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Rabbi Yaakov Hillel
Rosh Yeshivat Ahavat Shalom
The Impact of Mitzvot
“And you will command the children of Israel, and they will take for you pure olive oil for illumination, to light a continual lamp” (Shmot 27:20). Rashi, citing our Sages (Menahot 86a), explains that “pure” means “without sediments.” The olives were crushed in a mortar, so that the oil extracted would be perfectly clear and free of any sediment. After the first drop was pressed out, the olives were placed in a mill and ground. This second batch of oil was not fit for the Menorah, although it was acceptable for use in Menahot offerings. The Cohen was to kindle the lamp “until the flame rose by itself” (Shabbat 21a). This was to be done on a continual basis, every single night. On a literal level, this verse informs us of the requirements for the preparation of the olive oil used to kindle the Menorah in the Sanctuary. On a more profound level, we can suggest another explanation of the verse. In the terminology of our Sages, olive oil is an analogy for wisdom (see Menahot 85b). The precious first drop of oil, produced by careful crushing of the olives, alludes specifically to the Torah’s hidden inner meaning, known as the wisdom of Kabbalah. The ultimate purpose of knowledge of the secrets of the Torah is “for illumination,” or in other words, to bring Divine light and rectification to the Higher Worlds. The words “to kindle the continual lamp” refer to this spiritual illumination and rectification.
With the words, “And you will command the children of Israel,” Hashem instructed Moshe to teach the people that the basic reason for fulfilling mitzvot is in order to receive reward, as alluded to in the words, “and they will take for you,” meaning for man’s own benefit. But in a deeper, more profound sense, we do not obey the commandments merely for reward, but rather for the sake of “pure olive oil,” for the spiritual purpose of “kindling a continual lamp” in the Higher Worlds. From there, the entire world will be filled with Hashem’s Divine Light. Our Sages tell us that the oil “[must be] crushed for illumination, and not crushed for Menahot sacrifices.” Translated literally, menahot means “gifts.” Interpreted on a profound level, this statement is especially significant. As we shall explain, based on the teachings of the revealed Torah, it appears that we serve Hashem by fulfilling Torah and mitzvot “for menahot” – in order to receive reward. However, our Torah and mitzvot should ideally be “crushed for illumination,” for the lofty purpose of rectifying the Higher Worlds, “and not for menahot,” the benefits of reward, whether in this world or in the World to Come.
Our Need for Mitzvot
Let us first understand more about the “simple” reason for fulfilling the mitzvot, which is actually a very profound concept in itself. Our Sages tell us, “The mitzvot were only given as a means to refine mankind. For what does the Holy One, blessed be He, care if one slaughters from the [animal’s] throat or slaughters from the back of the [animal’s] neck? We learn from here that the mitzvot were only given as a means to refine mankind” (Bereshit Rabbah 44:1). Hashem has no intrinsic need for us to fulfill the commandments. He is perfect without us and all-powerful without us. But if Hashem does not “need” our mitzvot, why did He command us to fulfill them, often at great self-sacrifice? To answer this question, we need to understand why Hashem created the world to begin with. Hashem is the essence of good, and in the words of the Ramhal, “it is the nature of one who is good to bestow good.” The Will of the Al-mighty and His purpose in Creation is to bestow good upon His created beings (Derech Hashem, Part 1, Chapter 3; Emunot V’Deot Maamar 3). If the giving were to be totally onesided – G-d gives only because He is good, regardless of whether or not the recipients are deserving – they would be limited in their capacity to receive in full measure. Our Sages describe this type of situation with the term nahama d’kisufa,
literally “bread of shame” (Jerusalem Talmud Orlah 1:3).1 If the recipient is embarrassed to be taking an unearned handout, the gift, in this case Hashem’s Divine bounty, is not perfect; it is marred by an uncomfortable element of shame. Because Hashem’s giving is absolute perfection, He created the world with the necessary structure to allow for perfect giving. In other words, He created a way for us to earn reward, rather than getting it for free, which would detract both from our enjoyment and from His Will to give the utmost, with no limitations. This, then, is why we have the mitzvot, which we exert ourselves to fulfill at all costs. When we withstand life’s trials and temptations and prevail against the evil inclination, we honestly and rightfully earn our eternal reward, which we can then enjoy to the fullest extent, forever. As our Sages tell us, it is not for the Al-mighty’s benefit that we slaughter a cow by severing its windpipe, rather than with a blow to the skull. The mitzvot are not for G-d – they are for us. They were given to us to enable us to refine and purify ourselves, making us worthy of the eternal Divine reward which is the purpose of Creation. This is the basis of the concept of the evil inclination and man’s Free Will. By using our Free Will to choose properly and overcome the wiles of the evil inclination, we justly earn our eternal reward. This is the simple reason behind the fulfillment of mitzvot. Our Sages tell us that they were bestowed to letzaref bahem et haberiyiot, to refine mankind. The word letzaref, translated as “refine,” also means “clarify.” The mitzvot were given in order to clarify who is a tzaddik and who is not. They try us, test us, and refine us, and show clearly who we are. If we serve the Al-mighty loyally, we will receive the lavish reward that is the purpose of Creation. However, if this is the only reason we fulfill the mitzvot, then the mitzvot themselves would appear to have no inherent meaning. They would merely be tools used to receive reward, with no particular significance in and of themselves. To cite our Sages’ example, the only reason to slaughter in keeping with halachic strictures, or in fact to fulfill any other commandment, is as a means for us to obey G-d’s Will, so that He in turn can reward us in full for our obedience. However, there is more to it. According to Kabbalistic teachings, mitzvot are not fulfilled for the reward they bring, but in order to bring satisfaction to the Creator, as it were, rectifying the world by bringing about its subjugation to the Kingdom of the
A free handout which the recipient cannot fully enjoy because of the element of embarrassment involved.
Al-mighty. In the words of our Sages (Zohar, Mishpatim 114b), “Who is a hassid (pious one)? One who does hesed (lovingkindness) with his Maker,” by fulfilling His Will in Creation. We find an allusion to this principle in another teaching of our Sages: “The world was created with ten Utterances. And what does this teach us? Could it not have been created with one Utterance? Rather, it is to punish the wicked, who destroy the world which was created with ten Utterances, and to give reward to the righteous, who maintain the world which was created with ten Utterances (Avot 5:1). The wicked, by their evil deeds, destroy the Higher Worlds which were created with ten Utterances, a reference to the ten Sefirot.2 The righteous, on the other hand, rectify and build the Higher Worlds which were created with ten Utterances. The outcome of mitzvot and good deeds is rectification of the Higher Worlds, and the outcome of sins is their destruction and ruin. How do our mitzvot rectify the Higher Worlds?
An Imperfect World
Our world is imperfect, because Free Will could not exist in a perfect world. The exercise of Free Will requires that there be a choice between good and evil – if there are no options, there can be no element of choice. Because it is Hashem’s Will to grant us reward, He created an imperfect world. It is the task of the Jewish people to bring that world to spiritual perfection by choosing good over evil, or in other words, by obeying Hashem’s commandments. By definition, the Al-mighty is perfection at its fullest. How, then, could He create a world that was anything short of perfect? To answer this question, let us consider our Sages’ teaching that the Al-mighty “created worlds and then destroyed them” (Bereshit Rabbah 3:7). This is a most surprising statement. What were these worlds, and what need was there to create them, only to destroy them? (See Idra Rabbah 128a, Idra Zuta 292b, and Shaar HaMitzvot, Parashat Behar 25b.) If Hashem had created the world using His full capacities, so to speak, it would have been the very essence of perfection. There would be no possibility of evil, of
The Mekubalim teach that the “ten Utterances” with which the world was created are ten specific revelations of the ways Hashem relates to His created beings, in accordance with their deeds. The Sefer Yetzirah calls them ten Sefirot, ten spiritual forces through which Hashem rules the world, each a different level of connection to Him.
trials and temptations, or of the Free Will to contend with them. Since G-d’s plan in Creation required an imperfect world, which His chosen nation would perfect through their choice to do good, He confined the powers He employed in Creation, using only limited forces. Creation with the Al-mighty’s full powers would have produced a perfect world. Creation with limited forces produced the limited world suited to serve as the arena for man’s trials and struggles. In worlds created with the Al-mighty’s full powers, there would be full revelation of the Al-mighty, which would leave no opportunity to exercise Free Will. By confining His powers, He created worlds on progressively lower levels, until finally, on the lowest level, He created our dark, material world, where His Light, although omnipresent, is hidden from us. Our world is a confused mass of good and evil, so closely intertwined that at times, it is hard to differentiate between the two. It is in this perplexing, imperfect setting that man must constantly exercise his Free Will. The Ramhal teaches that man’s deeds relate not only to himself, but to the world at large (Mesillat Yesharim, Chapter 1). By overcoming the evil inclination, a major player in the arena of good vs. evil, we bring perfection to Hashem’s world, revealing that “Hashem is One and His Name is One” (Zechariah 14:9), and that “There is none other than Him” (Devarim 4:35). Then He can reward us in full, realizing the purpose of Creation. That is man’s real task in life, and only he can fulfill it. Our Sages’ teaching that the Al-mighty created worlds and destroyed them refers to these different levels of Creation. At the top, so to speak, was the world on the highest level of revelation of the Creator. Down at the bottom is the physical world, which has it own role to play as man’s spiritual testing ground. One of the intermediate levels was the world known as the Olam HaTohu, literally “The World of Destruction” (see Bereshit 1:2). When this spiritual world was destroyed, the shattered particles, in the form of Divine sparks, fell down to the levels below. The lower worlds, called the Olam HaBeriyah (the World of the Throne), Olam HaYetzirah (the World of the Angels), and Olam Ha’Asiyah (the physical world of earthly activity), were created from these fallen sparks.
Restoring the Crown
This process of creation and destruction produced the circumstances essential for the creation of man on the sixth day. Through his fulfillment of Torah and mitzvot, man was given the ability to retrieve the scattered sparks of holiness, separate them from the forces of evil and impurity in the physical world, and cause them to ascend to their original position in the Higher Worlds, where Hashem reveals Himself in fullness. Reinstated in this lofty world, they become a vehicle for the revelation of Hashem’s Oneness.
According to Kabbalistic teachings, then, we are commanded to fulfill Torah and mitzvot because every single commandment we perform causes the holy sparks of these destroyed worlds to be retrieved and uplifted, thus rectifying the world. We can better understand this extremely profound concept by means of a parable. A great and kindly king had one overriding desire: to bestow good upon his subjects. Since he was also wise, he understood that receiving unearned handouts could not be “good” in the fullest sense of the term. A free gift inevitably brings with it some discomfort; as we said, it is nahama d’kisufa, bread of shame. So sincere was this noble king’s desire to grant flawless good that he developed an elaborate plan: the king was going to invent a way for his subjects to earn the reward which he in any case longed to give them. Did he need their labor? Not at all. But because he wanted to give, he structured an artificial stetting where the people would work for the king, strictly as a device for them to earn generous wages. The king removed large quantities of gem-encrusted jewelry, gold and silver vessels, and precious crowns from the royal treasury. He purposely and purposefully broke down these valuable items into countless small pieces, which he scattered in the sands along the seashore. He then issued instructions to his loyal subjects to go out and search for the broken pieces of the royal treasures. When they found them, they were to repair and reconstruct them, polishing them and restoring them to their original beauty and perfection. They would all be generously rewarded for the labors they invested in this job – even though it had been contrived by the king, who had shattered and scattered the valuable objects to begin with. To make the project even more profitable, the king introduced a subtle challenge. He planted all sorts of appealing distractions in the workplace, so that it demanded considerable willpower and effort to remain focused on the job at hand. Those who ignored the petty temptations and worked hard would be richly and justifiably rewarded, while the others, who had been enticed into neglecting the king’s service, would be punished. Like the king in the parable, the Al-mighty structured a setting in which His beloved subjects can earn the reward He wishes to give them. The bejeweled crowns intentionally shattered by the king and scattered in the sands for his subjects to retrieve and restore to perfection are the Higher Worlds created and subsequently destroyed by the Al-mighty. The shattered remnants of these worlds are scattered throughout Creation. Every mitzvah fulfilled restores a priceless crown jewel to gleaming perfection and returns it to its place in the Olam HaAtzilut. This is the true, ultimate purpose of our fulfillment of mitzvot.
When all the sparks have been retrieved and all the destroyed worlds are rectified, we will merit the coming of Mashiah. At that time, we will serve Hashem on a much loftier level. Materialism will cease to exist, and the world will be entirely spiritual. The Arizal explains that every single mitzvah rectifies a whole world unto itself. Every single day, even every single prayer, is a separate rectification on its own, corresponding to specific parts and elements of “the King’s crowns.” Every individual mitzvah rectifies a related spiritual world. Only that mitzvah of all the many others has the spiritual power to rectify and restore it to its original state (Etz Hayyim, Shaar Gimel, Chapter 2; Shaar HaKavanot, p. 59a-b; Mavo Shearim, p. 17a) . With this understanding of the profound significance of the mitzvot we fulfill, we can see that the Al-mighty certainly does “care if one slaughters from the [animal’s] throat or slaughters from the back of the [animal’s] neck.” Every single “crown,” symbolic of a fallen world, needs its own specific mitzvah. Only this mitzvah, fulfilled according to its precise halachic specifications, can bring about the necessary rectification in the Higher Worlds. This teaching of the Arizal highlights the importance of fulfilling mitzvot every day anew, because every day has its own new rectification. Every trial we face and every mitzvah we do is a new challenge, and a new opportunity to retrieve and rectify additional sparks of holiness. With this in mind, we can understand the profound meaning of our verse. “And you command the children of Israel, and they will take to you pure olive oil crushed for illumination, to light the continual lamp.” Olive oil represents Divine wisdom. The pure drop first pressed from the olives is symbolic of the refined wisdom of the Torah’s hidden secrets. One only merits true understanding of Torah when he “crushes” himself through maximum exertion over Torah study (see Berachot 63b, citing Bamidbar 19:14). We achieve this by understanding that the true purpose of the mitzvot is for “illumination, to light the continual lamp,” bringing light to the Higher Worlds by retrieving and elevating the holy sparks, and restoring them to their former lofty position. This process is “continual,” encompassing every single day and every single deed. Each day has its own tikun, as does every mitzvah.
Servants and Sons
The Arizal provides an important insight into these two approaches to the fulfillment of mitzvot (Shaar HaMitzvot p. 1b, citing the Introduction to Sefer HaTikkunim). He explains that the loftiest possible intent in fulfilling the
commandments is the desire to serve Hashem not as a hired hand who labors for pay, but rather, as a son who cares only to obey and bring satisfaction to his Father in Heaven. This level is only attainable for one familiar with the Kabbalistic reasons and intentions of the prayers and mitzvot, who does mitzvot in order to rectify the Higher Worlds and unite the letters of Hashem’s sacred Name. He is not out to earn reward in this world, nor even in the World to Come. The same is true of learning Torah. One should not learn only to acquire knowledge, but rather, in order to fulfill the Will of the Creator and bring together the letters of His Name through the mitzvah of Torah study. Rabbi Natan Shapiro elaborates on the difference between a servant and a son (Introduction to Pri Etz Hayyim). A servant will always be motivated by the desire for payment or reward. It is only a son’s service that is driven solely by sheer love, with no hope of reimbursement. This the loftiest level in serving Hashem. He writes that one whose knowledge is limited to the simple meaning of Torah can only serve Hashem in order to receive reward. He is called “a perfect servant.” This “servant” understands Torah and mitzvot on the simple level of material reward, which includes good health, sufficient livelihood, and other worldly necessities. In contrast, one who is familiar with the secrets of the Torah can do much more. He is a devoted son, whose sole intent in fulfilling mitzvot is to rectify the Higher Worlds and break down the partitions separating us from the Creator. His service of Hashem reveals the truth of His Oneness in the world, so that all mankind will ultimately see that there is none other than Him. We can be servants, and we can be sons. We can serve Hashem for own interests, so to speak, with our eye fixed firmly on the reward which He will undoubtedly bestow upon us in abundance, far beyond anything we really deserve. However, we can also serve Him on a higher level as well. We can direct our Torah and mitzvot to the lofty goal of bringing the world closer to its ultimate perfection, leading to our people’s final Redemption. May we merit seeing this sacred goal fulfilled speedily in our times, amen.
This essay contains divre Torah. Please treat it with proper respect.
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