The screen flipped on, and the film began. It was a documentary of an exceptional human being who had achieved his ultimate perfection. He faced enormous challenges in his youth, but they made him stronger and pushed him to live a life of idealism, centered on learning and spreading Torah wisdom. He built an idealistic community designed to help everyone achieve their unique mission in this world. He married a true tzaddeikes, raised a beautiful family, and devoted his entire life to connecting with Hashem and contributing to the lives of others. He wrote books, finished projects, built up organizations, and changed the world.
“Wow,” he thought to himself. “Who is this?”
“It’s you,” came a whisper from inside his head. “At least it’s who you can be. Now is your chance to build it yourself.”
Just then, there was a loud shriek. The doctor raised his head and smiled. “It’s a boy!”
The Experience of Life
Have you ever felt like everything worthwhile in life eventually fades? The energy of youth fades into old age, the excitement of beginnings fades into routine, and the inspiration of a new goal fades into habit. This pattern extends to almost all spheres of the human experience. When you begin a meal, the taste is fresh and delicious, but after only a few bites the taste begins to wear 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 beauty and appeal, and you were forced to move on to the next song.
This numbing experience is not always negative. Whenever you hear 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 phenomenon permeates all human experience, leading us to question why Hashem 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 idea behind this pattern?
Yetzias Mitzrayim and Matan Torah
Before answering our question, let us take a further look at this phenomenon and how it plays out in relation to the journey from yetzias Mitzrayim (Exodus) to Matan Torah (the receiving of the Torah).
The first day of Pesach was the pinnacle of the yetzias Mitzrayim experience. After revealing Himself to the world through the ten makkos, Hashem Himself performed makkas bechoros (the plague of the firstborn), striking down the firstborns of Mitzrayim. At this time, the Jews underwent the process of their formation as Hashem’s chosen nation, performing the mitzvos of Korban Pesach and bris milah. The baalei machshavah 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-nine days are defined by hardship, complaints, and spiritual challenge. Then, upon completing these forty-nine 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?
Why Inspiration Fades
The deep meaning behind this process is elucidated by the Arizal, Ramchal, Vilna Gaon, and many other Jewish thinkers. They explain that 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 during the first stage.
- Then there is the third stage, a return to the perfection of the first stage. However, this third stage is fundamentally different from 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.
Learning to Walk
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 inexplicable: he lets go! You immediately fall to ground, shocked. You feel 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 teaching you how to walk. First, he needed to walk with you, showing you how to do it, but only by letting go and forcing you to stand on your own did you eventually learn how to walk. While he was holding your hand, it may have felt like you were walking, but you now realize that it was only an illusion. It was a gift; it wasn’t real. Only once 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 that this time, it’s real.
The Three Stages
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; it cannot compare to the genuine accomplishment of building something yourself. It is therefore taken away to allow for the second and more 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 have 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 to be 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; chessed, din, and tiferes; male, female, and the child created from their bond of oneness.)
Yetzias Mitzrayim vs. Matan Torah
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 earn that 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 the depth and beauty of their connection and marriage with Hashem.
The Light within the Darkness
This is the process of life. Inspiration, followed by hardship and difficulty, often to the point that you can hardly remember that initial stage of excitement. The Rambam compares this experience to a man lost in the darkness of night, in the midst of a thunderstorm (Moreh Nevuchim, introduction 7). 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 confusing world. The darkened path represents the difficult 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 within the darkness. One day you will once again experience the clarity of that light. Except this time, it will be real, earned, never again fading away.