Preparing for our future redemption by examining our past…
The Hebrew month of Nissan, as we know, is the month of redemption. It is the month when we were freed from Egyptian bondage, as we celebrate on Pesah, and, according to a famous tradition, it is the month when we will again be freed from our current state of exile. As the Gemara states:
“In the month of Nissan, they were redeemed from Egypt, and in the month of Nissan, they are destined to be again redeemed” (Rosh Hashanah 11a).
It sounds simple enough. But if we want to truly understand the theme of Nissan, and the concept of “redemption” which it represents, then we need to explore another set of events that occurred in the month of Nissan – a year after the Exodus from Egypt.
The Piece of Gd Within Us
But before we examine what happened in Nissan that year, we must first understand – to whatever extent possible – what happened some two millennia earlier, when the first human being was created.
The Torah describes that when Gd created Adam, “Vayipah be’apav nishmat hayim – He blew within his nostrils a living soul” (Beresheet 2:7). The Zohar comments, “Man denafah midideh nafah – The One who blew, blew from Himself.” When we blow up a balloon, the air that fills the balloon is air that had once been contained within our bodies. Obviously this is not what we think of when we look at balloons at a birthday party, but the balloons contain part of us. We inject part of ourselves into the balloon. The Zohar viewed the breath of life breathed into Adam in the same vein. Gd blew part of Himself, as it were, within him. And so each and every human being has what the Kabbalists call “helek Elo-ah mima’al – a piece of Gd from above.” All of us, no matter what we do or how we act, possess a piece of Gd, an element of the Almighty Himself.
In this regard, we are even greater than the heavenly angels. Our tradition teaches that the angels are infused with the divine quality represented by the divine Name of “Elokim,” which is why they are sometimes referred to as “bene Elokim.” The element of Gd within human beings, however, is associated with higher Name of Havayah (“Y-H-V-H”). And thus although we might instinctively assume that angels are holier beings than us humans, the very opposite is true – we have an even closer connection to Gd than they.
The reader might, justifiably, be very skeptical about this bold assertion. If there really is a piece of Gd inside us, we must wonder, then why do we not feel it? Throughout our day, we experience a wide range of human emotions – hunger, thirst, joy, anger, pride, frustration, gratification, humiliation, anxiety, excitement, fatigue, and so on. What we very seldom feel is a Gdly dimension. Perhaps we experience rare moments of inspiration, such as when we visit the holy sites in Israel, stand in the presence of great tzadikim, or manage to pray with emotion and concentration. Generally speaking, however, we feel human emotions, not Gdly emotions. So how can we claim that there is a piece of Gd inside us?
Fillet Mignon on a Dirty Plate
I recall many years ago when HaGaon Hacham Ovadia Yosef shelit”a graced our community by spending a number of weeks in Deal, NJ during the summer. A friend of mine happened to get married during those weeks, and he sent a message inviting the sage to attend the wedding as the officiating rabbi. Hacham Ovadia responded to the invitation with a number of questions. Besides the normal inquiries into the time and place, the rabbi also asked whether the wedding guests would be dressed appropriately. My friend replied that he had, indeed, ensured that the wedding guests would be dressed in properly modest attire.
I recall giving some thought to the rabbi’s concern about the standards of dress at the affair, and what we might learn from it. We intuitively understand why a towering rabbinic figure of that stature would refuse to be in a place where there is immodest dress. Simply put, kedusha is incompatible with immodesty, and thus a person of holiness cannot be present at a place of immodesty. The two are like fire and water; they cannot exist together. But if this is true about a saintly human being – even a great sage of Hacham Ovadia’s stature – then it most certainly applies to the Almighty, as well. The Shechinah (Divine Presence) cannot take residence in a place of inappropriate dress or behavior. Gd is the source of holiness, and thus understandably, He cannot be present where there is improper conduct.
And this is why we rarely feel the “piece” of Gd inside us. We chase it away through our misdeeds. The Hebrew word for sin – avera – may be read as “avar Y-H,” which means, “Gd has gone away.” The divine element within our soul must leave if our soul becomes contaminated through sin, and thus sin has the effect of “Gd has gone away.” The process of repentance, whereby we bring that divine spark back into our beings, is called “teshuva,” which may be read as, “tashuv H” – “Gd returns.” After Gd has gone away because of our wrongdoing, He returns through the process of sincere repentance.
We might draw an analogy to serving an exquisitely fancy food – say, a fillet mignon – on a dirty plate. Obviously, nobody would ever think of serving or being served a fancy food in such fashion. Similarly – but much more so – we cannot think of Gd allowing a piece of Himself residing within a contaminated soul. The two are completely incompatible. They cannot come together.
The truth is, we all know this concept very well from firsthand experience. When do we experience the most intense feelings of inspiration? At which moment in the year do we feel closest to Gd? I am sure nearly all of us would answer that this occurs at the end of Yom Kippur. After 25 hours of praying, fasting, crying, contemplating our behavior and committing ourselves to improve – in short, after 25 hours of repentance – the piece of Gd returns. Once we have “cleaned the dish,” the fillet mignon (lehavdil) can be served. And if we can maintain that level of spiritual cleanliness, then we can keep that piece of Hashem within us and feel His presence at all times.
The Rise and Fall at Sinai
If there was ever a time when people were able to feel the divine spark in their souls, it was when Beneh Yisrael stood at Mount Sinai and received the Torah. Our rabbis teach us that at the time of the Revelation, the Jewish people reached the highest spiritual level that had ever been achieved since Adam’s sin in Eden. In fact, the Talmud says that at that moment, “paskah zuhamatan” – the spiritual “filth” created by Adam’s sin was finally eliminated. After over two thousand years, the sin had been rectified, its contaminating effects were reversed, and Bene Yisrael were as pure as Adam was when he was first created.
Tragically, this special level was lost through the sin of the golden calf. Bene Yisrael had reached the pinnacle of purity, but they fell from this peak by worshipping the calf. Once again, the piece of Gd was driven from their souls. And thus when Moshe returned from atop Mount Sinai and saw the nation worshipping the calf, he announced, “Mi le’Hashem Elai’ (literally, “He who is with Gd – come to me”). He asked who was still “le’Hashem” – who retained this quality of Havayah, the lofty level that the nation had reached 40 days earlier. The members of the Levite tribe, who had not participated in the worship of the calf, and thus remained on this exalted level, answered Moshe’s call and gathered around him.
The sin of the calf marked a devastating failure, and the crushing loss of a precious opportunity. Gd was closer to the people than ever before, but as a result of this mistake, He left them. He thus told Moshe after the golden calf, “I am hereby sending an angel before you, to guard you along the way” (Shemot 23:20). Rather than accompany them directly, Gd decided He would send an angel as His “representative,” instead. The people, however, upon hearing the news, were distressed. They desperately longed to return to their previous state of closeness with Gd, for His presence to accompany them directly, not through any sort of agent. They wanted some way to turn back the clock, to correct the grave mistake of the golden calf, and to return to the experience of the Revelation.
Another Nissan Miracle
Gd heard the people’s request, and came up with a solution – the Mishkan (Tabernacle). To correct the mistake of fashioning and worshipping a golden idolatrous image, the people would donate
their gold toward the construction of a holy site, a place of residence for the Shechinah. “They shall make for Me a Sanctuary, and I shall dwell in their midst” (Shemot 25:8). Many commentators have noted that the phrase, “in their midst” refers to the “midst” of each and every member of the nation. The purpose of the Mishkan was to return the piece of Gd within each individual, to rekindle the Gdly spark that was ignited when Bene Yisrael received the Torah, but extinguished when they worshipped the calf. The Mishkan was the solution to the crisis. The people wanted Gd to return, but they first needed to “clean the plate.” The donations and work entailed in constructing the Mishkan corrected the sin of the golden calf so Gd’s presence could once again come and take residence among the Jewish people.
The Torah tells us in Parashat Pekude (Shemot 40:17) that the Mishkan was erected on the first day of Nissan. Not coincidentally, the Mishkan began to operate in the same month in which the nation had left Egypt a year earlier. The month of physical redemption from bondage also became the month of spiritual redemption, when our ancestors were “freed” from the effects of the golden calf and Gd returned to them.
These two “redemptions” are very closely related. The Exodus from Egypt did not just signify our achievement of political freedom; this was not just an issue of national sovereignty. During our stay in Egypt, we plummeted to the 49th level of impurity – one level higher than the proverbial “point of no return.” Bene Yisrael were entrenched in Egyptian idolatry, and it was on the night of the Exodus, on the 15th of Nissan, that they began to break free. The process began with the courageous ritual of the paschal lamb, a public repudiation of Egyptian pagan belief, which considers the sheep sacred. The climb from the depths of spiritual contamination continued for the next 49 days, culminating with the Revelation at Sinai. Thus, the Exodus from Egypt was as much a spiritual redemption as it was a physical redemption.
It should not surprise us, then, that when the nation found itself in need of yet another spiritual redemption in the wake of the golden calf, it occurred through another Nissan miracle – Gd’s taking residence in the Mishkan.
The month of Nissan is especially suited for this process, of bringing Gd back into our souls and into our lives. The Kabbalists teach that the 12 months of the Hebrew calendar correspond to the 12 different configurations of the divine Name of Havayah. The four letters of this Name can be arranged in 12 different sequences, and each arrangement corresponds to one of the 12 months. The month of Nissan, in Kabbalistic thought, corresponds to the ordinary sequence of the letters, spelling the Name of Havayah. This is the month especially suited for bringing the “piece” of Havayah back into our beings, to returning the divine spark within us. And thus it is the month when we began to extricate ourselves from the mire of impurity in Egypt, as well as the month when we completed the process of rectifying the sin of the calf and restoring the Divine Presence.
An Expression of Boundless Love
At the beginning of the Book of Vayikra, Gd speaks to Moshe for the first time from inside the Mishkan. He begins presenting the laws and guidelines concerning the korbanot, the sacrifices that would be offered in the new Sanctuary, through which Bene Yisrael could earn atonement for their misdeeds and repair their strained relationship with the Almighty. Rashi comments that the book’s opening word, “vayikra – He called,” is an expression of “hibah” – love and affection. When Gd called to Moshe from inside the Mishkan, He did so in a loving, affectionate manner.
The Tasher Rebbe of Montreal, in his work Avodat Avoda, explains Rashi’s comments to mean that the entire concept underlying the Book of Vayikra, the system of a Mishkan that enables a sinner to bring Gd back into his life, is an expression of Gd’s boundless love for His people. The Mishkan, and the sacrificial system that was conducted within it, signifies the Almighty’s willingness to give us the tools and capabilities to correct our mistakes, to climb back up after falling, and to bring Him back into our lives after we forced Him out through our misconduct.
The power of the month of Nissan is a great gift granted to us by Gd. This month of redemption is a time to focus on our personal “redemption,” on extricating ourselves from the clutches of our past mistakes and constructing our own “Mishkan” within our hearts where Gd can reside. Tellingly, the Jewish calendar system is arranged such that Nissan will always occur at some point in early spring, as the natural world begins to return to life after lying dormant throughout the winter. Nissan is the month of renewal and rebirth. As the earth and trees finally begin showing their potential after several months of lying bare, we, too, are called upon to show our potential, to begin to blossom and shine.
Especially during Nissan, Gd is ready to reenter our lives and our hearts. We need simply to build the Mishkan, to develop ourselves into worthy hosts of the Divine Presence by recommitting ourselves to Torah study and observance. Just as we left our exile during Nissan, in this month Gd, too, leaves His “exile,” as it were, as the “piece of Gd from above” is poised to resume its place within each and every one of us, and then accompany us at every step and stage through the journey of life. If we want to bring Gd back into our lives, the time to do it is now, during the month of Nissan, the special month of national and personal redemption.
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