And Esther was taken to King Achashverosh, into his royal house, in the tenth month, the month of Tevet…
“And Esther was taken to King Achashverosh… in the month of Tevet”—a month in which a body derives pleasure from a body.
Talmud, Megillah 13a
“A body derives pleasure from a body”—because of the cold. It was arranged from Heaven that she be brought at such a time, in order to make her desirable to him.
The Torah may be viewed as the ultimate historical work, chronicled by the Author of History Himself. It may be seen as the ultimate legal code, legislated by the Supreme Inventor of Law. These it indeed is. But it is also more: within the basic meaning of the laws and events it relates lie layer upon layer of significance, describing the essence of the human soul, of creation and reality, and of G-d’s relationship with our existence. In the words of Nachmanides, “The Torah discusses the ephemeral and alludes to the supernal.” 1
Thus, our sages interpret the Book of Esther as more than a chronicle of the events of Purim. It is also the story of a relationship: in the “supernal” version, King Achashverosh is the “King Who the End and Beginning are His,” 2 and Esther, His bride Israel.
In light of this, we can gain deeper insight into what the Talmud says about the month in which Esther was brought to Achashverosh’s palace. This is not only one of the many Divinely arranged “coincidences” which comprise the miracle of Purim; it is also a description of a most vital element of G-d’s bond with His people. Tevet, the coldest month of the year, 3 marks a time in our relationship with the Almighty in which “a body derives pleasure from a body.”
The Mortal Mirror
In human relationships, the union of man and woman has both a spiritual and physical dimension. There is the spiritual bonding of minds and hearts—the fulfillment each derives from the other’s intelligence, emotions, wit, character. But the “pleasure” in the relationship, in the most potent and palpable sense of the word, lies in its physical aspect, in the contact and union of their bodies.
The same is true of the ultimate relationship between man and woman–the supernal prototype that all male-female relationships are evolved from and mirror–the bond between G-d and Israel. Here, too, exist both a “spiritual” and a “bodily” aspect. Here, too, the most powerful element of the relationship is the one in which “a body derives pleasure from a body.”
The human body is often seen as nothing more than a physical container and tool of the soul. In truth, however, the body is also the soul’s counterpart and counterpole: while the soul is the seat of our spiritual identity–our sense of mission and purpose, of connectedness to a higher truth–the body is the source of our material self, our sense of distinctiveness and apartness of being. The soul is “part of G-d above” and ever conscious of its insignificance in the face of its Divine Source; it recognizes the cardinal law of existence that “There is none else beside Him.” 4 On the other hand, the body has been imbued with a concreteness and substantiality which, in effect, smother all awareness of its Creator. It is the body that creates the “I am” feeling which underlies the ego-centrism of physical life.
Comprised of both body and soul, we enlist them both in our relationship with G-d. We serve Him with our spiritual selves: with our Torah study, we inculcate our mind with His wisdom; in prayer, we meditate upon His greatness, seeking to develop a love and awe of Him in our hearts. In these and other ways, we strive to exercise the mastery of mind over matter, the supremacy of spirit over substance. We strive to subordinate the body’s selfish drives and express our soul’s self-nullifying attachment to its Creator.
Substance and Spirit
But this is only one side of the relationship. Also the body serves G-d, not only as an instrument of the soul but also with its own resources and the material identity it generates.
The purpose of creation, say our sages, is that “G-d desired a dwelling in the lowly realms.” 5 The “lowly realms” is our physical world, lowly because of its spiritual distance from its source, its illusion of self-sufficiency, its almost total blackout of anything transcendent and Divine. But it is here that G-d wished to make His home, desiring that this “lowly realm” be made to house and express His quintessential self. 6
Thus, we serve G-d primarily with physical deeds and objects: the mitzvos which govern our business dealing, family life, diet and dress; the physical act of binding the teffilin, leather boxes containing parchment scrolls, on one’s arm and head; eating matzoh on Passover, sounding a ram’s horn on Rosh Hashanah. Even the spiritual experience of prayer is to be verbalized as an audible sound formed by moving lips. Indeed, virtually every material resource on earth and every organ and limb of the human body has its prescribed mitzvah, G-d’s way of establishing how it can be made to be the instrument of His will.
But a “dwelling in the lowly realms” involves more than physical deeds and materials being used to fulfill G-d’s commandments. It also incorporates the very essence of physicality—the very features which deem it lowly. Ego, individuality, pride–the antitheses of the soul’s affirmation of the Divine truth–these, too, are forces which can be harnessed and directed to drive our efforts to build the world that G-d desires.
This is the physical aspect of our relationship with the Almighty. We may not be experiencing G-d the way we do in its spiritual dimension, but with our physical drives and deeds we relate to Him in a no less significant way—by fulfilling His desire in creation.
Body To Body
So much for the body and soul of the Jew. What about G-d?
G-d, of course, does not possess a “soul” or a “body” or any other component parts. But precisely because He is not divisible or definable in any way, we must distinguish between two things whenever we think about, discuss, or “experience” the Divine: G-d Himself, and our perception of His reality.
Because of the finite and definitive nature of everything human, any understanding we may have of His truth, any articulable perception we may have of His reality, belongs to the second category. G-d desired that we relate to and experience Him, so He projected various humanly perceivable manifestations of Himself (His “wisdom” in Torah, His “artistry” in nature, His “providence” in history) into our world. None of this is actually Him, any more than the sun’s rays are the sun. They are reflections of His being, not its substance.
When we serve G-d with our spiritual selves, we are actually relating to manifestations of G-dliness rather than to G-d Himself. This “Divine light” will always be an utterly “spiritual” (i.e. intangible) dimension of His reality, for our perception of G-d is as a being of absolute abstraction, infinity, omnipresence and omnipotence. A being before which everything submits and nullifies itself, before which any vestige of selfhood is in variance with the truth that “there is nought else beside Him.” Indeed, to perceive Him in any other way would be a gross definition of His indefinable being. But is this G-d Himself? Obviously not, if we are “perceiving” it or “experiencing” it.
But when we serve G-d with our physical selves, we are relating to more than a spiritual manifestation of His truth. We are in touch with the very essence and substance of G-d—to the “body” of His reality rather than its soul. For from whence do we derive our self, our sense of individuality and distinctiveness? From whence does the physical existence derive its brute immanence, its unyielding substantiality? Ultimately, G-d is the supreme source of all. And in this regard, the world of the body is superior to the world of spirit: the blatant “I am” that the physical exudes is a reflection of the unequivocality of G-d’s being. When we serve G-d with our body and bodily identity, we are expressing what our physicality and ego are really all about: the unexperienceable essence of G-d.
And it is in this “blind” coming together of bodies that the most profound pleasure of the relationship lies. G-d’s “mind” may be in the Torah, his “heart” may be in the yearnful notes of prayer, but His “desire” is in the dwelling that we make for Him out of our physical selves and world.
The Frigid Nights of Tevet
The history of our relationship has known spiritually sunny times. G-d’s involvement in our lives was openly perceivable. The Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, a beacon of His manifest presence in our midst. The Divine “sun” shone brightly, and we basked in the warmth of its rays.
But on Tevet 7 10th of the year 3336 from creation (426 B.C.E.) we were plunged into a winter from which we have yet to emerge. On that day, Babylon’s armies laid siege to Jerusalem; two and one-half years later they breached the city’s wars, torched the Temple, and exiled the Jewish people. Golus, the geographical and spiritual displacement of Israel, commenced. The sun came out for another four centuries in the time of the Second Temple, but this was a more reserved revelation of G-dliness: some of the Temple’s most overt signs of Divine immanence were lacking; [“Five things distinguished the First Temple from the Second Temple: the Holy Ark (containing the Tablets engraved with the Ten Commandment) with its cover and cherubim; the Divine fire (which descended upon the Altar); the Sh’china (Divine Presence); the Holy Spirit; and the Urim V’tumim (G-d’s communication and guidance via the gems of the High Priest chest plate)”—Talmud, Yuma 21b.] prophecy had ceased—the Divine Groom was no longer directly communicating to His bride. Then this, too, was taken from us.
Ever since, we have been out in the cold. But if the spiritual winter of golus all but eclipses the perceptive and experiential side of our relationship with G-d, it is a time of heightened pleasure in its physical aspect: the frigid nights of Tevet only intensify our bodies’ delight in each other. If a cold and dark world mutes the light of G-d and dulls our minds and hearts, it only accentuates the most basic and essential element of our relationship: the bond between the physical self of man and the quintessential being of
Based on the talks of the Rebbe, Shabbos Vayeishev 5735 (December 7, 1974) and Shabbos Vayigash 5750 (January 6, 1990).
- Or, as the famed kabbalist R. Moshe of Phano sees it, “The Torah discusses the supernal and alludes to the ephemeral.” ↩
- “Achashverosh” is an abbreviation of the Hebrew words “acharis v’reishis shelo—the end and the beginning are his.” ↩
- See Rashi’s commentary on Genesis 8:22. ↩
- Deuteronomy 4:35. ↩
- Midrash Tanchuma, Naso 16; see Tanya chapter 36. ↩
- Man constructs many edifices to serve his needs: avenues, shops, warehouses, office complexes, schools, etc. Each of these serve a specific area of his life, and in each you will find him projecting a different self and personality. A home, however, is what he builds to house his “essence”—to serve as the place where he can be uninhibitedly himself. Thus the metaphor of “dwelling” is used to express the purpose to which G-d created the physical world: that it serve to reflect and convey His very essence. ↩
- Tevet is also the month whose weekly Torah readings describe our descent into our first (and prototypic) golus, our exile and enslavement in Egypt. ↩