Chagigah 16 - 29
“One who looks into four things, it would be better for that person to not have been born: ….and what came before [the world’s creation].”
In order to help us understand this statement in the mishna, a mashal (analogy) is taught in the gemara by both Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Elazar. To what is looking into the nature of pre-Creation similar? To a human king who tells his workers to build him a palace in the place which is currently a garbage disposal site. The workers do as the king commanded. Would it not be a great disrespect and lack of honor for them to later mention that the palace stands on what was once a place for garbage? (Of course it would be a show of great disrespect to the king.)
So, too, we should not think about, speak of, or try to examine what existed before Creation (except for Hashem, of course). Doing so would constitute disrespect for the King of kings, Hashem.
One point in our gemara that requires explanation is that the analogy seems incorrect. The human king built his palace in place of something that already existed, whereas Hashem created the world from absolute nothingness and also not in place of anything previously there. One approach is to view our gemara as following the Midrashic teaching that Hashem first created many worlds and destroyed them before being “pleased” (so to speak) with the Creation we are cognizant of, and is the Creation taught in Chumash. (Also, see the Maharsha here, who discusses the possibility that the analogy refers to the Ramban’s explanation of Hashem initially creating tohu u’vohu — matter without form — which Hashem then used for completing the Creation in the exact form desired by Hashem.)
Another point that commentaries ponder is the exact nature of the disrespect and dishonor exhibited by looking into what preceded Creation. We can understand why a human king would feel hurt, but is it not a sign of Hashem’s omnipotence to look into the idea that He created the world from absolute nothing? Where is the lack of honor and respect for Hashem in our doing so?
The Maharsha explains the problem as attributing to Hashem the concept that he changed His mind, as it were. To ask and try to understand why he first made an existence of emptiness and nothingness, and then seemingly “changed His mind” and created the world and all that fills it. The mere suggestion of Hashem “making a change” — from our perspective — is a concept that is utterly wrong and disrespectful.
- Chagigah 16a
Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said, “In the days when the Beit Hamikdash stood, the sacrificial Altar helped a person receive atonement for a wrongdoing, but nowadays a person’s dining table helps the person receive atonement.”
Rashi explains that the generous acts of chessed a person does by providing sustenance and hospitality to others in need, in particular by keeping his dining table open “overtime,” helps the kindhearted host to atone for wrongdoings. It would amaze me if any reader does not know at least one family member, friend or neighbor who excels in this practice, not to have a special reputation, but just because it is the correct inborn trait of a descendant of Avraham Avinu.
- Chagigah 27a