For 21st century people, the stories that launch the book of Genesis seem incredible. What do we make of the tale of God placing the two first people, Adam and Eve, in a beautiful garden to lead an idyllic life until they destroy their life in paradise through disobedience and curiosity? What does this story have to do with us? And where did the women come from who married Adam and Eve’s sons?
The first 12 chapters of Genesis, all the stories before Abraham comes on the scene, are drawn from ancient Near Eastern myths, but are all given a uniquely Jewish twist. So our rabbis underline the values presented by these stories. In the story of Adam and Eve, they understood that the Torah was making a radical claim about humanity: that we are all related to the same set of parents. The Torah is teaching us to view every other human being on earth as our brothers and sisters. The Torah is trying to cultivate our sense of empathy for all. This claim of the kinship of all humanity is radical, because it reinforces a central value of Judaism: We are responsible for the well-being of others. Our task in the world is to be charitable and extend a helping hand to those in need. We are not successful unless we help others to become successful.
Our Jewish claim of each individual’s responsibility to the community is being challenged by other philosophies afloat in America today. For example, Ayn Rand preached a philosophy that claimed the ultimate value is to be selfish, that kindness to others, especially to powerless, “inferior” people, is evil. She hated religion, because it promotes concern for others, and she hated government, because it could be used to help the vulnerable. She was infatuated with a gruesome serial killer, who she decided was her hero, a truly selfish person. Whole swaths of the American people embrace Rand’s upside down philosophy today.
The ancient message of Genesis is more relevant today than ever before. As Jews, we are called to teach the world what it means to have empathy as individuals. We must show the way to create institutions, even governmental laws, that promote the well-being of all people, even the weak and vulnerable.
Narayana Krishnan was born in Madurai, India, in 1981. He became an award-winning chef with a five-star hotel group. Promoted to an elite job in Switzerland, he made a quick visit to his family in his hometown to say goodbye.
“I saw a very old man. He was eating his own human waste for hunger. I thought, what is the purpose of my life? What I am going to do? I quit my job, and I started feeding all these people.”
Krishnan started a foundation to prepare hot meals and deliver them to the homeless in Madurai. Since 2003 Krishnan has served more than 1.2 million meals to poor people in his hometown.
“We feed the homeless, mentally ill destitute, and the old people who have been left uncared, of the society. People don’t have food to eat. I do this because I am a human being. For me, everybody is the same. What is the ultimate purpose of life? It’s to give. Start giving. See the joy of giving.”
Krishnan understands the lesson of Adam and Eve: We have the same set of parents, we are all brothers and sisters, we are all responsible for each other.