Our Need for Personal Growth

By BJLife/Rabbi Reuven Taragin - Written by Rafi Davis
Posted on 06/02/23

This week Rav Taragin begins a new series that addresses issues of Personal Growth. The pieces will iy”H relate to the goals Judaism sets for us and how we can achieve them.

 Not Necessarily Good

Man is created last, as the climax of creation. The Torah tells us that Hashem saw what he created before man’s arrival as “good.” Everything was put in place in preparation for man’s arrival in the world Hashem created for him.[1]

 Surprisingly, though, Hashem does not describe man as good.[2] Rav Yosef Albo[3] attributes this to a basic difference between man and all other creations. While other creatures and creations were created as objectively good — ready to function properly automatically, man’s status depends upon his own choices and decisions. Our creation in G-d’s image includes free choice  — the ability to choose good, but also the option to choose evil and have a negative impact.

Not Our Final Form

Man’s fate is in his own hands — he chooses for the world around him and also for himself. We are not created as a finished product, but, rather, with the need and responsibility to develop ourselves properly.

Rebbe Akiva[4] saw this as the message of the mitzvah of brit milah. The Roman general Turnus Rufus challenged milah as a defamation of Hashem’s creation. He claimed that, if Hashem wanted us to be circumcised, he would have created us that way. As “G-d’s creations are better than man’s,” man cannot possibly improve His world.

Rebbe Akiva responded that man’s creations are actually greater than G-d’s; G-d creates his world in incomplete form in order to leave us room to complete it.[5] The mitzvah of milah teaches us that we too need improvement. Just as we turn wheat into bread and cookies, so we are meant to improve our own body. Rebbe Akiva proved this from the fact that human (as opposed to all other mammals) babies are born with an umbilical cord that needs to be cut in order for mother and child to survive. We are born this way to teach us the responsibility we have to develop ourselves.

The Sefer Hachinuch[6] takes Rebbe Akiva’s idea an important step further. He explains that milah teaches us that we are meant to improve ourselves spiritually as well. Hashem creates us with a need to improve our body in order to teach us the need to improve our soul. Our role in cultivating the physical should inspire us to develop ourselves spiritually as well.

Learning From How We Were Created

The Netziv[7] inferred this idea from the Torah’s description of man’s creation. As opposed to the animals who are described as “nefesh chaya” immediately upon their creation, man is described this way only once Hashem added a soul. This, explained the Netziv, is because an animal’s existence is purely physical. Man, on the other hand, is truly alive only once he develops himself spiritually, only once he fully appreciates his soul.

The Zohar[8] used this idea to explain another important difference between the Torah’s description of man versus animal. As opposed to human beings for whom we use different names to describe the different ages and stages of life (baby, child, adult), the Torah describes baby animals with the same terms it uses for those fully grown. It describes a baby ram as a ram[9], a baby ox as an ox, a baby sheep as a sheep, and a baby goat as a goat.[10]

The Zohar explains that we use different names for the different stages of (specifically) human life because humans (as opposed to animals) develop significantly (not just physically) from stage to stage. The distinct names connote the meaningful difference between the stages of a properly lived human life.

The Maharal[11] saw a hint for our need for personal development in the physical material used to create man as well — “afar min ha’adamah.”[12] Man was created from the dirt of the ground to teach us that we, like the ground, have growth potential. This, explained the Maharal, is why Chazal[13] describe man’s accomplishments as his pei’rot  — he, like the ground, produces fruit. The ground’s produce is physical fruit; our’s is personal growth.

The Baal Shem Tov saw this idea as Hashem’s intention when he exclaimed (before creating man) “na’aseh adam[14] - we will make man.” The commentators wonder who else Hashem involves in the process of creating man. The Ba’al Shem Tov identifies the adam Hashem creates as the one He includes as his partner in the process. Hashem creates us together with ourselves. He begins the process; we are meant to complete it.[15]

Our Historical Emphasis on Personal Growth

Judaism often finds itself at odds with society on this issue.

In Greco- Roman times the debate related to the change of our physical selves. Turnus Rufus (and his colleagues[16]) objected to Judaism’s belief in the need to change our bodies.

In contemporary times, the debate focuses on our emotional makeup. Much of contemporary society celebrates and seeks recognition for our natural emotions and emotional state. The Torah teaches us that our natural emotional makeup is merely a starting part for personal development. Holiness is a goal, not (just) a starting point.[17]

Attaining the Ultimate Good

Personal growth is very hard; Rabbi Yisrael Salanter taught that changing one middah is harder than finishing all of Shas. But this is our life’s mission, the purpose of our creation.

Bereishit Rabbah[18] explains that, though man is not described as “good”, when he lives his life properly he is the ultimate embodiment of “very good”.[19] When we channel our freedom towards meaningful personal growth, we are better than other creatures who are programmed to reflexively play their roles. 

Our series of pieces over the coming weeks will iy”H chart out the personal growth goals and the processes that can help us realize the mission(s) we were created to achieve.

Rav Reuven Taragin is the Dean of Overseas Students at Yeshivat Hakotel and the Educational Director of World Mizrachi

[1] Talmud Bavli, Masechet Sanhedrin 38a. See also the mishnah in Masechet Sanhedrin (4:5), which adds that each person should see the world as created for him.

[2] Though the Torah tells us that Hashem saw the entirety of creation as good (Bereishit 1:31), this point is not made about man in particular.

[3] Sefer Ha Ikkarim 3:2. See also the Ramban who explains that man is not described as good because he is only good when connected to others.

[4] Midrash Tanchuma Tazria 5. See also Talmud Bavli, Masechet Bava Batra 10b for a similar conversation between the two regarding the mitzvah of tzedakah.

[5] In a similar discussion about milah (Bereishit Rabbah 11:6), Rebbi Hoshaya proved this point from Bereishit’s description of Hashem having created the world “la’asot.” The world was created imperfect in order for us to fix it.

See also Kelach Pitchei Chochmah (131) who speaks about the world developing spiritually.

The Kotzker Rebbe saw this idea in the Torah’s first word- “bereishit”. G-d created the “beginning”; the rest is in man’s hands.

[6] Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah 2.

[7] Ha’amek Davar Bereishit 2:7. (See also his commentary to Devarim 4:1.)

[8] Zohar 3:91b

[9] Sefer Bereishit 31:38. See Rashi there who quotes the Talmud Bavli, Masechet Bava Kamma (65a) which infers from this pasuk that a baby ram can be referred to as a ram.

[10] Sefer Vayikra 22:27

[11] Tiferet Yisrael 3. The Maharal describes the idea that man is created in his ultimate, final state as a ‘machshevet pigul’ - a disgusting, unacceptable thought.

[12] Sefer Bereishit 2:7. This is why man is called ‘adam’, from ‘adamah’

[13] Talmud Bavli, Masechet Sotah 46a. See also Sefer Devarim 20:19 which compares man to a fruit tree.

[14] Sefer Bereishit 1:26.

[15] This is how many seforim explain the significance of the difference between Yaakov and Eisav. The name Eisav means already made, as Rashi (Breishit 25:25) explains while Yaakov grabs on to the heel, striving for more as he was born needing to grow

[16] See Bereishit Rabbah 11:6.

[17] As opposed to Korach who claimed that all Jews were already naturally holy (Bamidbar 16:3), the Torah presents holiness as what we achieve through mitzvah performance and personal growth (Shemot 19:6, 22:30, Vayikra 11:44-45, 19:2, 20:7,26, 21:6, Bamidbar 15:40).

[18] Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 9:12

[19] Sefer Bereishit 1:31