We’re so close. So close to the end of our 50-day trek out of Mitzrayim, through the desert, and to the foot of Sinai. Pesach, Succos, Shavuos. These are the 3 aliyos laregel, literally, “the trips up by foot,” when all of Am Yisrael goes up to Jerusalem, up to the Beis HaMikdash. And every Shavuos we regroup as a nation, “at Sinai,” to receive the Torah anew.
Regel, foot, or one of the 3 “pilgrimage” festivals, is from the root reish-gimmel-lamed. When we go up to Jerusalem for these festivals, we are called an “oleh regel,” one who goes up by foot. But the root reish-gimmel-lamed is the root of many words.
ragil: the regular, the norm, accustomed to
l’hisrageil: to become used to something
targil: an exercise
So there’s another way we can understand aliyah laregel — an elevating of the rote and the norm.
There’s an idiom of “lifting a finger” to do something (or refusing to lift a finger!). Here it’s a case of “lifting a foot” to do something, which is the way that every step starts, by lifting one’s foot. A baby learning to walk doesn’t lift his feet at first, because that’s a scary thing to do. What, disconnect from the safe, solid ground and lift my foot into the air? Well, yes, if you ever want to stop crawling or cruising, and learn to go forward in a way that’s going to actually get you somewhere.
Writes Rabbi Avi Fertig:
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One fundamental difficulty that dogs us through life … is the problem of hergel. Hergel means to act without thought, out of rote. From the same root as the word regel/foot, hergel is when our hearts and minds are closed and we are governed primarily by the “lower half” of the body — where the foot is. One walks without conscious thought. Similarly, hergel is when we perform all functions as if we were walking, without conscious thought or focused will … we truly become creatures of habit. (Bridging the Gap, Feldheim, pg. 22)
This is the time for “aliyah laregel,” to elevate what we do by rote by way of literally lifting our foot to take that first step in a new, and often scary, direction. And it is scary. We’re comfortable with the way we already do things. Change? Me? Change is challenging! Change is scary! Which is why the nations, when offered the Torah, turned Hashem down flat. “Change our ways? No way! Thanks, but no thanks.”
But Am Yisrael — we were willing to change our ways. We were willing to change our ways even before we heard what we’d have to change. “Naaseh V’Nishma! We will do and we will hear! Yes, we want the Torah!”
So why isn’t Shavuos — the momentous day of receiving the Torah — seven days, like Pesach and Succos? Don’t we need this time to properly receive the Torah?
Rav Yaakov Neiman in his Darkei Mussar brings a mashal to explain. A man is walking on a dark, foggy night. He comes to a crossroads and can feel there’s a signpost there, arrows pointing to various destinations. But there’s no light to read the signs. Suddenly a bolt of lightning briefly lights up the sky, just long enough for him to read the signs. His direction is now clear. He knows which road is the right one.
We are standing at a dark, foggy crossroads, Rav Neiman explains, groping for the signpost that would show us the right road, but darkness is covering everything, “the darkness of hergel …” Shavuos is like that flash of lightning showing us the road to our desired destination. However brief “those hours that light up our darkness, they are enough to show us the right way, the way of Torah and mitzvos.” (Darkei Mussar, pg. 334)
So it’s almost Shavuos. We’ve left Egypt and crossed the desert to get the Torah. Time to make a conscious statement that we really want it! That we’re not content just to stand in the dark at the crossroads, passively waiting for dawn.
No. We want to get hit by lightning! To get hit by the joy of seeing the signpost, by the joy of knowing we’re heading in the right direction, by the joy of setting out on an exhilarating journey, whether on an altogether new road or a road I’ve traveled many times and now experience as if for the first time.
In a few days Shavuos is going to light up the sky and show us exactly what direction to take. We’ll get our foot, haregel, moving onward and upward, and shake up our hergel, rote. We’re right there! Let’s lift our feet. Let’s lift our rote. Let’s hit the road. Let’s go.