Parashat Mishpatim

Humans as Co-Creators

People cannot be proprietors over nature--they are not even absolute masters of their own creations.

Print this page Print this page

What we learn from this, then, is that the artisan is paid by the owner for two functions: for improving the material by fashioning a vessel out of it, and for watching over and protecting that vessel once it is completed.

The artifact which he created with his own hands, over which he labored with the sweat of his brow, into which he put his remarkable talents, must be guarded by him for the owner from any damage it sustains in the course of his trusteeship over it. This is so, the halakhah decides, because the artisan has no proprietary right in the article he created. It simply does not belong to him.

Vis-a-vis Nature, Humans are Trustees

We learn that people's role as co-creators with God must not be exaggerated from the following Talmudic passage (Sanhedrin 38a): "The Rabbis taught: man was created on the eve of the Sabbath. Why? So that the Sadducees (i.e., heretics) should not say that God had a partner in the act of creation of the world."

This statement does not contradict that of Rabbi Akiba, who declared people's actions more beautiful, or suitable, than those of God, hence emphasizing the religious sanction of people's creative office. Humanity remains a partner of God in the ongoing creative process. However, here we must distinguish between two Hebrew synonyms for creation: beri'ah and yetzirah.

The former refers to creatio ex nihilo and hence can only be used of God. The latter describes creation out of some preexistent substance, and hence may be used both of God (after the initial act of Genesis) and people.

God has no "partners" in the one-time act of beri'ah with which He called the universe into being, and the world is, in an ultimate sense, exclusively His. He does invite people to join Him, as a co-creator, in the ongoing process of yetzirah.

Hence, humanity receives from God the commission to "subdue" nature by means of the human yetzirah-functions; but, because people are incapable of beri'ah, they remain responsible to the Creator for how they have disposed of the world.

Unpacking the Metaphor

Let us now project the above case of owners and guardians onto the cosmic scene. God is the Owner, people the artisan, and the raw material is all the wealth of this world: nature, life, culture, society, intellect, family.

Humanity was charged with applying to them the human yetzirah-creative talents. People were commissioned to improve the world, build it up, transform it, "subdue" it. If they do so, they are "paid" for their labors. But people never have title over their own creations; they have no mastery over the world. Despite their investment of labor and talent, the world, even as perfected by them, belongs to the original Owner.

Thus the widespread degradation of the natural world represents a problem theologically as well as ecologically. Ever since the publication of Rachel Carson's The Silent Spring, the public has become more and more concerned about the possible consequences of humanity's unthinking interference in and disruption of the natural processes that make life possible on earth. Widespread deforestation, air and water pollution, global climate change--all of these place in jeopardy not only the quality of life, but the very survival of many or all species.  

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Norman Lamm

Rabbi Norman Lamm, Ph.D., served more than a quarter of a century as President of Yeshiva University and of its Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He is the author of The Shema: Spirituality and Law in Judaism and Seventy Faces: Articles of Faith.