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Parshas Toldos (5778)

A Mystical Look at Life Inside the Womb

In this week’s Torah portion we find recorded the very first “ultrasound” in history.

The Torah tells us (see Genesis 25:19-25) that our matriarch Rebecca conceived, and the children inside her “agitated” and jumped around like crazy, to the point that she just had to find out what was going on inside her. So off Rebecca went to inquire of the Great Obstetrician in Heaven, G-d Himself. And G-d told her (through His prophet) that she would be having twins who, due to their diametrically opposed spiritual natures, would be agitating against each other not just for the rest of her pregnancy, but for most of their lives.

Of course, this “spiritual” sonogram proved to be 100% accurate, as the Torah tells us in the next verse that Rebecca gave birth to twins, Jacob and Esau, who then spent the rest of their lives enmeshed in one of the most bitter sibling rivalries in human history!

Now it has only been in the 20th century that science has been able to come up with a way of peering into the womb of a pregnant woman, to get a glimpse of what the fetus looks like and how it lives. And now, with the latest sonogram technology available, our knowledge of the daily life and physical development of the human fetus has become even greater.

The Torah, however, has given us a mystical glimpse into the spiritual nature and activities of the human fetus, in a teaching that dates back at least 1500 years! The Talmud in Niddah 30b tells us the following about the development of the embryo in the mother's stomach:

Rabbi Simlai expounded the following teaching: To what may a child be compared while it is in the womb of its mother? To a ledger that is folded and laid down. Its two hands rest on its two temples; its two elbows on its two ankles; its two heels rest against its two buttocks; and its head lies between its knees. Its mouth is closed and its navel is open, and it eats of what its mother eats and drinks of what its mother drinks. Miraculously, though, once it is born, and emerges into the air of the world, that which was closed [i.e. the mouth], opens, and that which was open [i.e. the navel], closes; for if it were not so, the newborn child would not be able to survive even for a moment. And a lamp is lit for the unborn child above his head, and with its light, he peers out and sees from one end of the world to the other end. And throughout one's life on earth, there are no days on which a person experiences more bliss than during those days in his mother's womb. And they teach the unborn child the entire Torah. As soon as he emerges into the air of the world, an angel comes and slaps him on his mouth - causing him to forget the entire Torah. The child does not leave the womb before it is made to take an oath. And what is the context of the oath that is administered to the unborn child? He is told as follows: Become a righteous person and not a wicked one; and even if the entire world says to you: "You are righteous" - be in your own eyes like a wicked person [i.e. don't become complacent because of other people's praise of your good deeds - always be aware that there so much more that you can grow]. Be aware that the Holy One, Blessed Is He, is pure; and his Heavenly servants are pure, and the soul that He has placed in you is also pure. If, throughout your sojourn on earth, you guard it in purity, fine; but if not, I shall take it back from you.

Quite fascinating, isn't it? The Sages of the Talmud were pretty accurate in their description of the fetus' position as well as its digestive process inside its mothers' stomach. But even more amazing is what they reveal to us about the "spiritual life" of that fetus. A lamp is lit above its head .... it can see from one end of the world to the other .... it is taught the entire Torah .... and then along comes an angel who makes it forget everything it learned!

[You have probably heard this idea before - that the angel slaps the kid silly (literally) until it forgets everything it learned, and that because of that slap, the child is left with an indentation on top of his upper lip (which is medically known as the philtrum). Well .... this teaching in the Talmud is where that idea comes from! Yet, we shall soon see that the "angel's slap" is to be understood metaphorically, and has nothing to do with that funny-looking crease that all of us have above our upper lip!]

What does all this really mean? If there really is a candle burning above the fetus' head - wouldn't that give the mother heart "burn"? And how could the Talmud say that these nine months are the happiest days of the child's life, when we all know that its living space is more cramped than a New York City subway train during rush hour? And if the kid really does learn the whole Torah inside the womb, why then does some angel come and make him forget it all? What is really going on?


Although the popular joke goes that a Jewish fetus is only considered viable when it gets into medical school, the truth is that Judaism has always believed that life begins at conception, i.e. that the soul - that all-knowing, all-feeling inner self that is the true person - is present at the very beginning of a fetus' formation.

However, the Kabballah (Jewish Mysticism) teaches us that as long as the fetus has yet to emerge into this world, its soul doesn't "fuse" completely with its body; rather, it hovers above it. Hence, the symbolism of a lamp, representing the enlightened soul, that is lit above the unborn child. And it is precisely because the fetus' soul has not yet fused with its body, that it has no limitations and obstructions – and can see from one end of the world to the other end. After conception inside the womb, the fetus experiences total clarity with no "misconceptions".

It is only once the child is born and its soul fuses completely with its body, that its vision and sensory perception is limited and obstructed. You see, once we emerge into this very physical world, we only have the ability to sense that which our physical senses allow us to feel and perceive. And we can only focus at any one point in time either on the present, the past, or the future. But that is merely a function of the physical body that our soul is housed in, whose purpose is to limit our total perception of the world, so that we can have true free will, and thus make our own choices in this world. However, when we die, and our soul is no longer limited by the body, we, too, shall be able to see all that was, is, and will be with total clarity- and all at the same time!

Likewise, the fetus, whose soul is as yet unencumbered by the physical, limiting exterior of its body, can see everything there is to see without limitations. Consequently, the soul of the unborn child also perceives the entire Torah - all of the G-dly wisdom that there is to know in the world - because it is directly connected to its source, to G-d Himself, and has none of the limitations of the physical world.

This explains why the unborn child is so happy, despite its cramped quarters. It has the ability to see clearly and understand fully all that there is to know in life! It is literally being spoon-fed Torah and spirituality on a silver platter with total clarity - the best kind of "womb service" there is!! (Imagine having a perfect understanding of why bad things happen to good people, why we are here on earth, what is going to happen at the end of time .... everything!! Imagine how great that would be!)


After all that prenatal bliss and embryonic Torah study, along comes an angel and slaps the fetus on the lip, and, lo and behold, another beautiful, but hopelessly ignorant and "spiritually clueless" child is born into the world!

What happened to all that clarity? Why did the angel have to make the child forget all that it learned? The Kabballah explains that the purpose for having been taught everything inside the womb is so that during our lifetime, we should always have a sense of coming back to what we once already knew - a sort of spiritual "deja vu". But that is not what we were put in this world for - just to have everything given to us on a silver platter without working at it ourselves, without the struggle. G-d wants us to search and question and grow and change, and to earn back the spiritual closeness and clarity of purpose that we once so enjoyed inside the womb.

So at that moment when the child is about to enter this world of struggle and growth, the "angel" completes the "finishing touches" on the new baby by "slapping it on its lip" – the lip being a metaphor for the power of speech that is given to the child when its soul fuses with its body as it emerges into the world, and which animates its heretofore "soulless" body. (The mystics teach that the power of speech is a sign of the existence of an inner soul. Animals, which lack the ability to speak, do not possess such a "soul".) And when the animated soul is fused with the physical body at birth, the child automatically forgets all that its soul perceived during the past nine months, because it is now limited and constricted by the finite body.

And yet, at that very moment when the "angel" is putting those finishing touches on the unborn child, turning him into a "clueless" infant - on the other side everyone is yelling "Mazel Tov!" and "Congratulations!" And it is indeed a time for celebration, because life is about learning and growing and not just sitting back and letting an angel do it for you.


I believe there’s a lot that we can learn from that little fetus about our own adult lives as Jews. You see, we all grow up thinking a certain way about G-d and about life in general, and we practice whatever type of Judaism we practice - to a large extent - because that was the way we were taught as children. Our religious experience and all the spirituality that we know, was "spoon-fed" to us as little kids, much the same way the little fetus is taught all it needs to know, without having to think too much about it.

I can use my own experience in childhood as a perfect example. I was a "conditioned" observant Jew from birth, and practically everything spiritual that I did for the first fifteen or so years of my life was only because that was the way I was taught.

Now maybe that’s okay when we’re kids, but that is not what the rest of our lives are supposed to be about! It is simply not good enough to rely on that early knowledge of our religion and its practices for one's entire life. We are asked by G-d to think about the choices we make in our adult lives - and I don't just mean the choices we make that affect this world, such as whether to be a doctor or a fireman, but rather the more important spiritual choices we make, like which Jewish school we send our children to (if any), and how involved we ourselves will be in Torah study and mitzvah observance.

Unfortunately, though, we often fall into the trap of just "coasting along" Jewishly, and we tend to "ride" on whatever we know and are happy with that. Much like the little fetus, we sometimes need a little "slap" to make us "forget" all the stuff we were conditioned to think and believe as children, so that as adults we can make real choices about how we are going to lead our lives, instead of our just being whatever we were before, because we were told to be it.

This way, we will hopefully be able to say to ourselves, after years of struggle and growth, "I think about my Judaism, therefore I am where I am Jewishly". And all that searching and struggling is guaranteed to have a profound effect on our children as well as on our friends, who will see how much we've grown and thought about these important things, and just how much our Jewishness and spirituality really means to us.

It might take a whole lifetime of challenging prior assumptions, and struggling with new ones, in order for us to move past our original conditioned state of religiousness (or lack thereof) which we inherited as little babies, but, hey ..... isn’t that what life's all about?!

[Sources: Mahara”l of Prague in Chiddushei Aggados Volume IIII on Niddah 30b]

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