Bereishit

At the end of our Torah portion there is a list of the ten generations from Adam to Noach. Anyone studying the portion would usually skim read this part, as it is repetitive, and doesn’t contain anything interesting, except to help construct a timeline of Jewish history. There is a similar section at the end of next week’s portion, Noach, which again simply lists the generations from Noach to Avraham. It seems that even the Mishna considers these sections unimportant parts of the Torah, as it states, “From Adam to Noach there were ten generations, to show the extent of G-d’s patience...” (Avot 5; 2).

However, if we examine the two lists of names, we find an important difference between them. In this week’s list we are told the age of each person when they had their first son, the remaining number of years of their life, and then the total number of years they lived, “and he died”. In contrast the list at the end of Noach appears to be more sensible, and only gives each person’s age when they had their first son, and their total number of years. Why does our portion bother to give us the total number of years, when this total can be calculated by simply adding together the number of years before and after the first son was born?

There is a question that I am often asked, ‘How could people live so long in those days?’ Certainly we are puzzled by the average antediluvian life expectancy which seems to be in the high 800s. There are several answers given (e.g. Ramban to Genesis 5; 1), however the strangest answer is given by the Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim (2; 47). He states “As for the precise statements made by the texts of the Torah regarding the length of life of certain individuals, I say that only that individual who is mentioned lived so long a life, whereas the other men lived lives that had the natural and usual duration....” Why should G-d miraculously cause a single individual in each generation to live ten times longer than his contemporaries?

At the end of our portion G-d despairs of humanity and states, “I will blot out man whom I created from the face of the ground - from man to animal, to creeping things, and to birds of the sky, for I have reconsidered making them” (6; 7). Rashi (ibid.) explains why the animals were wiped out “Everything was created for mankind, and since mankind was being wiped out, there was no need for the animals”. Before the flood animals were just an adjunct to humanity, and had no significance or merit on their own. Yet by the end of the flood we find, “G-d remembered Noach and all the beasts and all the animals that were with him in the ark...” (8; 1). G-d ‘recreated’ the world both for Noach and the animals. From this point on animals seem to have an intrinsic value which they lacked in the original creation.

Rav Matis Weinberg (Frameworks I) explains that there was a fundamental change between the purpose of mankind before the flood and after. Originally each person was the totality of creation. The Midrash (Kohelet Rabba 7; 13) explains “When G-d created Adam he took him and showed him all the trees of the garden, and said to him, “Look at how nice they are. And everything that I created, I created for you. Take care not to sin, so that you do not destroy the world”. Usually this is understood as the earliest environmental protection statement. However, we can also view it in light of what happened at the time of the flood. Everything was only created for the use of mankind, therefore when people sin the whole world is destroyed.

It is not only the animals who are secondary to people before the flood, but even the human population of the world is only the backdrop for the actions of those ten people mentioned in the list of generations. This is perhaps the key to understanding the Rambam’s comment that everyone else lived lives of normal duration. Those ten generations were the entire focus of creation, and they had to justify their existence through their actions, otherwise the world could not continue to exist. Therefore the Torah lists the total number of years that they lived, but stresses that ‘they died’, - none of them were able to justify their existence through their actions.

After the flood however, human beings were no longer the sole purpose of creation, but one more creature amongst many. Certainly people are endowed with intellect, and free-choice which separates them from the animals, but ultimately they are still only one species among many. This is why G-d remembered not only Noach, but the animals who were with him. Similarly in the book of Jonah we read “G-d said, ... ‘shall I not take pity on Ninveh the great city, in which there are more than 120,000 people who do not know their right hand from their left, and many animals as well?” (4; 11).
Richard Dawkin wrote a book called ‘The Selfish Gene’ in which he shows that the goal of life and evolution is solely to ensure the continuation of the genes of each species. Each species is striving for eternal life through the continuation of their genetic structure, and each individual is only another step in the chain of life. We find a less extreme version of this statement in the genealogies from Noach to Avraham, that the total life of each individual is not as important as the fact that they had children to continue the human race. Before the flood everything was dependent upon each individual, afterwards people become valuable through population numbers even if as individuals they fail to live up to their full potential. We see this difference most clearly in the different reactions that Noach and Avraham have when they are told of imminent mass destruction. Noach recognises the futility of praying to save people who have failed to justify their individual existence, but Avraham immediately begins bargaining for the people of Sodom according to the number of righteous people.

The postdeluvian view of humanity does not mean that individuals cannot justify their existence through their actions, or diminish the importance of each individual, but it means that even if someone fails to fulfil their potential their merit can come from the future generations. Conversely each of us can bring merit through our actions to all our progenitors.

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In story of Cain and Abel we tend view Cain as simply a big bully, and Abel as the righteous innocent. However a closer look at the text shows a different aspect to each of them. “It came to pass in the process of time that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering to the L-rd. And Abel also brought from the firstlings of his flock...” (Genesis IV; 3). It was Cain who first thought to bring a sacrifice. It was not as generous as his brother’s, which is why G-d turned to Abel’s offering and not Cain’s. However, the Torah gives the impression that had Cain not brought his offering, Abel would not have taken the initiative. Furthermore, though nowadays we find it hard to understand the purpose or benefit of sacrifices, at that time it was the most appropriate way to strengthen a relationship with G-d. Cain was searching for a path to spiritual growth. Additionally. the Ramban writes that both Cain and Abel understood the deep inner meanings and secrets of the sacrifices. Certainly both of them were on a tremendously high spiritual level, to such a degree that G-d spoke directly to Cain, both before and after he killed his brother.

“And it was when they were in the field, that Cain said to Abel his brother...” (v. 8). The Torah fails to tell us what Cain said to his brother before killing him. Targum Yonasan (a translation/ commentary on the Torah from the Mishnaic period) fills in the missing dialogue: “Cain answered and said to Abel, ‘There is no judgement, and there is no judge. There is no World-to-Come, and there is no one to give reward to the righteous, nor to punish the wicked’.” How could Cain have gone from such a high level, where he was able to fathom the mysteries of creation and of the sacrifices, and spoke to G-d as a prophet, to denying G-d’s very existence, and Divine purpose to the world? This seems to contradict the Talmudic dictum (Shabbat 105b) that the Evil Inclination works gradually. “Today it says ‘do this’, tomorrow ‘do that’, until eventually it persuades a person to commit idolatry”. Unfortunately we can see how true this is. Yet this is a process which takes time. How could Cain fall into the trap of atheism in an instant?

Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz explains based on this text the dangers of depression and anger. When a person is thinking rationally, the Evil Inclination can only lead them one step at a time. It knows that the suggestion of idolatry would be rejected out of hand. However, when a person is in a crisis situation they react instinctively, not logically. Then the Inclination can attack them and drive them to extreme behaviour. The Torah tells us that after G-d turned to Abel’s offering that “Cain was very angry and his countenance fell”. This anger and depression caused him to lose control of his rational faculties and behave in a way which would otherwise have been totally out of character for him.

This is what the Talmud (Pesachim 66b) means when it tell us that anyone who gets angry is as if they have worshipped idols. This is not merely a metaphor, showing the negativity of anger, but the reality. Once a person becomes consumed with anger there is no limit to the spiritual depths to which they can fall, even to the extent of idolatry.

Similarly, the Rabbis tell us that depression is one of the most destructive traits. King Solomon tells us in Song of Songs that there is a time to rejoice and a time to be sad, however, there is never a time when depression is the appropriate response. We are to express sadness or happiness based on the events as we perceive them in this world, but we know that G-d is the True Judge, and that in the World of Truth everything is ultimately for the best. This is why the opening of the funeral service is Tziduk HaDin, proclaiming the justness of G-d, and the recognition that this tragedy is part of the greater plan. Depression causes a person to deny the greater good, and fail to see any purpose in life.

Certainly we all have ‘ups’ and ‘downs’ from time to time, and once in an emotional slump it is often difficult to get out of it. However we must always know that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Because Cain failed to realise that there was a larger picture, though he spoke to G-d directly he thought that there was no justice in the world, and through his depression came to fratricide. Had he been able to view the situation objectively he would have understood that G-d was teaching him how to come to a closer relationship with the Divine, and instructing him on the path to spiritual perfection.