The Greatness of Man's Soul
The Torah Portion begins with the Mitzva of terumat hadeshen, whereby the Kohen must remove the ashes from the previous day's offering. Rabbeinu Bechaya writes that this Mitzva teaches the character trait of humility before God because the Kohen must humble himself to perform this seemingly degrading act.(1) The Kli Yakar adds that the ashes should remind the Kohen of Abraham's recognition that man comes from dust and ashes'.(2)
There are many other sayings of the Sages that also emphasize the importance of recognizing the apparent lowly nature of man. Two examples are found in Pirkei Avot: "...Know from where you came from and to where you are going… from where did you come? From a putrid drop, and to where are you going? To a place of dust, worms and maggots." (3) "Rebbe Levyatas, man of Yavne says, 'be very, very lowly of spirit because the hopes of man are maggots." (4)
However, there are also a number of other Rabbinical sayings that seem to focus on the greatness inherent in man. The Gemara in Sanhedrin says that "whoever destroys a soul amongst Israel, the Torah considers it as if he destroyed a whole world, and whoever saves a soul amongst Israel the Torah considers it as if he saved an entire world." (5) In Prikei Avot Rebbe Akiva says, "man is precious because he was created in the Image [of God]." (6)
On superficial analysis it could seem that there is a contradiction within the Rabbinical sources as to whether man is on a very high or very low level. However, in truth there is no contradiction, rather, the differences in these sayings of the Sages simply reflect two different angles of approaching the status of man. One approach is to focus on man's body, characterized by lowly bodily desires, and the other is to emphasize man's soul, which is of unparalleled greatness.
This explanation is proven by closer analysis of the sources quoted above: The terumat hadeshen was intended to remind the Kohen of the fleeting nature of the body, reminding him that it ends in dust and ashes, but was not discussing man's soul. The Mishna in Prikei Avot that exhorts man to be very, very humble similarly focuses on man's body. It uses the uncommon term for man, 'enosh', instead of the more common, 'adam' or 'ish'. This is because the word 'enosh' represents the more lowly aspects of man such as his physical desires. The Mishna is saying that a person should not let himself become overly proud of his physical achievements because, like all finite things, they do not last. The Mishna is not saying that a man should feel that he is inherently worthless and low, rather that his success in the realm of physicality is of no intrinsic worth. The same is true of the Mishna that tells us to remember that we come from a putrid drop and are heading for worms and maggots. It is referring to the transient nature of man's body, but is not discussing his soul at all.
In contrast, the Gemara in Sanhedrin which stresses the inherent greatness of every individual focuses on the spiritual greatness of each person. The Mishna in Pirkei Avot explicitly says that man's dearness in God's eyes is because he was created in the Image of God (Tzelem Elokim), a reference to man's soul. It is clear that there is no disagreement amongst the Rabbis, rather, in some places they emphasize the need for man to focus on the lowliness of his body and in others, they stress the importance of recognizing the greatness of his soul.
Rav Shlomo Wolbe observes that many people think there is in fact a disagreement in the Mussar(7) world as to whether man is great or lowly. He strongly rejects this opinion, writing that both are true, and that at various times in one's life he should focus on the lowliness of his body and at other times, he should focus more on the greatness of his soul.(8) There does however seem to be an element of risk about stressing the lowliness of man without giving him an appreciation of his intrinsic greatness. If a person does not have a healthy self-image, then focusing on his lowliness can have a very dangerous effect. Instead of making him realize that he should not feel arrogant about his physical accomplishments, it can make him question the value of his very essence. Only a person who is attuned to the inherent goodness of his essence can accept harsh mussar about the lowliness of his body.
A corollary of emphasis on the lowliness of man is an approach of the midat hadin (attribute of strictness) whereby an educator or parent focuses on the negative aspects of the student or child. Many contemporary educators point out that in previous generations people had healthier self-images and therefore, the stricter approach could be used without fear of causing undue damage. However, nowadays, overly harsh treatment can make a student or child to feel worthless, causing him great damage.
Moreover, even if a person feels that his student or child can handle the stricter approach it is instructive to remember the Gemara in Sotah that tells us, "Always, the left hand should push away and the right should bring close." (9) This means that the strict approach should be used with the weaker left hand and the more gentle approach should be used with the stronger right hand. The Gemara's use of the word, 'always' indicates that this is an eternal principle and there are no exceptions to it. In this vein, one well-known educator believes that for every critical comment to a child, there should be at least four positive comments.
The Portion teaches us that a human being should remember the transient nature of the body. This is a very important lesson, but as we have seen, it is not the complete lesson. We must also remember that we, our children, and our students are of incredible spiritual worth. May we all merit to find the right balance.
1. Tzav, 6:3.
2. Tzav, 6:4.
3. Avos, 3:1.
4. Avos, 4:4.
5. Sanhedrin, 37a.
6. Avos, 3:18.
7. Mussar is the term commonly used for self-growth.
8. Hadrach lelimud hamussar, p.20.
9. Sotah, 47a.