In his comment on Genesis 2:6, the great medieval commentator Rashi notes the unusual spelling of the word “vayitzer” in the verse “God fashioned man from the dust of the earth and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” “Vayitzer,” “God fashioned,” is spelled with two yods, the tiny Hebrew letter that makes the “y” sound. The second yod is superfluous, so Rashi tells us that the second yod reveals a fundamental aspect of human identity: “Two natures [were implanted in man]: one for this world, and one for the word to come; but in the creation of animals, which will not stand in judgment, only one yod is used [see Gen. 2:19].”
In his comments on the rest of this verse, Rashi notes a number of other dualisms present in human nature: that we are made from both the earth and from the breath of God; that we are like the animals and yet different from them by the fact that we have the capacity for thought and speech. Rashi also offers two wonderful competing interpretations of what the Torah means by saying that God took the dust of the earth to fashion humanity: one interpretation holds that God took pieces of all four corners of the earth and brought them together in the human form; the other holds that “ha-adama,” “the earth” refers to the holiest spot on the earth, the Temple Mount.
From all of these competing interpretations we are reminded of the paradox and the possibility of our lives. We are a little higher than the animals, “a little lower than the angels” (Psalms 8:5). We are part of the earth, and yet we are separate from it. As the great twentieth century teacher Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik taught, the two narratives of creation in chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis buttress this paradox: Adam of chapter 1 is meant to rule the earth, while Adam of chapter 2 is to tend the garden.
Our lives are a constant push and pull between these parts of ourselves. At times we focus on our impulses, our desires, our natural selves; at others we emphasize our intellects, our plans, and our altruism. The Torah’s project, and the continuing Jewish project, is to help us navigate the dynamic tension of between these poles, to sanctify the world through our actions and to use all our potential for good. The Torah envisions us living integrated lives, where we bring together the religious and the secular, the particular and the universal, in way that gives honor to all of them. The task is not a simple one, and “it is not ours to complete, but neither are we free to desist from it.” (Pirkei Avot 2:20)