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The Potential for Greatness and Lowliness


Bereishit (Genesis 1:1-6:8 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

Parshat Bereishit describes the Creation of the first man, Adam. Adam represents the totality of the human race and since every human being in existence is his descendant, any lesson that can be learned about him will apply to mankind as a whole. There is a fascinating dichotomy that arises a number of times in the account of Adam’s creation, the first time being the opening verse that discusses God’s plans to create Adam: “And G-o said, let Us make man in Our Image and Our likeness, and he will rule [vayirdu] over the fish of the sea, the birds of the heavens, the animals throughout the land, and all the creeping things that creep on the land.”

Rashi quotes the Medrash that notes the use of the word, ‘vayirdu’ which in this sense means exercising power over other things. However, the root letters of the word (yud, reish and dalet) can also be expressed to refer to the word, yerida (which implies a descent or fall). The Medrash explains the contradictory double meaning of this word: “If man is worthy, then he will rule over the animals; but if he is unworthy, then he goes down below them, and the animals will rule over him.”1

A similar idea is expressed in the Medrash at the beginning of Parshat Tazria. The previous section in the Torah (in Parshat Shemini) dealt with the laws involving animals2, and the following section focuses on laws involving human beings3. The Medrash points out that the Torah’s ordering here mirrors that found in Creation; When God created the world He first created all the animals, and only then did He create man. Likewise here, the Torah first discusses the laws relating to animals and only then moves on to the laws relating to man. The Medrash then explains why God created the animals first; It is to teach us, “if man is worthy, we say to him, ‘you come before [in importance] all of creation; but if he is not [worthy] we say to him, ‘the gnat came before you’”.4

This theme that man can elevate himself to great heights or bring himself down to the depths is also is so central to mankind that it features in the very essence of man’s name, Adam. We know that the name of a being reflects his Essence, therefore the meaning of his name is of great significance. The Shelah HaKadosh writes that the name, ‘Adam’ has a dualistic meaning. It can relate to the word, ‘adama’ (Earth) indicating that Adam was so named because he originated from the dust of the earth. However, it can also relate to the words, ‘adameh l’Elyon’ which means, “I will make myself similar to the Almighty”5 The Shelah explains that if man connects to His Creator and tries to emulate Him, then he merits to be called ‘Adam’ in the sense that he makes himself similar to the Almighty. However, if he separates himself from God, then his name reflects his lowly physical nature. He concludes that man’s purpose is to make his name reflect his lofty nature through his cleaving to God.6

These sayings of the Sages discussing the creation of Adam teach us that man has the potential to rule over the whole animal kingdom. This is a reflection of the well-known concept that the whole purpose of creation was for the sake of mankind. Therefore, if he fulfills his purpose, then all other creatures will become subservient to him. However, if he fails then he not only falls from his lofty position, but he becomes lower than all other creatures.

It still needs to be understood why this stark dichotomy is only found with regard to man. One approach is that man is unique amongst all creations in that he has the power of free will, the ability to choose to do good or evil. Animals do not have this choice; rather they are totally dominated by physical desires and instinct. Angels also do not have free will; rather they are completely driven to spirituality. Only man constitutes a combination of the soul with its spiritual drive, and the body, with its physical desires. Therefore, only he can make the choice of clinging to God or attaching himself to physicality.

Consequently if he makes the right choice and emphasizes his soul then he is deserving of far higher praise and reward than Angels because he overcomes the challenges that he faces to attain his closeness to God, whilst for Angels there is no such challenge. Similarly, if he makes the wrong choice and focuses on his body, then he is considered lower than the animals; for they have no choice as to whether they are totally engrossed in physicality, however he does have the option to take a different path.

A second approach to this issue is based on a fundamental tenet in Judaism that is mentioned in the Book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes): "This opposite that did God make".7 The commentaries explain that this means that there is a balance in this world. Goodness or evil can never become so powerful that there is nothing to check its progress. Therefore, the greater the potential of a person to do amazing things, the greater the risk that he cause great damage as well. In this vein the Talmud states that the greater a person is, the stronger his evil inclination.8 To maintain the challenge of this world, the higher the level a person attains, the higher the stakes of life must be. Accordingly, Adam was created with the potential to attain unparalleled greatness, but if he would fail, then he would plumb to great depths.

Through the course of history, Adam’s purpose of connection to God was rejected by most of the nations, and assumed by Abraham and his descendants. As part of this legacy, it seems that the Jewish people inherited the great dichotomy that characterized Adam’s creation. The Jew can attain incredible heights and do great good in the world if he connects to the ‘Adameh L’Elyon’ aspect of his personality. However, if he chooses the wrong path, then he can cause great damage, more than others are capable of. One example of this is the number of Jews who featured in the forefront of the development of Communism, one of the most harmful ideologies that ever plagued the world, causing untold suffering to millions of people.9 This is because they misapplied their natural Jewish desire at Tikun Olam (fixing the world) and instead replaced the Torah way with an atheistic approach to life.

We have seen how Adam was created with the choice of being extremely great, or being extremely low. The Jewish people have assumed that mantle – may we all merit to make the correct choices and thereby make ourselves similar to God.

1. Rashi, 1:26, quoting the Bereishis Rabbah,8:12.
2. Including the laws of kosher food and purity of animals.
3. Including various forms of impurity that occur with human beings.
5. Vayikra Rabbah, 14:1.
5. The words, ‘Adameh L’Elyon’ are found in Yeshaya, 14:14. Their actual context is different from how the Shlah interprets them. The Tslach in his introduction to his commentary on the Gemara offers a very similar explanation of the name Adam to the Shlah, as do the Sfas Emes and Bnei Yissachar.
6. Shelah HaKadosh, Toldos Adam, Introduction.
7. Koheles, 7:14.
8. Sukkah 52a.
9. The founder of Communism was a Jew, Karl Marx. Jewish Communist leaders include Trotsky, Kamenev and Zinoviev.

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