Wow. Amazing shiur.
What a Yom Kippur!
That was scary—a real wake up call!
I feel so uplifted, as if I’m a new person. I’m ready, I’m committed. This is it. A new me has be born.
Famous last words, you might say.
Check back with this inspired person in just a few days, sometimes even a few minutes, and the inspiration is gone. Check back in six months and see if the topic of the shiur or source of inspiration can even be recalled. Inspiration, it seems, is mistaken for actual change and growth but the test of time proves this false.
Rabbi Kelemen of Neve Yerushalayim, a kiruv seminary, explains the misuse of inspiration to his class, warning them about its misuse as they begin to come closer to Torah. Some, he says, treat inspiration like drug they need to inject every so often: Rabbi! Help! I’m uninspired! Shoot me up! Please! And when the effect of the inspiration, the high, wears off, they come stumbling back in: Rabbi! Help! I can’t live with out it—shoot me up again! This, he explained, is not the correct usage of inspiration as it does not require actual work or growth.
It’s now about two weeks after Shavuos. Coming off of a whirlwind of spiritual inspiration, starting with Pesach, counting up through Sefiras HaOmer, and then Shavuos, we felt rejuvenated; refreshed in our relationship with Hashem; happy, committed and in love with the Torah. Full of inspiration, we launched back into our daily lives, bright and early Tuesday morning after Shavuos, sure that it would all be roses and sunshine…
…till the reality of the carpools, the overtired children who had to be sent off to school, the classes and exams that had to be made up, the too much time taken off of work that had to be explained and groveled over, and the reality of a sleep-deprived week where we were perpetually off a day (wait—tomorrow’s FRIday again??) hit us in the face.
Where has the inspiration of the Chag gone and what was its actual role, anyway?
Inspiration is a tricky thing. Let’s take a look the role inspiration played in a couple of key parts of the history of B’nai Yisrael and see what the message for us is.
Avraham Avinu knew his life’s work: he set out to attract the people around him to a life of monotheism. Through his acts of kindness and his teachings about the graciousness of Hashem, and by living an exemplary life, he hoped to influence the nations of the world. Indeed, the possuk refers to “ואת כל הנפש אשר עשו”, which literally translates as “and all the souls that they (Sara and Avraham) had made”. The commentaries here explain that these souls are the many people that Avraham Avinu and Sarah Imainu had attracted and brought in to Hashem’s service.
Oddly, we never hear about these souls, these people. As Sefer Breishis tracks the life of Yitzchak’s family, then later the travels of Yaakov and his family, we are not told explicitly what happened to those that Avraham had drawn closer. They are not mentioned in the story of the life of Yitzchak, nor do they descend to Egypt with Yaakov’s family. What happened to them?
It seems that these people were perhaps among the first to fall into the inspiration trap. They followed Hashem and chose monotheism in a polytheistic world based solely on the inspiration and the high they got from Avraham, failing to realize that inspiration on its own does not last. When Yitzchak Avinu took over the mantle of leadership from Avraham, his middah in serving Hashem was Yirah—a path of awe and discipline. The people that Avraham had drawn closer could only survive spiritually with the constant flow of inspiration from Avraham, and one-by-one they drifted away when it stopped.
Our question remains unanswered: what role should the inspiration of Avraham have played in their lives?
Let’s take a look now at the role inspiration played in Matan Torah.
BY FORCE OR BY CHOICE
There seems to be a readily apparent contradiction in the retelling of Matan Torah. One retelling has us, the B’nai Yisrael, happily and eagerly accepting the Torah, sight unseen, no questions asked. The other retelling is far more grim: Hashem upended the mountain and held it above our heads, telling us to accept or be buried on that spot.
So which is it?
When B’nai Yisrael saw the myriads of miracles and kindnesses that Hashem performed for them in the events of Yetzias Mitzrayim they were flying high and galvanized into action. They said נעשה ונשמע, declaring their readiness to unquestioningly accept the Torah. But these impassioned words were spoken out of extreme inspiration. Had they accepted the Torah based solely on the basis of that excited spark, their acceptance would have had with it an existential flaw: They would forevermore think that in order to keep the laws of the Torah they have to be inspired. When the day would come that the inspiration wasn’t there, the covenant would no longer seem binding to them. Love and inspiration alone were not the basis for the giving of the Torah and the eternal covenant that was forged because love and inspiration alone were not enough to sustain it.
The love of Hashem and B’nai Yisrael is often called a flame that burns hotly. This flame was ignited at Har Sinai, and continues to burn. Even when we don’t feel the fire and don’t feel at all inspired, deep down the effect of the inspiration is there.
But (as we’ve been asking all along!) what is its goal? Let’s take a break from the history of B’nai Yisrael and look at our own personal history—the history of each life as it starts in the womb.
BABIES IN THE WOMB
Imagine a baby, gently growing in his mother’s womb for nine gestational months. The baby is taught by an angel that reviews with him all of the Torah he will need for his life.
Seemingly, this is the perfect protection and guidance for this pure soul as he enters this world. One would think that the purpose of the angels presence is to guide and prepare the soul for the challenges of the physical world.
And yet, the baby is made to forget all that he has learned upon birth, when he would seem to need it most.
One can call the knowledge imparted by the angel inspiration. But just like the souls that Avraham made and just like the passionate fire of Matan Torah, this inspiration is short-lived. Why? Let’s finally uncover the role of inspiration and the key to its use.
ROLE OF INSPIRATION
Imagine setting out on a journey through a dark field at night. The sky is moonless and offers no guidance. As you struggle to find your way and cross the field, you’re aware of the many dangers around you: uneven ground and foliage that may cause you to stumble, pitfalls and cliffs that are unseen, and predators. Perhaps of even greater concern is the fear that you may get lost in your wandering and not make it across the field at all.
You’re tempted to give up and stop, as the darkness is all-consuming and seems infinite, but this journey is too great to give up on—it’s your whole life. So you stumble along, doing your best, making mistakes, but trying to learn from them too.
Once in a while, you’re granted a boon, a gift, from the Creator, Who is cheering you on and waiting to greet you once you have crossed the field and finished the journey. This gift comes in the form of a bolt of lightning that flashes across the sky, illuminating the field so all is visible: the pitfalls, the shortcuts, the predators, and the peace that awaits you at your destination. This bolt of lightning gives you renewed strength and purpose to continue on before it fades away, leaving you once again in the dark.
But you’re not the same person as you were before the flash of lightning. You’re stronger and more determined. Your sense of direction has been corrected, assuring that you’re on the right path as you forge ahead.
That is the role of inspiration.
We are all going through our own personal dark fields, as we attempt to navigate the course Hashem has set us on. We know the Torah is our guide and we struggle to implement it correctly and to live lives of yashrus and avodas Hashem. At times, we encounter set backs and pitfalls, and may even lose sight entirely of our goal.
Then there are the times when a bolt of lightning, a flash of inspiration is gifted to us to help us. Hashem grants us this inspiration, although we haven’t earned it, to give us a sneak peek of how to proceed. Thus, when we first take on an extra mitzvah, for example, Hashem gives us that lightning flash: we feel inspired and so happy, we easily and happily complete the mitzvah we’ve undertaken for a day…a week…perhaps a month with ease, almost effortlessly.
But the flash of lightning must fade away to restore the challenge of the playing field. Once Hashem has shown us what we are capable of and where we can go, that artificial high is taken away, to let us earn it back and truly soar.
The common thought is that a person tries to do mitzvos and tries to grow, even when uninspired. In reality, growth happens precisely at those times when we resume our struggle in the dark. We need that initial flash, the burning fire of inspiration, to redirect us and to make us aware of how high we can soar.
Let’s revisit each of our previous examples of inspiration and see how the role of the inspiration was fulfilled.
As we said previously, Avraham’s followers connected to Hashem, but only while constantly receiving inspiration from Avraham. They did not use that inspiration to move forward and grow; they did not use it as a guiding light to what they could achieve. They wanted the inspiration to be the goal, and did not believe that the yirah of Yitzchak had to follow.
In fact, the people of Avraham’s generation who had seen Avraham’s approach questioned Yitzchak’s paternity. Rav Hutner explains that they were questioning and deriding Yitzchak’s disciplined and severely regulated approach to avodas Hashem and denying that this was the intended outcome of Avraham’s inspiration.
But the Torah makes very clear that it is indeed so:
אלא תולדות יצחק בן אברהם אברהם הוליד את יצחק
These are the generations of Yitzchak, the son of Avraham. Avraham begat Yitzchak
By stressing and repeating what we already know, the Torah is telling us that the natural outcome, tolada, of Avraham is Yitzchak. (Likewise, Hashem made Yitzchak physically resemble Avraham as well.)
If the inspiration and passion of Avraham is not followed by the path of Yitzchak, there is no permanent covenant. As soon as one is uninspired, or just “not feeling it”, he feels he is no longer bound by it. Thus, all the followers that Avraham and Sara had made drifted off and did not stake an eternal claim in the Am Hashem.
In a previous article, we spoke about water, particularly buried water being symbolic of hidden spirituality (https://goo.gl/gyqRcG). The Torah tells us of the wells that Avraham dug. These are symbolic of the spiritual inroads he made with his middah of Ahava. These wells had to be re-dug by Yitzchak, an action that is symbolic of the the spiritual depth that his middah of yirah added.
When Yitzchak added the yirah, the regulated effort and discipline, to the original ahava, inspiration of Avraham, the wells became sustainable: Yaakov Avinu did not have to dig them again. (Side note: he did, however, have to roll the rock off of the well. This is not insignificant! The symbolic meaning will have to wait for a future article!)
Avraham’s original wells were re-filled with dirt by the Plishtim. This, explains the Shem M’Shmuel, is symbolic of the faded motivation and lackluster eagerness that replace the initial burst of inspiration when we start something new. Just as Yitzchak did not give up on Avraham’s wells, and instead restored them, when our inspiration fades, we’re not meant to give up on the mitzva, but rather to work to truly claim it.
Inspiration alone does not last, nor was it meant to. The actions we take, the dedication we show to avodas Hashem when that inspiration is absent is what is important.
An Eternally Ignited Flame
It is now clear why Matan Torah had to be forced and couldn’t be reliant on our sincere “נעשה ונשמע” alone. B’nai Yisrael at the time were already on an unearned high level, in the middle of the lightning bolt, you might say. They had been carried out ‘on eagles’ wings’, elevated to a high level without having earned it. Had they accepted the Torah at that time, they would have felt that the acceptance stipulated on that high feeling, instead of understanding that the inspiration is just there to show you a glimpse of what hard work can achieve.
The Torah and avodas Hashem that we undertake when uninspired, when we don’t feel at our best, is not only most conducive for growth, but it is a true sign of emunah and commitment to Hashem. The fire of love between Hashem and B’nai Yisrael that was ignited at Har Sinai continues to burn, though we don’t always feel it. By keeping the Torah when the inspiration fades, we are adding fuel to its flames.
At Har Sinai, B’nai Yisrael declared “נעשה ונשמע—we will do, even before we ‘hear’, before we seek to understand”. When we work hard to maintain levels we reached while inspired, even when we don’t “hear”–when it’s not resonating with our feelings—we are fulfilling נעשה ונשמע to the utmost.
So We Meet Again
A fetus is taught all the Torah by his angel and then ejected into the world, into the field he must cross. We questioned why it is that the Torah taught to him is erased from his conscious memory before his birth. Now it is clear: The knowledge imparted to him acts as the first bolt of lightning, a subconscious knowledge of how high to aim, but like all unearned highs, it does not last.
The Gr”a writes that the angel that will greet us in Heaven, the proverbial end of the field, is the same angel that taught us in the womb. He is the one who gave us the initial inspiration and glimpse of what we could achieve, and he is the one who can demand to know if we have indeed reached those heights.
(As a side note, this cycle of inspiration is not limited to the womb where the angel teaches us. Consider also the inspiration and passion that teenagers are gifted with. In our teens, we are gifted with vehemence and motivation, and feel energized and determined to change the world. That inspiration fades, as all inspiration is meant to, seemingly with age, but if we understand that it is there to show us what we can indeed do, it will galvanize us to work and perhaps fulfill a worthy dream.)
We started off this article with common examples of situations that truly inspire, causing us to mistake that inspiration for real growth. In truth, the inspiration fades really fast, and we haven’t grown at all…Unless we grab on to that inspiration and commit to a change. That commitment is not contingent on the inspiration, because the inspiration will fade, but, rather, it will act as the maintenance on that high level. If the inspiration is a few minutes of soaring, the maintenance, the change we make as a reminder, is us flapping our wings to maintain the heights we were placed at.
This past week held in it both the birthday and yartzhiet of Leah’s fourth son, Yehuda on ט“ו סיון. Upon his birth, Leah was inspired and thankful to Hashem. Left alone, that inspiration may have faded away to nothing but a fond memory over time. Leah seized the moment and named her son Yehuda, eternalizing her feelings of gratitude with action.
This week in Parashas Beha’aloscha, we are covertly told about an event Chazal call a tragedy. The possuk, in telling us about the travels of the aron uses the word “ויהי”, a word that is tied to tragedy. (There are in fact two tragedies that happen in the parasha, and this section about the aron separates them.)
The tragedy is found in a seemingly innocuous possuk: “’ויסעו מהר ה–and they traveled from the mountain of Hashem.” The tragedy is one that we actually touched on in a previous article (https://goo.gl/eXgFbt) and lays in the fact that Har Sinai did not retain any kedusha, any holiness, after Matan Torah. The possuk therefore has no reason to again call it har Hashem instead of simply Har Sinai, except to tell us B’nai Yisrael’s intention. Their intended purpose was to travel not simply from that location, but specifically away from the holiness they had experienced there. That was a tremendous tragedy. As their initial inspiration from Yetzias Mitzrayim faded, they did not seek to regain the heights they had reached, and instead sought to escape them, causing them to fall even lower.
Interestingly, in the second tragedy, the sin of the mis’oninim, those who complained, we see a Heavenly fire break out and punish the offenders. In this tragedy, which is conflated with that one by Chazal, there is no punishment. Why?
When one is treated by Hashem to experiencing highs and levels of holiness that he has not yet reached, it is a tremendous opportunity for growth. Our lives are given to us with purpose and only by seeing a glimpse of what we can attain can our inner fire be lit and our trajectory up begin. To waste that and to actively seek to move away from that is a sin. But it is also its own punishment…because nothing is sadder than a heart that knows what it’s thrown away.
Inspiration itself is not growth, but used correctly it is perhaps the biggest impetus to growth.
The beginning of the same parasha teaches us this lesson as well. Aharon observes the great role of the nesi’im as they bring their korbanos amidst much celebration. His heart yearns to be a part of that high as well. Moshe comforts him by telling him, “yours is greater than theirs—שלך גדול משלהם”.
The korbanos of the nesi’im were one time events, loaded with inspiration and energy. Aharon, on the other hand, was given the daily job of lighting the menorah. It’s easy to be inspired on the first day of a holy undertaking, and perhaps even a little longer. Aharon’s lot was greater because he had the challenge of maintaining his high, of conquering the apathy that sets in, tempting us to abandon the task or do it halfheartedly. Indeed, the possuk tells us that Aharon lit the menorah everyday with the same zeal as he had the first day: להגיד שבחו של אהרון שלא שנה
Let us not waste our opportunities. Next time we walk out of any amazing shiur, complete an uplifting Yom Tov, or experience anything that inspires us to change, let’s not let that inspiration fade away unnoticed. Let’s take advantage of that lightning bolt and plot a course of action! Let’s decide on a small, positive change and commit to it…and we will then merit to earn our highs and truly soar, conquering all that the angel prepared us for.
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