Spiritual growth precedes ability to accept Torah

Personal growth necessitates self-awareness, then some change to the “self” we most identify with. The change may take the form of renewal, “getting back in touch with a vision, value or ideal that we’ve somehow lost or neglected.” Other times, it’s more about creating a new identity — “reinventing myself.” Focusing on performance, people speak of “being the best version of yourself.” Then, in rare situations, the ambition is to undo “the old self” and become a different creature altogether.
Last month’s theme was breaking internal barriers through increased joy and laughter; this month we reach the heights through faith, freedom and miracles. A miracle, in general, consists of an alteration within the natural direction of the universe. The title of the current Hebrew month, Nissan, from the word nes (miracle), provides extra power to create another type of miracle — to transform our personal “nature.”
Simply put, our nature is the innate unrefined character, our specific emotional constitution, or the way we operate. In the same context, to tap into “higher than nature” means activating a deeper chord inside the soul with the force to override our ordinary way of operating.
One of the essential teachings from the Baal Shem Tov, the founding figure of the Chassidic movement, is that any significant growth or transformation involves a three-stage process in consciousness: submission, separation and sweetening. This process may be applied to many types of improvement, whether in the physical, mental, social/emotional or spiritual arena.
In general, Stage 1 requires a person’s submission: getting into a calm and focused state, emptying the mind, setting aside the ego and self-monitoring that interferes with progress, to become ready and receptive. Stage 2, the separation stage, is more active, requiring personal input and analysis to distinguish the matter at hand. By clarifying which elements belong, verses which need to be discarded, one is able to personalize a plan. This stage, a filtering process, aids in our ability to later make strong choices.
Finally, in Stage 3, once the work of the other two stages has been completed, a person is able to “sweeten” their being and reach a new place in life. This final stage is the ability to be “myself,” regardless of the environment. In a nutshell, it’s true freedom — living, as opposed to existing.
This three-stage process of transformation can be applied to the current holiday. A common understanding of Pesach — “the time of our freedom” — embraces physical sovereignty, no longer being enslaved, able to enjoy comfort on our own terms. But the holiday commemorates a more profound change — the creation of a new Jewish identity, becoming essentially bound with the Torah.
The process opened with leaving the land of Egypt — the birth of Am Yisrael — but culminated at Mount Sinai. The miraculous redemption brought faith and submission, a readiness to accept what came next. But going from a group of slaves, individuals with common ancestry called “the children of Israel,” to becoming “a Torah nation” was no typical transformation. It was an unfathomable jump.
The challenge in making this shift, from one extreme to another, is amplified by the Zohar’s explanation that right before fleeing, the souls of the Jewish people (kneset yisroel) had sunk to 49 gates of impurity, about to reach the point of no return from Egyptian exile, assimilated and irredeemable. For such a people, emerging from the cultural furnace, then reaching a state of becoming suitable receptacles for the giving of the Torah — when a potent influx of holiness, the kind of which the world itself had never absorbed, would take place — necessitated a period of intense preparation, a 49-day countdown.
Preparation involved separation: undoing attachments to acquire an elevated perspective; a steady spiritual climb toward purification. The “sweetening” was a disproportional leap — when we gained a precious heavenly gift, described throughout our literature as the “Torah of light” and the “secret treasure” of life.
The three stages can also be applied to establishing individual Jewish identity: Even though we may be aware our identity, our natural tendencies and preoccupations cover it up. So, in the moment, we act contrary to what we believe. To bring that identity to the forefront — to get it into our consciousness — we must go through these developments. The first quality is to become silent, adopting a genuine humility when seeking connection with God.
Receptiveness to a grand purpose, something beyond “self,” is the prerequisite to progress. The opposite trait, a subconscious sense of “I don’t want anyone telling me what to do,” is the most natural barrier to spiritual development, as noble action revolves around personal gratification.
Next comes the grind. Nothing meaningful and holy is achieved without steady effort and sacrifice. The “separation” process here involves understanding through learning Torah, internalizing what is beneficial to the soul and what is harmful. Like a spiritual detox, implementing this stage is never enjoyable. It tests one’s commitment and resilience to withstand previous tendencies and natural temptations.
But each moment we stick it out leads us closer to the “sweetening” — a breakthrough where you discover a changed person. From one angle, this result is a product of effort insofar as you need to work to get there. On the other hand, it’s a transformation out of proportion to the work, a gift from above.
Each year, the Jewish calendar cycle provides the opportunity to revive this growth process. On Pesach we strengthen faith, beginning with the matzo (“the bread of faith”) on the Seder night and recollecting the past miracles. It’s that time of year, when trying to reach a higher level, that we feel as if we’ve been set in motion — the taste of freedom we didn’t yet earn. After that boost comes a period of effort, the counting of the Omer, mystically meant for character refinement. Finally, we arrive at the 50th gate — the festival of “giving of the Torah” — where we reach a level far beyond our strength.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.

Leave a Reply