Some people use to say that one of the traits that makes the Human different from animals is the capacity of self awareness. The Human is capable of self thinking, self analyzing. Nonetheless, together with this characteristic, the Human has the possibility of thinking of others, to be aware of the being of the fellow one. We should then change the definition of that “differentiating trait”, saying that the Human differs from the animals by his/her capacity of being aware simultaneously of him/herself and the others.
This does not mean, regretfully, that we actually succeed to fulfill that capacity. It seems simple, but it turns to be pretty difficult to do it at the same time and with the same vehemence. We do think of others, yes… but to take them on account when “I” or “me” are the focus? Conversely, highlighting the “I” when we are so busy being altruistic? These two situations are understood as contradictions: either you are egoist or altruist.
However this may be the principal mission we have as Human Beings: to know how to put the “I” and the “other” under the same intensity of awareness, without making any of them loose strength. It is about finding the balance between egoism and altruism.
Parshat Bereshit shows us to extreme examples of the first problem: the difficulty of taking others on account, the difficulty of getting out the “I” so as to regard the fellow person. Examples where the “I” in the center causes damage to the other one.
The first one is the case of eating from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Eve saw that the fruit was good to eat. She though only of what is good for her (even though she knew this “good” was forbidden). From this selfish thought she concluded that it must be good for her man. She didn’t ask him, she didn’t took him on account. If it is good for her, then it is good for the other one. Adam, for his part, he doesn’t take any responsibility for what he did. The Torah says “She gave to her man, with her, and he ate”: he was with her, he saw, she gave, he ate. When God asks “Have you eaten?”, Adam’s answer is: “The woman You have given me, she gave it”. I am not responsible of this, he says: it is You, God, and the woman. Adam thinks only of himself, evades responsibility and blames somebody else.
The second case is the killing of Abel. Cain brought an offer. Abel imitates him and is even rewarded, but he fails to thank Cain, or even to acknowledge Cain as the owner of the original idea. Cain does not hear his brother (we don’t know whether Abel even managed to say something): he speaks, he is angry he kills. There is a very interesting midrash in Bereshit Rabbah (22:7) that explains that Cain and Abel argued about ownership of things in the world. None of them was ready to share with his fellow. “I”, “me”, “mine” were the dominant ideas in the argument, with no place of the “other” one. Here again, when God asks Cain, he evades responsibility and blames, now subtly, somebody else (blames God, like his father): “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Is it me the keeper? Isn’t it rather You, God? He thinks only of himself, of his anger, of the offense on him.
After the story of the creation of the Human Being, in the second chapter of Genesis, God declares: “It is not good the Human should be alone”. The intention of the phrase may be that it is not good for the Human to see him/herself as the only one in the Creation, to think that only he or she is worthwhile. Another interesting midrash says:
“The Holy, Blessed be He, said: I am alone in My world and he is alone in his. I don’t reproduce and he does not reproduce. The creatures may say, “since he does not reproduce, he is our creator”! It is not good the Human should be alone”. (Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer 12).
It is not good for the Human to see him/herself as God, alone and almighty. Because then the Human will not take on account the fellow person and will destroy, instead of building.
The “I” is important to state “He I am”, to state “I exist, but not alone”, “I am here for me and for the others”. This is the human trait that differentiates us from the animals. And we have to activate that characteristic.
Following the dictum of Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be? But if I am only for myself, what am I?”
Maybe this is all what the Torah is about: from Brith Milah to Shabbat, from Kashrut to the forbidden intimate relations, from the prohibition of stealing to building a balustrade, from the first tithe to eating Matzah, from “Love God” to “You should love the stranger”, through “Love your neighbor as yourself”.