To Become Like Angels
Yom Kippur (Leviticus ch. 16 )
On Yom Kippur we can taste spiritual perfection by relinquishing our innate ability to choose as we attempt to blend our own will with that of God's.
Emphasizing the contrast between the titles of the oft-adjoining Torah portions of "Nitzavim" and "Vayeilech," Rabbi Yaakov Katina remarks that the Jewish people are regarded as "nitzavim," standing in one place and stagnant, while Moses is described as "va'yeilech," walking, moving along -- an allusion to his perpetual movement and continuous growth. Moses was constantly on a path of endless striving to attain yet loftier spiritual heights, while the people he was leading were, at times, blithely indifferent to altering their status quo. It was their indifference to change that the Torah wants to now highlight as it contrasts their attitude with that of Moses.
We must inculcate that all-important lesson of continuous spiritual ascent from Moses, our teacher. If we become overly smug and satisfied with our current levels of spiritual attainment -- albeit praiseworthy accomplishments in their own right -- then we have lost an essential component of our innate Jewish nature. We have stopped craving endlessly to get yet closer to God who beckons us to always keep striding upwards on the crucial ladder of spirituality -- to become ever holier as life progresses. God instructs us "Kedoshim ti'hiyu - you shall become holy" (Lev. 19:2), using the future tense to teach that we must always yearn to become more holy.
What happens if we reach a high plateau and simply opt to coast along status quo? Even a Moses must endlessly strive just in order to avoid an otherwise inevitable descent. Once we slack off in our upward climb, then, automatically, we will begin falling because of the ubiquitous presence of the evil inclination hovering around us. There is simply no such thing as "just staying put," no concept at all of being content with merely maintaining the status quo.
The Never-ending Tests of Abraham
Years before Moses stepped up to the stage, Abraham already taught us this monumental lesson in life. Let's rewind to the narrative of the binding of Isaac on the altar. Abraham's final test has arrived, the apex of a challenging spiritual career, and God's angels are all lined up to see if mortal man is truly capable of surmounting this grueling hurdle. Indeed he is, and Abraham passes with flying colors. As we sit back anticipating his surely magnificent reward, we wait out the week before turning the page to the next Torah portion. The page is finally turned to reveal -- WHAT?! "And Sarah's lifetime was one hundred…" (Genesis, 23:1). This is his just reward? The saintly prophetess, his beloved wife of so many years, meets her demise as a result of Abraham's final test?
And the story is not yet done. Quick on the heels of Sarah's death, Abraham undergoes another ordeal -- one that also included parting with an exorbitant sum of money -- just to secure for his wife the appropriate burial ground. Has he not just passed all of his ten quite difficult tests? We surely thought so. This is all definitely not what we were expecting…
Life is one never-ending roller coaster of ups and downs that tests the individual and manifests the many strengths that lay dormant within his soul.
The answer, of course, is that his tests are indeed not yet over. They never will be. Life is not about passing a designated number of trials to thereby earn a retirement spent in tranquility. God was showing the world, through Abraham, that life is one constant struggle, one never-ending roller coaster of ups and downs, to test the individual and manifest the many strengths that lay dormant within his soul. Abraham never questioned God. He certainly did not sit back after passing his ten tests, after reaching such a lofty plateau, and expect to just maintain status quo for the duration of his life. The real test, he knew deep inside, was how he was going to react after the crucial series of ten came to a close.
Abraham knew that passing the ultimate test of life meant continuous uphill climbing just to ensure that he never stumble ever so slightly from the pinnacle he worked so hard to reach. This test, too -- the most difficult of them all -- he passes with flying colors, as he assures his place as the illustrious father of the Jewish nation. Living at ease in this world, wrapped warmly in an all-embracing blanket of equanimity, is simply not the course for the Jewish people.
The Inner Message of Salt
Unfortunately, one of Abraham's relatives was unable to abandon a life of no upward spiritual growth and it cost her dearly. Sodom was deserving of complete destruction because of the depraved and utterly corrupt lifestyles of its inhabitants. There was no hope for a possible turnaround since the people of Sodom had no interest whatsoever in altering the status quo. In the merit of their righteous relative, however, Lot and his family are miraculously saved before the city crumbles in the engulfing flames. But Lot's wife errs egregiously. She simply cannot restrain herself and glances back upon the city against the explicit command of her saviors. Her punishment? She is transformed into a pillar of salt.
Why specifically salt and why a pillar and not a "salt shaker," are two questions Rabbi Moshe Eisemann (of Yeshivat Ner Yisroel) attempts to resolve.
Salt is a preservative, administered into food to preserve the freshness while simultaneously preventing bacteria and the like from entering. In other words, salt serves to maintain the status quo of the food. A pillar symbolizes the stagnant lifestyle, the desire to remain permanently idle, again echoing the same idea of preserving the status quo.
Lot's wife could not tear herself away from the abhorrent lifestyle of Sodom. A lifestyle with no spiritual demands whatsoever, with no incentives for even a smidgen of personal growth, was a lifestyle that had caught her irrevocably in its strangling snare. Even with her life now on the line, she was simply unable to separate herself from her past. What more befitting a punishment, therefore, than being transformed into a motionless pillar, and specifically a pillar consisting totally of salt -- a double emphasis on her desire to preserve things just the way they were.
The completely destroyed city of Sodom itself, we might add, would forever be replaced by abundant salt, serving perhaps as an apt reminder to the very essence of what that corrupt city was all about. And just as its inhabitants were never interested in growing, the ground of their now infertile city would never again be capable of growth as well.
The Forever Stagnant Angels
We have thus observed that among the myriad sins of the inhabitants of Sodom -- of which Lot's wife and family were a part -- was their "nitzavim"-like way of life - staying stagnant. The malachim, God's heavenly angels, seem to epitomize this very idea. The celestial angels are described as being "nitzavim" and "omdim," standing forever still (Zecharia, 3:7), because they can never really change nor grow -- they can never alter their status quo in any sense. There is no room for either upward or downward movement, no waxing and waning on the spiritual seesaw of life. Angels have no ability to exercise free will; they are merely robots in the service of carrying out God's will. How interesting, then, that the Hebrew word for salt - melach -- and the Hebrew word for an angel -- mal'ach - - sound so similar. They seem to share an essential aspect of their respective natures: the notion of status quo preservation.
Angels have no ability to exercise free will; they are merely robots in the service of carrying out God's will.
The angels are thus described as possessing a single straight leg: "Vi'ragleihem regel yishara - and their legs are one straight leg" (Ezekiel 1:7). They do not move with their "legs" as do mortal men. They are classified as "nitzavim," " standing, while the righteous are regarded as "holchim," always on the move forward, always progressing onward towards perfection.
An angel of Esau is sent to harm Jacob, our Sages tell us, and, although vanquished, he still manages to inflict damage in one -- and only one -- unique area: Jacob's leg. The notorious angel of Esau was perhaps well aware that the advantage of Jacob lay in his being a perennial "holeich," mover, and to defeat him in battle meant dealing a blow specifically to his opponent's leg. Such an infirmity would symbolically demonstrate that he could lower Jacob temporarily to a status of a "nitzav," thereby casting aside Jacob's inherent advantage over angels. Transforming his opponent from a "holeich" to a "nitzav," from a mover and shaker to a stagnant individual, would thus bring Jacob down to the same playing field, leaving the angel his only chance for possible victory.
Journeying from "Holeich" to "Nitzav"
Although we strive to always be "holchim" and not "nitzavim," the commentary of the Malbim notes that when finally attaining a sense of spiritual completion, we too are then labeled as "omdim" and "nitzavim." After arduous work in striving constantly to yet greater heights, we will then, ultimately, reach a degree of completion that entitles us to be branded as a "nitzav." Only then could we be regarded as standing directly in front of God.
But now the term is suddenly a complimentary one? The difference is clear: Only when we get close enough to God as a result of our endless striving as "holchim," as continuous climbers up the mountain towards spiritual perfection, will we then be able to borrow the term used solely by His celestial court. This new title serves to highlight that we, too, can indeed attain such proximity that was previously thought possible only concerning the angels.
Standing Angel-like in Prayer
Even now, though, we can achieve a semblance of this level. Every single time we stand before God in prayer, we attempt to return to those feelings we captured when the Torah was given, a time when we felt incredibly close to our Creator, blending our own free will with His. The Talmud informs us that we must keep our feet together, in imitation of the "one straight foot" of the angels who cannot veer from the path God set for them, when standing before God in prayer (Brachot 10b).
In his work of collected insights on the prayer book, Rabbi Shimon Schwab quotes Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch who points out the following: When putting our feet together as one while standing in the silent Amidah service, we are expressing the thought that we are relinquishing our free will like the angels, and are thus offering ourselves as a sacrifice before God. In so doing, we have performed the single greatest act of our free choice -- that of voluntarily relinquishing that choice to our God above.
Our journey along the path to spiritual perfection must begin with constantly being "holchim," continuously moving upward.
Yes, indeed, we can attain the highest of levels. But our journey along the path to spiritual perfection must begin with constantly being "holchim," continuously moving upward. After diligent work and tireless efforts in pursuit of endless striving towards personal spiritual completion, we can hopefully return permanently to those peaks we had reached at the most momentous time in our history. We can one day be standing once again before God, in precious proximity to His divine presence. And never again fall from that wondrous precipice.
This is what we aim for annually, as the holy day of Yom Kippur arrives on the calendar soon after our Day of Judgment. In the course of our Amidah service, we can tap ever so slightly into this ecstasy of blending our own free will with that of God's on a daily basis. But we can actually try to live it fully for a day. For just one day a year, on the holy Day of Atonement. It is on Yom Kippur that we attempt to raise ourselves to the level of God's celestial court, to become like the subservient angels above. We abstain from the worldly pleasures that surround us -- on such a day who even wants to eat? -- as Yom Kippur sees us in denial of food and drink and other physical comforts and pleasures. We adorn ourselves in white and stand before God in holy prayer. All day long.
This is the monumental day when God assists us in achieving full atonement for our sins, in beginning a clean slate and starting anew in our quest for choosing correctly in life. We yearn for re-achieving purity and are given the opportunity to become like angels, to relinquish our innate ability to choose as we attempt to blend our own will with that of God's. Yes, we've got free will. But now is the time to will freely to subjugate our desires to those that God wishes for us. It's a tough day and we're awfully thirsty throughout. But this golden opportunity arrives but once a year. Let's maximize this sacred day and choose correctly -- and let's become like angels, let's become "nitzavim" before God.