Shavuot: Awe vs. Love of God: Part Six
Transcribed by Daniel Goldman from a shiur delivered on 18 May 1999: There’s more. This is such a subtle point, and it’s so important. For Orthodox Jews, it is so basic. This is where the Kotsker Rebbe went insane. The Kotsker said, “Oy, I work so hard…what, you’re working so hard? Then you’re not working! Because you’re taking the credit for yourself! You’re in the way of yourself! What happens eventually if you live like that? You go mad! Or, “Ah…that’s a great davening! That’s a great davening? It was self-serving! Aha! You see? You’re a fake, you’re a phony! You’re a nothing!” What happens? You go insane!
Frum people…I shouldn’t say frum people…it’s everybody. But if you’re steeped in Torah, then you’re driven to it more. There’s this sense that you just can’t get there. Why do we create these superheroes like Rav Moshe Feinstein and Reb Yaakov (Kaminetsky)? They were human beings. Because if we turn them into superheroes, we can say, “Oh, so I’m not Reb Moshe! No problem.” “Am I in Awe of God? Yes! God is magnificent. God is stupendous!” That’s not Awe, because there is joy in feeling Awe. Awe doesn’t mean that I will never do a sin because I’m terrified of being zapped. Awe means that no matter what I’m striving for I just can’t do it. That is the basic struggle that goes back to Creation.
Question: Is it trying to do better, but just always failing?
RSW: You fail because you’re a human being. It is to taste that exquisite moment of “I can’t do it” because I am a human being. When you say, “I need you,” is the transition from Awe to Love.
Question: But what about the Kotsker? What’s the difference?
RSW: The Kotsker looked for it inside of himself. He was saying, “I need to do this.” That wasn’t the right step. The correct step is, “I can’t do it – you have do it for me.” We experience this every year in the Ne’ilah service on Yom Kippur. “Here I am,” you say, “my whole life is on the line. I am having a little trouble believing that this a real Teshuva. God, you have to help me out. The gates of repentance are closing. I’m desperate. I’m desperate!”
Question: But you can’t hold on to it!
RSW: It doesn’t matter. That moment is the seed of something so real and so powerful. It will help you grow and it will guide you in the right direction.
But there’s a danger. If you say, “I failed. I’m a human being. What do you expect?” – that’s surrender. There are two people who really struggled with this There’s a famous book written about them…
“And God the Lord said, it is not good for man to be alone. I will make him a helpmate against him.” (Genesis 2:18) Isn’t that what we’re speaking about? The helpmate is coming against our limitations. Experiencing that barrier is what will help me go forward.
“So God formed from the earth all the beasts from the field all the birds from the heavens. And He brought them to the man to see what man would call them.” Did God bring the animals to Man to name them? Or, to see what man would name them? Strange thing isn’t it? We don’t have time to talk about it now. It is a whole class in itself. Probably a series.
“And then whatever man called it was its name.” The Midrash says, even God. God said, “What do you call me?” Adam replied, “Oh, I’ll call you God.” “I like that name!” This is also a series of lectures.
Why wasn’t it good for man to be alone? Rashi answers with the Midrash Rabbah: So that they should not say that there are two powers. The Holy One Blessed be He is unique in the upper worlds and has no partner. And this man is unique in the lower worlds and also has no partner. God is in the Heavens and man is the master of the earth.
Question: Who’s they?
RSW: Ah! Great question! Who’s they?
Question: The animals?
RSW: They weren’t there yet. God created the animals so that man wouldn’t be alone. It’s not good for man to be alone. I will make a helpmate against him. There are actually two stages. (“First, I will make him to be not alone; I will create the animals. Then, I will create the woman.”) The woman wasn’t created so that man wouldn’t be alone. This is crucial! She is a helpmate against him. (Genesis is beyond anything you can imagine. In fact, maybe we should do that next year. Then you’ll kill me because we’ll spend the whole year on the first day! You know what? We’ll start backwards. Actually Ramchal did that on his commentary on the Zohar. The Torah, too. But after a couple hundred pages on the last verse….)
What’s going on here? Why isn’t it good for man to be alone? The idea of man being a power is a concern. The snake says to man (3:5), “The Lord knows that on the day you eat of this tree, your eyes will be opened and you will be just as an Elohim, aware of good and evil.” What’s the struggle here? God does not want man to be like Elohim, but the snake wants man to be like Elohim.
Then, after the sin (3:22), “Now man is like one of us who knows good and evil. And now, lest he send forth his hand and eat from the Tree of Life, then he will eat and live forever!” What’s the issue? He’s going to be just like God! So the snake was telling the truth! God did not want man to be God, to be a power! So the snake said, “Aha! He doesn’t want you to be God, but I’m telling you how to do it!” Then man eats from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and God says, “O my Gosh! This is going to ruin everything! Forget it! Get out! I’m never going to let you back!”
Question: Why can’t man be a power?
RSW: You can’t because you’re a created being. If you don’t understand that you could never be like God, you can’t have a relationship. Who’s the one who sins first? The woman. Why is the woman there? So that Adam shouldn’t think he is a power, a master of the world. So what does the snake say? “Listen, you’re a threat to him. Until you came…so what, there were animals…but he still doesn’t have a partner. But now that he’s got a partner, he ain’t God. Listen, you ruined the whole thing.” That’s why it has to happen through the woman. Why does the woman give him of the fruit to eat? Because she reasons that now she is going to die. But if she is going to die, she is aware of her limitations. She reasons that he’ll marry someone else. Can I ask a really stupid question? – Who? All of a sudden she’s worried that he will marry someone else? The whole struggle is about who’s in charge.
By the way, the moment the woman was created there had to be a sin. Because if I am the only one, I’m me. But the minute there are two of us, then I am automatically limited because I am not you. That is the first taste of death, limitation. That is why if you eat of the tree, you die. (Similarly by the moon. If you want an identity, you have to make yourself smaller.) Once the woman was there, it had to happen. And that’s why the snake spoke to the woman.
Question: Did the snake really believe they would be God?
RSW: The snake’s right! You think you have power?
Question: You think you have power!
RSW: You do!
Question: Not the power God does!
RSW: Let me tell you something. I know not you. But if a person believed he didn’t have any power, would he ever sin? Sometimes you need to sin. That’s why the first of the Ten Statements is “I am the Lord you God who took you out of Egypt…” You should know that there is a God. The second statement is “You should not have any other power.” Rambam says it means that you shouldn’t even think that there is any other power than God. And if the thought occurs to you that there is another God, you cease to exist, because God is existence.
Question: What I hear God saying is a sort of infantile omnipotence. “You can be God. There is a temptation to believe you’re everything. There’s no boundaries to man.”
RSW: No…No! Not at all! God is saying, “I am serious. I’m not one of those guys pictured in the storybooks. I want you to have a real relationship with Me. You can’t have a real relationship unless you know what it’s like. That’s all I want.” It’s not infantile.
And by the way, what is the Oral Law? It is tremendous power. Kabbalistically speaking, the Oral Law corresponds to which parts of our bodies? – Netzach and Hod, which are our two feet. Where do we find feet in the Garden? What did the snake lose? His feet. He has no more independence. Before the sin, he drew his sustenance from God. Now, after losing his feet, the snake must eat the dust of the earth. The dust is our sins. That’s why he hates us. “The only way I can exist is to destroy you. I was never interested in your well-being.” That’s why the snake eats dust; He no longer lives off G-d. He lives off of you. (Not you, people who sin.)
Goodness, or Tov, only comes by acknowledging that you can’t be alone. The Torah says, Lo Tov, “It is not good for man to be alone.” You must understand how limited you are. That’s why the Gemara says, tov means woman, tov means death, tov means Yetzer Hara, the Evil Inclination. Because the minute the woman appeared, death came into the world, which is limitation. The Evil Inclination fights against that limitation. But that’s the only way a partner is going to get you where you need to go. Only when you acknowledge what you can’t be, and have Awe, that you can begin the relationship properly.
Question: But don’t we begin our human relationships with Love?
RSW: We live in a world in which Love comes first. That means that we have to learn from our human relationships how to relate to God. You have to see that person as they are and develop the relationship from there. Suppose you take two people who are entirely different. You would expect them to be antagonistic to each other, but they find a way to bridge the gap. Shavuot is the time to experience this. We spend an entire night learning. Searching for something. It’s not just sitting and learning in a class. It’s a night of work. Working to discover something. At the moment you realize that you can’t, that’s when you daven in the morning and express your love for God.
You have the opportunity to search and to feel the frustration. The most practical thing to do on Shavuot is to work. It is not going to classes. It’s taking a text and working at it. Not just reading the Hebrew, but thinking about it, conceptualizing it, applying it, using it, sinking your fingers into it, and sweating over it. Then, to have that feeling. We all have that moment. That feeling that no matter how much you learn and learn and learn, there are levels and levels that are beyond you. At that moment, when you realize that you can’t do it that’s the moment you can turn to God and develop a relationship.
On Shavuot, it’s not a night just to be interested. It’s a night to do battle. The biggest battle is not to stay up all night. Because if you really work, staying up is not the issue. The biggest thing you will have to deal with is the Yetzer Hara, the Evil Inclination, because if you conquer that you will be getting it right where it hurts – Right between the legs.