What Does it Mean to Be Human?

B'reishit, Genesis 1:1−6:8

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Michael Dolgin

Parashat B’reishit is both the first portion in the Torah and the foundation of our Jewish tradition. These chapters teach us how to find meaning in our days, not just what happened before they began. While the Torah is certainly not a history or science book, this parashah is our starting place to learn what Judaism has to say about the basic reality of the human experience. Science tells us how humans evolved, but not what it means or how it feels to be human.

What are the questions that animate our thoughts and challenge our assumptions? Here are two possibilities drawn from this portion.

Regardless of what religion one may practice, few stories are more familiar than Adam, Eve, and the Garden of Eden. Its details are so colorful (forbidden fruit, a talking serpent, curses, the concept of clothing, etc.) that they continue to fire the human imagination thousands of years later. However, we can be so easily distracted by the trappings of the story that we might miss one of its most basic messages. 

Meir Sternberg, professor of literature at Tel Aviv University, examines the two trees that are named in this text. In his book, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative (Indiana University Press, 1987, page 46), he describes the significance of the “tree of knowledge of good and bad” (Gen 2:17) and the “tree of life” (Gen 3:22). They represent two basic issues in human life: our mortality and the limits of our knowledge. Many cultural and religious perspectives assert that wrestling with mortality defines the human experience. The Torah’s story of the birth of humanity focuses not only on our struggle with mortality, but also with the limits of what we can know.

Why do tragic events occur? How can we be agents of good and holiness, when we cannot fully know the consequences of our choices and actions? Our moral knowledge is limited and the multiplicity of questions to which we most desire answers are in the center of our proverbial garden.

We cannot turn away from the gap between the moral order we desire in our world and our often-painful reality. Like the Divine One, we are aware of the moral dimension of life, but that gift of moral awareness comes with a high price. We struggle with hearts filled with questions that have no clear answers, but we struggle together. In our shared quest, the burden of right and wrong is lessened.

Gender is another key topic in B’reishit. While many believe that the Creation story is centred on the story of one man and one woman, a close reading of the text reveals that it is significantly more nuanced. In B’reishit Rabba 24:7, Rabbi Akiva deemed the essence of Torah to be “Love your neighbor as yourself.” His colleague, Rabbi Ben Azzai, asserts that the essence of Torah is found in Gen 5:1-2:

“This is the written record of the human (adam) line from the day God created [adam] making [them] in the likeness of God, creating them male and female, blessing them, and naming them [adam] on the day they were created.”

Staying true to the original Hebrew, we see that Adam is entirely human, while being neither uniquely male nor female. The pronouns in these verses are quite intentionally inconsistent; our Torah merges differently gendered forms with singular and plural all at once, echoing Gen 1:26: “And God said, “Let us make [adam] in our image, after our likeness...” This declaration’s plurality is usually explained as reflecting a sense of majesty or a consultation with the divine angelic host, but I prefer a more direct interpretation: Only God is one.

This Divine unity is reflected in a diverse human plurality – gender, race, culture, ability, etc. The human image is ours; it belongs to all, and by our very Divine creation, we have the right to self-definition. The Hebrew first-person tense knows no gender, which allows each of us to find and affirm a unique identity, a personal singular expression of the Divine image and likeness.

We are all children of God. No matter how we identify or which moral questions occupy our thoughts, we each express the image of God through the powerful human act of self-definition.

Originally published: