But better than both
is the one who has never been born,
who has not seen the evil
that is done under the sun.— Ecclesiastes 4:3
The Hebrew month of Elul, which means “search,” is a time of intense soul-searching and repentance in preparation for the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Elul is also a time to begin the process of asking for forgiveness for wrongs done to others. This is one of 13 devotions on repentance and forgiveness. To learn more about the shofar, which is blown every weekday during Elul¸ download our complimentary Bible study.
In the biblical account in Genesis 1, after every act of creation, we read, “And God saw that it was good.” There is one exception: When it comes to the creation of human beings, we don’t find it expressed that God saw it was good. How can this be? The earth, the sky, the insects, the fish, the birds, and the animals are all good and man is not? Humanity is the crown of God’s creation! Why is the most important creation not deemed good like all the rest?
Is the creation of humankind a good thing or not?
This question was so bothersome that the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai – the two leading schools of Jewish thought in the first century BCE – debated the topic for two-and-a-half years. For the most part, the House of Shammai argued that given humanity’s tendency toward evil and immorality, it would have been better had human beings not been created. The House of Hillel countered that humanity’s potential for kindness and goodness made the creation of human beings very good.
Ultimately, the debate concluded that it would have been better had humankind not been created. As we read in Ecclesiastes: “But better than both (the living and the dead) is the one who has never been born, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.”
So is that what we truly believe? Are we all a big mistake?
The Talmudic conclusion, however, leaves room for hope. The Jewish sages say that the risk of failing to live a moral life in this world is so great – it is such a hard test to pass – that from a human’s perspective, it would have been better to stay with God in Heaven. However, now that we have been born and we have no choice but to live an earthly life, we better make it worth living.
The Talmud also states: “Better one hour of repentance and good deeds in this [physical] world than all of the world to come.” While there is great potential for doing damage in this world, there is also the possibility of doing great things that will have a positive impact for all eternity. Life is a chance to do good and be good – an opportunity not afforded to those who have not been born or who have already passed.
So is the creation of humankind good? That depends on us.
Let’s resolve to make our lives worthwhile. When we choose to make something amazing out of the time we have been given here, we can figuratively add a verse to God’s Bible. After it says that God made human beings, we might add, “And God saw that we were very good indeed.”