Photo Credit:

There is a helping modality in the world of psychology known as Narrative Therapy. It posits that our lives consist of fragmented stories that we have constructed over time, which shape how we perceive ourselves and our identities. As we approach the climax of our 49-day journey from the festival of Passover to the festival of Shavuot, it’s fitting to reflect on the story we’ve been telling ourselves since our exodus from Egyptian bondage and the one which we continue to narrate each year as we trek forward towards our Promised Land.

From where did we come? Where are we now? Where are we called on to go? The mystics teach that G-d sends each soul down to this world on a particular mission, an adventure of elevating the physical reality through the use of that soul’s encasing body. Upon completing its mission, each soul returns and reunites fully with its Maker. Sometimes, though, we get distracted, forgetting that life is a journey and not a final destination. We get comfortable with where we are, what we’ve achieved, and who we’ve become in this lifetime. At other times, we become so engulfed by life’s many stressors that we begin to feel as though we’ll never make it through the difficulties to reach our goal.


As Moses began preparing us to transition from life in the barren desert to the life we were to live in the Holy Land toward the end of the Book of Numbers, the Torah goes out of its way to list all of the resting stops we took along our journey from Egypt because each one made a difference in our lives and our psychological and emotional development. Each was an integral piece of our adventure and the identity we subsequently created. Looking back at our journeys, we are reminded that we fought with each other, continuously complained, were unsatisfied with much of what G-d blessed us with, and lost members of our people. A new generation was born as well. We learned that life wasn’t always going to be smooth sailing and that we’d undoubtedly encounter bumps and potholes along the way. But we also learned that we were never to view these (or any) obstacles as something that could permanently prevent us from achieving our greatness. Those pauses were part of the trek and not detours.


Starting in Darkness

To successfully reach the Promised Land, however, we had to be mindful that we were coming from the darkness of Egyptian exile. As traumatizing as it had been, we had to experience slavery if we were to work to abolish it later on, when we were no longer the ones enslaved. We had to know what it was like to live under oppression, if we were to fight for justice in the years ahead.

As much as the Torah repeatedly reminds us, “because you were once strangers [in Egypt],” Judaism simultaneously reminds us that G-d never intented for us to remain as strangers. That isn’t the totality of our narrative. Nowhere does the Torah ever tell us to define ourselves by our low points in life or the challenges we might face throughout the adventure. We may have started this leg of our journey as slaves in a foreign land, but we belonged elsewhere. There was more to our story yet to be written.


Counting Our Days

Our journey from slavery to freedom is an interesting one. We count 49 ascending days, because each day is significant and matters in the context of our entire story. Each day presents new opportunities to further actualize our mission. Because transformation cannot occur if we only transform parts of who we are and not our total whole. And because change must be gradual for it to have lasting effects.

We would be mistaken to believe that Shavuot is the climax of our trip rather than a pause along the way. We excitedly count and work on ourselves for 49 days in preparation for receiving G-d’s gift of the Torah, but it’s easy to forget what will happen after that celebration. What should we do after we’ve reached the spiritual heights of Shavuot? What transpires after we’ve trekked up the mountain of holiness and reached its apex?


Up, Up, Up!

Zalmy Plotkin, z”l, was a uniquely remarkable young individual and emissary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, who touched the lives of many, worldwide, in his 15 short years. I had the tremendous privilege of knowing Zalmy and his family for many of those years, and we frequently traveled together – both locally and to different countries and cities. Anytime I would fly (or walk to the park, or go for a drive) with Zalmy and ask him where we were going, he would always point with his finger upwards and excitedly say, “Up, up, up; down, down, down!”

From all the stories shared at Zalmy’s shiva, and in the months and years following his untimely passing, one persistently stands out. Anyone who knew Zalmy understood that rigid routines were very much a part of his daily life and success – and he had a routine for just about everything! But for the last month or so of his life, he had adopted one that was unmatched. Each evening before going to sleep, he would take the most spacious suitcase he could find in his house, toss as many clothes into it as he had the patience to gather, and then sit at the front door and excitedly say, “Up, up, up; down, down, down!” Only after driving with his father around the block a few times (akin to driving to the airport), Zalmy felt ready to return home and retire for the night in his bed.

The Kabbalistic tradition teaches that 30 days before our passing, we’re able to sense that it’s time to reunite our soul with our Maker, and we begin preparing ourselves for our departure from this finite realm. Zalmy knew that it was soon time to go, “up, up, up!”


Down, Down, Down!

Although he was not always able to express this verbally, I believe that Zalmy also knew that, as holy as it is to rise higher, perhaps even more sacred and courageous is our ability to return and bring that elevated inspiration down and share it with others. Perhaps this is why he spent so much of his time waving or smiling at seemingly random individuals, continually giving out hugs, or visiting nursing homes to sing and play the piano for the residents. As inspired as we may feel at times, our isolated, personal motivation and meaning will always be somewhat diminished if we don’t share it with others who may not be as high up the mountain as we perceive ourselves to be. And, more so, goodness that we save for select, special occasions but don’t bring into our daily lives ends up going to waste and eventually being forgotten or misused altogether.

Unlike the weeklong festivals of Passover and Sukkot, we celebrate Shavuot for only two days, perhaps as if to emphasize that holiness isn’t an apex, but rather something that we must cultivate and actively live every day. Our mission was never to stay up on Mt. Sinai, but to take what we learned and how we grew during those 49 days and transcend beyond the mountain and into the unbeknown future and transform it into all that it can be.

We need to appreciate and channel Zalmy’s inspiration, unbounded joy, and unconditional love. It’s now our turn to go “down, down, down!”


Written in memory of Zalmy Plotkin, Baruch Schneur Zalman ben Harav Avraham Eliyahu, a special friend who passed away just shy of celebrating his 15th birthday.

Share this article on WhatsApp:

Previous articleThe Ten Commandments – More Relevant Than Ever
Next articleSinwar: We Have the Israelis Right Where We Want Them
Jonah Simcha Chaim Muskat-Brown is an educator, social worker, and freelance author from Toronto, Canada. He draws inspiration from the vast sea of Chassidic wisdom and the many works of psychology and human development as he empowers others to discover and unlock hidden potential within themselves along the journey of unleashing their own greatness. He is the author of Expanding Potential: Journeying Beyond Who We Think We Are (Mosaica Press).