The meaning of the name Adam defines the essence of what it means to be human.
And Adam gave names to all the animals and all the birds of the sky and all the beasts of the fields. (2:20)
Adam was a man of astonishing insight. He could take one look at any of the myriad creatures of the earth and recognize its essence, its function, its very raison d’être. Even the angels in Heaven did not have this uncanny ability.
The Midrash relates (Bereishis Rabbah 17:4) that God challenged the angels to assign Hebrew names to all the animals, but they were unable to do so. Then He commanded Adam to assign names to the animals, which he did with perfect accuracy, demonstrating the superiority of man over the angels.
In other languages, words do not have any special connection to the things they represent. They are simply arbitrary sounds that have become associated with those things over a period of time. If you analyze the words cat or elephant or fire, you will not find any hint to the particular characteristics of those things. In Hebrew, however, the names of things reflect what they are all about. Since the angels could not discern the essence of all the animals, they could not assign names to them. Only Adam, with his extraordinary insight and perception, could pair each animal with its correct name.
Nonetheless, when it came to choosing a name for himself, Adam seems to have been strangely uninspired. He chose the name Adam, because he had been formed from the adamah, the earth. A human being is the pinnacle of creation, the highest form of living being, spiritual, intellectual, creative, complex, profound, a tzelem Elohim, formed, as it were, in “the image of the Lord.” How then can it be that Adam, with all his insight and perception, could find no better definition of a human being than that he had been formed from the earth?
The Alter of Slobodka explains that, quite to the contrary, Adam’s choice of a name for himself showed his greatest insight. Man represents the ultimate paradox in creation. On the one hand, he is such a sublime creature, higher than the angels, capable of reaching the most transcendent levels of spirituality. And yet, at the same time, he is so painfully human, so incredibly frail. With one slight misstep, he can plummet from the highest pinnacle to the abyss. He can easily fall to the level of the humble dust from which he was originally formed.
This is a critical aspect of the human condition, one that man must always keep in sight and mind if he is to be successful on this earth. Therefore, the choice of the name Adam to recall the adamah from which he was taken touches on the very essence of a human being. He had the wisdom to recognize that man can never declare, “I am beyond temptation.” No matter how high he has risen, man is never far from the earth from which he was formed. Until the very end, man can always plunge to rock bottom. Ultimately, this lifelong struggle defines the greatness of mankind.
We find the same dichotomy on Yom Kippur. For the morning Torah reading, Chazal chose selections describing the divine service of the Kohein Gadol, the High Priest, in the Sanctuary and the Holy of Holies. As we read these words, we are transported to the holiest place in the universe on the holiest day of the year. And yet, a few hours later, the Torah reading during Minchah enumerates the prohibitions against illicit libidinous encounters.
Is this what we need to hear on Yom Kippur after spending so many hours in fasting and prayer? Is this what we need to contemplate in our exalted condition during the waning hours of the day as Yom Kippur draws to a close? Why did Chazal choose this particular reading for us on the holiest afternoon of the year?
The answer is that Yom Kippur of all days is exactly when we need to hear this. On Yom Kippur, we allow neither food nor water to pass our lips, and we ascend into the heavens on wings of prayer. Ethereal spirits with but a tentative connection to the physical world, we reach for the heights, soaring above the angels of Heaven. And so we can easily lose perspective and delude ourselves that we are indeed like the angels, creatures of pure spirit. Therefore, Chazal remind us that even in our moments of greatest inspiration we are never far from the carnal desires of the flesh. They make us aware that we invite disaster if we ever lose sight of the abyss that stretches before us.
Along the same lines, we can perhaps resolve another anomaly in the creation story. With regard to the creation of all the species, the Torah tells us, “Vayar Elokim ki tov. The Lord saw that it was good.” The insect gets a ki tov. The elephant gets a ki tov. Every creature gets a ki tov. But the creation of man does not get a ki tov. Hashem examines His handiwork after each step of creation and pronounces it “good.” But He makes no such pronouncement after the creation of man.
Rav Yosef Albo, in his Sefer Ha’ikrim, explains that every element of creation is a finished product. When Hashem forms an insect or an elephant or an apple tree, it becomes what it is. It will never rise in stature nor will it ever fall. Therefore, it can be evaluated and declared “good.”
Man, however, is a work in progress. He is a vast bundle of potential whose final form is as yet undetermined. Will he blossom? Will he flourish? Will he rise to the exalted spiritual levels of which he is capable? Or will he languish in mediocrity or worse? These unresolved questions must be answered by each and every individual human being throughout a lifetime of struggle. There is, therefore, never a time when he can be considered a finished product and declared “good.” Man is always in a state of potential.
The Talmud states (Berachos 17a) that when the Sages took leave of each other they would say, “Olamecha tir’eh bechayecha. May you see your world during your lifetime.” What exactly does this mean?
Rav Shimon Schwab offers a beautiful interpretation. The word olamecha, your world, is cognate with he’elamecha, the part of you that is concealed. A person’s world is the part of him that has not yet seen the light of day, the part that is still potential. That is the arena where he works and struggles and strives to achieve. Realizing the full potential is the work of a lifetime.
This was the blessing the Sages wished each other. May you see your world during your lifetime. May you achieve during your sojourn in this world the full realization of all the potential Hashem has invested in you.