Elchanan Poupko

Bresheet: The Fanaticism of Friendship


While the last four Parshot of the Torah cover one day—the last day of Moses’s life—the first Parsha in the Torah covers thousands of years. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and all the generations until the time of Noah. The most common theme in all the various stories? The radical idea that changed the world: friendship. 

The story of friendship and the need to partner precedes even the story of Adam and Eve. 

“And the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and He breathed into his nostrils the soul of life, and man became a living soul.” (Genesis 2:7)

The very creation of humankind is the story of an improbable partnership: body and soul. While many ancient cultures, and some to this day, believed in inner conflict and two irreconcilable forces all combined into humans, Judaism came and taught we are embodied with a Godly soul, a soul that is to work in harmony with our bodies.  

The Midrash (Vayikrah Rabbah, 4) shares a fascinating parable, highlighting the coordination between body and soul:

Rabbi Ishmael taught a parable to a king who had an orchard and in it had lovely first fruits. The king placed upon it guards, one lame and one blind. He said to them: ‘Take care of these lovely first fruits.’ After some days, the lame one said to the blind one, ‘I see lovely first fruits in the orchard.’ The blind one said to him, ‘Bring them, and we will eat!’ The lame one said to the blind one, ‘[I would] were I able to walk!’ The blind one said, ‘[I would] were I able to see!’ The lame one rode upon the back of the blind one, and they ate the first fruits, and they went and returned each man in his own place. After some days, the king entered that orchard. He said to them, ‘Where are the beautiful first fruits?’ The blind one said to him, ‘My lord king, [I would] were I able to see!’ The lame one said to him, ‘[I would] were I able to walk!’ That king understood what they had done. He placed the lame one on the back of the blind one, and they began to walk.” Thus, in the future, the Holy Blessing One will say to the soul, “Why did you transgress before Me?” It will say to him, “Master of the Universe! I did not sin. The body is the one who sinned! From the moment I left it I have been like a pure bird bursting into the air. How have I transgressed before You?” God will say to the body, “Why have you transgressed before Me?” The body will say to him, Master of the Universe! I did not sin. The soul is the one who sinned! From the moment that she left me, I have been tossed like a rock is thrown onto the ground. How would I have transgressed before you?!” What does the Holy Blessing One do to them? God brings the soul and puts it into the body and judges them together…”

In the ideal universe body and soul work together for good. If they do not work for good, God does not judge them separately—they are judged as one. 

The Parasha continues with the theme of friendships, the greatest partnership of all time:

And the Lord God said, “It is not good that man is alone; I shall make him a helpmate opposite him.”… And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon man, and he slept, and He took one of his sides, and He closed the flesh in its place. And the Lord God built the side that He had taken from man into a woman, and He brought her to man. And man said, “This time, it is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. This one shall be called ishah (woman) because this one was taken from ish (man).” Therefore, a man shall leave his father and his mother, and cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”

Man and woman, different though they may be, are to become one flesh. A single working unit. While much of this may seem obvious to us, this understating is radical and transformative. From a world that often saw women as property or someone whose human rights can be taken away from her upon a court decision, Judaism came and saw man and woman as part of a team that is to work together, a sacred partnership. This partnership and the way it should work are highlighted during the sin of the forbidden fruit. God tells man he can eat from any fruit in the Garden of Eden, just not from the fruit of the tree of knowledge. The snake seduces Eve to eat from the fruit, which in turn gives it to her husband. While their relationship was supposed to be one of coming together for good, this was a failing of the relationship; instead of supporting each other for good, they are violating God’s word—together. But it does not end there. When God asks man if he ate from the tree of knowledge, Adam does what men do best: he blames his wife. “man said, “The woman whom You gave [to be] with me she gave me of the tree; so I ate.” (3:12)

Rashi, the great rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, citing the Talmud states:” whom You gave [to be] with me: Here he [Adam] showed his ingratitude. “

Rather than be thankful and show gratitude for his companion, Adam points to Eve as the source of his own failing. The lesson? Companionship, friendship, comradery are there for us—not against us. The book of Genesis is a compelling narrative on the powerful potential of friendships and the incredible perils of partisanship. The next example is the most obvious of all, yet somehow has not fully settled in with humanity to this day: Cain and Able. 

Adam and Eve’s two sons, Cain and Able, are blessed with the gift of brotherhood; they can be there for each other and support one another. God asks them both to bring sacrifices and it turns out one does better than the other. 

“the Lord turned to Abel and to his offering. But to Cain and to his offering He did not turn, and it annoyed Cain exceedingly, and his countenance fell.” (Genesis 4:5)

Instead of supporting one another, or uplifting each other’s standards, this relationship serves to prime jealousy and pain. God does not leave things as they are, and attempts to redirect the relationship:

“And the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you annoyed, and why has your countenance fallen? Is it not so that if you improve, it will be forgiven you?”

To say the least, Cain did not take this in the right direction.

“Cain spoke to Abel his brother, and it came to pass when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and slew him.”

When God attempts to correct Cain’s thinking on this again, asking him where able his brother is, Cain responses with what ends up being one of history’s most sarcastic responses: “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Once again, the story is about the need for mended relationships and the failure to do so. This is when God makes a statement humanity has yet to have internalized: “And He [God] said, “What have you done? Hark! Your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the earth!”

The radical notion that God does care about the lives of others is one that was all too scarce in the ancient world. In Aztek culture, as recently as six hundred years ago, as many as one of five (!) people were murdered as human sacrifices. We do not need to look that far to see humanity’s staggering failure to internalize this lesson. The fresh memories of WWII and the Holocaust, and many of today’s killings, whether state-sponsored, terrorist, or domestic highlight humanity’s failure to create a Garden of Eden of the beautiful world God has given us. 

From the contrast of ideal and failed marriage and brotherhood, we are taken to the comradery of communities and lack thereof.  

“And it came to pass when man commenced to multiply upon the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them. That the sons of the nobles saw the daughters of man when they were beautifying themselves, and they took for themselves wives from whomever they chose.” (Genesis 6:1-2)

The sages elaborate on what the meaning of “from whomever they chose” (see Bresheet Rabbah 26:5). Anyone who reads the passage understands this was a societal failing, not just the failing of individuals. 

With societies’ and cities’ incredible opportunities for forming a friendship and comradery come challenges. Once again humanity faces a challenge and an opportunity. Friendship is a sacred ideal, a moral challenge, and an idea that changed the world. 

As we reflect on the Parsha of Beresheet, and indeed the entire book, one thing is more apparent than ever: human beings can only fulfill themselves working with others, be our body and soul, husband and wife, siblings, or communities. With that powerful opportunity comes incredible challenges. This is not for the sake of compelling us to abandon the idea entirely, but rather to remind us of the need to properly harness this new radical idea of friendship. This idea is not a simple one or one that comes easily. It is one that requires hard work, dedication, commitment, and even a fanatic commitment to a world that can be seen as a whole rather than fragmented. Shabbat Shalom.  






About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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