Differentiating Differences

Differentiating Differences

When we talk about the beginning of Genesis, we often talk about it as “the story of Creation.” But God does more than simply create — God divides as well. “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. And God saw the light that it was good, and God divided (vayavdel) between the light and between the darkness. And God called the light day, and the darkness God called night, and there was evening and there was morning, one day” (Genesis 1:3-5). God creates, God sees that it is good, and God divides. 

But on the next day, as God draws more of the universe’s central distinctions, one of those three actions seems to have been skipped. On that day, “…God said, ‘Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water, and let it be a separation between water and water.’ And God made the expanse and it divided (vayavdel) between the water that was below the expanse and the water that was above the expanse, and it was so. And God called the expanse Heaven, and it was evening, and it was morning, a second day.” (1:6-8) On that day, too, God creates and God divides, but God does not “see that it is good.”

Genesis Rabbah provides an interpretation of why this very important phrase has disappeared in the description of the second day of Creation:

The phrase ‘and it was good’ does not appear because separation was brought into being on the second day…in this regard, Rav Tavyomi said: if the words ‘and it was good’ were not mentioned about an act of separation that helped improve the world, then clearly, all the less so should the words ‘and it was good’ occur in describing occasions leading to the world’s disarray. (Genesis Rabbah 4:6)

In other words, while the “separation” on the second day was important, it wasn’t necessarily “good.” But this raises a new problem: separation was not brought into being on the second day – it was created on the first day, when God separated the light from the darkness; even the same word, vayavdel, gets used! So what is the difference between the differences? Why is one kind of separation seen to be “good” in God’s eyes, and another kind not? 

Perhaps it is because light and darkness are natural differences, while the separation on the second day was a more arbitrary differentiation, a separation between “water and water.” There’s no reason why some of the water should have been “above” the expanse and some “below.” So perhaps, differences that are natural, differences that are inherent in our nature, differences that truly cannot be changed, have great potential to be “good,” while differences that are invented, differences that we create, differences that are arbitrary or artificial, have great potential to be “bad.” 

It’s not just in the natural world where we see both natural and artificial differentiations – we see it in the human realm, as well. The culmination of the story of creation is the creation of humanity: “And God created humanity in God’s own image, in the image of God did God create humanity; male and female God created them.” (Genesis 1:27) We often go back to this verse, claiming that it means each person deserves our respect because they are “created in the image of God,” and indeed this is true. But over-emphasizing the similarities between us sometimes means we ignore the crucial differences. Rudyard Kipling once observed that “Everyone like us is ‘We,’ everyone else is ‘They.’” We often see the people in the “we” group as individuals, but the people in the “they” group as indistinct and interchangeable members. It is a very fine line between saying, “Deep down, we are all the same,” and “deep down, they are all the same.” Our challenge, then, is to walk that line: to avoid inventing differences that lead to the world’s disarray, while recognizing and accepting the differences that do exist. 

And given how differences between individuals have been used throughout history to foster racism, antisemitism and other forms of hatred and bigotry, it’s not a surprise that we have tended to emphasize “how we are all alike” over “how we are all different.” As we see in this week’s parashah, we all come from the same ancestry, from Adam. But in tractate Sanhedrin 4:5, the Rabbis ask: if God created all that is in the heavens above and on the earth below, thousands upon thousands of stars, vegetation, sea-dwelling creatures, air-dwelling creatures and land-dwelling creatures, then why did God create only one human? 

One reason, the Rabbis tell us, is so that no one could say “my ancestor is greater than yours,” and teach us how similar we all are. But that’s not all: “[Yet another reason] was to proclaim the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be God, for when a human being strikes many coins from one mold, they all resemble one another, but God, the Holy Blessed One, fashioned every human in the stamp of the first person, and yet not one of them resembles his fellow.” 

Despite being “all the same” having been created in the image of God, we exhibit a stunning array of variations as human beings – and our challenge is to be able to say, “Even though we differ, I value who you are.” Our greater challenge is to avoid inventing differences that lead to the world’s disarray, while still embracing the inherent differences we all have, which have the potential to be “good.” And our greatest challenge is to learn from each person’s individual experience, and then to be able to say, “Because we differ, I value who you are.”

Image by Mirta Toledo


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