In our previous article, we continued exploring the deep and inspiring ideas relating the importance of the Jewish People’s journey through the Midbar. After all, the Torah doesn’t waste a single word; every word has infinite meaning. Thus, if the Torah went out of its way to mention every single place that Klal Yisrael encamped along their long journey through the Midbar, there must be a fundamental message that the Torah is trying to teach us. We began our discussion by emphasizing the importance of each step in any journey and then developed a deeper understanding of the purpose of a goal and the importance of the journey itself.
We ended our previous article with a powerful question: The Gemara (Shabbos 88b) describes Moshe Rabbeinu’s journey as he ascended Har Sinai to receive the Torah. Upon his arrival on top, the malachim began complaining to Hashem, claiming that man has no right to receive the Torah. In responding to their arguments, Moshe’s claim for why the Jewish people are deserving of the Torah focuses on the weaknesses and challenges of human beings, not their perfection. He emphasizes that we are limited, imperfect beings with a yetzer hara, prone to mistakes and jealousy. Why is this a mark in our favor?
The simple answer to this question is that Moshe wasn’t trying to show humanity’s greatness; he was only trying to clarify why human beings need the guidance of Torah, and how the Torah was more applicable to the Jewish people than malachim. There is, however, a much deeper layer here as well.
Two Forms of Perfection
There are two different types, or aspects, of perfection. The first is static perfection (sheleimus), where something is, has been, and always will be absolutely perfect. Such a being does not struggle, has no conflicting wills, and never fails. The second type of perfection is more nuanced, and in some sense, even more powerful. This is the aspect of becoming perfect (hishtalmus), where a being is created imperfect and has the ability to become, evolve, grow, and work to achieve perfection. This second type of perfection comes with great risk, as the struggle to become perfect will inevitably include moments of failure, difficulty, and even hopelessness.
Moshe showed the malachim that while angels are created as static, perfect beings – the first form of perfection – humanity is capable of becoming perfect, through hard work and free will. The Torah contains infinitely deep spiritual wisdom, and the malachim knew that humanity would never be able to understand its depths on the level that they themselves were capable of. They therefore claimed that the Torah should not be given to humanity but be kept by those who could properly grasp its depths. Moshe countered that the Torah’s true purpose is to be both a reflection of higher truth and a gateway for humanity in their journey toward becoming perfect. The Torah and its mitzvos provide us with guidance, refine us, and help us become more and more perfect. The Torah helps us conquer our yetzer hara and overcome our weaknesses. (“Barasi yetzer hara, barasi lo Torah tavlin – I created [the] yetzer hara, I created for it Torah [as a] spice”; Kiddushin 30b.) It is therefore irrelevant for malachim, as malachim are already perfect and have no free will.
(The Nefesh HaChaim explains that angels understand reality with such a crystal clear lens that it is virtually impossible for them to do anything but operate in line with the truth. While they do have a very limited sense of free will, doing something wrong as an angel would be akin to walking into a fire. They may have the free choice to do so, but the scalding hot flames are more than enough to stop them; see Rav Tzadok HaKohen, Pri Tzaddik, Kedushas Shabbos 7; Ramchal, Daas Tevunos 72.)
Rav Tzadok explains that this is why Hashem told Moshe to hold on to the Kisei HaKavod. True kavod is something that must be chosen, not forced. One gives true honor to something or someone that he approves of, values, and associates with truth and perfection. Malachim cannot give true honor to Hashem, because they cannot help but honor Hashem. It is impossible for them not to acknowledge Hashem and the truth of reality. Humanity, however, is capable of giving true honor to Hashem, because we are capable of choosing not to honor Him. Only because we have free will and can choose to ignore the truths of reality can we also choose to acknowledge Hashem as our Creator and root source. It is because we are limited and fallible that we can achieve a unique form of greatness: that of becoming perfect (hishtalmus). This is why Hashem told Moshe to grab onto the Kisei HaKavod; it is the place that represents our ability to give kavod to Hashem as it is the “place” in the spiritual world where Hashem reveals Himself to the created world. (A throne is where a king sits and makes himself available and seen by his people, outside of the privacy of his hidden inner chambers. In the same sense, the Kisei HaKavod represents how Hashem reveals and expresses Himself to the world, allowing us to know and experience Him.) It is also the place within the spiritual world that is rooted even higher than the makom of malachim. This is why Hashem tells Moshe to “grab” onto the Kisei HaKavod; it is the very concept of maasim (actions) that reflect humanity’s superiority to malachim. Only humanity can choose to perform physical mitzvos in the physical world, and our ability to be Hashem’s sheluchim (messengers) in the physical world is what makes humanity superior to the perfection of malachim. Our greatness lies not in our static perfection, but in our ability to become perfect.
A fascinating illustration of this principle is the exchange between Rabbi Akiva and Turnusrufus, as described in the Midrash (Midrash Tanchuma, Tazria 5). Turnusrufus questions the mitzvah of bris milah, asking Rabbi Akiva whether he believes that man is more perfect once he undergoes circumcision than he was when Hashem originally created him. In other words, how can man become more perfect through a human act than he was when Hashem originally created him?
Rabbi Akiva explains that this is exactly what he believes – that the human act of circumcision elevates man to a higher level than he was when originally created. Turnusrufus could not understand this concept, and at first glance, this seems to be a tremendously controversial statement. However, Rabbi Akiva understood that Hashem creates us imperfect to give us the opportunity, ability, and responsibility to perfect ourselves. That is the true perfection of humanity.
Bris milah is also the ultimate paradigm of human spiritual growth in a physical and limited world. We take the most physical and potentially animalistic organ and use it to transcend, connecting to the infinite.
Another example of this dichotomy is the relationship between Torah She’bichsav and Torah She’baal Peh. Many Jewish thinkers, quoting Chazal, describe the unique relationship between Torah She’baal Peh and Torah She’bichsav as follows:
- Torah She’bichsav is static and already perfect; it was given to us directly from Hashem Himself, and human beings have no part in its creation.
- Torah She’baal Peh, however, is a constant work in progress, built through human effort.
Torah She’bichsav was given to us complete, requiring no further development, whereas, through human effort, Klal Yisrael has developed Torah She’baal Peh throughout the centuries. Torah She’bichsav thus represents static perfection, while Torah She’baal Peh represents the human process of becoming perfect (see Rav Tzadok, Pri Tzaddik, Lech Lecha 8).
It is therefore no surprise that Rabbi Akiva, the same Rabbi Akiva who expressed humanity’s greatness to Turnusrufus through bris milah, is considered the father of Torah She’baal Peh (see Menachos 29b; Sanhedrin 86a).
Creating Your Torah
Our higher root is static perfection, but our mission in this world is to work through the process of becoming our higher, true selves, struggling to transform our imperfection into greatness. This is exactly the theme of the Gemara (Niddah 30b) that we have discussed several times before, which states that while in the womb, a malach teaches us kol haTorah kulah, revealing all the deepest truths of reality. Right before we are born, we lose access to that transcendent Torah. The goal of life is to enter this world imperfect and rebuild all that you once were in the womb. However, this time it will be real, because you have built it yourself. Only by overcoming challenge and difficulty, only by asserting your willpower, can you fulfill your true potential. In essence, our entire life is a story of becoming – of journeying toward our original, higher, and true self.
The Journey toward Greatness
We all traverse through the journey of life, trying to grasp the ultimate objective truth as well as fulfill our own personal purpose within that higher truth. As the Torah is teaching us, every step of our journey is of ultimate importance. But more important still is the necessity to be a journeyer, to continuously grow through life. We are here to achieve greatness, and living without a higher “why” is not truly living. We are the unique creation of Hashem that has been placed in a confusing and dark world, in a state of confusion, with the mission of becoming perfect. Find your unique mission, embrace the struggle, and head toward the infinite while enjoying every step of the process.