Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Michelangelo was once asked, “How is it that you create such wondrous sculptures and works of art? How can something so innovative and ingenious emanate from mere mortal hands?” Without skipping a beat, Michelangelo responded, “Before I even begin my work, the sculpture is already complete within the marble block. My job is simply to discover it and then chisel away the superfluous material.”

The dormant potential already exists beneath the surface; the job of the artist is simply to discover that which is hidden within and then transform the concealed into the revealed.



Your Creation Story

Like Adam, each of us has our own unique creation story. The Gemara discusses the enigmatic events surrounding our formation, the initial stage of our own creation story (Niddah 30b). The Gemara explains that when you were just a fetus, you were in a perfect and transcendent state of being; a malach taught you kol haTorah kulah (all of Torah), and you experienced the entirety of reality with a crystal-clear lens. However, the Gemara continues with an anti-climactic punch: just before you were born, this malach struck you on the mouth, causing you to forget everything you learned.

Two obvious questions arise:

  • Why does the malach make you forget what you’ve learned?
  • And more importantly, if the malach is going to cause you to forget it, why even teach it to you in the first place?

The Vilna Gaon answers as follows: When the Gemara describes the fetus learning kol haTorah kulah, it isn’t referring to basic “Chumash with Rashi.” Rather, this refers to the deepest realms of Torah – to a transcendent level of Torah that lies far beyond this world. Not only were you shown this level of Torah, but you also learned your specific share of Torah; you were shown your unique purpose in the world, how your role fits into the larger scheme of the human story as a whole. You were given a taste of your own perfection, of what you could, should, and hopefully will become.

Most importantly, though, when the malach struck you, you didn’t lose this Torah; rather, you lost access to it. Instead of disappearing, this knowledge and clarity became buried deep within your subconscious. The reason is as follows: What you received in the womb wasn’t real, it was merely a gift – something unearned and undeserved. The goal of life is to come into this world and rebuild all that you experienced and understood while in the womb. However, this time, it will be real, because you will have to build it yourself. In essence, your job in this world is not to create yourself, but rather to recreate yourself. This time, however, it must be done through free will, by choosing to become great. Only by overcoming challenge and difficulty, only by asserting your willpower, can you fulfill your true potential. In essence, our entire life is a story of teshuvah, returning to our original, higher true self.


Learning or Expressing?

Perhaps this explains why we often feel a sense of recognition when we hear a deep thought or profound insight. Instead of feeling as though we are learning it for the first time, everything just “clicks,” almost as if we already knew the idea. This is because we do already know it. We’re not learning, we’re rediscovering what’s already ingrained it us. The Torah is already there at a subconscious level; now we must invest the effort to build and express it in this world.

This explains an interesting Gemara (Megillah 6b), which says that if someone claims that he exerted himself in learning but has failed to acquire understanding, you should not believe him. Likewise, if he claims to have put no effort into his learning but has succeeded regardless, you should similarly not believe him. Only someone who says that he exerted himself in his learning and succeeded should be believed.

The Vilna Gaon raises a fascinating question: The wording of the Gemara is “yagati u’matzasi,” understood to mean “I exerted myself and succeeded.” However, the word metziah doesn’t mean succeed, it means find! Shouldn’t the Gemara have used a word such as asisi, paalti, or hitzlachti, which refer to accomplishment or achievement? The Vilna Gaon explains this according to the aforementioned idea. Genuine learning isn’t about achieving something new; it’s about finding that which already exists within your subconscious, that which you learned while in the womb.

This same idea lies at the heart of the classic conceptual debate between the worldviews of Plato and John Locke. Locke claimed that the human mind begins as a blank slate, and that a human being is then imprinted upon and molded through everything he or she encounters and experiences throughout life. Plato, however, quoting Socrates, believed that everyone is born with the knowledge of everything embedded deep within. Therefore, the job of a teacher is not to impart novel information but to help the student come to understand on his own what he already knows deep within himself. The word “educate” comes from the Latin word which means to “take out” or “draw forth,” because teaching is the act of drawing out the dormant potential from within each student.


Understanding Our Yearnings

This fundamental truth expresses itself within the concept of human desire. As humans, we all have cravings and yearnings. However, these cravings tend to be limited to that which we have already experienced. For example, many people crave pizza, ice cream, steak, and other delicious foods. But this is only because we have tasted them before. Think about this: Do you crave anything that you haven’t tasted before? Do you crave the remarkable cuisine called “yabagaloola?” Of course not, because it doesn’t exist, you can’t have tasted it before. If so, why do we crave wisdom, greatness, significance, and perfection? Because we have tasted it before – in the womb! We were all once in this perfect state, we tasted it, and now we crave to experience it once again.


Human Growth

With this principle in mind, let us explore the process of human growth. Many people grow from the outside in. They look around at their friends, their family, and society, and then shape themselves to fit their surroundings. The clothes they wear, the things they talk about, and their values and goals become a reflection of their external environment. In other words, many people feel like they are a slab of clay and mold themselves to fit in to their environment.

What if we realized that, much like Michelangelo’s sculptures, we too are already uniquely and perfectly formed beneath the surface. Our job in life isn’t to take a slab of stone and sculpt something beautiful; our job is to discover who we truly are, who we already are, and to then “chisel away the superfluous material” and express our inner self. Growth isn’t about becoming great, it’s about becoming you; learning isn’t about discovery, it’s about self-discovery. You are a masterpiece covered with stone; your job in this world is to uncover and express yourself, your true self.

This is why the Torah compares man to a tree (Devarim 20:19). An apple seed already contains all of its potential within it. It then spends its life expressing the potential that is latent within it. You never hear an apple seed looking around and saying, “I want to be a pear tree!” As human beings, we too are created with all our potential invested within us. As a fetus, we were each given our unique purpose, our unique tree to grow. Our job in this life is to take our seed and harness our potential. True happiness is when you are becoming you – when you are on the journey to becoming your true self, spending each day bringing out more and more of what you are meant to become.

True growth requires us to grow from the inside out. We need to go into a room, by ourselves, and ask the real questions: Who am I? What drives me? What makes me unique? What are my talents? What are my passions? What can I contribute to the Jewish people and the world as a whole?

Instead of becoming a mirror, which reflects everything outside itself, we can become projectors. We can build something majestic and beautiful within ourselves and then express that outward into the world.


Becoming Part of Something Bigger

After developing one’s self, the next step toward greatness is contributing that uniqueness toward something greater than oneself – finding your “self” within a greater whole. This is why the greatest thinkers and talmidei chachamim are both fully loyal to the mesorah while simultaneously expressing their uniqueness and working to develop the mesorah further. This is the very essence of Torah She’baal Peh, the ability for human beings to express their unique Torah into the world, while still remaining faithful to the objective body of Torah She’bichsav. Torah She’bichsav doesn’t change from its original form as given by Hashem. Torah She’baal Peh, however, is in continuous development and is the medium in which human beings can become part of Torah.


Living with Purpose

Chazal tell us that when you leave this world, you will meet three malachim. One angel will ask you: “Where are your mitzvos?” The second angel will ask you: “Where are your aveiros?” The last angel will ask you: “Where is your Torah?” Although the first two questions make sense, the third one is puzzling. After all, learning Torah is a mitzvah and should therefore be included within the first angel’s question. Why then is it a separate, unique question? The Vilna Gaon adds a chilling detail to this story: When you see this third malach, you will recognize him; he is the same malach who taught you kol haTorah kulah in the womb, who showed you your potential in this world. Now, he is here to greet you as you leave this world and to ask: “Where is your Torah? I gave it to you in the womb for free, but did you build it yourself? Did you make it your own? Did you fulfill your purpose in this world?”

When Avraham is instructed to leave his home and embark on his journey toward greatness, Hashem tells him two unforgettable words: “lech lecha – go for yourself.” Lecha can also be read as go “to yourself.” Avraham was commanded to embark on a journey to “himself” because the genuine journey of life is the journey to the self. Let us each be inspired to bring our own Torah into the world and express our unique purpose.

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Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is the author of the bestselling book, “The Journey to Your Ultimate Self,” which serves as an inspiring gateway into deeper Jewish thought. He is an educator and speaker who has lectured internationally on topics of Torah thought, Jewish medical ethics, psychology, and leadership. He is also the founder and CEO of Self-Mastery Academy, the transformative online self-development course based on the principles of high-performance psychology and Torah. After obtaining his BA from Yeshiva University, he received Semicha from Yeshiva University’s RIETS, a master’s degree in education from Azrieli Graduate School, and a master’s degree in Jewish Thought from Bernard Revel Graduate School. He then spent a year studying at Harvard as an Ivy Plus Scholar. He currently lives in Chicago with his wife and son where he is pursuing a PhD at the University of Chicago. To invite Rabbi Reichman to speak in your community or to enjoy more of his deep and inspiring content, visit his website: