Acharei Mot(Leviticus 16-18)
In the midst of the Portion's outline of various mitzvot, the Torah exhorts us with regard to our observance of the Torah in a general sense: "Perform My Laws, and guard My Statutes, to go in them, I am God." (1) The meaning of the words, "to go in them" is unclear; what is this adding to the command to observe the Torah? The Ktav Sofer answers by explaining the Bible's use of the word with the opposite meaning of 'going' that is, omed, which means standing. It is used in relation to Angels, as it says in the Book of the Propeh, Isaiah: "The Serafim [a type of angel] stand opposite him." (2) Angels 'stand' in the sense that they remain stationary in their spiritual level, they have no connection to the concept of 'growth'. Therefore, in contrast, the Torah tells us to be in a state of 'going', which means that we constantly strive to improve our spiritual level and to avoid remain standing still.(3)
The Ktav Sofer makes a similar point in Bechukotai on the opening verse: "If you will go in My statutes, and keep my mitzvot, and do them." (4) The Ktav Sofer writes: "It is not enough that you keep the mitzvot every day on the same level as on the previous days, rather you should constantly go from one level to a higher level, and perform the mitzvah in a better and more praiseworthy fashion." (5)
We see from the Ktav Sofer that in addition to keeping the mitzvot, one must constantly strive to go forward in his Divine Service and that 'standing still' is not an option. It seems further, that with regard to human beings there is no such concept as 'remaining on the same spiritual level', rather one is either going forward or backwards and it is only angels who are able to remain stationary without going backwards.
This idea is expressed in a homiletical explanation of the prohibition of going up steps when approaching the Altar when approaching to perform the Divine Service. Instead of steps, they were to build a ramp going up to the Altar. Why must one go up a ramp as opposed to steps? When climbing up a steep ramp, one must exert forward movement merely to remain still. If he tries to be stationary, the steepness of the slope will cause him to actually go backwards. He will only remain in the same place with a certain amount of forward pressure, and he will only advance with a greater display of forward movement. In contrast, when one walks up steps he is able to stay still without fear of falling back since the surface he is standing on is flat. This teaches us that when one approaches Divine Service, he must actively exert himself in order to remain stable, and to go forward he needs to exert himself greatly.(6) The modern day analogy of this is trying to go up an escalator that is moving down.
This explanation however, begs a new question - why is it the case that when a person makes no active effort he actually goes backwards as opposed to staying stationary? The reason is that the yetzer hara (negative inclination) makes a constant effort to bring a person down in his spiritual level. Therefore, if the person is not making any active effort to go forward then it is inevitable that he will be going backwards since the yetzer hara will be busy pushing him back and there will be no counteractive force to keep him steady.
One may still ask that we look at many people who do not seem to be making any active effort to grow and yet they seem to remain on the same level, it is not obviously apparent that they are deteriorating spiritually. It seems that there are two aspects to the decline that takes place. One is that on a very subtle level the yetzer hara does gradually weaken a person in his Divine Service. This is such a subtle process that it is not evident to onlookers, and normally even the person himself is unaware of his gradual decline! The second way in which he goes down is that the longer he doesn't work on areas where he is lacking he falls deeper and deeper into the trap of habit. The more a person continues with his bad habits the harder it becomes to pull himself away from his erroneous behavior. Only by great effort will he be able to break his bad habits.
We have seen how fundamental active growth is to Divine Service and how there is no option of standing still in one's spirituality. This lesson is very pertinent as we strive to learn the lessons from the recent Festival of Pesach; Pesach was the time when the power of renewal is at its highest level. A person who resolved to make a strong effort to grow in his Divine Service will receive great Siyata dishmaya (Heavenly help) on Pesach. Even after Pesach is over we are now in the time period of Sefirat HaOmer (Counting of the Omer), a time that is particularly powerful for working on one's character traits in preparation for the Receiving of the Torah. Obviously, it is important that a person not take on too much in his efforts at growth, perhaps it is more advisable to take one area where one feels that he is in something of a rut, and make a concerted effort at growing in that area, whether it be Shabbat observance, Torah learning, prayer, guarding his speech, Marriage, Parenting or any number of areas. If one really dedicates himself to grow then surely the lessons of Pesach will enable him to succeed.
1. Vayikra, 18:4.
2. Yeshaya, 6:2.>
3. Ksav Sofer Al HaTorah, Vayikra, 18:4, and Tallelei Oros in the name of the Ksav Sofer, Vayikra, 18:4.
4. Vayikra, 26:3.
5. Ksav Sofer, Vayikra, 26:3. See there, where he contrasts the attitude to constant spiritual striving, to the required approach to physical attainment. In that regard he stresses the trait of histapkus, being happy with what you have. See my essay on Parshas Pekudei, 'Bitachon and Hishtadlus' where we analyze this dichotomy at length.
6. Heard from Rav Motty Berger, shlit"a, senior lecturer in Yeshivas Aish HaTorah.