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ב"ה

Cedar and Hyssop - מצורע

Friday, 12 April, 2019 - 8:47 am

Cain and Abel - Cedar and Hyssop

Two brothers, born to the same parents, yet they could not have been more different from one another. Kayin and Hevel, the children of Adam and Eve, each embodied a fundamentally different attitude toward life.

The Torah describes the birth of Kayin:  

Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Kayin (Cain), and she said, "I have acquired a man with the Lord."

The name Kayin comes from the word “acquired”. Eve named her son Kayin and hoped he would embody her own aspirations to acquire, to possess, to succeed in self preservation. The human being has a deep need to feel independent, strong, and materially successful’ to experience self worth and to feel pride on his or her own self.

Eve had another son, she named him Hevel (Abel):

and she continued to bear his brother Hevel, and Hevel was a shepherd of flocks, and Cain was a tiller of the soil.

The word Hevel means “emptiness”, “futility”. Eve names her son Hevel, because she sensed that he was a deeply spiritual person to whom materialism, and physical existence, was insignificant and futile. The brothers were very different  but they were born into the same family because G-d hoped that they would affect one another; that Kayin would ground Hevel by teaching him the importance of physical existence, while Hevel’s spiritual attitude would protect Kayin’s sense of self from becoming egotistical and narcissistic.

Sadly, the brothers never learned to communicate and interact with each other. Kayin, unchecked, had an out-of-control sense of self, cared about no one other than himself, and thus descended to murdering his own brother. Hevel also sinned. His sin was that he did not engage in self defense. To him, material life was futile, and insignificant, thus he did not engage in protecting the sanctity of his own life. Both brothers sinned because they did not learn to integrate their individual qualities. They did not learn that the sense of self that wants to exist and acquire (Kayin), must be cultivated, sanctified, and balanced by the humility that comes from sensing the transcendent (Hevel).

The story of brothers who failed to harmonize their qualities can shed light onto an obscure law in the book of Leviticus. The Torah tells us of the process of the purification for the person afflicted with Tzaraat (skin discoloration):

Then the Kohen shall order, and the person to be cleansed shall take two live, clean birds, a cedar stick, a strip of crimson [wool], and hyssop. (Leviticus 14:4) 

Rashi explains the significance of the cedar and hyssop used in the purification process:  

a cedar stick: Because lesions of tzara’ath come because of haughtiness [symbolized by the tall cedar].

and hyssop: What is the remedy that he may be healed [of his tzara’ath]? He must humble himself from his haughtiness.

According to Rashi, the cedar’s height represents haughtiness while the lowly hyssop grass represents  humility. But if that is the case then why is the cedar a part of the purification process, does the cedar not represent the cause of the spiritual malady which the person needs to correct?

The cedar and hyssop teach us that in order to be pure and holy one must not declare war on the sense of self. Rather, holiness, in Judaism, is to harmonize the tall cedar, the feeling of self, the desire to possess, acquire and succeed, with the humble hyssop. To achieve purity we must sanctify the desire to acquire, and the sense of self,  utilizing our possessions, our talents and our strength in the service of G-d, spreading goodness and kindness in the world. The humble hyssop, too, must cultivate the feeling of the tall cedar, a sense of confidence and pride in order to embrace the world and transform it.

Purity is about harmonizing the cedar and the hyssop, the Kain and the Hevel, the desire to possess and the futility of materialism. Holiness is when the feeling of self is cultivated and dedicated to the service of that which is greater than the self.

(Adapted from Shem Mishmuel)

 

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