A 3-stage process: Submission, separation and sweetening

By Rabbi Dan Lewin
Parashat Emor

One of the profound teachings of the Baal Shem Tov centers on a model of transformation, which can be succinctly divided into three main stages, roughly translated as: submission, separation and sweetening.

The first stage often arises from an external stimulus, an event beyond one’s control, that motivates change. Yet internally, the individual remains raw, even resisting the shift. At this point, the initial step entails sincerely accepting the situation, no matter its difficulty, coupled with a desire for things to be different. The second stage is an inside-out process, wherein the individual begins to more actively grapple with flaws and unwelcome emotions. The final stage, sweetening, manifests when the person’s experience aligns with the initial aspiration.

Our historical model

A pivotal transformation unfolded during this period on the calendar, which marks the seminal event in Jewish history: the Exodus from Egypt, heralding the birth of our nation. Emerging from the pits of despair to reach the peak of celestial enlightenment while in bodies entailed the metamorphosis of a group of slaves — souls steeped in impurity — into spiritually liberated individuals, forever bound to the Torah, with a distinctive purpose on earth. Transitioning from point A to point B resembled the act of a new creation.

More precisely, let’s break up this monumental shift into three steps associated with three months: Our Sages relate that when the Jewish people initially fled Egypt, they were fleeing spiritual death as much as physical bondage. G-d then lifted and whisked out everyone from the clutches of evil, the 49 gates of impurity. At this point in the Exodus story, the Jewish people were in a state of complete submission to a higher force without any active achievement. The objective was simply to flee the negative, without calculations, and move toward a brighter future. Nissan, the first month of the Exodus, is permeated with this faith and miraculous freedom.

But at this stage of the Exodus struggle, the Jewish people were not yet fit to receive the Torah. They needed to embrace the spiritual grind, where they steadily worked to refine themselves, weeding out the remnants of inner evil and suffering — purifying soul, mind and body — in preparation for the supreme day of revelation at Mount Sinai. We repeat this process each year during the counting of the omer, which fills every day of the month of Iyar.

Finally, receiving the Torah on the 50th day was a result of their effort, yet not in proportion to it — an influx of infinite light beyond all created realms that transformed their entire being on earth. Sivan, the third month, is when Shavuot occurred.

In the Song of Songs (1:4), there is a verse that alludes to this transformative process: “Draw me, we will run after you; the king has brought me into his chambers.” Each of these three phrases conveys one of the three stages of departure from Egypt. “Draw me” represents the Exodus. “We will run after you” signifies the counting of the omer. “The king has brought me into his chambers” is reminiscent of the giving of the Torah, reflecting the sweetness of that unparalleled union.

Soul structure

With this background, we can better understand the current calendar period of Sefirat Haomer, where every day (beginning at nightfall) brings a separate mitzvah. The command actually appears in this week’s Torah portion: “You shall count for yourselves (us’fartem lachem) … seven complete weeks.”

On the surface, it’s a countdown to receiving the Torah as we relive that process of refining ourselves, one step at a time. While the individual units may seem insignificant when taken alone, the accumulation, stacking good days, can lead to astounding personal ascent.

The deeper meaning of counting seven weeks is elucidated in the Jewish mystical tradition, which teaches that the soul structure has 10 distinct “powers”: three intellectual and seven emotive attributes (middot). The combination of these faculties forms the personality of every human. The seven character traits — kindness, discipline, compassion, competitiveness, gratitude, implementation and so forth — correspond to the seven weeks. Furthermore, each of these seven contains a component of all the others. So, as we count, we focus on fixing (i.e. polishing) our 49 specific traits during the 49 days of the omer.

But wait: Didn’t we say that there are 10 soul features?

Although our concentration during this time is on refining the 7 middot, this rectification process occurs through the guidance of the mind — the three intellectual powers of chochmah (perception), binah (understanding) and daas (internalization), commonly known by the acronym Chabad.

A complex process

In practical terms, personal development necessitates thorough and comprehensive self-reflection to refine our inherent traits. It’s a complex endeavor with plenty of areas to adjust and gaps to fill. While good deeds are plentiful, true inner balance is rare. Some people, for example, are kind yet quick-tempered. Others may be mild-mannered yet cheap or self-absorbed. Those who excel in productivity may battle with pride, while the well-disciplined might find themselves joyless and overly rigid.

A truthful self-examination reveals ample room for growth — and the prime time is now. Every day offers a unique opportunity to work on a specific aspect of our character until reaching the 50th gate of understanding, the personal freedom of receiving the Torah.

A multifaceted model

The features of this three-stage process can be observed in various contexts of our personal development. When faced with a loss in life, whether due to a mistake in judgment or factors beyond our control, there is a need for healing and transformation. This applies even to seemingly minor areas. For example, unpleasant interactions, especially with underminers, stain the soul and slow its movement. In the course of these exchanges, we often overreact and make mistakes. In addition to learning who to stay free from and who to spend time with, we must evaluate our mistakes.

The first stage of recovery requires humility to accept the situation honestly, without dismissing it or overestimating the failure. Although we have a vision of where we want to end up, the feelings are still raw and chaotic. We may be dealing with negative emotions such as pain, frustration or resentment. The first step forward requires a commitment and a surrendering of thought. Here, growth begins through a force greater than the human mind. And at this stage, there is yet no change on the inside.

The second stage involves active reflection, sorting through the past and trying to separate misperceptions from accurate assessments. In this phase, the mind must be the judge of how to proceed. Finding comfort entails looking for opportunities to deepen our connection to God. For this to happen, tangible changes must be instituted within our lives, which takes time, thought and resolve to implement.

The third element is the fixing — the result of our efforts with divine assistance. It’s when we reach a point where past pain is seen, in hindsight, as the impetus for betterment. While there may be situations where this is impossible, where the loss remains, yet in other areas (especially where the discomfort stems from our choices) there is room to view the descent as the beginning of a subsequent rise.

Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayan-chai.org.

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