A major moral principle of Judaism that few have heard of

Rabbi Akiva extolled the famous biblical phrase, וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ, “And you shall love your friend as yourself” (Vayikrah 19:18), calling it a כְּלַל גָּדוֹל בַּתּוֹרָה – a “major moral principle of the Torah” (Sifrah, Kedoshim 4:12).  It serves as a powerful guide to harmonious relationships with others. Some commentators even say that רֵעֲךָ “your friend” refers to yourself. This means that you have an obligation to believe in yourself and advocate for yourself. However as well known as Rabbi Akiva’s principle is, there’s another moral principle that lives in obscurity:

בֶּן עֲזַאי אוֹמֵר זֶה סֵפֶר תּוֹלְדֹת אָדָם, זֶה כְּלַל גָּדוֹל בַּתּוֹרָה, רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא אוֹמֵר וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ זֶה כְּלַל גָּדוֹל בַּתּוֹרָה,

Ben Azai said ‘This is the book of the generations of Adam’ (Bereishis 5:1).  This is an important principle of the Torah. Rabbi Akiva said ‘Love your friend as yourself’ (Vayikrah 19:18). This is an important principle of the Torah.“

However, in the Jerusalem Talmud (Nedarim 9:4:3) and the Sifrah (Kedoshim 4:12), Ben Azai asserts that his moral principle is even more important than that of Rabbi Akiva:

Ben Azai’s moral principle is based on a verse that, on face value, doesn’t sound like it is conveying any moral values at all:

זֶ֣ה סֵ֔פֶר תּוֹלְדֹ֖ת אָדָ֑ם בְּי֗וֹם בְּרֹ֤א אֱלֹקים֙ אָדָ֔ם בִּדְמ֥וּת אֱלֹקים עָשָׂ֥ה אֹתֽוֹ׃ “

This is a compilation of  the generations of Mankind  (from) the day that God created Adam – who was created in the image of God.” (Bereishis 5:1)

It sounds like a transition between the detailed stories of Adam & Chava, Cain & Hevel, and a genealogical summary of the rest of Mankind before Noach and the flood.  What secrets do these seemingly innocuous words hold for ben Azai and how does his message differ from that of Rabbi Akiva?

The best route towards improving your moral character 

A brilliant commentator to Midrash Rabbah, Eshed Hanechalim, defines Ben Azai’s moral principle as follows: The best way to work on your character traits is to concentrate on the fact that our soul reflects the image of God (and is a piece of God) so its purity must be protected and safeguarded. It’s furthermore critical to reflect on the spiritual downfall of Adam and what kind of an exalted state he was in before his downfall. By reflecting on this, you will understand the importance of being vigilant in protecting the purity of your soul. This will serve as a wellspring of inspiration and provide a constant spiritual flow to cleave to God. This explanation dovetails nicely with the end of the verse where Ben Azai derives his moral principle – “This is a compilation of  the generations of Mankind  (from) the day that God created Adam – who was created in the image of God.” (Bereishis 5:1). Contemplating the fact that each of us is created in the image of God with a soul from God has the potential to guide our spiritual path. Especially when we consider the spiritual fallout from letting down our guard – as Adam did.

According to Eshed Hanechalim, Ben Azai feels that you should start the process of improving your moral character by soul searching and contemplation.  While Rabbi Akiva wants you to start by changing your actions. Rabbi Akiva believes that you must try to develop pure love for all of Mankind. This is rooted in one’s faith in God and the fact that God is the Prime Mover of the world. (Everyone was put in your path for a  purpose. They are all agents of God). If you embrace this spiritual principle then you can more easily have love for everyone. After all, (as ben Azai said) everyone was created in the image of God

This explanation from the Eshed Hanechalim dovetails nicely with what the Midrash Rabbah said about Rabbi Akiva’s principle:

שֶׁלֹא תֹאמַר הוֹאִיל וְנִתְבַּזֵּיתִי יִתְבַּזֶה חֲבֵרִי עִמִּי, הוֹאִיל וְנִתְקַלַּלְתִּי יִתְקַלֵּל חֲבֵרִי עִמִּי. אָמַר רַבִּי תַּנְחוּמָא אִם עָשִׂיתָ כֵּן דַּע לְמִי אַתָּה מְבַזֶּה בִּדְמוּת אֱלֹקַים עָשָׂה אוֹתוֹ.

“…One should not say ‘since I was denigrated, I shall denigrate my friend with me.’ Since I was abused, I shall abuse my friend with me. Rabbi Tanchuma said ‘if you act like this you should know who it is that you are denigrating, someone who is made in the image of God.”  (Midrash Rabbah 24: 7

Rabbi Akiva said it before Freud  

It seems to me that this Midrash is tapping into one of the major goals of therapy. Find out what trauma your patient experienced. This can help prevent the patient from getting stuck in unhealthy behavior patterns that will affect their relations with everyone else. Rabbi Akiva is saying that when you don’t allow your past trauma to influence your future behavior you are fulfilling “Love your friend as yourself.”

Which story in Bereshis is the source of our most fundamental moral principle

Parshat Bereishis contains the story of Adam and Chava as well as Cain and Hevel. Perhaps Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azai disagree about which has the most potential to provide us moral guidance. Rabbi Akiva focusses on not allowing our past trauma to affect our behavior patterns. As the Midrash said ‘since I was denigrated, I shall denigrate my friend.’ Since I was abused, I shall abuse my friend with me.” This sounds very much like the actions of Cain. God rejected his sacrifice. The pain was too great to bear. His rage was misdirected at his brother, Hevel, who paid with his life. To put it  mildly, Cain violated “love your friend as yourself.

Ben Azai claims that Parshat Bereishis contains an even more important moral principle. Go back to Adam and Chava. By not sufficiently safeguarding his soul, Adam changed the history of the world. He was forced to exit a world of pure truth that we can only imagine. Ben Azai believes that we must take this lesson to heart and safeguard the precious soul that God granted us. Since each person is a world unto themselves, when our soul is tarnished, we too are changing the history of the world.

About the Author
After college and Semicha at Yeshiva University my first pulpit was Ogilvy where I wrote TV commercials for brands like American Express, Huggies and Duracell. My passion is Midrash Tanchuma. I am an Architect of Elegant Marketing Solutions at We are living in (where else) the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.
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