The Two Hands of God

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Image by Artwork by Image by Rena Schild / Shutterstoc...

Tohu v’vohu. Only the Jews would decide there were two different kinds of Reality/Unreality even before the Creation began. Everett Fox translates them “Wild and waste,” trying to get the feel of two distinct words that nevertheless sound alike.

And then two very different stories of Creation.

As a politically way-Left and religiously way-Orthodox Rabbi — Avrom Bik — taught me, “Why did God give us two thumbs? So we could say, ‘On the one hand’ and ‘On the other hand.’” Twirling his cigarette so the smoke could make his life-trail visible.

Both Hands of God appear in Luria’s theory of creation not by reaching out but curling in. By tziiiiiiiim-tzum, a stretched out illimitable Wild “iiiiiiiii” expanse of Holy Chaos tohu contracts itself into a much more contained “u,” the Holy One, leaving behind an empty space, vohu. .

No! Not quite empty: When you pour olive oil out of a bottle, says Luria, there is always a thin film of olive oil left behind. This thin film complexifies, dances with itself, evolves into a “uni’verse” that keeps evolving.

Evolves. That is the point. A growing-up that cannot end.

Tanakh is a teaching for Humanity of how to evolve, how to grow up. It cares especially about the maturation of the human race, adam, in its fraught relationship with Earth, adamah.

From this perspective, Tikkun is more like gardening, parenting, than like repair. The world is not broken, needing to be fixed, but growing up, needing to be nurtured. Even its mistakes are errors of growth.

Is this effort a painful task of activist repair? Thinking of “tikkun olam” as parenting or gardening, not repairing brokenness, gives me more confidence than angst. Disheartening at times and also gorgeous, like gardening or parenting.

If the world were perfect, we could only put it on a shelf, guarded from our touch: “Hands off!” Far better the imperfect Torah’s beckoning us into gardening our Garden, weeds and all. Hands on! Godwrestling is the way of making love.

The first story of Creation is a perfect ritual recitation by a priest who imagines God as Kohen Gadol of All That Is, managing a well-balanced liturgy: Three pairs of days (1 and 4, 2 and 5, 3 and 6), and then, capping it all like the last line of a ritual event — Rest! Perfection!

But the second story of Creation (on the one Hand, on the other Hand!), teaches, “No shrub of the field was yet on the earth … because there was no human to till the soil.” (Genesis 2:5). This is a farmer’s vision: “Of course I need the shrubs to nourish me, but the shrubs need me to nourish them.” An early vision of an ecosystem.

Farmers know the world needs Gardening. Their rewrite of the priests’ Creation story carries a sardonic undertone: “Priests, what do they know? — They don’t lift a callused finger to make the shrubs grow food!”

The Tanakh as a guide and goad to human maturation starts with birth. The birthing of adam from adamah is modeled on individual human birthing: At first the fetus breathes through Mother’s breathing. In birth it loses its Motherly “ahh” and needs an independent breath. “YHWH Elohim, Breath of Life Creator God. blew into the newborn’s nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living, breathing person.” (Genesis 2:5–7).

Why do I translate “YHWH” as Breath of Life”? Try to pronounce that Name of God as the letters of the Name indicate, without any vowels. You are likely to hear and feel the sound of breathing.

From this tale of birth the Torah goes on to tell the story of growing from a childhood of “naked and not ashamed,” then into a rebellious adolescence that in the process of individuation makes some important mistakes.

In Eden, YHWH, the Interbreathing Spirit of all life, whispers wisdom into human ears: “On Earth there is wonderful abundance. Eat of it in joy. But restrain yourselves just a little: Of this one tree, don’t eat.” (Gen 2: 15-17).

But the tree is delightful to see and to smell, it must be delicious to eat. So the human species refuses to restrain themselves, subjugates the tree into an It instead of loving Tree as a Thou. Human greed makes the abundance disappear. Only by toiling and sweating every day of our lives will we find enough to eat from an Earth that gives forth mostly thorns and thistles. Subjugate Earth, and subjugation enters our gates: Men will rule over women. (Gen 3: 15-19)

So the mistake of adolescent over-reach plunges Humanity into a post-adolescent adulthood of drudgery and hierarchy. See under: BP in the Gulf of Mexico.

But for the Torah this story of mistakes in growing up is not the end of the story. In the healing parable of Manna and Shabbat we hear how to grow up still further, by restraining ourselves not ascetically but joyfully. Each day the abundant universe will give us just enough to eat. If we take too much, it rots and reeks, but we can learn. On Shabbat still greater self-restraint – and all the joys of Shabbat. We invent not just a parable but a practice: Shabbat shabbaton, the year-long Rest of exponential Restfulness.

That is the practice of an ecological sensibility. Not hierarchy but a gardening in which the gardeners live and know they live inside the garden, not above it. In which the ecological mindset suffuses our theology – not Lord and King but Breath and Spirit, Interbreath. Suffuses our sociology – beckoning us not into a merely arithmetical equality but into celebration of our differences as necessary to the social and cultural ecosystem.

Now, equipped with the crucial Gardener’s tool of a sophisticated ecological world view, we are poised again in the Garden.

But this time the Voice in the Garden – “Gobble every Tree, and you will die, yes die!” is no longer a parable but the naked reality. This time the entire planet is at risk, and we have the technology to gobble it all, This time there are powerful institutions so greedy as not to care if their greed destroys us.

And yet, and yet –let me end by turning to the Tanakh’s glimmering vision of full adulthood:, Eden for a grown-up human race: the Song of Songs. God’s Name vanishes from this new Eden, because we no longer need a scolding Parent. We have internalized God’s Creative hope for a ethic of love among humans and between Earth and human earthlings. Eros and Spirit have kissed and dissolved into One. Both women and men are free to enjoy erotic desire, and neither rules over the other.

Not yet our lived Reality. A dream. “If we will it, not merely a dream.”

The Two Hands of God


Arthur Waskow

Arthur Waskow

Rabbi Arthur Waskow founded (1983) and directs The Shalom Center <>.

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