Without the gift of life, we would not have experienced emotions such as love, elation, thankfulness, hope, sympathy, attraction and pride. However, we also would not have experienced emotions such as hatred, grief, rage, anxiety, panic, cruelty and humility, emotions that may make us wonder if it would be more congenial for us had we not been created.
It is with these thoughts that I read the following debate from the Talmud (the collection of Jewish law and tradition):
Our masters taught: For-two-and-a-half years the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel were in dispute. One school said: It would have been more convenient [better] for a person not to have been created than to have been created; and the other school said: It is more convenient for a person to have been created than not to have been created. They finally came to a conclusion: it would have been more convenient for a person not to have been created than to have been created, but now that he has been created, let him examine his own deeds; and there are those who say: Let him sift through his deeds. (Babli, Eruvin, 13b).
Hillel and Shammai were prominent sages of the last century BCE and the early first century CE. They were the founders of two opposing schools of Jewish thought in Palestine during the first century. The School of Hillel was kind, flexible, and known for its tolerance and friendship. The School of Shammai was friendly, modest and strict. Over time, their the number of their followers and of their theological, ethical and ritual disputes increased.
As to the above-quoted dispute, the School of Hillel ended up conceding to the School of Shammai; they agreed that it would be advantageous for a man not to have been created, “but now that he has been created, let him examine his own deeds; and there are those who say: Let him sift through his deeds”, meaning that a person should examine his deeds, repent for his misdeeds, and avoid his future misdeeds.
Jewish sages did not accept this dispute at face value. They wondered how is it possible that it is more convenient for a man not to be created, while we are told: “and God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31, KJV)? Why would anyone think that it is more convenient if a “very good” creation is not created? Also, “God created man in his own image” (Genesis 1:27, KJV). Why would one think that it would be more congenial, advantageous for a person not to be created than created?
The dispute is not whither it would have been better for a person not to have been created, but if it would have been more convenient. We do many inconvenient acts in order to achieve meaningful goals. We take on inconvenient challenges in order to earn and realize our wants. If we were not created, we would not have such inconvenience.
There are those who do not accept the above dispute literally. Their position is that any existence is better than non-existence; therefore, it is better for a person that he was created. If a person were not created, he would not do any good deeds; if he were created, he will do at least some good deeds. We can chose between good and bad, and on the basis of our choices we can decide if it is more convenient for us that we were born or not.
A different opinion is that the soul exists as a spiritual object, and the creation of a man may lessen its quality because of what he may do. If one were not created, he could not sin, if he were created, inevitably he will sin.
Some sages believed that the opinion that it is more convenient for a person not to be born does not apply to a righteous person; his birth is a happy occasion. Other sages believed that the soul does not know if it is more convenient for it to be born, but God knows it is, and therefore God created man.
There are circumstances when the life of someone who was created is limited to the extent that he feels his existence is worse than non-existence. A person may argue objectively--based on medical tests before he was born--that it was expected he would be better off had he not been born because he could not live a meaningful life, as he could not choose his values, desires, opinions and emotions. The burden of proving such an argument is very heavy in our time, because thanks to medicine there are many people with deficiencies who attain extraordinary meaningful lives.
In the novel “Black Box” by the Israeli author Amos Oz, a man accounts to himself for the way he used the gift of life: “And what did I do? Tell me, what did I do with the gift of life? What did I spend it on? Why did I sully it? I smashed teeth, I cheated, I stole, and, above all, I hoisted up skirts.”
What do we spend our gift of life on?
The nun Ani Choying Drolma sings that our perception of the world depends on what we are. She sang a Nepali song and translated it. You may want to listen to her singing her prayer:
In the eyes of a flower, the world is flower.
In the eyes of a thorn, the world is a thorn.
The shadow resembles how the object is. […]
May my heart be pure, and my speech Buddha.
May my feet never even kill any insects.
Beautiful eyes show you beautiful samsara.
(“samsara” is "the endless round of birth, death, and rebirth to which conditioned beings are subject").
There are wonderful flowers that have thorns and beautiful sites with thorns and flowers. Our life has flowers and thorns. We experience love and hatred, elation and grief, hope and anxiety, sympathy and cruelty. In difficult times we may wonder if it would be more congenial for us had we not been created. Sometimes, inconveniences and challenges inflict on us excruciating pain, but they also make our life meaningful, exciting and exhilarating.