August 7, 2018

The sin of Adam (Bereishit)

Two of the most famous episodes in Parshat Bereishit are the sin of Adam & Chava (Bereishit Ch. 3) and the murder of Hevel by Kayin (Bereishit 4), and inspired by an insights in Thomas Furst’s Torah Mysteries Illuminated I would like to explain how these two episodes are connected.

We know that Chava was tricked by the serpent to eat from the eitz hada’at, after which Adam too ate from the tree. After this transgression, God rebukes Adam with the words כִּי שָׁמַעְתָּ לְקוֹל אִשְׁתֶּךָ (Bereishit 3:17), which is generally translated as ‘because you listened to the voice of your wife’. However, this translation is problematic especially since Chava did not say anything to Adam to encourage him to eat. This leads Thomas Furst to suggest that Adam’s first sin was not that he ate from the eitz hada’at, but rather that he did not stop Chava from listening to the serpent which subsequently led to their sin. Thus the words כִּי שָׁמַעְתָּ לְקוֹל אִשְׁתֶּךָ would actually mean ‘because you listened to your wife’s voice [in conversation with the serpent, but despite the fact that you could hear how the serpent was tricking your wife, you did not intervene or stop her from eating]’. Therefore, from the sin of Adam we learn that we have a duty to concern ourselves with the spiritual welfare of others, and how failing to do so can have a negative impact on our own spiritual status.

Just one chapter later, we read how Kayin killed his brother Hevel, and in response to God’s question of אֵי הֶבֶל אָחִיךָ, where is your brother Hevel, Kayin responded with the famous words לֹא יָדַעְתִּי הֲשֹׁמֵר אָחִי אָנֹכִי – I don’t know, am I my brother’s keeper? (Bereishit 4:9). As Rav Hirsch points out, ‘the cold blooded egoism expressed in this answer serves as a warning: Whoever does not care about his fellow man, whoever adopts the motto “every man for himself,” is not far from the hatred that impels a man to murder even the one closest to him, when he feels that the latter stands in his way’. Therefore, from the sin of Kayin we learn that we have a duty to concern ourselves with the physical welfare of others, and how failing to do so can lead us to harm others in order to achieve personal gain.

Having read these two stories, like the famous remark of Hillel to the non-Jew who wanted to be taught about Judaism while standing on one foot (Shabbat 31a), the rest is commentary! From this point onwards, the rest of the Torah is a series of stories and laws that show us how to concern ourselves with the physical and spiritual welfare of others (nb. to take just one example, think of the story of Yosef, which begins with the brothers showing no concern for the physical welfare of Yosef, and how the first words that Yosef says to his brothers once he revealed himself was all about the welfare of another – in this case, his father).

As we begin a new cycle of Torah reading, it is fitting to remind ourselves of the overall message of the Torah which is, as Rambam puts it is to ‘bring mercy, kindness, and peace to the world’ (Rambam, Shabbat 2:3). May we learn the lessons from Adam & Kayin and make sure that this year we take the time and make the effort to care for others.

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