Parashat Bereishit: Breath of life

The breath with which the human being is endowed by God to communicate to others is a gift unique to humanity, and must be used to pass over a vital message.

311_wheat field (photo credit: KRT)
311_wheat field
(photo credit: KRT)
Since we conclude the yearly reading of the Five Books of Moses at the conclusion of the Tishrei festivals (Shmini Atzeret-Simhat Torah), there is certainly a link according to the calendar between Genesis and the New Year festivals. I believe there is a remarkable conceptual connection as well.
In this portion we read of Cain/Kayin, which is derived from a Hebrew word meaning material acquisition (4:1), and Abel/Hevel, which means the vapor that appears when one exhales in cold air. We are informed that Abel was a shepherd and Cain a tiller.
The 19th-century German scholars would suggest that a shepherd – who nurtures domestic animal life, and has plenty of time for meditation and the transmission of a tribal narrative, represents the development of culture, whereas Cain the tiller – who is engaged in the back-breaking work of tending the soil and garnering fruits and vegetables – fosters the development of the technological endeavor known as civilization.
Perhaps it was these very different outlooks and lifestyles which defined these two brothers and led the one, Cain, to murder the other. The very name Hevel has come to mean a breath – attesting to the seemingly insignificant period in which this hapless twin celebrated the world.
Nevertheless, seven generations later Cain has a direct descendant named Jabal/Yaval (born to Lemech and Adah), “the ancestor of those who dwell in tents and amidst herds of cattle (4:20);” the names Yaval and Hevel are so similar that it would prompt the reader to think Javal must have been at least inspired by his great-great uncle in terms of lifestyle and occupation; and Jabal’s brother Jubal – another name related to Hevel – is described as “the ancestor of all who play the lyre and the organ (4:21)” – an even more striking example of a non-material, aesthetic involvement with and attachment to “culture” rather than “civilization.”
The sages of the Midrash expand on this idea when they link King David, progenitor of the Messiah, to Adam by suggesting that Adam, who lived to the age of 930, gave 70 years of the 1,000 years he had been granted to King David, who had been decreed to die at birth; and the Zohar, mystical commentary on the Bible, maintains that David was a reparation for – or a soul transmigration of – Abel.
When we remember that David began his early years as a shepherd, that he was proficient in playing the lyre, and is credited by our sages with the composition of the Book of Psalms, and that he is described as having danced with ecstatic frenzy when the Holy Ark was returned from Philistia to Jerusalem, it is clear that David is a student of culture rather than civilization.
As another example of the unity of the Five Books of Moses, Leviticus describes the 50th year following the seven Sabbatical years as a foretaste of Redemption (messianic times) when all debts are to be rescinded, everyone is to return to his ancestral homestead and all slaves are to be freed: “And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year, proclaiming freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants; it is for you a Jubilee [Yovel]” (Leviticus 25:10) Now the declaration of this Jubilee Year is to be made by the blast of the shofar (ram’s horn) on Yom Kippur of the 50th year. Rashi maintains that the very term “Yovel” means shofar, and most commentaries find the etymological root in the Arabic yovel, which means ram, or ram’s horn.
I would rather suggest that the word Yovel is derived from hevel, or breath: referring to the breath of the Divine which inspirited a clod of earth to form man (Genesis 2:7), and the breath of the religious “musician,” who inspirits the “instrument” of the ram’s horn with the breath he received from God in order to extract from the animalistic aspect of the world a sound which will hopefully return humanity to the divine will of the King of the Universe.
The connection is profound. The breath with which the human being is endowed by God to communicate to others is a gift unique to humanity, and must be used to pass over to the next generations a vital message of culture and ethical conduct. Hevel, then, has the capacity to transform a fleeting and insignificant mortal into an eternal link in the great chain of human and humane history. It is about such hevel that our sages teach: “The world exists only because of the hevel of the young students in the Torah study halls of their masters.”
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.