<I>Bereishit</I>: I Speak, Therefore I Am

In the words of the sacred <i>Zohar</i>, cited in the first chapter of the <I>Tanya</I> of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad (Lubavitch) Hassidism, "Anyone who exhales, exhales from the essence of his innermost being."

Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin,

rabbi riskin.jpg
rabbi riskin.jpg
Arutz 7
What is the most distinctive feature of the human being, which sets him apart from the animal world and places humanity in a sui generis, unique position in this very complex universe in which we live?

The philosopher Descartes taught, Cogit, ergo sum, "I think, therefore I am," suggesting that it is the gift of intelligence that is humanity's most vital possession. My revered teacher, Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik, once maintained that it is the human ability - and necessity - to take responsibility for his or her own life as well as for the lives around him or her, which is the most important aspect of the human personality. But it is Aristotle's definition that I believe is closest to the Biblical outlook when he describes the human being as a social animal, or an animal that has the ability to communicate with others.
 
I would like to begin my analysis of this most significant aspect of the human character with a fascinating commentary of Rabbi Isaac Abrabanel (15th century Spain). This week's portion of Bereishit, the renewal of our yearly cycle of Biblical readings, tells the story of the Creation of Adam, the first human being, and from Adam's very essential self, Eve. "And the Lord G-d caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man and he slept; and He took one of his sides and closed up the flesh beneath it," thereby fashioning the first woman (Genesis 2:21).

What follows this account (in Chapter 3 of Genesis) is the fall of man and woman with their sin of eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, without any record of conversation between them either before or after they succumb to temptation. Indeed, Adam only voices recriminations against the "woman whom you gave to me, she gave from the tree and I ate." (Genesis 3:12) And at this point, we are told of the punishment meted out by G-d to the first man and woman, and then to the serpent.
 
Adam then continues his task of naming the various creatures in the world: "And Adam called the name of his wife Chavah, because she is the mother of all human beings." The Hebew chai means "life", but Chavah may well be from a similar, but nevertheless somewhat different root word; the Abrabanel suggests that ch-v-h means a "communicator", a woman of words, as we find in Psalm 19:3 ("Night unto night communicates [yechaveh] knowledge"); in Job (36:2) and even in our modern usage of the Hebrew machvah as a verbal gesture of good-will. And clearly chai (life) and chavah (communication) are interrelated linguistically and ideationally, if indeed the essence of human life is the ability to communicate.
 
The interrelationship between these two ideas is likewise to be found in an earlier verse in our Torah portion: "And the Lord G-d formed the human being (Adam) dust from the earth, and He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; the human being then became a nefesh chayah (a living soul)." (Genesis 2:7) The image depicted in the Bible is very different from that of Michelangelo's portrait of the creation of man in the Sistine Chapel in Rome, where he painted the hand of G-d (as it were) touching the hand of the first human being, finger to finger. Apparently, Michelangelo, a genius sculptor and painter, felt his creativity in his fingers and transfixed that power-in-the-hand to the Divine as well.
 
But such is not the Biblical image, which is far more profound. In the words of the sacred Zohar, cited in the first chapter of the Tanya of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad (Lubavitch) Hassidism, "Anyone who exhales, exhales from the essence of his innermost being." Hence, G-d's breathing into dust of the earth in his Creation of the human being is tantamount to saying that there resides in the deepest recesses of every human being a portion of the Divine from on high, a spark of G-d Himself. This is the eternal aspect of the human being that can never be subject to death or destruction; this is the part of the human personality that enables him or her to create, to love, to transcend him- or herself.

Targum Onkelos, the early and accepted Aramaic translation - interpretation of the Bible written by a righteous proselyte who was a leading disciple of Rabbi Akiba - translates the concluding two words of the verse, nefesh chaya, as ruah memalela, a "speaking" or "communicating spirit". Apparently, the Targum understood the internal connection between human life (chayah) and human speech (chavah), two very closely allied verb and noun forms.
 
No wonder, then, that the part of the human organism that allows for speech, the larynx, is anatomically connected to the part of the human organism that enables us to breathe, the trachea. Human speech and communication is a direct out-growth of the breath of the Divine, which informs every human being, which enables him or her to live (the breath of life), and which defines him or her as a shadow or image of G-d (tselem E-lohim). And it is precisely because each and every one of us has within him or her a spark of the Divine that each one of us is related to the other in an inextricable bond of unity; the part of G-d within us truly makes us all part of the One and part of each other.
 
And if we are related to each other, then we must relate (communicate) to each other as loving relatives, as part of one greater organism of G-d and humanity united. This is the deepest meaning of the verse, "You must love your neighbor like yourself, I am the Lord." (Leviticus 19) Since G-d is part of each of us, we are all part of each other, and must therefore communicate with each other in love. Unless we learn and practice this, there is no future for humanity.

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