What is Freedom?

This evening we usher in the final day (or two days, in the diaspora) of Pesach. The last day of the holiday commemorates the Israelites’ crossing of the Red Sea, the point at which they were finally free of Egypt. Pharaoh’s armies were annihilated, and he abandoned his pursuit of his former slaves for good. The Israelites were now completely free.

Or were they?

The message that God instructed Moses to carry to Pharaoh was: “Let my people go so that they may serve me” (Exodus 7:16). The verb that is used is identical to that describing our service to Pharaoh; we were avadim l’Pharaoh and became avadim l’Hashem. Were we really freed from slavery, or did our slavery simply transfer from one master to another Master?

Defining Freedom

There are many ways to define ‘freedom’. The term might mean different things to different people at different times. A Talmudic definition of freedom is the ability to control one’s own time. A slave is told what to do and when to do it (for this reason, Jewish servants were exempt from time-bound mitzvot). A more modern definition of freedom – particularly in our capitalistic world – might be tied to amassing a vast fortune. There is a great deal of truth in this, as the Talmud (Nedarim 38a) tells us that all of our forefathers and prophets were exceedingly wealthy. For a child, freedom might mean staying up past their bedtime, or eating as many sweets as they wanted. For an adult, freedom might be a week off work or spending quality time with family.

To find a singular, all-encompassing definition of freedom, one has to zoom out and find a common denominator. The simplest (and most common) would be to say that freedom is the ability to do whatever a person wishes to do. Indeed, Merriam-Webster’s primary definition of freedom is “the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action”. In other words, one is free to act as they wish.

The problem with this definition is that it is difficult to separate from simple instinct. For example, if one suddenly has a desire to consume a large piece of cheesecake, and does so, is this really freedom, or just a submission to their inner compulsion? What if this person is lactose-intolerant and grossly overweight – would eating that cheesecake be an act of freedom, or an act of slavery to their body’s desires?

It appears that we need to refine the above definition of freedom. Instead of phrasing it in the positive – the ability to do whatever one wishes – a better way to look at it might be in the negative: the ability to restrain one’s self from doing whatever they wish, even though they are completely free to do so.

The wise sage Ben Zoma teaches: “Who is the great person? The one who can overcome his inclinations.” (Avot 4:1) Ben Zoma bases this teaching on the words of King Solomon in Proverbs (19:32), “Better is one who is slow to anger than one who is mighty, and [better is] one who can conquer his own spirit than one who can conquer a city.”

Apotheosis

Ultimately, it is very easy to say “yes” to one’s self; it is far more difficult to say “no”. The latter is the real test of free will, and often the truest expression of freedom. It is only when a person has developed the ability to overcome their inner instincts and their base bodily desires that they are truly free. Otherwise, although they may not be slaves to a Pharaoh, they are still slaves to themselves.

And so, when God freed the Israelites from Pharaoh’s slavery, He did not simply let them “go free”, but rather, gave them a Torah full of mitzvot, to “serve God”, so to speak. Of course, God requires no service – He is infinite, eternal, needing absolutely nothing at all. When we “serve God”, we are really just serving ourselves.

The mitzvot were given only to refine the individual; to perfect one’s character and to free a person from the confines of their body, making them as Godly as possible. God commanded the people: “Be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). We are meant to be like God, for in God’s image we were fashioned. And this is the key to true freedom, since the ultimate source of freedom is God – who is infinite and limitless – and we are commanded to become like Him – infinite and limitless. The potential is seeded deeply within all of us, for we were all made in God’s image.

Next week, we begin reading Pirkei Avot, the “Ethics of the Fathers”, as is customary between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot. One of the most profound maxims in these pages was spoken by Rabban Gamliel (2:4), who reveals the secret to definitive freedom. Every person who is serious about attaining true freedom should meditate upon these words every day:

“Make your will like His will, and He will make His will like your will; nullify your will to do His will, and He will nullify the wills of others to do your will.”

Chag sameach!

When is Mashiach Coming?

This week’s Torah portion is Metzora, loosely translated as “leper”. It begins by detailing the procedures for the purification of one who has been afflicted by leprosy. The Sages famously state (Arachin 15b) that the term metzora comes from “motzi shem ra”, slandering one’s fellow. Thus, a person would be afflicted with skin ailments if they were guilty of slander and evil speech. Since the slanderer is making their fellow look bad in the eyes of the public, they are appropriately punished by becoming visibly unsightly.

The connection between a metzora and a slanderer is seen in the case of Miriam, the sister of Moses. In chapter 12 of Numbers, we read how Miriam confronted Moses about his personal affairs in the presence of others. As a result of this public embarrassment, she was afflicted with leprosy, and became “white as snow” (v. 10).

Strangely, there is one more important figure that is said to be afflicted with leprosy, and for this person, the reasons appear inexplicable. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a) recounts the following:

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi met Elijah [the Prophet] by the entrance of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s tomb… and   asked him:
“When will the Messiah come?”
[Elijah responded:] “Go and ask him yourself.”
“Where is he?”
“At the entrance [of Rome].”
“And how will I recognize him?”
“He is sitting among the poor lepers, who are untying [their bandages] all at once, and retying them all at once, whereas he unties and reties each bandage separately, thinking, Should I be wanted, I must not be delayed.”

This fascinating passage suggests that Mashiach is sitting at the gates of Rome (according to the Vilna Gaon’s commentary) among all the lepers expelled from the city. Unlike all the other lepers, Mashiach treats one bandage at a time, just in case he might be called to his mantle at any moment, and must always be ready. Indeed, the following page of the Talmud asks what Mashiach’s name might be, and after citing several possibilities, the rabbis conclude that he is known as the “Leper Scholar” (or “the Leper of Rebbi’s School”).

Why would Mashiach be a leper?

The Leper Scholar

The Lubavitcher Rebbe offers one interesting answer to the puzzle. He teaches (Likutei Sichot, Vol. 7, pg. 100) that Mashiach is essentially a perfect person on the inside; however, no human being is completely perfect – such a distinction is reserved only for God – and so, his minor spiritual imperfections appear only on his most outer garments – the skin. The Rebbe goes on to say that the leprosy appearing on his skin is actually a sign of Mashiach’s tremendous spiritual powers. Rabbi Eli Touger describes the Rebbe’s teaching like this: “…there are sublime spiritual influences which, because of the lack of appropriate vessels… can produce negative effects. For when powerful energy is released without being harnessed, it can cause injury. This is the reason for the [leprosy] with which Mashiach is afflicted.”

The Midrash writes that Mashiach’s most powerful weapon is his tongue, and he slays evil with his speech. In one passage (Pesikta Rabbati 37), Mashiach is said to be confronted with 140 wicked kingdoms, and God comforts him: “… do not be afraid, for all of them will perish by the breath of your lips.” This is based on the verse in Isaiah 11, where the Messiah is similarly described as destroying the wicked with his speech. The power of speech is perhaps the greatest of all – it is through speech that God created this entire universe (“And God said ‘Let there be light’…”) – one who knows the true powers of speech can create and destroy worlds!

The power of speech is precisely what the metzora abuses in slandering a fellow, and is thoroughly punished for it with leprosy. Meanwhile, Mashiach uses the same power to root out all evil. Yet, his power is so great that containing it in his feeble body inevitably manifests as a leprosy on his skin.

With this definition in mind, we may see the word metzora in a new light. The Sages say that metzora means motzi ra, literally one who brings out evil. While this can be taken to mean one who brings out evil words about others, it can also be read as one who removes evil from the world, which is Mashiach’s ultimate purpose.

When Will Mashiach Come?

The same pages of Talmud quoted above (Sanhedrin 98a-b) record that the students of Rabbi Yose ben Kisma asked him: “‘When will the Messiah come?’… So he answered them: ‘When this gate falls down, is rebuilt, falls again, and is again rebuilt, and then falls a third time, before it can be rebuilt the son of David will come.’” Rashi comments here that the “gate” which Rabbi Yose is referring to is none other than Rome (just as the Vilna Gaon commented above that Mashiach is sitting at the gates of Rome).

Rabbi Yose is saying that Rome will fall, and will be rebuilt two more times. When the Third Rome falls, one is assured that Mashiach’s arrival is imminent. Amazingly, historians often speak of “Three Romes”. The first Rome was the original Latin Rome. It collapsed in the 5th century CE, and was replaced by the Greek-speaking Constantinople (today’s Istanbul), the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, later referred to as the Byzantine Empire. When Constantinople fell, the new, “Third Rome” was said to be Moscow. Moscow reached the peak of its global power with the Soviet Union, and collapsed just as dramatically less than 30 years ago.

Three Romes: Ancient Rome, Constantinople, and Moscow

Three Romes: Ancient Rome, Constantinople, and Moscow

Interestingly, Jewish literature commonly referred to Rome as Edom, literally the “red” empire. The Soviet Union, too, was known for its association with that colour; the Communists were commonly referred to as “the Reds”, the Soviet Army as the “Red Army”, with the focal point of their empire being Red Square in Moscow.

It is commonly taught that God created civilization as we know it to last 6000 years, followed by a seventh millennium of a peaceful, cosmic “Sabbath”, mimicking the seven days of Creation (see, for example, Sanhedrin 97a). Throughout the ages, various rabbis attempted to calculate the coming of Mashiach based on this principle. If the Final Era of mankind is the 7th millennium – the Sabbath – then the Messianic Era is the preparatory period that immediately precedes the Sabbath. How long should this period be? Well, how long do we spend preparing for Shabbat?

In Jewish law, one should stop working and start preparing for Shabbat six hours before its onset. If each millennium of human history corresponds to one day, then six hours corresponds to 250 years, which means that the official starting point of the Messianic Era was the year 5750 (since this is 250 years before the start of the 7th millennium). Indeed, 5750 is commonly cited as the beginning of the Ikveta d’Mshicha, the “Footsteps of Mashiach”.

Incredibly, Rosh Hashanah of 5750 was celebrated in September of 1989. The Berlin Wall – and the Soviet Union along with it – came crashing down less than two months after, that same November. The Third Rome had fallen right in line with the prophesized starting point of the “Footsteps of Mashiach”, just as the Talmud records in two brief pages of the tractate Sanhedrin (97a, 98b).

Needless to say, it appears that Mashiach’s arrival may very well be imminent.

Are There Really Just Four Non-Kosher Animals With One Sign?

This week’s parasha is Shemini, “eighth”, referring to the eighth day of the Mishkan’s inauguration ceremony. On this day, the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, brought an unsanctioned incense offering, and perished because of it. The Torah goes on to describe various sacrificial and priestly laws before going into the rules for kosher food.

When it comes to land animals, those that have split hooves and chew cud are kosher. Animals that do not have both signs are not kosher. The Torah then goes on to give four examples of animals that have one of the signs, but not the other: the camel chews cud, but does not have a completely split hoof; the pig has a split hoof, but does not chew cud; and the shafan and arnevet (unknown species often described as rabbits, hyraxes, or badgers), who chew cud but do not have split hooves.

The Torah uses these as examples of non-kosher animals that were present in Israel and surrounding regions in those days; animals that were familiar to the Israelites. The Torah does not state anywhere that these must be the only four non-kosher animals in the entire world that possess one sign, and not the other. Yet, somehow it became popular for Torah lecturers, particularly in the world of kiruv (Jewish outreach), to suggest that thousands of years ago, the Torah predicted there are only four such animals in the whole world, and to this day, no other animals have been found that only offer one sign. While ancient Jewish literature has plenty of amazing foresight into scientific matters – which may be used to show people its deep wisdom and divinity – this particular argument is highly flawed. The truth is, there are other animals that have one of the two signs, and not the other. Let’s take a look at a few examples.

Hippos & Llamas

A famous problem was the case of the hippopotamus. A hippo has the same foot structure as a pig, and like a pig, does not chew its cud. (While it is herbivorous, eating mostly grass and aquatic plants, hippos have been noted to even eat meat on occasion.) A hippopotamus is thus a perfect example of another animal that has split hooves but does not strictly chew cud.

Hippo and Pig Hooves

Hippo and Pig Hooves

Despite this, people will still go out of their way to insist that the Torah’s four animals must be the only four. Some even suggest that the hippopotamus must really just be another type of pig! Of course, hippos are no more pigs than they are cows, or any other animal. In fact, today scientists know that hippos are most closely related to whales (and DNA analysis confirms this).

On the other side of the spectrum are the animals that chew cud but do not have fully-split hooves. The llama and alpaca are good examples. Once again, there are those that will insist these must be just another type of camel – even though they have wool, and no humps, are commonly used for their meat, and were once thought to be closer to sheep.

Huacaya Alpaca

Huacaya Alpaca

Some might argue that since camels and llamas are officially grouped by scientists in the same family of ‘camelids’, they can be thought of as being basically the same. In reality, a zoological ‘family’ could be a vast group with very different species. For example, donkeys and horses are in the same family, yet no one in Biblical times (or today) would consider them “the same”. In fact, a donkey has a totally different status in Judaism than a horse, and a firstborn donkey is required to be redeemed in Jewish law. No rabbi would permit a horse to be redeemed in place of a donkey!

Camelids: Bactrian Camel, Llama, and Vicuana

Camelids: Bactrian Camel, Llama, and the deer-looking Vicuna

Truth in Kiruv

At the end of the day, the debate over the four animals listed in the Torah matters very little. The Torah does not claim these are the only four animals, so there is no need to make that conclusion. The problem is when people do make that conclusion, then use it as a proof to convince others of the divinity of Judaism. Those victims might be convinced initially, then go on to do their own research and discover that the “proof” was actually false, which may then serve to push them away from Judaism altogether.

Besides, there are many more solid arguments from ancient Jewish literature that can be used instead. Here are a couple of much better ones:

בְּשַׁעְתָּא דִּסְתִימָא דְכָל סְתִימִין בָּעָא לְאִתְגַּלְּיָא, עֲבַד בְּרֵישָׁא נְקוּדָה חֲדָא, וְדָא סָלֵיק לְמֶהֱוֵי מַחֲשָׁבָה. צַיֵּיר בָּהּ כָּל צִיּוּרִין חָקַק בָּהּ כָּל גְּלִיפִין… וְרָזָא דָא, בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים. זֹהַר, דְּמִנֵּיהּ כָּלְהוֹ מַאֲמָרוֹת אִתְבְּרִיאוּ בְּרָזָא דְאִתְפַּשְׁטוּתָא דִנְקוּדָה דְּזֹהַר סְתִים דָּא

זוהר חלק א (בראשית) דף ב/א, טו/א

“When God began to create, He first made a singular point, with which he then formed all formations, and carved out all things… And the secret of ‘In the beginning, God created…’ [Genesis 1:1] is radiance [zohar], from which all Utterances were created, in the secret of the expansion of the point of radiance.”

The Zohar, a mystical commentary on the Torah first published in the 13th century (based on much older teachings) describes that creation began from a singular point of radiation that expanded to give rise to all things. This is precisely what science tells us today with the Singularity that spawned the Big Bang, and the cosmic expansion and cooling that followed, giving rise to all matter.

The Zohar also tells us:

דהא כל ישובא מתגלגלא בעגולא ככדור, אלין לתתא, ואלין לעילא, וכל אינון בריין משניין בחזוויהו משנויא דאוירא, כפום כל אתר ואתר

זוהר חלק ג (ויקרא) דף י/א

“… The entire planet is rotating in a circle like a ball. There are people below, and people above, all different in appearance due to the different atmospheres of each land.”

At least seven centuries ago, the Zohar already taught that the Earth is spherical, and more significantly, that it is rotating (which scientists only confirmed in the 19th century – see Foucault’s 1852 pendulum experiment). The Zohar also states that despite the Earth’s spherical nature, people live above and below, without falling off the planet, and that people living in different lands have different features because of different environmental conditions, hinting at biological adaptation.

Credit: Dailygalaxy.com

Credit: Dailygalaxy.com

Purim: The First Jewish Holiday

Next Wednesday evening brings the festive holiday of Purim, the last in the Jewish calendar year. Most have heard the basic story: the Jewish people are dispersed across the vast Persian Empire, where an evil minister (Haman) has devised a plot to exterminate them all on one fateful day. Mordechai and the secretly-Jewish Queen Esther save the day. The whole narrative is recorded in Megillat Esther, a short text at the end of the Tanakh. While every Jew (and most gentiles) have heard of Passover, the High Holidays, and Chanukah, Purim remains among the lesser-known Jewish holidays. And yet, in several places across our holy texts, Purim is recognized as being essentially the greatest of holidays, and the only one to remain following the coming of Mashiach. For example, the midrash of Yalkut Shimoni (in Passage 944) states:

…כל המועדים עתידין ליבטל וימי הפורים אינן בטלים לעולם

“All the holidays are destined to be nullified, but the days of Purim will never be nullified for eternity…”

An 18th-Century Megillah

An 18th-Century Megillah

Purim is not only the last holiday on the Jewish calendar year, but the last to remain in the future. What are we to make of such statements? What makes Purim so special that it stands alone among holidays that will be commemorated by Jews for eternity?

To properly answer this question requires first answering a more fundamental question: When did Judaism begin?

The First Jew

What is the starting point of Judaism? When can we say for sure that the Jewish people had their beginning? Who was the first Jew?

Some erroneously believe that Adam and Eve were the first Jews. This is, of course, grossly incorrect, as the Torah views Adam and Eve simply as the first civilized humans. More commonly, people point to Abraham as the first Jew. Though he is certainly the first of the forefathers, and the point at which the tradition – in some shape or form – begins, it is very hard to describe him as “Jewish”. After all, the Torah in its full form wouldn’t be revealed until centuries later. So, it must be Moses and the Israelites, who received the Torah at Sinai following the Exodus. Surely, they were the first Jews! Indeed, most people would pick that moment as the official start of the Jewish people.

Yet, the truth is that those Israelites were practicing a very different religion. There were no synagogues in those days, no amidah prayer and no tehillim, no volumes of Talmud to study, and the events of Nevi’im and Ketuvim, Chanukah, Purim, and Tisha b’Av (among others) wouldn’t happen until far in the future. This was a religion centred on sacrificial offerings (the details of which we read in this week’s parasha of Vayikra, and the rest of the Torah’s third book).

Today, we have no korbanot, no pilgrimage festivals, no Temple or Mishkan, no death penalties, no polygamy, no prophecy, no slavery, no tithes, no priests, no Canaanites, Amorites, Moabites, or Amalekites. Though this Shabbat we will read parashat Zachor to remember the evil Amalekites and remind ourselves to destroy them, we have no idea who the “Amalekites” actually are in our times!

The Judaism of today – focused on Torah study, prayer, and observance of mitzvot – is completely different than the ancient Israelites’ religion of sacrifices, agricultural laws, and priestly laws. And, of course, those Israelites certainly weren’t known as “Jews”.

Having said that, we are undoubtedly bound by a chain of tradition, and there is a clear evolution from ancient Israelite to modern Jew. At which point did everything change?

The Birth of the Jewish People

Some 2500 years ago, the Kingdom of Judah was destroyed, together with its Holy Temple. While the previous destruction of the Kingdom of Israel resulted in its people being scattered across the Assyrian Empire, the Kingdom of Judah did not suffer the same fate. Instead, the people of Judah were taken captive to Babylon.

The Temple, with all of its sacrifices and offerings, was gone, and so were the priestly rituals. The people were no longer farmers on their own lands; the many agricultural laws of the Torah no longer applied. Pilgrimages festivals in Jerusalem were no longer possible either. To survive, the religion had to undergo a major transformation.

In Babylon, offering sacrifices was not possible, so the people began to offer prayers instead. Making pilgrimages was not possible, so people gave the festivals new meanings, and celebrated them with feasts at home. In Babylon, observing the Torah’s laws directly was not possible, but studying the laws was, so this is what the people did, preserving the law in their hearts and minds. Not surprisingly, those who best knew the law were most respected. The priest gave way to the rabbi. And perhaps most importantly, across the Babylonian domain, as the various Israelite tribes blended together and assimilated, ancestral history became blurry, and everyone simply became known as a “Yehudi”, from the name of the most populous of the tribes, and the last surviving kingdom, Judah.

Thus, it is really at this point, in Babylon, between the First and Second Temples, where Judaism as we know it is born. And this is precisely the time of Purim.

The First Rabbi

Purim takes place during the time of the Babylonian Captivity, after the destruction of the First Temple, and shortly before the construction of the Second Temple. It is in Megillat Esther that we are first introduced to the “Jews”:

“There was a Yehudi man in Susa the capital city, and his name was Mordechai, the son of Yair, the son of Shim’i, the son of Kish, a Benjaminite.” (Esther 2:5)

'The Triumph of Mordechai' by Pieter Lastman (1624)

‘The Triumph of Mordechai’ by Pieter Lastman (1624)

If Mordechai is from the tribe of Benjamin, why is he described as a Yehudi, as if from the tribe of Judah? As we continue reading, we see no mention of any tribes of Israel. Rather, the text always refers to the people, wherever they were across the 127 territories of the Empire, as Yehudim. They had now officially become, not Israelites or Hebrews, but Jews.

Their leader is Mordechai: not a priest, not a Levite, not a king, and not a prophet (at least, not according to the plain text, though later traditions suggest that he really was a prophet). Back in the land of Israel, the leadership used to be held firmly by the Kohanim in the Temple, and by the royal family in the palace. In Babylon, none of that mattered. Mordechai was simply a wise man, a respected communal leader and advisor. One may even argue that Mordechai is history’s first “rabbi” in the proper sense of the term.

Purim as Independence Day

By the time the Jews were permitted to return to Israel, and finally rebuild the Temple, they had become accustomed to their new religious ways. Soon, the Great Assembly compiled the Tanakh, and laid down the first texts of prayer and blessing. The Second Temple was not nearly what the First Temple was, devoid of the Ark of the Covenant and the Urim and Tumim. The age of prophecy had ended, too, as did the monarchy. Though there was a return to Torah law, the law was superseded by imperial law, now that Israel was a vassal of the Persian Empire, and then the Greek, and finally the Roman.

A split among the Jewish people was slowly developing: There were those who wanted to return to the ways of ancient Israel, centred on the Temple, together with its priestly and agricultural laws. And then there were those who wanted to maintain the ways that had developed in Babylon. Ultimately, they would form two groups: the Tzdukim, or Sadducees, and the Perushim, or Pharisees. Their names reveal much:

Though it is thought that “Tzduki” comes from the name of their founder, Tzadok, it nonetheless shares a root with tzedek, as this group thought they were the correct ones, following the proper ancient way. Meanwhile, “Perushi” literally means “separatist”, as these were the reformers trying to change the ancient system. Not surprisingly, the Tzdukim were primarily composed of the priestly classes, who wanted to restore their central role among the people. The Perushim were composed primarily of the scholarly class, who did not want to lose their new status.

Perhaps to distance themselves from the Perushim, the Tzdukim rejected any concept of an “Oral Tradition”, and stuck firmly to what is written in the Torah. The Perushim, meanwhile, maintained that there must be an ancient tradition dating back to Moses.

As the priests, the Tzdukim controlled the Temple, and relegated the Perushim to the sidelines. Ironically, this sealed their doom, for when the Second Temple was destroyed, the Tzdukim and their faulty ideology collapsed with it. Not dependant on a Temple, the Perushim survived. Rabbinic Judaism and the Oral Torah thrived along with them. And here we are today.

This entire chain of events was set in motion with the story of Purim, which describes the rise of the Jewish people, and their salvation from the brink of destruction. Had it gone another way, Haman would have finished off what Sennacherib and Nebuchadnezzar started; the Israelites would have perished, and Judaism as we know it would have never emerged. And so, Purim is a sort of “Independence Day” for the Jewish people. The Midrash describes Purim as the last of Jewish holidays because, ironically, it is really the first of Jewish holidays!

We can now better understand, beyond the chronological reasons, why the short Megillat Esther was included in the last sections of the Tanakh. What began at the birth of humanity with Adam and Eve, then progressed through Abraham and the start of monotheistic faith, and was propelled onwards by Moses and the prophets that followed, culminated with the final formation of the Jewish nation. The Tanakh thus presents us with a clear, sequential evolution from start to finish. Abraham was called Ivri, a Hebrew, and Jacob became Israel, with his twelve sons founding twelve tribes that ultimately came out Egypt. Those tribes settled in the Holy Land, but were later scattered across the successive Assyrian-Babylonian-Persian Empires. And it was in the Persian Empire that we truly became Jews. The Tanakh essentially ends on that note, its central narrative having been completed.

The End is Wedged in the Beginning

Sefer Yetzirah famously states the principle that “the end is wedged in the beginning, and the beginning is wedged in the end.” Based on this, we can see a far more profound reason for why Purim alone will be celebrated in Messianic times. As the story of the Jewish people’s official beginning, Megillat Esther also encodes within it the secret of the end.

The Megillah describes a world where Jews are scattered from East to West, fractured apart, assimilating. God is nowhere to be seen. In fact, Megillat Esther is unique in that it makes no explicit mention of God anywhere in the text, as if everything is simply up to chance, hence the name Purim, literally “lotteries”.

Indeed, the world we see today is a mirror of that described in Esther: Jews are once again scattered all over the world, fractured and assimilated, living in a seemingly Godless universe. Once again, we are confronted with intense hatred, and many seek our extermination. The rest of the world is blind to this, appeasing those very people who openly state their aims of annihilating the Jews. It goes without saying that, once again, Persia is at the centre of this threat. With everything that’s going on in the world, there seems to be little hope.

But Purim comes along and reminds us that God is with us, as hard as it might be to see. Salvation will surely come, and from the unlikeliest of places. In the final moments, everything will flip upside down. Just as Haman was hanged on the very gallows he prepared for Mordechai, those who seek to eliminate the Jews will succumb to their own evil devices. And the Jewish people will once again have, to quote the Megillah (8:16), “light, joy, happiness, and honour.”

Shabbat, Technology, and Our Cosmic Purpose

This week’s Torah reading is Vayak’hel, which is mostly a repetition of earlier passages regarding the construction of the Tabernacle. It begins by restating the command of keeping the Sabbath: “Six days shall you work, and the seventh day shall be for you a holy day of complete rest for Hashem…” (Exodus 35:2). Of all the major mitzvot, Shabbat is by far the most commonly mentioned in the Torah. It is also among the most severe, with those who desecrate the Sabbath being “cut off” from among their people, and ultimately succumbing to death.

Although the Torah suggests a death penalty for those who desecrate the Sabbath, an accepted tradition is that no one was ever actually put to death for doing so, except the one case mentioned later in the Torah (though even that case is more complicated than it appears). Certainly, in the post-Biblical period no one was given the death penalty for Sabbath desecration. In most cases, the punishment of death is seen as more of a spiritual death, not a physical one.

In any case, Shabbat is unarguably of tremendous importance. It is so central to Judaism that when Jews inquire whether other Jews are religious, they often simply ask if they are “shomer Shabbos”. And, of course, the Torah itself begins with the creation narrative that lays down the blueprint for Shabbat, right from the very beginning. Before there is any mention of Israel or Hebrews, laws, commandments, Patriarchs, or prayers, there is a description of the Sabbath. What makes it so special?

The Simple Answer

In simple terms, everyone understands the inherent beauty of Shabbat. After all, the majority of people only get through their work week because of the promise of a weekend. Everyone needs a break; a time to recharge their batteries and relax. Shabbat takes the concept even further, offering a true day of rest by disconnecting from the wired world: no cellphones or computers, no bad news or annoying messages, no politics, no advertising, no finances, no celebrity gossip. An opportunity to restore some mental sanity and emotional peace, to actually spend time with family (instead of spending time with the television), and not have to worry about running errands, doing chores, or having to be somewhere. Scientific studies show that having a Sabbath-like day of rest (without work and worry, and with prayer and family involved) was one of the key factors in living a longer and happier life (see here).

Having said that, Shabbat is far more than just a day of rest. The Torah commands us not only to observe the Sabbath (shamor) but also to remember, or commemorate, it (zachor). What exactly are we supposed to be remembering?

Our Cosmic Purpose

When we recite Kiddush on Friday evenings, we say zecher l’maase beresheet, “a remembrance of the Work of Creation.” Shabbat is supposed to remind us of God’s creation of this universe. To remember His creation is really to remember why it was that He created it. Although the Torah does not explicitly say so, the purpose of creation is clear. God created the universe and then placed man, the pinnacle of creation, within it, in a Garden of Eden, to enjoy the delights of this amazing world. And God made man in His own image: a creative, intelligent being. He gave man the potential to further improve an already incredible place, and bring about even more pleasure, beauty, and comfort. Man’s role was to complete the creation started by God. This is what the Torah tells us, and what we read every Friday evening:

“And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, for in it He rested from all of His work, which God had created to complete.” (Genesis 2:3)

Though often translated otherwise, this well-known verse ends with the words asher bara Elohim la’asot, literally “which God had created to complete.” God created it for us to complete it. This is why man is often described as “God’s partner in Creation”. And sure enough, this is what mankind has been doing since the earliest days. We have taken the raw material that this universe provides us and improved upon it. It is incredible to think that you are reading this right now on some sort of digital device that runs on a silicon chip – essentially made from melted and crystallized sand. Your device also has copper and gold, among other elements, taken out of the earth, purified and transformed into a wire that can carry information. You might be wearing clothes made of linen, cotton, or silk – extracted from plants or animals – or taking life-saving medications derived from trees or bacteria. God gave us the raw materials, together with a divine intellect to transform them into wonderful technologies that make our lives so much better.

Returning to Eden

All of this technology is slowly bringing us back to a perfect world, as God originally intended. What the Sages of past centuries described as miracles that will happen in the future Messianic world, we take for granted as everyday normalities. There are references to these technologies across Jewish texts.

Grape-Harvesting Machine (Credit: Wineanorack.com)

Grape-Harvesting Machine (Credit: Wineanorack.com)

In one place, the Talmud (Ketubot 111b) describes the wheat in Messianic times as having grains the size of kidneys! This must have sounded far-fetched in those times, but today is quite possible with tools like genetic engineering. The same page of Talmud describes thirty kegs of perfect wine being produced effortlessly, without a person needing to tread upon the grapes, and without even needing to harvest them with back-breaking labour, as was normal in those days. Indeed, today’s wineries use machines to harvest the grapes, with an automated production process that has sensors to ensure the ideal levels of sugar, alcohol, and so on, resulting in the same perfectly-tasting wine year after year.

Jewish texts describe Messianic events being witnessed by the whole world, and Mashiach himself being recognized universally, leading the entire globe. This was hard to imagine before the era of modern communication, yet satellites, television, and the internet make it very simple for Mashiach to be recognized and heard internationally. These technologies also bridge together cultures, spread truth and understanding, and ultimately serve to break down barriers. It is no longer so difficult to envision a united, peaceful world working together.

Partners in Torah

In the same way that we are God’s partners in creation, fulfilling the physical realm, we are also His partners in the spiritual realm. Like the raw material of the Earth, God gave us the Torah in raw form. It was the Sages that then interpreted, explained, modified, enhanced, and continue to reinterpret the Torah, generation after generation, further improving God’s Word. What began as Moses’ five books turned into a Tanakh of 24 books, then a Mishnah of 63 tractates, followed by an even longer exposition on each tractate in the form of Talmud, and then even more texts of Midrash, Kabbalah, Halacha, Mussar, and so on.

Where once divine service consisted primarily of offering sacrifices, we have evolved to “pay the cows with our lips” (Hosea 14:3), and instead serve God in prayer. Indeed, the Rambam writes (Moreh Nevuchim III:32) that God only permitted sacrifices temporarily in order to slowly wean people away from such bloody practices; prayer was always the ideal form of communing with God, and what He intended all along.

In the same way that we are fulfilling God’s will, and our purpose, by perfecting the physical world, we are fulfilling God’s will, and our purpose, by perfecting ourselves in the spiritual world.

The Psychology of Shabbat

Shabbat is meant to remind us of our purpose in God’s creation. We should never lose sight of why we are really here: to be His partners in completing the world, both physically and spiritually, and returning it to its intended state of Eden.

This is yet another reason why Shabbat is so important, and inscribed among the Ten Commandments, those ten that are most central of God’s many other commands. A person who does not observe the Sabbath is not only missing out on a day of proper rest and relaxation, but also forgetting their true purpose. And without purpose, life loses its meaning. This was the conclusion of the great neurologist and psychologist Viktor Frankl, who found that the real source of depression, anxiety, and mental pains is not the many troubles of life, but simply a lack of purpose:

“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state, but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.”

Smith explains purpose in ‘The Matrix Reloaded’

Beyond being a day of rest, Shabbat is a tool that gives our lives a grand sense of purpose. God commands us to work diligently towards the fulfilment of this purpose for six days. But on the seventh, we should take a break, and simply enjoy the fruits of that labour. The Talmud (Berachot 57b) reminds us that the pleasure of Shabbat is one-sixtieth of the pleasure of the World to Come. We should spend Shabbat as if we have already completed our mission. And then, after recharging, and reminding ourselves why we are really here, we should go into a new work week, refreshed, to continue our special task as God’s partners in His universe.

Shabbat Shalom