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Since Hegel introduced it, the concept of the "Other" - the notion that individuals and groups are, to a large degree, defined by their interaction with and understanding of those outside of and unlike themselves - the Other - has been central to the work of many philosophers (including many Jewish ones, such as Buber and Levinas), psychologists, social scientists, and ethicists. In Hegel's original presentation of the notion of the Other, he used a kind of parable, in which two people meet. This meeting is complicated, and I will not discuss most of what Hegel has to say about it, other than to point out the negative nature of the interaction, which is, at first, seen as a kind of struggle to the death, and which then progresses to an unsatisfactory Master-Slave relationship. In subsequent, mostly socio-political treatments of the Other, it is the way one is oppressed, marginalized, or denied, that gives one that status.In this week's parsha, Bereshit (Genesis), the world is, as we know, created by God. There is a well-known and much-discussed question connected with the creation, one which especially interested the later (16th-17th century) Kabbalists: Why? Why did God create the world? What need could have possibly motivated or compelled Him to move beyond His perfect, solitary, all-inclusive existence, and create something outside of, Other than, Himself? There is an equally well-known answer, supplied by, among others, Rav Chaim Vital, a student of the Ari, who lived in Zfat, in the Galilee, in the 16th-17th centuries: God created the world in order to "do good for his creatures". In this understanding, God really was perfect in His pre-creation all-encompassing aloneness, but something was missing: the opportunity for God to do good, to show kindness, to do kindness, to another being. As Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzato puts it in his book Sefer Hadrachim: "Behold, the goal of creation was to do good with His goodness, to those other than Him." The contrast with Hegel's description of the initial fraught encounter with the Other, and with the normative understanding of social scientists of the Other as the oppressed and marginalized, could not be more pronounced.
According to the Kabbalists, the original Other - the entire created universe, which stands outside of God, the Creator - exists solely as an opportunity for God to do good; to help and sustain beings other than Himself. The Other - the universe - is that which gives God the opportunity to express and actualize an attribute of His - goodness - which He could not actualize in isolation.If, as the Rabbis encourage us to do with the mitzvah (commandment) of l'hidamot b'drachav (to be imitative of God and His attributes), we are meant to understand God and act like Him, then we should emulate God in this as well: The Other should be seen as an opportunity to fully actualize ourselves, to express that which exists within us potentially and make it real - to act on all that is good within us, and bestow it upon others. This is the most basic, elemental way in which we can imitate God, whose first act as God was to create an entire universe, just so that he could take that which was good within Him and make it actual by sharing it with the Others Her created. I write a lot of stuff about the Torah, and who knows when I'm right, but I know that the above is true. My granddaughter Atara, who is five, was absolutely wonderful from the day she was born. However, when her brother Ido was born, we began to see a goodness in her that we always knew was there, but which could not really exist in the world until she had someone to share it with, someone to give it to. She has taught me how the existence of the Other - a baby brother, about as Other as it gets - gives us the opportunity to make real the best that is within us: to take our potential for good, create a positive interaction with an Other, and thereby make the good within us, and ourselves, fully real. (My own kids were wonderful when they were little, too, but the first five were boys, so they didn't show it so transparently, and the last, our daughter, was our last, and had to struggle with five older brothers, so she needed to find other arenas in which to be wonderful, which she has.)
Rabbi Shimon Felix