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Cantor Comments - Parshat Bereshit                            October 17, 2020  - 29 Tishrei 5781

10/16/2020 10:56:28 AM


“I'm always pushing for human responsibility. Given that chimpanzees and many other animals are sentient and sapient, then we should treat them with respect.”
--Jane Goodall (1934-), primatologist and anthropologist

What is sentience?  How do we determine whether an organism is sentient?  Is it a measure of the awareness of self?  A measure of intelligence or cognition?  To be perfectly honest, I actually don’t know what the answer is.  I think it should be easy enough for everyone to agree, though, that human beings today are sentient, and that if we go far back enough along the evolutionary chain, we must eventually come across some kind of homo sapien ancestor who is not sentient, even if we have to go as far back as a single-celled organism.  I can also admit that I have no idea whether the human transition to sentience was an extremely long and gradual process, or whether it was a short one in our evolutionary history.  But no matter what, we must be able to say at some point a transition happened.  Whether we are talking about one individual who was the first to be sentient, or a larger group over a longer period of time, let’s metaphorically call these first individuals Adam and Eve.

“And God formed the man of dust from the ground, and He blew into his nostrils the soul of life; and man became a living being.” (Gen. 2:7).  The story of sentient humanity begins.  The human, becoming self-aware, began to try and understand the world in which he or she lived which seemed to magically have everything that was needed for survival, shelter in caves, fruit and berries for food, a care-free Garden of Eden.  Except, it was not entirely care-free because there existed in it something that was forbidden.  The sentient human does not yet have a sense of morality, but only a rudimentary understanding of a distinction between things that can be used for benefit ,and things that, unless avoided, will cause harm.  The latter is represented by the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Meanwhile, “God had formed out of the ground every beast of the field and every bird of the sky and brought them to the man to see what he would call each one; and whatever the man called each living creature, that remained its name.” (Gen. 2:19) According to our metaphor, this translates to the sentient human gaining intellect, learning rudimentary language and assigning names to the animals and other objects around him, whether gestural or vocal so that more complex ideas can shared between other capable human beings.  As language develops, and human social interaction develops, man and woman are able to bond as a pair beyond sexuality and we now have intimacy.  I believe this concept is particularly well reflected in the biblical language as God describes the intention for the partnership between man and woman to be ‘ezer k’negdo’ – literally translated as ‘a helpmate opposite him’, a relationship based first on social interaction, not on sexuality.

At this point, what we’ve done is draw a parallel between what we can reasonably understand about the anthropological development of human sentience and the biblical narrative.  But we could rightly ask, what do we actually learn from this?  Let me suggest that what we are really learning about here is the nature of God.  Although God may be personified in the story of creation, as strange as it may feel to say it, the Jewish concept of God is that God is not a person.  Traditionally, God is more easily described by what He is not, than by what He is.  The traditional positive description of God comes from Exodus 34:6-7, “God, compassionate and gracious, preserver of kindness for thousands of generations, forgiver of iniquity, willful sin and error, and who cleanses”.  However, in light of our exploration of the story of Adam and Even, perhaps we might also say that God is the source of sentience in the universe, and creator of purpose.  While it is demonstrably true that the universe could certainly exist without sentience, what would be the point?  Why should it matter at all whether or not the universe exists if there is no being who can appreciate it?  Make something of it?  Fill it with amazing things?  You might even say that sentience IS the point of the universe.  Humanity, therefore, is God’s gift to the universe that it might know itself.  We learn from this that our sentience is a precious gift, and that we are meant to use it to learn, explore, feel, create, and show our gratitude to God who gave it to us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Mon, July 4 2022 5 Tammuz 5782