Torah and Rebirth
by Rabbi Haim Lifshitz
* a reference to the Almighty –“Ha’Makom”
The festival of Shavuot is concerned with the emergence of a qualitative reality from the ground of freedom – freedom acquired via the festival of Pesach. The experience of time works to negate this emergence. Indeed, we serve Time rather than serving the Space.*
Why? Because time cancels our notion of being in control of our own existence. We are carried along by time; we can neither stop its inexorable advance nor turn it back. The ambition to realize human potential, when it does not include control over the dimension of time, must be considered a failure. The Torah does not intend that the dimension of time – which escorts man through life willy nilly – should be ignored. To the contrary, the Torah places a great deal of emphasis on methodology for engaging the dimension of time. The range of such methodologies is comprehensive and covers the gamut of Tora life: from the manner of one’s relating to the practical commandments (Mitzvot) – wherein the element of time plays a key role, to the devices described in the Torah for integrating time into one’s personal reality – a reality which is meant to control time, infusing it with its own quality, values and content.
In respect of Time, its unique constructions and its exclusive class of influence, the Torah has allocated a complete Mitzva – the Counting of the Omer. This Mitzva is meant to penetrate to the specific component elements of which Time is constructed – the countable days and weeks, infuse them with the qualitative significance of Man and thereby incorporate them into an existential system that is meaningfully under his control. This parallels the general principle established by the Creator, that, so long as Man is properly engaged in generating such qualitative significance, the elements of mechanistic force in Creation may be controlled and indeed stand only to serve that quality. In a similar vein we have elsewhere explained the promise of longevity found in the Gemara Berachot to one who regularly completes the weekly parsha – “Twice the Scriptural text and once the Targum” – as an imperative to introduce Torah content into the dimension of time structured as weekly units. Thus does Man bestow the qualitative value of Torah on the dimension of time, thereby incorporating it into the Service of the Almighty; Time is not left to the imposition of the merely physical – the mundane and the arbitrary.
Mastery of time is an essential pre-requisite for the achievement of a goal even more significant – the commandment to renew, to be born afresh, to be altogether unsatisfied with the mere fact of one’s biological birth – a birth that can remain thoroughly bereft of the redemption of free choice. The status of one’s personal reality, the standing one has as a citizen of the universe, is not fixed. It is neither a datum of one’s birth, nor is it necessarily acquired as a function of environmental influence. We have been taught, “Take care with the sons of the poor, for it is from them that Torah will emanate,” viz. the acquisition of Torah standing is not determined by the environmental or the hereditary. To the contrary, it is fundamentally rooted in the obligation to exercise free choice. Torah is both the essential ingredient and the primary catalyzer in the birthing of one’s personal reality, an ongoing birth that constantly renews – in quality, originality and scope of achievement.
This view is rather different from common, everyday assumptions. Conventionally, a person develops a sense of self, based on career as well as national, ethnic and religious associations. Little, if any, attention is given to the changing quality that is being continuously created along the course of one’s existential path. It is this essence of accumulated experience, precipitating as it does to the base layers of one’s personality, which branches forth to color one’s views, relationships and indeed one’s response to all that transpires in the surrounding reality. A person’s views are not determined as a direct function of stimuli in the environment. Rather, they are fundamentally mediated by the qualitative existential essence that is created within. This essence is the fruit of an ongoing creative process that is willfully enacted via the exercise of choice.
The above-described quintessential humanness constitutes an original point of departure for processing the information of one’s environment; in its crucible the perceived facts of practical, theoretical and spiritual reality become plastic and are uniquely imprinted by that humanness – effectively governing their effect on one’s beliefs, behavior and even physical health. Thus, people will process the food they ingest with an individual qualitative response, with differing responses resulting in benefit to one, yet harm to another. Likewise will each individual respond to the same surgical procedure in a unique way. More obviously, each student will absorb different meanings and benefit in different ways from the same academic material.
The qualitative human essence we have been describing develops and is renewed primarily through the study of Torah.
Rabbi Y. Gottlieb