THREE THINGS WE ALL NEED
Parashat Bereisheet, Genesis 1:1–6:1
We’ve entered a new year and a new round of Torah readings—a good time to recalibrate our lives. But what measure can we use to recalibrate? I can’t think of a better measure than the account of creation in the opening chapters of the Torah. Today’s dominant culture tempts us to measure our lives by things we think we need: self-aggrandizement, material stuff, power, entertainment, and pleasure. In contrast, the account of creation reveals three God-instilled human needs that shape our lives: the need to contribute, the need to connect, and the need to experience awe.
The Torah reveals a creation that’s dynamic and “very good” (Gen 1:31), not static and perfect—a creation that needs human contribution to reach its goal.
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness! Let them rule over the fish of the sea, over the flying creatures of the sky, over the livestock, over the whole earth, and over every crawling creature that crawls on the land.” God created humankind in His image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them. God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the land, and conquer it. Rule over the fish of the sea, the flying creatures of the sky, and over every animal that crawls on the land.” (Gen 1:26–28)
God makes Adam, humankind, in his own image—and the first element of divine image-bearing that’s mentioned is “rule” (1:26, repeated in 1:28). It’s a rule that must be exercised—“and conquer it.” Clearly there’s work, challenging work, for the humans in this very good creation. The search for mere happiness, so popular in our postmodern world, is a losing proposition. When the first man was placed in the Garden soon after creation, before he had time to wander from God’s purposes, he had work to do: “to cultivate and watch over it” (Gen 2:15).
One of the most influential books of the last century was Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl, a Viennese psychotherapist who survived the Nazi death camps. Frankl believed that human beings need meaning above all else, and that meaning is found in contribution. “Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life . . . a concrete assignment which requires fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated.” Carrying out this assignment, even in the hell of the camps, provides meaning that sustains life.
Our need isn’t for meaning in the abstract, but for something significant to do, something to contribute, a garden to cultivate. It’s the opposite of the consumer culture of today, which gives rise to unprecedented levels of anxiety and despair. We see this theme throughout the Bible—the need not only to receive from God, but to act in response—culminating in Yeshua’s call, “Follow me.”
Then Adonai Elohim said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. Let Me make a well-matched helper for him.” (Gen 2:18)
Marriage is the original “not-alone” relationship and it’s foundational to all the rest of our relationships.
Adonai Elohim built the rib, which He had taken from the man, into a woman. Then He brought her to the man. Then the man said,
“This one, at last, is bone of my bones
and flesh from my flesh.
This one is called woman,
for from man was taken this one.”
This is why a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife; and they become one flesh. (Gen 2:22–24)
This account pictures a primal triangle of God-man-woman, which applies to every marriage thereafter, as Messiah Yeshua intimates in his response to a question about divorce: “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matt 19:6).
Marriage is covenantal and holy, not a means to an end, but an end in itself. But our human need for connection is even broader than marriage. The capacity for connection, intimacy, and empathy on which marriage rests is part of our divine-image-bearing humanity. We are made for relationship and community . . . even if we never marry. In fact, Messiah Yeshua pictures the greatest expression of love, not within marital union, but within friendship: “No one has greater love than this: that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
The capacity created in “the two shall become one” isn’t limited to marital intimacy, then, but empowers true friendship, which also defines and fulfills our humanness. Friendship, like marriage, involves the discovery that we are not alone. As C.S. Lewis writes in The Four Loves, “Friendship . . . is born at the moment when one man says to another ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .’”
Ironically, amid an expanding global population and unprecedented levels of communication and information flow, isolation is a major challenge around the world. In my own locality I counsel some guys who have no friends or close family at all, so that our hour together might be the only human connection they get all week. Such isolation often leads to (and in turn results from) depression and addiction, which some characterize as a disease of isolation.
The good news is that God created us with not only the need but also the ability for connection . . . which leads to our third foundational need.
And they heard the sound of Adonai Elohim going to and fro in the garden in the wind of the day. So the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of Adonai Elohim in the midst of the Tree of the garden.
Then Adonai Elohim called to the man and He said to him, “Where are you?”
Then he said, “Your sound—I heard it in the garden and I was afraid.” (Gen 3:8–10a)
“Afraid”—the same Hebrew word can be translated as awe or reverence. By “awe” I mean awareness of something—or someone—so beyond ourselves that all our categories, preconceptions, and self-centered drives simply fall away. Our defenses collapse. Awe entails a sense of being in the presence of something totally other, totally beyond my little self—and a fear of transgressing this one. As Jon Levenson writes in The Love of God:
There surely is a tinge of fear in the negative sense, even in the reverence, the awe, or the sense of being overwhelmed that one has in the presence of a superior. And if the description of God in the Bible is at all accurate, there would be something gravely wrong with someone in whom the thought of God and the sense of his immediate presence did not evoke those very feelings.
Awe entails fear, then, but of course goes far beyond that. Still, fear is part of loving God, and is actually recommended by Messiah Yeshua.
And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Instead, fear the One who is able to destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. (Matt 10:28)
According to the Master, the fear of God frees us from all other fears. Levenson is right when he says, “In biblical thinking, the love of God and the fear of God can, and should, coexist.” As we pray in the morning liturgy: “Unify our hearts to love and fear your name.” Our deepest need, though, isn’t for fear but for awe itself—the awareness that we live constantly in the presence of one far beyond ourselves. Adam’s fear is part of his greater awe in the presence of the Lord God who went “to and fro in the garden in the wind of the day” (Gen 3:8).
Contribution, connection, and awe. We might remember these three primal needs as the need to build, to bond, to bow. All three are instilled by God from the beginning. And all three are finally met in the God who created us.
Based on a seminar presented at the 2018 Union family conference. All Scripture references are from Tree of Life Version (TLV).