"You Created Me Both First and Last"
Summarized by Dov Karoll
The first Rashi on this week's parasha (12:1) quotes a Midrash Rabba (parasha 14:1) in the name of Rabbi Simlai. He explains the relative order of the end of last week's parasha and the beginning of this week's parasha: the laws regarding HUMAN purity and impurity (Chapters 12-15) follow the laws of ANIMAL purity and impurity (Chapter 11), parallel to the order of creation in Bereishit Chapter 1 - the animals first and man afterward. Based upon this statement alone, the significance of this order is unclear.
In the Midrash itself, there are a series of statements preceding Rabbi Simlai's which do relate to the significance of the order of creation as described in the Torah. These statements utilize the verse (Tehillim 139:5), "Achor va-kedem tzartani," which the Midrash understands to mean, "You created me both first and last." According to Rabbi Elazar, man was created both before ("achor") the animals and after them ("kedem"). How so? In his interpretation, the verse "Let the land give forth a living soul (nefesh chaya) to all its various species" (Bereishit 1:24) refers to the soul of Adam. Thus, although the creation of Adam's soul preceded the creation of the animals, man himself was created "last" - after the animals. According to Rabbi Elazar, while man is more significant than the animals and therefore his spirit precedes them ("achor," first), the animals are created first, making man last ("kedem").
The Midrash then cites the opposing view of Resh Lakish. He interprets the word "achor" to be a reference to the last day of creation, and the word "kedem" to be a reference to the first day. His bases this on the verse (Bereishit 1:2), "And the spirit of God hovered over the waters," which he interprets as a reference to the spirit of Mashiach (the Messiah), symbolic of the meta-historical process. According to Resh Lakish, the conceptual basis for the entirety of human existence precedes all of creation. In other words, the direction and purpose of man's existence is the basis for creation. While man is created "achor" (last), his creation is planned and considered from the very beginning, "kedem" (first).
These views reflect a broader, dialectical view of creation. In Chapter 1 of Bereishit, man is created as one element within the creation of nature. He is not an independent element, not even created on his own day. He is created as the second stage of the sixth day, following the animals. He exists within the same framework, on the same playing field, as the rest of creation. Rabbi Elazar's interpretation of the verse reflects this version of creation, as both imply that man is essentially part of the animal world, only slightly more significant than them.
However, in Chapter 2, man is the focal point of creation. He is created when all that exists is "the heaven and the earth," with no other life present. All animal and plant life is created subsequently, on man's behalf. Man is the central figure in the creation of the world, and thus is an independent entity, not dependent on the animals. Resh Lakish's interpretation can be associated with this version of creation, since both assume that man is qualitatively different than the rest of creation.
The continuation of the Midrash offers a resolution to the two conflicting models of Rabbi Elazar and Resh Lakish, reflecting Chapters 1 and 2 of Bereishit respectively. The Midrash explains: "If man merits it, it is said to him: 'You preceded all the rest of creation.' And if man does not merit it, it is said to him: 'The mosquito and earthworm preceded you in creation.'" It is unclear what the word "zakha" (merit) is referring to. It would seem to be a reference to purpose of man's existence, as stated in Chapter 2: Adam is placed in the Garden of Eden "le-ovdah u-leshomrah," "to work and cultivate it" (2:15). He is then immediately given the first command - "Va-yetzav Hashem Elokim al ha-Adam...," "And then the Lord God commanded Adam..." (2:16). Man in Chapter 2 is characterized by responsibility and accountability, the readiness to answer to the Divine command. Recognizing this, we can understand the Midrash's statement to mean: "If a person is meritorious, through being accountable to Divine command, it is said of him that he has preceded all of creation - qualitatively." A person who lives a life filled with Torah and mitzvot, subservience and obedience to God, responsibility and accountability to a higher source, represents man as the focal point and central element of all creation.
As I mentioned before, Chapter 2 is not the only description of creation. In the description of creation in Chapter 1, God says to man (1:28): "Be fruitful and multiply, fill the land and subdue it; rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky and all animals walking upon the earth." However, this can be viewed as a blessing and not a command, as indicated by the introductory term "va-yevarekh," "and He blessed him," which is the same term used to introduce the blessing to the fish and birds (1:22). Like the fish and birds, man in Chapter 1 is not given responsibility; rather, he is given the blessing of controlling nature.
In the context of this version of creation, the Midrash comes to emphasize the significance of accepting responsibility. If man does not accept responsibility, then even though he may be the most powerful creature in the natural world, he is nevertheless looked upon as having been created after all the other animals. While its general direction points to a rise in sophistication, the chronological order of creation still contains an element of decreasing significance which cannot be ignored.
Within the model of the accountable man of Chapter 2, there are two elements to the "zekhut" or merit. The word "zekhut" comes from a similar root to that of "zikukh," meaning purification or refining. The more a person answers the Divine command, the more he becomes purified and closer he comes to God. As the Mishna (Makkot 23b) teaches: "Rabbi Chananya ben Akashya said: 'God wanted to bring merit to Israel, therefore he increased for them Torah and commandments.'" To the extent that a person is accountable to God, and desires to come closer to Him, the multitude of commands which he fulfills serve to contribute to his merit. He loves the many regulations which guide the way he should live his life. Within this framework, he strives to come near to God, and fulfill His goals. Since he has been given a large quantity of commandments, he gathers together his strength and concentrates his energy on the fulfillment of that goal. For someone who is able to rise to this challenge, a life of commandment is certainly a merit for him. This is something every Jew must strive toward. Since this task is so difficult for most people, the Halakha requires that a gentile who wishes to convert be informed of how challenging it is to be a Jew. It is not a simple task. However, if one is up to the challenge, it is a purifying and ennobling experience. A person should not settle with what he has, but must rather strive toward this higher goal.
(Originally delivered at Seuda Shelishit, Shabbat Parashat Tazria 5757.)