Sam Millunchick

Rising Above

In a succinct summation of the human-animal condition, Hillel the elder teaches us an important lesson, “Do not believe in yourself until the day of your death.” (Avot 2:4)

Humans, ultimately, are meat buckets. Piles of flesh and bones, much like other piles of flesh and bones, roaming the earth looking to satisfy ancient, inveterate urges. Mating, eating, sleeping, in an endless biological drive to further the evolution of the gene pool, to propagate the species across the earth.

In this respect, the human-animal is exactly like the dog-animal or the giraffe-animal or the monkey-animal. Driven by a series of concrete, predictable, and imprinted urges, the human-animal acts only to satisfy its next urge, a prisoner to its own body. This is the warning of Hillel.

The Torah tells us in this week’s parasha: “You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show favouritism, and you shall not take a bribe, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts just words.” (Deut. 16:19)

No one is above the law, not even the most revered Judges of the Jewish people. Without exception, every human is a human-animal, a slave to their genes.

Maimonides, in his treatment of the halakhot of repentance, writes an astonishing thing, a principle so fundamental that without it, it is impossible to be fully human.

“Any one of the deeds of men which a person desires to do, he may, whether good or evil.” (Hilkhot Teshuva 5:3)

There is something unique about Humanity that allows it to rise from its state as human-animal, to Human-Being. Humanity is given the power to choose its own fate, not simply to be ruled by a series of inevitable decisions. Humanity alone has the ability to buck biology, to cast off the chains of millions of years of evolution, and to choose life.

But it is not easy.

The verse following the one quoted above states: “Righteousness, righteousness shall you pursue, in order that you shall live.” (Deut. 16:20)

Earlier in his treatise on repentance, Maimonides rights that an essential component to achieving a state of teshuva is crying out to the Almighty, screaming to Him for assistance. “Among the paths of repentance is for the penitent to constantly call out before God, crying and entreating, to perform charity according to his potential; …” (Hilkhot Teshuva 2:4)

There is but one way to rise above our subjective realities, our gene pool, our human-animal nature. We must do anything and everything in our power to cleave to God.

In God alone lies the power to recognise life, and the key to existence. It is a constant battle, a constant choice, a constant pursuit. In God lies the ability to step outside of ourselves, to examine reality objectively, and to choose Truth.

As Humans, we face a crossroads, each and every moment of our lives. One side leads to Life, to the source of Existence, to the Creator Himself. It is on this side which you will find the hardest, most difficult version of your life. You will have to choose, each and every moment, to remain there. You will have to pursue it with all of your heart and soul. You will also be living the most fulfilling version of your life. You will be achieving your purpose, you will be awake, conscious of your place in the world and in the universe and you will fit. You will be who you were meant to be, truly free.

On the other side lies death, a loss of connection, a loss of purpose and place which leaves you connected only to yourself, left inside the cage of your own biology.

A person should not entertain the thesis held by the fools … and the majority of the undeveloped among Israel that, at the time of a man’s creation, The Holy One, blessed be He, decrees whether he will be righteous or wicked.

This is untrue. Each person is fit to be righteous like Moses, our teacher, or wicked, like Jeroboam. [Similarly,] he may be wise or foolish, merciful or cruel, miserly or generous, or [acquire] any other character traits. There is no one who compels him, sentences him, or leads him towards either of these two paths. Rather, he, on his own initiative and decision, tends to the path he chooses. (Hilkhot Teshuva 5:2)

We alone hold the key to our existence.

What will you choose?

About the Author
Hailing originally from Chicago and later from Israel where he served as a combat medic with the IDF, Samuel Millunchick was educated at the University of Illinois, at Yeshivat Yesodei HaTorah and at the Ida Crown Jewish Academy, Chicago. He now lives in London with his wife and children. Sam is involved in Jewish education across the London community, and is training to be an Orthodox Rabbi. Drawing on his experiences with Jews in all walks of life, Sam is passionate about ‘making Judaism accessible and appealing to every Jew’.
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