According to the Midrash, the Torah only hints at Mankind’s rapid spiritual decline:
וּלְשֵׁ֤ת גַּם־הוּא֙ יֻלַּד־בֵּ֔ן וַיִּקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ אֱנ֑וֹשׁ אָ֣ז הוּחַ֔ל לִקְרֹ֖א בְּשֵׁ֥ם יְהֹוָֽה׃
“And to Shais was also born a son and he named him Enosh, then they started to call [other entities] by the name of God” (Bereishis 4:26)
The decline already started in the days of Enosh – Adam and Chavah’s grandson. The Midrash tells us what happened but gives no clue how it happened. Mankind started to assign divine powers to people and objects. The Midrash also tells us that this spiritual break with God had physical ramifications. It sounds a lot like physiognomy – where physical features reflect intellectual, emotional (and spiritual characteristics). Not just on the face of people but also on the face of the earth.
אַרְבָּעָה דְּבָרִים נִשְׁתַּנּוּ בִּימֵי אֱנוֹשׁ בֶּן שֵׁת, הֶהָרִים נַעֲשׂוּ טְרָשִׁים, וְהִתְחִיל הַמֵּת מַרְחִישׁ, וְנַעֲשׂוּ פְּנֵיהֶם כְּקוֹפוֹת, וְנַעֲשׂוּ חֻלִּין לַמַּזִּיקִין.
“There were four changes in the days of Enosh the son of Shais. Mountains became rocky, corpses began to decay, and peoples’ faces looked like monkeys and people became susceptible to harmful forces (diseases).” (Midrash Rabbah 23:6)
All these physical changes came because people were so far from God that they were no longer born in the image of God. But how did this radical shift come about?
Forewarned is forearmed
In what might be a hint of the kind of influence Adam should have exerted on the world, the Midrash says that God provided Adam with a preview of all of history.
אָמַר רַבִּי יְהוּדָה בַּר סִימוֹן עַד שֶׁאָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן מֻטָּל גֹּלֶם לִפְנֵי מִי שֶׁאָמַר וְהָיָה הָעוֹלָם, הֶרְאָה לוֹ דּוֹר דּוֹר וְדוֹרְשָׁיו, דּוֹר דּוֹר וַחֲכָמָיו, דּוֹר דּוֹר וְסוֹפְרָיו, דּוֹר דּוֹר וּמַנְהִיגָיו
“Rabbi Yehuda the son of Simone said that even while Adam was still a “Golem,” (lifeless form) God showed him every generation and those who lead in refining moral principles, the greatest scholars, the leading scribes and the political leaders.” (Bereishis 24:2)
If God provided Adam with the foresight of knowing everything that will happen in the world and who the major influencers will be, doesn’t that give Adam tremendous responsibility in trying to safeguard the world’s morality? Yet, we have no proof in Parshat Bereishis that Adam tried to have any spiritual influence on anyone. Surely he had a unique and unfathomable relationship with God while he was in the Garden of Eden. Did it have any lasting effect after his expulsion?
Simple arithmetic tells us that when the world started to confuse God with people or objects, Adam was likely still alive. The Torah says that Adam was 235 when his grandson Enosh was born. Enosh was 695 years old when his grandfather, Adam, died. So if this major spiritual shift occurred in the time of Enosh, it is likely that Adam witnessed it.
What was Adam’s potential?
אָמַר רַבִּי יְהוּדָה בְּרַבִּי סִימוֹן רָאוּי הָיָה אָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן שֶׁתִּנָתֵן תּוֹרָה עַל יָדוֹ,
“Rabbi Yehudah the son of Simone said Adam was worthy to have the Torah given through him.”
(Midrash Rabbah 24:5)
Imagine, the Midrash is comparing Adam with Moshe Rabbeinu. Why didn’t God give the Torah to the world during Adam’s lifetime? The Midrash continues with God saying:
וּמַה עַכְשָׁו שֵׁשׁ מִצְווֹת נָתַתִּי לוֹ וְלֹא הָיָה יָכוֹל לַעֲמֹד בָּהֶן וְהֵיאַךְ אֲנִי נוֹתֵן לוֹ תרי“ג מִצְווֹת
“It’s obvious that when I gave him six commandments* that he couldn’t adhere to them. How could I give him six hundred and thirteen?“(the total number of positive and negative “Mitzvot” in the Torah). (Ibid)
The Midrash provides another hint of what Adam could have been:
אָמַר רַבִּי יַעֲקֹב דִּכְפַר חָנִין רָאוּי הָיָה אָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן שֶׁיַּעַמְדוּ מִמֶּנּוּ י“ב שְׁבָטִים
“Rabbi Yaakov from the village of Chonin said that Adam was worthy to have the 12 tribes descend from him.” (Ibid)
Why indeed didn’t that happen?
אָמַר הַ”קָּבָּה שְׁנֵי בָנִים נָתַתִּי לוֹ וְעָמַד אֶחָד וְהָרַג אֶת חֲבֵרוֹ וְהֵיאַךְ אֲנִי נוֹתֵן לוֹ שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר שְׁבָטִים
“God said ‘I gave him two sons and one rose to slay the other, how could I give him twelve tribes?” Ibid
It seems that Adam’s lacking in moral leadership is responsible, in some measure, for producing a son who was the world’s first murderer.
What kind of religious consciousness did Adam retain after his expulsion?
It’s only fair to acknowledge that perhaps all the subtle incriminations leveled at Adam were only meant to bemoan the fact that he ate from the forbidden fruit in the first place. It was because of that deed that he missed out on the potential to have the Torah and the twelve tribes come from him. It is impossible to know how much of Adam’s exalted level of spirituality and truth remained with him after eating from the forbidden fruit. Adam’s grandson, Enosh lived another 410 years after Adam died. Maybe Adam was indeed not around to let people know that “God cannot be a rock or a person. I know because my wife and I were created directly from God.”
How quickly we forget
If this idolatry started after Adam died, it should not surprise us how quickly the knowledge of God is forgotten. After all, the Jewish people committed the sin of the Golden calf soon after the revelation on Mt. Sinai. When I worked in advertising in Manhattan a Jewish woman asked me “If Christmas was sort of a Jewish holiday too?” Her grandfather came to Los Angeles from Europe. She was second generation American, growing up in Los Angeles and look how much basic knowledge of Judaism had already been forgotten. I was amazed by her question because it came at the same time that the first wave of Ethiopians to arrive in Israel. Doubts were raised about whether the Ethiopians should be considered Jewish even though, for centuries, they kept up a form of Kashrut, Shabbat observance and family purity.
What influence did Adam have in the world?
The Midrash tells us what knowledge Adam did impart to the world:
רַבִּי תַּנְחוּמָא בְּשֵׁם רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר וְרַבִּי מְנַחֵם בְּשֵׁם רַב אָמַר כָּל הָאֻמָנִיּוֹת אָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן לְמָדָם…. רַבָּנָן אָמְרִין אֲפִלּוּ סִרְגּוּלוֹ שֶׁל סֵפֶר, אָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן לְמָדוֹ.
“Rabbi Tanchuma said in the name of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Menachem said in the name of Rav: they said Adam taught all kinds of craftsmanship…. The Rabbis said ‘even how to make rule lines in order to write a Torah scroll” (Midrash Rabbah 24:7)
Perhaps this is the answer to our original question about the rapid spiritual decline of mankind. The Midrash said that even when Adam engaged in teaching something of a spiritual nature – like writing a Torah scroll – he emphasized the technical skill and not the contents. The Midrash may be revealing something important about Adam. Regardless of whether he lived at the time when idolatry started or not, perhaps, like Noach 10 generations later, he did not impart the wisdom, beauty and holiness of having a relationship with God. Therefore subsequent generations had nothing to hold on to and live by. This idea is formulated by the Shem Mishmuel (the second Sochatchover Rebbe) in his major work on Hasidic thought. There he distinguished between our Forefathers who were able to spiritually elevate themselves while living in this world and profoundly influencing others. While Adam and Noach were able to elevate themselves, but not influence others.
*Midrash Rabba (16;70 refers to six commandments given to Adam although most sources refer to the 7 Noahide laws.