Let there be light

Let there be light

Congregation Beth Shalom, Pompton Lakes, Conservative

What is the first commandment in the Torah?

When God says “Yehi Or” — “Let there be light,” should we understand God as commanding nothingness to spontaneously be something? Is this a mitzvah  in the sense that we later understand the term (there being a metzaveh — a commander who instructs someone who is metzuveh — commanded). Perhaps the first commandment, then, might be understood to be p’ru u-r’vu — to be fruitful and multiply, first addressed to water animals and birds (Gen 1:22) on the fifth day, and finally applied to humans on the sixth day (Gen 1:28). In that verse, the human, Adam, is commanded to “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and master it; rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all living things on the earth.”

This positive mitzvah precedes the first negative mitzvah, the prohibition of eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. People often speak of Adam and Eve as breaking the first commandment they are given, understood to mean eating the fruit. Do they, however, succeed in fulfilling the first positive commandment that God requires of them? How might such a commandment even be accomplished?

If we want to know whether we are living up to our God-given obligations, perhaps we should explore what it might mean to fill the earth — mil’u et ha-aretz. The words could mean that we are intended to take up every centimeter of empty space available on the face of the planet. But why stop there? Could God have intended that we keep going until heaps or towers of humans fill all space? Given the subsequent smackdown at the Tower of Babel, such a maximalist view seems unlikely. Perhaps the filling of the earth points to filling every ecological niche, so that the new planet is neither barren nor overburdened, but is sustainably filled with a stable population that avoids starvation and constant fighting over limited resources. This would certainly be more of a blessing. (Gen 1:28)

Or maybe the requirement has less to do with physical Malthusian limits than with social and civilizational limits. After all, the Torah portion contains chapter five, which almost everybody ignores, but it might teach us about another way of seeing what a full planet looks like.  It is called Sefer toldot Adam / the book of human offspring, a list of what is colloquially known as begats.

In this chapter we find generations of humans stacked in a different sense. As is well known, there are 10 generations from Adam to Noah (and 10 generations from Noah to Abraham). What is much less well known (but can be calculated from the numbers given in chapter five) is that Noah was the first generation born after Adam, who lived 930 years, died. This fact, unmentioned in the text itself, explains why Lemech might give his son the name Noach, saying “zeh yenachameinu…” This one will comfort us.

Rather than seeing ten generations between those two seminal figures as an unbridgeable chasm, we see quite a different family portrait: nine generations of people living simultaneously, cheek to jowl. Forget the difficulty of finding a place for Mom. When great-great-great-great-grandparents live with you and their great-great-grandparents, how is a family unit even to be understood? Did they live in apartment complex caves (like those in Mesa Verde and other cliff dwellings across the Southwest, for example), or was the family smeared out across a valley in separate but connected villages?

The anthropologist Robin Dunbar theorized, in the early 1990s, that there is a limit to the number of people we can have in a stable social group, which he defined in typical British fashion as “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.” That number, subsequently known as Dunbar’s Number, is approximately 150 people, give or take, based on both the processing capacity of the brain and historical data about hominid and ape species.

But consider what happens when your nuclear family size is greater than your ability to remember, let alone trust, your relatives. The scenario of Lemech bragging to his two wives, Ada and Tzila, that he “killed a man for injuring me,” and that if “Cain would be avenged sevenfold, Lemech would be seventy-seven fold” now becomes imaginable, understandable. Human life filling a societal or familial niche beyond its natural capacity to associate together would lose its inherent value. No longer is the murder or manslaughter of one’s brother (Cain and Abel, Gen 4:1 -16) shocking. Within Adam’s lifetime it becomes commonplace. God modifies the plan: human life will no longer span 900 years, but 120 (Gen 6:3). God regrets human wickedness and decides to wipe out the entire enterprise (Gen 6: 5 – 7).

Sometimes fulfilling even one commandment can seem tortuously difficult. Just being, like the light, is an accomplishment. Our parasha gives focus to the rest of the Torah: an extended family trying its darnedest to live up to what has been commanded by God. It has never been easy. Even now, the struggle continues!

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