A Spiritual Sonogram
Rabbi Simlai taught, “What is a fetus in its mother’s womb like? Its two hands rest on its two temples and its head is between its knees. Its mouth is closed and its navel is open, and it eats from what its mother eats. And a lamp above its head gives light by which it sees from one end of the world to the other. And it is taught the entire Torah. Upon birth, an angel slaps it on the mouth, which results in its forgetting the entire Torah…”
What a vivid and fascinating depiction of a child who is being prepared to enter this world! In this description we see many ideas, in particular two fundamental ideas that define the essence of a person. “Its two hands rest on its two temples and its head is between its knees.”
One idea is that a person is a thinker. A person is brought into this world to look around, learn and ponder the nature of existence and the purpose of his life in this world. This can be seen from the “pose” of a person from the earliest time of his formation. I once heard from Rav Moshe Shapiro, zatzal, that the description in our gemara is one of “a thinker.” He referenced one of the most well-known sculptures in the world, by the French artist Rodin, called “The Thinker.” A person doesn’t just develop into becoming “a thinker,” but rather is a thinker by his fundamental nature.
Another important idea learned from Rabbi Simlai’s statement is the inherent connection of a person to the Torah. A person is taught the entire Torah before he is born into this world. Many commentaries ask why he is prenatally taught the Torah since anyway he forgets it when tapped by an angel on his mouth at the time of birth. There are many answers to this question found in the teachings of our great Torah scholars.
One answer is based on the fact that the Torah’s Divine wisdom is beyond the reach of normal human intellect. According to the natural order, it should be as unattainable as flight is for fish. Therefore, a person receives a prenatal introduction to the Torah, which makes it possible to connect to Hashem’s Torah in this world.
These prenatal Torah lessons, however, pose a dilemma: If a person is born with complete knowledge of the Torah, he is no longer faced with the challenge to actually learn it — a challenge that requires each person to be immersed in Torah study. The Divine solution is to expose us to Torah before birth, and subsequently forget it, which results in our Torah study in this world to be a type of “déjà vous adventure.” In this manner a person is able to earn great reward for his Torah study and his personal connection to the Torah. (For further study see Bnei Yisaschar, Kol Eliyahu, and the Alshich’s commentary.)
I had the merit to learn from Rav Mendel Weinbach, zatzal, a fascinating idea that connects our prenatal Torah study to our ongoing study of Torah in this world. He suggested that when we pray to Hashem in the Amidah prayer to “return us to Your Torah,” we are making reference to the fact that we have already learned Torah in our past — before we were born — and all that we need to do now is to return to that Torah.
(Parenthetically, and tongue-in-cheek, one who learns and looks at “Rabbi Simlai’s sonogram” almost certainly recalls the quip that a person’s philtrum — the indentation atop his upper lip — might be in some way related to the slap received from the angel at the time of birth. Speaking of “parenthetically,” a friend recently told me of a study of fetal REM activity. Being an indicator of brain activity, such as thinking, it was expected to be relatively low prior to birth, but was, in fact, much higher than expected and begged explanation.)
- Nidah 30b