Saturday, Dec 3, 2022

Preparing for Shavuos, the Spiritual Gym

Unfortunately, I do not attend a gym. My friends, who do, tell me that it is good to stretch. Muscles that are left alone tend to atrophy. Those that are pulled and pushed hurt at first but are then healthier than before. We know that the physical world is but a metaphor for the spiritual. When and how do we extend our ruchniyus as we do our gashmiyus to keep in spiritual shape? That time is coming up in a few days. Let us explore.

We know from the Maharal that the number seven represents the spiritual levels that we can attain in this world, as opposed to the number eight, which stands for those that can only be achieved in the World to Come. Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler zt”l (Michtav M’Eliyahu 2:115) asks a powerful question: Why do we have mitzvos that are connected to the eights, such as bris milah, Chanukah and Shemini Atzeres, not to the sevens, when that level of spirituality is unobtainable in this world?

Rav Dessler seminally answers that these mitzvos teach us that we must attempt to transcend our apparent limitations. We should stretch beyond what seem to be our natural capabilities, even into what is ostensibly an entirely unapproachable realm.

Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt”l (Alei Shur 2:672) demonstrates the tremendous chiddush that the malachim, too, follow this regimen. Yechezkel Hanovi, in his sublime description of the Maaseh Hamerkavah, records that “the Chayos ran to and fro like the appearance of a flash.” The Gemara (Chagigah 13b), as explained by Rav Wolbe, teaches that the angels known as Chayos momentarily poke their heads into the domain of the Serafim above them, hoping to achieve a higher level of kedushah. Then they immediately run back to their stations because of the trepidation they feel from this new proximity to the Shechinah.

Rav Wolbe goes on to derive a lesson for our own spiritual growth: “When someone gains a new insight that is actually loftier than his current station, he should immediately return to his previous level, not deluding himself that he has actually entered into a new dimension… He should incorporate this new concept into his life in some way and then yearn for a fresh idea, constantly running back and forth.”

The Alei Shur then advises us that all of life mirrors this process. We grow, but we must be vigilant not to lose the new achievement in a way that leaves merely a short-lived meteoric flash that disappears after the moment of inspiration.

We may add that perhaps this concept is inherent in a teaching of Rav Shimon Bar Yochai, whose yahrtzeit we just commemorated on Lag Ba’omer. The Zohar (Pinchos 218b) asks the perennial question: Why does Klal Yisroel shake when they learn Torah? The Zohar answers that the Jewish soul was created from the holy flame, as the posuk says, “The flame of Hashem is the soul of man.” Although the Kuzari and others give different interpretations of why we shake when we learn and pray, the Zohar may be teaching us this lesson. The Jewish soul is always moving, growing, and yearning for more. We must fan the flame and keep it glowing, always first making sure that it does not, G-d forbid, flame out too quickly in the process.

How do we use Shavuos to nurture this holy fire, yet gain ever greater spiritual levels as well?

I believe that the answer may be found in a Medrash (Yalkut Yisro273), as explained by my rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l (Pachad Yitzchok, Shavuos, Maamar 15:10). The Medrash tells of a king who forbade his subjects to travel from one country to another in his realm. Finally, he issued a proclamation allowing free travel between the various states in his kingdom. Until Matan Torah, as well, no human being had ever entered the world above, nor had the Shechinah descended below. However, at Matan Torah, the Shechinah descended to Har Sinai and Moshe Rabbeinu ascended to Hashem.

Rav Hutner concludes: “The removal of that barrier (mechitzah) at Matan Torah changed many things… The Torah always has the power to remove the barriers between above and below, breaking the gate and accomplishing in the soul what is in truth well above it… This is what was achieved at Matan Torah.” We may now appreciate what Shavuos can do for us if accessed and exercised properly. If we stretch for a higher madreigah, if we yearn to jump to a higher level, which is usually closed to us and forbidden by trespass, there is one day a year when the boundaries are open. The roads have been cleared; there are no obstructions or detours. On the night of Shavuos, we can reach for spiritual madreigos of which we usually can only dream. At our annual Matan Torah, they are ours for the asking, for the mechitzah is temporarily down.

This phenomenon, of the breaking down of the usual barriers, may be seen in a well-known miracle associated with Shavuos. The posuk says that “the entire nation saw the sounds.” Rashi explains that a miracle occurred, allowing them to see what is usually heard. What, asks the Sefas Emes (Shavuos, page 25), was the purpose of this miracle? What did it accomplish? He answers that seeing and hearing each has its own positive and negative advantages. The ability to see what is usually heard allows for each method of perception to function at the absolutely highest level possible. We might add that this miracle reflects the general breaking down of barriers of which Rav Hutner spoke, so that we could achieve the maximum understanding of Torah.

In his moving hesped on the Brisker Rov zt”l, Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l (Mishnas Rebbi Aharon 3:223) focuses on one aspect of his greatness: “He functioned totally within the four amos of halachah (Brachos 8a), but was not locked inside of them. On the contrary, those who live halachah encompass every area of life.” Rav Aharon was describing another stretching of the parameters of Torah greatness. On the highest of levels, such as the Brisker Rov, his complete immersion in Torah, far from becoming a limiting discipline, expands to include every possible issue, question or problem that could possibly arise in individual or communal life.

Rav Meir Simcha Hakohein (Meshech Chochmah, beginning of Vayechi) applies this idea to Yaakov Avinu as well. The posuk states that Yaakov Avinu lived in “Eretz Mitzrayim.” As the Ohr Somayach notes, Yaakov lived in Goshen, one small segment of Egypt, and he no doubt lived in one house on one block with a single address. However, Yaakov Avinu’s net was stretched over all of Egypt. His influence, wisdom and moral force were felt throughout the land. This, too, is a kind of expansion of what appears to be one person’s limited ability to have an effect. And, yet, the greater the person, the more pervasive and far-reaching is his effect and spiritual power over his surroundings.

On Shavuos, every one of us enters the great spiritual Torah gym. If we are careful but industrious, there is much to accomplish. Doors have been opened. The Torah is being given from Above once again. We must only be careful not to let arrogance get the best of us, not to miss opportunities, while sealing in every gain we have made. Let us therefore prepare properly to use the wonderful Yom Tov to emerge stronger, better and deeper from the Zeman Matan Toraseinu.

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