The Fetus in the Womb
The Talmud discusses a very enigmatic tale describing the initial stages of your formation. The Talmud explains that when you were just a fetus in womb of your mother, you were in a perfected and transcendent state of being. A malach – angel – was specifically assigned to teach you kol ha’Torah kulah – all of the Torah. This means that as a fetus, you understood all of and wisdom, you viewed reality through a crystal clear lens. However, the Talmud continues with an anticlimactic punch (literally): immediately prior to your birth, the malach strikes you on the mouth, causing you to forget everything you have learned.
The obvious question is, why does the malach cause you to forget everything he just taught you? But even more importantly, if he’s going to make you forget it, then why even teach it to you in the first place? This is the same pattern we have repeatedly see: An inspirational high, followed by an all-time low. The high lasts just long enough for us to realize how low the fall has left us.
Recreating Your Torah
As we previously developed, the deep explanation behind this process is explained by the Arizal, the Ramchal, the Vilna Gaon, and many other Jewish thinkers. They expound as follows: Every process contains three stages. The first stage is the high, the inspiration, an experience of perfection and clarity. Next comes the second stage, a complete fall, a loss of everything that was experienced in the first stage. Then we have the third stage, a return to the perfection of the first stage.
Changing the way we view the human mind, the Vilna Gaon explains the Gemara in Niddah 30b according to this model. He explicates that the torah you learned in the womb was not Chumash with Rashi. Rather, it means that you were learning your Torah; you were being shown your unique purpose in the world, and how your unique role fits into the larger scheme of the human story as a whole. This Torah belongs to a different realm, a different dimension. You experienced ultimate transcendence, you learned Torah in its ultimate depth, and you learned who you could become in the deepest sense possible. You were given a taste of your own perfection, of what you could, should, and hopefully will become. But most importantly, you didn’t lose it; rather, you lost access to it. Instead of it disappearing completely, this state of self became buried deep within your subconscious. The reason is as follows: What you received in the womb wasn’t real, it was merely a gift; something unearned and undeserved. The goal of life is to enter into this world and reconstruct all that you once were in the womb. However, this time, it will be real, since you’ve built it yourself. In essence, your job in this world is not to create yourself, but rather to recreate yourself; to re-attain your original state of perfection, as you were shown by the malach.
Learning or Re-Learning?
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’re learning it for the first time, everything just clicks, almost as though we already knew it. This is because we do already know it. We’re not learning, we’re re-learning, rediscovering what we already learned in the womb, what’s ingrained within us. It’s already there, now we have to put in the effort to build it ourselves.
We can use this approach to elucidate a puzzling Talmud in tractate Bava Metzia 6b. The Talmud says that if someone claims to have exerted himself in learning, but has failed to succeed, you should not believe him. Likewise, if he claims to have put no effort into his learning, but has succeeded, you shouldn’t believe him either. Only someone who claims to have exerted himself in his learning and succeeded should be believed.
The Vilna Gaon raises a simple question: The wording the Gemara uses to describe someone who claims to have toiled and succeeded is strange: “yagati u’matzasi,” I exerted myself and I found. What has this man found? Why doesn’t the Gemara use words such as asisi, pa’alti, or hitzalti, all of which refer to accomplishment or achievement? The Vilna Gaon explains this according to our aforementioned idea. 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 Nature of Education
This approach to learning underlies a famous debate between philosophers Plato and Locke in regards to the nature of education. Locke claimed the human mind begins as a blank slate, and you are then imprinted and molded based on everything you learn and experience throughout your life. Plato, however, quotes Socrates who believed that everyone already knows everything, but has simply lost access to it; the job of the teacher isn’t to teach, but rather to help the student come to understand on his own what he already really knows deep within himself. This is why the word educate comes from the Latin words which means to “take out” or “draw forth,” because teaching is nothing more than bringing out the potential that already lies dormant within the student.
The Secret Behind Desire
To complete our understanding of this topic, let’s consider the concept of desire. As humans, we tend to have cravings and yearnings. However, these cravings are usually limited only to that which we have already experienced. For example, many people crave pizza, ice cream, steak, and other delicious foods. But we only crave them since we’ve tasted them before. I don’t know anyone who craves kosher bugs such as locust, even though in certain Asian counties, bugs are served as delicacies. We only yearn for foods that we’ve tasted before. I want you to genuinely think about this; do you crave anything that you haven’t tasted before? Do you crave the remarkable cuisine called “yabagaloola”? Of course not! It doesn’t exist, because I just made it up. We only crave things that we’ve once tasted before. If so, then how come as human beings, we all crave wisdom, greatness, significance, and perfection? The answer is that we’ve all tasted it before, in the womb! We were all once in this perfected state, we tasted it, and now we crave to re-experience and rebuild what we once were.
The Light Within the Darkness
We must hold on to those flashes of inspiration, understand our goal and destination, and then recreate that light within the darkness. For, one day, you will once again experience the clarity of that light. Except this time, it will be real, earned, never again fading away.
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.