TO BE HUMAN
Rabbi David Walk
The way our Jewish calendar works out most years it's a problem trying to fit in an article for parshat B'reishit, the first Torah reading of our annual cycle. With all the holidays, it's just difficult finding the time to send a piece out for this majestic section of our Torah. But this year I was determined, at the risk of offending and ignoring the last days of Sukkot, to write something about this interesting, but challenging parsha. Now I just have to figure out which point to discuss. There's just so much in this powerhouse parsha. We could look at the Creation of the Cosmos, the first sin, the first homicide, the first Shabbat, the Garden of Eden. But ultimately, I believe that the most important issue in the Torah reading is the emergence of Homo sapiens, of us.
The creation of humanity actually appears twice (This dichotomy is the basis for Rabbi Soloveitchik's famous article, The Lonely Man of Faith.). In the first chapter of our Bible, it reports: And God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and they shall rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the heaven and over the animals and over all the earth and over all the creeping things that creep upon the earth." And God created man in His image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them (Genesis 1:26-27). That's pretty cool. Our human uniqueness is based upon our sharing something in common with God called image. But I have no idea what that is. In the second chapter it records: And the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and He breathed into his nostrils the soul of life, and man became a living soul (2:7). That's a little better. What makes us special is that we are a combination of base, earthly stuff, but also a little whiff of something ethereal and supernal called a soul, which descended directly from God. We bridge that gap between heaven and earth; we stride between the two. How does that special nature get expressed in our lives and our behavior?
There are some famous answers to this age old query of how does the uniqueness of humanity get expressed. Aristotle (384-322 BCE) said that man is a social animal (alternate version: political). The great philosopher believed that we're defined by our interactions with other naked apes. Modern scientific observation reinforces this idea. We've taught a number of chimpanzees to recognize some words by pointing to them on signs. When two of these uber monkeys get together, they throw the placards at each other. When two human babies know how to talk they begin to communicate. Many start communicating before they can really talk. The communication between other animals is only utilitarian; we just like to communicate, usually when we shouldn't. The French rationalist and mathematician, Rene Descartes (1596-1650) gave the quintessential answer: Cogito, ergo sum. I think or contemplate and, therefore, I am. Humans are the animals who think about things. In biology, we're designated Homo Sapiens, which means animals who know. In the Wikipedia article, humans are the animals capable of abstract reasoning, language, introspection, and problem solving. And WordNet defines us as characterized by superior intelligence, articulate speech, and erect carriage.
All of that is interesting, but not so helpful or uplifting. What do Jewish sources say about this? The Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) defines us as the beings who walk and move forward, as opposed to angels who stand and are static. Our humanity allows us to evolve and improve. We make mistakes but are capable of learning from them. Not so different from Aristotle, many rabbinic sources refer to humans as the animals which talk. Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik (1903-1993) used a famous statement in the Mishneh to define our humanity. It says in Baba Kama: Humans are always responsible for their actions, whether by mistake or on purpose, whether awake or asleep (chapter 2, mishneh 6). According to the Rav, our humanity is embedded in our responsibility for our actions. This responsibility for our behavior is at the root of our system of mitzvoth, and is the basis for potential punishments for crimes, and underpins our concept of Teshuva, repentance. This was the rationale of Maimonides to place the concept of free will in the middle two chapters of his Laws of Repentance.
I think that the best answer is actually given by God in our Torah reading. When God addresses the depressed Cain after his sacrifice has not been accepted, this is the message: Why this tantrum? Why the sulking? If you do well, won't you be accepted? And if you don't do well, sin is lying in wait for you, ready to pounce; it's out to get you, you've got to master it (Genesis 4:6-7). In the Hebrew, sin is waiting at the opening (petach), which can mean many things, the womb, any opportunity or the grave. This is the greatest expression humanity's duality. We are composed of the earthly stuff (best stuff on earth?) which is drawn to temptation and sin, but we can and must over come these baser instincts. We accomplish that by sublimating our physical urges and turn them to spiritual goals.
The first chapters of Genesis haven't taught me cosmology; they've informed me of psychology. We haven't been instructed about the development of DNA and the rise of life; we've been tutored in how to be human. We're so very close to our animal relatives, but with a touch of something Divine.
We are made of the same ingredients as the animal kingdom, therefore we have all the same urges and needs for nourishment and procreation, but possess the soul, spirit and conscious to control and direct them, when we try. That defines us and makes all the difference between beast and human being, and vive le difference.
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