This chapter summarizes the creation of man and then records the genealogies from Adam (through his son Sheit; generations through Cain’s descendants were recorded in chapter 4) to Noah.
The midrash on B’reishit cites a debate between two rabbis as to what is the most important principle in the Torah (other versions of this account include more opinions). According to Rabbi Akiva, “ve’ahavta l’re’akha kamokha,” “love your neighbor as you do yourself” (Vayikra 19:18), is the most important principle. According to Ben Azzai, however, “zeh sefer toldot ha’adam,” “this is the book of the generations of man,” from the very beginning of our chapter, is the most important verse.
There is so much that has been said of Rabbi Akiva’s opinion. We ought to treat others and relate to others the way we would want them to treat us and relate to us. Indeed, that is a guiding principle of so much of the Torah. What do we make of Ben Azzai’s opinion, however? Here is the full verse:
זֶה סֵפֶר, תּוֹלְדֹת אָדָם: בְּיוֹם, בְּרֹא אֱלֹהִים אָדָם, בִּדְמוּת אֱלֹהִים, עָשָׂה אֹתוֹ.
This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made He him.
Taking Ben Azzai very literally, the entire Torah (and the Tanakh) really is sefer toldot ha-adam, the book of the generations of man. Largely speaking, the Bible is a book about people. The main players will be Noah, Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Moshe, Yehoshua, and so forth. God is always present, but essentially the Bible records stories about people and their relationships with each other and with God. Maimonides’s masterpiece The Guide of the Perplexed has more about God in it than does the Bible. But the truth is, we can’t really understand God (as Maimonides writes), and so we tell stories about people. In a sense, that verse really is the central principle (that is, the summarizing principle) of the Torah.
Not only is the Torah about people and their relationships, but Judaism in general is a religion about people and relationships. The central focus of our religion has never been theology but actions: mitzvot. People doing things: alone, together, as individuals, and as a community. Furthermore, the second half of Ben Azzai’s verse (quoted above) reminds us that man was created in the image of God. It is that fact that serves as the impetus for the Jewish principle of k’vod habriot, personal dignity. Since we have all been created in God’s image, we all deserve to be treated with dignity. Meaning… we should treat others the way we too would want to be treated. Sound familiar? Perhaps Ben Azzai’s opinion as to the core principle of the Torah is not essentially so different from Rabbi Akiva’s; they just disagree about which verse captures that core value of Judaism best.
Rabbi Roy Feldman