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Field of Potential

Field of Potential

The Maharal of Prague on Shavuot and the essence of man.


The following is a translated excerpt adapted from the Maharal of Prague’s homily delivered in Posen, Poland on Shavuot, in 5352/1592. The full text of the essay is printed at the end in the London edition of the Maharal’s Be’er Hagolah and has never been published in English.

King Solomon begins the book of Ecclesiastes with a question: “What advantage does man, adam in Hebrew, have in all that he toils under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1:3). The question belies an assumption. If man does have any advantage at all, it is somehow connected to his name Adam, a name derived from his being created from the earth, adama in Hebrew. An understanding of that assumption provides us with an insight into the question.

Why is it more fitting for a human being specifically to be called “Adam” from the word adama, more than other creature? After all, God created everything from the earth (Medrash Rabba Bereishis 12:11). One would think that an animal’s earthy, materialistic nature would make it more worthy than man of receiving a name associated with the adama.

Fertile Ground

Yet a closer look reveals that man bears a relationship and likeness to the earth in a way that differs from that of all other animals and creatures. The ground has the power to grow things. It brings out the potential in plants, trees, fruits, and everything else it produces. Adama essentially exists in potential, and brings everything to fruition. In a similar vein, Adam is distinct in that he represents pure potential, and, like the land, the ability to bring forth bounty, namely, his own perfection.

Accordingly, man’s positive actions are called “fruits,” as it is written “say to the righteous person that he is good, for [righteous people] shall eat the fruits of their deeds (Isaiah 3:10).” Conversely, evil deeds are also called fruits, for it is said of the wicked “and they shall eat the fruits of their ways, and be satiated from their counsel (Proverbs 1:31).”

Animals: No Inherent Potential

No other living creature exists as pure potential waiting to be realized. All that could come from an animal is found within it immediately upon creation. The essence of an animal is determined at birth. It is already known from the start that a calf will grow up to become an ox that plows, and a foal will become a donkey equipped to bear a burden. This is the inevitable outcome, not subject to the animal’s choice. Thus, all an animal will ever become is present in its being from its inception. This is why the Hebrew word for animal is “beheima.Beheima is a compound comprised of two Hebrew words: “bah” (in it) and “mah” (what), which means: what it is – its essence – is already contained within it. There is nothing in an animal which exists in potential to later be realized in actuality.

In contrast, man is called Adam because he needs to realize his potential and achieve perfection practically; he is adama (earth) for he is considered like land having only potential. His outcome is not inevitable; it is subject to his innate free will. One sows wheat kernels or other seeds in the land, they take root in the soil and bring forth produce. In exactly the same fashion, God gave man a pure and pristine soul – a part if God from above. It is a seed that takes root and is embedded in his body exactly as wheat is embedded in the ground.

Man as a Boor

If man does not produce his good plants and fruits, then he is akin to land which lies “boor” which means fallow in Hebrew. He is like a field which has not been sown. Our rabbis, therefore, decided to call a person who does not master Torah by the name “boor” (ignoramus) for he is like land which is boor, which has not been seeded and which produces nothing.[1]

With this background, we can return to King Solomon’s question. “What advantage does adam, man, have in all that he toils under the sun?” Man’s advantage necessarily lies in his deeds, the fruits of the adama (earth) to which the name Adam alludes. Man exists in potential and needs to realize his potential to fruition, and this alone is the source of his advantage, his virtue.

Yet what advantage does adam have in all his toil under the sun? Indeed, his actions “under the sun,” a reference to the natural realm, provide him with no advantage and he is no different than an animal. One must therefore conclude that his real advantage, his unique nature, lies in his actions above the sun, a reference to the transcendent realm – namely Torah. Man’s connection to Torah represents the fruit of the soul God placed within, and its ability to produce spiritual bounty.

Receiving Torah in the Desert

With this background, we can understand the Torah’s emphasis on the place in which the Jewish people received Torah: the desert. When Adam, so called on account of the adama, exists in a state in which he has no Torah, he is considered a desert, a wasteland with no grass or plants. In such a state man is more like a fallow field than any other creature. Without Torah, he remains in that state; but once he receives Torah, he realizes his potential as adama to bring forth bountiful produce.

[1] This is likely the real source of the English word “boor” which is an unflattering description of a person who acts in a rude, coarse, and unsophisticated manner – a manner appropriate for one who does not receive Torah. See the commentaries on Ethics of our Fathers 2:5 –ein boor yareh chet, a boor does not fear sin.

May 19, 2012

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Visitor Comments: 5

(4) VinnHoward, January 26, 2017 2:24 AM

One of the earlier articles that led me to this discussion page

In the name #Adam, the word #dam is preceded by the letter #aleph. The letter aleph is also a word which means to teach or #inculcate.

It similarly indicates #leadership, as implied by the related word #aluf which means a #general or tribal head. God created man with many base desires that reside in the blood, but he also gave us the means to assert our control over them and be an #aluf over the #dam. By being in control instead of subject to the #dominion of our impulses, man, who is created in the image of God, resembles God. In this connection, the name #Adam also alludes to the word #adameh which means I will liken myself, indicating one's #ability to #emulate God.

(3) ruth housman, May 21, 2012 10:35 AM

AWE language!

I wanted to add to the comments I just made, and that is, perhaps I am, ADAMant about this, because it's been a long personal journey of soul and sole, to get to this place. It is true, that reflection itself, involves water, as we use this word, in another sense, and that to see within a body of water that is clear, is to see far into its depths, and this does require, perhaps a change of filters. We are all of us, screening the light, each according to how we are made, and so it's very difficult to perceive something so new, so completely perhaps fresh, and different, the RESH in fresh itself. As yes, I am doing a profound walk across Babel. And it might seem like an invalid type of dictionary until you begin to perceive the beauty of all this, begun for me, when a rabbi said, you MUST pray aloud. I argued this to myself, as surely those who cannot speak can also pray. But this did turn me into a listening stance, and I began to hear the Sigh in silence itself, and since then, words come to me, they do deconstruct, and I am perceiving another story running, sub rosa, in all of our lives. Ascent and a scent are related words. God wrote us all into the most amazing story EVER told. I know it. I see it. I explicate this as best I can, but in order to "see" it, you have to have your filters removed, or somehow experiene a major opening of consciousness, as in the slow growth that is barely perceptible, that takes place in the opening of the rose. The sun "a rose" this morning. Morning comes. Mourning comes, to us all. It's a language-based story. And I say, ultimately, this story, completely scripted by God, will bring us all home, back to the GARDEN.

(2) ruth housman, May 21, 2012 10:28 AM

Anima: Soul, what "animates" us all, all CREATION

I do not see it, as you do, because for me, all souls are present in ALL CREATION, and who I am, is predetermined before my soul "arrives", as in, I have a mission, we all do, and that story unfolds while we're here. And God does not play dice with the universe. I see, too, that animals, and our word anima, is within their name, are also souls. And those among us who care for animals, for birds, for dogs, for other pets, know this, and deeply, and it does seem their lives are entwined with ours and form part of a deep ongoing story that is ours to tell. So NO, I cannot agree with this differentiation. As to potential, the word has "pot" within, and in Kabbalist terms, we are all vessels for the light, ALL of us, meaning ALL creation. And I perceive that the potetial that is within the sacred alphabets around the world, as in, our Hebrew letters, is actualized within the stories we live. And so when we come up with a "clever" name for a business, such as Room with a Vieux, to characterize an antique place, and realize that VIEW in English has to do with a good sight, and that vieux means old in French, and so the amalgam is perfect, we can only do this BECAUSE the letters have an inherent alchemy and we are actualizing what's buried within their potentials. This may be very hard to comprehend, but it is also ancient wisdom, as in the ancient wheel of letters as in Kabbalist descriptions. And as life is also something we do suffer, as we experience the highs and the lows, and the infolding of opposites, so do we have "weal" for hurt. And for bless, we have blesser in French meaning to wound, reminiscent for sure of Jacob and his wrestling with the angel. Is there anybody out there? I have been writing about this, in depth, for a long time. A plumb and perhaps a plum role in a story that is deeper than the oceans and wider than the skies. in truth/ruth

sarah, May 25, 2012 10:50 AM

Ruth, the English translation for both nefesh and neshama is "soul". Animals do have nefesh, but not neshama.

(1) Anonymous, May 21, 2012 2:22 AM

Very good

Very good

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