Parshat Bereishit: Similar or Unique?

Parshat Bereishit: Similar or Unique?

Rabbi Boaz Pash is the Rosh Kollel of the Joseph and Gwendolyn Straus Rabbinical Seminary‘s Torat Yosef Kollel

Are we humans more alike, or more different from one another? To put it another way: do we spend more time looking for our differences or our similarities?

To our dismay, we are, on the one hand, very similar. Yet on the other hand – again to our dismay – we are also quite different.  

We are always seeking our common identity, and we find it more convenient to be with those who dress like us, speak like us, or think like us. Conversely, we tirelessly seek out what makes each of us unique. What makes us different. Even if, at times, these differences are too vague for us to describe, we’ll highlight them, even if we do so artificially (this should bring to mind the scene of two women wearing the exact same dress).

So, are we more alike, or are we more dissimilar?

We seem to be living permanently somewhere on the scale between these two extremes – the convenience of a world which is like us, which suits us and is “built in our image”, versus the adventure and challenge involved in living among those who are different from us, who, by virtue of being different, demand that we cause our unique traits to stand out. 

Let’s revisit that primordial point in time when humans appeared on the scene, namely, the Creation of Man, which is discussed in this week’s parsha. Man was created as an individual. The Midrash states: “Therefore, man was created as an individual,” for each individual is unique. Indeed, the mavens of genetic biology will confirm the singularity of human beings, but they will also limit that singularity to a very small percentage of the entire genome, since most of our genomes are almost identical, much more identical than individual specimens of a troop of chimpanzees, or a tower of giraffes. How humbling.

And then, along comes the second creature (and I hope we can avoid the gender issue). It isn’t merely about one creature and another one. It’s much more than that – it is at this very moment that a phenomenon appears, one that will have a greater impact on us than any other: society. Human society. This was the creation of another human being, who, by coming into being, introduced the most complex creation of all – human relationships. This seems to be an entirely independent entity, but the truth is that from its very inception, it has been linked to man, in whose world it had emerged. It reshaped that world, committing it to what it perceives as rather high standards. 

This is when the singularity versus solidarity dilemma emerges.

We can presume that Adam – the first version, that is – wasn’t particularly consumed with the question of how similar he was to other creations, or how different, since he ostensibly couldn’t have compared himself to the other creatures roaming about (though there are midrashim that say he did…). Yet once they had the opportunity to do so – they did just that. Even the names they were given – ish for man and isha for woman – were so similar, yet so different, and demonstrate the nature of their evolving relationship – social symbiosis on the one hand, and individual independence on the other.

There were reverse implications here as well. Once the second creature was created, one that was a threat to the existence of the first creature, not on a physical level (that will be the next stage, with Cain and Abel), but rather on the existential level, tied to consciousness, as it poses one question: who am I? What is my status compared to my new companion? What is my companion’s status compared to myself – the old versus the new? What is the essence of this new thing that was created between us, namely, social relationships? What does the acknowledgement of the other do to me? How does the other perceive my own self-perception?

The human race, in those days, was clearly troubled by these existential questions, since at that time, it wasn’t particularly concerned with humdrum existential concerns, like where food and clothing could be found, how to keep safe, and so on. We mustn’t forget that they were still living the Garden of Eden life.

I write these lines from Belmonte, a rural village high in the mountains of Portugal, in the Serra da Estrella region. I’m nestled among ancient olive trees. For over five hundred years, the Jews of the city gathered at this very point, in this olive tree grove, to commune with their Creator, far from the piercing gazes of their Christian neighbors. It was here, at the slopes of the mountain, just outside the city, that Portuguese Jewry persisted.

I specified that they are Jews, because this is precisely how they saw and see themselves. Their less-Jewish neighbors also saw them this way – as Jews. We call them anusim, but we are the only ones that make that distinction. They didn’t see themselves as anusim. Perhaps, they saw us, the “free Jews”, as anusim. That’s just how it is. One diaspora was more perturbed by the “yeast in the dough” (the evil inclination), while the other was more concerned with the “subjugation to the kingdoms”. Yes, that’s just the way it is, the way we developed. This is the society that defines the traits of individuals, and those individuals, as they strive to identify with others, adopt those labels, though they may not always feel at ease with them.

 

Let us now turn to something written by two sages who lived here, and operated here.

Don Isaac Abarbanel (he was originally from Lisbon, but he was more active in Spain) asks why Hashem needed to put man to sleep in order to conduct a surgical procedure to extract one of his ribs? Were Hashem’s abilities so limited that He couldn’t harvest one of his organs without “anesthesia”?

One of our contemporaries, also from Portugal (though he followed the reverse path: he was born in Spain and ended up in Portugal, and his life story is particularly tragic, considering the hardships he endured in the Iberian peninsula, such as losing his two sons and all of his manuscripts, which were left “buried under the tree in Lisbon), asks why Adam was created as an individual. Couldn’t Adam and Eve have been created all at once? That would have been more efficient, since they would have had to reproduce in any case… 

These two thinkers draw us in opposite directions – one seeks similarity, while the other searches for variance and contrast.

Rabbi Abraham Saba, in his book, Tzror Hamor on Bereishit I, writes as follows: “… this is why he needed an ezer kenegdo, a “helper at his side” who could counterbalance his strength, like the sun is for the moon, and the moon is for the sun… and after there will be another who will hold back his hand, who is almost equal to him, they shall not err in following him…”

Just like the Creator himself, Adam needed to be an individual. “I am alone in My world, so, too, shall you be alone in your world,” says Hashem to Adam.

Rabbi Saba argues that generally speaking, singularity is good for Adam, so when the verse states “it is not good for man to be alone”, it is truly “not good”, but it is also very “bad” (continuing with Rabbi Saba’s line of thought, it is even worse to be together….). Social complexity, says Rabbi Saba, is physically, substantially, and even economically unhealthy. Though it is necessary for continuity, “… and he commanded to create a helper, who is a woman, through whom he will beget others that resemble him…”, the ideal remains unchanged – to maintain singularity.

A different view is offered by the Abarbanel, who lauds similarities within society and social solidarity, which leads to harmony. The second creation, who had just been created from Adam’s rib, will have the same genetic material as her predecessor (except for one chromosome, of course), so that they feel comfortable with one another. This is because a similar companion is also a comfortable companion, and a comfortable companion is a constructive one – so says Abarbanel.

Therefore, he says, man needed to be put to sleep for this new creation to emerge. He needed to be placed in a state of unawareness, because a high personal self-awareness would stop the evolution of this social creation. He says that complex general awareness is preferential.

“Male and female He created them, and He blessed them, and called their name Adam”. Commentators who favored allegorical interpretations offered multiple explanations of the word “Adam”, not sufficing with the basic biblical explanation, that Adam was given his name because he was min ha’adama – taken from the Earth.

There were those who drew Adam down to Earth, and interpreted his name as a testament to his most basic attributes, but there were also others who exalted him and elevated him to the highest heavens, stating that Adam is the creature aspiring to be like Hashem, something that happens, incidentally, in our parsha. He wished to be like His creator, as we read in Isaiah (14:13): “I will match the Most High”.

These tendencies to either elevate man’s status or humble him are intrinsically linked with the characteristics of man’s creation – he was to stand out and to identify.

Both commentators address the most troubling question of them all, one that anyone reading the parsha would grapple with: why did the verse state na’aseh Adamwe will make man – in the plural, as if there were other partners to the creation of man?

Each commentator will answer this question in his own way. One will talk about variance and individuality. Abarbanel sees the connections in the word na’aseh as the future collaboration between human beings, for better or for worse. The second commentator, Rabbi Saba, focuses on the tendency to unite and make individuals equal. For him, it is about how eloheinu becomes echad, “The One”. 

Why, then do we aspire for more, to be unique, to find common ground, or to forge a self-identity or collective identity?

***

While writing these lines, a student, who is now working as a rabbi in a European country, calls me with this question: Is it permissible to convert someone who wants to isolate himself from society, both society in general, and Jewish society? Can a Jew truly be a “loner”? One lacking a community, separate from Jewish society? So many commandments are communal, or are meant to be performed in a group, so how could someone live permanently as a recluse? On the other hand, Judaism is supposed to exist on different planes. We also experience it when we’re alone, and when no one else is around – just one human and his God. 

Food for thought.

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