We are in the time period of Sefiras Ha’Omer, the seven weeks that move us from Pesach to Shavuos, from Egyptian slavery to being servants of Hashem. In the laws of these two holidays, the transition from slavery to true freedom (i.e. G-dly servitude) is represented by the unique korbanos of each chag: the Omer, brought on Pesach, is from barley, an animal’s food. The Shtei Halechem, brought on Shavuos, are made from wheat, which is people food. In addition, the barley is brought as whole, unprocessed stalks, while the wheat offering is refined as fine flour and further processed and baked into bread. Just as the korbanos of Pesach and Shavuos transition from raw animal food to processed food fit for human consumption, our ancestors, too, needed the time between the Exodus and the giving of the Torah to process themselves, to shake off the animalistic habits of slavery and transition into the ultimate human beings who were able to perceive Divine revelation. As we re-live the cycle of the Jewish year, we must use this time, which is ripe for processing and transition, to process ourselves and make ourselves more human, able to perceive the Divine missions that are sent to us all of the time.
In order to accomplish this task of becoming more human, it behooves us to ask the question of what makes us human to begin with. Are we to believe, as modern society pressures us to, that we as humans are merely glorified apes who have evolved into beings who can rationalize and exaggerate our own self-importance? If you look on the surface, our days are not very different from those of an animal. We spend the majority of our time preparing food, consuming food, and worrying about ways to provide for shelter, clothing, and, yes, obtain more food. We compete with other humans for resources and put effort into continuing the human species and teaching our children how to provide for themselves (for example, “Do your homework!”). As one of my teachers put it, for many people life is about going to school- to get a good job- to pay for vacations and a good education for the kids- who will get good jobs and provide for their parents in their old age until they die. Not very inspiring.
The Torah teaches that there is a stark, but subtle, difference between us and animals. In the description of creation, the Torah uses the same lashon to describe both animals and Man as “nefesh chaya- a living spirit”, but Man is also described as being created in the image of G-d and inserted with a “nishmas chaim- a living soul”. Unkelus translates “nefesh chaya” differently for animals and man. For animals, “nefesh chaya” is translated literally into Aramaic, as “nafsha chaysa”. For man, Unkelos translates “nefesh chaya” as “ruach mimalelah- a speaking spirit”*. Similarly, Rashi points out that, although animals and man are both called “nefesh chaya”, man’s life is the highest level of living, since “understanding and speech were added to him”**. According to both Unkelos and Rashi, Man is differentiated from animals in his ability to speak. But speech does not simply occur between man and man, or between man and G-d. The majority of a person’s speech actually takes place inside of his own head in the form of thoughts. Man has the unique ability to take an event and think about it, qualify it, and in doing so, create meaning. It is this unique act of attributing meaning to events that differentiates man from lower forms of life. Speaking aloud simply externalizes the inner meaning that was already created inside a person’s head.
It is with this uniquely human quality of attributing meaning that we can uplift our lives from a mundane, animalistic existence to one of extreme human spirituality. Yes, we have to eat, but we can make a bracha on our food, which reminds us to feel gratitude to its Source. Even the act of preparing food, which can often feel tedious and repetitive, can have meaning attributed to it: perhaps we are cooking for others, and we can remind ourselves that we are acting as agents of Hashem to provide for His children. Or if we cook for ourselves, the act can be done in order to give ourselves the energy to do mitzvos with healthy bodies. The bottom line is that our power of attributing meaning can help us connect every act we do (unless it is an outright aveirah) to the greater purpose of serving Hashem.
While it is true that our lives can and should have meaning through the regular performance of mitzvos, it is often the case that our mitzvos become “mitzvas anashim melumada”, or the results of ingrained habit. And while there is much halachic discussion as to whether a mitzva can be technically fulfilled without the proper intent***, to accomplish the true purpose of a commandment “mitzvos tzrichos kavana hen”- an intention is required. However, even the seemingly mundane tasks that are not connected directly to a mitzva can be thought about, with a proper intent assigned, and, presto! —the act takes on a new meaning (literally). Not only does the act of assigning meaning make our days feel more spiritual, it can help us to better fulfill two of the constant mitzvos, to love and fear Hashem, since it fills our days with thinking about Him. Also, the very act of assigning meaning and intent to the small tasks and challenges that pepper our days makes it easier for us to rise to those challenges and become better versions of ourselves. Two examples: if an annoying co-worker is seen as an opportunity to work on our G-dly quality of patience instead of being a simple annoyance, it is much more likely that we will succeed in exerting the necessary self-control to deal with the co-worker with patience. Similarly, if dealing with arguing children can be seen as an opportunity to teach them the proper way to make shalom, the same task will be faced with a completely different attitude and approach. While it may seem too lofty a level to be conscious of the deeper meaning of our actions all day, every day, taking small steps and finding opportunities to be more aware can only make our lives richer and our mitzvos observance more real.
The Gemara**** says that ten portions of speech were given to the world and nine were given to women. Although I see no reason, based on my own experience, to doubt the Gemara should be taken quite literally, perhaps it is also referring to this inner type of speech, of thought and meaning attribution. We know that in general, women take charge of many of the mundane tasks of daily living, things that do not feel quite glamorous, and at times may feel burdensome and overwhelming. Dinner, anyone? In a few places the Gemara implies that man’s domain is Olam Haba and woman’s domain is Olam Hazeh*****. I used to struggle with accepting this outlook, but I now approach it with a different perspective: Hashem created two worlds, and both are important. You cannot get to Olam Haba without an Olam Hazeh. That is why humans are considered to be on a higher level than angels. We come from the mundane of Olam Hazeh, and if we are able to rise above it, or, really, to raise the mundane with us to a level of spirituality, then the movement makes us higher than the angels, who do not face challenges and cannot choose. Perhaps women were given the gift of speech to enable us to face the many mundane tasks of daily living with a powerful arsenal of words and thoughts. With the right ones, we can raise the mundane to the highest heights of Heaven, and with it, raise ourselves to our highest potential as true human beings.
*See Breishis 1:20-21,24,27, 2:7 with Unkelus
** See Rashi Breishis 2:7 “Linefesh Chaya”
****Kiddushin 49b: “עשרה קבים שיחה ירדו לעולם, תשעה נטלו נשים”
*****See, for example Baba Metziah 59a, which discusses taking advice from your wife about matters of Olam Hazeh.