Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Earning Your Humanity

Rav Aryeh Leibowitz

God entrusted man with a precious gift, a Godly neshama.  Therefore man has a responsibility to engage this divine force within him and through this engagement live an elevated existence.[1]  But, “responsibility” means that achievement is not a given, and it is up to man to consciously choose to seek out his elevated potential.  

It is worthy to note that God created man in a way that allows him to primarily focus on his neshama.  Amazingly, man’s blood flows, his heart beats, and innumerable other processes function without any conscious direction from man himself.  From before a baby is born, and throughout a person’s life, the body generally functions on its own.  It is good that this is the case.  If man was required to constantly tend to these tasks, his attention would be forever focused on survival.  God created the human body in a way that man’s intellect can be free to engage his neshama through amassing wisdom, developing proper deeds, etc. [2]  

But too often man ignores this divine responsibility.  Instead of engaging his neshama by developing his intelligence and pursuing wisdom, deepening his character, and refining his behavior, man often focuses on other pursuits.  In fact, many human beings ignore the elevated components of their neshama, and instead direct their attention toward those pursuits they share with the lower level creations. 


When a person fails to engage his neshama, does not utilize his mind to acquire true wisdom, and does not choose to perform good deeds and live an elevated existence, the result is catastrophic for the individual.  He is plunged into an existence that does not reflect his true elevated potential.  By ignoring his divinely assigned mission to develop the elements of his self that are distinct from the rest of creation, he in effect rejects his own humanity

If a person’s existence is not dedicated to transcending the lower creations, when he is content acting like a more sophisticated animal rather than an elevated human being, he defaults on his elevated status and, in a sense, is relegated to the domain of the lower level creations that he failed to transcend.[3]

The degradation of man to the level of the animals is related in the Torah, where we are told that during the generation of the flood, mankind failed in their divine mission.  The verse describes God’s disappointment with mankind, and in this context the Torah uses the word for “meat” (בשר) in reference to man.
And God said, “My spirit shall not contend evermore concerning man since he is but meat - his days shall be a hundred and twenty years.” (Bereshis 6:3)

Ramban explains that the Torah uses this peculiar term for man, “meat,” in order to draw an equation between mankind and the animals.  Because the human population at the time of the flood failed to pursue the elevated potential of mankind, their destiny united with the destiny of the animals.  Man was no longer an elevated human being, but had become a “piece of meat,” no different than the animals.

This usage of the term “meat” also appears in Psalms 78, where King David reviews a number of events in Jewish history.  Recalling God’s patience with the Jewish nation, King David states, “Nevertheless, the Merciful One is forgiving of iniquity and does not destroy… For He remembered that they were but meat” (verses 38-39).  Meaning: God was slow to punish the Jewish nation, for He knew that they were but “meat,” weak-willed and prone to vices.

If man fails to assume his humanity through the pursuit of truth, the development of character, and the practice of proper behavior, man not only becomes akin to the animals, but also becomes a destructive force in creation.[4] In a sense, man becomes even worse than the animals.[5]  Rambam writes,

Anyone who does not reach his potential, which we have described, is not a man, but rather an animal in a human body.  Yet, he gains an ability to wreak many forms of damage and evils, an ability that is not found by the other living creatures.  (Moreh Nevuchim I:7)

R. Bachya ibn Pekuda in his Chovos ha-Levavos goes even further.  He states that a person who fails to live up to the ideals of mankind is worse that the living creatures.  The living creatures are successfully living according to their intended purpose, while a human being who ignores his elevated status is failing in his divinely assigned role.

[1] A quick review of some of the major points that got us to this point:  (1) The Rambam’s theory that God created the world for those who are wise in thought and good in deed.  (2) Wisdom and deed are products of that which distinguishes man from all other creations– the human mind. (3) The human mind is a product of man’s neshama – the divine element in man that acquires for him his exalted position in creation.  
[2] Sifsei Chayim, Middos ve-Avodas Hashem, Vol. 2, p. 86-87. 

[3] R. Shlomo b. Avraham Aderet (Rashba, d. 1310) writes in a responsum (1:194) that no matter how far a person strays from his divine role, he never truly loses his human status.  Rashba remarks: He is “still a human and not an animal.”  Therefore, such a person is still a source of ritual impurity (tumah) and his acts of marriage and divorce are legally binding in Jewish law.

[4] In fact, it has been noted that the first letters of man’s three primary organs – Brain (מוח), Heart (לב), and Liver (כליות) – spells the Hebrew word for King (מלך).  When man’s neshama has dominion of his other lower properties – i.e. his structure is upright and proper - he is the pinnacle of creation, the king.  But when he does not, so then he is reflected by the word spelled by the inversion of primary organs – destruction (כלם).

[5] A similar idea was expressed by the great third century sage, R. Shimon b. Lakish, who stated (Bereshis Rabbah 8, 1) that man was created at the end of creation in order to highlight this dialectic.  If man spends his life seeking to fulfills his potential and assume his exalted position in the hierarchy of creation, then the fact he was created at the end of creation reflects his being the pinnacle of creation.  If however, he defaults on his responsibility to elevate himself, it can be said of him, “Even a fly was [created] before you; even a mosquito was [created] before you.”

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