Shavuos — The Intense Pain of Life, and Its Cure

The holiday of Shavuos, which begins this Saturday night, celebrates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Every year on the sixth of the hebrew month of Sivan, we commemorate the day that Moses ascended the mountain and God descended to meet him there to give to him a compendium of divine wisdom that would transform the universe. What is this thing called Torah that we commemorate receiving at this time? What does it do for us? Is it a gift or a burden? How does the receiving of the Torah make you feel? How should the receiving of the Torah make us feel?

In the simplest sense, Torah is understood as a book of stories and laws. It records history and it prescribes commandments. It instructs us how to live, and it promises reward for proper behavior and threatens punishment for deviance.

What does such a conception of Torah inspire one to feel about its reception?

There is a chassidic greeting for the holiday of Shavuos in which we offer each other the hope that we should “mikabeil Torah b’simcha u’b’pnimyus” — may you receive the Torah with great joy and with innermost depth. This wish is not intended as a superficial salutation, but a profound and heartfelt hope and intention for the occasion. Does one feel tremendous happiness in the deepest core of his being when s/he receives a book of history and law?

This question is certainly reductive and simplistic. The Torah is clearly no mere book of stories and directives. To believers, it contains the will and wisdom of God; even to non-believers it is at least a profound work of literature with many layers of depth and insight which has sold far more copies — and influenced world (or at least western) culture far more significantly — than any other book. Such a work, then, is surely a gift. We would expect to feel gratitude for its giving then. We would obviously celebrate the transmission of such a rare and precious gift with joy and appreciation. But do we really “mikabeil Torah b’simcha u’b’pnimyus”? How great is our joy, and how deeply do we feel it?

Furthermore, if we are to be really honest with ourselves, we might admit that there is something about this “gift” which feels less generous than gratuitous — as if in a subtle way, though we might hate to admit it, the Giver of the gift seems to get more out of it than we, the recipients, do. I’m giving you the gift of my laws, the Giver tells us. Keep them, and I will be good to you. Defy them, and you will feel my wrath. Thank you for these golden handcuffs, we might respond, they are clearly worth a fortune, but they are strangely more restrictive than the jewelry I have been given in the past. Torah, with all of its rules and restraints, may often feel like more of a burden than a gift. If so, then how much joy do we really sense on the day of its giving?

In order to experience great simcha/joy in the depths of our being on Shavuos, we must understand what Torah truly and ultimately is. In truth, Torah is more than a rule book, and more than a chronicle of historic events. It is more than a compendium of divine wisdom, and more than an instruction manual that tells us how the game works and how to best play it. Torah is the means by which we can transform an existence of potential pain, confusion and alienation into one of tremendous meaning, significance, and joy. The day we received the Torah is the day that our reality transitioned from constant detachment and struggle to the possibility of integration and peace.

What is the pain that we experience prior to the giving of the Torah, and what is the incredible relief and resolution that the Torah provides?

Life is hard. Do you know anyone who thinks it’s easy? There may be those who make it look easy, but looks, as we know, are deceiving. There is no one who doesn’t suffer. There are those who suffer more obviously, and there are those who more successfully conceal their suffering, both from others and often from themselves. We have developed ingenious methods of covering over and distracting ourselves from the pain of life. But the pain persists, even, and often moreso, when it is repressed and ignored.

What is the cause of all this pain and suffering? The mystics explain that it is the duality of our existence. On the one hand we are physical creatures, drawn toward material pleasures and personal gratification. On the other hand, we are spiritual beings, pulled toward something ineffable and transcendent, aware that there is more to us and to life than what we see and seem. There is a gravity that pulls us downward, and a simultaneous spirituality that draws us upward. We may not understand these forces fully, but we feel their pull on us, their constant tug-of-war, the friction and tension of trying to negotiate these two competing attractions.

Those who indulge in the pursuit of physical pleasures and material gain ultimately know that they have amassed much but gained nothing. The void that they have struggled to fill with possessions will never be sated. Those, on the other hand, who divorce themselves from the world and seclude themselves in asceticism and abstinence may have mastered their passions and abnegated the pain of desire and attachment, but they have also shut themselves off from the pleasures that life affords and the opportunities to influence and transform their surroundings. Could it be that the purpose of life is to leave it behind? If so, then what is the point of being alive if our goal is to live as if we were dead? This purposelessness is itself a form of deep suffering. It too derives from the inability to reconcile the duality of our existence.

The great tension and angst of our lives is the difficulty of going beyond the world while simultaneously living within it. We must be in the world, but not of the world. We are divine, and concurrently human. It would be so much easier to be one or the other. The pain is the struggle to reconcile the two. How are we supposed to do so? Where can we find the wisdom that will enable us to be both?

Shavuos is in Sivan, the third month of the Jewish year. Torah is divided in three parts, referred to as TaNaCH, an acronym for Torah (the five books of Moses), Neviim (Prophets), and Ketuvim (writings). The Jewish people is comprised of three general categories, Kohanim (priests), Levites, and Israelites. The Torah was given through Moses, the third child (after his brother Aaron and his sister Miriam). The sages ask why all of these threes are associated with Torah and its transmission. After all, if Torah was intended to bring unity to the creation, then wouldn’t it make more sense for a one-part work to have been given in the first month through a firstborn to a singular people?

The number three, the chassidic masters respond, alludes to a deeper level of unity than the number one. Three represents the unification of two opposites. Three symbolizes the synthesis of a thesis and its antithesis. Synthesis is the power to fuse opposites, which is a far greater and deeper quality than the ability to exist with no tension of challenge.

True peace is not the absence of conflict, nor the transcendence of it. It is the integration and reconciliation of opposing forces. True infinity does not negate the finite — if infinity is not also finite, then there is something that it is not, and therefore it is neither infinite or finite.

Torah is the divine wisdom that enables us to be a soul within a body, to make peace between the two without nullifying either, to be both infinite and finite simultaneously. It teaches us how to go beyond ourselves without negating ourselves. It prescribes a suite of physical actions, mitzvos, which allow us to transform the world by interacting with it. It teaches us that the world is holy, that our bodies are temples, that we are here to be godly and human at once.

The intense joy of receiving the Torah is the cessation of the torment that plagues us on account of our apparent duality. Before we had the Torah, we had no way of soothing that pain. On Shavuos, on Mount Sinai, God gifted us with a way out of the pain and a way into the greatest pleasure — the ability to be all of who we are, to engage every aspect of our being, to cast off shame and negativity and to know that we are good and godly even in our human imperfection. This is what Torah is b’pnimyus, in its essence. This is what we are b’pnimyus, in our essence. This is the great simcha/joy of receiving the Torah.

While Torah was given originally on Shavuos nearly three and a half millennia ago, it is continually given every day and every moment. This is why we say in our daily prayers “Blessed are you God, who GIVES us the Torah” (and not who GAVE us the Torah). For those of us who continue to feel the pain of life’s duality and tension — and those who are attuned to the voice of their soul are often the ones who experience the struggle most — Shavuos is an opportune moment to celebrate the gift that we are given, and every day is an opportunity to receive the gift anew. We do so by opening the Torah and plumbing its depths to find within them the pathway to our own depths and the great joy and peace that are revealed there.

May we all mikabeil Torah b’simcha u’b’pnimyus!

Marc Erlbaum is a filmmaker and social activist.

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