PALACE OF THE KING

Most of Parshat Breishit—the opening portion of the Book of Genesis— deals with the creation of the world. In commenting on it, the sages of the Midrash describe what G-d thought about His creation:

Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa said, “It’s like a king who built a palace for his son. When the palace was finished, the king liked it, and said, ‘I hope that you will always be as pleasing to me as you are now.’”

Rabbi Yohanan said, “It’s like a king who is marrying off his daughter. He made her a canopy and built her a house, painting, ornamenting and drawing on it. When it was finished, he was pleased with it, and said, ‘I hope you will always be as pleasing to me as you are now.’”

What is the difference between the two parables? About what are these two sages arguing?

In responding to these questions, the Chassidic Master known as Shem miShmuel explains that there are various opinions about what is more important to G-d—the Torah or His chosen people, the Jews. The Zohar, for example, says Torah is as great as the Creator Himself. But Maimonides (Rambam) says that the purpose of the Torah is to uplift and refine the Jews by way of the commandments, implying the Jews take precedence over the Torah. Likewise, the sage Tana Debei Eliyahu says that the Torah is like an old servant who teaches the king’s young son.

Shem miShmuel resolves these differences of opinion by suggesting that it all depends on whether we are talking about the “revealed Torah” (the stated laws and commandments) or the “concealed Torah” (the inner dimensions and secrets of the Torah). The “revealed Torah” is meant to help the Jews elevate themselves toward holiness and spirituality. Since the “revealed Torah” is meant to teach/serve them, clearly the Jews take precedence. However, the secrets of the Torah are meant to bring G-dly revelation into the world. The universe—in Hebrew olam, which also means “concealment”—is in need of spiritual transformation. The Jews are the agents of this change, but it is the “concealed Torah” that brings about the transformation. When the Jews learn its inner dimensions, they enable the Torah to affect the entire creation, illuminating and elevating it. In relation to its hidden dimensions, the Torah takes precedence over the Jews.

Now we can better understand the two competing parables from the Midrash.

According to Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa, the palace is where the king dwells with his family. The palace is the universe, the king is G-d, and His family are the chosen people, the Jews. Therefore, to Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa, the more important element is the Jewish people for whom the palace/universe as built/created.

According to Rabbi Yochanan, who describes a king who builds a house and a canopy so that he can marry off his daughter, the Torah is more important. The house is the world and the Torah is the daughter, while the bridegroom that the king chooses is the Jewish people. The king’s good intentions are on behalf of His daughter, and it is only for the Torah that G-d brings the Jews “into the fold.”

Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa refers to the “revealed” Torah, where the Jews are more important, while Rabbi Yochanan refers to the Torah’s inner dimensions, and on this level the Torah is of greater importance.

Shem miShmuel adds that this refers only to the superficial levels of the Jewish soul. However, when a Jew learns any part of the Torah with all his powers from the essence of his soul, then it does not matter whether he is learning the concealed or the revealed Torah. The essence of his soul connects with the essence of the Torah, and elevates and refines the entire world and himself as well.

What’s left is only to understand why the One Above said to His world, “I hope that you will always be as pleasing to me as you are now…”

Shem miShmuel explains that everyone likes things when they are new, and everyone tends to tire of things that are old. The one who prays and learns with excitement is the one who brings newness to the universe and to the One Above. Therefore, on this first Shabbat of the new cycle of readingthe Torah, the Midrash wants to tell us that the best way to bring pleasure to the One Above is to study and pray with excitement and enthusiasm.

LIGHT OF THE UNIVERSE

Another difference of opinion in the Midrash concerns two sages who disagreed about what was created first: The universe or light.

Rabbi Yehuda said that light came first, because a king who builds a palace must first illuminate the area before he can lay the foundations. But, Rabbi Nehemiah said that the world was created first, just as a king first builds his palace and later puts in all the lighting.

Shem miShmuel notes that this debate concerns the dimension of space but could be extended to the dimensions of soul and time (since the Torah was given in these three dimensions).

He suggests that there is also a question about whether the experience of holiness and spirituality (light) comes first, inspiring us to perform good deeds (construct our palace), or whether we must first build a storehouse of good deeds so that we can aspire to receive the light of spiritual experience.

It is true that without some sort of spiritual awakening, few people would have the initiative to look for G-d and to try to do what He wants. As a matter of fact, the greatest Kabbalist of all time, the Ari, said that no spiritual behavior below in this world occurs without a stimulus from above. But it is debatable which takes precedence. Is the initial arousal from above more important because it prompts human action and leaves no room for negative forces to interfere? Or is the awakening from below more important because it suggests that the merit of our deeds brings down spirituality from above — and isn’t that the whole purpose of man’s creation?

Shem miShmuel suggests that the Midrashic difference of opinion could  apply to Shabbat in the dimension of time. According to Rabbi Yehuda, who said light was created first, the evening of Shabbat is the most important part of the day because that is when we receive our “extra soul” (neshama yetera).However, Rebbe Nehemia, who said that the universe came first, claims that the Shabbat daytime is more important, because it brings a higher level of spirituality than the night. The “extra soul” is a gift given to us to begin Shabbat evening, but the basic level of spirituality available during Shabbat daytime is higher when we use our own powers to serve G-d, and therefore the daytime takes precedence.

COMPLETION

When we acknowledge the coming of Shabbat by saying at the conclusion of evening prayers “And the heavens and earth were completed,” Vayechulu hashamayim v’haretz—quoting from Parshat Breishit—we are making a statement about the spiritual state of creation.

Shem miShmuel says that before the first Shabbat, the seventh day of creation, every creature existed for itself. Every plant, mineral and animal was an individual without connection to the others. But, with the entrance of Shabbat, a new spirit of life permeated the universe, and every creature became a part of an organic whole, contributing in its own way to the functioning of the universe. Just as when a body is healthy, all the limbs and organs and work together in a coordinated fashion, so the universe is meant to work best when all creations play their role in the “organization.”

That’s the meaning, says Shem miShmuel of the word Vayechulu (generally translated as “and were completed”). The root of this word (kaf-lamed) is also the root of the word clal, meaning “general principle,” and of cali, meaning “vessel.” In all instances, unity and coordination is implied. A general principle includes everything, every creature. The purpose of a vessel is to unite all that is within it. The universe became a vessel on Shabbat, and absorbed the general principle of unity. That is why we say Vayechulu on Shabbat.

There’s a principle in the inner dimensions (the secret side) of Torah that whatever takes place in the spiritual realms applies to the dimensions of space (the universe), time and soul. If Shabbat brings unity and cooperation to the universe, it does so for the soul as well. The heavens and earth in the dimension of space correspond to the mind and heart in the soul/person.
We achieve serenity (in Hebrew yishuv hada’at or literally a “settled mind”) on Shabbat, when our heart and mind work together. When the thoughts sway the heart, and the heart willingly follows the mind, the result is yishuv hada’at. When the mind and heart work together, it leads to a “settled mind.” Just as Shabbat brings peace to the universe by uniting creatures, it brings inner
peace to human beings, allowing our mind and heart to work in synchrony.

Now we can understand a curious statement by the Ari z’l, who said that Adam’s sin was that he did not wait until Shabbat, the seventh day, to be with his wife. Shem miShmuel explains that by not waiting, Adam missed the wholeness and holiness that Shabbat brings, and therefore brought upon himself and Eve the knowledge of good and bad—of separation—rather than the awareness of unity and synchrony that comes with Shabbat.

We can also now understand the statement of the Maharal of Prague, that the difference between exile (golah) and redemption (geulah) lies in one letter— aleph. This first letter of the alphabet, which has the numerical value of one, and represents unity and cooperation, is missing from golah. Since Shabbat brings the spirit of unity to the universe, it brings geulah—redemption—as well.


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