This text reminds us that our generations stretch all the way back to the first human, Adam. And it teaches us that my ancestor was no better than your ancestor. A basic commonality underlies all humanity and demands equal rights in a way that is fundamentally at odds with racism, classism, and xenophobia.
Contextually, the text reminds us that our greatest moral achievements come from places of tragedy. We find these verses in the midst of the Mishnah’s discussion of capital punishment: A severe crime has been committed, leaving lives devastated and a community torn asunder. Out of this grief — the Mishnah does not share America’s blasé approach to execution — comes a series of grand statements about the immense worth and unique value of every human life.
Similarly (though on a much bigger scale), the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights was born out of the Holocaust and developed along with a new global consensus that the age of sovereignty — in which a state could do whatever it wished within its own borders — must give way to a new era, acknowledging a higher moral authority. Now, when governments commit atrocities, we at least have language for holding them accountable. This “naming” is our birthright. Adam gave names to all the animals (Gen. 2:19-20) so he could know what they were. We, the children of Adam, b’nei Adam, give names to everything, including our crimes, so we can deal with them.
My father, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, taught me dignity, loyalty, and a love of stories. But, as a parent, he had his limitations. When he couldn’t accept my independent life, I adopted new fathers to guide me, drawn from my college education in psychology and the music that gave me comfort in a lonely secular world: Carl Jung advised me on the psyche, Leonard Cohen on the Jewish soul. Their calls for passion and emotional openness wove into my father’s lessons to make a richer paternal heritage.
A personal “mythology” like this — a simple, stirring imaginative narrative — can be strong enough to shape a life. On the societal scale, it can shape a culture.
When reality feels bleak, mythology can be a mental scaffold, allowing us to envision and then embody a story line we might not yet know how to live. As Rabbi Meirowitz Nelson points out, the myth of a common father, Adam, was used amid tragedy to envision a new norm in which every life had inalienable value.
Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. once transformed our nation with this kind of epic storytelling. He imagined a time when the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. In this perilous moment, I hope we will combat stories of hate and fear by building grand new tales of hope, justice, and a universal family.
I recently purchased a DNA kit after reviewing my father’s DNA results last December. I was so excited to find out where on the continent of Africa I originated and what other nations my family might be connected to. Knowing one’s ancestry is powerful and provides the opportunity to explore one’s heritage and the legacies of previous generations.
To be sure, though, using a classification such as the historic “one-drop rule,” which aimed to define racial purity, white supremacy culture has used ancestry to perpetuate systems of discrimination and oppression. This rule asserted, if you have at least one ancestor from Africa, you are considered black, no matter your skin tone or heritage.
Fortunately, our sages left us with a blueprint that leads us toward a more inclusive understanding of our ancestry. We are indeed descendants of one common ancestor, Adam — the first human. And, as Rabbi Lev Meirowitz Nelson points out, our common ancestral rootedness demands equality.
And yet, in order for this equality to exist, we have to find ways to affirm this common humanity in each other. We must resist the legacy of white supremacy: a culture of hatred, isolation, and utter disregard for one another. We can resist by reminding ourselves of our shared ancestry, a fact that scientists confirm through our mitochondrial (maternal) DNA, offering a legacy of liberation rooted in real and meaningful connection, compassion, and dignity.