What changed when we received the Torah?

By Rabbi Dan Lewin

During the holiday of Shavuot, we commemorate the momentous occasion of receiving the Torah. When reflecting on the accomplishment of any significant event — and even more so, one that pertains to the cornerstone of our faith — it is essential to explore the transformative aspects it brought forth. In short, what changed? If one can answer that question, the celebration takes on new meaning.

Beyond the introduction of comprehensive moral guidelines, the commentaries delve into a deeper transformation that took place at Mount Sinai, forever altering the fabric of the world. Until that day, a divine decree was in place, dictating the separation of the elyonim and tachtonim, the higher spiritual realms and our physical universe. Essentially, refined spirituality was unable to penetrate the confines of this material world.

With the giving of Torah, however, this decree was annulled: The gates were opened for spirituality to enter this coarse realm and infuse it with holiness. This shift marked a crucial stride toward fulfilling the ultimate purpose of creation — to establish a dwelling place for the divine here on earth. Furthermore, through the performance of mitzvot, we are entrusted with the extraordinary role of becoming partners in manifesting this primordial vision.

Uniting two worlds inside us

Each person is “a miniature world,” encapsulating a microcosm of creation with all its corresponding components. Our intellect, encompassing our perceptions and understanding, corresponds to the “higher world.” The “lower realm” is our emotional experience and lifestyle. These two aspects of our being can remain distinct and disconnected. But our task is to construct an inner bridge, a harmonious connection between them.

To be sure, Torah study involves the enhancement and elevation of the intellect, as the subjective mind attempts to align itself and absorb from the vast reservoir of wisdom. The light that radiates from these teachings become like expansive wings that carry and safeguard our feeble souls. But the true challenge lies in character refinement — bridging these two inner realms. During this process, we strive to integrate and implement our knowledge into the daily grind of a dark and tumultuous world. And the journey of each soul in this life encompasses a unique and often arduous path toward spiritual discovery and self-fulfillment.

The inner opponent

The Sages coined a term to describe the counterforce to holiness inside each person: the yetzer harah (evil inclination). It is a subcategory of the natural (animal) soul, which stands in contrast to the pure intelligent divine soul.

While the natural soul is largely neutral — its tendencies can be refined and even transformed — the evil inclination is a more destructive force that pulls a person in the opposite direction of good. It may manifest as mild ego-driven protection mechanisms or as malevolence.

Either way, the first step in the system of Jewish ethics, philosophy and mysticism is to recognize the existence of this destructive force and become acquainted with its bag of tricks. Furthermore, each person has a custom-built opponent. Without that basic understanding, it is impossible to properly advance spiritually as mistakes become inevitable.

Interestingly, one of the inner opponent’s shrewdest tactics is to convince a person to soften his stance on evil. “It’s not so bad…” The person is then reluctant to condemn negative behaviors where appropriate and consequently lives in a blurry world of justification. (This moral disease is particularly prevalent today with the massive push to reframe key self-damaging and externally dangerous forces to be okay, positive or good.) In essence, it’s a tolerance that stems from moral ambiguity.

So, the first step is to have the wisdom and honesty to recognize and accept the situation. If someone can get to know the raw innate self and its tendencies, resist invitations that lead to falls, channel the negative traits and make tough choices when they arise, eventually there comes tremendous power, light and rectification. One can ideally look back and see that even the lows in life were for a reason: that they somehow helped to make me a better person.

A time for transformation

Within the Jewish calendar, Pesach signifies a pivotal moment of liberation — a time when the possibility of change emerges. However, the path is still incomplete; historically, we had escaped the clutches of tyranny without a true sense of identity.

During the seven-week interval between Pesach and Shavuot, the period of preparation leading to the receiving of the Torah, we are presented with a significant opportunity for fine-tuning our character. This transformative period is dedicated to rectifying the seven primary emotive attributes.

Then, on Shavuot itself, a profound and extraordinary power is bestowed — through reliving the Torah experience with joy and sincere internalization — to transcend all internal and external obstacles that impede our growth. At the heart of the celebration is the knowledge that the Torah arrived to bring about profound change and unity within the world, beginning with the depths of our own “miniature world.”

Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.What changed when we received the Torah?

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