We experience life through the medium of time. Each new moment brings with it new opportunities as we ascend through this journey of time. Amidst these constantly moving waves of time, the chagim are specific and set points that carry with them unique energy. Each holiday presents us with the chance to tap into and experience the theme inherent to that point in time. Before we delve into the specific theme and uniqueness of Shavuos, we must first understand time in general.
The Nature of Time
The widely accepted understanding of time is that it moves in a straight line. Hashem created our world of space and time; and since its inception, time has been moving inexorably forward. Along this line of time is the past, the present, and the future. If we were to move backward along this line, we could peer through history and find Avraham Avinu at the Akeidah, Moshe Rabbeinu receiving the Torah, and the Rambam writing the Mishneh Torah. Our current experience is taking place in the middle of the line; and if we could move forward along the line, we would see events that have not yet occurred. However, there is a major contradiction to this theory.
There is a piyut in the Pesach Haggadah (U’v’chein Va’amartem) that describes how Avraham Avinu served matzah (unleavened bread) to the three mal’achim (angels) who visited him because it was Pesach at that time. Rashi (B’reishis 19:3) quotes this opinion and says that Lot served matzah to the mal’achim, as well, when they came to Sodom. How can this be? The mitzvah of matzah originates from the events of Y’tzias Mitzrayim, which would not occur for another two hundred years!
Circles in Time
In order to understand why Avraham and Lot served their guests matzah before the miracles of Pesach occurred, we must develop a deeper understanding of time. Time does not move along a continuous, straight line; it circles around in a repeating yearly cycle. As the Ramchal explains, Hashem created thematic cycles of time, and each point in the year contains unique spiritual energy.
This deep understanding transforms our perception of time. We don’t celebrate freedom each year on the 15th of Nisan because that’s when the Jews were freed from Egypt; rather, the Jews were redeemed from Egypt on the 15th of Nisan because that is z’man cheiruseinu, the time of freedom. This power of freedom allowed the Jews to escape the slavery of Mitzrayim, and this is why Avraham and Lot ate matzah long before Y’tzias Mitzrayim occurred. Matzah represents freedom, and Avraham and Lot tapped into the spiritual energy of freedom present at that point in time. Rather than commemorating a historical event, they were tapping into the deep energies of time already inherent at that point in the circle. So, too, when we celebrate each holiday, we do not simply commemorate a historical event; we tap into and experience the deep energies inherent at that point in time. Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkos, and all the chagim give us the opportunity to access unique spiritual energies in time.
Spirals in Time
However, even the circle analogy is limiting. If time were indeed a circle, each point of the year would simply be a repetition of that point from the previous year, from the previous lap around the circle. That would be pointless. We do not seek to re-experience the past each year. Our goal is to expand upon what we have created year after year, so that each time we return to that same point on the circle, we are on a fundamentally different level. Each Rosh HaShanah must be higher than the previous one – each Pesach a new Pesach, each Shavuos a new Shavuos, etc. Through our growth and ascension, we convert the two-dimensional circle into a three-dimensional spiral, traversing along the same circle to ever greater heights. We maintain circularity while achieving ascension.
Re-Experiencing Shavuos Every Year
Once we understand the concept of time, and the distinct opportunity and importance of tapping into the unique theme of each point of time in the systematic process of ascension, we must delve into the specific theme that Shavuos presents. What is the power and potential inherent in this time of the year, and how can we harness it to grow along our ascending, spiraling path?
On Shavuos, there is a custom to stand during the Torah reading. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (Harerei Kedem Vol. 2) explains that we stand during Torah reading on this day because we are recreating the experience of Matan Torah, when the entire Jewish People stood around Har Sinai to receive the Torah. On Shavuos, we do not simply remember what once occurred, we relive the experience as we tap back into the power of Kabbalas HaTorah, the receiving and the accepting of the Torah. We do not simply repeat this process each year; rather, we reaccept the Torah on an entirely new level, as fundamentally higher beings, growing through each revelation of Torah. Kabbalas HaTorah this year is at the same point along the circle as last year, but one rung higher on the spiral. We are truly receiving the Torah anew, in a new dimension of time and spiritual energy.
What Is Torah?
If Shavuos is the time of Kabbalas HaTorah, to truly understand what we are trying to experience on Shavuos, we must first understand what Torah is. Some may refer to the Torah as a history book; others may think of it as a book of law or a source of Jewish wisdom. While these are all true, they only scratch the surface of the Torah’s true nature. Torah is not simply a guide to living a life of truth within this world; it is the blueprint and DNA of the world itself. Our physical world is a projection and emanation of the deep spiritual reality described in the Torah. This is the meaning behind the famous midrash, “Istakel b’Oraisa u’vara alma – [Hashem] looked into the Torah and used it to create the world” (B’reishis Rabbah 1:1). Torah is the spiritual root of existence; the physical world is its expression.
Imagine a projector: The image that you see on the screen emanates from the film in the projector, so that everything you see on the screen is simply an expression of what’s contained within the film. So, too, every single thing that we see and experience in the physical world stems from the spiritual root – the transcendent dimension of Torah. To illustrate further, the trees you see outside originally stemmed from a single seed. Similarly, each and every one of us originated from a zygote, half a male and half a female genetic code. From that single cell ultimately manifested a fully developed and expressed human being. You are the expression of your original seed, just as the world is the expression of its original seed and root – the Torah. Thus, the world in which we live is an avenue to the spiritual; we can access the spiritual, transcendent world through the physical world because the two are intimately and intrinsically connected.
To relate to this concept, think of the way in which other human beings experience and understand you. All they can see of you is your physical body. They cannot see your thoughts, your consciousness, your emotions, or your soul. All they can see are your actions, words, facial expressions, and body language, i.e., the ways in which you express yourself within the world. They cannot see your inner world, but they can access it through the outer expressions that you project. The same is true regarding human beings trying to experience Hashem and the spiritual. We cannot see the spiritual; we cannot see what is ethereal and transcendent, only that which is physical. However, we can use the physical to access the spiritual; we can study the Torah’s expression in this world to understand its spiritual root.
The Gift of Torah
Hashem gave us the Torah in order to guide us on our spiritual journey in this world. Shavuos is therefore not a call to be transcendent, angelic beings, lofty and perfect, beyond the struggle innate within the human condition. This is not permission to deny our humanity and restrict our sense of self. This is a calling to be human, to be the ultimate human, to bring transcendence and spirituality into this world. We don’t aim to escape this world; we aim to transform it. K’dushah in not transcendence or escapism; it’s marrying transcendence with the immanent. This is what Torah teaches us: how to uplift our physical experience and connect it to the spiritual. When implemented correctly, Torah enables us to uplift every aspect of our worldly experience to something higher, holier, and more meaningful.
Our mission is to make this Shavuos the next step in our evolutionary spiral through time. We must not only reaccept what we have already accepted, we must take it to the next level, the next rung of the ladder. We do not simply remember, we build; we do not repeat, we ascend.
May we be inspired to accept the Torah this Shavuos with all of our heart, commit to living a life of Torah truth, and endlessly pursue higher and deeper perceptions of the physical world as an expression of a spiritual reality.
Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is the author of the bestselling book, The Journey to Your Ultimate Self, which serves as an inspiring gateway into deeper Jewish thought. He is an international speaker, educator, and the CEO of Self-Mastery Academy. After obtaining his BA from Yeshiva University, he received s’micha from RIETS, a master’s degree in education, a master’s degree in Jewish Thought, and then spent a year studying at Harvard. He is currently pursuing a PhD at UChicago. To invite Rabbi Reichman to speak in your community or to enjoy more of his deep and inspiring content, visit his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com.