Shavuos: Torah as the Medium of Revelation

holidays parsha video May 04, 2023


We experience life through the medium of time. Each new moment brings with it new opportunities as we ascend through the journey of time. Amidst the constantly moving waves of time, the chagim (holidays) are specific points imbued with unique energy. Each holiday presents us with the opportunity to tap into and experience the theme inherent at that point in time. Before delving into the unique themes of Shavuos, we must first understand the concept of time in general. 


The Nature of Time


The widely accepted understanding of time is that it moves in a straight line. Hashem created our world of space and time, and since its inception, time has been moving inexorably forward. Along this line of time is the past, present, and the future. If we were to move backward along this line, we could peer through history and find Avraham Avinu at the Akeida, Moshe Rabbeinu receiving the Torah, and the Rambam writing the Mishneh Torah. Our current experience is taking place in the middle of the line, and if we could move forward along the line, we would see events that have not yet occurred. However, there is a major contradiction to this theory.

There is a piyut in the Pesach Haggadah[1] which describes how Avraham Avinu served matzah (unleavened bread) to the three malachim (angels) who visited him because it was Pesach at that time. Rashi[2] quotes this opinion and says that Lot served matzah to the malachim as well when they came to Sedom. How can this be? The mitzvah of matzah originates from the events of Yetziat Mitzrayim - which would not occur for another two hundred years!

In order to understand why Avraham and Lot served their guests matzah before the miracles of Pesach occurred, we must develop a deeper understanding of time. Time does not move along a continuous, straight line; it circles around in a repeating yearly cycle. As the Ramchal explains, Hashem created thematic cycles of time, and each point in the year contains unique spiritual energy.

This deep understanding transforms our perception of time. We don't celebrate freedom each year on the 15th of Nissan because that's when the Jews were freed from Egypt, rather the Jews were redeemed from Egypt on the 15th of Nissan because that is zman cheiruseinu, the time of freedom. This power of freedom allowed the Jews to escape the slavery of Mitzrayim, and this is why Avraham and Lot ate matzah long before Yetzias Mitzrayim occurred. Matzah represents freedom, and Avraham and Lot tapped into the spiritual energy of freedom present at that point in time. Rather than commemorating a historical event, they were tapping into the deep energies of time already inherent at that point in the circle. So too, when we celebrate each holiday, we do not simply commemorate a historical event, we tap into and experience the deep energies inherent at that point in time. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Succos, and all the chagim give us the opportunity to access unique spiritual energies in time.


Spirals in Time


However, even the circle analogy is limiting. If time were indeed a circle, each point of the year would simply be a repetition of that point from the previous year, from the previous lap around the circle. That would be pointless. We do not seek to re-experience the past each year. Our goal is to expand upon what we have created year after year, so that each time we return to that same point on the circle, we are on a fundamentally different level. Each Rosh Hashana must be higher than the previous one, each Pesach, a new Pesach, each Shavuos, a new Shavuos. Through our growth and ascension, we convert the two-dimensional circle into a three-dimensional spiral, traversing along the same circle at ever greater heights. We maintain circularity while achieving ascension.[3][4]


Re-Experiencing Shavuos Every Year


Once we understand the concept of time, as well as the importance of tapping into each unique point along the ascending spiral of time, we must delve into the specific themes that Shavuos. What is the power and potential inherent in this time of the year, and how can we harness it to grow along our ascending, spiraling path? 

On Shavuos, there is a custom to stand during the Torah reading. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik[5] explains that we stand during Torah reading on this day because we are recreating the experience of Matan Torah, when the Jewish People stood around Har Sinai (Mount Sinai) to receive the Torah. On Shavuos, we do not simply remember what once occurred, we re-experience the power of kabbalas ha'Torah - receiving and accepting the Torah. We do not simply repeat this process, rather we reaccept the Torah each year on an entirely new level, as fundamentally higher beings, growing through each revelation of Torah. Kabbalas ha’Torah this year is at the same point along the circle as last year, but one rung higher on the spiral. We are truly receiving the Torah anew, in a new dimension of time and spiritual energy.


What is Torah?


If Shavuos is the time of kabbalas ha'Torah, to truly understand what we are trying to experience on Shavuos, we must first understand what Torah is. Scholars may refer to it as a history book, others may think of it as a book of law, or a source of Jewish wisdom. While these are all true, this only scratches the surface of the Torah’s true nature. To truly understand the importance of kabbalas ha'Torah, we must understand the Torah's true depth.

Torah is not simply a guide to living a life of truth within this world; it is the blueprint and DNA of the world itself. In other words, our physical world is a projection and emanation of the deep spiritual reality described in the Torah. This is the meaning behind the famous Midrash, " Istakel b'Oraisah u'barah almah," Hashem looked into the Torah and used it to create the world.[6] Torah is the spiritual root of existence, the physical world is its expression. To illustrate this concept, imagine a projector. The image that you see on the screen emanates from the film in the projector, so that everything you see on the screen is simply an expression of what's contained within the film. So too, every single thing that we see and experience in the physical world stems from the spiritual root - the transcendent dimension of Torah.[7]

Thus, the world in which we live is an avenue to the spiritual - we can access the spiritual, transcendent world through the physical world because the two are intimately, intrinsically connected. 

To relate to this concept, think of the way in which other human beings experience and understand you. All they can see of you is your physical body. They cannot see your thoughts, your consciousness, your emotions, your soul. All they can see are your actions, words, facial expression, and body language- the ways in which you express yourself within the world. They cannot see your inner world, but they can access it through the outer expressions that you project. The same is true regarding human beings trying to experience Hashem and the spiritual. We cannot see the spiritual, we cannot see what is ethereal and transcendent, only that which is physical. However, we can use the physical to access the spiritual root; we can study the Torah's expression in this world to understand its spiritual root.


The World is a Mashal


The more fully grasp the depth of this concept, we must understand the nature and purpose of a mashal. A mashal is an analogy, an example one gives in order to explain something abstract and conceptual to one who does not yet understand it. If a teacher wants to share a deep principle with his or her students, they might share a story or analogy that depicts the idea through a more relatable medium.[8] While the mashal does not fully convey the idea itself, it leads the listener towards it, aiding him or her in the process of understanding. Deep ideas cannot be taught, as they are beyond words.[9]They can only be hinted to and talked about. The job of the teacher is to guide the student towards the idea, until the idea falls into the student’s mind with clear understanding. A mashal serves as a guiding force in this process, leading the student towards an understanding of that which cannot be put into words.

This process itself can be understood through a mashal. You cannot teach someone how to ride a bike. You can only help them,  holding on while they practice, and perhaps showing them an example of how it is done. Ultimately though, you must let go, and the student will have to learn how to ride it independently, on their own.[10] Once you learn how to ride a bike, it’s hard to imagine not being able to ride one. We often can’t understand what took us so long to learn. Yet, despite the fact that we know how to ride a bike, we will not be able to explain how to ride a bike to someone else. It is simply beyond words.

A mashal is the only tool a teacher can use to teach spiritual truths; the learning and understanding must be done within the inner mind of the student. If this is true, how are we able to understand the spiritual world? We cannot see, touch, or feel the spiritual world, so how are we to relate to it? If all learning occurs through the use of analogy, what mashal did Hashem give us to enable us to relate to and understand spiritual truths?

The ultimate mashal is the world itself. It is here to guide us towards a deeper, spiritual truth. Everything in this world is a mashal, a tool guiding us towards a deeper reality. Every physical object, every emotional phenomenon, every experience in this world is part of a larger mashal leading us towards the root of all existence, Hashem. This idea is expressed powerfully in the use of anthropomorphism[11] in the Torah.


Anthropomorphism in the Torah


One of the fundamental principles of Judaism is that Hashem has no physical form whatsoever.[12] And yet, the Torah is replete with anthropomorphic descriptions of Hashem, describing Hashem’s physical figure.[13] How are we to make sense of this?

One approach to this problem is that “Dibrah Torah k’lashon bnei adam”- the Torah speaks in the language of people.[14]In other words, in order for people to be able to understand and relate to an infinite God who is beyond physical form, the Torah speaks in a language that human beings can relate to. This is problematic, though, because the Torah is the blueprint of reality, the ultimate source of truth. Every single word in the Torah is intrinsically and fundamentally true. As such, when Torah describes the “hand of Hashem”, Hashem must actually have a hand. We therefore face a real dilemma. If Hashem has no physical form whatsoever, how can the Torah describe Hashem as having a hand?

There is a deeper approach to this topic which reveals a powerful principle.[15] We think of our hand as the real hand, assuming that Hashem’s hand is being compared to our hand. But what if Hashem’s hand is the real hand, and our “physical” hand is just a mashal for the true spiritual paradigm of “hand-ness”? In other words, everything in the physical world, including our physical bodies, is a limited, physical expression of the spiritual truth, the root and source of reality.[16] Our goal in this world is to use the physical as a mashal, as a tool to learn the true nature of reality. With the Torah as our guide and teacher, we can navigate the physical and understand how to trace ourselves back to our ultimate Source, Hashem.


The Gift of Torah


Hashem gave us the Torah in order to guide us on our spiritual journey in this world. Shavuos is therefore not a call to be transcendent, angelic beings, lofty and perfect, beyond the struggle intrinsic to the human condition. This is not permission to deny our humanity and restrict our sense of self. This is a calling to be human, to be the ultimate human, to bring transcendence and spirituality into this world. We don’t aim to escape this world, we aim to transform it. Kedushah is not transcendence or escapism, it’s marrying transcendence with the immanent. This is what the Torah teaches us: how to uplift our physical experience and connect it to the spiritual. When implemented correctly, Torah enables us to uplift every aspect of our worldly experience to something higher, holier, and more meaningful.[17]


Our Shavuos Mission


Our mission is to make this Shavuos the next step in our evolutionary spiral through time. We must not only reaccept what we have already accepted, we must take it to the next level, the next rung of the ladder. We do not simply remember, we build; we do not repeat, we ascend. May we be inspired to accept the Torah this Shavuos with all of our heart, to commit to living a life of Torah truth, and to endlessly pursue higher and deeper perceptions of the physical world as an expression of a spiritual reality.


[1] U'vchen Va'amartem.

[2] Bereishis 19:3.

[3] See article on Parshas Ha’Azinu for more on the concepts of circles and spirals.

[4] This spiral concept also applies to the yearly Torah cycle. See article on Parshas Ki Savo, section: “Elul and Tochacha.”

[5] Harerei Kedem Vol 2. (pg. 250).

[6] Bereishis Rabbah 1:1.

[7] To illustrate further, the trees you see outside originally stemmed from a single seed. Similarly, each and every one of us originated from a zygote, half a male and half a female genetic code. From that single cell ultimately manifested a fully developed and expressed human being. You are the expression of your original seed, just like the world is the expression of its original seed and root- the Torah.

[8] This is part of the purpose of the introductory stories in many of the weekly articles.

[9] See article on Parshas Beha’aloscha, section: “Moshe’s Speech Impediment”.

[10] This is a mashal to help explain the concept of a mashal. Think about that.

[11] Anthropomorphism is the term used for attributing human characteristics to Hashem.

[12] This is one of the Rambam’s 13 principles of faith.

[13] Shemos 6:1, Shemos 13:9, Devarim 4:34, Shemos 8:15, Shemos 31:18, Devarim 9:10.

[14] Bava Metziah 31b. The Rambam takes this approach in the Moreh Nevuchim.

[15]  See Nefesh Ha'Chaim- 2:5- Note 23, Sha'arei Orah- Sha’ar 1, Ramak- Pardeis Rimonim- Sha'ar 22:1.

[16] This is part of the meaning of being created b’tzelem Elokim, that our physical body itself is a reflection of Hashem and reveals truths about the spiritual world.

[17] For more on this topic, see article on Parshas Masei, sections: “Humanity as Journeyers” and “Two Forms of Perfection.”


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