It was the start of a new unit in 6th grade science class [at the school I went to before transferring to Schechter]. The unit was about the beginning of life on our planet, otherwise known as the theory of evolution. But what my science teacher said next surprised me. He said, “We will be learning about Evolution. Please put your religious beliefs aside.” I thought, as a person who believes in God and the Torah – I can’t leave religion aside. So this d’var Torah is the result of what I learned from my curiosity.
We started out in class, by focusing mainly on Charles Darwin’s theory. Darwin noticed that the shape of a bird’s beak determines what it eats, and that certain species of birds have different shaped beaks. He argued that the birds adapted over time in order to survive. Now, we suppose all creatures have evolved significantly over time. (Going from a kind of land fish to a human.)Darwin’s theory makes us think that every species has evolved and still does.
While I was learning these ideas in class, I thought to myself, “Doesn’t the Torah say that God just created birds?” The Torah tells us that the story of creation took 7 days. Bereshit 1 verse 20 says that on the fifth day:
God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and birds that fly above the earth across the expanse of the sky.”
Just looking at the plain meaning of the text, you would think that there were birds of all kinds, all of a sudden. So how can I think about such different ideas at the same time, Darwin’s evolution and the Torah? I decided to put my science aside for a while and see what my religion had to say about evolution.
What does Judaism have to say about evolution? Or does Judaism even have anything to say about evolution since many of our most important thinkers lived nearly 800 (eight hundred) years before Darwin!
I have already looked at evolution from a scientific perspective, so I started looking for an answer from my religious perspective. So let’s begin at the beginning.
בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹקים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ׃
In the beginning God created heaven and earth—
וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ וְחֹשֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵי תְהוֹם וְרוּחַ אֱלֹקים מְרַחֶפֶת עַל־פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם׃
the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water—
Rashi, the Medieval French rabbi and Biblical commentator said on the first verse “The text does not intend to point out the order of the acts of Creation — to state that heaven and earth were created first; for if it intended to point this out, it should have written “At first God created.” instead of saying In the beginning.
Rashi explains that when you read this verse, you might think that heaven and earth were created first. But if we look more closely at the text of the Torah we will notice that the water was created first. So Rashi is saying that the Torah does not intend to give us an exact timeline of creation. The Torah does not tell us when the waters were created just that they were there at the beginning. Rashi says that therefore, logically, you have to believe that God made the water before starting anything else. Rashi concludes, that “therefore you must admit that the text teaches nothing about the earlier or later sequence of the acts of Creation.”
Rashi tells us that the Torah is not a flat-out history book, with a timeline stating everything in its order. Rashi claims that water was created before heaven and earth, proving that the Torah isn’t giving us a step-by-step story of creation. So without a time machine how do we figure out what happened in those seven days – or were there only seven days? Scientists says that evolution took millions of years but the Torah says seven days.
In the biblical book of Psalms chapter 50 verse 4:
כִּי אֶלֶף שָׁנִים בְּעֵינֶיךָ כְּיוֹם אֶתְמוֹל כִּי יַעֲבֹר וְאַשְׁמוּרָה בַלָּיְלָה׃
For in Your sight a thousand years are like yesterday that has passed, like a watch of the night.
Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, a 20th century Talmudic scholar, and Jewish philosopher says in his commentary, Michtav MeEliyahu, that the verse shows that God has a different sense of time than we do. He says that the seven days mentioned in the Torah are a way of talking about the whole time before creation was completed. Once creation was completed we started counting time in human time and not God time. Because we know that the Torah was written b’leshon bnei Adam – in the language that people understand. Rabbi Dessler said, “[the Torah] speaks to us in accordance with our own perceptions of matter and our own concepts of space and time.” Seven days doesn’t necessarily mean seven days as we know them.
But since God has all this power, why didn’t God create the world all at once? I think that making a world like this one is something that takes time and consideration. Maybe God thought, “What do I want it to look like? Smell like? Feel like? Taste like? Sound like?” Each and every detail was thought out and constructed by God. How did God do that?
The midrash in Genesis Rabbah tells us that “the Holy One, blessed be God, went on creating worlds and destroying them until God created [heaven and earth], and then God said: ‘These please Me; those did not please Me.’” as it says in Genesis chapter 1 verse 31 “And God saw everything that God had made, and behold, it was very good”‘ Maybe we could think about those other worlds being similar to the way that scientist talk about different eras. For example the world when the dinosaurs roamed the Earth seems very different from the world today. Maybe the Jurasic or Cretaceous Periods were different “worlds” or a different way to describe evolution.
Another way that I could understand this midrash is that God made and destroyed worlds and left small bits of them until God created a version that God liked. When God made this one it was Vayehi Tov – it was good. That is what we find today. All sorts of evidence like fossils that we find, are leftovers of God’s old creation. Interestingly, today sometimes people are born with fish-like traits that could be parts of the leftovers.
If the Torah is not, as Rashi said, here to tell us how the world was created and the midrash is not that different from Darwin. Then why is the story of creation in the Torah at all? What question is the story answering? Maybe our question should not be how but why did God create the world?
Our sources tell us, that God created the world for a number of reasons, but all of those reasons have one strong connection. That connection is us – human beings. Why did God create us? I have several answers.
The Zohar, our first book of Jewish mysticism, tells us that when God created light at the beginning of the creation, God put some of that primordial light in ten holy vessels. God then sent the 10 vessels of light into the world, “ like a fleet of ships”. They were so delicate that they didn’t land together. If they had, the world would have been perfect. Instead they broke apart and the holy sparks of light were separated all over. We were created to bring those sparks together to make the world the perfect place it’s supposed to be.
I think that they aren’t physical vessels, but God wants us to come together and unite. We are the vessels, like each and everyone one of has a small piece of the vessel with in us. We are a human puzzle piece and we need to create positive relationships with one another to make the world a better place.
Another reason for why we were created is taught by Rashi. He wrote “Our Rabbis explained it: as it says in Proverbs God created the world for the sake of the Torah Before creation we read that God already had a Torah which God wanted to give to people. One midrash even says that God offered the Torah to lots of different nations and we were the only ones to accept. God wanted the Torah to be in the world so that people could understand God better. We do that by learning Torah which tells us how to live our lives and do mitzvot (good deeds). The Torah is our instruction book and helps us be better people.
A third reason that we were created is to have a special connection with God. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, an 18th century Italian, Jewish kabbalist and philosopher, wrote in his book Mesillat Yesharim
“We were created for the sole purpose of rejoicing in God and deriving pleasure from the splendor of God’s Presence; for this is true joy and the greatest pleasure that can be found… the essence of a man’s existence in this world is solely the fulfilling of mitzvot, the serving of God.” God created us to do mitzvot and serve God. Without us, God would have no one to rule over. When we do mitzvot, we get closer to God and this contributes to God’s need for us. We were made to have a special connection with God. God created us because God didn’t have a special connection with what was there before us. Pirkei Avot chapter 6 mishna 11 says” Everything that the Holy One, Blessed be God, created in this world, God created only for God’s honor.”
A final reason that I will discuss today is that the Torah tells us that God created us to be the keepers of the Earth.
וַיִּקַּח ה’ אֱלֹקים אֶת־הָאָדָם וַיַּנִּחֵהוּ בְגַן־עֵדֶן לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ׃
Vayikach Hashem Elokim et haAdam vayanichayhu b’gan eden l’avdah u’l’shamrah
The LORD God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden, to till it and tend it.
The midrash in Kohelet Rabbah tells us that:
At the time that the Holy One created the first person, God introduced him to every tree in the Garden of Eden, and said to him, ‘See how wonderful and pleasant these trees are. And all of this I have created for you; therefore take great care that you do not damage and destroy My world, for if you do there is no one else to put right what you have destroyed.’
God trust that we can take care of the Earth and keep all its beauty and make sure that evolution can keep happening.
In conclusion, God in Genesis created birds, not of any particular species. Those birds flew to different places around the world. There they evolved, like Darwin told us, into all the varieties of colors, sizes and kinds that we have today.
Through all of my studying, I have learned that we don’t have to choose between religion and science when it comes to the story of creation. There is a description of creation in the first chapter of Bereshit. Our Rabbis tell us that we should not read the Torah with a literal understanding. The Torah was written b’leshon bnei Adam – in the language that people understand – but God might understand that language differently. While the Torah doesn’t directly explain the story of creation, the Torah does tell us why we were created. The reasons we were created were to do mitzvot, honor God and take care of this world that God gave us.
Mira Weglein ’20