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7 Av 5766 - August 1, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
What is a Human Being?

By R' Dovid Kornreich

The secular world bombards us with messages — both explicit and implicit — that human beings are simply intelligent members of the animal kingdom. It would seem that the whole advertising industry is built upon the very profitable premise that we are very much subject to manipulation by internal drives and external pressures. They assume that we will react predictably to the stimuli in our environment, just like a laboratory rat. Some food here to motivate, some electric shock there to discourage — according to them, our decisions, behaviors, and even self- identities are molded by the reality that surrounds us.

Needless to say, this is a very distasteful reductionist view of humanity. What is our response to such a view?

Let us proceed to describe in limited detail what the Torah has to say about the true nature of Man.

Man's Uniqueness Among the Beasts

Literally from the very beginning, Man is uniquely referred to by Chazal as, "Yetzir capov shel HaKodosh Boruch Hu" (Midrash aggodoh Bereishis 11). Hashem fashioned Man as a singular being not "spawned by the waters" or "brought forth from the earth" as was all animal life — as mentioned in detail in the first perek of Bereishis.

The ninth and eleventh chapters of Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer have similar distinctions when elaborating on the details of Creation.

Midroshim speak of Odom having two unique parents: G-d and the Earth. The Kuzari and the Ramban inform us of the absolute clarity that we Jews are privileged to have about our origins. In his droshoh, "Toras Hashem Temimoh," (Chavel edition Vol. I page 144), the Ramban writes: "And the Torah is further a source of illumination even in its narratives and recording of history. For all of it is great wisdom and roots of belief.

"For we can infer from the simple sentences of Scripture that Levi was seen by Amram the father of Moshe. And Yaakov was seen by Levi. And Yaakov learned Torah from the mouth of Shem son of Noach, for Yaakov was fifty years old when Shem son of Noach died.

"Thus Moshe was capable of announcing in the presence of a large and powerful nation, among its sorcerers, men of witchcraft, and astrologers, the following public declaration: "My father [Amram] told me that his grandfather saw [a man who was present at] the Creation of the world." For the Mabul was like the Creation of the world [not simply a huge flood of water]. And whoever concedes to the [reality of the] Mabul must perforce concede to the Genesis of the world.

"And furthermore, Noach was present at a time in which he could see the First Man, about whom it was known that he himself was solitary in the world without any father or mother.

"It is a certainty that if this statement was false, all would have been aware of it, and he would have been contradicted by the many elders and wise men of the nation who knew history. For is it not common knowledge to our elders, of the popular events of two and three generations past? Of our family history, our housing and real estate, of people who rise to power and build certain edifices, and even events that are retold constantly?

"No-one can fabricate events of this magnitude that [should have been] famous.

"Additionally, he [Moshe] publicly announced [in the Torah] all the nations' pedigrees and the founding of their states; in summary, all the minute details of the Book of Bereishis.

"And similarly Rabbi Moshe [ben Maimon] explained in his book Moreh Nevuchim (III:50) the intention of the narratives of the Torah with all their genealogies were written to inform the truth of the Genesis [of the world] to the later generations . . . "

Thus the Rishonim make the point that Odom was aware of his unique status of not having biological parents. He passed this knowledge as a mesorah of Bri'as Ho'olom to Noach to refute the heretical theory of eternal matter.

Similarly, we make use of this same mesorah to refute the heretical notions that man is but another species of animal with all the physical limitations of a biochemical organism.

This divergence between Judaism and the nature-dominated views of the modern West was brought into sharp focus in the famous exchange between Reb Yaakov Kamenetsky and Yerucham Meshel, then the secretary-general of the Histadrut, on a plane ride. Yonoson Rosenblum, author of a book on the life of Reb Yaakov, depicted that exchange as follows:

"At the end of the flight, Meshel expressed his amazement at the way Reb Yaakov's son and granddaughter kept coming to talk to him and were so solicitous of his needs. Meshel confessed that he only rarely saw his own children and grandchildren.

"Reb Yaakov explained to him, `You believe in Darwin. In your children's eyes, you are just one generation closer to the apes than they are. But for us, the central event in history was the moment when Hashem spoke to the entire Jewish people at Sinai . . . My children and grandchildren honor me as being closer to that Revelation. They view me as someone who had contact with spiritual giants beyond their comprehension, and therefore attribute to me a wisdom and spiritual sensitivity that they lack.' "


Even in the second chapter of Bereishis where this distinction is left out, one need go no further than Rashi to again find a decisive difference. Only Odom's yetzirah was with two yuds — one for this world, and one for his final Resurrection. This is in contrast to all animals' death which is final.

But this is remarkable. It means that man's physical body can be mystically elevated to a sublime physical existence in Olom Habbo via Techiyas Hameisim. And even while yet living in this world, special human beings have been shown to be capable of reaching this spiritualization of the body — as is recorded regarding Chanoch, Serach bas Osher, Moshe Rabbenu (temporarily) and Eliyahu Hanovi (see Rabbeinu Bachya quoting the Rashba in Bereishis 1:21 discussing the Livyosson).

This surely implies that even the physical component of man cannot have any common origins with mere animals.

Alternatively, the gemora Brochos (61) understands these two Yuds as a reference to man's twin urges: the yetzer hatov and yetzer hora. Again, it needs to be emphasized that this dual nature of man is alluded to in the verse before G-d imbues man with his nishmas chaim, indicating the inherent ability to transform one's natural drives to serve one of two opposite inclinations.

Man's True Relationship With Nature

Nature's fate is inextricably bound with man. It can be brought to perfection and spiritualized by his actions, or it can be corrupted and "materialized" by them. Not vice- versa.

To illustrate this we have the Midrash Koheles Rabba (7:28) cited in the foundational first chapter of Mesillas Yeshorim entitled, "Chovas Ho'Odom Be'olomo." Man is given an awesome responsibility by G-d: "Dedicate your mind not to corrupt and destroy My world!"

The overall theme of Rav Chaim of Volozhin's holy sefer Nefesh HaChaim is to elucidate the metaphysical effects of Man on the worlds around him, including the material one. In particular in Shaar I perek 6 and Shaar II perek 6 he cites many references in the Zohar that provide a powerful "behind the scenes" depiction of Odom HoRishon's formation. All the elements of creation were instructed to contribute of their essence to man so that man would literally be a microcosm whose combined spiritual and physical being would encompass all of created existence.

As a direct result of this fateful relationship, the entire physical creation became more corporeal and distant from ruchniyus, as a result of Man's destructive choices throughout history.

The world's diminution from pre-Eitz-Hada'as existence to a post-Eitz-Hada'as one, marks a most radical and far-reaching metamorphosis. The more Kabbalistic works of the Ramchal such as Derech Hashem (1:3:5-11) and Daas Tevunos describe Odom's precipitous fall from immortality to bring death and decay to the entire world order. (The Ramchal explains the 6,000 years of world history to be followed by 1,000 years of desolation, mentioned Sanhedrin 97, as a direct consequence of this enormous sin.)

The language of all the curses on Odom and Cayin, Dor Hamabul, and Sodom and Amorah describes the very ground that they walked on to be either totally destroyed or otherwise adversely affected. After the Mabul, life needed to feed on other life to survive. Vicious competition and suffering in nature was the necessary by-product of man's own evil choices.

In the last perek of mishnayos Sotah we read of the loss of productivity and quality of the earth's produce as a consequence of the destruction of the Beis Hamikdosh — due to our failings. This deterioration of the physical earth is the horrifying reflection of the negative impact that sin has on the basic fabric of the physical world. As the gemora Sanhedrin (99b) warns us solemnly: "Va'asisem osom — Va'asisem atem."


In conclusion: It is not that modern man has been formed and conditioned by the natural world, or is dominated by animal drives of survival inherited from primitive ancestors. It is just the opposite. We find ourselves in a very unnatural world, vastly diminished and darkened. It is obstructed by our own actions from the pure light and harmony that is inherent in G-d's benevolent creation.

From all of the above it emerges that we cannot view ourselves as the sum total of our various natural drives and environmental stimuli. Rather it is the very nature of our physical existence which is affected and conditioned by the enormous spiritual power invested in the bechiroh of Man.

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