May 27, 2024
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Post Yom Tov Reflections: The Spiritual Journey From ‘I’ to ‘You’

In listening to the Torah readings during the festive Yom Tov of Sukkot, it occurred to me that the bookend sefarim of Bereishit and Devarim offer us a paradigm for the lifelong spiritual journey mankind is expected to traverse. Moreover, I believe it is for this reason that Bereishit and Zot HaBracha are conjoined in the Torah reading on Simchat Torah. Indeed, the true simcha experienced on this Yom Tov is when we realize the extent of the “gain” after all the “pain” we may experience in our own spiritual journeys. Rabbi Ephraim Sprecher, in his weekly parsha class in Yerushalayim, offers us insights on the beginning of this voyage. He starts by raising and responding to a question I never considered in all the years of learning Parshat Bereishit. He wonders why the word adama, soil, referring to the physical source from which man was formed, was used in naming the first human being on this earth. This is paradoxical, since it was in fact the neshama, the holy soul that Hashem blew into Adam, that distinguishes mankind from the animal species. Rabbi Sprecher puts this dilemma into perspective by pointing out that it is as if Hashem called Adam “Earth Man,” rather than “Soul Man.” As a result, it might appear that the physical aspect of man is more significant than his spiritual essence in the eyes of God.

In responding to this dilemma, Rabbi Sprecher offers us a metaphor that helps us understand Hashem’s rationale in the naming of Adam. He explains that if we look at the words “soil” and “soul,” we recognize that there is a single letter in each of the words that distinguishes one from the other; the “I” in Soil, and the “U” in soul. I believe this speaks to the overarching challenge we experience in nurturing and growing our neshamot, our holy souls, which is only potential from the start. Viewed through this lens, when Adam and Chava resided in Gan Eden, the most prominent part of their character was the “I,” as found in the word “soil.” This was because in Gan Eden, Hashem offered them “life on a silver platter,” all for the “taking” in satisfying their own needs and wants. At that point in time, the “you” was all but absent in their interactions. It was only after the couple’s expulsion from Paradise that they began to develop a basic awareness of the “other” in their relationships and the act of “giving”—as they served God, and tended to one another, their children and the land.

The first glimpse of progress in man’s spiritual development is reflected at the point in Bereishit where Adam named Chava. If we recall Adam’s response when Hashem challenged him with his betrayal, he not only impugned Chava, but also blamed God Who gifted him with this wife. Yet, when it came time to name his wife, the name he gave her, “Chava,” translated as the “mother of all living things,” was a show of appreciation as well as forgiveness. In calling her Chava, Adam teaches us two of the most critical ingredients in successful relationships: appreciation and forgiveness. Indeed, through the acts of forgiveness and appreciation, Adam was able to let go of his anger; this in turn opened the door for him to truly look at the essence of Chava and to understand the mission for which she was created.

While the above insights on the creation of mankind gives us a good start as we begin our yearly spiritual journeys, we are once again reminded that the Torah is a “gift that keeps on giving.” This is where the conjoined readings on Simchat Torah come in. It occurred to me that on this Yom Tov, prior to reading about the beginning of man’s spiritual journey, we get a bird’s-eye view of Moshe finding the proverbial “gold at the end of the rainbow.” In Sefer Devarim he taught Bnei Yisrael every strategy they would need in order to remove every speck of “soil” that could taint their “souls” and prevent them from achieving success in their spiritual goals; and it is in Parshiot Vayeilech, Ha’azinu and Zos Ha’Beracha that Moshe reaches the peak of the last mountain he is to climb. As we know, it is Moshe Rabbeinu; that is the name he is remembered by until this day. This is because his role as a rebbe, the teacher par excellence that would instruct Bnei Yisrael to become God-fearing Jews, that took prominence over his role as leader of the Jewish nation

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in an article in “Torah Tidbits,” eases our way to achieving this goal; he does so by offering us a chance at finding the proverbial “Fountain of Youth,” at least from a spiritual perspective. He begins by eloquently raising several essential questions that are particularly salient to those of us in our senior years: 1) What is one to do when one has achieved his or her life’s dreams, but is not yet ready to settle down into a passive mode of retirement? 2) What do we do as age lengthens its shadow, the sun sinks, and the body is no longer as resilient or the mind as sharp as it once was? 3) “What will keep us young in spirit even if the body does not always keep pace? 4) How can I contribute to the world? 5) What trace will I leave to those who live on after me? And 6) What in the world is better because of me?

In responding to these questions, Rabbi Sacks offers us some current and doable Torah-based solutions to avoid the pitfalls of aging. He does so by examining the text in the final parshiot in Sefer Devarim. He begins by referencing Rashi on some of the introductory pesukim in Parshat Vayeilech, where Moshe admits his failing capabilities: “I am now 120 years old and I can no longer come and go, and the Lord has told me, ‘You shall not cross this Jordan.’” He references Rashi’s explanation of the words “I can no longer go….” and offers a deeper meaning to the message Moshe is imparting with these words. According to Rabbi Sacks, the message here is not meant to suggest that Moshe was losing the physical strength to actualize his dream of entering the Promised Land. Rather he is letting the nation know that despite his physical resiliency and strong desire to realize his dream, he is unable to fulfill his lifelong dream; this is because it is not part of Hashem’s plan for him. With these words, Moshe expressed his acceptance that leading the nation into the Promised Land was no longer his mission, and that he was at peace with this change in his journey. Moshe understood his spiritual “GPS” was now directed toward passing on his legacy, and handing over his torch of leadership to Yehoshua. He was no longer focused on his own part in the transition of the nation, but on offering his guidance and know-how to his disciple Yehoshua.

Based on these insights, Rabbi Sacks presents us with the proof text, consistent with the stage of “generativity,” the seventh of eight stages of psychosocial development first advanced by the well-known psychologist Dr. Erik Erikson. During this stage, mankind moves from a focus on progressing through the stages of his own psychosocial development to focusing on the “legacy” he would pass onto his children, grandchildren and community. This is exactly the stage that is reflected in Moshe’s transformation as he accepts Hashem’s plan for him. He no longer continues to plead with God to reverse His decree and allow him to enter the Promised Land. Instead, Moshe shifts his focus from fulfilling his own dreams to preparing Yehoshua, his disciple, in finishing the job he began and leading the nation as they enter, conquer and settle the land. If we consider this sequence in Moshe’s spiritual journey, we see that it is also consistent with Rabbi Sprecher’s analogy of shifting one’s focus from the “I” to the “you,” from the “receiver” and “achiever” to the “giver.”

In this post-Yom Tov transition, as we enter a new beginning in our yearly spiritual journey, the lessons gleaned from the conjoined Parshiot of Zot HaBracha and Bereishit offer us a strategic starting point in this process, and we don’t have to be a Moshe Rabbeinu to accomplish the task of reaching the peak and achieving the ideal. All we have to do is be ourselves, identify our tasks, and use our God-given talents, proclivities and resources in achieving success. Let us remember that we are all cogs in a shared mission, and all we have to do is discover and complete our own mission, as well as connecting with and inspiring others to do their part. If we stick to this plan, I have no doubt that Hashem will do His part as well.

By Renee Nussbaum


Renee Nussbaum is a practicing psychoanalyst with training in Imago and EFT. She also facilitates a chavruta in cyberspace on the weekly parsha, edited by Debbie Friedman. She can be reached at [email protected].

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