Ascent or Descent

June 24, 2009

8 min read


Mishpatim (Exodus 21-24 )

Torah is the very lifeblood of the Jewish people.

Rabbi Sima'i taught: At the moment the Jewish people answered "Na'aseh ve'nishma - We will fulfill and learn the Torah," 600,000 angels descended and crowned each Jew with two crowns, one for na'aseh and one for nishma. (Talmud - Shabbos 88a)

The commentaries have discussed at length the greatness the Jewish people exhibited by committing themselves to fulfill the Torah, even before asking to hear what it contained. We can appreciate the precious crown earned for the unconditional commitment to submit totally to God's will with perfect faith. What, however, was the significance nishma – "we will learn"? Was this not merely an inevitable sequel to the commitment? Obviously, to be able to do, they had to know what was demanded. What is the true significance of this second crown and what does it teach us?

Our sages tell us that the Ten Commandments were uttered by God to each Jew with varying intensity, according to the capabilities and potential of each individual. Thus, each one was spoken to by God on his level. Yet as each utterance went forth, the people were so overcome that their souls left them and God had to resurrect them (Talmud - Shabbos 88b). If the commandments were in fact communicated on the level of each individual, why didn't each one hear at precisely the intensity he could take without his soul leaving him?

To resolve this seeming contradiction, we must understand what it means to speak about "the level" of a Jew. What the Midrash refers to as a Jew's true level is his or her ultimate potential with maximum effort. There is a vast expanse between one's actual achievement and his true potential. The intensity of the voice was geared to the potential, and it was precisely the revelation of that expanse between what they were then and what they could be that caused their souls to depart.

Our ancestors stood at Sinai and accepted the Torah totally and unconditionally. In order for this commitment to be meaningful, however, they had to be willing to grow and mature in Torah - to realize that they had taken just the first step. They had to recognize that a Jew must constantly improve his Torah observance. This was the declaration of nishma - we will constantly be open to learn more in order to elevate ourselves, rung after rung, toward fulfillment of the ultimate Torah potential each of us possess.

Rabbi Akiva continued to study and teach Torah even when it was outlawed by the Roman government under penalty of death. When Papus ben Yehuda charged him with endangering his life in an irresponsible way, Rabbi Akiva answered him with the following allegory:

A fox drinking from a pond noticed the fish scurrying about in obvious consternation. "What frightens you, little fish?" asked the fox.

"We are afraid of the nets of the fishermen," replied the fish. "We do not know where they will fall to trap us."

"Why be so frightened?" advised the fox. "Perhaps I can assist you. Leave your pond, and come up on dry land and I will protect you."

"Foolish fox," exclaimed the fish. "If we are afraid and insecure in the water, in the environment that provides our very lifeblood, how much more so would we be out of our element?"

Torah is the very lifeblood of the Jewish people. Without its study and observance, we are like fish out of water. What security can be obtained by emerging from total immersion in the waters of Torah?

The Midrash tells us that the allegory must be taken yet one step further. Fish constantly immersed in water have a very peculiar nature. When it rains, the fish ascend in a frenzy to the top of the water as the droplets hit the water, to hungrily receive yet another drop of rain. They are not content with the endless supply of water that engulfs them. So, too, the Jew engulfed and immersed in Torah must nevertheless be hungry to ascend to new levels in Torah learning and observance.

Man is referred to as one who walks, as opposed to the angels who are referred to as those who stand still. Man by his very nature must constantly strive to perfect himself. When he is not ascending upward, he is of necessity descending. One is either growing or stagnating; there is no in-between. The analogy may be made to one trying to walk up a down escalator. If he stands still, he descends; if he walks normally, he remains stationary; and only if he puts in the effort to run, will he advance.

This constant desire and striving for more lofty levels of Torah observance is not merely commendable. Without it one finds oneself descending into a well of bitterness and a contempt for Torah and those who learn it - a contempt spawned by one's own guilt over failing to realize his true potential.

Rashi says that the verse (Leviticus 26:3), "If you walk in the laws of Torah," refers to striving in Torah. One must invest his entire energy and effort into Torah learning and observance. But what if he does not? The Torah charts for us seven phases that man will pass through if he satisfies himself with anything less than the realization of his full potential.

"If you will detest my Torah and refuse to learn," explains Rashi, inevitably you will not fulfill the Mitzvot properly. You will be ignorant of the basic details of Torah observance and not appreciate their beauty and significance. Guilt will swell up within you when you see others who do observe the Mitzvot properly. Instead of trying to emulate those more scrupulous than you in observing the Mitzvot, guilt creates a feeling of revulsion. "Fanatic!" - this is the vocabulary of a guilty conscience, of a person who deep down inside knows that he is not honest with himself.

And from there you will descend yet further to a hatred for the teachers and rabbis who exhort the Jewish people to reach their potential, who teach Torah without compromising it or diluting it, and whose task it is to constantly encourage, prod and rebuke those that they lead. These leaders are a threat to one's contentment. They are a thorn that digs deeply and painfully into the recesses of one's conscience. The individual reacts with hate and bitterness to divert and camouflage the guilt.

The descent continues. The most effective way to soothe the guilty conscience is to surround oneself with others who share the same shortcomings. One attempts to convince others to minimize their level of observance, using all sorts of methods to discourage them from being more observant, more careful. Mockery, sarcasm, Loshon Hara, even slander are all utilized to make intensive Torah observance something to be avoided. And the Yetzer Hara permits one to rationalize that the intentions are purely for the sake of Heaven, for the good of all.

Finally, when all these methods fail to ease the conscience fully, when one is confronted with the reality that the Torah demands constant improvement, the only way out is to consciously or subconsciously negate the total validity of the Mitzvah - its Divine origin. "It's only a stringency"; "it's only one opinion"; "it's not my custom." These are the slogans of such negation.

And when this cannot be done successfully, when it is clear that the areas of laxity are not in stringencies or customs, or dependent on one opinion among the rabbis, but are laws binding on all, then the seventh rung downward is reached and the cycle completed. One becomes a denier of fundamental principles of faith, and denies the importance of the Mitzvah itself. He shrugs off his non-observance with, "It's only a Mitzvah. One can't do everything." Thus by denigrating the importance and centrality of any Mitzvah, one in fact denigrates the importance and centrality of the Commander Himself, denying that He is the central, most important factor in one's life.

A person can start with a staunch 99 percent Torah observance. Yet if he rejects the necessity to constantly improve and elevate himself, in the one percent where this resistance exists, he will begin his inexorable descent into these seven tragic phases.

This bleak picture Rashi paints for us is so painfully true to life that we must all feel both shocked and inspired when confronted with these holy words. We who are committed to Torah must be crowned with the na'aseh and the nishma. We must realize that the ba'al teshuva movement is not limited to estranged and alienated Jews, but we must all be ba'alei teshuva, ever striving to return to the levels of perfection that every Jew is capable of reaching.

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