Tag Archives: Leviticus

Adam and the Mashiach Within

In this week’s parasha, Tazria, we learn about the various laws of tzara’at, loosely translated as “leprosy”. The verse that begins the discussion starts by saying Adam ki ihyeh, “When a person has on the skin of the body a swelling, a rash, or a discolouration, and it develops into a scaly affliction on the skin…” (Leviticus 13:2) The phrasing is unique in that the statement strangely begins with the word adam. Grammatically, it would have been more appropriate and common for the Torah to say Ki ihyeh b’adam. Rav Yitzchak Ginsburgh cites an old tradition that there are three other such verses that use the word adam with strange grammar: Leviticus 1:2, Numbers 19:14, and Psalms 36:7. These four instances correspond to the four mystical olamot, dimensions or “universes” of Creation, called Asiyah, Yetzirah, Beriah, and Atzilut. In turn, they represent different stages in the development of every human being, literally an adam.

In addition to the four verses above, we can include the first verse in Chronicles, which is also unique in that it is made up of just three names, starting with “Adam”—here referring to the actual first civilized man Adam, and not adam generically. I believe this fifth instance alludes to the highest universe and ascension of man, that of Adam Kadmon. Recall that the five universes correspond to the five levels of soul, as well as to the five parts of God’s Ineffable Name (the four letters, plus the “crown” atop the letter yud), and the five books of the Torah.

If we carefully go through the five special “Adam” verses, we can derive the key stages in the development of every human being. Stage one comes from Leviticus 1:2, where God declares: “When any of you presents [adam ki yakriv mikem] an offering of cattle to God…” This verse has been classically interpreted as a person offering up him or herself as an offering, adam mikem. In other words, any kind of significant growth or personal development requires self-sacrifice and hard work. If a person is not willing to give anything up, nor abandon any of their old ways, habits, and preconceived notions, there is little chance for successful spiritual elevation. Thus, step one is sacrifice.

Next is the verse in this week’s parasha about an adam being afflicted with leprosy. The result, of course, is that they are ostracized and separated from the community until their leprosy heals. (Interestingly, the word “ostracism” comes from the Greek ostracon, a potsherd upon which were engraved the names of undesirable people voted to be expelled.) This is actually the natural next step in the growth journey, because once a person abandons their old norms and starts to enter new areas of thought and practice, they will undoubtedly be criticized, attacked for their new-found “radicalism”, possibly branded as some kind of “reformer” or “heretic”, and ultimately “cut off” from their old community. They will be cast off as a “leper” of sorts, and valuable relationships will be lost. This stage is often experienced both by baalei teshuva who leave behind their secular lives, as well as religious people disenchanted with their particular sect, or synagogue, or denomination and looking to find new meaning. The second stage is quite a difficult process, and leads to the next step:

The third adam verse is Numbers 19:14, stating “When a person dies in a tent [adam ki yamut b’ohel]…” This is symbolic of the death of the old self. The person transitions to a new reality, a new hashkafa, renewed meaning in life, a fresh vigour and spirituality, and perhaps a new (and better) community. Only then is the person ready for the fourth adam verse: “man and beast [adam u’behemah] you save Hashem!” One has finally attained personal salvation, and communion with God. Such a person is a truly God-conscious, whole, and righteous individual.

There is just one more, sublime level after this, reserved for those who want to go even further, transcending the very bounds of time and space. This is the highest level of Adam Kadmon, corresponding to the loftiest yechidah soul. Fittingly, it corresponds to the opening Chronicles verse that has just three words: “Adam, Shet, Enosh.” If you read these not simply as names, but as an actual sentence, it literally means “man rules over mortality”! In other words, this person is immortalized and attains true eternity.

We can now add a new column to our previous table:

We can see how neatly the rows line up in the table. Ostracism is a fitting link for Bamidbar, when the Israelites were cast “into the Wilderness”. This is where a lot of the fundamental work needs to be done, hence its parallel to Yetzirah (“formation”), and the Middot (character traits) of Zeir Anpin. Similarly, Shemot is a fitting link to the “Salvation” or “Elevation” stage, a spiritual “exodus” to a new and higher plane, a personal Redemption. And “Transcendence” ties to Beresheet, as it is described as becoming one with Creation. At this highest stage, one has accessed and revealed their own inner “Mashiach”, because every adam has a spark of the first Adam, who gave over a portion of his soul to David and then, in turn, to Mashiach. Recall that “Adam” (אדם) is said to stand for “Adam-David-Mashiach”, and spans the entire course of history, from the first person to the “last”. And, the Arizal taught (Sha’ar haGilgulim, Ch. 11) that just about every human being has a spark of Adam, and a spiritual “portion” of the first human—and therefore also of the last.

In fact, we find the same five stages in the way our Sages described the events of Mashiach. The “sacrifice” stage (from Leviticus 1:2) is self-evident in Mashiach’s self-sacrifice on behalf of his nation. [Rav Ginsburgh points out that the word korbano (קרבנו), “his sacrifice” in the subsequent verse (Leviticus 1:3) has the same numerical value (358) as “Mashiach” (משיח)!] That Mashiach is ostracized like a leper is described by our Sages all over the place, and the Talmud even refers to him as “the Leper Scholar” (Sanhedrin 98b). The “death” of Mashiach ben Yosef, corresponding to stage three, is well-known (and will be explored more fully in an upcoming class). Then comes ushering in the Redemption for all of mankind (stage four), and finally bringing the world to a new, transcendent state where Heaven and Earth are united—corresponding to Adam Kadmon. This is the Mashiach journey, and this is the same journey for each of us, to ultimately bring out our very own inner mashiach.

On Eating Bugs

The Locusta migratoria species, with its two “jumping legs” clearly visible.

In this week’s parsha, Shemini, we are presented with the Torah’s extensive dietary laws. All bugs and insects are forbidden for consumption except those that are winged and have two large jumping legs in addition to their four other legs, ie. locusts (Leviticus 11:21-22). The Torah names four families of such locust species which are kosher. Rashi comments that we no longer know how to identify these species, so for practical purposes no one eats such insects anymore (although a small minority of Mizrachi and Sephardi communities did consume locusts until recently).

The bigger issue today is the broader prohibition of consuming bugs, and how it applies to inadvertent consumption of tiny bugs in fruits and vegetables. It has become common to hear extremely negative language regarding such accidental consumption, with people saying (untrue) things like inadvertently eating bugs on poorly-washed lettuce or strawberries is “five times worse” than consuming pork, and with reputable kashrut organizations pushing more and more stringent requirements for washing produce—using bright lamps and magnifying glasses and even doing “laboratory testing”. Is any of this actually required? What does Jewish law actually say about washing produce and consuming errant bugs? Continue reading

The Kabbalah of Fingers and Toes

The essay below is an excerpt from the newly-released third volume of Garments of Light, available here (and now on Amazon here). 

In parashat Tzav, we read about the many details of the sacrificial procedures. One of the strange practices described is that Moses took some of the blood of the sacrifices and smeared it on the right ear, the right thumb, and the right toe of the kohanim (Leviticus 8:23). This procedure was later replicated by the kohanim when purifying others (Leviticus 14). What is its significance? One beautiful explanation is given by Rabbeinu Bechaye (1255-1340).

He begins by saying that the universe God created has three domains: the “world of angels”, the “world of spheres”, and the “lower world” which we inhabit. The highest world is mostly spiritual, while our lower world is mostly physical. In between is the cosmos, the “world of spheres”, referring to all the stars and planets. Moses constructed the Mishkan to mirror the three parts of Creation. The inner-most Holy of Holies corresponded to the world of angels; then the Holy space around it to the world of spheres; and the courtyard within the Mishkan to the lower world.

Outlines of the Mishkan, with the inner “Holy of Holies” (Kodesh haKodashim), the antechamber known as “the Holy” (Kodesh), and the outer courtyard (chatzer) with the sacrificial altar.

Similarly, since man is an olam katan, a microcosm of the universe, the human body also has three parts: head, upper body, and lower body. The head corresponds to the highest worlds, and hence this is where divine speech emerges from—speech containing the very powers of Creation, just as God spoke the cosmos into existence. The upper body, containing the heart that gives life to the whole body, corresponds to the world of spheres. Just as the heart is intertwined with the entire body, and circulates blood and nutrients all around, so too is the world of spheres entirely intertwined, with spheres orbiting around other spheres along precise paths in a dance held together by gravity (and other forces). Finally, the lower body from the waist down corresponds to the earthly world, as expected. With this in mind, we can better understand the procedure of the ear, thumb, and toe.

Rabbeinu Bechaye explains that the blood on the ear of the head corresponds to (and rectifies) the world of angels, the blood on the thumb of the upper body corresponds to the world of spheres, and the blood on the toe of the lower body corresponds to the lower world. He also mentions how these correspond to the soul. Recall that there are three major levels to the soul, the lowest being the animalistic nefesh, above it the more spiritual ruach, and the highest being the intellectual neshamah. The nefesh corresponds to the lower body, the ruach to the upper body, and the neshamah is seated in the brain. Thus, the sacrifice is able to atone for the entire soul, and for the entire body, as well as rectifying every aspect of the universe and of God’s Creation.

Souls and Senses

Rabbeinu Bechaye continues further on in his commentary to explain how the fingers are connected to the senses. He states that, of course, every organ and body part has a specific purpose, and nothing in God’s design is superfluous. (Classic case: for decades it was thought that the appendix is useless and an unnecessary “vestigial organ” that can be removed without a second thought. Today we know that the appendix does, in fact, play an important role in the digestive system.) The sense of taste requires the mouth and Rabbeinu Bechaye points out that people typically clean their teeth and mouth with their thumbs or thumb-nails. The sense of smell is in the nose, and people typically clean their nose with their index finger. The sense of touch is associated mostly with our hands, and people tend to feel things and sense textures by using their middle finger (or rubbing something between the thumb and middle finger). The ring finger is commonly used to clean and rub one’s eyes. Finally, the small pinky finger is the right size to clean the ear. In this way, every finger is connected to one of the five senses, and every finger can be used to clean the organ of that particular sense!

Rabbeinu Bechaye stops here, but there is more to be said. Although we typically speak of three main souls (nefesh, ruach, and neshamah), there are two more levels to the soul (sometimes described as the “neshamahs of the neshamah”) called chayah and yechidah. This complete array of five soul-levels further corresponds to the five fingers, and to the five senses. The short thumb is the lowest nefesh. As the lowliest “animal” soul, it sits separately from the other fingers. The nefesh is the one that always remains with the body, while the other parts are able to migrate. We learn, for instance, that when one is asleep the four higher souls can wander, while the nefesh always remains in the body (otherwise the body will not survive). Moreover, the Torah always says the nefesh is contained within the blood, and this is why meat must be drained of all blood before being consumed. We can now better understand why the blood of the sacrifice had to go specifically on the thumb of the person, and not any other finger.

The ruach part of the soul is the most “active”, and is the one that animates a person. Fittingly, it corresponds to the index finger, which is the most active and most-used of the digits. The biggest and longest of the fingers naturally corresponds to the biggest part of the soul, the neshamah. The ring and pinky fingers are the least-used, just as the chayah and yechidah are the loftiest and least accessible. The chayah is associated with one’s aura, the only part of the soul that might be perceived visually, so it neatly fits with the ring finger that is associated with eyes and vision. (The chayah plays an important, albeit subtle, role in the relationships and interactions between people so it is also appropriate that wedding rings are typically worn on this finger!)

The highest level of soul corresponds to the pinky finger and to the sense of hearing. That might explain why Moses’ final song to his people, the climax of his prophecy right before his passing, was Ha’azinu, literally charging the people “to listen”. And it might explain why the most powerful dictum in all of Judaism, the Shema, similarly commands the nation “to hear”. And it might further explain why the Talmud often introduces a new teaching with the words ta shma, “come and hear”. To summarize:

Left and Right

In Jewish thought, the right side is always associated with positivity and Chessed, kindness, while the left side is associated with Din and Gevurah, judgement and restraint. In mystical terms, the right side represents the realm of goodness and holiness, while the left side is commonly referred to as the Sitra Achra, the “other side”, the realm of impurity and evil. Indeed, we find that in many languages and cultures, the right side is associated with goodness and correctness (like being “right” in English) while the left is associated with evil. In Latin, for instance, the word for “left” is sinister! In Hebrew, there is a similar connection between the word “left”, smol, and the wicked angel that embodies evil, Samael. In Russian, something described as being “left” is a fake or a knock-off. Throughout history, being left-handed was perceived as somehow inappropriate, and left-handed people were often forced to use their right hands instead.

This is certainly unnecessary and, needless to say, there is nothing wrong with being left-handed! All humans were endowed with two hands, left and right, and on a mystical level they are simply meant to represent the two sides within Creation. This ties back to the gift of free will, with the hands standing as symbols of our ability to choose. The ultimate choice is whether to believe or not; whether to serve God and fulfil His commands, or not. Our Sages famously declare that “all is in the hands of Heaven [hakol b’yadei shamayim], except the fear of Heaven” (Berakhot 33b), while King Solomon taught that “death and life are in the hand of the tongue”, mavet v’chayim b’yad lashon (Proverbs 18:21). Over and over again, we see the hands used as symbols of choice between good and evil, between right and left, holiness and unholiness. Just as we have the power to use our hands, we have the power to subdue evil and act with goodness and kindness.

Thus, altogether the ten fingers of both hands embody all aspects of Creation. The ancient Sefer haBahir explains that the ten fingers correspond to the Ten Sefirot, as well as the Ten Utterances of Creation (see #124 and 138). Moreover, the Bahir says this is why kohanim have to arrange all ten fingers in that particular shape when blessing the congregation, thereby channeling all Ten Sefirot and activating all aspects of Creation. In later Kabbalistic texts, we are taught that the right thumb and index finger are Keter and Chokhmah, while the left thumb is Binah. The right middle finger is Chessed, the left index finger is Gevurah, the right ring finger is Tiferet, the left middle finger is Hod. The right pinky is Netzach, the left ring finger is Yesod, and the left pinky is Malkhut. The five Sefirot of Keter, Chokhmah, Chessed, Tiferet, and Netzach veer to the right, while the five Sefirot of Binah, Gevurah, Hod, Yesod, and Malkhut veer to the left. (We might learn from this yet another good reason for the common practice of wearing a wedding ring on the left ring finger, since it corresponds to Yesod, the domain of intimacy and reproduction.)

All of this can help us further appreciate the power of netilat yadayim and mayim achronim. The fingers link up to all aspects of our bodies, our senses, our souls, and even the cosmos at large. Thus, when we purify them correctly with life-giving waters, the unseen cosmic effects of these rituals are truly monumental.

What about the feet and toes?

Upper and Lower Worlds

The prophet Isaiah tells us that God created the upper worlds with His hands as He “measured the waters with a hand’s hollow, and established the Heavens with a little finger [zeret].” (Isaiah 40:12) The Earth, meanwhile, is described as God’s “footstool” (Isaiah 66:1). Thus, the hands and the “upper fingers” of the body represent the upper spiritual worlds, while the feet and the “lower fingers” of the body represent the lower material world. Indeed, the Zohar (I, 20b-21a) tells us that when we look at the reflection of the flame on our fingernails during Havdallah, we should meditate upon the higher spiritual worlds that the fingers of the hands represent. (More specifically, just as God told Moses that he could only see God’s “back”, but not His face, so too do we look only at the “backs” of the fingers, the fingernails!)

Interestingly, with this information we may be able to understand—from a mystical perspective—the difference in arrangement of fingers between the hands and the feet. On the hands, the biggest finger is the middle one, corresponding to the neshamah, while on the feet, the biggest finger is the toe, corresponding to nefesh. This further reinforces the notion that in this lower world (represented by the feet), the lower animalistic nefesh dominates. In the upper worlds (represented by the hands), it is the spiritual and lofty neshamah that is supreme. Unlike with the hands, the big digit on the feet is not separated from the rest of the toes—the nefesh seems to enjoy equal status with the other souls! On the hands, though, there is a clear distinction, mirroring the realities of the upper worlds.

Finally, the feet are grounded in the impurities of this lowly world. They are the coarsest parts of the body, and often the filthiest. The generation of Mashiach is compared to the feet, and the time before Mashiach is referred to as ikvot haMashiach, literally the “heels of the Messiah”. Like the feet, the people of this generation tend to be coarse and lowly, materialistic, lacking true spirituality. At the same time, however, the feet are among the strongest parts of the body, and can withstand tremendous weights and pressures. The feet can bear the greatest burdens, and only the feet can move us steadily onwards towards the final destination, the Messianic Age. Most beautifully, in the divine anatomy of the human body each foot contains exactly 26 bones, reminding us that God Himself is carrying us forward, as 26 is the exact numerical value of His Ineffable Name.