The Duality And Unpredictability Of Human Nature

The creation of humans and our variability expressed in Bereshit present us with endless choices and challenges for how to live our lives.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from the UJA-Federation of New York.

Why are we so fascinated, year after year, by the story of Genesis? While many of us have read the Creation saga since childhood and revisit it annually as the cycle of Torah readings begins anew, we eagerly return to the same episodes. Perhaps this is because, as a new year gets under way, we don’t know how our lives will evolve--and that is the very point of this story.

The Torah’s second sentence describes God’s spirit as "hovering" over the waters. As Everett Fox notes in his superb translation, we can learn the meaning of "hover" from a sentence near the Torah’s end, when Moses presents his poem to the People of Israel just before his death. There, he describes an eagle rousing her young out of their nest and "hovering" over them as they seek to take wing (Deuteronomy 32:11).

The fate of our children is unknown as we guide them out of our homes and toward taking responsibility for themselves in the world they will inherit as adults. We do our best to prepare them for an independent life, but like the biblical eagle, we can at best "hover" near them, giving them the space they need to strike out on their own. Similarly, at the very beginning of the Creation story, we learn that God’s character is to "hover" over the earth, imparting His values, but forever unsure how his creatures will act when given independence. Before Genesis is over, we’ll read many examples of people who both fulfilled and confounded His hopes. Uncertainty is built into the very structure of the world.

Modern commentators have emphasized the fundamental unpredictability of the apex of God’s creation, human beings. In his commentary on Genesis 2, the revered Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik masterfully suggested the ambiguous nature of human beings. He notes that verse 8 describes God as "placing" Adam into the Garden of Eden to enjoy its pleasures, which focuses on the passive and hedonistic consumption of the natural environment. In contrast, verse 15 repeats the placement of Adam in the Garden, but he is now "taken" to Eden and given the task, "to cultivate it and to keep it."

The emphasis here is no longer on pleasure, but on commandment. God has actively taken Adam out of a state of complacency and conferred on him responsibility. The human being is now a meaningful actor, controlling the environment, not just existing within it. To these two dimensions a third is immediately added, for just three verses later, God creates Eve to be a "fitting helper opposite him." Humans do not simply relate to their surroundings; they are fundamentally social beings, requiring mates. But as the Torah shrewdly notes, the nature of a "mate" is ambiguous. She (or he) is a "helper," but also "opposite," the Hebrew kenegdo being derived from the word meaning "different" or "against."

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Gary Rubin was the former Managing Director of UJA-Federation's Commission on the Jewish People. He died suddenly in April 2003.