Monday, December 19, 2011

"Therefore Was a Single Man Created"

"Therefore was a single man created, to teach us that whoever takes a single life it is as though he destroyed an entire world, and whoever saves a single life it is as though he saved an entire world. It is also meant to foster peace between people, because no one can boast to his neighbor: 'My ancestor was greater than your ancestor.'"
- Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5

Human nature can be quite ugly. One of its worst manifestations occurs when we focus on all the petty differences between each other instead of real good and evil. All one has to do is observe the behavior of children to know this is true. Kids will often go out of their way to pick on the child who is overweight, clumsy or a poor student, and ridicule them to almost no end. Even among adults, subjectively deciding whether to treat certain individuals decently can become a trend that is hard to break. However, this problem can be corrected if the proper perspective is kept in mind.

As opposed to many ideologies throughout history, Judaism emphasizes the importance of the individual. As the Mishnah above indicates, this can be deduced from the fact that God began the creation of human beings with one man. Had Adam died, the entire world would have perished with him. Therefore, the Sages conclude that each human being - created in the image of God and descended from Adam - is as valuable as an entire world. Later in the same Mishnah, we are taught that every individual is also unique. As opposed to coins that are minted exactly the same, God makes every individual with distinct qualities. Thus, every individual is important and unlike anyone else who was ever created.

Unfortunately, non-moral reasons are still used by some as a rationale for treating people differently: rich and poor, religious and secular, liberal and conservative, black and white. People can fall under any of these categories and be good, or can fall under any of these categories and be bad. This is why class, racial and religious warfare is both morally wrong and dangerous. It takes factors into account that have nothing to do with good and evil. If some individuals were considered more or less valuable, there would be be different ethical codes for different people. Yet, this is not the case. Everyone is accountable for their own behavior, regardless of any "category" they happen to fall under.

This Mishnaic excerpt provides the quintessential response to anyone who claims that certain types of people are superior or inferior to others. Since all people descend from the same person, we are all related. There is no moral justification for dividing people based upon race or prominence or wealth. All of creation can be traced back to one God, and all of humanity can be traced back to one person. The very word for people in Hebrew is bnei adam (lit. children of Adam) - a subtle reminder that we all descend from one man, the first human ever created by God.

While primary importance is to be placed on how we treat fellow Jews (because goodness, like charity, should start at home), it should obviously extend to others with whom we come into contact. After all, Abraham - not Adam - was the first Jew, and yet the Sages remind us that all humanity descended from Adam. All people (unless actively pursuing harm against other people) are invaluable. Given the difficult times in which we live, heeding this simple Mishnaic teaching is as important as ever. It would spare us all a lot of trouble and pave the way toward the kind of world God truly desires.


  1. You're welcome, James. I'm glad you enjoyed it :)