The exodus occurred in the month of Nisan. Spiritual growth was achieved in Iyar. The Torah was given in Sivan. Which of these three events caused the greatest change? Although a case can be made for each of the three, it seems that the third caused the most dramatic change.
The exodus is remembered as the event that shows us God’s hand in history. It is the basis of the all three holidays, Passover, Shavuot, and Succot, and a crucial element of a basic belief in God, as it is stated in the Ten Commandments, “I am the Lord, your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt.” We were saved from complete assimilation and from the spiritual degradation of being at the so-called “lowest level of impurity.” We left the demoralizing status of slaves, and became the nation of God. There’s an old saying, “Some achieve greatness; some have greatness thrust upon them.” We had greatness thrust upon us. Although the exodus certainly was a monumental change for us, it was completely from God, we had no hand in it. Therefore, there was something lacking in the experience.
The sefira period of Iyar, between Passover and Shavuot, on the other hand was our time to put in effort for spiritual growth. We took each day as an opportunity to change a critical element of our nature to make us worthy of receiving the Torah. When I asked my brother, Dave, the psychologist, if he had any spare change, he answered, “Change must come from within.” What was lacking in the exodus was made up for during the sefira period. We put in the work. We took our souls into our own hands to mold and shape ourselves. Since the change that we effected was more of an inner change than an outer change, we can say that it was a much more significant change than the exodus. In Pirke Avoth it says, “According to the effort is the reward.” What’s most meaningful in a spiritual sense is the change that a person accomplishes through his or her own hard work.
Regarding the giving of the Torah in Sivan, it seems as though we are again being given something, and therefore the change that’s effected is less significant than that of the sefira period. However, the Kabbalah describes the experience on Mt. Sinai as being much more significant spiritually than any previous experience of the Jewish people. It’s stated that an element of impurity that had been present since the very first transgression of man in the Garden of Eden, was expelled. The revelation itself was so powerful that our souls could not remain in our bodies. Why is the revelation more important than our own efforts? Because the revelation came as a result of those efforts. The Talmud says that if someone claims they found wisdom without putting effort in, don’t believe them. If someone claims to have put effort in but didn’t find wisdom, don’t believe them. The effort is always the catalyst, but in the end wisdom and growth are still a gift from the Almighty. Even when you put the effort in the Talmud calls it “finding” wisdom.
When we received the Torah it was based on what had happened previously. We had prepared properly for the gift. That’s why it was given. It’s called a gift because the reward is way out of proportion to the effort. An example of something similar would be if you opened the door for me and I said, “That was so kind of you to do that for me. Here’s a check for one million dollars.” You wouldn’t go around acting like you had really earned the money. It was a gift. In the same way the Torah is the most awesome gift that could be given, way out of proportion to any effort we could put in. That’s why it changed us more than anything else. In fact, the Zohar says that God and the Torah are one. It’s not just wisdom, stories, and moral instruction; it’s a piece of Godliness in the physical realm. It’s the “mind” of God, the “will” of God. It’s the clearest expression of the understanding of God we can have while alive. So the word Torah is synonymous with Yichud HaShem, the oneness of God.
We are obliged to study the Torah as much as humanly possible. It’s a constant commandment. However, it’s often the case that daily needs require much of our time, so the sages told us that there is a bare minimum requirement of Torah study. This is the Shema that’s recited in the morning and at night. Why is the Shema the bare minimum? Because it is an expression of our commitment to Yichud HaShem.
During the month of Sivan we can tap into an overabundance of wisdom. The opportunity is there for those that take advantage of it. The Torah that is acquired is not only practical advice; it’s not only beneficial emotionally, physically, and mentally, the Torah that’s acquired is like absorbing a little bit of God Himself.