Only a few weeks ago we lived suspended in the High Holy Days. We examined our sins, pleaded for forgiveness and prayed that our loved ones and we would be blessed with health and happiness. We brought little children to hear the shofar’s call and we remembered parents and family members no longer with us. Mindful of our link to the generations before and after our own, vulnerability and mortality absorbed us.
On Shabbat Beresheit we return to the beginning — the timeless, inchoate origins of our world and living beings. Man and woman, the first generation of humankind, are created in the idyllic Garden of Eden. But in a just a few verses, paradise is lost. Adam and Eve defy God’s prohibition and eat from the tree of knowledge, thereby becoming creatures capable of discerning good from bad. The first couple is exiled from Eden. They come to know hard work, physical pain and the horror of one of their sons killing the other. The chain of sin and suffering has begun.
While they have certainly sinned, Adam and Eve do not eat from the tree of life, an act that would have presumably rendered them immortal. A plain reading of the text suggests that from their creation in Eden onward, human beings have finite lifetimes that last into the hundreds of years. Why then, just before describing the degraded state of humankind that will soon be destroyed by the flood, does a verse unambiguously dispel any hopes for eternal life and go even further to specify the outer limit of the human life span to 120 years?
“And the Lord said, My spirit shall not always strive on account of man, for that he also is flesh: and his days shall be 120 years.” (Genesis 6:3)
Humankind’s profound yearning for as long a life as possible finds expression throughout the Bible. Countless passages detail desired and prohibited behavior. Actions consonant with God’s commandments promise health and prosperity; violations carry the specter of terrible illness and affliction.
It is intriguing then, that only three commandments explicitly promise fullness of years as the reward for properly carrying out these mitzvot. These are honoring your father and mother (Exodus 20:12, Deuteronomy 5:16), teaching God’s words to your children in a variety of modalities (Deut.: 11:20-21) and sending away a mother bird from the nest when taking her chicks or eggs (Deut.: 22:6-7).
How might these passages be connected? One common theme is the active awareness of parenthood. Abundant years reward those who respect their parents, instruct their children in a proper environment and honor the parent-child bond in all living creatures.
Adam and Eve do not do well by these measures. By definition, the first parent couple could not have the experience of human parenting themselves. Without human mother or father, Adam and Eve lack the complex accretion of feelings and experience from which to pattern their own behavior as respectful children, a couple and parents. They seem not to communicate basic information to each other and do not even collaborate on naming Cain. They disrespect God’s directive regarding prohibited activity in the Garden of Eden and fail to educate their own children as to proper reverence of God and the basic precepts of human behavior. Cain and Abel stumble into adulthood and fratricide. Subsequent generations, whose sins the Torah does not explicitly document, continue to degrade further.
Right from the beginning, then, the Torah teaches us that the foundation of individual human dignity and larger civilization rests on the parent-child relationship. Parents’ natural instincts to protect and physically provide for children are only the first step. We also need to educate through instruction and example. Young children must be taught that not all wishes can or should be fulfilled and that compassion, respect and responsibility are basic to life at home and in the playground. We build from there, teaching children according to their developmental stage and abilities. Parents and teachers guide children’s progress through increasingly sophisticated levels of information and experience in the hope that the younger generation will become independent mature adults capable of empathy and gratitude.
All along, children learn countless lessons from the examples set before them. They notice how their fathers and mothers express appreciation and how they resolve conflict. They observe how parents treat grandparents and how they speak about their elders. Attitudes towards persons outside the family, money, living creatures, the environment and myriad other issues are continually absorbed.
Perhaps then, the fractured beginnings of humankind anticipate the three commandments that promise the universally desired hope — long life. The heartrending stories of the first man, woman and family sow seeds of possibility as well as tragedy. Humans can choose how to raise and educate children. God is our partner, the Torah is our guide. Read on, and may your years be sweet, healthy and long.
Dr. Michelle Friedman is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and director of pastoral counseling at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in Riverdale.