-- Samech Vov 100 Years – Part Three --
How high can mortal humans reach? Being finite
creatures can we even expect to touch the sky? From the
beginning of time people have been seeking immortality.
Is this a hopeless quest?
This week’s column addresses these fundamental
questions based on the continuing discussion in the Rebbe
Rashab’s magnum opus, Hemshech Samech Vov. 100 years ago
this week, the discourse of Parhsat Noach 5666/1905, dissects
the anatomy of our finite existence and explains how we
can free ourselves from its bounds without annihilating
The transition from the holiday season to
the regular scheduled year is a microcosm that reflects
life’s greatest challenge: the struggle we have in
balancing our spiritual and material lives. No person is
immune of the two forces that tug at us all the time: The
need to survive, something we spend most of our lives doing;
the need to transcend above and beyond our routines. Humans
simply do not have the luxury of animal bliss – the
ability to be satisfied by survival alone, as, say, the
cow peacefully grazing in the meadows, breeding and tending
to its young, with no worry in the world or motivation to
Healthy human life requires a delicate balance
between a proper measure of angst and inner satisfaction.
The Kabbalists teach us that all of existence
divides into space, time, and spirit (man). Indeed, the
entire Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Formation) – considered
to be the earliest Kabbalistic work – is based on
this triad principle. So the human spirits’ struggle
between the transcendent and the mundane is reflected in
space – sacred places vs. secular ones, and in time
– the holiday season vs. ordinary days.
The holidays are an oasis in time; they have
the power to lift us on their wings and help us soar above
the din of the rat race below. However the purpose of life
is not to remain on “the mountain,” not to escape
into spiritual insulation, but to carry the transcendence
down below; to live in the material world, transform and
elevate it to spiritual heights.
This is our challenge as we enter the New
Year. Following the holiday-rich month of Tishrei, comes
the month of Cheshvan, completely devoid of any holidays.
We now enter into real life, challenged to infuse it with
higher consciousness (see The
Raven and the Dove: How to Deal With Existential Loneliness)
The big question is how? How do we lift ourselves
and the world around us? It’s hard enough not to feel
besieged and dragged down by the relentless seductions of
material life, the unyielding distractions of temptation
and the narcissistic forces of greed that surround every
moment of our lives. It’s difficult enough to not
slip into apathy or resignation. Let alone generate transcendent
Appropriately the Samech Vov discourse said
100 years ago this week addresses this dilemma.
The universe is intrinsically finite. The
limits of our existence are not merely in perception. It’s
not only that due to the great tzimtzum the Divine infinite
reality is concealed from us, but in addition to the tzimtzum
the Arizal explains that existence comes into being through
a “kav” – a ray of energy, that is both
measured itself and measures and defines the gradations
of all existence. Had there been only a tzimtzum and no
“kav” one could argue that existence is not
an independent reality or inherently finite; it only appears
that way to us being that its infinite reality is concealed.
Had existence come into being via many “kavim,”
then there would be an existence, however it would lack
diversity and gradations. Bringing existence into being
via one single kav, which is like a straight line ruler,
creates the inherent diversity of our existence. Thus, our
universe is innately limited, structured and defined.
This only intensifies the question: How can
we ever redeem ourselves from the inherent finite boundaries
of the universe and achieve true transcendence? If it were
only a matter of perception, than the challenge would be
to get beyond our limited “doors of perception”
(William Blake: “If the doors of perception were cleansed
everything would appear to man as it is, infinite”).
But since existence itself is deterministically finite,
shaped by the finite “kav,” how when ever transcend
our own parameters?
Philosophers and mystics over time have concluded
that the only way is to either accept that transcendence
is a sweet but impossible dream, or that transcendence comes
only after death or through shedding our finite personalities.
The Torah – Samech Vov explains – offers a
third option: The Mitzvah.
A mitzvah too has finite parameters. Every
mitzvah has its specific guidelines, dimensions or measurements.
Yet, the finite nature of the mitzvah is fundamentally different
than the finite nature of the universe. The universe is
defined by its parameters; a mitzvah is not.
It is expressed and releases its power through its finite
parameters, but the mitzvah itself is without boundaries.
A mitzvah is therefore essentially a finite
form of infinity. To be true so is the universe: It too
is a manifestation of Divine infinite energy. However, once
the universe has manifested in its finite parameters it
is bound and defined by them, with no escape
hatch. By contrast, a mitzvah retains its infinite nature,
it remains a Divine edict rather than a “law of nature.”
When we eat, sleep or partake in any other
natural activity – we have no choice. As limited creatures
ruled by the laws of nature, certain rules are necessary
for basic survival. However a mitzvah is done by our choice
– we choose to commit to a defined mode
of behavior, not because we are forced to by the nature
of our physical needs.
Thus a mitzvah has the power to redeem and
free us from our finite confines.
A mitzvah is infinite energy in a finite discipline,
thereby bridging the infinite and the finite. Other transcendent
activities that we may partake in can perhaps give us a
temporary taste of the infinite beyond Blake’s “doors
of perception”. But a physical mitzvah is the only
way to experience the infinite while maintaining our “doors
of perception” and other finite elements of our personalities.
Paradoxically, the self-imposed (by choice)
restrictions of a mitzvah, is precisely what frees us from
our naturally imposed (without choice) parameters.
Based on the power of the mitzvah Samech Vov
explains the opening verse of this week’s Torah portion:
“These are the offspring of Noah. Noach was a tzaddik
(righteous man).” Rashi comments that teaches us that
“the primary offspring of the righteous are good deeds,”
based on the Midrash that the “fruits of tzaddikim
are their mitzvoth and good deeds.” Notwithstanding
Noah’s biological progeny and spiritual contributions,
his primary achievements are his mitzvoth which have the
power to transform a finite world into a Divine one.
And this follows the central theme of Samech
Vov. The opening discourse addresses life’s purpose:
To transform the material world into a home for the Divine,
and draw down new unprecedented energy that expresses “the
innermost aspect and essence of the Infinite Light”
(higher than the light that filled the ‘space’
before the tzimtzum).
Samech Vov then continues with a comprehensive
discussion on the power of human initiative, how we have
the ability to transform the world and generate new energy,
through our mitzvoth.
This message, which is relevant all year round,
is especially appropriate as we transition from the holidays
and enter our ordinary lives, when our big existential issues
come to the fore. Are we limited? Are we alone? What hope
do we have to reach upward? How high can we go?
No time is better than now to reflect on the
power of the mitzvah, and make our appropriate commitments.
For the New Year many have the custom to add or intensify
doing a new mitzvah, to assume a new commitment, with new
focus, intention and passion.
What better way to begin the year?
Doing a mitzvah can be the difference between
a life of enslavement in a finite bottle, or freeing your
finite being by and becoming a piece of finite infinity.