Self Work, Self Development
Avodat Hanefesh, self-development and refinement, have assumed a central place in our generation. Today there are an array of approaches to how one can best understand oneself, deal with one’s particular inner challenges, and actualize one’s unique potential. There are numerous groups and projects, each in it’s own way, focused on achieving tikkun ha’nefesh. The Torah actually contains, and presents us with, a detailed understanding of our soul—our inner personal world—and specific guidance on how to unlock and realize our potential. As a preparation for Tu B’shvat, and drawing on the illumination that flows from these weeks of shovavim, (the six weeks from parshat shmot to mishpatim) I would like to share a remarkable stage-by- stage process that grows out of a careful consideration of, and reflection upon, bread: Bread, lechem, the most basic and primary of all foods.
Of Man and Bread
The relationship between man and bread is profound.
Think about it. When there was a diminution in the very nature of Adam Harishon, that great fall expressed itself in, of all things, bread. “By the sweat of your brow you will eat bread,” God said to Adam. The reason for this is very deep. It’s because bread is man. It’s man because when consumed, it becomes part of man himself. For this reason, when, in the wake of the chet, the transgression, Adam’s entire being was diminished, then by necessity that which is so fundamental to his physical “self” was also diminished.
The consequence of the “fall” of man, the shrinking of his self and potential, was that rah, “evil,” became internalized in man. This was a fundamental change in the nature and condition of human beings. And so bread too: Bread which in it’s pristine state is the manna; pure, with no chaff, nothing not fully usable by man, became riddled with klipot, coarse impurities that would require enormous effort to rectify. That effort would begin with protecting the wheat from the thorns and thistles that could do so much damage; followed by the husking of the shell and the chaff, the grinding of the grain, and the many steps required to finally produce bread.
Through the Eyes of Bread
From this we understand that the status of bread is actually reflective of the status of man, and that in the steps of nurturing and transforming a lowly seed into a nutritious, life-giving loaf, we can discern a step-by-step approach to personal growth, development and fruition of one’s finer self.
In the Mishna, in what is known as siduro shel pat, we find that the preparation of bread is laid out in a specific, detailed, eleven step process: Sewing, plowing, harvesting, binding the sheaves, threshing, winnowing, selecting, grinding, sifting, kneading and baking. On a deeper, inner level, this eleven step process reveals for us a corresponding process in the building of the human being; in taking seeds of potential and carefully guiding them along a path to fruition. Indeed, this concept is anchored in our holy sources. The first and most striking example is the step, the melacha, of borer, selecting. In pnimiut, in the kabbalistic sources, borrer is the separation and detanglement of tov v’rah, good and evil, within the fabric of existence. The steps related to planting and nurturing relate to the foundations of emuna, belief, and the raising of children. Threshing and winnowing are our inner struggles with the rah, the darker parts of our self. Torah learning is also to be found in seeding, plowing and harvesting. In truth, this process is not only found in siduro shel pat, but according to kabbalah, it’s also imbedded in the eleven incense spices in the Temple, and elsewhere as well.
A Further Dimension
There is another reason why the process of personal growth needs to be understood and addressed in this detailed fashion. This is because of the reality that the inner workings of people are complicated, confounding, and elusive, and therefore in need of a more objective picture of how things actually work. Looking outside of ourselves at the tangible process required to transform seeds of wheat to bread, enables us to see ourselves in that process.
Generally speaking, I would like to highlight four stages in this process.
I. From sowing to reaping: This is the stage of youth, the time when the emphasis is on the nurturing of abilities, and particularly on the healthy development of self, and the protection from damaging external forces.
II. Reaping and Binding: This is adolescence. The time when individuals more fully discover themselves as independent people with identities of their own, distinct from their parents.
III.From Threshing to Grinding: This is when one becomes capable of going inside, of introspection, of discarding the klipot and therah, our negative and destructive tendencies so that our positive, best selves can rise to the surface of expression and actualization.
IV. Kneading and Baking: Moving beyond ones self to genuine connection and relationship to others for the sake of the cooperative building of a holier, more refined society.
(A full treatment of these concepts can be found in my books, the two volume Talelei Chayim, L’abda vl’shamra.)
As part of our return to the land and to our natural, healthy state, we need to reestablish our deep connection to the physical dimensions upon which we are building our national edifice: the inanimate, the vegetative and the animal realm. Indeed, our sages have told us that there is a great deal to learn from these dimensions, and all they contain. This being the case, it’s clear that bread can serve as a guiding light of inspiration for how people can live, develop and express their higher, holier selves.
And all of this brings us to the manna that appears in our parsha after the crossing of the sea, and before the giving of the Torah. That period of time parallels the days of the Omer; days that are known as a time particularly suited for self development and refinement, days that are all about preparing to receive the Torah, and days whose deeper, inner meaning is found within the manna. Indeed, all of this is alluded to by the statement of our sages, “The Torah was only given to that generation that was fed by the manna.” And this leads us to an even deeper level of understanding which is: Our sages taught that the Jewish people was only able to receive the Torah because they had become cleansed of the spiritual damage that had infected mankind from the time of the fall of Adam Ha’rishon. And, it seems, the reclaiming of that lofty spiritual state was only possible because they were sustained by the manna. The manna was a heavenly bread, a bread that has it’s roots and origins in the original, morally- spiritually pristine condition of man. A bread that itself had no chaff, nothing that wasn’t nutritious and life giving. The Jewish people’s eating of the manna helped propel them along a process of purification that reconnected their souls to their original state, and readied them for the lofty experience of receiving the Torah.
That generation, the dor ha’midbar, was reluctant to enter the land because they were well aware that they would be leaving behind the unique, spiritually rarefied level of the desert. They knew that they would now have to toil and work the land, toil and work to separate the tov, the good, from the rah, the bad. However, what they failed to realize was that deep within the land itself there exists a lofty kedusha.
This intrinsic kedusha of the aretz, the land, is expressed in the words of birkat ha’mazon: “Al ha’aretz ha’tova / For the good land.” And so on Tu b’Shvat we are filled with joy and gratitude to God for the blessing of entering the land of Israel. And, we pray that we merit to divest ourselves of our klipot, our spiritual blemishes, so that all of our capabilities and potential will fully blossom for the good, and be a source of blessing.
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Translated by Shimon Apisdorf