Talent and character

By Rabbi Dan Lewin
Parashat Tazria

Next Thursday night thousands from around the country will tune in to watch the NFL draft, where each team selects their future players — the result of months of intense scouting, interviewing and discussing draft strategies. As general managers and coaches evaluate and rank all players, two major factors are talent (potential or “upside”) and character (work ethic and “the right kind of guy” for the team).

Ideally, you want both qualities, but certain teams (and businesses), when selecting personnel, may place more emphasis on one. These two qualities have their counterparts in our spiritual service, in how we are evaluated, and this week offers an interesting lesson between the lines.

The theme

The title of this parasha is Tazria (“she will produce seed”), which refers to the first law presented in it, namely that a woman who gives birth becomes ritually unclean (a purely mystical idea, not to be confused with physical cleanliness). The commentaries explain that this subject continues the theme from last week — moving from laws of animals to people.

Noting the counterintuitive order — the first topic and priority should be humans — Rashi quotes the third-century sage, Rabbi Simlai: “Just as in the Creation, man was created after all domestic animals, wild beasts and birds, so too, the law [concerning the cleanness] of man is stated after the law [concerning the cleanness] of domestic animals, beasts and birds.”

While his statement explains that the progression follows the same reasoning as the unfolding of creation, it doesn’t cite the reason for the order of creation. For this, one must consult the Talmud (Sanhedrin 38a), which offers two seemingly opposite accounts for why the human being was created last:

One explanation is so the human being could enter the world with everything prepared, like an honored guest who walks into a house only after the host has arranged all the beautiful furniture and prepared all the food. The second is to remind someone who becomes too self-satisfied or arrogant that “even a mosquito proceeded the human being (is higher) in the order of creation.”

So, when trying to decipher the deeper purpose behind the natural order, bringing things into being, we are left confused — is being last in line a compliment or an insult? Furthermore, the latter answer seems to contradict every biblical statement, philosophical exposition and practical law in Judaism, which convey the superiority of the human being who is “made in the image of G-d” and regarded as the pinnacle of creation. In what way can a person even be considered lower than a mosquito? Is it merely a poetic reprimand?

What it means to be human

To properly understand the intention behind these statements, we must briefly explore, from a Torah perspective, one of the most fundamental questions: What separates human beings from all other creatures?

This broad academic investigation has many answers (among them, abstract reasoning, sophisticated communication, morality, creativity, humor, consciousness of time, self-awareness, even money and trade). The classical commentaries on the Chumash list the main distinctions of intelligence and language. The more esoteric works point to a dual makeup — a unique creation containing two extremes: an earthly body (invigorated by an animal spirit); yet a transcendent soul that resembles the heavenly beings. Finally, Jewish philosophers focus on the power of free choice, the ability to discern between the forces of good and evil.

The inherent tension between two worlds and extremes, along with freedom of choice, creates an inherent advantage and disadvantage over all other beings. Furthermore, depending on our journey, we can become the highest or the lowest amongst creation. The right choices lead us to the greatest spiritual heights. Poor decisions that lead to destruction, even rudeness and insensitivity to others, run contrary to our intended purpose.

This ability to do the opposite of the divine intent places us lower in the universal estimation than even a tiny parasite, which, while sucking blood — taking without contributing — is still behaving exactly as it was designed. [Along these lines, the Maharal of Prague points out that the Hebrew word for animal, bahaima, is a contraction of two words — ba mah — “it already contains what it is.” In contrast, the essence of a person is the potential for growth and change.]

How do you measure greatness?

In the final analysis, the two Talmudic opinions may not be at odds, but depend on perspective: If we measure greatness by looking at the person’s essential makeup, the human being has unique gifts. But if greatness is measured by personal decisions and effort — character and work — then the spiritual accomplishment that comes from our decisions is what most defines us. The evaluation also takes more time to realize.

More specifically, from one perspective the measure of a person is not the abilities that someone has been given but what he or she does with their gifts. While our natural asset consists of having a soul with infinite power, a blessing unattainable through our own means, our main merit lies is the effort of self-refinement. And “hard work always beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” In this respect, winning in the game of life hinges not on our innate gifts but on our choices.

Remembering both sides

The average human mind seeks validation and is always keeping track of where we stand relative to others. Keeping a proper perspective often entails an honest consideration of what you’re given verses what you do. When feeling down or mourning failure, it is important to reflect on the unlimited potential that your soul possesses, simply by virtue of being human. On the flip side, when feeling proud, it is important to examine what  you have earned through work, with free choice over talent.

The famous Reb Simcha Bunem carried two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one he wrote: Bishvili nivra ha-olam — “for my sake the world was created.” On the other he wrote: V’anokhi afar v’efer — “I am but dust and ashes.” Depending on the case, he would take out each paper, as a reminder. To truly succeed, we need to constantly keep in mind these contrasting but parallel perspectives: our remarkable gifts as well as our potential moral deficiencies.

Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.

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