Choose Your Place

Friday, 28 October, 2016 - 3:29 pm

Choose Your Place

The moment had arrived.

On the sixth day of creation, after the creation of the inanimate universe, the plant life and the animal kingdom, the moment arrived when G-d decided to create the human being. The first verse where the human being is mentioned reads as follows: 

And God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and they shall rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the heaven and over the animals and over all the earth and over all the creeping things that creep upon the earth."[1]

We would expect the verse to describe a truly great feature of the human being. Humanity is capable of awesome accomplishments, the invention of civilization, of art and of philosophy. We have walked the moon, sent rovers to Mars and created the iphone and the app store. Why then does the verse that first describes the human being identify him as someone who can rule the fish, birds and mammals? Is running an animal circus the most interesting thing we can do?

The answer lies in the word “and they shall rule”.

The Hebrew word for “and they shall rule” has another, more common, meaning. The word “Vi’yi’rdu” means to “rule” but it also means to “go down”, “descend”. These two words, rule and descend, have opposite meanings: to rule connotes being on top while to descend connotes being on the bottom, yet, remarkably, biblical Hebrew uses one word to capture both of these two meanings.   

G-d was about to create man. Man would look around the world and wonder about his place in the universe. “What is my place on this earth?” “Where is my place in the hierarchy of creatures? “Am I merely a sophisticated animal, or am I a transcendent creation capable of impulse control, of abstract thinking, personal growth, kindness and connecting to the spiritual?”

The answer to this pressing question, the question of how man should self define, is in the word that has the double meaning, to rule or to descend. G-d was telling the human being that man alone defines his place on earth. Only man can decide to be the “ruler”, the creature who is capable of soaring above and beyond all other creations, or whether he would be the creature lower than all of the animals, capable of falling to the depths of cruelty that no other creature is capable of.

As Rashi explains:

and they shall rule over the fish: Hebrew VaYirdu This expression contains both the meaning of ruling and the meaning of subservience. If he merits, he rules over the beasts and over the cattle. If he does not merit, he becomes subservient to them, and the beast rules over him.

Man is a complicated creature.

The Hebrew word man, Adam, has two meaning which together capture the tension at the heart of the human being. The Hebrew word “adam” means “from the earth”, capturing the Torah’s description of the creation of man: “G-d formed man of dust from the ground”[2], yet Adam, the Hebrew word for man, also means similar, referring to the verse “I will be similar to the one above (G-d)[3].

The most important thing the verse could say to describe the human being, and the purpose of his creation, is that he alone of all creations possesses free choice.

Would he rule and elevate the rest of creation, or would he descend below all other creatures? Would he be “of the earth” or would he be “similar to the one above”?

Only man knows. Only he can determine his place. Only he can write his own story.   


[1] Genesis 1:26.

[2] Genesis 2:7.

[3] Isaiah 14:14.

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