To Be or Not To Be

ת”ר: שתי שנים ומחצה נחלקו ב”ש וב”ה. הללו אומרים, “נוח לו לאדם שלא נברא, יותר משנברא.” והללו אומרים, “נוח לו לאדם שנברא, יותר משלא נברא.” נמנו וגמרו, “נוח לו לאדם שלא נברא, יותר משנברא.” עכשיו שנברא, יפשפש במעשיו. ואמרי לה: ימשמש במעשיו.

Our Rabbis repeated:

For two and a half years, Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel were divided. These were saying, “It is more comfortable for a person if he were not created more than if he were created.” And these were saying, “It is more comfortable for a person that he is created more than if he were not created.”

They counted votes and concluded, “It is more comfortable for a person if he were not created, more than if he were created.” Now that he was created, yefashpeish bemaasav. And others says it: yemashmeish bema’asav.

יפשפש מעשיו – שעשה כבר ויבדוק עבירות שבידו ויתודה וישוב:
ימשמש במעשיו – כגון אם בא מצוה לידו יחשב הפסד מצוה כנגד שכרה ולא יניח לעשותה בשביל ההפסד שהרי שכרה עתיד לבוא ואם באת לידו עבירה יחשב שכרו שמשתכר בה עכשיו כנגד הפסדה העתיד ליפרע ממנו:

Yefashpeish bema’asav: that which he already did, check the sins that are in his control, confess, and do teshuvah.
Yemashmeish bema’asav: such as if a mitzvah reached his control, he should consider the loss the mitzvah would incur against its reward, and not rest from doing it because of that loss for the reward in the future to come. And if an aveirah comes under his control, he should think of the reward he gains from it now against the future loss, to separate from it.

Eiruvin 13b, Rashi ad loc

The idiom yefashpeish bema’asav comes from a word meaning “to enter” or “to permeate. According to Rashi, it entails going through one’s past, and finding what things in one’s life requires teshuvah  — and following up on those things in particular.

Yemashmeish bema’asav, literally to touch and feel his actions, is about convincing oneself, going forward, to do the right thing.

(The above was largely taken from an earlier post about how to take a lesson from tragedy.)

How do we understand “noach lo le’adam shelo nivra“, this pessimistic message that we would be better off not existing? Particularly in light of the mitzvos of piryah verivyah (procreating; c.f. Bereishis 1:23) and lasheves yatzerah ([the world] was created to be inhabited; Yeshayah 45:18). The dictum”derakheha darkhei no’am — its ways are ways of pleasantness” (Mishlei 3:17) tells us that if having more children is a mitzvah, it is no’am, pleasanter for those children to exist than not.

Rabbeinu Bachya (on Bereishis 6:6) asks a similar question based on “vayar E-lokim es kol asher asah vehineih tov me’od — and G-d saw everything He did, and it was very good” when Adam was made, in contrast to the words He says later at the flood, “And Hashem ‘regretted’ that He created man.” The Ikkarim (3:2) simply says “ki tov” excludes humanity. I’m not sure how that fits the verse, though.

The Maharal gives an answer to our original question based on the number 2-1/2 given as the length of the dispute in years before they sat down to vote. He says that there are 5 aspects to the person (nefesh, its vehicle [the body?], ruach, neshamah, and its vehicle). This is 5-fold nature is why eirukhin are all in multiples of 5. The answer to the question of whether it’s better to have been created depends on which perspective one is answering it from — the loftier half of man, or his more base side.

R’ Yitzchak Hutner, kedarko beqodesh (as is his wont), develops the Maharal’s approach further (Pachad Yitzchaq Rosh haShanah #7). Why is it “hakol biydei Shamayim chutz miyir’as Shamayim — everything is in the control of [the One in] heaven except for fear/awe of heaven“. If operating out of ahavas H’ (love of G-d) is superior, why is free will described as revolving around yir’ah?

Rav Hutner answers that yir’ah expresses the frightening aspect of bechirah — the possibility of making the wrong decision. The lover wants to step in for the Beloved, he embraces bechirah. The yarei would instinctively not want bechirah. From a position of yir’ah, noach lo le’adam shelo nivra. However, a person can rise above that to ahavah and find nachas in being a baal bechirah.

This duality is also found in the Iqarim’s answer (4:29), which says that “noach lo shenivra” (better to exist) is from the perspective that the nefesh (the most bodily aspect of the soul) is koach hayulani (the potential of pure substance without form), and thus has the ability to reach lofty heights. Whereas the notion that “noach lo shelo nivra” (better not to exist) is from the perspective that it is “etzem ruchani qayam mitzad atzmo — the spiritual being existing in and of itself” and it would be better off “shelo nimtzeis beguf ha’enoshi — not to be found in a human body”. The body is better off being part of a person, since it is shifted from being just matter into being the substance the soul can work with and elevates. Whereas the spiritual side is pulled out of its heavenly perspective by the body, so it would be happier had the person not been created. And this is the central them, according to the Iqarim of the somber book of Qoheles.

When the nefesh was placed in a body, though, that’s when it became a baal bechirah, a being with free will.. That’s when the mal’akhim wanted to worship Adam (Bereishis Rabba). So that even from the perspective of the nefesh as a spiritual being, it may be worse for the nefesh, but the whole is better off.

To frame my overall conclusion… As Rabbi JB Soloveitchik would say (in true neo-Kantian stule), it’s an unresolvable dialectic. Nonetheless, both “noach lo shelo nivra” and “vehinei tov me’od” are true.

The Alter of Slabodka offers this bit of advice to his students. At all times a person should keep in one of his pockets a note that reads “Bishvili nivra ha’olam — For me the world was created” (Sanhedrin 37a), while in the other pocket he should keep one that reads “Va’anokhi afar va’eifer — But I am dust and ashes” (Bereishis 18:27).

Bishvili nivra ha’olam speaks to the world as I experience it. That was customized just for me. And it contains all of my potential. However, with regard to the shared universe, all that exists is how much of that potential I actualized. “va’anokhi afar va’eifer“. The Alter recommends that one have a pair of dialectical views about one’s self-worth. The first speaks of one’s potential, being in the Image of Hashem. The other, of what one has actually accomplished.

It sounds similar to what the Iqarim was saying. On the one hand, by being created I can become more than what my soul was originally. On the other, compared to the ideal I could have reached, how I am in reality, dragged down by the weight of physicality, is not worth having been created.

I would suggest a different punctuation. The resolution continues through to include the advice. And the gemara focuses on this advice to the extent of giving us both subtly different versions. So I would like to suggest that the conclusion of the vote, that it would have been better not to have been created, only holds for the vast majority, who do not inspect their past deeds and pay more attention to the cost-benefit analysist of future ones. And so by default it would be better not to have been created. However, if one were to examine their actions, existence is a boon.

To extrapolate in this direction from the Iqarim’s, Maharal’s, and Alter of Slabodka’s thoughts… Life is an opportunity to climb the mountain of one’s potential. Someone who keeps an eye on the mountain top, aiming for implementing as much of one’s potential as possible, who identifies with the soul as an existence in itself rather than living a humdrum daily existence, who reaches beyond the first 2-1/2 of the human condition inspect and evaluated his deeds. For him the world was created. Such a person and only such a person is better off having been born.

Or, as is often quoted from another tradition:

The unexamined life is not worth living.

– Socrates, Apology 38a

Tools and Goals

The chorus of a song we used to sing in my day, decades ago, in NCSY began:

Torah and mitzvos, these are our goals

Serving Hashem to strengthen our souls…

If we truly thought Torah and mitzvos are our goals, then we wouldn’t be looking beyond them to suggest we “serv[e] Hashem to…” something.1 The lyrics initially sound true in an obvious way, but actually each line describes a slightly different worldview, and the clash between them raises fundamental questions about how we should be viewing our life work:

Is observance the ends, the purpose, of our lives, or is it the means and the goal lies beyond it? And if they are the means, do we need to consciously frame the purpose of our lives, or should we just concern ourselves with following the halakhah, and rest assured that the goal will take care of itself?


  1. I don’t intend to critique a song written for a teens to sing at Shabbatonim by nit-picking over details of word choices as though I thought the song was intended to be a philosophical treatise. I do realize the primary goal was rhyming scheme and singability, not precision. I am just using these lines illustratively. []

The Value of Money

There is an often-cited dispute between Rabbi Yishma’el and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.

ת”ר ואספת דגנך (דברים יא:יד) מה ת”ל לפי שנא’ (יהושע א:ח) לא ימוש ספר התורה הזה מפיך יכול דברים ככתבן ת”ל ואספת דגנך הנהג בהן מנהג דרך ארץ דברי ר’. ישמעאל ר”ש בן יוחי אומר אפשר אדם חורש בשעת חרישה וזורע בשעת זריעה וקוצר בשעת קצירה ודש בשעת דישה וזורה בשעת הרוח תורה מה תהא עליה אלא בזמן שישראל עושין רצונו של מקום מלאכתן נעשית ע”י אחרים שנא’ (ישעיהו סא:ה) ועמדו זרים ורעו צאנכם וגו’ ובזמן שאין ישראל עושין רצונו של מקום מלאכתן נעשית ע”י עצמן שנא’ (דברים יא:יד) ואספת דגנך ולא עוד אלא שמלאכת אחרים נעשית על ידן שנא’ (דברים כח:מח) ועבדת את אויביך וגו’ אמר אביי הרבה עשו כרבי ישמעאל ועלתה בידן כר’ שמעון בן יוחי ולא עלתה בידן

The Rabbis repeated: “And you shall gather your grain” (Devarim 11:16) What does this come to tell us?

Because it says “Do not let this Torah book be absent from your mouth” (Yehoshua 1:8) Could it be that these words are to be understood literally [i.e., that one must study Torah perpetually]? No, since the Torah writes ‘And you will harvest your grain…’ (in other words) practice the way of the world (i.e., earn a living) alongside (the words of Torah) – these are the words of Rabbi Yishmael.

Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai says: Could a man plow when it’s plowing time, plant when it’s planting time, harvest when it’s harvest time, thresh when it’s threshing season and winnow while there’s wind? What would become of the Torah? Rather, at a time when the Jews do God’s Will, their labor will be done by others, as it says (Yeshaya 61:5): ‘And strangers will rise and shepherd your flocks…’ But at a time when Israel does not do God’s will, they will [need to] do their labor themselves, as it says (Devarim 11:14): ‘And you will harvest your grain’. And that is not all: they will be forced to do others’ labor as well, as it says (Devarim 28:48): ‘And you will serve your enemies…’

Abaya said: Many have acted like Rabbi Yishmael and it worked; like Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai and it did not work.

I think I just encountered a Yerushalmi (Sanhedrin 8:8, vilna 43b-44a) that might shed light on why Rabbi Shim’on was so reluctant to endorse working for a living. This is his opinion of human psychology when it comes to money:

תני רבי חייה במחתרת אין לו דמים חוץ למחתרת יש לו דמים תני ר”ש בן יוחי אפילו חוץ למחתרת אין לו דמים לפי שממונו של אדם חביב עליו כנפשו.

Rav Chiyah repeated: [If a burglar is killed while still] in a tunnel [to rob someone and possibly attack the people within and kill them], he has no blood [i.e. the killer is not held guilty of murder. If it is outside the tunnel [and the threat he poses to life subsided], he does have blood.
Rabbi Shim’on bar Yochai repeated: Even outside the tunnel he has no blood [a person isn’t guilty for killing him], because a person’s money is as dear to him as his living soul.

So, in Rabbi Shim’on bar Yochai’s eyes, money is so all consuming it is up there with threat to life, and a person could not be blamed for killing a potential burglar.

With that opinion of how much wealth can distract someone, is it surprising Rabbi Shim’on assumes that having a job would naturally lead to total neglect of the Torah?