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Human Nature, for Better and for Worse

Bereshit 5780 / 26 October 2019

October 30, 2019

One of the great debates of the Enlightenment centered on basic human nature: left to our own devices, outside the bounds of society, who would we be? The two extremes of this debate were represented by Jean-Jacques Russeau and Thomas Hobbes. Russeau believed that humans were naturally good, sensitive creatures who wanted only to live in peace; the later structures of human society, religion, and politics corrupted people and gave rise to conflict and strife. Hobbes, on the other hand, saw civilization as a moderating force. In our very nature, he argued, we are vicious, cruel, violent, and self-centered. Only the constraints of society keep us from tearing one another to pieces.

Parashat Bereshit, in its presentation of Creation and the origins of humanity, opts out of this debate altogether. In the mind of the Torah, there is no question of whether humans are naturally good or bad; we are both, and the essential questions become: to what degree? At what time? And with what consequences? The classical midrash reads this directly from our Torah portion. The first human is created from “the dust of the earth,” עָפָר֙ מִן־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה, and then God “breathes into its nostrils the breath of life,” וַיִּפַּ֥ח בְּאַפָּ֖יו נִשְׁמַ֣ת חַיִּ֑ים.[1] There is already a play on words here: while the Hebrew word נשימה means “breath,” נשמה means “soul.” Thus the midrash imagines that on each day of Creation God offered something to the heavenly realm or the earth. On the first day, light was created – benefitting both. On the second day, God created a vault in the sky while on the third, God brought land out of water – one for each. On the fourth day God created the sun, moon, and stars, and on the fifth day, animals – again, one for each. But what to do with the sixth and final day? If God created the human from the earthly realm, a physical being, the heavens might be jealous; but if God created the human as a purely spiritual being, the earth would be jealous. Either way, the harmony and balance of creation would be disturbed. Instead, God created us as a little of both: dust from the earth and soul from above.

Right from the beginning, however, this mixture proves unstable; the first humans are placed in a garden of tranquility but can’t restrain their temptation and must leave. Here is what I find to be the most important part: they are compelled to leave after eating from the עץ הדעת טוב ורע. While this is often translated as “the tree of knowledge of good and bad,”[2] we could read it differently – “The tree of knowledge, for better or for worse.”

The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Enrico Fermi was a fascinating character – a member of the Italian Fascist party who fled Europe with his Jewish wife; a devoted teacher and and indifferent husband and father; and, most critically, one of the scientists whose work made possible both nuclear energy and the atomic bomb. A recent biography explores Fermi’s ambivalence about his role in developing nuclear technology, his struggle to weigh the benefits to humanity of this great leap forward in science against the unprecedented destructive power of a new class of weapon.[3] Science is fundamentally amoral; no basic technology is inherently good or evil. Instead, the moral implications emerge from the uses to which people put the technology. Can you think of any technological advance that does not have at least the potential for harmful application?

Of course, parashat Bereshit contains the story of Cain and Abel, the first homicide; but perhaps more interesting for our purposes are the stories that come immediately after. Once Cain has his reckoning with God for the murder of his brother, he exiled to wander the world – cursed, but also protected by God from any acts of vengeance. He marries, and bears children; and his descendants create the fundamental building blocks of human civilization. There are the brothers Yaval, who teaches the world how to tend livestock and set camp, and Yuval, who invents musical instruments and teaches others how to sing;[4] and there is Tuval-cain, who “forged all implements of copper and iron.”[5] And yet alongside their talents and gifts we read their father Lamech’s cruelly boastful song: “I have slain a man for wounding me, and a lad for bruising me.”[6] We know all too well how metal can be bent to destructive ends, but even music has its dark side; look no further than the unspeakable cruelty in the Nazis forcing Auschwitz inmates to play symphonies while they unloaded victims from the trains. And here the Torah wraps all the promise and dread of technology into four short verses.

None of these questions are any more resolved for us than they were for Adam, Cain, Lamech, or his sons. A year after a terrorist killed eleven Jewish martyrs in Pittsburgh, what can we say for our world? My teacher, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, observed that technology can’t create a “new” sin, but it will often bring the same old sins closer to hand. One take-away from our Torah portion is that there has never been, never will be, a technological advance that will advance our moral progress. Morality will always be a human question, not a scientific one. One year after a terrorist murdered eleven Jewish martyrs in Pittsburgh, it remains in our hands to restrain evil and spread good in the world.

[1] Gen. 2:7.

[2] JPS.

[3] David N. Schwartz, The Last Man Who Knew Everything: The Life and Times of Enrico Fermi, Father of the Nuclear Age (New York: Basic Books, 2017).

[4] Gen. 4:20-21.

[5] Gen. 4:22.

[6] Gen. 4:23.