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.

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.”

In commenting on only 10 verses, Soloveitchik brilliantly explicates the Torah’s view of the variability of human nature. The very varying descriptions of Adam and Eve, the primal man and woman, aren’t mutually exclusive. Human beings are both individual and social, competitive and cooperative, hedonistic and hard-working, controlling and influenced by others. Genesis stresses our ambiguous and unpredictable nature.

A similar theme emerges in Avivah Zornberg’s insightful commentary on the first book of the Torah. She notes that God created humans at a unique “pivoting point.” Animal life is essentially horizontal, driven to spread out over the earth; it’s romesset, or “crawling” (1:21), moving out in groups or herds, controlled by instinct. But while humans also are commanded to “fill the earth” (1:28), their essential posture is God-like, for they stand erect or vertical, in a commanding position.

God directs Adam both to proliferate and to rule. He is the only creature to be simultaneously horizontal and vertical, meaning that he is fundamentally capable of animalistic debauchery or of high moral achievement. Humans are created to be ambiguous, with no hint of whether their lives will produce disaster or greatness.

Anything is Possible

Genesis 4, the story of Cain and Abel, also expresses this ambiguity. This episode begins the longest sustained theme in the Bible: the triumph of the younger brother over the older. It recurs in the stories of Ishmael and Isaac; Esau and Jacob; Reuben and Judah; Joseph and his brothers; and Ephraim and Menasheh. Beyond Genesis, it’s found in the fact that leadership is conferred on the younger Moses, not the older Aaron, and that King David is the youngest among his brothers.

By frequently repeating this theme, the Torah clearly meant to convey a powerful message. Primogeniture, the primacy of the first-born, was an “iron rule” in the ancient world. The eldest son was thought naturally to merit leadership and to be entitled to an enhanced inheritance. The victory of biblical younger sons, who are depicted as wiser and more righteous than their elders, is meant to demonstrate that humans can shatter nature’s seemingly ironclad laws through purposeful action. They can shape history to overcome the limitations of the natural world.

This lesson only can be conveyed in a world in which primogeniture is the norm. The triumph of the younger in these stories is remarkable because the dominance of the elder is the usual experience. Here again, the Torah stresses the essential duality of human nature: we’re usually ruled by nature and submit to its imperatives, but also can shape our own futures through acts of will and intelligence. From its very beginning, the Torah sets forth both possibilities. How we turn out is largely up to each of us.

So no matter how many times we’ve read Genesis before, we keep returning to it, for we still don’t know the ending of the story.

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