Bereshit (Gen. 5:1-6:8): A Great Principle

This is the book of the generations of Adam (Gen. 5:1)

 “‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18). Rabbi Akiva says: This is the greatest principle of the Torah. Ben Azzai says; ‘This is the book of the generations of Adam’ (Genesis 5:1) is a greater principle.”  Sifra

It’s good to be back with you in 5773; this year we’ll focus on the final third of each parsha.  I’m using a three year lectionary that divides each parsha into thirds; for more on that click the “about” tab on this blog.

In singling out Lev 19:18 as the greatest principle of the Torah Akiva is following centuries of Jewish tradition, going back before the Rabbis, before Jesus.* Ben Azzai counters with Gen 5:1, the heading for a genealogy, a verse that couldn’t be more prosaic.   Why?

Well, for one thing, “neighbor” in the context of Lev 19:18 probably referred to a countryman, a fellow-Jew.  Ben Azzai wanted something more inclusive, something that encompassed all humanity.  Another rabbi drew a correct inference from Ben Azzai’s statement: If another person has put you to shame, you must not say, let that one be put to shame.

When Gen. 5:1 is elevated to the status of “a great principle of the Torah,”  the phrase “The Book of the Generations of Adam” becomes a name for the entire Torah itself.    Thus, Ben Azzai directs us to read Torah as not simply Israel’s story, but the story of humanity, a story where the losses and the lessons are common to humankind.

*It’s singled out, for example, in the Book of Tobit (4th cent. BC) and the Book of Jubilees (3rd-2nd cent. BC)

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