At the moment of birth, the angel leaves the child to begin his own journey in learning Torah
lit candle, the ability to see from one end of the world to the other, and an angel teaching the fetus the entire Torah — these are the environs of a child in his mother’s womb. At the moment of birth, Chazal explain, the angel taps the child on his mouth, and all the Torah he’s learned is forgotten.
These well-known surroundings are actually rather confusing. What is the point of learning the whole Torah if it will just be forgotten? Why does the angel tap the child on the mouth — wouldn’t the head be a more appropriate place to represent forgetfulness? And what happens to the lit candle and the child’s extensive vision?
Already Within Us
In Living Inspired, Rabbi Tatz explains that all of the Torah learned in the womb is found within a person on subconscious level. Throughout our lives, we work on bringing this knowledge to the fore, to a level of consciousness. This is why, when we hear something beautiful and inspiring, we often feel a sense of familiarity; we are not really learning something new but recognizing something we’ve known. Knowing that all of this knowledge is already within us, and all we have to do is uncover it, Rabbi Tatz explains, serves as an inspiration that we can indeed succeed in our spiritual journeys and quests.
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz in Sichos Mussar explains that the state of the fetus in the womb is similar to the state of Adam before he sinned. Since the unborn child is not affected by the curse that befell Adam, he can learn the whole Torah without exertion; all of his needs are taken care of without any effort on his part. The child can also see from one end of the world to the other — he is shown the secrets of creation, as depicted by the Gemara. But at the moment of birth, the curse of Adam goes into effect. The child will need to work hard — not only to earn his bread but to learn Torah as well.
Investing great effort in Torah learning is a reality of This World — and a prerequisite to truly attaining it. This helps explain why Yaakov Avinu was constantly kicking in the womb, eager to leave, whenever Rivkah passed a beis medrash. While he was already being taught Torah by a malach, Yaakov Avinu understood that to acquire Torah, one must work — “ub’Toraso yehegeh yomam valailah.” Indeed, many great rabbanim have refused to learn Torah from maggidim, instead insisting on conquering their learning through tremendous effort. But while it takes struggle and exertion to master Torah learning, our ability to do so is entirely predicated on the gift of inherent knowledge that we have received before birth.
Spiritual Prenatal Care
Rav Pincus in Nefesh Chayah notes that a woman who is carrying a child is in reality a walking beis medrash; she has an angel continuously teaching the fetus Torah. It is critical that the mother be careful of the influences this child sees and hears in this utero state. Just as a mother is careful not to expose her child to radiation, she must be careful of spiritually harmful things that could potentially affect the child.
Once the child enters the world, a major metamorphosis takes place — the light is gone, the clarity disappears, and the child is struck on the mouth and forgets the Torah he has learned. The Satmar Rebbe explains that the light and vision had been there only to enhance the learning of Torah. Once the Torah is forgotten, there is no need for these gifts, and they disappear.
Another explanation for what happens to these gifts is linked to the understanding that the child is not just learning Torah on a textual level. Jewish souls are shown their special cheilek in the service of Hashem and what they are meant to accomplish in their lifetime. Rabbeinu Bechaye teaches that all souls see the challenges they will undergo in this world, and agree to undertake them. The light over the child’s head is similar to the original light of creation that enabled Adam to see from one end of the world to the other — it is the light of clarity, of understanding one’s purpose in this world. At the moment of birth, this light, which represents the soul, enters into the body, and that sense of clarity is lost.
We can now understand the Maharal’s explanation for why it is the mouth that the angel strikes. Each of us is a composite of body and soul. The interface between these two worlds is the mouth, the ability to speak. It is the mouth that enables a physical person to express his spirituality. As long as it remains in the world of the spiritual and has no contact with the physical world, the neshamah can learn the whole Torah. But once the child enters the physical world, the spirituality of the neshamah is affected, and the Torah is automatically forgotten.
At birth, the neshamah must undergo a long journey — from its place under the Kisei Hakavod in Heaven to entering the physical body of a human. In Shamayim, Rav Mattisyahu Salomon in Matnas Chayim explains, the child was used to hearing the singing of the angels. It is therefore important that we sing to a child as soon as he is born — he is comforted when he feels that familiar connection to his source.
The Power of Childbirth
The transition of birth is not only monumental for the child; it is very significant for the mother as well. Childbirth is one of the three keys exclusively in Hashem’s Hands that He does not give over to any emissaries. Hashem’s Shechinah is present at each birth, making it a very auspicious time for tefillah. This is one of the reasons a woman becomes tamei from childbirth; the Shechinah’s leaving creates this impurity.
Rav Pincus gives insight into another aspect of the birth process. The pain of childbirth spurs the mother to daven to Hashem, building the foundation of the child’s life on the power of tefillah. (This is also the reason that little children get sick so often — it gives the mother further opportunity to implore Hashem that her child grow up to be a yerei Hashem.)
At the moment of birth, the angel leaves the child to begin his own journey in learning Torah. Simultaneously, Hashem’s Presence greets the new child, ushering him into the world with a unique mission to accomplish. After 120 years, an angel comes to escort the person’s neshamah back to heaven. The angel asks the person what he has done with all the Torah he learned and what he has accomplished in This World. The person will recognize the angel, the Vilna Gaon says — it is the very same angel that taught him before he was born. And to this angel he must explain if he has developed into the person Hashem envisioned, if he has properly utilized the inspiration and knowledge gifted him in the womb.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 678)
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