Have you ever felt that everything worthwhile in life eventually fades? The energy of youth fades into old age, the excitement of beginnings fade into routine, the inspiration of a new goal fades into habit. This experience extends to almost all dimensions of human experience. When you begin a meal, the taste is fresh and delicious, but after only a few bites the taste wears off and the food loses its mouthwatering appeal. Did you ever hear a great song, immediately fall in love with it, and play it endlessly on repeat? After a few days, you probably couldn’t listen to it anymore. This once captivating song somehow lost its appeal, and you were forced to move on to the next song.
This numbing experience isn’t always negative. If you've ever heard a loud or disturbing sound, you may initially be annoyed or irritated. However, after a few moments, your senses become dulled and your mind muffles out the sound. The stimulus is still there, but the sensation has faded.
This concept permeates all of human experience, leading us to question whyHashem created the world this way. Why did Hashem create a world in which inspiration, physical sensation, and emotional delight always fade? What is the deep spiritual concept behind this phenomenon?
Before answering our question, let us take a further look at this pattern and how it plays out through the events in the Torah. In this week’s parsha, Mishpatim, Klal Yisrael experiences the after-effects of Yetzias Mitzrayim and Matan Torah. Let us take a closer look at the events that lead up to this moment.
The first day of Pesach was the pinnacle of the Yetzias Mitzrayim experience. After revealing Himself to the world through the ten makkos, Hashem performed makkas bechoros (the plague of the firstborn) Himself, striking down the firstborns of Mitzrayim; At this point, the Jews underwent the process of their formation as Hashem’s chosen nation, performing the mitzvos of korban pesach and bris milah. The Ba'alei Machshava describe this night as the absolute peak of holiness and spirituality for the Jewish people. It is therefore astonishing that immediately following this elevated experience, the Jews descend into the midbar (desert), and fall into total disarray. The midbar is a place of spiritual emptiness and the next forty days are defined by hardship, complaints, and spiritual challenge. Then, upon completing these forty days, the Jews once again experience spiritual transcendence. The Jews are given the Torah at Har Sinai- Mount Sinai, cementing their marriage relationship with Hashem and committing themselves to a destiny of greatness.
There is an obvious question on this sequence of events: why didn't the Jews go straight from Mitzrayim to Matan Torah, from one high to the next? Why did they first have to go through such a bitter low, losing everything they had gained on the first night of Pesach?
This pattern that occurred as Klal Yisrael left Mitzrayim has an interesting parallel. The Gemara (Niddah 30b) discusses an enigmatic tale describing the initial stage of each of our formations.The Gemara explains that when you were just a fetus, you were in a perfected and transcendent state of being; a malach taught you kol ha'Torah kulah, all of Torah, and you viewed reality through a crystal-clear lens. However, the Gemara continues with an anticlimactic punch (literally): just before you were born, this malach struck you on the mouth, causing you to forget everything you learned.
Two obvious questions arise: Why does the malach cause you to forget everything that you've just learned? But more importantly, if he will eventually make you forget it, why even teach it to you in the first place?
The deep explanation behind this process is explained by the Arizal, the Ramchal, the Vilna Gaon, and many other Jewish thinkers. They expound as follows: Every process contains three stages. The first stage is the high, the inspiration, an experience of perfection and clarity. Next comes the second stage: a complete fall, a loss of everything that was experienced in the first stage. Then we have the third stage, a return to the perfection of the first stage. However, this third stage is fundamentally different than the first. It is the same perfection, the same clarity, but this time it's a perfection and clarity that you have earned. The first time it was given to you, now you have worked to build it for yourself.
Imagine you are a young child, still unable to walk. One day, your father holds your hands and begins to walk with you. Suddenly seeing the world from a higher vantage point, you immediately fall in love with your new ability to walk. Your father takes you around the kitchen, around the house, and you start to feel more and more comfortable in the walking position. You feel so close and grateful to your father for walking with you. Suddenly, just when you felt so safe and loved, your father does the unexplainable, he lets go! A second later, you fall to ground, shocked, feeling both hurt and abandoned. All you can think is: "Why would my father do this to me? I thought he loved me?!". The next day, the same exact thing happens. Once again, just as you feel safest, your father lets go, and you fall straight to the ground. You can't understand why your father is putting you through this suffering! However, a few weeks later, something magical happens. Your father lets go, but this time, you don't fall to the ground. This time, you remain on your feet. You begin to walk around, by yourself!You have officially learned to walk.
Only now do you realize the truth. Your father wasn't trying to hurt you. On the contrary, he was simply trying to help you walk. First he needed to show you how to do it. However, it was only by letting go and forcing you to stand on your own that you eventually learned how to walk. While he was holding your hand it may have feltlike you were walking, but you now realize that it was only an illusion. It was a gift, it wasn't real. Only now that you were forced to build it on your own do you really have the ability to walk. The first stage was the gift. The second stage was the fall. The third stage was the recreation of the first stage, except this time, it's now real.
The first stage is a gift, a spiritual high. It's there to help you experience the goal, the destination. It's a taste of what you can and hopefully will ultimately accomplish; but it's not real, it's given as a gift, and is therefore an illusion. It serves only as a guiding force, but can’t compare to the genuine accomplishment of building something yourself. It's therefore taken away to allow for the second and most important stage: building it yourself, undergoing the work required to attain this growth in actuality, to work for the perfection that you were shown. A gift isn't real, something chosen and earned is. We're in this world to choose, to assert our free will, and to create ourselves. Now that we've tasted the first stage, we know what we're meant to choose, what we're meant to build. The third stage is the recreation of the first stage. While it appears the same, it's fundamentally different. It's real, it's earned, it's yours. The first stage was a gift, an illusion; the third is the product born of the effort and time you invested. [These three stages are the secret behind many spiritual concepts: Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov; Chesed, Din, and Tiferes; Male, Female, and the child created from their bond of oneness.]
The Vilna Gaon explains the Gemara in Niddah 30b according to this very model. When the Gemara states that the fetus learns all of Torah, it doesn't mean that you were learning basic Chumash with Rashi. Rather, it refers to the deepest realms of Torah, a transcendent Torah that is beyond this world. This Torah is the very root of reality, and you understood every aspect of it clearly. Not only were you shown this level of Torah, but you also learned your specific share of Torah- you were shown your unique purpose in the world, and how your unique role fits into the larger scheme of the human story as a whole. You were given a taste of your own perfection, of what you could, should, and hopefully will become.
Most importantly, thought, when the malach struck you, you didn't lose this Torah; rather, you lost access to it. Instead of it disappearing completely, this state of self became buried deep within your subconscious. This is because what you received in the womb wasn't real, it was merely a gift; something unearned and undeserved. The goal of life is to come into this world and rebuild all that you once were in the womb. However, this time it will be real, since you've built it yourself. In essence, your job in this world is not to create yourself, but rather to recreate yourself; to re-attain your original state of perfection, as you were shown by the malach. This time, however, it must be accomplished through free will, by choosing to become great. Only by overcoming challenge and difficulty, and asserting your will-power, can you fulfill your true potential. In essence, our entire life is a story of teshuva- returning to our original, higher, and true self.
Returning to our original discussion, we can now understand why the Jewish people couldn't go straight from Yetzias Mitzrayim to Matan Torah. The first night of Pesach was a spiritual high, a revelation of their ultimate destination; but it was a gift, unearned. They therefore had to go through the challenges of the midbar in order to rebuild and earnthat initial stage. Matan Torah was the third stage, the recreation of the first stage, but earned, real. Only then was Klal Yisrael truly able to experience their connection and marriage with Hashem.
This is the process of life. Inspiration, followed by hardship and difficulty, usually to the point where you can hardly even remember that initial stage of excitement. The Rambam compares this experience to a man lost in the forest, in the darkness night, in the midst of a thunderstorm. Unable to see his hand in front of his face, he has no idea where to go. Suddenly, there's a flash of lightning and he sees the path home, clear as day. A second later the lightning fades and he's left with only the memory of clarity to guide him back home. The lightning represents flashes of inspiration in a challenging and difficult world. The darkness represents the journey we must take to recreate that initial stage of inspiration. We must hold on to those flashes of lightning, understand our goal and destination, and then recreate that light withinthe darkness. For, one day, you will once again experience the clarity of that light. Except this time, it will be real, earned, never again fading away.
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