Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Jewish Thought: The Potential to be Human

Rav Aryeh Leibowitz

A fundamental difference exists between mankind and all other creations.  When all other beings come into existence, they naturally occupy their destined level within creation.  When a plant emerges from the soil, it is a plant.  Similarly, an animal naturally develops into what an animal is intended to be.  Neither the plant nor the animal needs to distinguish itself from the level beneath it.  No lion spends his life striving to overcome his plant-like tendencies that draw him away from his goal of being an animal.

This is not the case with humanity.  At birth, man is very similar to an animal.  He is brought into the world only with the potential to be a man.  Man’s mission is to “grow into” his exalted level.  Only through great effort does man become a man.  Only by developing the neshama can an individual fulfill his potential and elevate himself to truly become a man. 

Wisdom is the pursuit that adds to man’s inner essence, and elevates him from a lowly level to an honorable level. Without wisdom he is only potentially a man, but with it he actually becomes a man. (Rambam, Introduction to the Mishna).

The creation of man as an imperfect being that possess tremendous potential is an anomaly in creation.  No other being is challenged to earn its position in creation.  An animal does not need to become an animal, it is created as such.  Only man is challenged to achieve his own true identity. 

The Breath of Life
In the verses discussing the creation of man, the Torah (Bereshis 2:7) teaches that God created man as a “living being (נפש חיה)” out of the earth.  However, it is startling to discover that this very same term – “a living being” – was utilized earlier by the Torah to describe the creation of the animals.  In that context Bereshis 1:24 reads, “God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living beings.’”  Do man and animal share the same distinction in creation?  Does mankind contain no elevation over the animal world, that both emerged as “a living being?” 

Furthermore, before stating that man emerged as a “living being,” the verse notes that God blew into man a “breath of life.”  The verse implies that it was specifically through this act of blowing – an event not found by the creation of the animals – that man emerged as a “living being.”   Why does the verse highlight this event if ultimately man emerged with the same designation of the animals, as a mere “living being?”  What did God’s “breath of life” add?

The resolution of these difficulties is forthcoming from our presentation thus far.  The “breath of life” that was blown into man contained a force that granted man the potential to occupy a distinct and exalted position in creation.  By blowing this “breath of life” into man, God made this potential a part of man’s essence.  But potential is only potential.  Actualization of this potential was placed in man’s hands. 

Accordingly, man truly emerged – like the animals – as a mere “living being.”  At birth, man is similar to all other living creatures, but he has the potential for so much more.  Only if he dedicates his life to actualizing his potential, will he transcend the animal kingdom.  If he fails to accomplish this goal, man remains, as he emerged: a “living being.” 

Kli Yakar (Genesis 2:7) suggests that for this reason God did not say: “It was good,” when He saw the creation of man, as He stated regarding the other creations.  The term “It was good” connotes a state of completion, and therefore it is omitted in reference to man, who is created in a state of potential.  Only after developing one’s potential and truly becoming a human being can man be described as “good.” 

This fundamental point in the creation of man is reflected in the Torah’s name for mankind: “Adam.”  Adam was the name of the first human being, and subsequently became the name for all of mankind.  Maharal suggests that man is called Adam (אדם) because of the Hebrew word “Adamah (אדמה),” which means earth or ground. 

On the most basic level this name is appropriate because man was created from the ground, as the verse states (Bereshis 2:7), “And God formed the man from the dirt of the ground.”  But on a deeper level, man’s name is associated with the ground because the dirt of the ground is a paradigm in nature for the development of raw potential.  When a seed is placed in the ground, the ground’s nutrients work in tandem with the proper external influences, such as water and sunlight, to bring out from the seed its potential.  With the right setting, the ground facilitates the seed to grow into a tree and produce fruits.  The very essence of ground is that it provides an environment for something to maximize its potential. 

The same is true with humanity.  The very essence of a man is that his life is an environment for maximizing potential.  At birth, man is like a fallow field of ground – pure potential.  With hard work and time, an empty field can develop into a plush garden or orchard.  So too, with hard work and time, man can actualize his potential and assume his exalted status in creation.  Like the ground that turns a seed into a towering tree, man is endowed with unique capabilities, and charged with the responsibility to nourish those capabilities and allow himself to grow to great heights.

The great Chassidic teacher, R. Yitzchak Meir Alter of Gur (d. 1866), explains that this analogy provides us a deeper appreciation for a line in the liturgy of the high holidays.  The Yom Kippur prayer states, “I am but dirt in my life.”  The simple explanation of this line is that man’s life is insignificant and fleeting.  But according to R. Yitzchak Meir Alter this line bemoans man’s failed potential.  Like the dirt of the Earth, man contains tremendous potential for growth.  How tragic it is when man looks at his life, and realizes he is still mere dirt, not having yet actualized his potential.

In this vain, an individual who is progressing well in the development of his potential is compared by the Torah to a tree, as the verse states (Devarim 20:19), “For man is a tree of the field.”[1]  Similarly, the positive actions of a person are called fruits, as the prophet Isaiah states (Yeshaya 3:10), “Tell the righteous man that [his actions] are good, for [the righteous] will enjoy the fruits of their actions,” and our Sages teach in regards to righteous deeds (Peah 1:1), “These are things that man enjoys the fruits in this world…”

[1] When one studies the immediate context of this verse it emerges that the plain meaning of the verse is a rhetorical question, “For is man a tree of the field?”  However, in rabbinic literature this phrase was homiletically interpreted to be a statement.

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