Reb Yechiel Meir of Gostynin went to study with Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotsk during the holy week of Shavuos. Upon his return, his father-in-law asked, “What did you study during your time in Kotsk?”
“As it was Shavuos,” Reb Yechiel Meir said, “we studied the Ten Commandments.”
“Amazing,” his father-in-law teased. “Since it was also Shavuos here at home, we also studied the Ten Commandments. Do they receive the Commandments differently in Kotsk? And is that why you would journey so far to study what we study at home?”
“Yes, indeed!” Reb Yechiel Meir replied. “The Commandments are different in Kotsk.”
“And how is that?” his father-in-law asked.
“What did you learn from the Commandment ‘You shall not steal’?”
“We learned just what it says: You shall not take from another that which does not belong to you,” replied his father-in-law.
“And therein lies the difference,” Reb Yechiel Meir said. “Here you learned that ‘You shall not steal’ means you shall not steal from another. In Kotsk we learned that you shall not steal from yourself as well.”
What is it you steal from yourself? The things you want most. And how do you rob yourself of these things? By trying too hard to get them. For example, you desire certainty, and to get it you study hard to know what is true. Yet, the more you study, the more you know you will never know enough to be certain of anything, and this anxiety robs you of the very thing you desire.
What you want is not to be taken, but to be received. Do not imagine that you must climb to the top of the mountain to grasp what you seek. On the contrary, you must stand at the bottom of the mountain and receive it as it rolls down of its own accord. The “winner” in life is not the one who reaches the highest peak but the one who knows how to wait at the lowest depths.
Shavuos (Hebrew, “weeks”): The second of three pilgrimage festivals. The name “weeks” comes from the Torah’s instruction to count seven weeks between the Passover barley harvest and the second harvest fifty days later. Historically, Shavuos is said to be the anniversary of the revelation of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. The mystics prepared for Shavuos with a special ritual called Tikkun Lel Shavuos (Repairing on the Eve of Shavuos). This was an all-night recitation of sacred texts intended to place the kabbalist in the receptive mindset to personally experience the revelation at dawn.
The Ten Commandments (Aseret HaDibrot, the Ten Sayings): The Commandments revealed by God at Mount Sinai seven weeks after the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt. The Ten Commandments are mentioned twice in the Torah: first in Exodus 20:1-14 and again in a slightly different version in Deuteronomy 5: 6-18. Moses ordered twice-daily recitation of the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 6: 6-7), and Jews used to recite them morning and evening. The Rabbis replaced this with the twice-daily recitation of the Sh’ma (Hear 0 Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One) when sectarians argued that only the Ten Commandments were revealed by God and hence took precedence over the other laws of Torah.