Field of potential


by Rabbi Doniel Baron

The Maharal of Prague on Shavuot and the essence of man.

The following is a translated excerpt adapted from the Maharal of Prague’s homily delivered in Posen, Poland on Shavuot, in 5352/1592. The full text of the essay is printed at the end in the London edition of the Maharal’s Be’er Hagolah and has never been published in English.

King Solomon begins the book of Ecclesiastes with a question: “What advantage does man, adam in Hebrew, have in all that he toils under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1:3). The question belies an assumption. If man does have any advantage at all, it is somehow connected to his name Adam, a name derived from his being created from the earth, adama in Hebrew. An understanding of that assumption provides us with an insight into the question.

Why is it more fitting for a human being specifically to be called “Adam” from the word adama, more than other creature? After all, God created everything from the earth (Medrash Rabba Bereishis 12:11). One would think that an animal’s earthy, materialistic nature would make it more worthy than man of receiving a name associated with the adama.

Fertile Ground

Yet a closer look reveals that man bears a relationship and likeness to the earth in a way that differs from that of all other animals and creatures. The ground has the power to grow things. It brings out the potential in plants, trees, fruits, and everything else it produces. Adama essentially exists in potential, and brings everything to fruition. In a similar vein, Adam is distinct in that he represents pure potential, and, like the land, the ability to bring forth bounty, namely, his own perfection.

Accordingly, man’s positive actions are called “fruits,” as it is written “say to the righteous person that he is good, for [righteous people] shall eat the fruits of their deeds (Isaiah 3:10).” Conversely, evil deeds are also called fruits, for it is said of the wicked “and they shall eat the fruits of their ways, and be satiated from their counsel (Proverbs 1:31).”

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