“Initially, God’s intent was to create a world and hold it to a standard of strict justice, but God realized that the world could not thus endure and therefore gave precedence to divine mercy, allying it with divine justice.”
— Rashi on Genesis 1:1
The commentator Rashi attributes to God an original but unfulfilled intent. A challenge to the customary reading of creation, in which God is the Omnipotent who creates at will, here, the will of the all-powerful Creator is frustrated by Creation.
Another example of our sages painting God as less than omnipotent is found in God’s creation of the sun and the moon on the fourth day: “Then God made the two great lights; the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night.”
(Genesis 1:16) Although God’s original intent was to create two equal lights, God recognized that the sun was more powerful, and He beseeched the children of Israel to forgive Him for the sin of diminishing the moon. (Chullin 60b)
Why would our sages choose to portray God in this way?
The creative process requires imagination — the ability to conjure what does not yet exist. Imagination generates a picture of perfection that we then attempt to translate into reality. And there’s the rub. The reality never lives up to that picture in our minds.
God’s move, according to Rashi, from judgment and perfectionism to mercy is an expression of this realization. The greatest enemy of creativity is perfectionism: the obsession to get it perfectly right. God comes to realize that if there is to be a creation at all, it will be an imperfect translation of the picture in His mind.
Our sages have created a new model of God for us to emulate. “Ye shall be as God,” not only in God’s kindness and creativity, but also in God’s expectations, frustrations, and disappointments. This both frees and challenges us. We are redeemed entirely — our virtues together with our flaws. Yet we may never lose sight of God’s original intent.— Herzl Hefter
There’s a reason that we call it the creative process: The experience of trying to create is at least as important as the outcome of that experience. The important thing is that it’s an experience of relationship. As the painter Ben Shahn once suggested, artists must first enter into an active relationship with their materials — a constant exchange between the artist’s vision and the realities of the medium. Sculptors have to respond to the properties of the stone; writers have to negotiate the limitations and opportunities of language; choreographers have to contend with gravity and the body. We also enter into a dynamic process with our own thoughts, because our initial vision may change as the work proceeds.
What we learn from Herzl Hefter is that this is, in fact, a divine model — a model in which perfection (the imposition of a preconceived vision on the world) is actually destruction, and in which creation comes, instead, from a shared space where we and the world meet. — David Ebenbach
Hefter’s portrait of the divine creating an imperfect reflection of an imagined reality may highlight a flaw in our own imperfect image of God as a static, transcendent creator. Our scriptures emphasize a supernatural deity superimposed on nature from the outside. Mordecai Kaplan taught us to consider the divine as a force within the created order. Rather than a God “frustrated” with failure to create perfection, we might learn from the Catholic theologian Diarmuid O’Murchu, who writes that God is an unfolding, emerging, and evolving deity — just as the cosmos continues to unfold, emerge, and evolve.
As for the attributes of justice (din) and mercy (rachamim), we might understand the former as an institutionalized program for regulating a balanced relationship among individuals in society — what we might call “the rule of law.” Mercy might better be translated as “compassion” — literally, “to bear together,” to empathize. This is a noninstitutionalized connection of individuals in community. Hefter translates Rashi’s words to mean that God “allied” mercy with justice — two separate principles working in tandem. Perhaps God “alloyed” mercy and justice, creating one substance, one principle. Justice and mercy are coexistent; there is no justice without mercy and no mercy without justice.
— Richard Lederman
When I first read Rashi’s quote about justice and mercy, my thoughts focused on austere punishments of a dictatorial biblical God forced to be compassionate to his insurmountably flawed human children. If you take this concept and apply it to creative expression, as Hefter does in his reading of the quote, we become quite unkind to ourselves as creative thinkers.
Having created art most of my life, I have come to recognize that my best work evolves out of a fusion between my original vision and an embracing of “the happy accident.” When I have patience with the process, I both enhance and use my skills and I am more open to divine chance. It is this fusion between the two that allows true creativity
to emerge. — Manju Shandler