Parshat Bereshit: Towards a Better Understanding of the Humanity that was Created

 

There is a mishna that implicitly poses a question: Why did God begin creation with just one human?  Why not jump-start the population by creating a few dozen, and then let it grow from there?

מסכת סנהדרין דף לז.

לפיכך נברא אדם יחידי ללמדך שכל המאבד נפש אחת מישראל מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו איבד עולם מלא וכל המקיים נפש אחת מישראל מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו קיים עולם מלא

The response of the mishna is that by creating just one human, God has taught humanity the invaluable lesson of human worth: that one human (actually two) created our entire civilization.  Thus, one who destroys one life is comparable to one who has destroyed an entire civilization, and one who saves a life has done the equivalent of saving an entire civilization.

I would like to propose an alternative answer to the question of why God created just one man, based on another midrash:

מסכת סנהדרין דף לח.

תנו רבנן להגיד גדולתו של מלך מלכי המלכים הקדוש ברוך הוא שאדם טובע כמה מטבעות בחותם אחד וכולן דומין זה לזה אבל הקדוש ברוך הוא טובע כל אדם בחותמו של אדם הראשון ואין אחד מהן דומה לחבירו

God is extraordinary and infinitely greater than we are:  When a human mints coins of one mold, every impression is identical.  However, God created all of humanity from the mold of Adam and there are no two people who look exactly alike.

I challenge the simple reading of this midrash, for, especially utilizing modern technology we can mint millions of variations.  Rather, I think that this midrash captures a fundamental truth about human limitation.  As parents or as teachers, we tend to attempt to “mint” our students in roughly the same mold, with limited variation. However, God is categorically different as he has created an incredible varied civilization with different values and cultures, and yet He is God of them all.  He has minted billions of humans, but no two exactly alike, in appearance or in character.

This may be the true reason that creation began with just one human.  God wants us all to know that despite the differences among peoples, we all descend from one person, who was created by God.  We should therefore work to overcome differences and our tendency to look for identically-molded people, and appreciate the diversity of the Godly-diverse world.

This theme and value is evident in the description of the creation of man.  In the second chapter, the creation of man is rehashed in detail:  God created Man alone, and then formed the Woman from part of Man.  However, in the first account in chapter one, the description is extremely concise:

בראשית פרק א, כז

וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בָּרָא אֹתָם

God formed Adam in His image...male and female He created them

Rashi notes this unusual language and offers a fantastical interpretation, that the first human was both male and female, and had two faces:

רש"י בראשית פרק א

זכר ונקבה ברא אותם - ולהלן הוא אומר (בראשית ב כא) ויקח אחת מצלעותיו וגו', מדרש אגדה שבראו שני פרצופין בבריאה ראשונה ואחר כך חלקו. ופשוטו של מקרא, כאן הודיעך שנבראו שניהם בששי ולא פירש לך כיצד ברייתן ופירש לך במקום אחר:

Even Rashi concludes that this is unlikely, but the fact remains that the first description of the creation of human overlooks any difference between the gender, and focuses on the shared fact of their humanity.  

However, in the second chapter we have an elaborate description of the differences between the genders and their different processes of creation.  What is the result?  Chapter two concludes with the sin, followed by Adam’s blaming it on Chava, Chava’s blaming it on the snake, and Adam’s ultimate blame on God for having created Chava.  Thus, the differences lead to competition, jealousy and disunity.

What happens in the next chapter?  Kayin and Hevel are born, each with their different personalities and interests.  Then they offers sacrifices and Kayin murders his brother Hevel out of jealousy.

Kayin is given the most unusual punishment:  נע ונד תהיה that he will be a wanderer.  Was this so severe?  Why not enjoy his travel the world that was just created?  Kayin has the most unusual reaction to this punishment:

בראשית פרק ד, יג-יד

(יג) וַיֹּאמֶר קַיִן אֶל יְקֹוָק גָּדוֹל עֲוֹנִי מִנְּשֹׂא: (יד) הֵן גֵּרַשְׁתָּ אֹתִי הַיּוֹם מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה וּמִפָּנֶיךָ אֶסָּתֵר וְהָיִיתִי נָע וָנָד בָּאָרֶץ וְהָיָה כָל מֹצְאִי יַהַרְגֵנִי:

Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is too great to bear! Since You have banished me this day from the soil, and I must avoid Your presence and become a restless wanderer on earth—anyone who meets me may kill me!”

Kayin thinks that this punishment is too much to bear and he is scared for his life.  

Who was he scared of?  The only people alive are his parents and his children!  Who was he fearful of?  And the God reassures him of his safety:

בראשית פרק ד, טו

וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ יְקֹוָק לָכֵן כָּל הֹרֵג קַיִן שִׁבְעָתַיִם יֻקָּם וַיָּשֶׂם יְקֹוָק לְקַיִן אוֹת לְבִלְתִּי הַכּוֹת אֹתוֹ כָּל מֹצְאוֹ:

I believe that Kayin was worried because he knew that the world will ultimately be populated by various societies and peoples.  He knew about the intolerance that man has for those who are different; he well knows the dangers of jealousy.  He was scared that he would encounter people like himself might ultimately murder him.  Therefore God had to reassure him that humanity will learn to live side-by-side with people who are different and who see the world differently than we do.
Near the end of parshat Bereishit, we find a rehashing of the creation of man:

בראשית פרק ה, א-ב

(א) זֶה סֵפֶר תּוֹלְדֹת אָדָם בְּיוֹם בְּרֹא אֱלֹהִים אָדָם בִּדְמוּת אֱלֹהִים עָשָׂה אֹתוֹ: (ב) זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בְּרָאָם וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם וַיִּקְרָא אֶת שְׁמָם אָדָם בְּיוֹם הִבָּרְאָם:

In this (third) case, man is referred to both in the plural, as well as the singular.  I believe that the parsha intends to close with a synthesis perspective that affirms the uniqueness and individuality of man, but also demands that man see himself as part of a diverse world in which he respects the value and contribution of everyone.

This all reminds me of a funny incident:  I had a friends at Yeshiva University who went to a right-wing high school in Brooklyn, though his family was more open.  He was struck by the fact that his classmates saw the world as completely Jewish-Orthodox and barely believed that there was any other significant population in the world.  My friend tried to open his mind and urged him to get on a subway and go to Manhattan to look around to discover the world that exists.  Eventually he did just that.  He travelled to Madison Square Garden for the Siyum Hashas.  He returned and said that the subway was filled with “ala Yidin”.  

But in some ways, the same can be said about us.

I remember that when I returned from two years of Torah learning in Israel to begin college at YU, I was worried about maintaining my commitment to learning while balancing a college course-load, and I was worried about maintaining my focus on Torah while at a university with many other things going on.  

Then I left YU and taught at a high school where students asked: “Why would I want to attend a ghetto for college where all students are not only Jewish, but are Orthodox?!”

I think that this is really represents the tensions that we are living with.  We exist in an incredibly open ghetto:

On the one hand, our children are growing up in an environment in which they are part of every aspect of America.  They follow sports, musicians and singers.  They watch movies and television and surf the internet.  We are truly one step away from complete assimilation.

At the very same time, they go to Orthodox schools during the week, Orthodox shul on Shabbos and Orthodox camps in the summer.  Even their general studies teaches are mostly Orthodox Jews, and if not, most likely they are white-skinned.  Even the Teaneck-wide soccer league is half Orthodox!  We may not even realize how unvaried and narrow their experience really is.  

The book of Bereishit, that we began today, is the story of chosenness:  Noach is chosen from the descendents of Adam; Avraham is chosen from the descendants of Noach and then Yizchak is chosen and finally Yaakov over Esav.  This is the perfect time for use to focus on the nuances of the messages that we will teach our children.  We must teach them the importance of our chosenness and the uniqueness of our mission, with our very unique mitzvot and religious practices.  At the same time we must find a way to teach our children to know and respect all peoples of the world.  They need to appreciate the contributions of all people and learn to love and respect all peoples.  This is incredibly important and if we will succeed, then I believe we will have truly actualized one of the first and most important lessons of the Bible.

 
Mon, November 20 2017 2 Kislev 5778