Darkness into light
A famous story from the Talmud relates a simple question, but with cosmic implications. "Rabbi Zera happened upon Rabbi Yehuda standing at the door to his father in law's house. He was in a good mood, and R'Zet saw that it was an auspicious time to ask him any question in the world. "These (dark) goats', he asked, "why are there so many of them at the beginning of the herd, while at the end one finds (white) sheep?" Rabbi Yehuda answered him, "it's like the creation of the world: first there was darkness and then light".
On the surface, a cute analogy. The natural world follows patterns which were established from the first days of creation, and if we look carefully, we can find them in every detail of creation. But the purpose of the Talmud was more than to make cute analogies. It was to teach us about the nature of life itself. Here's another example, this one from the Midrash (same protagonists as the Talmud); a Roman matron came to Rabbi Akiva and asked him, "if G-d wanted the foreskin to be cut away, why did He create it" R'Akiva answered, "fresh olives need preparation". Not everything comes into the world ready for use. Just like olives need to be marinated and pickled before they are edible, so does the foreskin have to be removed."
Olives, darkness and light bring us to the essence of the third month of the Jewish year, Kislev. Corresponding roughly to the month of December, Kislev is the bridge between the temperature autumn months and the frigid winter. Twenty two hundred years ago, a band of Jewish guerrilla fighters drove the Roman legions out of Israel for a couple of years. That was miraculous enough, but the true miracle was the finding of a small flask of pure olive oil, necessary in order to re-consecrate the holy Temple. Enough to last one day, it actually kept the lights of the menorah in the Temple burning for eight days. The Hebrew word for oil, "shemen", is also alluded to by the word for eight "shemona". Both point to a realm beyond nature, a spiritual realm which transcends creation. Oil floats above water. Water is the revealed part of the Torah,-the law and the logic. Oil is the mystical dimension of the Torah; -the secrets and the Kaballah. The romans didn't like anything which isn't logical, which transcends intellect. They refused to allow the Jews to practice those parts of their religion which go beyond intellect. The successful campaign of the Jews to throw the Romans out of their land, represents the victory of the spiritual over the strictly intellectual, of freedom over oppression. It culminated on the month of Kislev, when we celebrate Chanuka. Chanukah extends from the end of Kislev into the cold winter month of Teves, symbolizing the ability of spirituality to illuminate even the coldest, darkest months of the year.
It was also during Kislev that one of the formative events of the intellectual history of Judaism took place. It was in the early days of the Chassidic movement. The Ba'al Shem Tov, and his disciple, the Maggid of Mezerich (R' Dov Ber), had already put the movement on firm footing, and in the late seventeenth hundred's it was spreading to all four corners of the Jewish world. One of It's main protagonists was R' Shneur Zalman of the town of Liadi, who became the founder of the intellectual branch known as Chabad Chassidut, later centered in the town of Lubavitch. In 1797, R' Shneur Zalman was thrown into the Czarist jail on baseless charges of sedition. In the month of Kislev, 1797, he was acquitted and released. It was during this traumatic experience that he transformed his brief expositions of Chassidic doctrine into the detailed intellectual system which is known today as Chabad Chassidut. The inner-dimensional discourses which characterize Chabad Chassidut are a natural overgrowth of the Zohar and Kaballah, and reveal within them new levels of spiritual meaning.
Why should it have taken a traumatic event such as incarceration to trigger the expansion of Chabad Chassidut - R' Shneur Zalman (also known as the Alter Rebbe or the Ba'al a Tanya), answered the question himself. An olive is full of the most refined oil, he explined. It's the best oil for cooking, and for light, as well as for spiritual purposes such as lighting the menorah in the Holy Temple. However, one doesn't obtain the oil except by squeezing the olive. If the olive doesn't go to the press, no oil emerges. The same is true of a person. Every one of us is full of the highest spiritual potential. However, in order to actualize the spiritual potential, one often must undergo trials and tribulations. That's what it takes in order to bring out the best in us. Therefore, R' Shneur Zalman explained, his incarceration was analogous to the squeezing of the olive, meant from Above to bring out the best in him and create the intellectual system which is Chabad Chassidut.
Which brings us back to Rabbi Akiva and the Roman matron. She wanted to know why G-d created the foreskin if He wanted it to be cut off. R' Akiva answered that fresh olives need preparation. Yes, they are created whole and complete. But in order to get to the essence they need preparation, and often, squeezing. The same is true of R' Yehuda's metaphor. The dark goats come first, followed by the light colored sheep. Why? Because that's the nature of the world - first comes the struggle and the difficult beginning, followed by the light. Any other way doesn't get to the essence, to the bottom of the story. That's the message of the month of Kislev.
"Mastery over Nature - the journey of a tzaddik"
The following is an excerpt from Likutei Dibburim, vol.1 p.89:
"The whole episode of the imprisonment came about with the consent of the Alter Rebbe. And indeed not only the Alter Rebbe, but every tzaddik (riteous person) likewise rules over all material matters. What the Torah has to say about the created universe is decisive: all temporal matters are subject to the dominion of the Torah. It follows that whatever is due to befall a tzaddik takes place only with his consent. And this of course includes the imprisonment of the Alter Rebbe.
Had the Alter Rebbe not been agreeable he would not have been arrested - as witness his journey to Petersburg. On Friday the black wagon remained stationary, and harnessing four hourses to it did not help in the slightest. The wagon did not budge because the Alter Rebbe did not want it to.
Six hours before candle-lighting time the Alter Rebbe did not want to travel any further, so the wagon stopped in its tracks. When the general and his gendarmes understood that this was no simple matter - first an axle had suddenly broken; and when it was repaired one of the hourses collapsed; and when fresh hourses were brought they were unable to drag the wagon an inch - they asked the Alter Rebbe's permission to travel on as far as a nearby village. When he declined, they asked him to allow them to move the wagon to a field at the roadside. To this he agreed, and that is wher they spent Shabbos. This spot is two or three viorsts from Saliba Rudnia, which is near the town of Nevel. The chassid known as "the aged R.Michael" used to relate that he knew chassidim who were able to point out the exact spot at which the Alter Rebbe had spent that Shabbos. In fact he had gone there himself to see it with his own eyes. All the way there he had seen drooping old trees on both sides of the road, but near the spot where the wagon had stopped for Shabbos stood a tall tree with luxuriant foliage..." (translated by R'Uri Kaploun)
"Once in jail, the interrogations took place elsewhere, in a secret compound. In order to go there, they would have to cross a river which interrupted between the jail and the secret compound. A warden would row him across in a boat. Once, while traveling int he boat, the Alter Rebbe wanted to bless the new moon ("kiddush levana"), and he asked the warden to stop the boat. The warden refused, and the Rebbe said to him, "If I want,I myself can stop this boat from traveling." After the warden remained steadfast in his refusal, the boat suddenly stood still on it's own accord. The Rebbe proceeded to say the introductory psalm "Praise is G-d from the heavens," without saying the blessing itself. The boat then proceeded on its way. When the Rebbe requested once more for the warden to stop the boat, he asked, "And what will you give me for doing so?" The Rebbe gave him a blessing, written down in his own hand. That warden went up the ladder of success and lived a long life of wealth and honor...
Once the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, R' Yosef Yitzhak Schneerson ztz'l, told this story, and said that as a child he wondered, since the Rebbe already caused boat to remain stationary, why didn't he just say the entire blessing, rather than making himself beholden to the warden? But when he matured and learned a lot of Chasidus, he understood that therein lies an important principle in service of G-d. The Alter Rebbe had to persuade the warden to stop the boat himself, because a mitzvah can only be performed properly when enclothed in nature, as opposed to coming about through miraculous menas which tanscend nature..." (translated from "Stories of the Chasidim," by S.Y. Zevin)
"From the above, it should be clear that one who had such mastery over physical matters had the option of not being imprisoned at all, not even for an hour. It is apparent that the whole episode of the Alter Rebbe's imprisonment was only a garment, only a vehicle to enable the Alter Rebbe to avoid using supernatural menas in order to achievesome profound purpose." (Likutei Diburim)
LIke all the months of the year, the month of Kislev is associated with several things: a constellation, a trive, an organ of the body, a sense a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and other correspondences, as discussed in the Sefer Yetzira, the B'nei Yissachar, and other holy books.
The tribe of the month is Benjamin, Rachel's second son. When the land of Israel was divided up, Benjamin took the portion in which is found the Holy Temple. His name in Hebrew, Ben-Yamin, literally means the "son of the right," as one of the purposes of the Temple was to draw kindness and peace into the world. The right side is associated kaballistically with chesed, or kindness.
The letter of the month is "samech," which gives the "s" sound in Hebrew, and has the numerical value of sixty. It has the form of an "O," roughly. Another letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the final "mem," has a similar from, while being somewhat more squared off at the corners. Both letters have the characteristic of being closed all around. The sages of Chassidut explain that both letters represent levels of transcedent spiritual light. The "samech," being elliptical, represents a level of transcedence which is beyond attainment. We can know that such a level exists, but we cannot attain it: it is in essence beyond us. The final "mem," though, being al ittle more settled and squat in appearance, represents transcendent spirituality which is nonetheless within our reach. Through meditation and prayer we can attain the level which is represented by the final "mem."
The numerical value of the "samech," sixty, is a significant measure in Jewish law and lore. It is the threshold between significant and insignificant existence. For example, a piece of non-kosher food which falls into a kosher dish (and isn't detectable) is considered insignificant if it's less than one in sity of the kosher dish. Dreams are considered "one sixtieth" of holdy inspiration (ruach hakodesh). One who visits a sick person takes away one sixtieth of his disease. Sleep is considered one sixtieth of the opposite of life. Sixty is the difference between where we are and where we could be if we were on an entirely different spiritual plane.
The sense of the month is sleep. This ties in with the Kaballistic emanation (sphera) of the month, which is netzach (pro-active behavior). The psychological component of netzach is "bitachon," or security: one who is secure isn't afraid to take action. So also, one who is secure is able to go to sleep at night without fear. It is said that King Solomon used to go to sleep at night with sixty guards all around his bed. Both the number and shape (sixty guards surrounding the bed in the form of a "samech") impart security. It is said as well, that King Solomon received most of his wisdom through dreams. Dreams occur during deep sleep, which again comes with security. Likewise, the Torah portions of this month are rife with dreams: Jacob's dream of the ladder reaching up to the heavens, Joseph's dreams of his family, Pharoah's dreams of the seven years of famine and plenty, and finally the dreams of the servants of Pharoh which Joseph interpreted in jail. Kislev is the month of awareness of a realm beyond, coupled with the security needed to take bold steps in order to reach that realm.
The themes of the month of Kislev, which we have touched upon so far, are those of darkness and struggle leading to light, of the hidden wisdom and inner dimensions of the Torah, and of realms of reality which we can dream of and try to attain. Since all this comes in one month, it is appropriate to try to unite thes themes under one concept.
There is a continuity starting from the first month of the Jewish year, Tishrei, and stretching thorugh the following months of Cheshvan and Kislev. This continuity begins with the bright lights of Tishrei, spiritual revelations which determine the course and content of the new year. If they are not internalized, though, the bright lights will not become actualized. They will remain pontential, like neon lights in a room no-one occupies. The month of Cheshvan, devoid of holidays, gives us a period to step back and adjust to the new lights, and create the necessary vessels for containing them. The month of Kislev allows us to "put the illumination in our pockets;" that is, to internalize and start working with the new spritual illumination which was granted to us during Tishrei. The Kaballistic terminology for this achievement is "ohr memalle" (filling, or immanent light) according to the Zohar, or "ohr p'nimi" (inner light) according to Chassidut.
Everything that occurs during this month of Kislev reflects the dynamic relationship between that which is beyond us, and our attempt to internalize it.
A spiritual vessel is by nature "dark," devoid of illumination. Like a body wihtout a soul, like a bulb without electricity, a spiritual vessel needs light. But the vessel and it's light are opposites; one imparts form, while the other is spiritual, formless. Uniting them, like uniting G-d with creation, involves a struggle. Opposites don't come together easily; one part of hte form must become spiritual, while one part of the spiritual must take on form, in order to attain union. That's why the Alter Rebbe, founder of the Chabad movement, didn't interfere when he was brought to jail. He could have prevented the entire, but this would have meant using supernatural (purely spiritual) means to intevene in a natural process, thus interfering in the process of unity of form and spirit. By letting the events take their natureal course, he allowed the spiritual influence of the Chassidic movement to permeate and penetrate the socio-economic fabric of the day, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Thus, he transformed it into a vessel for the revelation of the secrets of the Torah.
The same is true of the struggle between the Jews and Hellenists in the story of Chanukah. The Jewish victory was more than a military achievement in which one side overwhelmed the other. The true miracle was the finding of the spiritually pure oil which remained lit for eight days. The candles of the menorah burned, but were not consumed. They became vessels which themselves provided illumination, rather than becoming overwhelmed by the flames. Just as the true test of knowledge is the ability to teach, so the test of spiritual achievement is the ability to light up one's environment. When the vessel itself illuminates, it is a sign that the spiritual has penetrated and permeated the physical world.
This is also the secret of the month of Kislev. The realm which is beyond us, which with bold and secure steps we can try to access, is not meant to overwhelm us. It is not something to be afraid of, but something which, if we create the proper vessels, can transform and light us up with inner illumination. The spirituality of the month of Kislev is the spirituality of inner illumination. It penetrates us to the depth this month, imparting to us the ability to face and illuminate the coming winter months.
Stories for the Chanukkah Lights
Great preparation went into the Chanukah lighting ceremony of the tzaddik, R'David of Telna. His menorah was made of pure gold by an expert craftsman with a lot of thought and skill. The Chassidim would gather with tremendous holiday spirit, and their songs and spirit would fill up the Chanukah nights. Once, on the first night of Chanukah, as the Rebbe was preparing to light his Chanukah lights and all the chasidim were standing crowded around him, the Rebbe approached one of them and said, "Listen. Your wife is a dwarf. What's your custom when you speak to her? Do you bend down to her, or does she lift herself up to you?" Immediately upon uttering these words, the Rebbe turned to his candles, made the blessing, and lit, without so much as waiting for an answer from the man.
All those who were present, including the man, were astonished at his inexplicable behavior. At that time, the Rebbe had as his guest the grandson of his brother, the tzaddik R'Mordecai Dov of Hernistopol. He also stood witht he chasidim at the times of candle-lighting and heard the strange question of his grand-uncle. When he saw the puzzlement of the chasidim, he said to them, "I'll explain to you the words of my grand-uncle the tzaddik. The Talumd says "The shechina (G-dly presence) never descends to within less than ten tefachim (a measure of distance) of the earth." The exception to this rule is during Chanukah lighting time, since the menorah must bilt within ten tefachim of the ground, whereupon the shechina descends to within ten. In the kaballistic writings of the holy Ari, it says that this is what is menat by "If your wife is a dwarf, bend down and whisper to her. And this is what the tzaddik was hinting at with his strange words."
The next day, the second candle-lighting, the tzaddik of Telna turned once more to one his chassidim and said something which was not understood. And then he turned to his relative, the tzaddik of Hernistopol and said, "This time, you won't succeed in interpreting as you did yesterday." r'Mordecai was very impressed by the holy spirit of his grand-uncle, the tzaddik of Telna.
One Chanukah night, the tzaddik R'Nahum of Shtiphinisky, the son of R'Yisroel of Ruzhin, suddenly entered his house of study and found people there sitting and playing "checkers," as is the custom in some places on Chanukah. Upon seeing that their Rav had entered the room, were startled. The tzaddik turned to them and asked, "Do you know the rules of this game?" They were quiet. He continued: "I'll tell you the rules. You sacrifice one, in order to get two. It's not permitted to take more thn one step at a time. You can only go in one direction, up and not down. When you arrive at the top, you can then go to any place that you want...
When the son of R'Ytizhak Isaac got married, and was dependent upon his father-in-law, the tzaddik R'Avraham of Stritin, he saw that his father-in-law spent a lot of time in prayer and supplication following the lightin of the Chanukah candles every night. He was puzzled that his own father took only a quarter of an hour witht he blessings and psalms, and asked him about it. R'Yitzhak Isaac answered him: "In truth, it's a miracle that at the hour that I bless the candles, I myself don't burn away with them, and you want me to stay by them for hours and hours?!"
Translated from "Chassidic Stories" By R' S.Y.Zevin
Standing on the Mt. Of Olives
"And on that day, His feet stood on the Mount of Olives, nearby Jerusalem from the east, and the mount of Olives split from east to west, leaving a great chasm, while one half of the mountain moved northward and the other half south ward" (Zecharia 14:4)
The prophet Zecharia prophesied that in the end of days, just before the appearance of Meshiach (the Jewish messiah), a major earthquake will hit Jerusalem. (It is well known that several fault lines exist in Israel. One of them runs along the Jordan valley and converges on Jerusalem). Nobody seems to be too concerned; in fact, the Mount of Olives is the site of a major Jewish cemetery. Is this earthquake necessarily going to be a catastrophic affair? Here's one scenario, based upon the inner dimensions of Torah:
Oil, as we've already said, floats above water. It is a metaphor for the source of the highest of the ten spherot (G-dly emanations), "chochma" (G-dly wisdom or insight). Chochma itself is represented by water, while the source of chochma is symbolized by oil. Oil , of course comes from olives (in our case), which grow on the mount of Olives.
When a tree or plant grows, It's because something in the ground is nourishing it. The olive trees in the Mount of Olives gain their nourishment from the ground, meaning that the minerals and organic matter within the mountain give rise to the olive trees. Thus, we can point to the olive oil and say, this oil came from the minerals and organic matter of the Mt. of Olives. Using the metaphor inversely, we would say that "the source of wisdom itself has an origin". (An "origin" is to be differentiated from a "source" in that an origin can, but need not produce something, whereas a source by definition gives rise to something else. Thus, the ground can but won't necessarily produce vegetation, while the olive invariably contains oil). In other words, there is a chain of events leading from an origin to a source and finally to a revealed flash of inspiration. The mountain gives rise to the oil which gives rise to G-dly wisdom.
However, all of this is before the advent of Meshiach. In messianic times, the ultimate origin of spiritual wisdom will itself be revealed, obviating the necessity for a series of events leading to the revelation of spiritual wisdom. An example of this already occurred in Jewish history; King Solomon was the wisest of all men because the ultimate source of wisdom was revealed to him by G-d. He needed three thousand parables and examples in order to bring this wisdom down to the realm of ordinary mortal intellect. But the wisdom of Meshiach will be even greater; he will be able to open the hearts and minds of men to apprehend the ultimate origin of wisdom without any parables and examples whatsoever. In fact, young children will posses prophetic powers as a matter of natural course. This is what is meant by the verses, "and one person will no longer teach the other, because everyone will know me (Jeremiah, 31:33), "your teachers will no longer hide things from you" (Isaiah 31:20), "the honor of G-d will be revealed and all the flesh will see" (Isaiah 40:5), " I will pour my spirit over all flesh and you sons and daughters will prophesy." (Joel 3:1).
The ultimate knowledge of G-d will be opened up by Meshiach not as a learning process in which one first grasps one point and then another until he has mastered the entire subject. It will be revealed as a sense as natural as eyesight or smell. This already took place temporarily on Mt. Sinai , with the giving of the Torah, and was the case with Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. This, then, is what is meant by "the Mt. of Olives will split in half from the east to the west". East to west represents the length which is the teaching process before the advent of Meshiach: one must first understand one point, and then grasp another, abstract one parable and then another example until he has mastered the whole subject. But the future earthquake will tear asunder the whole learning process and reveal the essence for all to see. There will be revelation of prophesy for everyone. This is the true interpretation of the earthquake on the Mt. of Olives.the proper approach to the land of Israel calls for coming to the land from the west, facing an easterly direction (according to Kaballah). Then, the south of the land is on the right, and the north is on the left. Right and left represent kindness (chesed) and strictness (gevura) according to the sages of the hidden wisdom. Kindness and strictness are both manifestations of G-dly influence; in their source, they both stem from His infinite light. One strives to reveal His light, the other deems necessary to hide it. But when the future "earthquake hits", one half of the mountain will jump to the right (southward), and the other to the left (northward). The dichotomy of kindness and strictness, of revelation and contraction, will cease to exist. The split on the mountain will reveal His infinite light and His essence, overriding all duality. Then , not only the olive oil, but the origin of the olive oil, will be evident to everyone, and the secrets of the Torah will be at everyone's fingertips.
The Talmud (Succah p.5) makes a statement: "never did the "shechinah" (G-dly revelation) descend lower than ten "tefachim" (a measure of length)". Never was G-d totally revealed down here in this world. It then asks, what about the statement of Zecharia that "His legs stood on the Mount of Olives" (seeming to indicate that He was revealed down here in this world?). The Talmud answers, "that entire event took place above ten tefachim". By ten "tefachim" is meant the ten spherot (G-dly emanations). Never in history was G-d totally revealed within the ten spherot. After all, they are manifestations of Him, not He Himself. Well then, asks the Talmud, what about when He stood in the Mount of Olives? And the Talmud answers, "that, when it comes about, will be a revelation from above the ten spherot." It will be a revelation of He Himself in His essence, and in such a way that we will be able to absorb it.
Adapted from Sefer Ma'amorim 1980-09, pp 40-46, by the Rebbe R'Shalom Dov Ber of Lubavitch