The Torah’s depiction of the creation of the human is unique in relation to all other aspects of creation: “And Hashem Elokim created man from the dirt of the ground…” (Genesis 2:7).
When reading the passage in Hebrew, one can’t miss the similarity between the word for man, adam, and the word for ground or soil, adama. What does the etymological similarity of dirt and man teach us about the nature of the human being?
It cannot mean that man is a lowly being, worthy of being trampled upon, inherently unrefined, or filled with sin. Man is the crown jewel of all creation, as we see again and again in the creation story. He is put in charge of all the earth’s creatures; he is also told to work the garden and guard it.
The Maharal of Prague gives an important explanation for the connection between adam and adama. The uniqueness of the human is that he was not created fully actualized. In fact, unlike every other living species, he can never reach absolute completion. The human being exists in a constant state of unearthing potential.
This is why we are called adam, because dirt is that entity that actualizes potential. Without dirt, a redwood seed can never grow into a giant tree. The ground is a symbol for actualizing potential. This is the unique nature of the human; always in process, able to become more whole, but never fully arriving (at least in the physical world).
There are two sides to this; true, we are in our essence lacking, and can never fully reach perfection. But on the other hand, we have unlimited potential. Being truly alive means being connected to the unique nature of the human being: the ability to constantly grow. We cannot rest with our past accomplishments, no matter how great, nor can we deny the possibility of bettering ourselves; we are charged by our Creator to unleash the unlimited potential hidden inside all of us through the path of Torah and mitzvot.