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Reach for the Stars; Potential

Written by d fine

There is a fascinating and dazzling midrash on the second pasuk of our sedra. The pasuk relates HaShem’s command to Moshe to tell the Bnei Yisrael that ‘they should be holy, because I HaShem Your G-D am holy’ (19;2). Why does the pasuk speak about HaShem’s holiness here? Rav Henoch Leibowitz quotes a midrash on this verse (vayikra rabbah 249;9) which explains “you might think that you can be as holy as I (G-D) am, therefore the Torah says ‘because I am holy;’ My holiness is superior to yours.” Rav Leibowitz points out the potent question here; the midrash has said that HaShem said ‘for I am holy’ in order that we should not make the mistake of thinking that we can equal HaShem’s holiness – but would any human really feel that they can be on par with HaShem’s holiness? Answers Rav Leibowitz that yes, indeed, if one were truly aware of their potential and ability to express and live in sync with their neshama, then indeed such a thought is possible. And to support this he quotes another midrash which notes that the angels initially thought that Adam HaRishon was G-D, and wanted to pay him homage until Adam pointed out their error. Finally, he cites that the Alter of Slabodka would say that it is within human capacity and capability to reach the pre-sin level of Adam HaRishon, as did occur when the Jews accepted the Torah by saying naaseh venishma. (Chidushei HaLev 87; I saw Rav Henoch quoted in ‘Angels Don’t Leave Footprints’ by Rabbi Twerski, page 47) In short, one’s potential is indeed G-D-like to a certain extent, and we should be aware of that.

Rav Aharon of Karlin was asked by his Chassidim what the greatest sin is. After thinking intently for a few minutes, he lifted his head and remarked that the greatest sin is to forget that one is the son of the King – let us suggest that one of the pitfalls of forgetting your status as the son of the King is that one does not have a full concept of what their potential is, and thus will often fail to fulfil/realise this potential.

In fact, if one looks closely one can notice that they have a great spiritual potential. For example, on Yom Kippur we repent and promise that we will not repeat our sins. But who are we kidding; the next day we are probably going to sin again – what gives us the right to promise on Yom Kippur not to sin again; isn’t this a lie? The answer is that it is not a lie whatsoever – deep down we have a clear consciousness of what is right and wrong, and deep down we therefore do not want to sin again. On Yom Kippur we reach the level whereby we access this deep consciousness and reach a genuine spiritual level where we would not sin again. Thus, on the level we are at on Yom Kippur we are correct in promising not to sin again. The only problem is that the next day we fall again to a lower spiritual level, and at is when we are at this lower level that we sin.

Another time we access this deep level of consciousness is Purim. [It is not such a surprise that Yom Kippur and Purim go together in this respect, for the two are connected; Yom Kippur is called Yom Kippurim (lit. ‘a day like Purim’) and both are times of Teshuva – Yom Kippur focuses more on Teshuva done out of fear, whilst Purim sees Teshuva done out of love] The phrase in the gemarra referring to the Purim seudah is ‘one should get drunk until he does not know (yada) to distinguish between cursed is Hamman and blessed is Mordechai.’ (megillah 7b) This is not necessarily to be taken literally; after all, how can one deliberately put themselves into a position to confuse Hamman – amalek; evil embodied – with the righteous Mordechai who was one of the anshei kenesses hagdolah who set the texts of our tefillah? Rather, the key phrase used is until one doesn’t know (yada). Yediah means to become one with subject in question; for example the pasuk says ‘and Adam knew his wife Chavah and she gave birth to Kayin’ (Bereishis 4;1); this means the bonding into one between Adam and Chavah. Similarly, one does not know who they are via external proofs – they know themselves because they have an innate consciousness and awareness of who they are. This is da’as / yediah. Thus, getting drunk on Purim so ‘one does not know between cursed Hamman and blessed is Mordechai’ means that one has reached so far down into one’s subconscious self [which has an instinctive knowledge of right and wrong] that one cannot join up (yada) between evil and good; they are so clear and far apart in one’s mind. The point is that we have the potential for doing good consistently; we just need to realise and activate it. Likewise, the Rambam (hil. de’os 6;7) tells us that when one sins, they are ‘sinning to themselves,’ (‘choteh al atzmo‘) since the loss in fulfilling that potential occurring at that moment is a sin to and betrayal of oneself – to who one really is deep inside and thus who one is meant to be.

The parable is given of a chicken farmer who welcomed a visitor to stay on his farm. Upon touring the farm together, the visitor noticed that amongst all the chickens there was an eagle, and notified the farmer. But the farmer would not accept this ‘diagnosis;’ he insisted that though this bird looked a bit like the odd one out, it was nonetheless a chicken like all the others. Eager to prove his point, the guest got up in the middle of the night, crept quietly to the chicken coops, and made his way over to where the eagle was kept . He took the eagle out of its coop and perched it on his hands. ‘Fly, fly, my eagle’ the visitor said – but the eagle merely hopped up and down and did not extend its wings – after all, it thought it was a chicken like all the rest, and had not been trained to know how to fly, let alone knowing that he could indeed fly. Only after a few minutes of its newfound freedom did the eagle spread its wings and fly away into the distance – finally realising that it was an eagle after all. (‘Shabbs Stories’ by Rabbi Shimon Finkelman; page 67) The message is that we also fail to notice our potentials by not looking close enough at our spiritual makeup and reality; we must also ‘let the eagle spread its wings and fly’- by accessing our potential.

In fact, this is one explanation as to why a baby is taught Torah in its mother’s womb, only to forget it immediately upon coming into the world. The idea is that the baby should have a moment of actualising his potential in Torah. This potential is then buried deep into the child’s subconscious, for him to be aware of, and ultimately actualise in his life.

As we said, this awareness of potential does surface now and again. We have mentioned Yom Kippur and Purim, but there are also exceptional circumstances when one becomes aware of the importance and existence of one’s potential. For example, the gemarra (avodah zara 17a) tells of Rebbi Eliezer ben Dordiya, who sank to low levels of immorality in having relations with different women. After meeting up with one woman, who told him that there is no way that he can do teshuva. Immediately, he left and davened to be accepted in teshuva, and put his head between his knees and cried until his soul left him – and a voice came out and announced that Eliezer ben Dordiya has obtained the title ‘Rabbi,’ and is invited to Olam Haba. This was from one moment of noticing his potential and weeping for its loss to such an extent that this was a full teshuva out of love, and he was accepted into the next world. And one may ask why the gemarra details him putting his head between his knees? The answer fits with what we said above; a baby in its womb is also curled into a ball like that with its head next to its knees. Rebbi Eliezer ben Dordiya was getting back to his innate consciousness of right and wrong and reaching his potential in Torah, just like a baby has. He was connecting back to his potential; so should we.

Have a great Shabbes,

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