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Mishpatim: Shoveling the Snow

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Who’s Digging Out of What?

A Snow Shoveling Meditation

As I was digging out of the snow this sparkling New York morning – yes, shoveling is one of the Divine gifts I have been endowed with – I felt troubled by something.

With every pile of snow I scooped up and dumped on the side, a gnawing feeling grew inside of me.

What was bothering me? I was, after all, cleaning up the snowy mess that blanketed the Northeast last evening. Along with so many good neighbors, we were doing our civic and moral duty to clear a path through the mountains of snow – 19 inches fell over New York this time around – to allow people to walk the streets unencumbered.

And while we were being responsible citizens, the city had launched its army of plows and salters combing through arteries to clear the roads for traffic. This time they got it right – unlike the blizzard a few weeks ago, when streets remained unplowed for days, to the chagrin of New Yorkers, calling for the Mayor’s head.

So what could possibly be disturbing me as I joined my compatriots across town waging war against the onslaught of this latest snowstorm – breaking records for snowfall accumulation in this region?!

And a war it is, indeed. Just read the venerable New York Times’ screaming description of this snowfall, lines describing the snow as if it was a terrorist attack (I added the bold for emphasis):

“A two-stage winter storm struck, paused, gathered its breath and delivered a crippling blow to the Northeast early Thursday, dumping more than a foot of snow, closing airports and schools, stranding commuters and shattering January records.
“Nineteen inches of heavy, wet snow fell on Central Park, tied for the highest total in the region and only an inch less than the 20 inches that paralyzed the city a month ago…
“Around Washington, where downed power lines left swaths of the region in darkness, the precipitation began as rain on Wednesday, then froze. Commutes on the roadways took as long as 12 hours as drivers slipped and got stuck… Plows had to battle traffic to get the salt down.
“After hours in traffic, people began abandoning cars, and some actually slept in them, according to reports…
“New York City schools and offices were closed. Bus service was knocked out in most of the region through the morning rush as hobbled train systems struggled to absorb the overload, though bus service was slowly restored as the morning wore on. At the airports, delays and cancellations were the order of the morning…
“The storm created a fresh sense of snow fatigue in a region that has been unusually battered. Yet in New York City, where the slow municipal response to the Dec. 26 blizzard became a black eye for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and transit officials, things were not as dire as they could have been…
“Even before the storm started walloping the region overnight, the National Weather Service had estimated that more than 37 inches of snow — almost double the winter average — had fallen in Central Park this winter. The overnight storms broke January snowfall records for Central Park, Newark, LaGuardia Airport, Bridgeport and Islip, the Weather Service said Thursday morning.”

And then – as I stood armed with my shovel attacking the snow, pondering on this war we were all waging against the enemy called snow – I realized why I was so disconcerted.

Snow is a blessing from heaven. Indeed, the mystics explain that snow is rooted in the loftiest supernal heights – an expression of Divine compassion (tiferet). And even higher: Atik Yomin – the highest level of them all. As in the verse in Daniel (7:9): “and atik yomin – the Ancient Days sat [on the throne] and his garments were as white as snow.”

In 1904 a snow fell on the small city of Lubavitch, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe at the time, the Rebbe Rashab (yes, the one renowned for his classics Samach Vav and Ayin Beis), wrote an entry on the topic of snow – exploring its profound cosmic roots and its psycho-spiritual significance.

Based on these and other writings here is a short version of the spiritual meaning of snow, summarized from a series of my classes during the great blizzard of 1996. (Please email us, if you’d like to receive the full, unedited, transcript of these classes.)

And here I am – one of a multitude of self-righteous shovelers – sweeping away these heavenly white angels, as if they were monsters from outer space. Here we are declaring war on the snow attacking our comfort zones.

Snow is divine tiferet and atik yomin incarnate, snow benefits both the body and the soul (Zohar III 157a) – and here we are shoveling it away making a path for us to walk through, annoyed at this nuisance, anticipating  its  melting away…

As I scoop up another shovel of snow, I pause. I stare at the snowflakes, so vulnerable, so gentle, so tender. And I think: Why are we so convinced that we are where it’s at and the snow is an intruder, disturbing our lives, thus compelling us to shovel and cart it away. Perhaps it’s the other way around: Snow is where it’s at and we are the intruders…

Here we are – armed to the hilt, with shovels of all shapes and forms, ice picks, snow blowers and whatever else we can concoct – sweeping away and discarding these white messages from heaven.

Yes, I understand, I understand that we need to get to work, we need to be able to walk the streets without the danger of slipping, we have many important matters to deal with, etc. etc. etc.  Yet, perhaps just perhaps the snow is not falling as a result of some meteorological disturbance, but  is a message from above to place life in perspective.

It reminds me of the memorable words of one sports superstar. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks the baseball season was – shockingly! – suspended for a few days. Simply unheard of in the United States. (Pundits pointed out at the time that even during World War II the games went on…). One interviewer asked this baseball slugger when he thinks we will get back to real life, and play ball again.

Listen to his incredulous reply: “You think that baseball is real life?! Baseball is just a game – with absolutely no consequences. Who wins or loses does not change the world in any way. It certainly doesn’t have life and death consequences. Real life is 9/11 – where people actually died! 9/11 cut down these people’s lives, changing the future forever; permanently altering the trajectory of the lives of all their surviving families! It’s time to free ourselves of our delusions and get our priorities in place.”

But we all have our games, and while playing them we think that they – and us – are the center of the universe. Suddenly a snowstorm dumps its white magic on us and disrupts our lives. We see this intrusion as an alien invasion, and we do everything in our power to wage war against the enemy falling from the sky, uninvited.

My shovel hits a particular obstinate clump of snow and ice, and I aggressively go on the attack to dislodge this… this… this annoying interloper. But then my thoughts go back to the mystics’ take on this white heavenly traveler, who some feel originates not from earth but heaven (Midrash Bereishis Rabba 12:11).

How trapped are we in our perceived reality? Why can’t we step back from our routines and just take in the white flakes silently blanketing our toxic universe like a pure and clean blanket warmly embracing a child.

White snow. To appreciate the gift just imagine if the falling flakes were black…

And I wonder how many other blessings in our lives we are ignoring or even discarding as if they are rubbish?!…

As I lift yet another bundle of the powdery snow, I see from a distance the weaving paths that have been cleared amidst the heaping snow hills all around. We really don’t have room for this divine snow in our lives. And I remember what a young girl once asked her pregnant mother: “Mommy. How do you make room inside yourself for another person?” Gulp. Men have problems making room outside of themselves for anyone else but themselves. A woman has room for another life inside herself. And not just room; she carries a child inside her belly, inside her very being. The growing fetus becomes part of and impacts her entire life, 24/7!

And here we have a problem with the heavenly snow crowding us out. We must remove it from our presence. We need our room…

What can I say? Snow shoveling offers us many lessons. Especially if you have a fertile imagination.

[Obviously, we are all concerned about the hazards that the snow can pose for some, especially travelers caught in the storm. These words here are not meant to deny the fact that we need to protect ourselves from any severe weather.]

Time will come when we will shovel away the snow. And it will ultimately melt. But perhaps we can just leave these glistening crystals alone for a while, allow them to fulfill their mission from above, and allow us the time needed to absorb that message.

But no. We are too busy. We must go on with our lives. Not to mention the fact that as the day and night wear on the snow will harden and freeze and be much harder to shovel later. Yes, that is a problem. So we head out at dawn to carve out our trails amidst the “atik yomin” snow coverings…

I have finally finished cleaning the snow-covered steps. Now comes the street. But before I continue, I look at the clumps of snow that I have dumped on top of the clean mounds. With each shovelful, I think, am I throwing away another pile of tiferet or atik yomin?!…

Some people wait their entire lives for a revelation. Leonard Cohen’s Waiting for the Miracle resonates for many of us. “ I waited half my life away…”  Let alone a revelation and miracle coming from the cosmic pinnacles of “atik.” Indeed, the Arizal says that the Messianic revolution will be a revelation from the inner dimension of “atik yomim.”

And here we are flippantly shoveling away, clearing the snow from our paths and boulevards, ensuring that not one speck of these white sparks clutter our journeys…

Here we are suffering from “snow fatigue”…

Ironically, we actually call it  “digging out of the snow.” Hmm. Digging ourselves out of… atik yomin… Digging ourselves out of blessings from above…  Sounds delightful. And once we dig ourselves out where do we exactly end up?

Mind you, with all these sublime ruminations, I did not, as I well should have, stop shoveling. I too am guilty of our collective insanity and blindness to what truly matters in life.

But, at least I’m not in denial, or so I convince myself (there you go: I had to soothe myself in some way). At least I know I am one of the abusers of the world… (you know the joke? Forget it).

Indeed, a neighbor’s young child offered to help me shovel the snow. I told him to go inside and have a nice warm drink. It’s bad enough that we adults are defiling the white glory. No need to get innocent children involved in our pollution. He will grow up and have his day – or hopefully he will be wiser…

But here is my final confession:

Instead of taking pride in the clear paths I have just sculpted between the surrounding snow mountains, I look at the last few snowflakes that I had just so rudely shoved to the side. I pick up a flake on my finger. But it melts before I know it, as if saying: “No, you cannot own me…”

I look closer and stare at the vulnerable and gentle snowflake – and wonder what message it has brought to me this fine morning.

I stare at the tender flake and shed a tear. “I am so sorry for hurting you…

“Come again tomorrow, please. I shall not shovel you away. I promise.”

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Joe

The First Baptist Church of Poughkeepsie, NY seems to disagree with your analysis 🙂
http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2011/02/01/us/STORM-2.html

shaina

You mention of the great lights that snow brings down. Of the white blanket of love and blessing that we so thoughlessly shovel away as trash. You mention that we ought to appreciate these divine lights, and of the sin we perform when we send these blessings way. I love your message, and beleive it is true that the snow has a mission down here, but perhaps its light is too great, I quote you cant own me… perhaps it ought to come down just for a bit and our elevation and internalization of these lights is by shoveling it… Read more »

Michal

Wow what an interesting, refreshing take on snow. Its been 5 years now that Ive been exiled from crown Heights.

Judi

Hi! I would like the full unedited version of your 1996 class on Snow. I have hated winter since I was a baby and wanted always to move away. Just this year I decided that if rain is a blessing then snow must be as well. It is beautiful. I just don’t want to contend with the inconvenience of it nor the cold weather. It makes my bones hurt. So I am pushing less against what is now, and that’s a good place to be. Any class that can help me see the spiritual side of snow may help me… Read more »

Gavriel Danzig

Thank you for providing a perspective that is so alien to most people, especially amongst frenetic northeasterners. For the past 3 weeks, my 3 mile walk through the woods to shul (each way) has been a physical challenge. While the deep snow tested my endurance, it created a wonderful quiet and helped make these Shabbatot even more special. The only disconcerting feeling I had was seeing no one else out there partaking of this blessing from above.

Michel Levy

I met you at the Limud conference in 2008. My apology for this quick note without looking up pesukim. There is a pasuk in Isaiah, the dirshu Hafftarah of fast days, in which it is written, Ki kaasher yered Hageshem vehasheleg min hashamayim…. I was priveleged to chant this Haftarah in DEcember 1972, Asarah btevet, when indeed rain and snow were falling from the sky. As the temperature hovered around freezing on Wednesday, the miracle of water and ice was plain to see. Then there was also lightning and thunder, which I am sure represent something from Heaven. Hashem has… Read more »

ruth housman

I read your most beautiful commentary on snow and I was deeply moved. For me, as for you, there is something so pure, about these flakes that come down as soft, as down itself, to cover our world with that swirrling of white white. For me, taking drive, as I did yesterday, through country roads, I felt such JOY, in these boughs, so boughed with white blossoms, the trees so lines with white, everything, a world so whirrled with white. Connect the dots. Children reaching sky wards with the hands to cup those tender flakes. The soft sweet fall of… Read more »

Ed

I find this series of snow storms to be vile and punitive. It actually mitigates against my religiosity, depicting the deity as the enemy. Thus, I find your take on it polly-annaish, masochistic and maudlin.

David Morgan

Looking at the snow this morning and the cancelled school day and I declared – SKI DAY!
I took my kids skiing today and had a wonderful time, a glorious time in the snow together.

What a beautiful article you wrote to cap off a special snow day!
Your work always inspires me and makes me feel better.

Thanks Simon – have a great Shabbat and weekend.

Your Chassid,
David

E

Nice. Yasher Koach. This is somewhat related to the whole slavery bit in the parsha. Slaves to our surroundings, environment, habits, comfort zone etc. PS, did you see the answer from the Rebbe to the Nshei convention in 5739, when they complained about the snow? …….Etzba Elokim…. (Not about the snow itself, just that it snowed at that time.) מענות כק אדמור בקשר ל קאנווענשאן של נשי ובנות חבד בדיטרויט בכב שבט תשלט כב שבט בבוקר הי שלג כאן [בנ.י.] וכן בעוד עיירות. נשי ובנות חבד (שהיו על קאנווענשאן בעיר דיטרויט) הודיעו לכק אדש שמסיבת השלג אין יכולות לחזור הביתה.י… Read more »

Meira L.

If only I had a chance to see this beauty called snow flakes, I would place them in a crystal vase and keep them in my freezer… Unfortunately in the South we are lack of snow, and even when we have it, it looks like a by-product of the refrigerator.
Thanks for taste of beauty!

Rita

Beautiful and poetic piece about snow. You really corrected my attitude. Makes me wonder if the manna that fell from heaven to feed the Jewish people was snow.

Anne

BEAUTIFUL!!

Too bad we cant enjoy ALL of natures (HaShems) messages in a pure and unadulterated fashion. It would be nice to allow the beautiful, heavenly snow to just lay there, where ever it falls, and melt away at its own pace.
But,…..active life must go on, no? So, to avoid injury, the battle between the snow and man begins.
Yes…its a tough one. Love all your thoughts on the subject.

Have a good Shabbos.

Anne Grabois

tzvi hans mol

thanks a lot for the article, great like always and wish you, your family and friends a Shabat Shalom

Esther

As I look out onto my little yard and see the snow that has been untouched by man, I think of the purity it still holds and the glistening it still owns. There is no evidence of man, not a footprint. And i ponder how man has tread on the earth as he has tread in the snow. I appreciate this little spot untouched by mans glow. And your piece was delightful in its wrestle with the blessings of snow. May mercy be forthcoming because of your personal search to connect with Hashem and the courage to bring us to… Read more »

Fatima Teixeira

Dear Rabbi Simon Jacobson,Your story about the snow touched me profoundly! You should publish it as more and more people are waking up to the sublime Reality and becoming Whole. Your story will give them fortitude. I feel great joy as there is hope for the well being of Mother Nature. When I was a little girl back home in Mozambique, Africa, (of European parents) I used to cry because the ocean waters were being polluted by sewage. I worried about dolphins, fish… being the laughing stock of others. Today, more than 50 years later, its dawning on us the… Read more »

Irene Chaya Doniger

This story, which Im reading first thing in the morning gives meaning to my frequent thoughts about having the kind of snow here in King of Prussia, PA to force us to snuggle in, even for a few hours, appreciating the beauty of the snow, each other and the time to slow down and be with the Divine in the joy of the quiet. There is so much noise and rushing in our lives. Beautiful snow, help us to know what is Truly important. Thank you.

Richard

I have been reading you pieces for a while now and always enjoy them Today, it really seems like you have snow fatigue!

Malka

Beautiful.

Malkah

If we viewed life with this innocence and idealism (which I align with hope and wonder), we would find all things in life true blessings and meant to be. Thanks for this!

Yedidah Cohen

Couldnt help feeling envious , where here in Israel we have had hardly any rain this winter and no snow at all. I live in Safed, and most winters we get just a few inches. But not so far this year and we are already passed Tu Bishvat. maybe the New Yorkers could spare a prayer to divert some of the blessing our way?

Basha Reiss

Wow!

Chaya Gross

BHAnd here in Akko in Eretz Yisrael we bask in the summer weather unable to completely enjoy it knowing that the drought in the Land is now in its sixth year. Yes, the weather is definitely one of the ways Hashem speaks to us, perhaps here it is more obvious. But I too must confess in the almost thirty years that I am living in our land after being born and raised in Canada with the snow. I never ever miss the snow. Perhaps because I never wanted to go to war with it and knew that leaving it alone… Read more »

david schweke

Such a beautiful observation of our winter friend. I think u r the andy rooney of the jewish world.

Ronald R. Roth

Dont worry Rabbi, more snowflakes are going to fall very soon!

Chaya

While I certainly appreciate the spiritual nature of snow, and its beauty, and the fact that snow is mentioned in the verse of Aisches Chayil, Woman of Valor (in PROVERBS), which the husband recites to his wife each Shabbos, and this poem states about the virtues of the Woman of Valor: She is not afraid of the snow for her household… nevertheless, here in Connecticut, roofs have been collapsing under the weight of all these many snows coming each week, and I know homeowners who have now experienced extensive damage to their homes, and water intrusion, due to frozen gutters,… Read more »

Jay

Absolutely Beautiful.