Three Types of Creation

How do you create something completely new, ex nihilo? This is especially challenging, as the poet Kohelet proclaimed “There is nothing new under the sun.”[1] When I started writing my undergraduate thesis on Rabbi Stephen Wise and World War I, how he had switched from being a pacifist to becoming an interventionist, I was surprised to discover how much had been previously written on this topic. In order to get an “original idea,” a requirement for any thesis, I had to narrow my scope of research to such a great extent. This was a turn-off for me, as I thought why I am putting so many hours of research into a topic so narrow that it will only be of interest to a handful of people?

The same is true in other fields of work. We are fortunate to have so many talented and creative congregants in so many diverse areas. We have woodsculpters, craftspeople and designers within our very ranks-many of whom have helped create parts of our very building. At the same time, if I were to ask these individuals how they set their design, I would imagine they would say that they were influenced by something they had seen elsewhere. They took their creative spirit and went in their own direction but they had a basis from which to begin.

In this week’s Torah portion, three words are used for creation. The first is ברא (bara), which is creation that only God can do. Every morning we acknowledge how great God is because he spoke the world into being (ברוך שאמר והיה העולם), whereas we cannot create any physical structure through speech. The other term used for creation is יצר (yatzar), often translated as “formed,” and this is a type of creation that can be done by both God and humans. The third type of creation is עשה (asah), translated as “made,” and again both God and humans can do this.

What is the difference between these types of creation and how do they relate to us? ברא is the easiest: it causes us to acknowledge that there are things we are incapable of creating that are the work of a “higher power.”  As talented and as creative as human beings are, we did not create the sky, the oceans, and the mountains: only God could create these natural wonders. As Sifrei Devarim teaches, “if all the people of the world tried to create (ברא) one mosquito and instill a soul in it, they would not be able to.”[2] If we can’t create a mosquito, how much less so can we create the air that we breathe, the soil that grow our produce or the trees that provide our shade. We are indebted to God for these.

יצר is a more complicated term because it can be done by both God and us. יצר is first used in Genesis Chapter 2 when describing the formation of humans by God out of earth. God formed us from the ground and breathed into us the breath of life, our נשמה (neshama). This is like the כי הנה כחומר (Ki Hinei KaHomer) prayer that we just read on Yom Kippur, that we are literally “as clay in the hands of the Potter”-and I don’t mean Harry. God has formed each of us as a work of art, and we form other works of art as an act of Imitatio Dei, giving tribute to our Creator.

There’s even more to the term יצר (yatzar). When the word is used to describe God’s formation of the animals, there is only one “yud” but when describing the formation of humans there are two. The Hertz Humash comments that this represents both of our יצרים (yetzarim), our inclinations. We can use our יצר הטוב (yetzer hatov) to form things constructively, to improve our lives and our well-being. Many have done this, creating artificial limbs, pacemakers for heart arrhythmia or radiation treatment for cancer. In contrast, we can utilize our יצר הרע (yetzer hara) to create destructive items, such as chemical or biological weapons. We have the ability to use the power of our יצרים (yetzarim) in either direction.

The third term, עשה (asah), is “making” or “doing” something, putting the finishing touches on. Whereas יצר (yatzar) is the formation, the utilizing of creative energy to establish a “blueprint,” עשה (asah) is actually bringing the form into a finished product. The first time it’s used is on the sixth day of creation, when God makes the wild beasts and then says “let us make (נעשה) mankind in our image. God had the blueprint for humanity,”[3] but wanted the finished product to be imbued with godliness. We are supposed to use our יצר (yatzar), our formation, to do good in the world. In contrast, Eve used it to disobey God’s command, which is why God said to her מה זאת עשית (mah zot asit)-what have you done?

From each type of creation, we learn something. With ברא (bara) we understand that there are things that are beyond our ability to do. Those are in God’s hands, not ours, and we can get comfort from the fact that we are not responsible for them. From יצר (yatzar) we learn that when forming something new, when starting a new endeavor, we need to first contemplate if this is for our betterment and will have a constructive outcome. If not, better to stop doing it in the “blueprint” stage than when we have a finished product. Finally with עשה (asah) we learn that as we near the final stages of something we are developing, we need to once again look at it critically and make sure it is לטובתנו (letovateinu), for our betterment. After the product or the action is complete, it is often too late to “take it back,” as we saw when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge. May we utilize our creative powers and all of our talents and skills for only good in the year 5776.

[1] Ecclesiastes 1:9

[2] Chapter 32

[3] Genesis 1:26


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