ON BEING HUMAN
Rabbi David Walk
Breishit is probably the most controversial Torah reading of the year. And that's saying a lot. The debates about the age of the universe and God's authorship of it are endless, and, in my opinion, fruitless. Just like I wouldn't go to Arno Penzias (Look him up! I met him and he's very nice.) to find out about mitzvoth or morality; I wouldn't go to Reb Chaim Kanievsky to ask about cosmology. They're just different realms, with different experts. But there is a provocative issue in this week's parsha, and that is the status of humanity. Who are we? What is special about Homo Sapiens? The wise and witty have been asking these questions since the dawn of time. Being human is to be: 'imperfect' (George Orwell), 'challenged' (Victor Frankl), 'productive' (Malcom Gladwell), 'kind' (Ashwin Sandhi), 'good' (Aristotle), 'ambivalent' (Erica Jong), 'curious' (Sally Ride). But my favorite quote of this type was, 'Obviously, the idea of being human is a very human idea,' by Dominic Monaghan (Merry from Lord of the Rings). In other words, we are introspective. Per Star Trek, we are self-aware. I could go on, thanks to Google, but I'd like to present the Torah's answer, as I believe it appears in this week's parsha.
There are a few verses which appear to define our humanity, like 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and they shall rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the sky (Genesis 1:26)' or 'God took and placed the human in the Garden of Eden to work and guard it (2:15).' Both of those verses would suggest that we're in charge down here. But for my money the critical verse is: God formed the human of dust from the ground, and breathed into the nostrils the soul of life, and the human became a living soul (2:7). There are some very famous comments to describe what's unique about humanity in this verse. Onkelos, that authoritative translator into Aramaic, claims that the spirit breathed into humanity is ruach m'malila, the ability to speak. James Earl Jones, a pretty good speaker in his own right, claims that speech is the most important aspect of being human, and added, 'A whisper doesn't cut it.'
Rashi is intrigued by the doubling of the letter yod in the word for 'formed', and comments: Humanity has two formations, one for this world and one for the world to come. In other words, what makes us special is our potential for immortality. Others have added that the double formation means that we have both a good and bad yetzer. Unlike any other creation we have the ability to choose evil. And Rashi also brings a well-known Midrash (Genesis Raba 14:8) that the dust that was gathered to make mankind was taken from the four corners of the globe, and then actually formed on the Temple Mount. We are special because we are of the entire planet; we can live anywhere and have dominion everywhere. Rashi then adds the alternative explanation that the dust came from under the Altar, because only we can truly worship God. Our special nature comes from our building material.
So, what is the big deal? The answer that I subscribe to can be stated quite simply, but its ramifications are enormous and the ways of understanding it are complex. Here's the skinny: Humans, and only humans, exist on two planes. We are both of this physical realm and separate from it. Humans are both afar min ha'adama (dust of the earth) and nishmat chayim (soul of life) from God. There's an argument between the rationalists (the Maimonides team) and the mystics (the Nachmanides team) whether this 'soul' was created at that point or was a chelek mei Eloka (a piece of the Divine), but that's a topic for another time. Bottom line, we live a dual existence. We are both a natural part of this world, and, simultaneously, a world apart.
However, there's a fascinating argument about this duality. Rabbi Soloveitchik observed that the Torah views 'human beings as a unified harmonious being, body and soul, and the body becomes as sacred as the soul, and the human, Jewish, bold thrust to our hallowing and sanctifying the body...has precipitated our optimistic philosophy of man, not only as a spiritual personality, but as a natural being (The Rav Thinking Aloud-Breishit, page 39). For the Rav, the two parts of the human being are totally compatible. The Torah and mitzvot are designed to enhance the symbiosis between the two components.
That other great twentieth century luminary of Torah, Rav Kook, sees things differently. He wrote: physicality in its influence contradicts the spreading out of spirituality—and so, 'it is fitting that the righteous break their bones for the sake of the honor of God...the essence of the disturbance of how physicality disturbs spirituality does not come from the strength of the body...but the essence of the matter depends on the conceptual connection with the physicality; so spirituality will not harm the essence of practical knowledge of the world and life and all paths of utilizing them (Orot Hakodesh I, p. 65-66).' Even though, Rav Kook was very concerned for one's physical well-being, he believed that there is a conflict between the body and the soul.
Who's right? I don't know. Every morning I say the blessing Elokai neshama (O God, Who granted me a pure soul), and in it we beseech God to 'guard this soul which resides within me'. Some days I believe that God should guard this alien entity, my soul, from the attacks of the physical realm all around me. Other times, I think that God should guard the fragile balance and synthesis between my complementary parts. I'd like to feel my body is an ally, like the Rav, but often I sense a sinister presence emanating from my body's desires, like Rav Kook. Perhaps, it's best to alternate positions to both feed the beast and nourish the soul. Maybe discerning both is what makes us human.