A reaffirmation of human goodness and connectivity against the backdrop of evidence to the contrary.
If you had to choose the most important principle in the Torah, what would it be? How about a biblical verse that stands out for its moral clarity? One that is not only inherently noteworthy, but also underlies many of the Torah's numerous stories and laws?
Undertaking this challenge, the 2nd century sage Rabbi Akiva cites a verse from the Book of Leviticus (19:18): "Love your neighbor as yourself." Ben Azzai trumps him, claiming there's "an even more important principle" – i.e., "This is the book of the generations of Adam. [On the day that God created humanity, in the likeness of God, He made them] (Genesis 5:1)."
Studying this passage in the Jerusalem Talmud, subsequent commentators debate whether Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azzai disagreed and, if so, over what. Either way, it is clear that, according to Ben Azzai, the Torah's most important principle is that humanity was created in the divine image and that we all belong to the same family tree.
As the Torah highlights the story of one people – the Jews – Ben Azzai's universalism might surprise some. Even more surprising, however, is his choice of proof text.
The opening verse of Chapter 5 of the Book of Genesis is a repetition of things we've already been told before. Chapter 1 declares: "And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He them (Genesis 1:27)." Chapter 4 begins listing Adam's descendants, including the first two generations of the line of Seth. For all intents and purposes, then, the first 11 verses in Chapter 5 restate basic information previously conveyed to us in Chapter 4.
Whether it is the concept of divinely-endowed human dignity or the notion that all of humanity is descended from Adam, the verse Ben Azzai quotes does not teach us anything new. Why, then, might he have chosen this verse? Perhaps, the answer lies in its placement in the larger narrative of the Book of Genesis.
Chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis tell the story of creation, full of hope and promise for humanity. Chapter 3, with its focus on Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden, introduces fallibility and abdication of responsibility to the human condition. In Chapter 4, humanity descends into jealousy, violence, and bloodshed – a chapter bookended by the stories of Cain killing his brother and of Cain's descendant, Lamech, who revels in acts of murder. After all this, comes Chapter 5, a genealogy of Adam, focusing on his third son, Seth.
The power of Chapter 5 Verse 1, then, is not in its originality, but in its reaffirmation of human goodness and connectivity against the backdrop of evidence to the contrary. Seen in this vein, Chapter 1's assertion that humanity was created in God's image is descriptive; Chapter 5's is prescriptive. When humanity is at its worst, it is natural to retreat into our particularistic selves, wanting to protect our own. In his choice of verse, however, Ben Azzai arguably challenges us to fight that inclination, assert our shared humanity, and seek out the divine spark in others, even when it's difficult.
Dyonna Ginsburg is the Executive Director of OLAM, a shared platform committed to engaging the Jewish world in global service and international development as an expression of Jewish values.
929 is the number of chapters in the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, the formative text of the Jewish heritage. It is also the name of a cutting-edge project dedicated to creating a global Jewish conversation anchored in the Hebrew Bible. 929 English invites Jews everywhere to read and study Tanakh, one chapter a day, Sunday through Thursday together with a website with creative readings and pluralistic interpretations, including audio and video, by a wide range of writers, artists, rabbis, educators, scholars, students and more. As an outgrowth of the web-based platform, 929 English also offers classes, pop-up lectures, events and across North America. We invite you to learn along with us and be part of our dynamic community.
To join 929's listserv for new and dynamic content each week click here