Not My Bar Mitzvah Speech

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I have long had mixed feelings about parshas Bereishis.

On the one hand, it’s my Bar Mitzvah parshah – and let’s just say that . . . there’s a reason I have lained only once since that fateful weekend.

On the other hand, despite those somewhat negative memories, the overwhelming importance and profundity of the creation story (as well as the narrative of Adam and Chava) always makes this an exhilarating text for study and reflection.

In that vein, allow me to share two thoughts from this past week’s parshah.

I.

The creation of Adam introduces us to the concept of “tzelem Elokim,” the image of God (1:26-27). This phrase, not previously mentioned regarding any of the other creations, obviously speaks to the uniqueness of human beings and what separates us from the rest of creation. But what does it mean? What is the “image of God” and what significance is there in being created “b’tzelem Elokim”?

These questions have, unsurprisingly, drawn the attention of our greatest thinkers and scholars. A number of suggestions are offered. For example:

R. Saadiah Gaon explains that this refers to our superior capacity to rule over the rest of creation. The Seforno points to our intellectual powers (Rashi cites a Midrash which explains that this notion is included in our being created “kidmusenu,” in the likeness of God). The Meshech Chochmah equates “tzelem Elokim” with bechirah chofshis, free choice (which the Seforno, in turn, understands to be a result of being “kidmusenu” – who said Bereishis isn’t a little complicated?), while the Michtav Me’Eliyahu (vol. I, p. 32) understands it to describe the human capacity to empathize and to share

And finally, a most intriguing explanation comes from R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, in his famous essay, The Lonely Man of Faith. He develops the idea that it refers to man’s “inner charismatic endowment as a creative being.” (p. 12) R. Soloveitchik adds that just as Chazal command us to imitate Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu’s ways – “mah hu rachum v’chanun af atah rachum v’chanun” – when it comes to His mercy and compassion, we are also commanded to imitate His most basic characteristic by being creators ourselves.

I was reminded of R. Soloveitchik’s explanation this year in particular, because of a passage I read in Paul Johnson’s most recent book, Creators.

In the introduction, Johnson writes that, “Creativity is inherent in all of us.” God, he continues, is defined in many ways, such as all-powerful and all-wise. But “most of all,” He is the creator. And, most importantly, “in creating us He made us in His own image . . . so we are, by our nature creators as well.”

Amazingly, Johnson’s understanding mirrors R. Soloveitchik’s understanding: We were created in God’s image so that we create as well.

Sometimes great minds – even if from very different backgrounds and four decades apart – do think alike.

II.

In the “take two” version of Adam’s creation, the Torah substitutes the phrase “nefesh chayah” (2:7) in place of the previously mentioned “tzelem Elokim.” Clearly this description also contains great significance but it is unclear as to what it actually means.

Onkelos famously translates this as “ruach mi’malela,” the power of speech. R. Zalman Sorotzkin, in his commentary, Oznayim La’Torah, questions this, and asks, quite powerfully: why should this be so? Why is the ability to speak considered the sine qua non of what it means to be human? Isn’t the intellect not only more important, but also more unique?

R. Sorotzkin answers that the deeper understanding of this comment is that the Torah is referring not simply to what makes a given person superior to the other creations, but what gives humanity – as a whole – the ability to fulfill its unique mission in this world. For this higher purpose, intellect alone is insufficient. Because no matter how brilliant a person is, there is only so much he or she can think of and accomplish on their own. If every generation had to, essentially, start from scratch, how far would they get? Whether in science, math, medicine, or construction, or any other field, current breakthroughs and inventions build on a knowledge base that was inherited from previous generations. If the knowledge acquired in each generation could not be transmitted to each successive generation almost nothing would ever be accomplished.

Thus, it is the human ability to communicate (through writing, as well, he adds) which allows the sharing of information and ideas which, in turn, leads to the “hitpatchut ha-adam,” the ultimate development of mankind.

I would add one final thought.

This is, of course, true about talmud Torah as well. Not that proof is needed – it is self evident – but there is a fascinating source which gives tangible halachic expression to the qualitative advantage of – and preference for – shared knowledge.

Many authorities struggle to reconcile what appears to be conflicting rulings of the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayyim 47:3-4. On the one hand, birchos ha-Torah are required before someone writes down words of Torah whereas no such blessings are required prior to thinking Torah thoughts.

Teshuvos Shev Yaakov, #49, explains that because the mitzvah of talmud Torah is actually defined not as studying per se, but as studying and teaching Torah (see Sefer ha-Mitzvos le’ha-Rambam, mitzvas aseh #11), therefore only such Torah that could be shared is worthy of making the berachos over. Written Torah can be shared with others while a person’s thoughts – however insightful – remain their own exclusively.

Now, if I could only go back and try that laining again. On second thought, better not.

Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb is the Rav of Congregation Shomrei Emunah, Baltimore, MD.

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5 Responses

  1. Dovid Gottlieb says:

    “He memorably compared one who presents Torah in poor English to someone who carrying their tefillin in a brown paper bag . . .”

    I am not sure if this qualifies as ironic (and I hope not illustrative), but just to clarify: the “poor English” in the previous comment was a typo. The sentence should read, “someone who carries their tefillin in a brown paper bag . . .”

  2. Dovid Gottlieb says:

    R. Bulman’s comments are painfully true even as they are of a different focus than R. Sorotzkin’s explanation.

    To that point, however, perhaps the best critique was offered years ago by R. Emanuel Feldman in his Editor’s Column in Tradition. He memorably compared one who presents Torah in poor English to someone who carrying their tefillin in a brown paper bag – it’s unbecoming at best and degrading at worst.

  3. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “…all of them poorly; consequently they actually have “no language.”

    What–“yeshivish” doesn’t count as a language? There are certain concepts which are expressed beautifully in this “shprach”. :)

    “Orthodox children often gain academic exposure to sophisticated concepts years before they have to undertake the responsibilities of adulthood. With each new encounter a reference to rabbinic literature is drawn upon, and the classical terms become associated with tangible experience. The result is the English, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Yiddish amalgam that this book terms Yeshivish”(see link below).

    But seriously, one of my rebbeim expressed the same idea as your father, and encouraged bnei torah to learn how to express themselves in whatever language of their choice. In fact, if I recall correctly, when he speaks to Chassidic yeshivos, they don’t understand his classic Yiddish, and they ask him to switch to English!

    http://www.rowmanlittlefield.com/Catalog/SingleBook.shtml?command=Search&db=^DB/CATALOG.db&eqSKUdata=1568216149

  4. Toby Katz says:

    Intellect without speech is virtually useless. What kind of civilization have the dolphins built?

    R’ Nachman Bulman (my father) held that a talmid chacham must have the ability to express himself well in speech and in writing. The ability to communicate what you have studied is an essential part of “knowing” something. He bemoaned the fact that many bnei Torah nowadays speak four languages — Hebrew, English, Aramaic and Yiddish — all of them poorly; consequently they actually have “no language.” He held that a Torah scholar must know at least one language very well. This has obvious implications for the kind of chinuch we should be giving our children — should be but mostly aren’t.

  5. Ori Pomerantz says:

    How do you reconcile human progress in the field of Torah study with the concept of Yeridat Hadorot – that each generation is further away from Sinai and therefore understands less Torah than the previous one?

    If there is progress in talmud Torah how come we are bound by rulings of earlier sages, even when the apparent reason for that ruling is gone (for example, celebrating holidays for two days outside of Israel despite the fact that the calendar is fixed and we do not have to worry about getting the date wrong)?