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Bereshit: The Most Important Verse

10/15/2020 05:13:28 PM


This week, we begin reading the Torah anew. Many people have tried to condense the many teachings of the Torah into a single verse. The Jerusalem Talmud, tractate Nedarim page 30b, offers several answers. Rabbi Akiva says the key verse is “You should love your neighbor as yourself” ( Leviticus 19:18).

Another sage, Ben Azzai, however says that the most important verse is to be found in our portion. One might think that it is the very first verse of the Torah, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” - after all, what could be more basic Jewish belief than faith one God, Creator and Master of all? Oddly enough, that is not the verse that Ben Azzai chooses. He points to a more obscure verse, Genesis 5:1: “This is the book of the generations of man - after the form of God He made him.” What is the difference between these three verses, and why is Genesis 5:1 judged to be superior?

Leviticus 19:18 is a universal concept, so much so that it is not necessarily a religious one. Secular philosophers like Immanuel Kant proposed similar formulations. It is logical to many that if we each treat the others as we would like to be treated, then people will generally treat each others well. However, this verse assigns a value to each other human being only in relationship to our own self-worth. It still leaves the door open for us to treat other people as objects, for us to measure their well-being only in relationship to our own.

Genesis 1:1 certainly proclaims the glory of God, but does not relate it to the human condition. Even if God is the Master and Creator, who is to say what values or rights are to be ascribed any individual? The beauty of Genesis 5:1 is that it merges these two concepts. “This is the book of the generations” - each generation of people, and each member of each human family, was created in the image of God. Therefore, each human being has a value which depends not only on their relative worth as a function of my own needs and self-image, but also on an absolute value which comes from that other person’s similarity to God. We have an obligation to treat others in a certain way not only because of who we are, but by virtue of who they themselves are.

As we continue to navigate a complicated time in the life of our country and our community, it is increasingly important that we remember that the true value of each human being does not depend on our opinion of them or their actions, or the nature of our relationship with them, but on the fact that they, too, are God’s creation.

Sat, September 30 2023 15 Tishrei 5784