Jacob’s ladder reaches up through the worlds to the inwardness of G-d called the Infinite Light. The point of our religion (with its 613 commands) is to bring us up those rungs to meet HaShem there face to face, core to core. That is what our First Commandment asks of us, to behold the simple oneness that Hashem refers to when He says, “I am….”2,3
It’s a multi-millennial journey with milestones along the way. Meor v’Shemesh divides the path into three stages based on the Torah’s account of the revelation at Sinai. The sequence is: 1) hearing the truth, 2) seeing the Light, and finally 3) beyond mind and sensory experience, just being with the One. His teaching has practical implications for us today.
Meor v’Shemesh derives the first two stages from the Torah as follows:
1) HaShem proposes that Moshe receive the revelation as an exclusive encounter between himself and HaShem, inviting the people to witness, from afar, their private exchange.
“And HaShem said to Moses, ‘Behold, I will come to you in a thick cloud that the people may hear when I speak with you…’”4
2) a) The people reject their spectator role and insist upon a direct experience of the revelation.
“We wish to hear the revelation directly from the mouth of our King. To hear from an intermediary is not like hearing from the king himself…And furthermore, our wish is to see our King. For hearing is not like seeing.”5
b) HaShem concedes to their request:
“All the people saw the sounds…” “They saw what is otherwise only heard.”6 (Rashi)
3) This prophetic seeing overwhelms them. Their souls fly from their bodies at every word. HaShem resuscitates them again and again. Finally, after the first two commands, they ask HaShem to reinstate Moshe as their intermediary.
“…And when the people saw it, they were shaken, and stood far away. They said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will hear. But let God not speak with us any more, for if He does we will die.7
4) Moshe assuages them:
“Do not be afraid for G-d is only testing you…8
Meor v’Shemesh explores what this test is about. He explains that our journey up Jacob’s ladder to fulfill the First Commandment requires us to become ever more immune to strange fire (a Biblical term that has come to include all manner of tainted pleasures). At each forward step, our awareness includes more and more of the hidden realms. Yet there are hindrances along the way that distract us with a bribe of some (perhaps quite subtle) ego gratification—another term for strange fire. The higher we climb the more subtle the lures. On the physical plane we get hooked by food and riches and lusts of every sort, yet it’s pretty clear what’s holy and what’s not. Though we might not muster the strength to resist, we know when we’ve done wrong. But on the inner planes truth gets fuzzier and the standards of integrity grow more precise. The focus shifts from rightness-of-action to purity of intent.
And so, says Meor v’Shemesh, even at the rarefied levels of Hearing Truth and Seeing the Light Hashem tests our resistance to strange fire which appears there as spiritual materialism. Can we enjoy the gift of revelation without puffing in self-importance? Do we fixate on the messenger and end up distorting the message? Can we resist the urge to freeze the frame and instead meet the future with proactive wisdom? Are we even aware that these problems exist?
Sinai was both a test and an initiation. HaShem made it clear what He expects from us—we must grow immune to the lure of strange fire no matter how subtle its bait. Life is our training ground.
On the physical plane it certainly makes sense to avoid temptations when possible. But the effort to eliminate stumbling-blocks must be accompanied by inner work. Otherwise it will not succeed and is likely to even backfire, in part for the following reasons.
• When a person succeeds in removing lustful enticements he starts to become more sensitive to what were previously neutral stimuli. He discovers a new set of more subtle triggers that must now be avoided as well. The list of culprits grows longer while his zone of comfort shrinks to the size of a prison cell. His life is controlled by the very scourge he sought to avoid.
• It doesn’t serve us in the long term. If our only solution for lustful thoughts is to banish whatever triggers them, we never develop mastery over our inner world. Our immediate enticements can (perhaps) be managed this way, but we don’t develop the skills to pass the tests that await us on the higher rungs of Jacob’s ladder—tests that require a practiced ability to gauge our purity of motive, to admit where it is lacking and to endure humiliation for the sake of truth.
The reason that avoidance of temptation must be supplemented by meditative work is because the problems don’t originate with the enticements themselves. The outer stimuli are simply triggering impurities of soul we’ve all inherited from primordial times, no blame. And now that our weak-spots are visible we can begin to repair them. And the tool for that work is a particular form of meditation called התפשטות הגשמיות (disengaging from material distractions) that our Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch) considers a necessary preparation for prayer (and actually for fulfilling the even more basic obligation to “keep HaShem’s presence with us at all times.”)11
Hitpashtut hagashmiut is a method of not just quieting thoughts but of mastering them. The practice is simple. First choose something as the focus of your meditation (which could be a verse, a name of G-d, a holy word, or a prayer). Next, try to hold your mind on that focus for ten minutes or more. When your attention wanders, which it surely will, return to your focus and let the distraction go. You don’t fight it. You don’t suppress it. You don’t condemn yourself for its presence. You just shift your attention back to your focus. And so it goes, again and again, throughout the period you’ve designated for this work. The thoughts arise (which they inevitably will)12 and you let them go (reinforcing your independence from them). That’s it for starters.
Each time you dismiss the distraction and return to your focus you strengthen the muscle of self-determination. The distraction loses its power to intimidate and your nerve net absorbs the skill (and the habit) of holding its focus. Hitpashtut hagashmiut breaks the link between reactivity and action. An impulse arises and I can choose not to let it distract me. This muscle develops through daily meditation and strengthens year after year.
One who meditates KNOWS that the blame for wayward thoughts is partly from outer stimuli and partly from not taking responsibility for his or her inner world. If we don’t add meditation to our tool belt and deem it as essential as the strategy of avoidance, we will not advance beyond the lower rungs of Jacob’s ladder.
HaShem: Let it be that on this Shavuot, when the highest lights of Torah stream through the universe, that we remember who we are—masters of our inner world, guardians of the outer one, and a light unto the nations. May we internalize Your Torah to the depths of our being so that we become transformed by Your will and its truths. Let us become ever more immune to the lures of strange fire that distract us from You, compromise our integrity and keep us sidetracked from the real work (and blessings) at hand.
ר’ קלונימוס קלמן הלוי עפשטיין, מאור ושמש, רמזי שבועות, ד”ה ויאמר ה’ אל משה הנה אנוכי בא אליך… וגם ד”ה וכל העם רואים…
2 The first commandment of the Torah begins with the words: “I am the Lord your God, who have brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”
3 Pesikta 21; Zohar 2:85b. “We have been taught that when the “I” was proclaimed, all those commandments of the Torah…were comprised in it…”
5Mekhilta, Tractate BaChodesh, Chapt. 2; Rashi on Ex. 19:9
6 Ex. 20:15 and Rashi there.
7 Ex. 20:15-16.
8 Ex. 20:17.
9 Meor v’Shemesh doesn’t actually use the language of strange fire. He speaks more abstractly but it is clear that this term faithfully conveys his intention.
0 Lev. 10:1; Bmidbar 3:4; 17:2; 26:61
1 Tur, Orech Chayim, 98; Shuchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 98.
2 Trying to prevent spiritually unproductive thoughts from arising is a losing battle (See Tanya, chapt. 26 & 27). Expecting them to stay pent up and invisible, is a HUGE energy drain that will never succeed. In hitpashtut hagashmiut you don’t try to prevent their arising, you simply direct your energy away from them and back to your meditative focus and they dissipate. It depressurizes the psyche, releasing its energies for more productive use.