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Transform the World or Personal Perfection?

Transform the World or Personal Perfection?

Nice, 1941


At first, our entire focus is on figuring out how this thing works, as if life were a giant machine and we just had to learn to push the right buttons. We discover that crying elicits nurture and attention; we perceive that certain of our actions are met with approval and others are met with censure; we figure out which skills and resources are required to preserve and perpetuate our existence.

At a certain point, however, we realize that there's more to life than mastering a set of behaviors. We discover an inner self of ideas, feelings, a "personality." No longer content with just doing things the right way, we strive to better ourselves: to expand our mind, hone our feelings, refine our character.

Finally, there comes a time when this goal, too, pales in significance before a far more ambitious endeavor. Why content ourselves with the perfection of the individual self, when we have been empowered to transform the world? Why relegate our quest for peace to the search for inner harmony, when a conflict-ridden race of six billion cries out for our aid? Why limit our capacity for discovery and growth to the interior of our souls, when an entire universe awaits our exploration and development?

The Mandate at Sinai

On the sixth day of Sivan in the year 2448 from creation (1313 bce), the entire people of Israel stood at the foot of Mount Sinai. There G‑d revealed Himself to us and gave us the Torah, His "blueprint for creation"1 and our charter as "a holy people"2 and "a light unto the nations."3 Ever since, the day has been marked as the festival of Shavuot.

The Torah functions on many levels. On the most basic level, it is a guide to life in the most elementary and technical sense. Its 613 commandments (mitzvot) and their thousands of clauses and laws instruct us in the do's and don'ts of life, delineating the permissible and the forbidden, the sacred and the profane, the beneficial and the injurious to our bodies and souls.

But the Torah is more than a regulator of behavior. It "was given to refine the person"4: to weed out the bad and cultivate the good in our hearts; to develop our minds as vectors of the divine truth; to bring to light the "divine image"5 in which our souls have been molded.

Finally, the Torah is the vehicle for the most enterprising of our potentials: to "make the physical world a home for G‑d"6—a place that houses, expresses and serves the perfection of the divine.

Three Names

The festival on which we commemorate and reexperience the revelation at Sinai has three names, corresponding to the three areas of the day's influence in our lives.

In the Shavuot prayers, we refer to the day as Zeman Mattan Torateinu, "The Time of the Giving of our Torah."

In Deuteronomy 16:10,7 it is called Chag Shavuot, "Festival of Weeks." This, because the festival follows a seven-week count that begins on the second day of Passover.

A third name for the festival, also of biblical origin, is Yom HaBikurim, "The Day of the First Fruits."8 On this day, the bikurim, the first-ripened fruits of the Israelite farmer's orchard, were presented to the kohen (priest) in the Holy Temple, as commanded by the Torah.

"Torah" means "law" and "instruction." The most basic significance of the "Time of the Giving of our Torah" is that this is the day on which the 600,000 souls gathered at Sinai were instructed on "the path along which they should walk and the deeds which they should do."9

But Shavuot is not only the "Time of the Giving of our Torah"—it is also the "Festival of Weeks," the culmination of a seven-week journey of self-discovery and self-refinement. 10 In the 23rd chapter of Leviticus, the Torah instructs:

You shall count for yourselves, from the morrow of the Shabbat, from the day on which you bring the raised omer—seven complete weeks shall there be. Until the morrow of the seventh week, you shall count fifty days; and you shall offer a new meal-offering to G‑d. From Your habitations you shall bring two breads for raising... made of fine flour... And you shall proclaim that very day a holy festival...11

On the second day of Passover ("the morrow of the Shabbat") an omer12 of barley was "raised up" and offered in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. This marked the beginning of a seven-week count—"the counting of the omer"—which was followed by the "raising up" of the shtei halechem, an offering of two loaves of bread, on the festival of Shavuot.

Chassidic teaching explains that the progress from animal fodder (barley13) to human food (the "two loaves," prepared from finely ground wheat-flour) signified the refinement of man's "animal soul"—his base and materialistic instincts—and its elevation to the human level of a soul forged in the image of the divine. The seven weeks of the intervening count correspond to the seven basic drives in the heart of man,14 each of which includes aspects of all seven: each week of the count is devoted to the task of refining one of these drives, and each of the week's seven days to another of its seven aspects. On the 50th day we attain Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks—the perfection of all seven "weeks" of the human heart.15

The festival's third name, "Day of the First Fruits," represents man's going beyond the perfection of self to the development and elevation of the material resources of his world.

In Deuteronomy 26 we read:

When you enter the land which the L‑rd your G‑d is giving you as a heritage, and you inherit it and settle it; you shall take from the first fruits of the land ... and place them in a basket. And you shall go to the place which the L‑rd your G‑d shall choose to rest His name....

Each year, the Israelite farmer repeated the process, selecting from the first and finest of his orchard to bring to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem on the festival of Shavuot. By doing so, he proclaimed: My days are consumed with working the land, my nights with thoughts of seed, soil and weather; but the purpose of it all is not development of the material for material ends, but to make this world a home for G‑d. See—the first and best of my produce I have brought here, to the place chosen by G‑d to house His presence.

Diminished Weeks

The history of a nation—like the story of an individual life—knows periods of greater and lesser spiritual sophistication. Just as in our own lives we experience times of profound personal and universal achievement as well as periods in which merely "functioning" is a struggle, so, too, is it in the progress of Israel through the generations.

If we contemplate the three names of Shavuot, we note that they vary in the degree of their realization from era to era and from generation to generation.

The first and most basic definition of the festival is also the least subject to the flux of time. Every morning we thank G‑d for His gift of truth with the words, "Blessed are You G‑d, who gives the Torah"—"gives," in the present tense, since "every day the words of Torah should be as new in your eyes, as if you received them from Sinai today."16 The divine instruction of daily life is unaffected by the rises and slumps of spiritual awareness and achievement: Shavuot is equally the "Time of the Giving of our Torah" to every generation.

This has not been the case, however, regarding its designation as the "Festival of Weeks." The omer can only be offered in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Since the Torah defines the seven-week count from Passover to Shavuot as beginning on "the day on which you bring the raised omer," it is the opinion of most halachic authorities that there is no biblical obligation to conduct the "counting of the omer" when the Temple is not extant.17 Today, we still count the days and weeks each evening between Passover and Shavuot, but this is a rabbinical institution, established by the sages in order to commemorate the "real" count that was conducted when the divine presence was a manifest reality in our lives. In our present-day circumstances, until such time as the Temple will be rebuilt,18 Shavuot is the "Festival of Weeks" in name only, as there is no full-fledged status to the omer count and its results.

If only a lesser version of the "Festival of Weeks" can be actualized in this spiritually infirm age, the "Day of the First Fruits" is completely absent from our observance of the festival today. The bikurim, too, require the presence of the nation of Israel on their land and of the divine home in Jerusalem; nor is there, in this case, any "rabbinical" version of this mitzvah. Our present-day experience of Shavuot does not include any actual observance connected with this aspect of the festival.

A Task, a Struggle and a Dream

One thing has not changed in all of history's winding path through the light and shadow of spiritual time: at all times, and under all circumstances, we have our G‑d-given guide to daily living. No matter how trying the struggles in the interior of our souls, no matter how elusive the goal of a harmonious and righteous world, we can always do the right thing. We can always open the Torah that G‑d gave us, learn what He desires us to do in any given circumstance, and make our behavior conform to the divine will.

In the quest for self-perfection, the picture is less definitive, our abilities more circumscribed. We can still count the omer, climb the 49-step mountain to the seven-week wholeness of heart. But our present-day "Festival of Weeks" is but an echo of what is attainable in more spiritually luminous times.

As for the dream of a world united in the service of its G‑d, of a physical reality that reveals rather than obscures the harmonious truth of its Creator, we have only the memory of a time when Shavuot was the Day of the First Fruits. All we can do is recall the Israelite farmer's dedication of the choicest of his field to G‑d, strive to do the same in our respective fields of endeavor, and pray for the day when we can again experience the divine in our lives and truly make our world a home for G‑d.19

Based on the Rebbe's works, including a journal entry dated "Passover 5701 [1941], Nice"20

Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 1:2.
Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 44:1; echoed in Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi's statement that "the entire function of Chassidism is that [a person] transform the nature of his character (Likkutei Dibburim, vol. I, p. 56a).
Midrash Tanchuma, Nasso 16.
As well as in verse 16 of that chapter and in Exodus 34:22.
Shavuot has no fixed calendar date; instead, the Torah instructs to count seven weeks (49 days) from the second day of Passover, and to celebrate the 50th day as the festival of Shavuot. Indeed, when the Sanhedrin (supreme court of Torah law) used to set the start of each new month based on eyewitnesses' sightings of the new moon—meaning that any month of the year could be either 29 or 30 days—the festival of Shavuot was observed on the 5th of Sivan some years, on the 6th of Sivan on others, and as late as the 7th of Sivan on others. Today, our fixed calendar ensures that Shavuot always coincides with the "Time of the Giving of our Torah" on the 6th of Sivan; but the halachic date of Shavuot is not a specific day of a particular month, but the day that that follows the seven weeks of the omer count.
The omer is a biblical measure, equivalent to approximately 43 oz.
"The barley and the straw for the horses and the mules"—I Kings 5:8. See also Talmud, Sotah 14a.
Love, fear, harmony, ambition, devotion, connection and receptiveness.
See The Journey, WIR, vol. IX, no. 29.
Pesikta Zutrata, Deuteronomy 6:6.
Actually, there are three opinions among the halachists regarding the status of the omer count in times when there is no omer offering. According to most halachic authorities, the counting of the omer today is wholly a rabbinical mitzvah (Tosafot , Menachot 66a; Mateh Moshe, 667; Birkat Yosef, Orach Chaim 489:1; Shulchan Aruch HaRav, ibid., subsection 2). Others are of the opinion that even today, counting the omer remains a biblical precept (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Regular and Additional Offerings, 7:22; Sefer HaChinuch, mitzvah 306). A third opinion, expressed by 14th-century sage Rabbeinu Yerucham, is that it is a biblical mitzvah to count the days also when no omer offering is brought; but the mitzvah to count the weeks applies only when the omer is offered, and is thus today only a rabbinical commandment (in Toldot Adam VeChavah, Sefer Adam, path 5, section 4). In terms of the internal "count" that the counting of the omer represents, the third mediating opinion implies that while we are able today to perfect specific elements of our character—perhaps even all forty-nine of them—we lack the capacity to piece these together into "weeks" of fully perfected traits.
"The King Moshiach will arise and restore the kingdom of David to its glory of old... He will build the Holy Temple and gather the dispersed of Israel. In his times, all laws [of the Torah] will be reinstated as before; the sacrifices will be offered, the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee year will be instituted as outlined in the Torah... (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 11:1).
The difference between the three aspects of Shavuot is also reflected in the order in which they became part of the festival. Shavuot was "the Time of the Giving of the Torah" beginning with the revelation at Sinai in less than three months after the Exodus. But it was not "the festival of weeks" (i.e., the 50th day of the omer count) until the following year (Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Orach Chaim 494:1. The Jewish people left Egypt on a Thursday, and the Torah was given on a Shabbat; thus, that year, the 6th of Sivan occurred 51 days after the Exodus, not 50 as in our calendar today—see note #10 above). And it did not become the "Day of the First Fruits" until the Jewish people's conquest and cultivation of the Holy Land a generation later.

This reflects the sequence in which we actualize the spiritual dimension of the three names of Shavuot in our own lives: we begin with the correction of our behavior, then go on to the refinement of our character, and thence to the elevation of our world.
Reshimot #10, pp. 40-45.
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