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Windows in Time

Tzav (Leviticus 6-8 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

This Shabbat, the Shabbat that immediately precedes the Passover Holiday, is known as the Great Shabbat. The origin of this title is unclear, and in fact the commentators offer many different theories as to why the appellation Great was attached to this particular Shabbat. The following essay is a distillation of some of their ideas.

The Torah presents two different reasons for Shabbat observance. The first recital of the Ten Commandments describes the reason for observing Shabbat thus:

Six days shall you work and accomplish all your work; but the seventh day is Shabbat to YHVH your God; you shall not do any work....for in six days God made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day. Therefore God blessed the Shabbat day and sanctified it. (Exodus 20:9-11)

When Moses repeats the Ten Commandments in Devarim, Shabbat is given a different rationale:

And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and YHVH your God, has taken you out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm; therefore YHVH your God, has commanded you to make the Shabbat day. (Deu. 5:15)

The Kiddush prayer that we recite to sanctify the Shabbat before we sit down to eat our first Shabbat meal Friday night places equal emphasis on both these themes:

Blessed are You ... Who sanctified us with His commandments, took pleasure in us, and with love and favor gave us His holy Shabbat as a heritage, a remembrance of creation. For that day is the prologue to the holy convocations, a memorial of the Exodus from Egypt. For us did You choose, and us did You sanctify from all the nations. And Your holy Shabbat, with love and favor did You give us as a heritage.


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On closer examination, the Kiddush prayer introduces us to yet a third Shabbat idea which goes beyond offering two different reasons for observing the selfsame Shabbat. It emerges that the Shabbat that commemorates creation and the Shabbat that commemorates the Exodus are actually two different Shabbatot. For the prayer repeats the fact that God gave us the Shabbat twice for no apparent purpose. The obvious explanation for the repetition is that since there are two different Shabbat days, God had to give us each one separately 'with love and with favor as a heritage.'

But there is still more. According to the Kiddush prayer, the second Shabbat, the one commemorating the Exodus acts as the source of 'holy convocations,' a reference to the other Holidays in the Jewish calendar, which are all referred to as holy convocations. The holiness of other days appears be drawn from the Exodus Shabbat rather than the Creation Shabbat. What does all this mean?


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First let us attempt to comprehend the creation Shabbat. The Torah states that we are commanded to rest because God rested; our rest is reminiscent of His, and is a reminder to us that the world was created in six days. But how is our rest reminiscent of His? Are we being told to conceptualize God as worn out from the hard labor of creation, in need of a rest day to recharge His depleted batteries? Obviously, something else is being conveyed by the idea of God resting. While we grapple with what this idea might be, we should also attempt to figure out what it means to 'bless and sanctify' a day?

When we study creation we see limits on all sides. There is only so much of anything in the universe we see around us and even the limited amount that exists is subject to rigid rules of cause and effect. Why is this so? After all, the creator is limitless and has infinite resources, so why did He choose to create a world of limitations?


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The simple answer to this question is that He did not create a world of limitations at all. Reality is limitless; we perceive it as limited because we are only able to see a small slice of it. God's stop on the seventh day should not be regarded as a termination of the creation process, but as an indication of His reluctance to expose more than seven days worth of the limitless reality He created to our eyes at this point. But this limitless reality beyond the seventh day is not entirely impermeable to us; it manifests itself in our sphere of limited reality by means of a remarkable aspect of the seventh day that is directly traceable to it. The 'blessing and sanctity' of Shabbat are emanations of the limitless reality that flow out to us from the higher realm concealed from our view by the seventh day.

A study of the sources regarding the meaning of sanctity and blessing verifies that these qualities must originate in a different sort of reality than the one we are familiar with. A good illustration of what is implied by 'blessing' is provided by the passage of Talmud (Baba Meziah 42a) that offers advice to the person who has finished harvesting his crop and is just about to weigh it. The Talmud tells him that before the weighing he should pray to God to bless the work of His hands; i.e. his crop should grow in his barn and become more than he harvested.


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But the Talmud enjoins him to recite this prayer before he proceeds to the actual weighing. After he has finished, this prayer becomes useless and whoever utters it prays in vain. Once things are weighed and measured they are firmly fixed in the physical world of limitations and are unable to expand to become more than what they are. They have lost their spiritual dimension, their connection to the infinite, and are no longer capable of absorbing God's 'blessing'. But until they are weighed, the sky is the limit. The final amount is not a function of the size of the crop but of the extent of the blessing. Thus, the definition of blessing; the limitless dimension of reality breaking through the iron curtain of physicality and expanding parts of the physical world beyond their natural limits.

[The physicists among the readers of this essay will be struck by the uncanny resemblance between the concept of blessing according to this passage of Talmud and the Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum mechanics. It seems that physics is in full agreement with the limiting effect of measurement described by the Talmud. Physicists also maintain that by measuring things we collapse a universe of infinite possibilities into a single finite reality.]


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The 'blessing' of Shabbat indicates that the seventh day of creation is an open window to infinite reality that God imbedded in our limited world that allows the sunshine of the infinite to light up the relative darkness of the finite. The Maharal explains the connection of this opening to Shabbat through the symbolism of numbers. All physical objects are six sided; they all have four sides that we delineate as north, south, east, west, and they all have a top and a bottom. The number seven represents the center from which the six sides of physical reality branch out.

The exact center of a physical entity must be an imaginary point by definition. In order to be physically identifiable it would also have to have six dimensions, and these in turn would again have a center etc. Thus, the center of all physical reality always has a dual aspect. It is clearly a part of the physical reality and yet, because it is impossible to define except as an imaginary point, it manages to retain a spiritual dimension. The center is the point of connection that links the limited and finite with the world of the infinite. The world God created in six days parallels the six sides of physical objects of which this world is constructed. Shabbat, the seventh day, parallels the center of physical objects and serves as the point of connection between the finite and the infinite.


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God blessed and sanctified the seventh day. It is the infinite energy flowing into the world through Shabbat that allows things in this world to be 'blessed' so that they can be more than they really are. This separation from the limitations of physicality is described as holiness. Thus it is through Shabbat that the physical universe is in contact with blessing and holiness. Shabbat is the point where the two parts of reality intersect; the limited part exposed to our vision and the infinite part God chose to hide from us.

Our limited world is in a constant state of motion and turmoil. There is never enough of anything, and all the life forms we are familiar with are engaged in a ceaseless struggle to maintain their foothold on existence. There is no rest and security to be found in our universe. On the other hand, in the realm of the unlimited beyond the seventh day there is no need to toil and struggle for anything. There is no scarcity in the infinite. This is what is meant by the statement that God rested on the Seventh day. The first six days represent a limited reality full of struggle and toil, whereas the seventh day and beyond belong to another reality, a dimension of rest where there is no need to toil.


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But all this is a description of the 'small' Shabbat. This Shabbat is akin to something precious that you allow your children to hold. For example, I have the good fortune to have an infant granddaughter and an eight-year-old daughter. My daughter is crazy about her niece and would dearly like to take her off to where she could have her all to herself. But of course she is only allowed to hold her under direct supervision. She is not yet competent to express her love in a responsible and positive way.

This is the way that we related to Shabbat before the Exodus. God did indeed present us His holy Shabbat with 'love and favor as an inheritance,' but only to hold under His direct supervision. To be able to comprehend what this means, we must understand the difference between the Kabbalistic concepts Katnus hamochin, or 'little brains' and Gadlus hamochin, or 'big brains'.

The holy books explain that all of mankind is spiritually one, and the spiritual aspect of all peoples can be combined into a single spiritual individual. Thus we can conceptualize that each distinct part of mankind draws its spiritual energy and life force from a particular portion of this composite individual. In this sense, the spiritual life force of Egypt is derived from the neck of composite humanity.


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The Hebrew name for Egypt is Mitzrayim, a word that indicates the idea of constriction and narrowness in Hebrew. The neck is the narrowest part of the body. The Hebrew word for the back of the neck is 'oref' whose letters can be rearranged to spell 'paroh', Pharaoh in English. The era of the Egyptian exile represents the stage of human history where human beings only had 'little brains,' and were trying to get past the neck to the head and acquire 'big brains.' To get a grip on what this means, let us consult the human body once again.

If we try to describe the location of the vitality of human beings in terms of their anatomy, we would say that power and strength are concentrated in the arms and legs, called the 'vessels of action' for it is through these organs that he interacts with the world around him, and it is through them that he applies power to manipulate and reshape his surroundings. The life force is concentrated in the heart that keeps the blood circulating through his veins, in the lungs that keep him supplied with oxygen, in the digestive system that supplies him with energy, in the liver and kidneys that keep his blood filtered and his body hydrated. In short, the physical power and life force of the human being is entirely located in the region of the body under the neck.

'Little brains' stands for the attitude that the purpose of human intelligence is to efficiently channel the physical life force and learn to apply human power to maximum advantage. 'Little brains' are not involved in searching for truth or ultimate purpose. They don't interest themselves in abstractions but are totally focused on the concrete and practical. The purpose of 'little brains' is to maximize the limited world of the six days that God revealed to us at creation.


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To get past this limited world you need 'big brains.' From the standpoint of 'big brains' the limited world of the six days was only created so that man could use it as a stepping stone to climb his way up to the other side of the seventh day into the world of the infinite where he really belongs.

This conceptualization of 'little brains' versus 'big brains' as a struggle over the purpose of human intelligence also has an anatomic expression according to the holy books. If we adopt the view of the 'little brain,' that the purpose of intelligence is the maximization of man's worldly options than man really has no head. He stops at the neck. Of course, it goes without saying that in actuality he must have a head and brains and eyes and ears and a mouth, for all these are necessities of life. When we say he has no head, we are speaking in terms of possession, or ownership. If the entire function of the faculties located in the head is to channel man's strength and direct his life force, nothing more, then it is true to say that the region above the neck really belongs to the world underneath it.

In contrast, the point of view of 'big brains' expressed anatomically would conclude that the purpose of all that exists below the neck is merely to support the head. The purpose of human intelligence is to harness the power of the human mind to penetrate the hidden regions of reality that can only be seen through the abstract eye of intelligence. Man was created to be an explorer. His intelligence was given to him to help him chart his course beyond the finite to the infinite, where only his mind can go.


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Because the infinite is closed off to the parts of the human being beneath the neck, the decision concerning the purpose of intelligence is a crucial one. If the purpose of intelligence is to serve man as he is today, it doesn't make sense to focus human intelligence, man's most powerful tool, on an area of existence that is only open to the mind, where the rest of man is absolutely unable to follow. But if the purpose of the rest of man, the part of him that is below the neck, is only to support his intelligence, the fact that the infinite is a region where only the mind can enter is not a reason not to focus human intelligence on it. Intelligence was not given to man to serve the life force, the life force was provided to serve the intelligence.


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There are two ways to resolve this conflict. The first way is called the creation Sabbath, the Sabbath associated with the 'little brain.' For even if we take the view that the purpose of intelligence is to support human life as it is today, we need the holiness and the blessing that come from the limitless part of reality to make worldly existence tolerable. In order to be free of shortage and limitation and the constant struggle over resources associated with such limitations we must have access to 'blessing.' We need the emanations from the infinite that can make things more than they really are. Thus even with 'little brains,' man needs Shabbat and he needs to focus his mind on the infinite.

The Egyptian approach towards the Jews was based on drawing the blessing from the sphere of the infinite into Egypt through the medium of the Jewish people's attachment to God. The paradigm of the Egyptian exile in general is the story of Joseph. Pharaoh was intelligent enough to exploit Joseph's closeness to God to guide Egypt safely through the seven years of hunger. The Jews held the key to overcoming the scarcity of the finite by drawing on the infinite hidden behind the creation Shabbat.

The imagery employed by the holy books to convey this Egyptian exploitation of Jewish spirituality presents the Egyptian king sitting on the back of the neck of the composite spiritual man described earlier, carefully positioning himself at the point of transition between the realm of 'little brains' and 'big brains.' Locating Egypt precisely at this spiritual intersection point has the effect of preventing the composite man from stepping beyond the area of 'little brains', while still drawing from the realm of the infinite through the emanation that passes down from the head to the trunk through the neck.

This strategy is affective as long as we only have access to the creation Shabbat, the Shabbat that is associated with 'little brains' where the point of connecting with the reality beyond the Shabbat is to bring the holiness and blessing down to the world of the finite.


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The Great Shabbat is associated with the 'big brains.' Contact with this Shabbat represents the ability to escape the world of the 'little brains' altogether, and to employ everything that is below the neck to support the endeavor of exploring the world of the infinite. This Great Shabbat is the source of the spiritual power of the Exodus.

Pharaoh's grip is based on the contact with the infinite whose purpose is to provide input into the finite. Pharaoh has no connection to the blessing that comes from the contact with the infinite whose purpose is to draw man out of the world below his neck into the area of 'big brains.'

This blessing differs in kind from that available through the creation Shabbat. Whereas the spiritual input of that Shabbat translates into making the grain into more than it was when it was harvested, the spiritual input of the Exodus Shabbat allows man to draw his world into the sphere of the infinite and make the world holy. The Exodus Shabbat is the source of all 'holy convocations.' All the Holy days of the Jewish year are a product of the contact with the infinite established through the great Shabbat.

The Kiddush prayer we recite on Shabbat closes with "Blessed are You God, who sanctifies the Shabbat," but the Kiddush of a Holy day closes with "Blessed are You God, who sanctifies Israel and the festive seasons." The sanctity of Shabbat has nothing to do with us. It is an inheritance we enjoy only through God's gift to us. But the sanctity of the Holy days requires Israel's input as well. It is constructed out of the emanations of the infinite that the Jewish people collects by making contact with the world beyond the seventh day through the window to the infinite opened by the Great Shabbat.


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