually mean to be good? One of the things it means, Luzzatto says, is that one acts to benefit others. If there is no world, though, then there are no others that God can benefit; He exists alone in numinous solitude. God acted to create a world so that there would be other beings existing besides Himself, beings upon whom He could bestow goodness.

In short, God created the world because goodness demanded it.

The Laughing Rabbi


How could a perfect Being have needs; how could He be missing something?


Now for many years, I didn't have the foggiest idea of what Luzzatto was talking about. I had problems with it. Let's leave aside the question of suffering for a moment -- why, in a world created out of love, is there so much hurt and pain? Let's assume that there are answers out there, somewhere, to that. I was troubled by an even more fundamental difficulty. How did Luzzatto solve anything? If God is not supposed to have any needs, then he shouldn't have a "need" to do good, to bestow kindness either. If God has that need it puts us right back to where we started from: How could a perfect Being have needs; how could He be missing something?

I vividly remember making this point once to the dean of the yeshiva where I studied. The dean's name was Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, may he rest in peace, and I was sitting on a couch in his office, arguing my case as forcefully as I could. I gave an example to illustrate my point. Let's say a woman saves her child from death by throwing herself in front of an oncoming car to shield him. She walks away with injuries, but none as profound as the hurt she would feel had she allowed her child to die. So in the final analysis, she acted out of need, didn't she? I was arguing, really, that there was no such thing as pure altruism, as acting solely for the benefit of others. Every altruistic act expresses a need within the person doing it, and therefore, it is the doer, not just the receiver, who benefits from it.

When I finished making my points, I awaited Rabbi Weinberg's response. As best as I can remember the conversation, he didn't answer me. Instead, he just sat across from me, and then he started laughing. When my attempts to get him to elaborate failed, he finally spoke. "One day," he said, "I would understand," and then, with a good natured nod, he beckoned me to the door. Our meeting was over.

Solving the Case of the Laughing Rabbi

It has taken me a while to understand the meaning of Rabbi Weinberg's laughter. But I think I finally see what he was getting at. He was alluding to the point I left you to ponder at the end of the last article.

We talked earlier about the word teshukah, and suggested that the sages of the Midrash see it as denoting a desire not based upon need. The idea, of course, seems like an oxymoron: All desires seem to come from my not having something I want. But looks are deceiving. There really are radically different desires out there in the world, desires that do not come from a sense of lack whatsoever. Where do they come from, and what makes them tick?

Ironically enough, they come from the very opposite of "need." They come from a sense of fullness. To give an analogy, they express not the desire of the half empty glass to be full, but the desire of a full glass to overflow.

Desires based on fullness are every bit as real as those based on need. In fact, one might argue, they are felt even more intensely than those based on need. Consider the following statement made by the rabbis of the Talmud, "More than the calf wants to suckle, the mother wants to nurse" (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 112a).

Both the calf and the mother have desires. The calf is missing something; it needs nutrition from its mother. The mother, on the other hand, "needs" nothing. Nevertheless, it is her desire that is the stronger one. Desires based upon fullness dwarf in passion and intensity mere need-based desires.

The Nature of Love; the Essence of Teaching

To get a better handle on the notion of a "fullness-based" desire, let's talk about an example or two.


Love is not just about being fed and feeling understood. Love is not just about what I need, but what I can give.


What do we mean when we talk about "love?" Different people mean different things. Some people, when they say "I love her," mean, "She fulfills my needs rather nicely." She laughs at my jokes, cooks great meals, and makes me feel comfortable. But love is not just about being fed and feeling understood. On a higher plane, love is not just about what I need, but what I can give. Love means not just that I'm happy you serve my needs, but that I appreciate who you are in and of yourself, independent of what I get from you. When I love in that kind of way my love comes not from lack but from fullness. My affection for you doesn't come solely from your ability to fill the holes in my personality, but from the desire of a mature human being to give what he can to someone he admires and values.

The impulse to teach is another example of this kind of desire. The sages of the Talmud have nasty things to say about people who study their whole lives but never teach others. Why? I'll give you a theory. In Hebrew the verb "to teach," l'lamed, is identical to the verb "to study," lilmod, except that the latter, "to study," is the intensive form of the verb -- what's known as its piel conjugation.(1) When you stop to think about it, this says something profound about what it means to teach. Teaching is nothing but "studying intensively." When one is so passionate about something he is studying that he can't help but overflow and share what he has discovered with others -- well, that's teaching.

Since teaching is just a further point on a continuum that begins with studying, it follows that when one studies and studies, but never teaches, something is broken inside. Study that never has the potential to flower into teaching is somehow not the real thing.

Male and Female Desire

There are four primal teshukahs in the world, say the sages. There are four beings full of life-force, seeking to overflow and share that gift of life with others. One of those beings is God. It should come as no surprise that a perfect Being would experience, rather intensely, the desire we call teshukah. The Almighty loves not because He is needy but because He is full. He wants to share that fullness with others. And to that end, He created a world.

Another being possessed with life-force is rain. The land is parched without rain, the land needs rain -- but it is rain that experiences teshukah for land. Rain wants to give land what it can. Rain becomes meaningful because of its ability to nourish and to share itself with land. Without land, rain is frustrated, restless. The desire of rain to give life to land is intense.

Another great teshukah in the world, say the sages, is the desire of the feminine for the masculine. What is the nature of this desire?

To be sure, both men and women desire one another -- but they do so for different reasons. Let's talk about men. In traditional Jewish marriage a man gives a ring to a woman, not the other way around. The reason for this is that a verse in Deuteronomy (22:13) describes the man as the active partner, the one who "takes" a woman as his wife. Now this might strike some as sexist, but I don't think the ancient sages saw it this way. Fifteen centuries or so ago, the Sages of the Talmud wondered about that verse in Deuteronomy; why, they asked, does the Torah state "when a man shall take a woman…," why is he, not she, cast as the active partner in marriage and courtship?

Here is their answer:


It is comparable to a person who lost something. Who goes searching after who? I would say: The person who lost something searches after that which they lost. (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin, 3b)


The sages are alluding to something in this cryptic statement. Remember the verse in Deuteronomy talks about a man "taking" a woman. Keep that word in your head as you flip through the first couple chapters of Genesis. If you search for the very first occurrences of the word "take" in the Bible, you will come across the following verse, "And [the Lord] took one of Adam's ribs, closed up his skin, and built [the rib] he had taken from man, into woman…" (Genesis, 2:20-21).

When a man "takes" a woman in marriage, what he is really doing is taking back his lost rib. A person who experiences a loss is the one who searches for that which he lost. The masculine desires the feminine because a man understands, on some basic level, that he is missing his lost feminine side, and he is seeking to reunite with her.


The feminine -- like rain and like God -- embodies a mysterious life force, and she seeks to give that gift to the masculine.


The feminine desires the masculine for other reasons. The feminine does not have imprinted on her soul the sense that she is missing something without a man. Woman was created as a whole being, and she does not experience that same masculine sense of lack within herself. Instead the feminine desires the masculine out of teshukah. The feminine -- like rain and like God -- embodies a mysterious life force, and she seeks to give that gift to the masculine.

The Talmud takes for granted that, generally speaking, women want to get married more than men do. This assumption should not surprise us. Desires based upon fullness are always more intense than desires based merely upon lack.

"Its Desire Is Unto You…"

We are now, I think, in a position to understand what God was saying to Cain in the moments before he murdered Abel. He was talking to Cain about his Evil Inclination, and he was telling him something both startling and profound. There is a fourth primal teshukah in the world. It is the teshukah, Cain, that your Evil Inclination has for you.

What God was telling Cain forces us to redefine our very notion of the Evil Inclination. When we think of the Evil Inclination, we tend to think of something, well, evil. We imagine some sort of devil bent on getting us to stray, or we imagine a dark part of our soul trying to corrupt us. But that's not how God portrays it here. Is it possible that the Evil Inclination, like the Almighty Himself, like rain, like femininity, has a powerful life force to share? That it is a neutral, even benevolent force? It seems paradoxical. Why then, would we call it "evil?" But not all paradoxes are false.

If you recall the arguments we made in our earlier series of articles, Serpents of Desire: Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden, this approach to the "Evil Inclination" will not seem entirely foreign to you. In the articles that follow, we will examine more carefully this notion of the Evil Inclination, and the relationship that Cain is being asked to build with it. In so doing, I think we will finally understand why the story of Cain is so intimately related to the Tree of Knowledge, and why the unique challenges facing Cain are nothing more than the misbegotten step-children of its fruits.

(1)Piel verbs are the same as their regular counterparts, just more intense versions of them. For example: Shavar means "to break"; shiber, the piel form, means "to smash."





This series is excerpted from Rabbi Fohrman's new book, "The Beast that Crouches at the Door: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Beyond." To purchase a copy visit or visit



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