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 around 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, 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 of 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 through the events in the Torah. In Parshas 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 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 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-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?
The Answer: 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.
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.
Recreating Your Torah
This three-stage pattern gives us a deeper insight into a Gemara that we have already discussed several times before. The Gemara explains that when you were just a fetus, you were in a perfect and transcendent state of being; a malach taught you kol ha’Torah kulah (all of Torah), and you experienced the entirety of 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?
- And more importantly, if he will eventually make you forget it, why teach it to you in the first place?
The Vilna Gaon answers these questions with the three-stage model we just developed. When the Gemara describes the fetus learning kol ha’Torah kulah, it refers to the deepest realms of Torah, a transcendent Torah that lies far beyond this world. This Torah is the very root of reality, and you were granted complete understanding of its every detail. 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, when the malach struck you, you didn’t lose this Torah; rather, you lost access to it. Instead of it disappearing, this knowledge and clarity became buried deep within your subconscious. This is because what you received in the womb wasn’t real; it was a gift – unearned and undeserved. The purpose of life is to come into this world and rebuild all that you once experienced and understood while in the womb. However, this time it will be real, because you have 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, only by asserting your willpower, can you fulfill your true potential. In essence, our entire life is a story of teshuva- returning to our original, higher, and true self.
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 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 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. 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.