When it comes to spiritual growth, we naturally tend to want the process to look something like this:
A never-ending series of upward movements and experiences.
But in reality, spiritual growth on any level is more like this:
Yet, at times it can feel like this:
Life’s Ups and Downs
Real growth is a continuous journey that is full of ups and downs, highs and lows. There are times when we feel clear, confident, open, connected to ourselves, to those around us, and to HaShem. Then, there are those times when we feel lost, out of control, closed, confused, hopeless, and scared.
This is the innate nature of the world that HaShem created. While this pattern can be seen in many different facets of creation, such as night and day, and the waning and waxing of the moon, it is perhaps most strongly reflected in the yearly seasonal and agricultural cycles. Seeds are planted in the ground right before the onset of winter, where they immediately begin to disintegrate and break down. The trees shed their leaves, and many animals either migrate to warmer climates or go into hibernation. In the winter months, from the surface, the world looks dead.
But we know that springtime will come, and with it a sudden revival and renewal of life. If you live in an area where there are distinct seasonal changes, then you are witnessing this techiyas hamesim first hand every single year.
While the “winters” and “downs” may not be so pleasant to experience, they are nevertheless an essential part of growth, and how we handle those quieter, colder periods is just as important (if not more important) as what we do during the “ups.”
Without the Downs and the Falling, There Can’t Be Real Growth
כִּי נָפַלְתִּי קָמְתִּי כִּי אֵשֵׁב בַּחֹשֶׁךְ יְהֹוָה אוֹר לִי…
Because I fell, I rose up; if I sit in darkness, HaShem will be a light to me
One of the fundamental principals in Yiddishkeit is the concept of “yeridah l’tzorech aliyah,” which means there is no ascent (aliyah) without some prior descent (yeridah). Moreover, Chazal tell us that the lower the descent (i.e. the further a person is from emes, from HaShem, from his true self, and from others), the higher the potential ascent (i.e. the bigger his ability to come out of the experience making great spiritual leaps and bounds).
According to the Ohr HaChaim, when the Jews were in Egypt they had spiritually descended to the 49th level of tumah. Because of their journey to depths of tumah, they were able to take out the sparks of kedushah (“nitzotzei kedushah”) that were contained in each level and ultimately elevate them. The concept of “nitzotzei kedushah” basically means a higher understanding and connection to HaShem that then leads to greater emunah.
Had the Jews in Egypt entered the 50th level of tumah, however, they wouldn’t have been redeemed. Only with the power of Torah can the Jews successfully enter and leave the 50th level of impurity. But at that point, the Jewish Nation had not yet accepted the Torah.
HaShem thus waited until the final moment – until it became absolutely necessary for the Jews to leave immediately. Had the Jewish people stayed even one instant longer, they would have fallen into the spiritual abyss of the 50th level, and we would have been lost as a nation.
In the Merit of Emunah
What the Jews did have in Egypt, however, was emunah.
וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי בֶּאֱמוּנָה וְיָדַעַתְּ אֶת יְהֹוָה
And you will be betrothed to Me through emunah,
and you will know HaShem.
… וארשתיך לי באמונה. את מוצא שאין הגליות מתכנסות אלא בשכר אמוננה
וכן את מוצא שלא נגאלו אבותינו ממצרים אלא בזכות
האמנה שנאמר ויאמן העם
‘And you will be betrothed to Me through emunah’ -You will find that the in-gathering of the exiles happens only as a reward for emunah… . We thus find that our forefathers were redeemed from Egypt only in the merit of their emunah, as the verse states, “The nation had emunah.”
Yalkut Shim’oni, Remez 519
At its most basic level, emunah has several core elements including:
- Belief in HaShem’s existence
- Belief in HaShem’s providence over both worldly matters as well as in every detail of an individual’s life
- Belief in the Divine origin of the Torah
- Belief in the concept of reward and punishment in relation to our fulfillment of the Torah’s commandments
But more than this, emunah is an innate conviction, a perception of truth that typically transcends reason and the physical reality in front of us. It’s a connection to emes and to HaShem in a world of concealment, and it’s the fuel that propels us forward even when all the paths in front of us seem closed, hopeless, and forlorn.
The greatness of the generation in Egypt is that they were still able to connect to HaShem in some way even in the midst of the harsh exile, when all seemed lost, and HaShem’s Presence was hidden. This was no simple test, and the reality is that many did not pass it.
וַחֲמֻשִׁים עָלוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם
…and the children of Israel were armed [literally divided by five]
when they went up out of Egypt.
Even after witnessing the numerous wonders and the 10 plagues, even after coming face to face with the personal greatness of Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon HaKohen, even given the excruciating conditions under which they were living, there were many Jews who still had no desire to leave Egypt. According to Chazal, a full 80% of the nation were not worthy to be redeemed simply because they did not want to be. These individuals perished during the plague of darkness so that the Egyptians would not witness their demise. (Rashi 13:18, Mechilta)
Today, Chazal tell us that we are in that 50th level of tumah. Only in the merit of our emunah, specifically in this lowly state, will we be redeemed. This means, those who are able to truly connect to HaShem, His Torah, and his fellow Jews, today; those who continue on a personal journey of spiritual growth even at a time when all seems futile, hidden, closed and confused, they will be the ones who will usher in the Redemption.
This is the secret and power of Sefiras HaOmer.
Growing Through the Downs
Chazal tell us that during in the 49 days after yetzias mitrayim (which are represented by the seven weeks of the counting of the Omer) till the giving of the Torah on Har Sinai, the Jews were able to climb up the 49 levels of spiritual purity. Sefiras HaOmer is thus a special time for spiritual cleansing. Each and every day during this period represents another potential aspect of growth.
Amazingly, though, as the Jews made their spiritual climb in the midbar, the narrative of the Torah does not focus on the areas where they succeeded. Instead, we are presented with a series of national setbacks until the climatic battle of Amalek:
- Pharaoh drew near, and the children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold! the Egyptians were advancing after them. They were very frightened, and the children of Israel cried out to the Lord. Isn’t this the thing [about] which we spoke to you in Egypt, saying, ‘Leave us alone, and we will serve the Egyptians, because we would rather serve the Egyptians than die in the desert! Are there no graves in Egypt? Why did you take us out [of Egypt only] to have us killed in the desert?” (Shemos 14:10-13)
- They came to Marah, but they could not drink water from Marah because it was bitter; therefore, it was named Marah. The people complained against Moses, saying, What shall we drink? (Shemos 15:23-24)
- The entire community of the children of Israel complained against Moses and against Aaron in the desert. The children of Israel said to them, If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by pots of meat, when we ate bread to our fill! For you have brought us out into this desert, to starve this entire congregation to death (Shemos 16: 2-3)
- And Moses said to them, ‘Let no one leave over [any] of it until morning.’ But they did not obey Moses and left over [some] of it until morning, and it bred worms and became putrid, and Moses became angry with them. (Shemos 16:19-20)
- Six days you shall gather it [manna], but on the seventh day [which is the] Sabbath on it there will be none. It came about that on the seventh day, [some] of the people went out to gather [manna], but they did not find [any]. (Shemos 16:26-27)
- The entire community of the children of Israel journeyed from the desert of Sin to their travels by the command of the Lord. They encamped in Rephidim, and there was no water for the people to drink. So the people quarreled with Moses, and they said, Give us water that we may drink Moses said to them, Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord? The people thirsted there for water, and the people complained against Moses, and they said, Why have you brought us up from Egypt to make me and my children and my livestock die of thirst?… He [Moshe] named the place Massah [testing] and Meribah [quarreling] because of the quarrel of the children of Israel and because of their testing the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord in our midst or not?’ (Shemos 17:2-3; 7)
Even more surprising is that all of these challenges are primarily in the area of emunah. While they may have had emunah in Egypt, in the desert they now were expected to take that emunah to a new, higher level. After every instance when they questioned or doubted HaShem, they walked away with a deeper understanding of how HaShem runs His world- whether it’s that HaShem is involved in our daily affairs, or that He is not limited in the ways that He can provide for His creations, or it is the unique sanctity of Shabbos as the source of all brocha.
Only when the Jews were able to connect to Hashem and recognize that He is guiding every facet of their lives, big and small, with abundant chesod and rechamim, were they ready to receive the Torah.
Sefiras HaOmer: a Journey to Emunah
Life and healthy living, both in a physical and spiritual sense, are synonymous with continuous movement and growth. Where ever such movement is stunted, blocked, or impeded, the quality of our lives are compromised. Where ever we give up trying to fix the stagnation, then in those areas what we are really doing is giving up on life.
Our goal is to seek out and find the places where we are too indifferent, too scared, or too stubborn to challenge the status quo- the very places where we are stuck, blocked, and impeded. It’s from these very places that the true journey to spiritual growth and Kabbalas HaTorah begins, one small step and one day at a time.
That’s why the biggest thing that Amalak was able to accomplish was to literally “cool us off” on our journey from Eretz Mitzrayim (which literally means land of narrowness) to Har Sinai:
Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey out of Egypt, how they cooled you off on the way…
זָכוֹר אֵת אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לְךָ עֲמָלֵק בַּדֶּרֶךְ
בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ
So on one hand, we are not here in this world to just maintain the status quo. But, at the same time real growth is a combination of highs and lows, ups and downs. Whether or not we reach our goals is not up to us, as Chazal say:
לא עליך המלאכה לגמור
You are not required to complete the task.
(Pirkei Avos 2:21)
But what is up to us is where our hearts and heads are pointing, where we have set our sights, and where we are directing our feet. Are we aiming for Har Sinai or do we prefer to stay in narrow confines of Egypt? Life is one big, never-ending struggle, and the journey is almost never easy. But all of the ups and downs along the way are only there to bring out, bit by bit, the hidden strengths and potential and the wellsprings of emunah that lay dormant within us. All in order that we follow HaShem
בַּמִּדְבָּר בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא זְרוּעָה
“into the desert, in a land not sown” and know that even there, even in a place that seems barren, dry, and devoid of all life, the biggest light of emes can be found.