Michelangelo was once asked: “How are you able to create such wondrous sculptures and works of art? How can something so ingenious and innovative emanate from mere mortal hands?
Without skipping a beat, Michelangelo responded, “Before I even begin my work, the sculpture is already complete within the marble block. My job is simply to discover it and then chisel away the superfluous material.”
The potential already exists beneath the surface; the job of the artist is to discover that which is hidden within, transforming the concealed into the revealed.
Your Creation Story
This idea touches upon a deep truth in Jewish thought. Like Adam, the first man, each of us has our own unique creation story. The Talmud (Niddah 30b) explains that when you were just a fetus, you were in a perfected and transcendent state of being and an angel taught you all of Torah. You saw all of reality with a crystal-clear lens. But just before you were born, this angel struck you on the mouth, causing you to forget everything you learned.
Two obvious questions arise: Why does the angel make you forget what you’ve learned? And if he’s going to cause you to forget it, why teach it to you in the first place?
The Vilna Gaon, an 18th century Jewish thinker, answers as follows: When the Talmud states that the fetus learns all of Torah, it doesn’t mean that you were learning the basic texts of the Five Books of Moses. Rather, it refers to the deepest realms of wisdom, a transcendent Torah that is beyond this world. This Torah is the very root of reality, and you understood every aspect of it clearly. Not only were you shown this level of Torah, but you were also learning your unique purpose in the world, and how your unique role fits into the larger scheme of the human story as a whole. You were given a taste of your own perfection, of what you could, should, and hopefully will become.
When the angel struck you, you didn’t completely lose this Torah; rather, you lost access to it, burying this state of self deep in your subconscious. The reason is as follows: What you received in the womb was a gift, unearned and undeserved. The goal of life is to rebuild all that you once were in the womb. But this time it will be real since you’ve built it yourself. Your job is not to create yourself, but rather to recreate yourself; to re-attain your original state of perfection that you were shown by the angel. But this time it will be done through your free will, by choosing to become great. Only by overcoming challenge and difficulty and asserting your will-power can you fulfill your true potential.
Learning or Recognizing?
Perhaps this is why we sometimes have a sense of recognition when we hear a deep thought or a profound insight. Instead of feeling like we are learning it for the first time, everything just clicks, as though we already knew the idea. This is because we do already know it. We’re not learning, we’re rediscovering what we already learned in the womb, what’s ingrained within us. Genuine learning isn’t about discovery or achievement; it’s about finding what already lies dormant within your subconscious, what you learned when you were in the womb. The Torah is already there; now we must invest the effort to build it and manifest it into reality.
This idea lies at the heart of the classic debate between Plato and John Locke. Locke claimed that the human mind begins as a blank slate and that a human being is then molded and imprinted upon based on everything he or she learns and experiences throughout life. Plato, however, quotes Socrates, who believed that everyone is born with the knowledge of everything but has simply lost access to it. Therefore, the job of the teacher is not to teach new material, but to help students come to understand on their own what they already know deep within themselves. This is why the word “educate” comes from the Latin word which means to “take out” or “draw forth”, because teaching is nothing more than drawing out the potential that lays dormant within each student.
Like Michelangelo’s sculptures, we are perfectly formed beneath the surface. Our job is to discover who we truly are, to “chisel away the superfluous material” and express our inner and true self. Growth isn’t about becoming great, it’s about become you. You are a masterpiece covered with stone; your job in this world is to uncover yourself.
Finding Your Unique Self
Some people grow from the outside in. They look around at society, their friends, the people around them and then they shape themselves to fit their surroundings. The clothes they wear, the food they eat, and the things they talk about all become a reflection of their external surroundings. In other words, many people feel like they are a slab of clay and mold themselves to fit in to their environment.
But what if we realized that we are already perfectly formed beneath the surface, like Michelangelo’s sculptures? Our job in life isn’t to take a slab of stone and sculpt someone else’s visage. Our job is to discover who we truly are, who we already are. To “chisel away the superfluous material” and express our inner and true self. You are a masterpiece covered with stone; your job in this world is to uncover yourself.
When God commanded Abraham to leave his home and embark on a journey, He told Abraham “Lech lecha”. While this phrase is often translated as “go forth”, the literal translation reveals something profoundly different. “Lech” means “go”, and “lecha” means “to yourself”. Abraham was commanded to embark on a journey towards “himself, towards his true self.
Abraham is referred to as the “Ish Ivri”, which literally means that he was a man who stood on the other side of the riverbank. Our Sages explain that this is because the entire world stood on one side of the water, and he stood on the other. Mankind was swept up in blind idol worship; Abraham walked on the other side with God. May we all be inspired to follow in the footsteps of Abraham and have the courage to embark on our on own journey of self-discovery and discover who we truly are.
Shmuel Reichman is an inspirational speaker and has spoken internationally at shuls, conferences, and Jewish communities. For all questions, thoughts, or bookings, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.