Have you ever felt that everything worthwhile in life eventually fades? The energy of youth fades into old age, the excitement of beginnings fade into routine, the inspiration of a new goal fades into habit. This experience extends to almost all dimensions of human experience. When you begin a meal, the taste is fresh and delicious, but after only a few bites the taste wears 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 appeal, and you were forced to move on to the next song.
This numbing experience isn’t always negative. If you’ve ever heard 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 concept 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 concept behind this phenomenon?
Yetzias Mitzrayim and Matan Torah
Before answering our question, let us take a further look at this pattern and how it plays out through the events in the Torah. In this week’s parsha, 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 performed makkas bechoros (the plague of the firstborn) Himself, striking down the firstborns of Mitzrayim; At this point, 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 days are defined by hardship, complaints, and spiritual challenge. Then, upon completing these forty 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 explanation behind this process is explained by the Arizal, the Ramchal, the Vilna Gaon, and many other Jewish thinkers. They expound as follows: 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 in the first stage. Then we have the third stage, a return to the perfection of the first stage. However, this third stage is fundamentally different than 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 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, but can’t compare to the genuine accomplishment of building something yourself. It’s therefore taken away to allow for the second and most 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’ve 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 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; Chesed, 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 their connection and marriage with Hashem.
The Light Within the Darkness
This is the process of life. Inspiration, followed by hardship and difficulty, usually to the point where you can hardly even remember that initial stage of excitement. The Rambam compares this experience to a man lost in the forest, in the darknest 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 difficult world. The darkness represents the 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.