Have you ever met someone who gave you the creeps? How did you react? Inevitably, we all will encounter challenging experiences in our insolent world. How should we deal with the darker forces in life?
Would you be surprised to know that Moses, in this week’s Torah portion, was faced with this dilemma?
This week’s column addresses this challenge, as part of the general mystery of existence. Indeed the mystery of life actually divides into three elements: The mystery of creation, the mystery of unity and the mystery of evil.
“These are the creeping things that creep on land which are [spiritually] impure to you: the weasel, the mouse, the ferret, the hedgehog, the chameleon, the lizard, the snail, and the mole… Do not defile yourselves with them, because it will make you spiritually insensitive… Do not defile your souls through any creeping creature that crawls on the ground. For I am the Lord Who brought you up from Egypt to be your G-d. Therefore, since I am holy, you must [also] remain holy.”
This week’s Torah portion (Leviticus 11:29-30;43-45)
“Moses found three things difficult, until G-d showed them to him with His finger: Menorah, HaChodesh (the new Moon) and Sherotzim (the creeping creatures forbidden to us).”
Talmud Menachot 29a
What disturbed Moses about the creeping creatures? It seems like an obvious commandment: As human beings created in the divine image, you are expected to be holy and not defile yourself by consuming slithery crawlers?
Commentaries explain, that Moses’ difficulty was that he could not recognize the “impure” crawlers. But this answer chalks up Moses’ dilemma to a technicality. One can think of many ways how Moses could have learned to identify these creatures without having to rely on G-d Himself showing them to him. Just at it was with the new moon and the menorah, clearly, Moses was troubled by something deeper – by a dilemma that could only be resolved through Divine intervention.
The Tzemach Tzedek in one short reference answers the question. At the end of his discourse explaining the difficulty Moses found in the new moon, the Tzemach Tzedek (Oh HaTorah Bo p. 2907) refers Moses’ difficulty with the “creepers” to the Talmud in Baba Metzia (61b).
The Talmud there asks why the verse (in this week’s portion) connects the prohibition of eating crawlers with the Egyptian exodus: Do not defile your souls through any creeping creature that crawls on the ground, for I am the Lord Who brought you up from Egypt to be your G-d.
The Talmud answers:
“G-d says: I Who distinguished [during the plague of the first born in Egypt] between the seed of the first born and the seed of those that were not first born, will exact retribution on those that will mix the innards of unclean fish with the innards of clean fish and sell them to an Israelite.”
And why, the Talmud continues, does the verse use an unusual expression “who brought you up [ha’maalah] from Egypt,” instead of the usual expression “who brought you out [ho’tzeiso] of Egypt”? Answer: G-d says:
“If the only reason I brought up Israel from Egypt was that they would not defile themselves with creeping creatures, it would have been sufficient.”
Hence, the expression “Who brought you up” – G-d lifted and exalted you to a higher standing, one in which you feel too dignified to defile yourself and stoop to the level of creeping creatures.
What is the meaning behind this cryptic Talmudic thought? What connection is there between the G-d recognizing the “innards” of fish and G-d distinguishing the first-born?! What is so important about the commandment of not consuming “sherotzim” (creeping creatures) that this would have been reason enough to take them out of Egypt – a statement not made about any other mitzva?! Is no other commandment, even the fundamental ten commandments, as important as this one?!
To understand this issue requires taking a step back and analyzing the different creatures on earth, which all symbolize various dimensions of experience.
“Sherotzim” – creeping creatures – are symbolic of the lowliest forces in life. Those experiences that do not have the ability to lift themselves above the face of the dust, and always remain hugging the ground upon which we tread.
Even when it comes to four legged animals, Ecclesiastics states that the “spirit of the animal descends downward,” animals, who walk on four, always face down to the earth. As one Rebbe once said, “an animal has never seen heaven.”
Whereas man walks upright and his “spirit ascends upwards.” He thus always yearns for more – as you “lift your eyes to heaven…you see who created you.”
Empirical observation demonstrates that animals live in the same habitats as they did 500 and 5000 years ago. They are not motivated to build better homes, develop technologies, and improve their standard of living. Man who looks upward, on the other hand, always aspires to improve his situation.
When the Tzemach Tzedek was a child he explained why he was able to climb to the top of a ladder, while his friends were not able. “As they climbed they kept looking down. When they saw how high they were, they were afraid to climb higher. I kept looking up. Seeing how low I was, it motivated me to climb ever higher.”
Obviously, every creature in existence plays an indispensable role in the balance of life. The creeping creatures help cleanse, plow and fertilize the earth, besides the many other benefits that they provide. Yet, at the same time that these creatures are meant to remain below, man is meant to feel his special dignity as one walks upright and is always looking to the stars.
No wonder we call a chilling feeling “having the creeps.” And we describe certain lowlifes as “creeps” who give us the “creeps.” Not always is this justified, but at times man can fall to a level of behaving like a creep, slithering beneath us, disconcerting and disturbing our peace of mind.
When Moses heard the commandment to refrain from consuming “creeping creatures,” he was disturbed not by the fact that were “creeps” in the world; what troubled him was how are we humans meant to interact with these lowliest of forces and remain intact.
Ostensibly, it would make more sense that we just ignore the “creepers” and focus our efforts on reaching spiritual heights. Allow them to live in their earthy plane, invisible to us as we thrive in our world between – and bridging – heaven and earth. But once Moses heard that the Torah identifies and commands us to identify the “creepers” and refrain from defiling ourselves through them, he was greatly disturbed, because this meant that Torah was creating a relationship – albeit one of refrain, but still a relationship – between us humans with these creepy creatures. Indeed, the commandment itself implies that people may have the temptation to consume the “creepers.” Moses, in his lofty state, perhaps felt that no man would stoop to that level, and now he hears that it is altogether possible. Hence, the need for the commandment.
It was therefore necessary that G-d Himself “point” and show Moses the mystery of the “creepers” – These are the creeping things that creep on land which are [spiritually] impure to you – that even they are part of the Divine plan. And despite their lowly state, or rather precisely in their lowly state, they express the ultimate Divine omnipresence, that “there is nothing devoid of Him” (see Shemos Rabba 10:1).
As the mystics explain:
“The higher the level, the lower it falls.”
The lowly “creepers,” precisely because they descend into the depths and conceal the Divine, are spiritually rooted in the highest of levels; because only those levels could give birth to such lowly creatures. Only G-d can therefore reveal their power to Moses, by showing him how these creatures, by refraining from consuming them, can reveal profound dimensions.
This is also the deeper meaning in the Talmud: Only G-d Himself can discern the power within the “creepers,” as He did with the first-born of Egypt (“the depraved of the land”). Only G-d Himself – “not through an angel, not through a seraph, not through a messenger… I and none other” (as we recited at the Passover Seder) – can free us from the dark abyss called Egypt. So too, only G-d’s essence, can reveal the Divine within the lowly “creepers” and empower us with that ability.
And therefore, this power derived from the Divine essence – to elevate us and “bring us up” from the depravity of Egypt – is expressed more than anywhere else in the commandments of the “sherotzim,” in which human dignity is starkly distinguished from the lowly “creepers” of the earth. (1)
All the commandments in the Torah teach us how to be lofty human beings, to allow spirit to transcend over matter (see Tanya chapter 32). But some mitzvot focus on the lofty and teach us how to cultivate our faith and love. Others educate us how to avoid various temptations of the material universe.
But only the commandment of “sherotzim” teaches us that we can enter the “lowest” of worlds and face the darkest forces and still maintain our dignity and spiritual integrity. We don’t have to ignore the earthy creatures; we engage them, identify them, and actually use them as a study in contrast, to not defile ourselves and lift ourselves to higher places, distinguishing us from the creeping creatures of the earth.
Of all the mitzvoth in the Torah only the commandment to refrain from the “creepers” expresses by contrast the ultimate dignity and exalted state achieved through the exodus from Egypt (For I am the Lord Who (lifted you out of) brought you up from Egypt to be your G-d) – that despite the fact that we live in and interact with the lowly forces of the world (creepers) we choose to live refined lives, with our eyes to heaven, elevating and sanctifying our environments and even the earth itself.
Thus the three things that disturbed Moses cover the spectrum of the mysteries of existence, which divide into three categories: (2)
1) The mystery of creation: How a new birthing takes place (the new moon).
2) The mystery of unity: How the endless multiplicity of the universe can co-exist and be integrated with the indivisibility of the Divine. How the finite mundane can fuse with the infinite spirit. How the material can be a source of light (the Menorah).
3) The mystery of evil: How we can survive – and thrive – amidst the lowest forces that “creep” on the earth.
To address these three quandaries the Divine “finger” (G-d Himself) “pointed” and showed Moses the new moon (the secret of birthing), the Menorah (unity) and the “sherotzim” (darkness).
Once these secrets were revealed to Moses, the doors were opened to benefit us all. Through Moses we too are empowered in these three areas: To experience new birthings (see The New Moon); to reveal unity and illuminate the universe (see Menorah); and – what concerns us this week – how to deal with the creepy experiences in our lives.
Inevitably, we will all have encounter dark moments in our lives. We will meet and be challenged by more difficult people and experiences. It would be nice if we were able to avoid or escape these unpleasant times. But that is not possible in our world. So the only two options are: Will we be overcome by these challenges or will we grow through them?
Know that you were not the first to be troubled by this dilemma. Many years ago a man named Moses confronted the first creeps, and he had a remarkable encounter that changed history forever.
He learned that the lowliest of creatures helps us appreciate the Divine and facilitates our growth by propelling us to rise to unprecedented dignified heights.
We too can use the difficult challenges in our lives as springboards to celebrate and express our own majesty, and in the process elevate our entire universe.
May our creepy creatures feel redeemed.
(1) This perhaps can also explain why the Talmud emphasizes that the episode took place in “Sura of Euphrates” (the city of Sura that sits on the bank of the Euphrates River): The Euphrates, like the “creeping creatures,” embodies paradox; the highest and lowest of levels – see The River Euphrates.
(2) See Gur Aryeh Leviticus 11:2, that these three difficulties all reflect dimensions that are outside of the normal realm of existence.
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Question of the Week: How do you deal with a difficult person in your life who you can’t avoid?