A particularly treasured book I own is called Humans of New York. Despite being a heavy book, it is not a particularly heavy read. In fact, it involves just some short stories accompanied by pictures. The book grew out of a project by a man named Brandon Stanton, in which he finds people on the streets of the New York, interviews them, takes their picture, and writes up short stories about these people that are often very heartwarming. He would then post them on social media, and he eventually turned many of the stories into a book. These stories highlight the diversity and resilience of the population of New York City. Orthodox Jews are certainly featured in Humans of New York; and it is precisely that point that highlights that in certain contexts, we are one part of an amazing mosaic of God’s creations.
At the very beginning of Parashat Bereishit, Rashi famously cites the question of Rabbi Yitzchak: why does the Torah begin with the creation of the world, with Bereishit? If Torah is a law book, why do we need all of the stories of Sefer Bereishit? He answers that one day, we will need evidence that we did not rob and “colonize” Eretz Yisrael. Hashem created the Earth, and it belongs to Him, and He decided to give it to us. I would like to offer a modified version of this question: we could at least start with Parashat Lech Lecha, where we learn that Hashem promised Eretz Yisrael to Avraham Avinu. It is particularly at that point where we truly learn of our ancestral and religious origins. But what purpose do parshiyot of Bereishit and Noach serve? It is not that Torah is a detailed history book – many chapters of the world before Avraham are not described in detail! Do we gain anything as the Jewish people from the episodes?
The fact that the Torah begins with parshiyot of Bereishit and Noach in the first place is an important message. The stories here are not about “Jews,” but that does not make them any less important. While most of the Torah will in fact focus on the unique characteristics of the Jewish people, we are not totally separate from the rest of humanity. First, we are human beings; only after that we are Jews. In his book Future Tense (211-212), Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes:
The structure of the Hebrew Bible is unusual and significant. Its subject is the people of Israel, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah. Yet the Torah does not start with Abraham. It begins with the universal archetypes of humanity as a whole. We read about Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood, Babel and its builders. None of these is a Jew, a Hebrew, an Israelite. They are us in our universality… What is absolutely clear is that Genesis tells the story not of one covenant but of two. The first, with Noah after the Flood, applies to all humanity.
As a nation that has been characterized as being set apart, that is called עברי (“on the other side”), that Bilaam prophesized would be הן עם לבדד ישכון (a nation that dwells alone), that has a way of life that never became popular among the citizens of the world, we are taught every single year that the Torah begins not with Avraham but with Adam.
Universality comes up more specifically in a couple of places in the parasha. After the flood, God blesses Noach with a commandment to proliferate (this commandment is never given to just B’nei Yisrael!); God gives Noach the prohibition of murder and reaffirms the creation of each human being in God’s image; and, of course, God and Noach make a covenant that the world will never again be destroyed by flood. It is here that we see some of the roots of the שבע מצוות בני נח – the seven Noachide laws. While Judaism does not believe that all human beings must follow the 613 commandments to be righteous people, all human beings, including Jews, must observe the seven Noachide laws. It is unacceptable, from the perspective of halacha, that Jewish standards of morality would fall short of the same standards that we set for other B’nei Noach. In the eyes of the Torah, we are all united under these shared values.
Universality also explains one of the parts of the Torah that, to the average reader, will at least seem to be, if not certainly constitute, an unnecessary, boring, and repetitive tangent. Once we get past the story of the flood and its aftermath, the Torah lists the generations between Noach and Avram. Why do we need all of this? Both Rav Shmuel David Luzzatto (“Shadal,” 19th century Italy) and Rav David Zvi Hoffmann (19th-20th century Germany) explain that this list of genealogy reminds us that we all descend from the same source. The obvious trajectory of a nation’s chronicles would be to pay attention to its unique identity; however, the Torah rejects that to demonstrate the shared bonds of humanity. As Rav Hoffmann says, שכל האנשים — אחים הם, בנים למשפחה גדולה אחת – all of humanity are brethren, the children of one big family.
Our task today is to reaffirm our shared humanity with others. As observant Jews committed to Torah, we must sometimes represent values that are counter-cultural. That has always been part of the core identity of a Jew. Our community-based religious observance on the one hand, and the danger of assimilation on the other hand, somewhat necessitate that we remain separate. Living in tight-knit communities, sending children to particular day schools, and even eating at separate restaurants enables us to perpetuate our unique way of life. Yet, we dare not forget that we are still human beings who are citizens of society. Every morning, birkot ha-shachar includes the line לעולם יהא אדם ירא שמים… a person should always be God fearing. I once heard in the name of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l that first foremost one must be an אדם, a human being, a “mensch” (which literally means “man”), and only then can one be a ירא שמים. Only by acting with the proper derekh eretz that we would expect of any human being can we truly then focus on the minutiae of pious halakhic observance. We are just as human as anyone born to any other nation. While there are many cultural distinctions in behaviors and attitudes, there is so much that human beings share – basic needs, emotions, and moral conscience. The midrash tells us that if someone tells you there is Torah among the nations, do not believe them; but if there is wisdom among the nations, you should believe them. While our nation may have a disproportionate amount of Nobel Prizes, we still do not know everything and cannot advance on our own. We do better for ourselves and our community when we glean from the knowledge and wisdom that exists in the world.
There are three particular examples relevant to this moment in which we must practice our shared humanity:
- We must see ourselves as part of humanity as it pertains to decisions we make that impact the spread of COVID-19. The disease does not differentiate by religion or ethnicity. We are all going through this as human beings. What some of us do can affect everyone else. This is a time where complete separatism can come with costs – we must embrace the collective wisdom of the world to help fight the spread of disease together. We must commit a kiddush Hashem by affirming that halacha believes in the same life-saving measures that all others believe. Our standards for proper conduct during this time must be higher, not lower, than the minimum regulations. As the Mishna in Sanhedrin says, “Whoever saves a life is as if he saved the entire world.” This statement, as presented in the original manuscripts, applies to both Jews and non-Jews alike!
- We must see ourselves as part of humanity as it pertains to issues related to racial disparities, among other societal issues that come to the fore right now. All human beings were created in the Tzelem Elokim. However our skin colors developed, we believe we all descended from Noach and his children. We come from one, giant family. While the policies that respond to issues of race may be the legitimate subject of disagreement, it is imperative that we stand for the humane and rightful treatment of everyone around us. Likewise, we must protest in some capacity when we see others perpetrate evil. Greater attention is being called to the abuses and atrocities committed against the Uyghur in China. Our desperation for humanity’s help during the Shoah must make us more sensitive to the pleas of other groups suffering from evil.
- We must see ourselves as part of humanity as it pertains to the upcoming election. I personally do not believe our own personal or narrow interests should be the sole influences on how we vote. While we must make our voices heard about issues we care about, we are also American citizens who must be concerned with the welfare of our society. Our votes matter regarding the issues that are important to us, and our votes matter regarding our vision for what will enable America to be its best self. It should be reiterated that it is unlikely that anyone has the exclusive truth on this matter – we respect those who have opinions that differ from our own.
There is a large segment of the Jewish world that needs to be reminded about the unique features of Judaism and how it does not always neatly find a home in popular politics. Judaism is, in fact, a particularistic religion. After the tower of Bavel, God willed it to be that there would be more individuality. But that is not the whole story. We are still a part of something larger. These first to parshiyot serve as a reminder that often, our interests are intertwined with those of the rest of humanity.