Michelangelo was once can asked: “How is it that you create such wondrous sculptures and works of art? How something so innovative and ingenious emanates 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.
This idea touches upon a deep truth within Jewish thought. Like Adam, every single one of us has our own unique creation story. The Gemara (Niddah 30b) discusses the enigmatic events surrounding our formation, the initial stage of our own creation story. The Gemara explains that when you were just a fetus, you were in a perfect and transcendent state of being; a malach (angel) taught you kol ha’Torah kulah (all of Torah), and you experienced the entirety of reality with a crystal-clear lens. However, the Gemara continues with an anticlimactic punch (literally): 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 he’s going to cause you to forget it, why even teach it to you in the first place?
The deep meaning behind this process is elucidated by the Arizal, Ramchal, Vilna Gaon, and many other Jewish thinkers. They explain that every process contains three stages: The first stage is the high, the inspiration, an experience of perfection and clarity. Next comes the second stage, a complete fall, a loss of everything that was experienced in the first stage. Then we have the third stage, a return to the perfection of the first stage.
The Vilna Gaon explains the Gemara in Niddah 30b according to this model. When the Gemara describes the fetus learning kol ha’Torah 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. This Torah is the very root of reality, and you were granted complete understanding of its every detail. 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, and how your unique 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 have built it yourself. In essence, your job in this world is not to create yourself, but rather to recreate yourself; to re-attain your original state of perfection, as you were shown by the malach. 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, and true self.
Learning or Recognizing?
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 we already learned in the womb, what’s ingrained within us. The Torah is already there at a subconscious level; now we must invest the effort to build and express it into 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 succeed, do 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, if he exerted himself and succeeded.” However, the word metziah doesn’t mean to succeed, it means to find! Shouldn’t the Gemara have used a word such as asisi, pa’alti, or hitzlachti, which refer to accomplishment or achievement? The Vilna Gaon explains this according to the aforementioned idea. Genuine learning isn’t about achievement, 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. This is why 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
To take this one step further, let us consider the concept of 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. I don’t know anyone who craves kosher bugs such as locust, even though in certain Asian countries, bugs are served as delicacies. This is because we only yearn for foods that we have tasted 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, and we can only crave something that we have previously tasted. 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.
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?” And 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, as he is the same malach who taught you kol ha’Torah 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?
May we be inspired to bring our own Torah into the world and fully express our unique purpose.