Home Comment Site Search

“And Behold It Was Very Good”

 Bereshit, Chapter 1 – A Lack of Symmetry

An analysis of Bereshit 1:24-31 reveals a lack of symmetry between the description of the sixth day of creation and the five days that preceded it. For example, unlike the creation by fiat (“let there be” and “let the water give forth”) that characterized the previous creations, the creation of man is preceded by a consultation: “Let us make man...”. Furthermore, only man is created “in the image of God”, only in the creation of man does God actually participate in the physical formation of the creation, only man is entrusted with dominion over other creatures, only man is endowed personally with a blessing, and only the sixth day is identified by use of the definite article (“and it was evening and it was morning, the sixth day”). All of these elements attest to the distinctive status of man in the process of creation.

Of special significance is the absence of the verdict “it was good” after the creation of man, in contrast to the pronouncement of “it was good” over all that was created on each previous day. Of further interest is the fact that a general evaluation of all of creation is recorded at the end of the sixth day: “And God saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good.” (Bereshit 1:31)

This raises two questions:

  1. Why was there no specific evaluation of man after he was created?

  2. Why in the general evaluation of creation is the expression “it was very good” utilized, while in all of the previous evaluations, the expression “it was good” was used?

Many commentators have proposed solutions to one or both of these questions. We will focus on the views of two midrashim and several of the medieval commentators.

The Dual Nature of Man: Rav Nachman’s Interpretation - Bereshit Rabbah 9:7

רבנן אמרי לה בשם רבי חנינא בר אידי ורבי פנחס ורבי חלקיה: ... "והנה טוב מאד" – זה אדם (ב"ר ט, יג).

The Rabbis said in the name of Rabbi Chanina the son of Idi and Rabbi Pinchas the son of Rabbi Chilkiya: … “And behold it was very good” – this refers to man. (Bereshit Rabbah 9:13)

This Midrash expresses the view that although God’s evaluation “and behold it was very good” was stated at the end of the sixth day, it actually referred to the creation of man. Rav Nachman expands upon this view:

רבי נחמן בר שמואל … אמר: "הנה טוב מאד" – זה יצר הרע, "והנה טוב מאד" -
זה יצר הרע. וכי יצר הרע טוב מאד – אתמהא ? אלא שאלולי יצר הרע לא בנה
אדם בית ולא נשא אשה ולא הוליד ולא נשא ונתן. וכן שלמה אמר (קהלת ד:ד):
"…וכי היא קנאת איש מרעהו."(ב"ר ט, ז).

Rav Nachman the son of Shmuel said: “Behold it was very good” - this refers to the good inclination; “And behold it was very good” - this refers to the evil inclination. But, is the evil inclination very good? How so? Were it not for the evil inclination, a person would not build, would not marry, would not have children, and would not engage in business. And so Shlomo said (Kohelet 4:4): “(all work comes from) man’s jealousy for his neighbor.” (Bereshit Rabbah 9:7)

According to Rav Nachman, the conflict between the good inclination and the evil inclination within man is the engine that drives the world. As Kohelet suggests, the sense of competition that can be a source of envy, can also be a motivator for growth and development. This would explain why the creation of man is not evaluated with the pronouncement “it was good”. Man cannot be viewed as inherently good because he has the free will to choose between the drives of the good inclination and the evil inclination. Ironically, according to Rav Nachman, it is that very quality of the human condition that makes all of creation in general “very good”. Martin Buber expands upon this idea in his explanation of this midrash:

Two impulses were instilled side by side in man. It is as if the Creator gave them to man to act as two servants who can fulfill their functions completely only with genuine cooperation. The evil inclination is as necessary as its opposite; indeed it is even more necessary, for were it not for the evil inclination, man would not have the inclination to build a house, or take a wife, or beget children or engage in commerce (Bereshit Rabbah 9:7). For this reason the evil inclination is called the “yeast in the dough” (Berachot 17) because of the energy and the life force with which the Lord has endowed our souls, without which man would stagnate. Because of this, the spiritual level of man is of necessity a function of the amount of “yeast” in himself, as is indicated by the Talmud (Sukkah 52), “One who is greater than his fellow also has a stronger inclination.”...Of the two impulses, the evil inclination is the more basic one. And it is not intrinsically evil, but it is only man who makes it that way….Man turns this impulse into the evil inclination again and again when he separates it from its “companion” – the good inclination. By isolating it, man turns what was supposed to serve him into his opponent. Thus man is not supposed to beat down the evil inclination within, but to unite it with the good inclination. (M. Buber, “Depictions of Good and Evil,” The Face of Man, p. 345)

Thus, according to Rav Nachman, it is through the confrontation rather than the repression of the inclination that man can realize his true greatness.

Although this interpretation nicely explains the addition of the word “very” in the evaluation on the sixth day, it is not compelling for other reasons. If it indeed refers to man, why was it not stated directly after the creation of man? Furthermore, it seems inconsistent with the subsequent statement of the Torah relating to the nature of man in Bereshit 6:5:

"וירא ה' כי רעת האדם בארץ וכל מחשבות לבו רק רע כל היום."

“And God saw that the wickedness of man was great upon the earth, and that all of the impulses of the thoughts of his heart were only evil continuously.”

This verse would explain the fact that there is not a specific evaluation of man as “good”, and would mitigate for a different interpretation of the evaluation “very good” on the sixth day.

Life and Death: Rabbi Meir’s Interpretation – Bereshit Rabbah 9:5

בתורתו של רבי מאיר מצאו כתוב: "והנה טוב מאד – והנה טוב מות." … אמר ר'

שמואל בר נחמן: רכוב הייתי על כתפו של זקני ועולה מעירו לכפר חנן דרך בית שאן ושמעתי את ר' שמעון בן אלעזר יושב ודורש בשם רבי מאיר: "והנה טוב מאד - והנה טוב מות." (ב"ר ט, ה).

In the copy of R. Meir’s Torah was found written: “And behold it was very good – and behold death was good”….R. Shmuel bar Nachman said: I was seated on my grandfather’s shoulder going up from his town to Kfar Chanan via Bet Shean, and I heard R. Shimon ben Elazar, as he sat and lectured, say in the name of R. Meir: “And behold it was very good” – and behold death was good. (Bereshit Rabbah 9:5)

The interpretation of R. Meir is based on the similarity of the words “very” (m’od) and “death” (mot). But, how can R. Meir consider death to be very good? According to several commentators, R. Meir valued death because it frees one from the temptation to sin. This explanation draws a conclusion that is the opposite of the conclusion drawn by the previous midrash. Death is “very good” because it frees one from the clutches of the evil inclination.

There are, however, several other possible ways of understanding R. Meir’s interpretation. An interesting historical explanation is put forth by Sefer Hatirosh:

After the Bar Kochba insurrection and the destruction of Betarin the days of R. Akiva and his disciple R. Meir, there was mayhem, and Hadrian’s rule persecuted them with various decrees and tortures designed to cause the Jews to forsake their religion. They would flee for their lives with their children and hide in the villages and forests from the fury of the rulers. In the mad rush to escape the pursuers who were on their heels, they would carry on their shoulders those children too young to run fast enough. They certainly would have chosen death over life, and envied those who had already perished and did not have to witness this bitter suffering. It is under such circumstances that R. Meir stated his depressing comments and poignant homily. This bitter sigh, appropriate to their tragic situation, is what remained in the memory of R. Shmuel bar Nachman from his childhood as he balanced on his grandfather’s shoulders while fleeing the persecutions.

According to this explanation, R. Meir’s statement reflects the pessimism of the reality in which he lived. The Rambam, however, did not view R. Meir’s interpretation as pessimistic. Rather, it reflects an appreciation of the harmony of creation.

For this reason, the book that has illumined the darkness of the world has enunciated literally the following statement: “And God saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good.” Even the existence of the inferior matter characterized by privation entailing death and all evils, all of this is also good in view of the perpetuity of generation and the permanence of being through succession. For this reason, R. Meir interpreted the words: “And behold it was very good” – and behold death was good. (Guide for the Perplexed 3:10)

Thus, according to the Rambam, R. Meir viewed the overall harmony of the world as very good: “This is a good that pertains to the fitting together of components each one to the other, and to the whole.” As such, presence and absence, life and death, growth and decay are all necessary elements in the overall scheme. R. Meir gave this a paradoxical expression by designating death in and of itself as very good.

The Whole is Greater than the Sum of its Parts: The Medieval Commentators

A number of the medieval commentators note that the use of the phrase “very good” in the general evaluation of creation reflects the fact that a complex finished product will appear more wondrous than each of its component parts:

ספורנו: תכלית המציאות בכללו טוב מאד יותר מן התכליות הפרטיות המכוונות אליו.

Sforno: The end purpose of creation is very good, over and above the purpose of the individual components.

אבן עזרא: ואם ישאל השואל: אחר שהזכיר בכל יום ויום עם כל מעשה "כי טוב" מה צריך להזכירו עוד עם הכלל ? והתשובה: יתכן להיות כל פרט טוב וכלל התחברם רע.

על כן הצריך לומר: "את כל אשר עשה". ועוד כי הוסיף מלת "מאד" על הכלל ולא על הפרט.

R. Avraham Ibn Ezra: You may ask: Since He pronounced “it was good” after each day’s creation, why is there any need to pronounce it again over all of the creation? The answer is that each individual component can be good, but their combination into a whole may be bad. Thus it is necessary to pronounce on “all that He had made.”

Furthermore, the word “very” was added to describe the entire Creation, and not to describe the components.

Ibn Ezra’s comment reflects the Aramaic translation of Onkelos, which renders the word “good” on the previous days of creation as “טב”, but the phrase “very good” on the sixth day as “תקין חדא”. The change in language is explained by Sadeh Aram on Onkelos:

ונראה שהיה קשה למתרגם, אחרי שנכתב על כל פרט ממעשה בראשית "וירא א-לקים כי טוב", למה נכתב על כללם: "והנה טוב מאד" ? ופירש אונקלוס כי "טוב מאד" הנכתב על כלל מעשה בראשית הוא של טוב התאמת פרטיו והסכמתם אחד את אחד ואת הכלל כולו…והרעיון הזה לא יודע להמון ע"י מילת "טב" כי אם ע"י מילת "תקין", המורה על דבר אשר חלקו מתאים עם חלקו.

Apparently it was difficult for the translator, for after it was written about each of the components of creation “and God saw that it was good”, why is “and behold it was very good” written about the creation in general? Onkelos explains that the phrase “very good” that is written about the creation as a whole relates to the good that is reflected in the coordination of individual components with each other and with the totality. This concept is not expressed by the word “טב” but rather by the word “תקין”, which relates to something in which there is harmony between its various parts.

According to Ralbag, the pronouncement “very good” could not be made until the end of the sixth day because the sixth day represented the purpose of creation. Until man was created, the earlier creations had less meaning:

רלב"ג: ולא נשלם הטוב עד השלם התכליות אשר בעבורו היה מה שלפני התכלית. וכן הטוב השלם לא נשלם לעולם בכללו עד שהיה בשלמותו ותמותו.

Ralbag: The good was not complete until the final purpose was completed, that purpose for which all was intended. And the perfect good is never altogether completed until all of the essential elements are together.

“Very Good” – An Appreciation of Symmetry

The common thread among most of the commentaries that we have examined is that the evaluation of creation as “very good” relates in each to a sense of symmetry - be it reflected in the relationship between the good inclination and the evil inclination in man, in the relationship between life and death, or in the harmony of nature. The beauty of the creation is the manner in which different, and at times opposing, components complement each other to create a wondrous whole. “And God saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good.”

The above image originally appeared on the jacket of the Nehama Leibowitz printed series © WZO/JAFI and is reproduced here with permission from the online series © The Pedagogic Center, The Department for Jewish Zionist Education, JAFI.