THE Talmud says, quoting Rav:
“Adam, the first man, reached from one end of the world to the other. . . . When he sinned, Hashem placed His hand on him and shrank him. . . . “ What is this? Poetry? Metaphor?
What does it mean, on any level? This Talmudic statement is actually paired with another one, equally enigmatic, in the name of R. Elazar: “Adam, the first man, reached from the earth to the heavens. . . . When he sinned, G-d placed his hands on him and shrank him. . . . ”
The idea of reaching from one end of the world to the other is no longer farfetched. If I wish to witness a scene in China, I no longer need to travel for months on the back of an animal or for weeks on a boat. I do not even need to travel one day on an airplane. I can simply switch on my computer. Poof. I can see the streets of Beijing or close a business deal in Shanghai. I can pick up the phone and speak to people almost anywhere on the globe. “One end of the world to the other?” It’s in my living room, right now. Just flip a switch.
And the heavens?
These I can reach in the rituals of the Tabernacle, whose construction is the theme of this week’s Torah portion; or in its successor the Temple, or its succesor the synagogue. This is very different from calling China, but if I am a spiritual person, I can reach way beyond myself just the same.
What is the meaning of all this? Why must I stretch beyond myself, to the ends of the earth no less, or to the heavens? What is the significance of these great powers attributed to the progenitor of humanity; and what does it mean that G-d shrunk him?
RABBI Samson D. Pincus offers this observation: There is something about the original state of man that cannot be suppressed. The human being is naturally expansive, questing, averse to limitations placed on him. Why does he conquer space? “Because it’s there.” Humanity is extraterrestrial by nature, at least in aspiration. Human beings must reach across the world, horizontally; or reach toward the heavens, vertically. It’s in their DNA.
“Man,” writes R. Pincus, “has a very interesting characteristic: He hates to be imprisoned. We might wonder what’s so terrible about being in prison. Nowadays the prisons are almost like hotels . . . Why is it such a terrible punishment? The answer is that being imprisoned is the opposite of man’s nature.”
Shim’i ben Gera cursed and attacked King David, a grave sin, but David did not want to punish Shim’i in his lifetime. As David’s death approached, he asked his son Solomon to use his reputed wisdom to find a way to put Shim’i, head of the Sanhedrin, to death.
King Solomon ordered Shim’i to remain in Jerusalem and not leave the city. That’s it. No other punishment. Shim’i was a free man in every way; he just couldn’t leave the city. After three years, Shim’i traveled by donkey to the city of Gat. He returned, and for two acts of rebellion, one against King David and one against his son, King Solomon had Shim’i put to death.
For our purposes, we shall leave aside a concept millennia removed from Jewish consciousness: kingship as an extension of Divine sovereignty.
Simply working within the parameters of the Biblical narrative, R. Chaim Shmuelevitz asked: How did Solomon know that by ordering Shim’i to stay in Jerusalem this would lead to his death? Perhaps Shim’i would stay in the city and Solomon’s plan would come to naught. So how did this plan express Solomon’s great wisdom?
R. Shmuelevitz said:
“As long as a person isn’t limited by others, as long as he has the freedom to come and go as he wishes, he might very well decide to stay where he is. But as soon as limits are imposed on a person, he will need to defy them. Being forever forbidden to leave one’s place goes against man’s nature. Solomon knew that if he ordered Shim’i to stay in Jerusalem, Shim’i would break out of his boundaries. Man’s nature is to want to break out of his boundaries.”
THUS, we have a metaphor about Adam, the first man, that is not a metaphor. Man needs to reach from one end of the world to another.
If man can’t do it now, he will strive for it. If man cannot fly, he will learn to fly. If only some have the opportunity to fly, man will invent a computer. If bound to his city or home by economic necessity, by demands of work or by health, man will see the world on his screen. If he can’t visit the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, he can treat himself to a tour right in his own living room; just Google “Hermitage.”
And if a person is very spiritual and has little interest in what computers have to offer, he will break his boundaries vertically. Instead of reaching across the globe, he will reach up to G-d, to the heavens, through prayer or Torah study. One way or another, a human being, no matter who he is, hates to be imprisoned.
I read much of this in and quoted some of it from R. Pincus’ book, Shabbos Kodesh: Making the Most of Shabbos (Feldheim; chapter 15), which leaves us with two final thoughts:
First, the spiritual history of humanity has shifted. Once upon a time, man was satisfied to break his boundaries spiritually. G-d had no need to guide history to the great technological epic in which we live. When humanity as a whole could no longer reach beyond itself through communication with the Divine,
G-d made it possible for man to transcend his limitations just by sitting in his chair, in front of a computer.
Either way, the human being’s desire to transcend limitations have remained unquenchable.
Put differently, ever since G-d shrank Adam, humanity has continually striven to reverse the curse, to recover humanity’s original power and dimension. And so it is. Millennia later, the human physique expands (a century ago, were there seven-foot basketball players?); human life expands (a century ago, did women give birth in their early fifties or commonly live past a century?); the human mind expands (wondering how humanity marveled at such simplicities as 40 mph cars and Morse code a century ago).
Second, no matter how enraptured the human being is with touching the ends of the earth via technology, every Jew has both the need and the opportunity to touch the heavens. The ultimate reach of humanity is that of R. Elazar. Man’s thirst cannot be fully realized horizontally. He always needs the vertical, spiritually sympathetic vibration: that of G-d, Who, in the absence of the sanctuary in Jerusalem, remains uniquely accessible on Shabbos.
Copyright © 2014 by the Intermountain Jewish News