Moving toward Shavuot

By Rabbi Dan Lewin

As we wind down the counting of the omer and the accompanying effort at personal refinement to relive the receiving of the Torah, we will have addressed the full spectrum of our character —the seven soul powers called middot (literally, measurements), guided by the three intellectual powers.

These foundational faculties, essential for both spiritual and material success, play out in all areas of life. Here is a list of some of their key manifestations: Our deepest most internal resource called ratzon (a strong motivation or drive) stimulates interest and propels accomplishment, as the famous Jewish mystical teaching goes, “Nothing stands in the way of willpower.” After willpower comes “mind-powers,” strengthening the intellect to stay aligned with our mission. Learning from mistakes, humility within wisdom or mental flexibility is key for the inevitable adaptation during our life journey.

Moving down the spiritual ladder, getting closer in time to the 50th gate, emotional intelligence and people skills (i.e. the heart) guide those mitzvahs directed toward other people. Difficult times and tests are inevitable and the main inner resource for resilience is increasing confidence/trust (bitachon), both in ourselves and in G-d’s kindness to do good for us. Good organization/time management (executive functioning) allows for the implementation in action of all the above resources.

Finally, energy (i.e. the health of the body) is the platform for divine service, as Maimonides relates in his Laws of Personal Development: “Maintaining a healthy and sound body is among the ways of G-d, for one cannot understand or have any knowledge of the Creator if he is ill….”

The divine wedding

Shavuot, the festival which commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, is called the marriage of Israel to G-d (Talmud, Taanit 26b). On the Shabbat before a wedding, it is customary for the groom to be called up to the Torah as a preparation for the wedding. The portion of Bamidbar (Numbers), which is usually read on the Shabbat before Shavuot, is a preparation for that special union that came upon their receiving the Torah.

To better appreciate the abstract wedding at Sinai, let’s pause to examine some mystical aspects of a Jewish marriage according to Torah — the change in status set off under the canopy, with the ring exchange, ketubah, blessings, etc. There is a saying that “the powerful holiness underneath the chuppah is wasted on the youth.” Nevertheless, two souls connect at the auspicious designated time.

Most blessings in our lives that come through effort are not created by that effort but rather triggered. It’s only that the divinely desired rules implanted in nature dictate that, in general, benevolence shouldn’t flow for free. For our benefit, we need to feel some sense of earning what we receive.

The blessings of marriage, however, are on an entirely different level. There is no area wherein the quality of results is far out of proportion to human toil and input. This begins with the matchmaking of souls, described in the Talmud as “difficult” for Hashem. And this mysterious push continues through every facet of the relationship.

“Building an everlasting home” is much more than living, planning and doing things together. The ability to have an inviting house, in which to host Shabbat meals, is a privilege wherein magic unfolds. Raising children is another craft that takes extra humility and heavenly assistance.

Our culture injects different perspectives on relationships and sacred elements of the traditional family system are portrayed as optional. For many teenagers looking to the future, the vision of a successful marriage centers around personal fulfillment — what type of person will make me happy — and evolving ideals that have little to do with reality.

A wiser realization from those who have been in the trenches uncovers that the essence of this awesome institution, viewed in a holy context, has little to do with you. It’s not about the other person either. It’s not even about making someone happy or feeling loved. While all these are important ingredients for emotional well-being, the core feature is fulfillment of a joint purpose. Neither individual can be the complete person they are created to be without joining forces to tap into a third infinite force.

To arrive at the physical manifestation of this most intangible spiritual bond takes patience and a perspective of the bigger picture.

The unifying element

From a spiritual perspective, all mistakes come from a lapse in seeing the big picture. In early relationships, dating without awareness of the long-term goal or vision can lead to wasted time and damage. Every changing desire replaces comprehensive commitment. Later, in the context of marriage, being aware of the big picture means staying conscious of that sacred element within the relationship, the institution of marriage, even during routine everyday activities.

In our relationship with G-d, we focus on the details within a mitzvah while not losing sight of the idea that each singular command is another pipeline to connect to the Creator, the inner meaning of the word mitzvah (to join). People often conceive of holiness in the context of prayer or study. But even the mundane arenas present golden opportunities to mentally link each action with the big-picture purpose of divine service, as the verse states: “Know Him in all your ways” (Proverbs 3:6).

Indeed, one of the accomplishments of receiving the Torah relative to earlier times was the all-encompassing nature of its guidelines, wherein even the lowest physical elements could be uplifted.

Bamidbar and Shavuot

The Shabbos before Shavuot is devoted to getting in the right mindset to embrace the shared history and inheritance of the Torah. The portion opens with G-d’s command that a census be taken of the Israelites: “Count the number of all the congregation of the children of Israel.”

Tradition relates that they were counted only three times in the first year (and one month) after leaving Egypt, once more (38 years later) during their wanderings in the desert and later only at infrequent intervals — a total of nine times until today. The 10th time will be in the future.

What was the purpose of this census? The commentaries explain that counting is a sign of endearment; when one has things that are cherished, one often takes them out to count them, to become re-acquainted with them. Although G-d knows the number of the children of Israel without ordering a census, He commanded this public counting for a deeper reason:

When things are counted, they stand equal to each other. This act was, therefore, a gesture towards that quality in every Jew that is equal — not intellect or moral standing, but essence. In other words, the point of the census was to bring the soul of each Jew to the surface of awareness. And each counting after the Exodus brought an additional stage in this revelation.

In preparation for our annual re-creation of the event, we read the portion which speaks about the third (and complete) census after the Exodus. By taking to heart the meaning of counting as a gesture of G-d’s love for Israel, we can bring about that union created at the giving of the Torah.

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

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