The Unique Human Essence And Potential
By Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov Jax, FL.
Despite the handful of “cynics,” who saw it as nothing but a good photo-op, the Governor of a certain State was determined to go through with his sudden urge to do a good deed. He was going to pay a courtesy visit to a local Jewish Home for the aged. His desperate need for Jewish votes was, of course, just a coincidence.
Be that as it may, upon entering the facility, he walked up to the oldest resident in the room and, while vigorously shaking his hand, asks him: “Do you know who I am?”
The old-timer looks up at him with pity and says: “Oy vay! You too? Mister, I know exactly how you feel. You should take my advice. There’s a very nice lady there at the reception desk, she helps me out all the time. You should go see her too. Don’t be ashamed!”
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In 1798, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi was imprisoned. He was held in the Peter-Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg, Russia, on the charge that his teachings of Chassidism undermined the imperial authority of the Czar.
Among his interrogators was a government minister who possessed broad knowledge of the Bible and Jewish studies. On one occasion, the minister asked the Rebbe if he could explain the verse: “And G-d called out to the man and said to him: Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). Did G-d not know where Adam was?
Rabbi Schneur Zalman first offered him the simple explanation that is presented in the classic commentaries: “Where are you,” was merely a prelude. . .
“What Rashi says I already know,” replied the minister. “I was hoping to hear a deeper interpretation.”
The Rebbe then offered the following explanation: G-d inquired of Adam “Where are you in the world?” I.e. Do you understand the nature and purpose of your existence? G-d obviously knew where Adam was; His question was did Adam know where he was. “Where are you?” continued the Rebbe, is G-d’s perpetual call to every man.
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High on the list of world mysteries – up there with the avocado seed – Is man’s own complex identity. The struggle to understand the true “self” is as ancient as man’s debut on this planet. Contributing significantly to the perplexity of our self-status is our basic biological makeup.
A cursory examination of the human anatomy suggests that man’s overriding quality is his physical dimension. After all, man is required to devote a vast majority of his time, energy and attention to mundane bodily needs – eating, sleeping, exercising, attending to personal hygiene and a host of other petty functions, such as mow the lawn, walk the dog, pay the bills and of course, earn a living, to mention just a few. No wonder it is so difficult for man to determine his true identity and purpose in life.
If that is not enough, add to this age-old conundrum the complexities derived from a society in perpetual transformation and an already obscure issue has become even more tenuous. The proliferation of technology and science inevitably fuel the puzzle of human identity.
The breathtaking advances and discoveries of the past 400 years in physics, chemistry, biology, medicine and astronomy – despite their enormous benefit – have increased the challenge vis-à-vis true human identity and selfhood. Each new discovery brings answers that are accompanied by even more complex and difficult mysteries.
Medical science, for example, is rewriting the rulebook on biological identity. As people exchange organs, blood and bone marrow and get used to new techniques of reproduction – such as artificial insemination and surrogacy – the lines of parenthood become increasingly blurred.
The information/communications revolution has created a mysterious electronic landscape of new relationships, roles, identities and communities. The globalization of economics and politics only add to the confusion, as it sends people scurrying about the planet pulling up roots, trampling boundaries, letting go of old certainties of place, nationality, social role, and class . Put all these together and you have what amounts to a global identity crisis.
As we sober from our scientific intoxication, in what some view as the post scientific era, we find ourselves struggling for new definition and purpose. Questions like: What is life’s true purpose and where does the individual – a tiny speck in time and space – fit into the scheme of things, are raised with renewed intensity.
The issue of self-identity is truly crucial; it is at the heart of all the things we think and do. It is at the core of psychology and psychotherapy – to which society is turning in increasing numbers – as they are essentially institutionalized attempts to understand the human-self.
It is at the center of politics, inasmuch as who and what we are determines our mindset and attitude towards community and nation. It is obviously at the core of religion, since every faith seeks to cultivate a relationship between G-d and self.
Most important, however, is its relevance with respect to self-actualization. Anyone interested in self-development and personal improvement (and who is not?) must, sooner or later, confront the question of who is the “self.”
So, after all is said and done, what are we to make of man’s true substance? Is man really as earthy as he appears?
It appears almost juvenile to have to say it, but every human should, at the very least, be aware of what it is that makes him human – what distinguishes him from lower forms of existence. If we lack the basic knowledge of our essential character and substance, how can we possibly live up to our ultimate potential? Sadly, however, it is not as simple a feat as it may seem.
From a scientific perspective, the distinctive feature of man is his intellect. Scientifically, man is Homo sapience, or a gorilla with intellect. If a sub-human form of life could somehow be made more intelligent, it would no longer be sub-human. For that matter, if a human were to possess an insufficient amount of intellect, he should no longer be considered human but rather sub-human or less human. This kind of thinking has resulted in the advocacy of infanticide of children who are mentally defective. It is plain wrong.
The human being who considers himself superior to a hippopotamus, because he can surf the net, or operate a piece of mechanical or electronical equipment, is only quantitatively superior, he has really not risen much above animalistic existence. Intelligence alone is clearly not what makes us human.
What then is the core designation of a “human being”? It is only logical that the Torah – the Divine guide to human existence – would address this subject, and that it would do so early-on in its narrative.
This critical question is indeed directly addressed in our Parsha – the opening portion of the Torah. In one of the more famous quotes belonging to G-d:
“Let us make man with our image and likeness. Let him dominate the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock animals, and all the earth – and every land animal that walks the earth.” The narrative continues: “G-d thus created man with His image. In the image of G-d, He created him, male and female, He created them. G-d blessed them. G-d said to them, be fertile and become many. Fill the land and conquer it. Dominate the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every beast that walks the land.” – Genesis, 1: 26-28.
The above passages contain two statements wherein lie the clear definition and purpose of human existence. The first statement says that man possesses a G-dly image. “G-d created man with His image; in the image of G-d He created him.” The meaning of this extraordinary declaration is that there exists a Divine dimension within man – a G-dly and spiritual spark.
Man’s soul is derived from the very breath of G-d and therefore Divine in nature – a living spirit totally distinct from the vivifying soul present in animals, as the verse states: “And He blew into his nostrils a soul of living spirit” (Genesis 2:7).
In the second Chapter of Tanya Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi emphasizes – based on the Zohar which states: “He who blows, blows from within him” – that our souls stem from G-d’s inwardness and His innermost being.
The second statement, which defines man’s purpose for existence is the command for man to dominate the world. “Let him dominate the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock animals, and all the earth – and every land animal that walks the earth . . .” What is the connection between these two juxtaposed yet seemingly autonomous statements?
The answer is that together they enjoin man with an explicit mandate to govern and direct all of creation towards a higher purpose. This is to say that all of creation is intended to become an extension of the higher human existence.
Man is not a biological accident limited to self-gratification. Humans rather possess deep spiritual and cosmic significance – a goal oriented design and mission.
Having been created in the image of G-d – having been endowed with the potential and ability for holiness and spirituality – man is ordained to not only recognize and fulfill this enormous potential within himself but to engage the lower levels of creation in this process as well.
It is our actions that determine the life or death of each thing we hold; of each event that enters our life. We bring definition and resolution to an otherwise ambiguous world; we assign each thing its meaning. We alone have the ability to establish whether a thing will breathe with G-dly life, or idle itself into oblivion. To bring spiritual direction and meaning into our physical and materialistic world is then the true identity of man.
We must never lose sight of this G-d given purpose and responsibility. Should we lose sight of our purpose and identity, the complete opposite occurs, we become enslaved to the lower order of existence. We become dependent on the physical and materialistic elements within the world to define ourselves.
This idea is reflected in the following observation made by the commentaries on the earlier mentioned verse, “Let him dominate the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky.” The word “Ve-yirdu” (Let him dominate) connotes both “dominion” (derived from the word Radah) as well as “descent” (derived from the word Yarad). When man is worthy, explain our sages, he has dominion over the animal-material kingdom, when he is not, he descends below their level and the animal-material kingdom rules over him.
To paraphrase the above, the human can either dominate and influence the surrounding physical world (i.e. culture and technology) – raising it to a higher spiritual end – or be dominated and consumed by it. Rabbi Baruch of Medzibuz summarized this notion rather succinctly: “How pleasant is the world if we do not subjugate ourselves to it, and how difficult it is when we do.”
This notion is similarly implied in the plural pronouncement: “Let Us make man with Our image.” Why is this statement written in the plural, question the commentaries? Did not G-d alone create man?
Among others, the commentaries offer the following explanation: Each individual is a partner in his own creation. The Almighty has endowed each person with a wealth of potential – with an abundance of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual ability. Every person can achieve true majesty if he reaches high and nurtures that which is within his potential.
G-d is thus essentially saying to each person, “let us; you and I, work together to make man. I have created you; I have given you the raw materials. Now you do your part. Make the necessary effort to rise above the level of the animal. Use your G-d given abilities to make yourself into a ‘human being,’ the very best person you can be. Make the world into the very best place it can be.”
It is with the above in mind that our sages declare: “Privileged is man, for he was created in the image of G-d. It is even a greater privilege that it was made known to him that he was created in His image, as it is stated: For in the image of G-d was man created.” – Avot 3:5.