By David Kasher
In the midst of reading the rather technical talmudic account of ancient court proceedings in Mishnah Sanhedrin, one suddenly encounters a profound reflection on the nature of the human being.
It comes on the heels of the instructions to witnesses in capital cases; they are being reminded of the gravity of their responsibility and the extreme caution with which they ought to render judgment. “Perhaps,” the judges warn, “your testimony is based on hearsay or conjecture.” “Do you understand,” they ask, “that just as a murder is irrevocable, so, too, is the death penalty?” And then, as if struck by the weight of their own warnings, the rabbis put aside their legal discussion for a moment in order to declare to the reader:
“This is why the human being was created alone in the world [in the account of the Creation in Genesis] — to teach us that anyone who destroys one life, we consider to have destroyed a whole world; and anyone who saves one life, we consider to have saved a whole world.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)
This story suggests that since all of humanity is descend-ed from the same singular person that God created on the sixth day of Creation, each one of us has the potential to produce a world of new life. This creative potential manifests itself both in the tangible form of our descendants and, more symbolically, in the impact we have on the world that will ripple out through eternity. Every one of us is a wellspring of unique possibility, a world unto ourselves.
However, the same Mishnah then continues:
[The human being was created alone also] so that no one person can say to his fellow, “My father is greater than your father!”
Here, the idea of a common ancestor seems to serve a quite different function. Rather than representing our unique capacity for creative potential, the story of Adam is an equalizing force, suggesting that on some level we are all the same. No one can claim an inherent superiority or special privilege, for we know that all human beings are descended from the same source. You are no different from your fellow human being.
So which is it? Does our Creation story tell each one of us that we are special, unique, unpredictable, and full of possibility? Or, does it remind us that we are, on some fundamental level, all the same — and, if so, what happens to all that possibility?
As if recognizing this tension, this Mishnah goes on to present a metaphor that offers something of a resolution:
“If a person casts many coins from one mold, they all resemble one another, but the Supreme Holy One, blessed be God, fashioned every person with the stamp of the first person, and yet not one of them resembles his fellow.”
No person is like any other, though we are all equal in our humanity, all drawn forth from the same genetic source material. Unlike the factory mold, which produces identical products, one after another, the Holy One is somehow able to imbue each person with both a wholly unique identity and a shared stamp of equality.
And what is this “stamp,” exactly? Surely it is the tzelem Elokim, the image of God, as we learn:
And God created the person in God’s image, in the image of God God created him, male and female He created them.(Genesis 1:27)
In other words, our common humanity is found in the imprint of the divine that each one of us receives. All people are equal, not simply because we trace our ancestry to the same place, but also because we are all united in our shared essential holiness, which cannot be denied or violated.
However, once we recognize what makes us alike, we then can turn to marvel at the remarkable diversity of humanity. Though we are stamped from the same mold, we are each unique, both in our various physical appearances and, more importantly, in our potential to live a life that has never been lived before — and, in so doing, to create a whole new world. That is why this same Mishnah comes, finally, to this bold proclamation:
Therefore, every one of us should say, “The world was created for me.”
Like the first person, each one of us is a completely unique creation, a promise of new possibilities, never seen before. The world is waiting.