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עשה תורתך קבע – אמור מעט ועשה הרבה

Studying Breshit – Tov and Lo Tov

Posted by rabbiart on October 24, 2008

Consider the two Hebrew words טוֹב (tov) and רָע (ra). Now try to forget what’s in your brain about how these words are usually translated.  OK, try harder <grin>.  Now remember that Biblical language often uses a pair of “opposite” words to express a complete range of qualities. For example אוֹר (or – light) and חֹשֶׁךְ (hoshekh – dark). In the fourth verse of the Torah, HaShem divides or from hoshekh. So we get light, darkness, and all the accompanying shades of grey.  Perhaps HaShem (or physicists, not to equate the two), can tell exactly when light becomes darkness, but for humans, the passing of day into night and night into day is a gradual process, at times almost indiscernable.  Watch a sunrise and try to pinpoint exactly when night has turned to day.*

On the first day HaShem creates light and looks at it, and sees (decides?) that it is tov.

On the second day HaShem organizes the waters above and below a רָקִיעַ(rakiya – firmament). HaShem calls the rakiya by the word שָׁמָיִם (shamayim – heaven, or sky, depending on context).  The judgement of tov is conspicuously absent.

On the third day HaShem organizes the waters under the rakiya so that the dry land appears. Hashem calls the dry land אֶרֶץ (eretz – land, and perhaps not accidentally, when we say eretz in certain contexts, we are referring to eretz yisrael – the land of Israel). HaShem sees that the eretz is tov.

On the fourth day HaShem creates specific lights and sees that this is tov.

On the fifth day HaShem creates all the animals and sees that this is tov.

On the sixth day HaShem creates humankind in HaShem’s image and in both sexes, and reviews all of creation and with a different phrase וְהִנֵּה-טוֹב מְאֹד (v’henai tov me’od – behold it is very tov) the creation is pronounced as very tov.

The judgement of “very tov” on the sixth day is noticeably different from the judgement of the other four days.  The first four times, HaShem sees/decides that an aspect of creation is tov. It is as if to say that something is tov only if HaShem says it is.  On the sixth day after the creation of humankind, tov seems to have taken on an existence of its own.  HaShem sees everything that HaShem has done, and “behold, it is very tov.”  The quality of tov is no longer exclusively HaShem’s to judge and proclaim, and this itself is very tov.

The partnership between HaShem and humankind has begun…

An attempt to reach a different and most likely midrashic definition of tov and ra.

In the second chapter – usually understood to be an alternate story of the creation of humankind – HaShem sees that the condition of loneliness is not tov לֹא-טוֹב הֱיוֹת הָאָדָם לְבַדּוֹ (it is not tov for the man to be alone). See verse 18.

Now we are in a position to attempt a definition of these two words – tov and ra – that does not simply translate them into allegedly corresponding English words.  The “opposite” of tov is the absence of tov, or “not tov“.  Ra is therefore also the absence of tov.

What is not tov? Loneliness. Empty spaces in our heart.

What is tov? From the evidence of the creation story we learn…  Light is tov. Dry land is tov. Being able to see, even at night, is tov?. The existence of all living creatures is tov. And on the sixth day, the fullness of creation is very tov. In spiritual or emotional terms, togetherness, cooperation, being in alignment with each other are all tov.

Echoing Rashi, we can ask, what is the purpose of the creation story?  To tell us what our purpose is.  What is our purpose?  To be tov and to partner with HaShem in creating tov, and filling the empty spaces in our hearts and in the world, with tov.

Shabbat Shalom

*Talmud Berachot deals with this exact question when establishing the earliest permissable moment for saying the morning shema.


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