Person in the Parsha: Bereshit
By RABBI TZVI HERSH WEINREB
“LIFE AND DEATH, FROM ADAM’S PERSPECTIVE“
I invite you to imagine yourself as Adam or Eve. Put yourself in their shoes. Remember that, as the very first humans, they had a most unique perspective on every aspect of a newly created world. Their reactions to their surroundings and to each other had no precedent. They entered the world as adults and had to cope on their own with innumerable objects and situations without parental guidance and with no culturally established norms or guidelines.
They were the first to see “the fish of the sea and the birds of the skies and every animal that crept along the land.” They were instructed to eat from the earth’s vegetation, but they did not know what it meant to eat. They beheld a wondrous garden of gorgeous trees, which included the “tree of life,” but what did they know about life? They were admonished not to eat from the “tree of knowledge of good and evil.” But what did they know about good and evil?
Yes, they were instructed to desist from eating of the “tree of good and evil,” lest they die. But what did they know about death? What did they really know about anything?
The first thing we ourselves discover about Adam’s thoughts or feelings is when we read the Almighty’s pronouncement that “it is not good for man to be alone, I will make him a help mate.” The omniscient Almighty recognizes that Adam is lonely. Thus, the first thing we learn about Adam’s inner life is that he is capable of feeling the poignant emotion of loneliness.
As the biblical narrative proceeds, we begin to learn more and more about how Adam and Eve react to the world around them. Adam assigns names to each member of the animal world. Adam and Eve relate to each other fondly. They yield to temptation, and, finally, they suffer the horrible pain of exile.
We eventually learn that they become parents, but we know nothing about how they went about the vital task of parenting. Did they love their children? Did they discipline them? Did they teach them right from wrong? The Torah provides us no answers to these questions.
Rather, the Torah proceeds to tell us a bit about their two sons, Cain and Abel, and about how Cain murdered Abel. But there is nary a word in the Torah about Adam and Eve’s reaction to this horrible event. We are left wondering about how these parents reacted to tragic bereavement, to grief, to mourning, to death.
Remember, they had never experienced death. They knew not what death meant.
The curious student of Torah knows that he can count upon our Sages whenever he encounters a gap in a biblical story. In this case, a Midrash fills in the gap
When Abel was killed, Adam and Eve were stunned. They sat and wept and mourned but did not know what to do. The watchdog of Abel’s sheep guarded his corpse, protecting it from the beasts of the wild and from the birds soaring above. Then, a raven descended from the sky, a raven that had himself experienced the death of its mate. The raven declared, “I will teach Adam what to do.” He took the body of the dead bird, dug a small ditch in the earth, and proceeded to bury it before Adam and Eve’s eyes. Adam then said to Eve, “Let us do what the raven did!” They took Abel’s corpse and buried it. (Yalkut Shimoni, 38
I first encountered this Midrashic passage in a masterful Yizkor sermon delivered by Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel, a former Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, who passed away in 1945.
This sermon is included in the first volume of Rabbi Amiel’s Derashot El Ami. There, Rabbi Amiel eloquently elaborates upon the story, stressing the helplessness that Adam and Eve experienced in the face of a phenomenon that they had never previously encountered. He paints the picture of a man and woman who desperately attempt to revive the body of their beloved son. They cannot accept the finality of his death. That is, until the raven comes along.
Rabbi Amiel points out that Jewish tradition sees the raven as the very symbol of cruelty. He cites the verse in Psalms (147:9), which is part of a hymn to the Almighty who gives “to the raven’s brood what they cry for.” Apparently, the raven ignores even its own young. To which I would add the verse in Job 38:41, which reads, “Who provides food for the raven when his young cry out to God and wander about without food?”
The message of Rabbi Amiel’s sermon is this: Humans must not emulate the raven’s response to death. For humans, the dead are not merely “dead and buried.” The point of the Yizkor ceremony is to perpetuate the memory of the dead, to keep them alive in our own consciousness. Human life, any and every human life, is too precious to be forgotten. The raven may be cruel to its young, but we must affectionately care for our young. The raven digs a grave and cruelly forgets what it buried there. But we remain aware of those who, although consigned to the grave, live on in our hearts and minds.
How well do I recall the remarks made by the late Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach to a group of rabbis who sought his guidance. He urged us to impress upon our congregations that Judaism believes in techiyat ha’metim, that the dead will live again. He pointed out that in the relatively brief second blessing of the Shemoneh Esreh, we mentioned the concept of resurrection no less than six times!
I’ve used Rabbi Amiel’s Yizkor sermon more than once in my rabbinic career. But I’ve occasionally taken the liberty to differ with Rabbi Amiel’s dim assessment of the raven. He sees the raven as the irredeemable embodiment of cruelty. But I prefer to point out that the raven appears more than once in scripture. In fact, it plays a role in next week’s Torah portion when Noah sends it out of the Ark on a futile mission. Moreover, much later in history, the ravens prove capable of a remarkably admirable task
I refer to the passage in Kings I 17:2-7. There, the story is told of the prophet Elijah who informs King Ahab that there soon would be “no dew or rain except at my bidding.” The Almighty then instructs Elijah to go into hiding by the Wadi Kerit, just east of the Jordan. There, he will be able to drink from the wadi, and will be fed by the ravens. Elijah obeys, and lo and behold, “the ravens brought him bread and meat every morning and every evening, and he drank from the wadi.”
Some commentaries insist that the ravens were chosen as the Almighty’s messengers to impress upon Elijah that he was as cruel as are ravens by prophesizing drought and famine. However, other commentaries suggest that this episode demonstrates that even ravens can overcome their instinctive cruelty and become noble benefactors of a starving human.
The raven thus becomes a model for teshuva, for the human capacity to overcome even one’s darkest instincts. No longer need the raven represent callous disregard for the dead. After feeding Elijah, the raven is transformed into a symbol of heroic rescue, of life-sustaining forces.
Fortunately, we can all progress beyond what Adam and Eve may have learned from the raven and instead learn the dual lesson of eternal respect for the dead and compassionate regard for the living.