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
We begin the year’s Torah cycle by reading Parshat Bereishit, discussing the creation of the world and birth of mankind. 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 haTorah 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 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. 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 teshuva—returning to our original, higher and 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 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) that 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 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’matzati, 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 asiti, 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.
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 into their environment, into the molds that society creates for them.
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,” expressing 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.
Living With Purpose
In just a couple of weeks, Avraham will be told 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. As we begin this year’s Torah cycle, let us each be inspired to bring our own Torah into the world and express our unique purpose.
Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is an inspirational speaker, author, and coach who has lectured internationally on topics of Torah, psychology, spirituality, medical ethics, and leadership. He is the founder and CEO of Self-Mastery Academy (ShmuelReichman.com), the transformative online self-development course based on the principles of high-performance psychology, Torah, and leadership.
To find more inspirational lectures, videos, and articles from Shmuel, or to learn more about Self-Mastery Academy, visit his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com.