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Creation of Man, Sistine Chapel

Sammy lived in a strange world. From the moment one entered adulthood, the government placed a special belt on them, one that was impossible to remove. This belt served to keep everyone in order. If someone defied a law, or misbehaved, the belt immediately administered an electric shock. The worse the offense, the stronger the shock. Everyone’s private lives were monitored closely, so there was no escaping punishment. 

Sammy, though, was bright and creative. And most of all, he was tired of living in such fear and submissiveness. He finally decided that he was going to do something about it. But he had one problem: there was no way to dismantle the belt without triggering an alarm that would notify the police. So for months, Sammy tried to think of different ways to circumvent the belt’s alarm. But one day, the miraculous occurred. Sammy’s belt malfunctioned. He couldn’t believe it! Maybe the battery ran out too soon, or maybe the government had lost control of him, but Sammy didn’t care; he was finally free! 


At first, Sammy felt inclined to break the law. “Anarchy and chaos, here I come!” he happily thought to himself. Every time he broke the law, he relished the freedom he now had. But after a week of this, he began feeling bad about himself and started giving it some thought. He realized that deep down he really did want to be a good person, he wanted to do the right thing. The government had decided that the belts were necessary, because society had gotten so out of hand, there was no other way to keep peace and order. Only by limiting people’s free will could they ensure everyone’s safety. But Sammy realized that even without the belt, he still wanted to do the right thing, through his own choice. 

Weeks went by, and Sammy’s life went on as usual. One day, as he was walking home, a police car stopped right next to him and an officer opened the door. “Hi Sammy, can you please come with me?” Startled and confused, Sammy nervously went with the officer, who took him straight to the police headquarters. “Oh no” Sammy thought. “They must know that my belt is broken! What if they decide to make an example of me; what if they lock me up! My life is over!” 

The officer walked Sammy to a strange room filled with thousands of monitors. In the center stood the chief of police. “Hi Sammy, it’s great to finally meet you,” he said. “I know you’re probably scared and confused. Please don’t be; you have nothing to worry about. I want to show you something.” On the monitor, Sammy saw a video of…. himself. It was the day his belt malfunctioned. What did this mean? What was happening? 

“For the past few weeks, your belt has been out of service. But this wasn’t a mistake. In fact, it was the opposite. You see, the belts are not ideal, they are only a means to an end. Years ago, they were a necessity. Free will had to be taken away for the greater good. But I believe that we are getting closer to the point where the people themselves can be trusted to make their own decisions, where their lives and choices are once more determined by their own free will. So we decided to use you as our prototype, to see what would happen if we deactivated your belt. And you know the rest of the story. Sammy, thank you for giving me hope in humanity.” 

Adam’s Creation Story 

There is a strange recurring phenomenon throughout Parshas Bereishis: the Torah first describes one model of creation and then proceeds to depict a completely different, even contradictory picture of the same creation. For example: 

  • The first perek of Bereishis (Bereishis 1:27) describes Adam as a being that was created bi’tzelem Elokim (in the image of God), an inspiring and divine portrayal of man and his role in the world. 
  • However, the very next chapter (Bereishis 2:7) describes man as a physical being, formed from nothing more than the dirt of the earth, a description almost identical to the creation of animals.  

What happened to the Godly, inspiring image of man? 

The Answer: An Ideal, Followed by the Starting Point 

The key to answering these questions lies in one of the most fundamental concepts in Judaism. The Arizal, Ramchal, Vilna Gaon, and many other Jewish thinkers 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 during the first stage.  
  • Then there is the third stage, a return to the perfection of the first stage.  However, this third stage is fundamentally different from the first. It is the same perfection, the same clarity, but this time it’s a perfection and clarity that you have earned. The first time it was given to you, now you have worked to build it for yourself. 

The first stage is a gift, a spiritual high. It’s there to help you experience the goal, the destination. It’s a taste of what you can and hopefully will ultimately accomplish; but it’s not real, it’s given as a gift, and is therefore an illusion. It serves only as a guiding force, but cannot compare to the genuine accomplishment of building something yourself. It is therefore taken away to allow for the second and most important stage: building it yourself, undergoing the work required to attain this growth in actuality, to work for the perfection that you were shown. A gift isn’t real, something chosen and earned is. We’re in this world to choose, to assert our free will, and to create ourselves. Now that we’ve tasted the first stage, we know what we’re meant to choose, what we’re meant to build. The third stage is the recreation of the first stage. While it appears the same, it’s fundamentally different. It’s real, it’s earned, it’s yours. The first stage was a gift, an illusion; the third is the product born of the effort and time you invested. 

The Ideal Adam 

There are many explanations for the contradictory descriptions of Adam in the first and second chapters of Bereishis, but it can be explained clearly and beautifully according to the principle we just established. The ideal and goal of man is to become Godly, to become perfect, all-knowing, all-good, all-kind, to have complete self-control. However, this is the goal, not the starting point. We begin as animalistic beings, with limited intellectual abilities and undeveloped character traits. A baby is selfish, the center of its own world, the only person who exists. This is the exact opposite of Godliness. The goal of life is to become Godly, to go through the process of actualizing our potential, and in doing so, we become a true tzelem Elokim. As we’ve explained in the past, the fetus learns kol ha’Torah kulah in the womb, and then loses it upon being born into this world. We are born imperfect so that we can journey through this world with the mission of becoming perfect, recreating and earning what we once received as a gift. Adam was created first as a perfect being, the model of who we each strive to become, before being reduced to the lowly and animalistic being that we begin our lives as. 

Creating the World with Din  

This principle – an ideal followed by the starting point – sheds light onto another enigmatic midrash (Rashi, Bereishis 1:1). Chazal explain that originally, Hashem created the world with strict din (justice). In such a world, one would get exactly what they deserved; if they sinned, they would be punished instantaneously. However, Hashem saw that the world could not be sustained with strict justice, so He added rachamim (mercy), enabling people to do teshuva (repentance). This account seems extremely odd.   

How can it be that Hashem made a mistake, that He originally wanted to create the world with din, but then changed His mind? One only changes their mind when they receive new information. [For example, you would change your mind if you originally decided not to go to the store on Monday, because you thought it was closed on Mondays, but then later found out that the store was, in fact, open on Mondays.] Is it possible that Hashem did not already know that the world could not survive without rachamim?  

The Maharal (Gur Aryeh, Bereishis 1:1) explains this midrash according to the principle we have developed throughout this chapter. In an ideal world, man would be judged according to absolute truth, absolute din and emes. In such a world, we would receive immediate punishment for any sins, and we would experience a world of clear cause-and-effect.    

However, the purpose of this world is to earn our perfection and build our connection with Hashem, creating our share in Olam Habah (The World to Come). This is built on the concept of din: Justice means that you get what you deserve. Just as we receive our share in Olam Habah because we earned and deserve it, we should also receive full and immediate punishment for our sins, because we earned and deserve it.  

However, in such a world, humanity could not survive. This is due to the fact that we need free will in order to earn our share in Olam Habah; and because we have free will, we are likely to sin. [The very existence of free will allows for the possibility (and likelihood) of sin.] And if we were punished with full force the moment we sinned, no one would survive. As a result, humanity needs the ability to do teshuva, without getting punished right away.  

And on the flip side, if we were punished the moment we sinned, our free will itself would be diminished. If people knew that the moment they sinned, Hashem would punish them, they would be much less likely to make mistakes. [Imagine getting struck by lightning the moment we sinned. We would be a lot less likely to make mistakes. But this would also seriously weaken our free will.] 

As a result, Hashem mixed rachamim with strict din 

However, this is not so simple. How can Hashem mix rachamim with din if din appears to be “absolute”, all or nothing?  

With din: 

  • We get exactly what we deserve 
  • We receive it right away 
  • There is no way of avoiding the consequences 

Rachamim, however, requires non-exactness; it therefore completely contradicts din. You either get exactly what you deserve, or you don’t, there can’t be a middle ground! 

But the Ramchal (Mesilas Yesharim, Chapter 4) provides an incredible explanation. The beauty of rachamim is that it doesn’t reject din, it creates a harmony (tiferes) which allows for 100% din and 100% rachamim.  

With rachamim: 

  • We get exactly what we deserve, but not all at once (gradation). This enables us to handle the consequences and keep moving forward. (For example, instead of receiving the brute force of giant boulder, the boulder will be broken up into many smaller pebbles and a small child will throw them at him one at a time.) 
  • We receive the punishment following the sin, but only if we don’t take advantage of the opportunity for teshuva. 
  • We receive the consequences, but if we do teshuva, then retroactively, there are no consequences to receive, as teshuva undoes the damage itself. Once a person does teshuva, they become a different person, and the punishment is no longer necessary or applicable. 

This is the unique balance between din and rachamim. When the midrash says that Hashem originally intended to create the world with pure din, that was the ideal, the goal. Hashem then created a world which also contains rachamim, to enable that original vision to come to fruition. It is only through rachamim that we are able to utilize the middah of din and earn our share in Olam Habah. Once Hashem added rachamim to the world, the world itself became our “rechem” (womb). We are all individual fetuses developing in Hashem’s womb. 

The Process of Life 

This is the process of life. The ideal is revealed, taken away, and then remains as our goal as we journey through life, trying to recreate that ideal. The key is to be inspired by the goal, not discouraged by the struggle. We must understand that our goal is to become godly, fully reflect our higher selves, create oneness, and enjoy every single step of the process! 

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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: