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Man's Place in the World

  • Rav Chaim Navon

The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Theological Issues In Sefer Bereishit
Yeshivat Har Etzion


By Rav Chaim Navon

The first chapter of the book of Bereishit raises an issue that is central to our entire outlook: man's place in the world. By this we mean man's rank vis-a-vis the rest of creation: is man the ultimate end and pinnacle of creation, or is he just another creature, in no way essentially superior to all others? According to chapter 1 of Bereishit, man was created last. Does this imply elevated rank, or perhaps on the contrary, insignificance?

Man was created last... Why was he created last? So that he not become haughty. He is told: A gnat preceded you in the act of creation... Another explanation: So that he immediately begin his meal. They drew an analogy. To what may this be compared? To a king who built a palace, dedicated it, and prepared a meal, and then afterwards invited guests. (Tosefta, Sanhedrin 8:7-9)

The fact that man was created last lends itself to two interpretations. It may point to man's insignificance, that he was created only after all the other creatures had already been fashioned. Or perhaps it indicates man's elevated rank, that he is the final end of creation, and so was only created after everything else was ready to serve him.

Midrash Bereishit Rabba raises this question in a slightly different form:

...As Resh Lakish said: "And the spirit of God hovered over the surface of the water" (Bereishit 1:2) - this is the spirit of the messianic king... If man merits, he is told: You preceded the ministering angels; and if not, he is told: A gnat preceded you, a gnat preceded you, a snail preceded you. (Bereishit Rabba 8:1)

This midrash sees the chronological order of creation as a criterion for establishing the relative value of created beings. The midrash notes, however, that the spirit of man was created first, prior to the rest of creation. Thus, if man makes good use of his soul and spirit, he is first among all created beings; but if he lives a purely material life, he is reminded that his body was created last.

The tension regarding man's rank in creation finds expression in a well-known passage in Tehillim:

When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained; what is man, that You are mindful of him? And the son of man, that You visit him? Yet You have made him a little lower than the angels, and You crown him with glory and honor. You make him to have dominion over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under his feet. (Tehillim 8:4-7)

What, then, is man? "What is man, that You are mindful of him," or perhaps "You have made him a little lower than the angels"?

Our early authorities discussed at length the question of man's place in creation. The commonly accepted view elevates man and magnifies his significance:

Rabbi Nechemya says: From where do we know that man is equal in importance to all of creation? For it says (Bereishit 5:1): "This is the book of the generations of Man [in the day that God created mankind, in the likeness of God He fashioned him,]" and below it says (Bereishit 2:4): "These are the generations of the heaven and of the earth when they were created, [in the day that the Lord God fashioned the earth and the heavens.]" Just as there creation and fashioning, here too creation and fashioning. (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 31)

This is also the position of Rabbenu Sa'adya Gaon, who adduces a cosmological argument regarding this issue:

When we see that the creatures are many in number, nevertheless, we need not be confused in regard to which of them constitutes the goal of creation. For there exists a natural criterion by means of which we can determine which one of all the creatures is the end. When, then, we make our investigation with this criterion [as a guide], we find that the goal is man. We arrive at this conclusion in the following manner: Habit and nature place whatever is most highly prized in the center of things which are themselves not so highly prized... When, therefore, we see that this situation appertains to many things and then find the earth in the center of heaven with the heavenly spheres surrounding it on all sides, it becomes clear to us that the thing which was the subject of creation must be on the earth.[1] Upon further investigation of all its parts we note that the earth and water are both inanimate, whereas we find that the beasts are irrational. Hence only man is left, which gives us the certainty that he must unquestionably have been the intended purpose of creation. When we examine the Scriptures, we likewise find in them a statement by God to the effect that "I, even I, have made the earth, and created man upon it" (Yeshaya 45:12). In fact, at the very beginning of the Torah God listed all classes of creation. Then, when He had completed them all, He said: "Let us make man" (Bereishit 1:26), like a person who builds a palace and, after having furnished and decorated it, brings its owner into it. (Rabbenu Sa'adya Gaon, Emunot ve-De'ot, IV)

Rabbenu Sa'adya argues that not only is man the most distinguished element of creation, but he is also the ultimate goal of creation. That is to say, everything else was created around him for the purpose of serving him and being of benefit to him. Maharal writes in a similar vein:

Just as the sun reigns, so is man a king, for everything is subject to him. Man’s royalty expresses itself in that he brings perfection to all earthly creatures, for everything was created in order to serve man and minister to him. In this way he is the form for all earthly creatures, bringing perfection to everything, like a king, who perfects everything. (Maharal, Tiferet Yisrael, chap. 4)

Many thinkers among the nations of the world also affirm the greatness of man and his uniqueness in creation. We shall cite here the words of the chorus in the ancient Greek play "Antigone" by Sophocles:

Wonders are many, and none is more wonderful than man; the power that crosses the white sea, driven by the stormy south-wind, making a path under surges that threaten to engulf him; and Earth, the eldest of the gods, the immortal, the unwearied, doth he wear, turning the soil with the offspring of horses, as the ploughs go to and fro from year to year. And the light-hearted race of birds, and the tribes of savage beasts, and the sea-brood of the deep, he snares in the meshes of his woven toils, he leads captive, man excellent in wit... And speech, and wind-swift thought, and all the moods that mould a state, hath he taught himself. (Sophocles, Antigone)

During the Middle Ages, the prevailing attitude was entirely different: Christian thinkers spoke about the worthlessness and insignificance of man. The Renaissance, the period of revival of European thought, was characterized first and foremost by the recognition of the value of man and his elevated rank within creation. This is what the fifteenth century duke, Pico della Mirandola, wrote in a work that shows the influence of Jewish thinkers and kabbalists:

At long last, however, I feel that I have come to some understanding of why man is the most fortunate of living things and, consequently, deserving of all admiration; of what may be the condition in the hierarchy of beings assigned to him, which draws upon him the envy, not of the brutes alone, but of the astral beings and of the very intelligences which dwell beyond the confines of the world...

[And so God said to man:] We have given you, O Adam, no visage proper to yourself, nor endowment properly your own, in order that whatever place, whatever form, whatever gifts you may, with premeditation, select, these same you may have and possess through your own judgement and decision. The nature of all other creatures is defined and restricted within laws which We have laid down; you, by contrast, impeded by no such restrictions, may, by your own free will, to whose custody We have assigned you, trace for yourself the lineaments of your own nature. (Pico della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man)

Pico sees the unique value of man in his free will, which distinguishes him from all other creatures, earthly and celestial. Unlike the rest of creation, man is not defined and limited by particular patterns of behavior, and this is his greatness.

In the modern period (at least until very recently, until the postmodern period), the greatness of man's power has been widely recognized. During the modern period, man's greatness has been associated with his rapid development of technology.

Thus far, we have seen the position of gentile thinkers who accept the view of Rabbenu Sa'adya Gaon and Maharal that man is the crown and ultimate end of creation. Rambam, however, disagrees with Rabbenu Sa'adya. Rambam opens with the assertion that were it true, God forbid, that the world has no Creator, it would be irrelevant to ask about the final end of creation (for an end assumes intentional initiative). However, even according to our faith regarding the creation of the world, it is inappropriate to speak of a single grand end for the entire world, and all the more so is it inappropriate to speak of man as being the final end of the entire creation:

It is accordingly clear that, according to the doctrine of eternity,[2] the question of ultimate finality for being as a whole does not arise. On the other hand, it is sometimes thought that, according to our opinion and our doctrine of the production in time of the world as a whole after nonexistence, this question is obligatory - I mean that it is obligatory to seek out the finality of all that exists. It is likewise thought that the finality of all that exists is solely the existence of the human species so that it should worship God, and that all that has been made has been made for it alone so that even the heavenly spheres only revolve in order to be useful to it and to bring into existence that which is necessary for it. Some passages in the books of the prophets, if taken according to their external sense, give strong support to this thought... However, if this opinion is carefully examined, as opinions ought to be carefully examined by intelligent men, the flaw in it becomes clear... Even if the universe exists for the sake of man, and the final end of man is, as has been said, to worship God, a question remains to be asked regarding the final end of his worship. For He, may He be exalted, would not acquire greater perfection if He were worshipped by all that He has created!... Necessarily and obligatorily the argument must end with the answer being given that the final end is: God has wished it so, or: His wisdom has required this to be so. And this is the correct answer...

For this reason, to my mind, the correct view according to the beliefs of the Law - a view that corresponds likewise to the speculative views - is as follows: It should not be believed that all the beings exist for the sake of the existence of man. On the contrary, all the other beings too have been intended for their own sakes and not for the sake of something else... Just as He has willed that the human species should come to exist, He also has willed that the spheres and their stars should come to exist... This view too has been expressed in the prophetic books. Thus it says: "The Lord has made everything lema'anehu [for His sake or for its sake]" (Mishlei 16:4), where the third person [i.e., 'His' or 'its'] may refer to the complement [i.e., to 'everything']. If, however, it refers to the subject, the interpretation of the word [lema'anehu] would be: for the sake of His essence, may He be exalted - that is, for the sake of His will...

If you consider the book which guides all those who seek guidance toward what is correct and therefore is called the Torah, the notion that we have in view will become manifest to you from the commencement of the account of creation till the end. For with reference to none of them is the statement made in any way that it exists for the sake of some other thing. He only says that He brought every part of the world into existence and that its existence confirmed to its purpose. This is the meaning of the his saying: "And God saw that it was good" (Bereishit 1)...

Hence be not misled in your soul to think that the spheres and the angels have been brought into existence for our sake. For it has explained to us what we are worth: "Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket" (Yeshaya 40:15). Consider accordingly your substance and that of the spheres, the stars, and the separate intellects; then the truth will become manifest to you, and you will know that man and nothing else is the most perfect and the most noble thing that has been generated from this [inferior] matter; but that if his being is compared to that of the spheres and all the more to that of the separate beings, it is very, very contemptible. (Rambam, Guide of the Perplexed, III, 13)

Rambam raises several important points: he argues that man is not the final end of creation, for there are beings in the universe greater than him.[3] What he says here is connected to his general philosophy and metaphysics, according to which there exist separate intellects and spheres that are greater than man. Man is, indeed, the noblest and most important creature on earth, but not in the entire universe. Rambam connects this to another point: he argues that it is inappropriate to speak of a single overall end of the world as a hierarchical system, for in the final analysis it is not at all clear why God wants the entire world. This being the case, it is reasonable to assume that every creature has its own end, which is unknown to us.[4] Rambam finds support for his opinion in the account of the creation. He argues that Scripture does not connect any created being to another. Nowhere does it say that the trees were created for the benefit of man. Rather, each species came into existence separately on a particular day, and about each one it was stated "that it was good," without any reference to the benefit that something else may derive from it.

When Rambam says that man is the noblest of the material creations, his words are very different from those of Maharal. Maharal also spoke about man being the noblest creation among the "earthly" creatures. According to Rambam, however, the separate intellects and the spheres are not mystic creatures from some other world, but rather part of the physics of this world; and they too are superior to man. And furthermore, Rambam, in contrast to Maharal, maintains that even those creatures that are more lowly than man were not created in order to serve him, but rather they all have their own ends.

Standing in extreme opposition to Rambam is Rabbi Chayyim of Volozhin, the author of "Nefesh ha-Chayyim." Rabbi Chayyim argues that not only is man the focus of this world, but he is also the focus of the celestial worlds:

This too should cause the heart of a member of the holy nation to tremble, for he embraces in his form all the forces and all the worlds, ... i.e., the holy and the celestial sanctuary. Man's heart, the center of his body, the all-inclusive, corresponds to the Holy of Holies, the center of the civilized world, the foundation stone, including all the roots of holiness...

This being the case, when a person strays and contemplates an impure thought in his heart, such as adultery, he brings a prostitute, the symbol of jealousy, into the celestial Holy of Holies in the holy heavenly worlds, God forbid...

For man, though the soul of life within him, becomes the living soul of a multitude of innumerable worlds. For just as all the behaviors and motions of the body follow from the force of the soul within him, so is man the force and living soul of infinite heavenly and mundane worlds, all of them conducted by him...

For He, blessed be His name, after having created all the worlds, created man at the end of Creation, a marvelous creation, an ingathering force, which includes all the bright and marvelous lights and the worlds and the heavenly temples that preceded it, ... all of them contributed part of their essence for his formation. (Rabbi Chayyim of Volozhin, Nefesh ha-Chayyim, sha'ar 1, chaps. 4-6)

Rabbi Chayyim goes even further than Maharal and Rabbenu Sa'adya Gaon. He argues that man is not only the crowning jewel of the earthly creatures, but also of the celestial beings: man is raised above the celestial worlds and influences them. Rabbi Chayyim's position has an important educational ramification: The more glory, importance, and authority bestowed upon man, the more responsibility may be imposed upon him. Rabbi Chayyim argues that it is precisely because man recognizes his power that he must understand that he can do much good but also much evil, and that therefore he must be all the more careful.

This educational point was emphasized by some of the leading authorities of the Mussar movement:

All conduct of life, whether material life or moral life, whether the life of the community or that of the individual, is based on the measure of man's recognition of his own worth. A person of low self-esteem treats himself lightly and treats life itself lightly, to the point that he is liable at times to expose himself to dangers, without any regard, even for the most trivial of matters. Not so a person who enjoys high self-esteem; he values and cherishes live, and with all his strength he strives to elevate himself, and to elevate all of life along with him. (Rabbi Natan Zevi Finkel [the Alter from Slobodka], Or ha-Tzafon, I, p. 270)

Rav Kook connects this question to developments in the study of cosmology:

How much truth and song appears before us in the vision of the centrality of the human soul in relation to all of existence. This vision does not fall away because of the revelation of the broad and infinite dimensions of the cosmos, of the worlds of the stars, of the constant formation of the mists. On the contrary, this song is magnified and glorified by eternity and size.

In vain, do the short-sighted think that in the aftermath of the discovery of the dimensions of the cosmos, the centrality of the spirit of man is voided. They want to say that this has caused a diminishment of the value of religion, even though religion has been strong even in the hearts of those who never accepted the centrality of man, like Rambam and his followers. This being so, the argument is null from the very outset.

But even in the depths of the esoteric (= kabbalistic) idea, which finds an important place in the life of religion especially in recent generations when it has spread widely - there too no harm has been suffered, but rather the vision has been glorified. Moral responsibility has grown in proportion to existence of this sort. (Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, Orot ha-Kodesh, III, 357)

We have already seen how Rabbenu Sa'adya Gaon connects the centrality of man in creation with the centrality of the earth in the celestial system. Rabbi Kook argues that the fact that we now know that the earth is not the center of the universe has no bearing on the question of man's worth. On the contrary, the larger the universe, the more responsibility is imposed upon man.

Rabbi Soloveitchik relates to the psychological tension in the consciousness of homo religiosus. On the one hand, he feels important and lofty; on the other hand, he all too often feels low and insignificant. Rabbi Soloveitchik adds that Halakha provides an unequivocal answer to this question and tension:

Homo religiosus is indeed highly subjective... It is in this light that we can understand the deep contradiction pervading the spiritual self-evaluation of homo religiosus. On the one hand, he senses his own lowliness and insignificance, his own frailty and weakness; he knows that even a "gnat preceded him, a snail preceded him." He sees himself as the one biological creature who has misused his own talents for destructive ends, who has failed in the task assigned to him. On the other hand, he is aware of his greatness and loftiness, how his spirit breaks through all barriers and ascends to the very heights, bores through all obstacles and descends to the very depths. Is he not the crown of creation to whom God granted dominion over all the work of His hands?... In the depths of his consciousness he is entangled in the thicket of two contradictory verses. One verse declares, "When I behold Thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars which Thou hast established; what is man, that Thou art mindful of him, and the son of man, that Thou thinkest of him" (Tehillim 8:4-5), while the other verse declares, "Yet Thou hast made him but a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honor. Thou hast made him to have dominion over the works of Thy hand; Thou hast put all things under his feet" (Tehillim 8:6-7). And homo religiosus has yet to find the third harmonizing verse.

However, halakhic man has found the third verse - the Halakha. He, too, suffers from this dualism, from this deep spiritual split, but he mends the split through the concept of Halakha and law...

If "man hath no pre-eminence above a beast; for all is vanity," then what is the nature of the Day of Atonement? What is the meaning of pardon and forgiveness? What is the purpose of the sacrificial service of the day? The private, intimate encounter between the high priest and his Creator in the holy of holies? What is the whole nature of the holiness of the day, that holiness which bestows atonement upon us? Why should we be confronted at all with the concept of sin and iniquity on the one side and the obligation to repent on the other? Indeed, the Halakha set man at the very center of the world, and the Day of Atonement attests to this... Indeed, I am the one creature in this world who reflects the image of Divine Presence. Do I not study the Torah, the cherished plaything [see Tehillim 119:77] of the Holy One, blessed be He? The angels themselves long to learn Torah from me: Am I not at this very moment reaching out to my lover and beloved?...

In the blinking of an eye the lowliest of creatures turns into the noblest of creatures, whom the Holy One, blessed be He, elected at the very inception and recognized as worthy of standing before Him. Standing before God! What self-esteem is present here! (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man, pp. 66-70)

We have stated earlier that power gives rise to a sense of responsibility. Rabbi Soloveitchik points here to the opposite process: Responsibility gives rise to a sense of power. Halakhic man is commanded by God, a mission has been imposed upon him, he has responsibility. The recognition that God has commanded him, that God has given him a defined mission to execute - this recognition gives man a sense of power. He is not some passing creature, but an agent of God. From here stems man's centrality in creation.


[1] Rabbenu Sa'adya Gaon's position may help us understand why Galileo's view that the earth is not at the center of the universe was considered so strange and problematic to the people of his generation (besides the fact that it seems to contradict the verses of Scripture).

[2] According to the doctrine that the world was never created, but that it had always existed.

[3] Douglas Adams, in his series, "A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," spins a story in which those who truly control the world are white mice, who experiment on human beings while all the time allowing them to believe that it is they [= the human beings] who are performing the experiments.

[4] This is an important lesson in general: it is not always necessary to put forward all-embracing metaphysical principles; local explanations often suffice.

(Translated by David Strauss)