Intrinsic to our nature is a perpetual striving for self-improvement. The human being is never content to just be: the very thought of a missed opportunity or an unrealized potential gives him no rest, spurring him to the ceaseless toil and unremitting ambition he calls life.

He, we said. For though the drive for self-betterment is present in every individual of our species, it belongs to our “male” or active-assertive aspect. But no less integral to our being is our “female” element—our capacity for receptiveness and sacrifice, our conviction that there is no greater greatness than the abnegation of self to a higher end.

So ingrained is this duality in us that we unquestionably accept its paradox in every area of life. We exalt selflessness, even as we glorify the self. We equate good with altruistic, even as we recognize the ego as the prime motivator of all positive achievement. We strive for success, fulfillment and realization, even as we avow that we are doing it all for the children.

For so were we formed at the hand of our Creator: “G‑d formed man as dust of the earth”—as yielding as the soil under his feet; “and He blew into his nostrils the breath of life”—the drive to aspire, grow and achieve (Genesis 2:7). G‑d then took the man He had made and placed him in His world to work it and develop it, but also to keep it and nurture it (ibid. 2:15).

Man is thus a creature with not one, but two centers to its being: an entity with not one, but two nuclei at its heart. Man is spirit revolving upon an axis of fulfillment-seeking selfhood, as well as a soul centered upon a core of selflessness. In the words of the verse: “Male and female He created them . . . and He called their name—man” (ibid. 5:2).

As Jews, we inherit this duality from Jacob, the choicest of the Patriarchs, and Rachel, the quintessential mother of Israel. From Jacob, whose life of accomplishment is crowned by a royal procession to the heart of the Holy Land where the founders of Israel are enshrined, we derive our potential for self-perfection. And from Rachel, the young mother who died in childbirth and who dwells in a lonely wayside grave in order to better bear witness to the suffering of her children, we receive our capacity for commitment and self-transcendence.