“Children of One Ancestor” – The Talmud on Being Human

In this passage from Talmud Sanhedrin 37a, the Rabbis turn to one of the best-known stories in the Torah – the story of the creation of the world – in order to teach an important lesson about humanity:

Why was Adam created alone? To teach that anyone who destroys one soul is considered as if they have destroyed an entire world, and anyone who sustains one soul is considered as if they have sustained an entire world.

Another reason: Adam was created alone in order to maintain peace among people, so that no person might say to another: “My ancestor is greater than your ancestor.”

Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a

It is a particular choice by the Biblical author to write that God originally created only one human being. Not all creation stories share this choice: for example, the Babylonian creation myth (Enuma Elish) says that that the gods created many people in order to serve them.

That means that the story of humanity’s creation is intended to do more than give a pseudo-scientific explanation of our origin. It is intended to teach about what it means to be human: that we are created “in the image of God.” That there is something divine in each person. It is from this notion that the Rabbis of the Talmud derive their teaching that to kill a person is to destroy an entire world while to save a life is to sustain an entire world.

How is a person an entire world? Maybe this means that each of us builds a world around us – accomplishments, friendships, relationships, and legacy. So that when a person dies, the reverberations of their death are far wider than just the person. It is as though an entire world has been wiped out.

The Hebrew poet Yehuda Amichai speaks to this idea in his gut-wrenching poem called “The Diameter of the Bomb:”

The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters
and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters,
with four dead and eleven wounded.
And around these, in a larger circle
of pain and time, two hospitals are scattered
and one graveyard. But the young woman
who was buried in the city she came from,
at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers,
enlarges the circle considerably,
and the solitary man mourning her death
at the distant shores of a country far across the sea
includes the entire world in the circle.
And I won’t even mention the crying of orphans
that reaches up to the throne of God and
beyond, making a circle with no end and no God.

Amichai’s point, like the Talmud’s, is that we are all interconnected. That when one of us is harmed we are all harmed. Every soul is the world.

On this day which has finally seen a cessation of violence between Israel and Hamas, we are aware that the diameter of a rocket or a bomb is far greater than we can imagine. The diameter of fear and hatred is, perhaps, just as devastatingly great. The Rabbis wish to remind us, through this passage, that life is sacred. That conflict and trauma reverberate in devastating ways. That it is a Jewish imperative to sustain life wherever possible. That, perhaps now that the violence is ended, it can be a time for building the bridges that will prevent the next round of such violence.

The Hebrew word for “human beings” is b’nei adam – children of Adam. In the end, the message of Judaism is that we human beings are not so different from each other – we share a common ancestor and we share a common destiny.

May this fragile peace hold – and may it be the last “fragile peace.” May this Shabbat, and all those to come, be Shabbat Shalom – Sabbath of peace – for all those who dwell in the land.

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