Chip Off the Old Block
Bereishit (Genesis 1:1-6:8 )
Let us not neglect the greatness that lies within.
One of the world’s most dazzling artistic accomplishments, Michelangelo’s marble sculpture David, was unveiled in Florence more than five centuries ago. In the summer of 1995, I visited the Galleria dell’Accademia and was mesmerized by this towering, 17-foot marble depiction, so lifelike you expect it to walk off the pedestal and order an espresso.
Notwithstanding this awe-inspiring feat of human creativity and craftsmanship, I confess there were other exhibits that were even more captivating. Specifically, there were a number of “unfinished” statues, works in progress that depicted an eerie blend between crude, coarse, unfinished stone and polished, refined marble. Somehow, the juxtaposition of what “was,” i.e., a lifeless chunk of stone, and what “could be,” namely, a shockingly lifelike depiction, made an even deeper impression than the David itself.
From amid those works at the Galleria emerged one of the inescapable realities of life and our sojourn in this world – the notion that true greatness lies within each and every one of us. Not just ho-hum “humanity” but truly exceptional levels of refinement, virtue, sensibility, and selflessness. We are all, at first glance, like that bland, lifeless gray slab of rock. Yet, if we consistently work on refining our character, on discarding that which is coarse and deep-sixing that which is inconsistent with greatness of character, who knows what towering persona we can discover within?
Equipped with timeless tools of the trade of self-perfection – our Torah, its perspectives, our classic works of personal growth, and access to role models who personify those ideals – let us not underestimate what can be achieved.
“So God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. And Hashem God formed the man of dust from the ground, and He blew into his nostrils the soul of life; and man became a living being” (Genesis, 1:27).
This powerful combination – the uncultured coarseness of the dust and the towering, sublime perfection of the soul – a strange shidduch (pair) indeed, lies at the crux of the human condition. The grace with which we navigate this dissimilar duality lies at the heart of our life’s mission. This notion permeates the Torah’s narratives and teachings. Its precepts provide the blueprints to live – indeed thrive – notwithstanding the dilemmas and confusion inherent in the body-soul paradigm.
Viewed in this light, even a seemingly dreary, morbid verse (pertaining to the execution of a capital offender, of all people) provides a dose of relevant meaningfulness to those who seek it. In this regard, the Torah states, “You shall surely bury him on that day, for a hanging person is an insult of God” (Deut. 21:23).
Rashi explains, “It is a degradation of the King, for man is made in the likeness of His image.” Far from the echelons of good character and virtue, this depraved individual, who stooped to the abyss of human conduct by committing a capital offense, is nevertheless accorded a modicum of respect and decorum.
Why? Not because of his lineage or his criminal defense attorneys. Because he, at his core, shares a “likeness of his Maker.” Notwithstanding his unseemly demise, a connection and resemblance to the Divine remains intact and inseverable.
We can each lay claim (through no accomplishment of our own) to the privilege of being human. Lest we resign ourselves to menial lives of quiet desperation, let us not neglect the greatness that lies within. As our days and years unfold, let us continue to unearth the diamond – the true mensch – that can be produced with persistent and unflagging efforts to achieve greatness of character.