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Blog - Torah Insights

Beneath the Mask

mask.jpgBeneath the Mask  

There are two characters described in the Book of Esther who are extreme opposites one to another; they are Haman and Mordechai. 

Haman was a manifestation of absolute evil. He was a descendant of the people of Amalek, about who the Torah commands: 

“Remember what Amalek did to you on the way, when you went out of Egypt… you shall obliterate the remembrance of Amalek from beneath the heavens. You shall not forget!”[1]

Mordechai, the other extreme, was the leader of the Jewish people who stood up to the evil Haman. When the King commanded that everyone bow to Haman, The book of Esther states, “Mordechai would neither kneel nor prostrate himself.”[2]

It is therefore surprising to read that the Talmud states:

Rava said: A person is obligated to drink on Purim until he does not know the difference between "cursed be Haman" and "blessed be Mordechai".[3]

How is it that the celebration of Purim, the celebration of the triumph over the evil Haman, is achieved through the blurring of the lines that divide good from evil? Why do we celebrate the salvation of the Jews from Haman’s evil decree by losing the ability to differentiate between Haman and  Mordechai? 

Everything in this world has a soul. Every created being has a spark of the creator that gives it life and meaning. This is true not just about creations that are holy and in sync with their divine source, but rather this is true about each and every creation.

What is the soul of evil?

The soul of evil is its very purpose. The purpose of evil, the reason it was created in the first place, was in order for the evil to be destroyed, and for its inner spark and energy to be transformed to holiness, thus adding fuel to the holiness. Let us look, as an example, to the story of the book of Esther. In the final analysis, much of what Haman did was, indeed, used for good. Haman was the one who advised King Achashverosh to kill Queen Vashti. It was Haman, then, that was the cause of the rise of Esther. When the king asked Haman: "What should be done to a man whom the king wishes to honor?", Haman, thinking he was the man the king wished to honor, gave the suggestion that was then used to honor Mordechai, symbolising that the tide was about to turn and Haman was about to face his downfall[4]. The gallows Haman commissioned to build in order to hang Mordechai, were ultimately used to hang Haman.

The date Haman chose for the destruction of the Jews, became the day of their salvation. The month Haman chose for the destruction of the Jews, the month of Adar, became the most joyous month on the Jewish Calendar. The home of Haman, his position, possessions and power, were not destroyed, but rather they were given to Esther who then gave them to Mordechai. The Purim story is a story of transformation. As the verse states: “the month that was transformed for them from grief to joy and from mourning to a festive day”.[5] 

Purim, then, teaches us to look beneath the mask.

When we look around the world we see good and we see evil. We see good and evil as opposites. We understand that the good in the world seeks to bring us closer to our Divine purpose, seeks to bring us in touch with our inner core, and seeks to strengthen our bond to our creator. On the other hand we perceive evil, as that which is here to distract us from being true to our true self, as that which is here to pull us away from our relationship with G-d. 

We see good and evil as two opposite forces. In our mind, evil is cursed and good is blessed. We see “Haman is cursed” and “Mordechai is blessed” as two opposites that have nothing in common.

Until we celebrate the Purim feast.

At the Purim feast we drink wine, which has the quality of revealing secrets, as the sages teach: “when wine enters the secrets emerge”.[6] We drink the wine and discover the  best kept secret: evil was placed here by G-d, not in order to pull us away from G-d, but rather so that we destroy it and elevate its energy. We drink the wine and we can hear the soul of evil calling on us to destroy its outer layers and extract and elevate its essence. We hear the soul of the “house of Haman” yearning to be transformed to the possession of Mordechai.

We drink the wine, discover the secret, and we realize that deep down both good and evil have the same spark, both are here to strengthen our connection to G-d.

We drink the wine until we see the soul and purpose of everything, including evil. We drink until we realize that there is no difference between "cursed be Haman" and "blessed be Mordechai".[7]

 


[1] Deuteronomy 25:17-19.

[2] Esther 3:2.

[3] Tractate Megillah, 7b. 

[4] Esther: 6:11: And Haman took the raiment and the horse, and he dressed Mordecai and paraded him in the city square and announced before him, "So shall be done to the man whom the king wishes to honor!"

[5] Esther 9:22.

[6] Talmud, Eiruvin 65a. 

[7] Based on the teachings of the Rebbe, Likutey Sichos Vayikra volume 7 Sicha 3.  

The Crying Waters

The Crying Waters

It all began on the second day of creation.

On the second day, G-d separated the “lower water”, the water on earth, and the “higher water”, the water that is in the heavens. As the verse states: 

And G-d said, "Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water, and let it be a separation between water and water." And G-d made the expanse and it separated between the water that was below the expanse and the water that was above the expanse, and it was so.[1]

The Zohar, one of the principal books of Jewish mysticism, relates that the “lower waters”, the waters that were placed on earth instead of in heaven, were devastated by the separation and were deeply hurt by what they perceived as rejection. The Zohar states:

The lower waters cry and say “We too want to stand before the King!”[2]

The waters placed on this earth cried because they sensed that they were about to be placed in a physical world where they would be terribly distant from their spiritual source. They cried because they felt that they were being cut off from their divine reality, and sent away to earth, where they would be disconnected from the heavens.

The mystics[3] teach that G-d comforted the waters. G-d told them that they too would have a chance to reconnect to the Divine. That they would be an integral part of the offerings that the Children of Israel would offer in the temple. For the Torah states that every and all sacrifices must be offered together with salt:

And you shall salt every one of your meal offering sacrifices with salt, and you shall not omit the salt of your God's covenant from [being placed] upon your meal offerings. You shall offer salt on all your sacrifices.[4]

The salt offered on each and every sacrifice represents the sea water, the “lower waters”, being elevated and reunited with their Divine spiritual source in heaven. It is the fulfillment of G-d’s covenant to the “lower waters”. Humanity is charged with the task of reuniting the physical and the spiritual, the “lower waters” and the “higher waters”.

✱ ✱ ✱ 

The book of Leviticus is more than just a collection of laws of sacrifices that applied in the times of the temple almost 2000 years ago. In fact, the book of Leviticus contains the heart and soul of the Jew relationship and connection to G-d. While no longer are we able to offer the offerings in the physical sense, we do continue to offer the figurative animal within man to G-d. The book of Leviticus, with all its seemingly technical details, is in fact a roadmap for how one can become an offering, how any man or woman can “bring themselves close”, the meaning of the Hebrew word for sacrifice, to G-d. Reading the laws of the offerings give us insight into the process and the means by which we can indeed reunite with our creator.

There were many different types of offerings, from animal to bird to meal offerings. The one thing they all had in common was that they all had to be offered with salt: “You shall offer salt on all your sacrifices.”[5]

What is the message of the salt in our spiritual service?

There are many ways to connect to G-d. We can connect through acts of kindness, through prayer, through the study of Torah or the fulfillment of any of the Torah’s 613 commandments. Each one of these is an offering, a way to bring ourselves closer to the Divine. The Torah teaches that no matter what the offering, the offering must be sprinkled with salt. Salt represents the tears of the “lower waters”, salt represents the yearning of the spark within every physical being, salt is the cry of the inner soul of every creation, its longing for its Divine source.

And this is the message of the commandment to offer salt on every sacrifice. The Torah is teaching us that it is not enough to offer an offering. To connect to G-d we must offer salt, we must yearn for a connection to the Divine, we must long, as the “lower waters” did, to reconnect to our spiritual source. We must awaken the deep desire within our hearts to be close to G-d.

The yearning for the Divine, the longing for the spiritual, is what brings us close to G-d.

The essence of every offering is its “salt”.[6]

 


[1] Genesis 1:6-7.

[2] Tikkunei Zohar Tikun 5 (19:5).

[3] Midrash Rabbah, 5:3.

[4] Leviticus 2:13.

[5] Leviticus 2:13.

[6] Based on the teachings of the Rebbe, Toras Menachem volume 10 page 124.  

From Darkness to Light

From Darkness to Light

The final portion in the book of Exodus, the portion of Pekudey, begins with an accounting of the materials collected to build the tabernacle, and concludes with the construction of the tabernacle. The final verses of the portion, and of the entire book of Exodus, describe the powerful imagery of the cloud that rested upon the tabernacle, the “tent of meeting”:

"And the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan… For the cloud of the Lord was upon the Mishkan by day, and there was fire within it at night, before the eyes of the entire house of Israel in all their journeys".[1]

The conclusion of the book of Exodus, is an appropriate time to think about the theme of the entire book. What is its central point? What message is it trying to convey through the stories and episodes that unfold in its pages?

There are, generally speaking, three major stories in the book of Exodus: (1) the exodus from Egypt (2) receiving the Torah (3) building the tabernacle.[2] Do these three stories share a unifying theme? Are they three loosely related events or are they essentially part of one big idea?

The second book of the Torah is often called the book of Exodus, from the ancient Greek word for “going out”.[3] The Midrash,[4] however, defines the theme of the second book, not as the book of Exodus, but rather, as the book in which “the Israelites went from darkness to light”.

Indeed, “darkness to light” is the unifying theme of the book. “darkness to light” captures the essence of its three major stories.

We begin with the exodus from the darkness of slavery. The first story, describes in great detail how G-d interceded to liberate the children of Israel with a “mighty hand and an outstretched arm”, from the bitter darkness of slavery to the light of freedom.

Yet the book does not end there, because the quest for light should not end with mere physical liberation.

The material world, left to its own devices, is a place of spiritual darkness. It is a place of darkness because it obscures the truth of its existence, it conceals the divine energy that never ceases to recreate it. When we are immersed in materialism, we are like a person in a dark room, unable to see and appreciate the true nature of the world around us.

To be liberated from the darkness of raw materialism we need the second part of the book, G-d descends on Mount Sinai to give us the Torah. G-d teaches us about the Mitzvot, islands of spirituality and holiness in what would otherwise be a dark world. G-d tells us about specific actions we can take to place ourselves in the brightness of his holiness.

This, however, is also not a complete exodus from darkness to light. 

For, although, the Torah gives us certain specific Mitzvot by which we may connect to the Divine, this alone does not address all other aspects of our life. The Torah teaches us how to be holy in moments of prayer, while celebrating Passover and Yom Kippur, while donning Tefilin or shaking the Lulav, but what about the rest of our life? What about the majority of the time, when we are not engaged in a Mitzvah? What about when we are in the office or riding in the car on just a regular day on the calendar?

The Jewish people had just been freed from slavery and blessed with an abundance of wealth. They were overwhelmed by their newfound access to materialism, which led them to one of the darkest moments in their spiritual life - they used their gold to create the golden calf. They experienced a holy moment at the revelation at Sinai, but their day to day life was not enlightened by the light of spirituality, 

To reach the ultimate liberation from spiritual darkness, the book of Exodus introduces its final story. After the liberation from the darkness of Egypt, after the Torah teaches how we can achieve moments of spiritual light by fulfilling the Divine commandments, the Torah teaches the story of the tabernacle.

Moses taught the people to take their everyday, mundane possessions and use them to create a home for G-d. By using these objects for a higher purpose, Moses taught that any object, any possession, any experience, can be a building block for a home to G-d. Eating, working, sleeping, vacationing, anything we do can be a vehicle for spirituality. Any experience can be elevated if it brings us closer to a higher purpose.

And so, the story of the liberation from Egypt teaches us how to escape the darkness of slavery. The story of the giving of the Torah teaches us how to find refuge in a holy experience. The final story of the book, teaches us how to find light in each and every experience. It teaches us that the Divine, represented by the cloud, can rest “in all their journeys”, in whatever we do. As the final verse of the book states:

"For the cloud of the Lord was upon the Mishkan by day, and there was fire within it at night, before the eyes of the entire house of Israel in all their journeys."[5][6]

 

 


[1] Exodus 40, 34 and 38. 

[2] The first major story of the book, spanning four portions, describes the the Exodus from Egypt, beginning with the slavery, continuing with the story of Moses, the ten plagues, the Exodus, culminating with the splitting of the sea of reeds. The second major story, spanning three portions, is the story of the giving of the Torah. This includes the giving of the ten commandments at Sinai, many of the Torah’s civil law, and the giving of the the second tablets after the first set were broken by Moses due to the sin of the golden calf. The third major story, is the story of the Jewish people donating materials and building the tabernacle, a home for the Divine. 

[3] The traditional Hebrew name of the second book is “Shmot”, which means “names”, it is named for a word that appears in the beginning of the book.

[4] Rabbah, Bireyshit, 3rd Parsha. 

[5] Exodus 40, 34 and 38. 

[6] Based on the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutey Sichos vol. 6 page 239. 

Temple Time Zones

Temple Time Zones

the-Mishkan.jpg

The commandment to build the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, was not only in order to construct a temporary Temple for worship on the journey from Egypt to Israel. Rather, our Sages explain, it was also a commandment to construct a figurative temple, within the heart of every Jew, in every generation.

Thus, the sages and mystics set out to explain the inner meaning of the temple and its vessels, they expanded the symbolism of its materials and colors, they showed how every detail of these commandments can be applied to the spiritual life of every Jew.  

The Mishkan, the portable temple, had three sections. There was a courtyard in which there was an altar for the animal offerings, and where the Israelites would stand when they would come to the temple. Within the courtyard stood the actual Mishkan, the tent of meeting, which was divided into two rooms. The larger outer room, the “holy”, contained the “vessels”: the Menorah, the table with the showbread, as well as the inner gold altar for incense. The inner room of the tent of meeting, “the holy of holies”, contained nothing but the ark with the tablets. It was the holiest part of the temple, only the high priest, on the holiest day of the year, would enter the holy of holies.

How are these three sections of the temple - the courtyard, the holy, and the holy of holies - relevant to our lives today?

Our spiritual life is about constructing a figurative temple that contains all three sections. We then move between the courtyard, the holy and the holy of holies. We experience each room with its unique environment and atmosphere. Life is about navigating these rooms.

One way to look at the three areas of the temple, is to view then as three dimensions within time. The courtyard, the most mundane place in the temple, represents the six days of the work week, during which time we are primarily involved with the material world, struggling to make a living, to produce and to achieve material success.

The courtyard was somewhat of a chaotic place. There were people and animals moving about, the priests would wash their hands and feet with the water from the basin, they would offer the animal offerings, slaughtering the animals, cleaning them and burning some of the animal parts on the altar. Other parts of the offerings were cooked and eaten by the priests and the Israelites. All this activity represents life during the weekdays, the noise created by the tension between the material and the spiritual. The activity in the courtyard, the offering of a physical animal as an offering to G-d, represents the struggle to be in the world, to achieve material success, yet at the same time to sanctify the material and the animal within man, to connect the mundane to a higher purpose and calling. Most of our week is spent in the figurative courtyard.

And then, the Shabbat arrives.

On Shabbat we retreat from our work, we embrace our family, and we rest. We dedicate time to nourish our soul. On Shabbat we enter the holy, the outer chamber of the tent of meeting, we experience its peace and tranquility. Everything on the Shabbat, including the Shabbat meals, is holy. It is a commandment to derive pleasure from food and drink on Shabbat, because the food of Shabbat is itself considered holy. The outer chamber, the holy, contained the light of the Menorah and the pleasurable smell of the incense, representing the pleasure we experience from spiritual activities.

And then, once a year, we enter the holy of holies. Once a year, on Yom Kippur, we become spiritual beings. On Yom Kippur we don’t eat or drink. On Yom Kippur we connect to our essence, to our soul that is completely spiritual and has no need for food or drink.

Each of these steps - the challenge of the material world, the sanctification of the material on Shabbat, and transcending the material and being completely spiritual on Yom Kippur - is a critical part of our mission to make a dwelling place for the Divine on this earth. We must move between the varying degrees of holiness of Yom Kippur, Shabbat and the weekdays. Each of these experiences must influence the others. The person we are on Yom Kippur must influence the person we are on a simple Wednesday afternoon.

We each have a body and soul, a material side and a spiritual side. To fulfill the purpose of creation we must live, not in one dimension, but rather we must move between the different levels of holiness. We must make time for each of the three stages of being.

We must experience each of the three sections of our own temple. While we do spend most of our time in the courtyard, we must remember that while we need to be in the courtyard to fulfill the Divine will, our core, our essence, our soul,  is at home only in the holy of holies. [1]

 


[1] Inspired by the teachings of the Rebbe, Reshimas Hamenora. 

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