Seemingly, one of the more depressing debates in rabbinic literature is one that the houses of Hillel and Shammai argued about for two-and-half years: "These say: It would have been preferable had man not been created than to have been created. And those said: It is preferable for man to have been created than had he not been created" (Eiruvin 13b). Even more depressing is the conclusion reached by the Talmud that, "It would have been preferable had man not been created than to have been created. Now that he has been created, he should examine his actions".
These are the kind of thoughts that are understandable when facing serious difficulties in life; perhaps they are even an inevitable perspective that people gain as they age and look back at a life in which so much more could have been accomplished. It seems to be the view of Kohelet that all is vanity. Yet is this the attitude we should have towards life? Would it truly have been better had we not been born? Is our entire life just making the best of a bad situation? Why then such great emphasis on honouring our parents, who apparently did us no favour by bringing us into this world?
Furthermore, this seems to fly in the face of the Creation narrative where, over and over, G-d declares that, “it was good” and after the creation of man, G-d declares, “it was very good”. If life is really not as good as the alternative, why do we violate almost every law—including eating chametz on Pesach—to preserve our health? Why not let nature take its course and escape this world?
The Tosafists (Eiruvin 13b s.v. noach), clearly bothered by such an opinion, explain that such negativity is only for "stam b'nai adam", ordinary people who presumably fritter away opportunities to make a positive contribution to the world. But as for “the righteous, blessed are they and blessed is their generation”.
While the discussion is generally framed around whether it was good for man to have been created, a careful reading of the debate sheds a different light on the issue. The actual phrase used is noach lo le'adam; is it pleasant, or comfortable, for man to have been created?
Of course it was good for man to have been created! That is the overriding message of the Creation and the opening message of the Bible. Olam chesed yibaneh (Tehillim 89:3), G-d created this world as an act of kindness, for the benefit of man.
The question is not whether it was good that we were created, but whether it is comfortable to have been created. And the conclusion is that life is not meant to be comfortable and pleasant—it is hard work to live a life that is centred around concepts that include holiness, piety, modesty, righteousness and justice. When Yaakov Avinu wanted to peacefully retire after a life filled with the difficulties of dealing with the likes of Eisav and Lavan, and after losing his beloved young wife Rachel, G-d got angry with him for “wanting to sit in tranquility in this world” (see Rashi, Breisheet 37:2), and thus begins the Yosef saga.
Noach could not be the first Jew. He, as his name implies, took a much-too-relaxed view towards life. He took his time building the ark, took life in stride, and did nothing to challenge the decree of G-d. The Jew, modeling Avraham, must be on the move, lech lecha, going from place to place, always on the move to improve the lot of others.
At times, life is very bitter and full of pain and suffering. Nonetheless, life still can and must be good. We can make this world a better place.
The custom of Ashkenazic Jews to recite Yizkor on Yom Tov is most difficult to understand. Why focus on the deaths of loved ones on days on which we are obligated to rejoice? On Yom Tov, we link the present to the past. We experience the Exodus, relive Revelation and remind ourselves that it is G-d, and not our material goods, that protect and hover over us. Life in Egypt, in the desert, and in diaspora after diaspora has rarely been comfortable. Yet despite often-horrendous conditions, it is filled with so much to inspire us!
It is our parents who are our link to our glorious past. If we are to be successful at linking the past and the future—at inspiring others—then we must focus not on whether our lives are comfortable, but whether they are good. And on this question, there is no dispute. It is good that man was created.
We live in a generation that has elevated rest and relaxation to an art form. Despite the willingness of many to enslave themselves to work, no generation has had as much leisure, toys, travel, recreation and the like as we do. We seek comfort; yet it is meaning, not comfort, that must be our goal. And living a meaningful life can be uncomfortable at times.
Unlike no other time in any of our lifetimes, society is experiencing—for those blessed enough not to be sick—the most uncomfortable of times. Yet there is much that our forced “social distancing” can teach us. Let us pray we learn the appropriate lessons in good health.