In the Beginning, One Being

In this unit we will look at several sources that explore the uniqueness of the human being and what that means for Judaism’s approach to diversity.

Resource Ages: 15-18


Mishnah, Tractate Sanhedrin 4:5

Compilation of teachings of 3rd century BCE–3rd century CE scholars in Eretz Israel (tanna’im); compiled and edited by Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi.

This is why the human being was created as a sole creature at first…

to maintain peace among members of the human race, so that none should say to another, My progenitor is greater than yours. 

And also so that heretics not say, There are many authorities in Heaven

And to relate the greatness of God – for when a person mints several coins with one press, they are all similar to each other, but God “minted” all humans with the press of the first human, and yet none are similar to another.

Rabbi Yoetz Kim Kadish Rakatz, Siach Sarfei Kodesh I, 233

(Early 20th century) Publisher and Chasidic writer.

I further heard in the name [of Rabbi Simchah Bunim of Peshischa (Poland, 1765–1827)], that he said every person must have two pockets to use when they need it. In one pocket [a note that reads], “For me the world was created” (Mishnah, Tractate Sanhedrin 4:5). In the other [a note that reads], “I am dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27).

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Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • What factors shape our values and beliefs?
  • How is the Torah story my story?
  • How do Jewish texts help me grapple with questions of life, the universe and everything?
  • How is Jewish text a vehicle to help us access connections to God?

Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • How are all humans unique?
  • How are all humans the same?
  • How can humans be created in the image of God and from the dust of the earth? 
  • How do we balance these ideas in our everyday lives?
  • What is Judaism’s approach to diversity and inclusion?

Background for Teacher

Mishnah, Tractate Sanhedrin 4:5 Context of the Mishna: This selection from the Mishnah is part of a longer fire-and-brimstone speech delivered by the officers of the court to witnesses in capital cases. The intent is to intimidate the witness in two directions – one...

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Mishnah, Tractate Sanhedrin 4:5

Context of the Mishna: This selection from the Mishnah is part of a longer fire-and-brimstone speech delivered by the officers of the court to witnesses in capital cases. The intent is to intimidate the witness in two directions – one is that the witness should not falsify his testimony, and the other is that the witness should not hold back essential details from his statement. As part of these remarks to the witness, the officers of the court examine reasons for why the human species started out with only a single couple – a male and a female, as opposed to the way the animals were created, many males and many females all at once. The Mishnah offers a number of explanations for this, three of which are offered in this selection.

Answer 1 – all humans are equal: The first answer in this selection is to keep people from comparing their genealogies, their yichus ( יִחוסּ ), in order to prove how much bluer their blood is than that of the others. In the end, all human beings trace back to the same ancestor and they form one race and one species. Despite all people having the same origin, still people play the genealogy game, and so the witnesses are told that the court will not take into consideration who the witnesses’ father or mother are, nor should the witness take into consideration the defendant’s lineage. If the person committed the crime, they should suffer the consequences.

Answer 2 – all humans are created by the one God: The second answer sees God acting against future idolaters who will seize the chance to claim that the different types of humans descend from different gods, and that not all people are created equal. Here too the witness is warned not to pay heed to such pagan thoughts and to recall that all humans were created by the one sole God.

Answer 3 – all humans are unique: The third answer here provides a balance to the first two in this selection. If all people are created by one God and trace themselves back to the same ancestor with no one being greater than anyone else, then all people are ultimately the same and it should not matter if there is one more or one less in the world. This line of thinking would effectively undermine the attempt to intimidate the witness to provide honest and truthful testimony. For this reason, the person is told that while all humans are essentially the same, each still has an individuality that makes that person unique. This applies to the defendant who may be put to death needlessly if the witness provides wrong testimony, or it may lead to the witness being killed needlessly if he perjures himself on the witness stand. 

This response of the Rabbis, written close to  2000 years ago, offers a surprising view at a time when the equal worth of all human lives in the eyes of the world was far from being a given. 

Each unique human has a unique purpose: There may be another idea embedded in this Mishnah as well. If every person is unique in some way and thus has value, intrinsic value, it may also be that every person has a unique purpose in the world. It would be in this that God’s greatness lies. To create many coins from one mold and have them all looking different seems like a great magic trick. But to create many individuals from one mold where each serves a purpose in God’s plan and design for the world is an idea that fits the purpose of the sermon – the witness is being told that perhaps this is the purpose for which he was brought into the world: to serve as a witness in this case to either have a murderous person convicted or to have an innocent person set free. In this way, the witness is encouraged to share what he knows with the court.

In an interesting way, this Mishnah parallels the first two chapters of Bereshit. That each person is no different from anyone else brings to mind that each is created from the dust of the earth and is just another speck. On the other hand, each also has unique identity and purpose in the world, and in this way, they are a model of being created in the image of the unique God.


Rabbi Yoetz Kim Kadish Rakatz, Siach Sarfei Kodesh I, 233

Finding the right balance: Rabbi Simchah Bunim used this story to teach that humans ought not feel too self-confident and powerful ,as that can lead to disregard for others. On the other hand, if they are too humble and modest ,they might despair in the feeling of worthlessness. Therefore, one must find the balance. Perhaps this is the takeaway of the previous text about people being at once all the same and all unique.


Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Remarks at the 2016 LGBT Health Forum

United in diversity: Waxman gives modern expression to the talmudic ideas explored above and chooses to see in the seemingly conflicting perspectives of being all endowed with the same Godly presence and yet each being different a message of inclusion for modern communities. It is true that each person is different, having distinct outward appearances, personal challenges, and cultural backgrounds, but each is part of the way God chose to create humanity. And each carries a holiness to be respected and embraced so that human society can celebrate the image of God that shines through each being. 

“One cannot be Jewish alone.” Even the briefest glance at any version of the list of the traditional 613 mitzvot of the Torah should convince a person of the truth of  Waxman’s statement. There are mitzvot that can only be performed by women, and those that can only be performed by men. Such that are for kohanim and others that are only for the general Israelite population. And there are a few that need a family or they cannot be fulfilled.

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities

Show your students this clip from the movie Hugo, where the characters discuss every human having an individual purpose. Use the following questions to discuss some of the themes that will be explored in this unit:

    • Would you say all humans are alike or unique from each other?
    • What do you think the boy in the clip thinks?
    • If every human is unique, what does this say about each person’s purpose in this world?
    • How is this message found in the clip? Explain the metaphor the boy uses.
    • How are you unique? What will your unique contribution to the world be?


The first source in this unit is a well-known Mishna which presents Judaism’s unique approach to balancing the commonality in our humanity (that we are all created by the same God, all descended from the same human being) which maintains universal equality, together with human uniqueness (and what that says about our Creator).  The following questions may help explore these themes:

  • Why is it important to remember that we are all created by the same God, and all descended from the same human being (Adam)?
  • What is the meaning of the metaphor that all humans are “minted from the same press”? 
  • What is it that all humans have in common?
  • How then are all humans unique?
  • What does this say about humans?
  • What does this say about their Creator?

The next source is a famous Hassidic story whose message is the importance of balancing the two sides to Judaism’s approach to the creation of humanity (image of God vs. dust of the earth). Perhaps this also parallels the notion that we are also all the same yet at the same time unique.  The following questions explore this further:

  • What is the danger in only focusing on the fact that we are created by God in the image of God?
  • What is the danger only focusing on that we are created from the dust of the earth?
  • Why is it important to have a balance between these two approaches?
  • Why does Rabbi Simcha Bunim tell us to write these on paper and have them in our pockets?

The source highlights that if all humans are created in the image of God, there is tremendous value to each individual, in all their uniqueness (despite all being the same on some level – by being created in the image of God). This allows respect and inclusion of all people in all their diversity.

  • How can we all be created in the image of God yet be so different?
  • Is it a challenge to see the image of God (and our own image) in people that are very different to us?
  • How can we work to do this more?
  • What does it mean that “one cannot be Jewish alone”?
  • How is the Jewish value of community proof for the importance of celebrating diversity and inclusion?

For a similar and equally thought provoking approach, a text from Rabbi Linda Bertenthal, entitled Reflecting God’s Image has been included in the appendix.

  • To help your students connect in a personal way to the concept that every human being is unique, ask them to create an autobiographical profile (either visually, using an image/images or in written form) entitled “How I am unique”
  • The following activity links the opening hook to this unit, encouraging your students to explore their unique contribution to the world (and in so doing their own uniqueness) 
    • Read to your students the following story:
      In 1888, Alfred Nobel, the man who invented dynamite, was reading his morning papers when, with a shock, he found himself reading his own obituary. It turned out that a journalist had made a simple mistake. It was Nobel’s brother who had died.
      What horrified Nobel was what he read. It spoke about “the dynamite king” who had made a fortune from explosives. Nobel suddenly realized that if he did not change his life, that was all he would be remembered for. At that moment he decided to dedicate his fortune to creating five annual prizes for those who’d made outstanding contributions in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace. Nobel chose to be remembered not for selling weapons of destruction but for honoring contributions to human knowledge.
    • Ask your students to imagine they have won Time Magazine person of the year award. Ask them to write the article describing their achievements and contribution to the world. What is their greatest achievements? What will they be remembered for? How have they made the world a better place? How have they achieved a unique contribution to the world?