THE DEVELOPING EMBRYO
As the book of Genesis unfolds, we are immediately introduced to a fundamental concept of Judaism: Hashem spoke and made the world. In other words, we believe that everything in the world is an expression of G-d's will.
As the book of Genesis unfolds, we are immediately introduced to a fundamental concept of Judaism: Hashem spoke and made the world. In other words, we believe that everything in the world is an expression of G-d's will. As such, merely studying the fetal position of a developing embryo will provide tremendous insights into human nature. Because the beginning of this week's Torah portion alludes to the prenatal stages of Jacob and Esau, perhaps there is significance in exploring these insights at this time.
Specifically, the Talmud (Tractate Niddah 30b) describes the fetus as a folded-up ledger, whereby the child's hands support the forehead, the elbows rest on the knees, and the remainder of the body is tightly folded over. In unraveling the words of our sages, the Maharal of Prague, a leading Torah scholar of the 16th century, beautifully describes this passage as a metaphor for the goal of human existence. Explains the Maharal, a person must first realize that he is an inventory book where Hashem has invested in him special creativities and a Divine soul. That is, just as a ledger obligates us by recording our debits and credits, so too, every person is obligated to recognize his G-d given potential, and express it into the world.
What's more, another passage in the Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin 37a) states that every person is obligated to say, "For me the world was created." Truly, every action we do will either help or hurt the world. Just as a missing letter from a Torah scroll renders it not kosher, likewise the Jewish people are not complete should we fail to develop our individual talents. G-d forbid we should envision ourselves as "Freudian Id-beings" or "Darwinian Apes" who merely live on instinctual needs and culturally accumulated values. Rather, only when we appreciate that we are created in Hashem's image - that Hashem imbued within us priceless irreplaceable potential, that we are obligated to actualize this potential by becoming spiritual people, that we are a ledger with credits and debits - only then can we begin to understand the essence of being human.
Continues the Maharal, once we recognize our potential we cannot rush through life without carefully thinking how to express this potential. Hence, the second aspect of the fetal position, the hands supporting the forehead, teaches us that before we use our hands and body to act, we must first use them to support our head, the center of our thoughts. It is not surprising that Rodin's "Thinker" depicts a hand which supports the head. Indeed, the only way to properly think about life is to stop acting and to allow our whole body to be controlled by our thoughts - hence, the tucked in position of the fetus. Unfortunately, the power of American society is that it keeps us constantly moving, that we have no time to introspect. Thank G-d, however, the whole essence of Shabbat is to leave the rat race of society, stop creating, and return to that fetal position - return to Hashem, our Investor. In doing so, we can begin to contemplate life's bigger issues: What is my purpose in this world? How can I make the world a better place? What does it mean that I'm a Jew?
Although the Talmud continues in its description, the message of the Maharal remains: We have an obligation to recognize our G-d given potential, and we must contemplate how to actualize this potential. In fact, so fundamental are these concepts that they parallel the first two stages of spiritual growth in the 18th century masterpiece on Jewish ethics, Mesillat Yesharim. Its author, the Ramchal, begins by defining Man's obligation in this world. Subsequently, he introduces the non-active stage in a person's spiritual development of "watchfulness" characterized by sincere introspection. Finally, only after the above two are internalized, does the author develop the active attribute of zeal. Similarly, King David describes how every active stage of doing good must be preceded by a passive stage of refraining from evil. Such is what Hashem revealed to us in our mother's womb.
It has been said in the name of Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, a leading Torah scholar of the past decade, that there is nobody more impoverished than a millionaire who is unable to change his large bills into practical currency. Indeed, if we only realize that Hashem has created us with priceless diamonds, we would immediately seek ways of properly investing them.
Darrin Frieman is attending the Southern School of Pharmacy at Mercer University in Atlanta.
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