These are the Generations of Adam

Written by Rabbi Elliott Karstadt — 30 January 2023

In rabbinic literature, there is a disagreement about what is the most important verse in the Torah.

Rabbi Akiva tells us it is: v’ahavta l’re’echa kamocha – ‘you shall love your neighbour like yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18). A very popular choice. This verse sits right at the centre of the Torah. Great sentiment. Easy, pithy, sounds good, rolls off the tongue.

Definitely sounds good, but what exactly does it mean? Further digging under that easy exterior reveals that it is not so easily digestible.

v’ahavta l’re’echa kamocha  ‘Love your neighbour like yourself’ – for many, this means ‘love our neighbour who is like you.’ The neighbour who looks like you, speaks the same language, likes the same books, films, and music, believes in the same god as you, eats the same food, drives the same kind of car.

But, another way of reading v’ahavta l’re’echa kamocha is to read: ‘love your neighbour, like you love yourself’ – and this can easily be read into Hillel’s “Golden Rule” – don’t do to others that which is hateful to you.

Off the bat, I’ll name one possible objection to this interpretation. Not everyone loves themselves. Not everyone sees sufficient value in themselves that they treat themselves with love. And so often when we abuse others it can be because we ourselves have suffered from a lack of love. How can we see value in others if we see none in ourselves?

Even if we assume that the statement means that we should love our neighbour as we love ourselves, that very word, neighbour, leaves itself open to interpretation.

Re’echa – according to the Biblical Hebrew dictionary: a friend, companion, fellow – could just mean another person.

Some translations – even our own Jewish Publication Society version – add [Israelite] in square brackets to clarify that re’echa doesn’t mean just any other person, but only means one’s fellow Israelite.

So re’echa reveals itself to be similar in meaning to ‘one who is like you’.

This is easy. This is comfortable – loving my neighbour who I can identify with. No worries.

This perhaps explains why it is that in the last twelve months people sprang into action to take in and protect Ukrainian refugees when for years millions of refugees have filled camps in Syria and Yemen, with only a trickle being able to resettle in the UK. And that is not just about us as individuals or communities. We might also ask why the UK government, having been so reluctant to accommodate refugees and asylum seekers from Africa and Asia, suddenly found that they had the resource to pay us to host Ukrainians in our homes.

Of course, Ukraine is geopolitically speaking on our doorstep and our politics are so much more intertwined. They are our neighbours who are like us – and the UK government wants to support those who are like us – capitalist, democratic, aspiring to a Western way of life – rather than have them subsumed into a country that is less like us – oligarchic, authoritarian, determined to present an alternative to our life style.

While that geopolitical answer seems to follow the logic of veahavta l’re’echa kamocha, it isn’t necessarily the human answer. It doesn’t recognise that humanity must be more expansive than just those who are near us and those who are like us.

So, what is the alternative answer to Rabbi Akiva’s nice and pithy v’ahavta l’re’echa kamocha? (As after all, I said at the beginning that this was a rabbinic disagreement.)

Ben Azzai, a much less famous rabbi, quotes a much less famous verse from the Torah, which he says is the foundation.

Zeh Sefer Toldot Adam… ‘this is the book of the generations of Adam’ (Genesis 5:1).

This lesser known quote begins arguably one of the most boring chapters of the book of Genesis – it’s basically a list of the descendants of Adam and how long they lived for. It’s literally just a list.

But it teaches us a truth that is less of a command about how to act, and more of a foundation on which to base our actions. Rather than telling us to love, Ben Azzai reminds us that, regardless of the current division of humanity into tribes, nations, and factions, ultimately we are all descended from one parent – we are all constituents of one humanity.

Importantly, this is a human answer – not a divine one. There are plenty of godly verses Ben Azzai cold have chosen for himself.

The prophet Malachi asks: ‘Are we not all born of one parent? Did not one God create us?’ (Malachi 2:10)

And another fundamental verse in the Torah: ‘And God created humanity in God’s image, in God’s image God created them, male and female God created them.’ (Genesis 1:27)

We have one divine parent who created the entire world – who created us in the image of divinity – who therefore endows each one of us with inherent value. And that relates back to the midrash I mentioned earlier, the midrash of the angels wanting to sing in celebration of the liberation of the Israelites while the Egyptians were drowning in the sea, and God saying ‘No, those are my children that are drowning in the sea.’

These are not the verses Ben Azzai chooses. Rather, he wants to tell us that we are all born of the same human ancestors. That we are not tied to each other by some theological abstraction, but we are tied to each other by genetics – by blood – by species. Being made in the image of God is very persuasive if you believe in God. Zeh Sefer toldot Adam – that we are all made in the image of each other is persuasive even if you reject the idea of God. Even if you don’t agree with everyone in this room about theology.

Similarly, one of the amazing and special things about Holocaust Memorial Day, which we just observed yesterday, is the fact that it reaches beyond just the suffering of us and our neighbours who are like us, and draws our attention and our pain to other genocides: those in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. They don not just provide vague statements but a forthright list: these are the genocides that we name alongside the Holocaust; naming the fellow descendants of Adam that shared our plight.

These are the generations of Adam – and we can be the ones who continue to recognise common humanity, even if others do not. The calling of Judaism is to be different. It is this difference that the Nazis sought to eradicate.

If we lose sight of that imperative to see the common humanity in others – and just become like everyone else – are we not doing the Nazis work for them?

This is an aspiration – not a statement of fact. Sometimes we speak as though Jews have some kind of biological sensitivity to the sufferings of others because of our own sufferings in the Land of Egypt, and the slavery to which we were subject. That we don’t even need to try. That it’s a kind of reflex.

But it isn’t so easy. If it were, why would the Torah have to tell us 36 times (and some say 46 times!) not to oppress the stranger, for we were strangers in the Land of Egypt. Very quickly, even in the biblical account itself, we forget and start oppressing others.

The risk of planning one’s sermon earlier in the week is that of course, something is likely to happen in the world on Friday night that force us to change it. And the tempting thing to say might be to fudge and to qualify and say ‘well, things are different now’.

If we see the attack in Neve Ya’akov last night as an invitation or a provocation to ignore that common humanity contained in the words zeh Sefer toldot Adam then we are falling into the same trap as the terrorist who sat in his car last night waiting for prayers in the synagogue to finish before gunning the worshippers down in cold blood. Ordinary people returning home from shul.

This is not to draw a moral equivalence between all acts of violence. Our neighbours are neighbours, the national stories that we tell are our stories. We will mention those killed last night before we say kaddish when we won’t mention others. These are our Jewish brothers and sisters.

Nor is it to deny that it hurts more when our neighbours and our family are harmed than when someone who is different to us and far away from us is suffering. We feel more pain when it is close to us.

That is what makes it so hard, and so difficult to hear the message of zeh sefer toldot Adam.

When these things happen to us, they reinforce the importance of our difference. They make us feel more separate, more distant, less like neighbours. Terror is designed to divide humanity. Those on the extremes want us to think in terms of us vs them.

To put it another way: if a terrorist tries to kill good people, and as a result those people stop being good, the terrorist has won. If we lose sight of the mission of Judaism then we have not only abandoned this embracing of common humanity, but we also lose one of those values that bind us together as Jews.

So v’ahavta l’re’echa kamocha or zeh sefer toldot Adam. I could end by inviting us to reflect on which we think is the foundation of the Torah – what is the most important value. But actually both of these are key Jewish values: to love those who are like us like ourselves; and to recognise the common humanity in everyone. To ensure that our actions in the world not only reflect our love for those who are close to us, but our acknowledge of the inherent value of the life of all humanity.

Shabbat Shalom