Rav Reuven Taragin, Educational Director at World Mizrachi
Rav Reuven Taragin, Educational Director at World MizrachiThe Western Wall Hesder Yeshiva

Not Necessarily Good

Man is created last, as the climax of creation. The Torah tells us that Hashem saw what he created before man’s arrival as “good.” He put everything in place in preparation for man’s arrival in the world Hashem created for him.

Surprisingly, though, Hashem does not describe man as good. Rav Yosef Albo attributes this to a fundamental difference between man and all other creations. Hashem created other creatures as objectively good — naturally ready to function properly. Man’s status depends upon his own choices and decisions. Our creation in G-d’s image includes free choice — the ability to choose good but also the option to choose evil and have a negative impact.

Not Our Final Form

Man’s fate is in his own hands — he decides for the world and himself. Hashem did not create us as finished products but with the need and responsibility to develop ourselves properly.

Rebbe Akiva saw this as the message of the mitzvah of brit milah. The Roman general Turnus Rufus challenged milah as defamation of Hashem’s creation. He claimed that if Hashem wanted us circumcised, he would have created us that way. As “G-d’s creations are better than man’s,” man cannot possibly improve His world.

Rebbe Akiva responded that man’s creations are greater than G-d’s; G-d creates the world incomplete to leave us room to complete it. The mitzvah of milah teaches us that we, too, need improvement. Just as we turn wheat into bread and cookies, we must improve our bodies. Rebbe Akiva proved this from the fact that human (as opposed to all other mammals) babies are born with an umbilical cord we need to cut for mother and child to survive. We are born this way to teach us the responsibility to develop ourselves.

The Sefer Hachinuch takes Rebbe Akiva’s idea an important step further. He explains that milah teaches us that we must also improve ourselves spiritually. Hashem creates us with a need to improve our bodies to teach us the need to improve our souls. Our role in cultivating the physical should inspire us to develop spiritually.

Learning From Our Creation

The Netziv inferred this idea from the Torah’s description of man’s creation. Unlike the animals described as “nefesh chaya” immediately upon their creation, man is described this way only once Hashem adds a soul. This explains the Netziv is because an animal’s existence is purely physical. Man, on the other hand, is truly alive only once he develops himself spiritually and fully appreciates his soul.

The Zohar used this idea to explain another difference between the Torah’s description of man versus animal. As opposed to human beings for whom we use different names to describe the different ages and stages of life (baby, child, adult), the Torah describes baby animals with the same terms it uses for those fully grown. It calls a baby ram a ram, a baby ox as an ox, a baby sheep as a sheep, and a baby goat as a goat.

The Zohar explains that we use different names for the different stages of (specifically) human life because humans (as opposed to animals) develop significantly (not just physically) from stage to stage. The distinct names connote the meaningful difference between the stages of a properly lived human life.

The Maharal saw a hint of our need for personal development in an additional aspect of creation — the physical material used to create man, the “afar min ha’adamah.” Man was created from dirt to teach us that we, like the ground, have growth potential. This, explained the Maharal, is why Chazal describe man’s accomplishments as his pei’rot — he, like the ground, produces fruit. The ground’s produce is physical fruit; our’s is personal growth.

The Baal Shem Tov saw this idea as Hashem’s intention when he exclaimed (before creating man), “na’aseh adamwe will make man.” The commentators wonder who else Hashem involves in the process of creating man. The Ba’al Shem Tov identifies the adam Hashem creates as the one He includes as his partner in the process. Hashem creates us together with ourselves. He begins the process; we complete it.

Our Historical Emphasis on Personal Growth

Judaism often finds itself at odds with society on this issue.

In Greco- Roman times, the debate related to changing our physical selves. Turnus Rufus (and his colleagues) objected to Judaism’s belief in the need to change our bodies.

In contemporary times, the debate focuses on our emotional makeup. Much of contemporary society celebrates and seeks recognition for our natural emotions and emotional state. The Torah teaches us that our natural emotional makeup is merely a starting part of personal development. Holiness is a goal, not (just) a starting point.

Attaining the Ultimate Good

Personal growth is very hard; Rabbi Yisrael Salanter taught that changing one middah is harder than finishing all of Shas. But this is our life’s mission, the purpose of our creation.

Bereishit Rabbah explains that, though man is not described as “good”, when he lives his life properly he is the ultimate embodiment of “very good”. When we channel our freedom towards meaningful personal growth, we are better than other creatures who are programmed to reflexively play their roles.

Our series of pieces over the coming weeks will iy”H chart out the personal growth goals and the processes that can help us realize the mission(s) we were created to achieve.

Rav Reuven Taraginis the Dean of Overseas Students at Yeshivat Hakotel and the Educational Director of World Mizrachi