Vayechi: Warming The Winter


Where Inspiration Meets Reality

— Samach-Vav Part Seven —

Winter is upon us in the upper northern hemisphere, and we are all shivering. Winter is cold and dark, and so are many aspects of our lives.

Both globally and personally there are many beautiful and wonderful things, but there is also much pain – winter can sure be cold at times.

As Israel faces an uncertain future – so what else is new? – and the world knows not where it goes, as each of us struggles with our own personal challenges and questions the destiny of our lives, as we enter the cold winter and live with the Torah times how the Jewish people begin their cold and dark bondage exile – the Rebbe Rashab, one hundred years ago, warms up the winter months and illuminates the dark exile with a discussion on life devoid of revealed light and the extraordinary opportunity it presents to change the course of history.

I am referring to the classic Hemshech Samach-Vav, the magnum opus of the Rebbe Rashab, delivered one hundred years ago this week (for more background click here).

After discussing the power of human initiative, that despite the fact that inspiration ignites the “flame” of the soul, the primary work lies in the effort that follows the inspiration (see Part Six, Flames), the Rebbe Rashab goes one step further: Even the very inspiration is bound to the work below.

The dilemma is this: Our finite existence by definition means that we are limited entities, bound by seemingly impenetrable boundaries and confined by impassable parameters. The fact that we need inspiration to motivate us implies that on our own we would not be inspired; we therefore require a force outside and beyond us to get us going. This would suggest that left to our own resources we cannot lift ourselves to greater places without an outside boost, which of course means that once the inspiration is gone, we no longer will have enough fuel to keep us motivated.

This conclusion poses a fundamental problem as to the purpose of our existence: Since on our own we cannot rise beyond our limited parameters, what exactly are we accomplishing through our choices in life? If the inspiration comes from above, then it is the “above” that is writing the script of our lives, not our individual choice. Indeed, the inspiration is thus rendered an artificial high, being that we return right where we began after the inspiration dissipates.

Additionally, Samach-Vav’s initial premise (as discussed in the previous segments of this series) is that the purpose of existence is to transform the material universe into a Divine home; to draw into the finite parameters of the world the transcendent Divine energy (beyond existence), and beyond that – a new unprecedented energy that expresses “the innermost aspect and essence of the Infinite Light,” the essence of the Divine “supra-conscious.”

This purpose dictates that the infinite energy is generated not through Divine inspiration but through our personal efforts with our limited faculties. Which brings us back to the quandary: how do we reconcile inspiration from above with the efforts below?

True, the argument can be made that we have some room to maneuver with our own efforts. We have the power to overcome temptation, to choose virtue over vice, to fight for justice, to add in goodness and kindness. But how high can we actually reach on our own without the force of inspiration?

Samach-Vav is not satisfied with the human maneuvers to make the best with our limited tools within the confines of intrinsic boundaries. It insists – and expects – that we can reach the skies and beyond, and make it part and parcel of our personal experience.

But how can finite creatures possibly contain infinite energy without bursting at the seams – it seems like a mathematical impossibility?

In the mystical terms of Kabbalah/Chassidus: The finite energy is called “ohr pnimi” or “ohr ha’memaleh” – internal energy which permeates, influences and can be absorbed by the containers (“keilim”). The infinite energy is called “ohr makif” or “ohr ha’sovev” – the transcendent energy, which does not permeate, elevate or influence in any conscious way the containers.

Explains Samach-Vav that the finite parameters of our existence are not quite limiting as they first appear. Being that these parameters – what the Kabbalists call “containers” (“keilim”) – were put in place by a Divine force, a force that ultimately originates in the same source which manifests in infinite energy, they therefore have an internal flexibility, which can be “stretched” through human initiative to the point that they can experience, contain and even integrate the infinite light (this is called the state when the “ohr makif” is revealed in the “pnimi’).

A mitzvah accomplishes the bridge between the infinite and the finite (see Samach-Vav Part Three, The Power of a Mitzvah). By refining our lives – through our virtuous mitzvot – we sublimate the containers and allow them to receive the infinite light.

With that in mind the Rebbe Rashab, 100 years ago this week, offers a new way to look at inspiration: The inspiration itself ultimately results from the human effort and initiative.

Yes, there is a level of inspiration that inspires and lifts us for the moment; an epiphany that awakens us sporadically at auspicious times. But that inspiration remains distant and detached from personal experience, and it quickly dissipates. The greatest inspiration of all is possible only after our exertions, and then it becomes integrated into our experience.

Two forces are at work every moment of our lives: One voice that calls us to take care of our own needs. A second voice that insists we live up to a higher calling. One force is called the “animal soul” – driven by survival and self-sustenance, even at the expense of others. The second force is the “divine soul” or “divine spark” that yearns toward transcendence.

Virtually in every one of our experiences we are faced with making the choice: Will we be selfish or selfless, will we be controlled by our “body” and material cravings or by our “soul” and spiritual yearnings? Will the body be a vehicle for the soul, or the soul a vehicle for the body?

When we exert ourselves to tame our “animal souls” and narcissistic inclinations and commit our lives to our Divine higher calling, we set the stage and earn the right to receive a dimension of energy that is far greater than our own parameters.

The sages put it thus:

“Open for me [a door as big as] the eye of a needle and I will open up for you [a door like] the [wide] Hall in the Temple.”

All the gates in the Temple had doors except the one in the Hall (Ulam). All we are asked is to open our door just a crack, and in return we receive the infinite light – a place that has no doors at all.

So while it’s true that this powerful energy is beyond us per se, it can only manifest after we do our work as best we can and allow G-d to put, so to speak, a “foot in our door.”

The implications of this are far reaching and teach us much about human exertion and every small effort we make. Never underestimate human effort. It’s not about quantity. If you are challenged and you exert yourself – even if it’s like the needle’s eye, you have stretched your containers to a point in which they can contain the highest dimensions of the infinite and beyond.

So as we embark into the cold winter, and the Jewish people begin their arduous exile in Egypt (as we read in the Torah upcoming portions), a time of no inspiration, it is quite appropriate that Samach-Vav addresses the power of human effort even in times of challenge.

True, that we first need inspiration to ignite the flame of the soul, which is the theme of the book of Genesis, as its name implies: A blueprint that lays out the genesis and the framework for all the events to come. You can say that Genesis is the formative stage of life, when we are educated, trained and equipped with the tools we will need to face the real world. As the book of Genesis ends we have in sum the power to face cold exile (see Book Ends).

But once we are armed with this arsenal, we then must enter the next stage in the book of Exodus: We enter a harsh world that initially enslaves us by the inherent constraints (Mitzrayim) of material existence, and we have to struggle to find our way and to maintain our equilibrium.

And here comes the hard work. Once the inspiration is gone, we must generate energy, and when we do – even when we open but the “needle’s eye,” we do not merely survive or manage, but we thrive – we achieve greatness, and we are able to draw down the deepest levels of inspiration from above.

This relevance of these weeks discourses in Samach-Vav to the time of the year (winter, exile) is quite consistent with the ongoing series of Samach-Vav discourses, each apropos to the time of the year when they were said a centennial ago:

The series (hemshech) begins on Rosh Hashana with a discussion on the purpose of existence, fitting to the New Year and beginning of creation (see Part One). Following the spiritual “high” of the High Holidays and the so-called “descent” into the regular routine of daily life, the series continues by teaching how to transcend the monotone of our mundane existence (see Part Three). As we enter the Chanukah season of lights, the discourse appropriately weaves into a discussion on the power of light – the flame of the soul and the light/energy from above – which inspires the efforts from below.

Now, as we enter the depths of winter and the exile of Egypt, the series returns to the challenge of generating transcendence from below, once the inspiration dissipates.

And in several weeks (specifically the week of Parshat Bo), when the Jewish people leave Egypt, Samach-Vav begins to delve into a profound discussion of the nature of light – the personality of the kav (the ray of light that follows the great tzimtzum) – Stay tuned.

But for now, let each of us feel warmed and empowered by the fact that your efforts – even if they are no more than “opening the eye of a needle” – can change your life and the life of the universe forever.

We can warm the winter by escaping to some warm oasis, but then the winter is not transformed. We have the power to make the winter itself become a source of warmth, which is only possible when we refine our own containers.

If you want to warm the winter of your life, “open the eye of a needle,” make one small change, but one of quality – that requires effort and exertion – and you set in motion a force that ripples through your life and all the cosmos.


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18 years ago

Hi Rabbi,

This makes sense if youre living in the northern hemisphere in the cold winter, but what about those in the southern hemisphere. The timing wouldnt energetically have the same impact for those who are warm and sunny in Australia, for instance.

How does one learn the lessons of the particular seasons when it isnt those seasons during that part of the Torah portion. Does it change the help you get from outside of yourself?

Cheers, Ilana

Tuvia Bolton
18 years ago

After your essay is 4/5ths over you define the word hemshech:

The series (hemshech) begins on Rosh Hashana with a discussion on the purpose of existence, fitting to the New Year and beginning of creation (see Part One). etc.

I think you should define it in the beginning (or, if you think its not necessary, then dont define it at all)
Moshiach NOW!
PS except for that I didnt really understand much.

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