Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Parshat Bereishis

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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