Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Klal Gadol

There is a discussion amongst the early sages with regard to the biggest and most important idea in Judaism. Rabbi Akiva, one of the leading historical figures in Judaism, says that the entirety of Judaism is summed up in the verse, "Ve'ahavta la'rei'acha kamocha," ("And you should love your neighbor as yourself). Another rabbi, Ben-Azzai, says that the entirety of the Torah is actually summed up in the verse, "Zeh sefer toldos ha'adam" (Bereishis/Genesis 5:1). This verse is translated to mean, "This is the record of the generations of Adam," but actually says, "This is the record of the generations of the man" (Adam as a proper name is Adam, but as a regular noun means "man"; since this verse uses the word "the" before the word "adam", it means "person", not "Adam").

I suppose that it is easy to understand why Rabbi Akiva said that Judaism can be summed up in the verse, "And you should love your neighbor as yourself," but why does Ben-Azzai say a relatively obscure verse is the most important? The explanation is that after the verse, "This is the record of the generations...", the rest of the Torah goes on to describe the results of those who descended from one single person, the man called Adam. If Adam hadn't been exactly who he was, lived exactly as he was supposed to, and held the same regard for the importance of all of creation, none of the rest of the Torah would have been able to occur. From Adam came Noach, Avraham, Yitzchok, Yaakov, Yosef, and Moshe Rabbeinu (Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses). Therefore, Ben-Azzai says that the entire religion of Judaism is summed up in that verse, as it shows the importance and uniqueness of a single person in being able to completely change the world, and the same is true of all people.

The statements of Rabbi Akiva and Ben-Azzai are synthesized in a famous saying by Rabbi Hillel: "Im ein ani li, mi li? Uch'she'ani le'atzmi, mah ani? Ve'im lo ach'shav, eimasai?" (If I am not for myself, who will be? And if I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?) Rabbi Hillel is explaining that if a person does not do their unique duty and task in the world, and believe in their own importance, there will never be another "you" to do it. If, however, you allow this concentration on yourself to distract you from the plight and needs of others, this is also wrong. When do we know whether or not we should use our resources to complete out own task, and when we should use them to help others in need? This is the answer in the last part of the saying, "If not now, when?" We simply have to act, working on what we see and feel in the moment. It may not always be clear-cut, and it may not always be easy, but the struggle of this decision is what leads us to grow, think, and thrive.

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