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Vayom'ru … Tova Ha’aretz M’od M’od


ERETZ YISROEL – the Land of Israel – occupies a central role in the Jewish religion. From the time G-d promised this land to our forefather Abraham, Jews throughout the ages have made it their life’s ambition to live there. Today, the Jews’ relationship with the Land of Israel is known and discussed by all the nations of the world. In fact, so much attention is paid to this subject that, to the spiritually sensitive person, it is obvious that there is more to it than meets the eye.

This week’s Torah portion, Sh’lach, contains the famous episode of the m’raglim, the twelve spies sent by Moshe (Moses) to quietly scout out the land before the Jews arrived there. Surprisingly, most of this advance team came back with a negative, even frightening, report: Israel is a “land which consumes its inhabitants” (Numbers 13:32); we should not go there lest we be done in!

The men chosen for the important mission of evaluating the Land of Israel were not ordinary citizens; they were “all … heads of the Children of Israel” (Numbers 13:3). This makes it all the stranger that the m’raglim should exhibit such a seeming lack of faith about a land which, after all, they knew full well G-d had promised to the Jews. What were they thinking?

Consideration of this question affords us an opportunity to acquire an exceptionally clear insight into how spirituality flows into the world. In particular, we will gain a profound and fundamental appreciation of the spiritual significance of Eretz Yisroel, and why it is, indeed, so important in G-d’s plan of the universe.

We frequently find various degrees of G-dly revelation referred to by comparison with broad categories that are familiar to us. For example, both a person’s spoken words and his or her thoughts are closer, in a sense, to the person’s inner self than are their actions, which are considered a more external, or superficial, level of manifestation; of the two, thoughts are more inward than speech. Thus, Jewish mysticism sometimes refers to a particularly lofty level of G-dly revelation – a level “closer,” in a manner of speaking, to G-d’s very Essence – as belonging to “the world of thought,” while a spiritual level beneath that – but still superior to our physical plane of existence – is called “the world of speech.”

The Kabbalistic work Etz Chaim teaches that the spiritual source of the m’raglim was the “world of thought,” which is associated with our matriarch Leah. In fact, that entire generation, the Jews of the wilderness, were on a high spiritual level, and were known as “a generation of knowledge” (see Vayikra Rabba 9:1; P’sikta Rabbasi 14:9). The Land of Israel, in which these refined Jews were to settle, was derived from the spiritual “world of speech” – a relatively lower degree, and associated with our matriarch Rachel. For this reason, Etz Chaim concludes, the m’raglim did not wish to enter Eretz Yisroel, for they believed it would be a spiritual descent from their high plane in the wilderness.

Yet, even when explained in this light, this attitude seems puzzling. It is a well-known principle that the primary intent behind the Jews’ settling in the Land of Israel was, as the verse puts it (Deuteronomy 12:1), “to do in the land,” that is, to perform the Torah and its mitzvos there. A great many mitzvos, in fact, cannot be performed at all outside of Eretz Yisroel – for example, mitzvos involving the Holy Temple. Didn’t the m’raglim think this was important?

To understand all this, let us examine the function of Torah and mitzvos from a Kabbalistic perspective.

The Kabbalah teaches that before G-d created this physical realm, He manifested Himself within a more exalted spiritual framework called Olam haTohu, the realm of chaos, or void. Precisely what is meant by Olam haTohu (as well as the concepts we are about to mention: the “breaking of the vessels” and Olam haTikun) has been discussed elsewhere (see, e.g., the adaptation – especially the first half – of the discourse V’Hinei Anachnu M’Almim Alumim on the Torah portion Vayeishev); for present purposes it is sufficient to define it as a truly sublime spiritual level, one which transcends even the spiritual realm as it now exists. The G-dly revelations within Olam haTohu were so potent that that realm simply couldn’t bear it. As a result, it “broke” – the mystical sh’viras hakeilim, or “breaking of the vessels.” The broken fragments, to which still clung trace elements of the holiness of Olam haTohu, became coarser, less refined, and ultimately ended up as the physical substance of our own world. (Specifically, they are found in that category of substance whose spiritual root, known as k’lippas noga, is neither “good” nor “evil,” neither black nor white, as it were, but is susceptible to both, for it is a mixture of the two – a spiritual “gray area.”) Thus, within the material substance of this world there exist “sparks of holiness” which originated on the unimaginably lofty plane of the primordial Olam haTohu. These can be extracted from their physical “hosts” and elevated back to their spiritual source, an accomplishment of literally cosmic importance. Indeed, according to the Kabbalah, doing so is a fundamental purpose of Man’s creation, and the means to this end is the study of Torah and performance of mitzvos.

How do Torah and mitzvos “liberate” the sparks of holiness and elevate them spiritually? Imagine – to borrow a useful image from popular culture – a ray or “tractor beam” whose function is to shine upon a target object and somehow draw it back to the point of origin. Fully cognizant that this is a wild fantasy and in no way a description of how G-d works, we can nevertheless use it as an analogy of sorts, to help us visualize the following: When a person performs a mitzvah, they draw down from on high something of the manifestation of G-dliness known as the “Light of the Infinite One” (Or Ein Sof). When this G-dly “light” shines upon the sparks of holiness (the “good” mixed with the “bad,” or non-holy, of objects derived from k’lippas noga) embedded within the physical object with which the mitzvah was performed (the fruit of the esrog, the wool of the tzitzis, etc.) it takes that “good” element and brings it back up to the plane of pure holiness, where there are no non-holy components.

A prerequisite to this, however, is that the sparks of holiness must have been already separated from the “bad.” The Or Ein Sof will not illuminate something that is still a mixture of good and bad; the good must be ready and waiting, free of bad, for this to happen. The main function of the Torah and mitzvos is to distinguish between the spiritually pure and impure, the good from the bad which mixed in as a result of sh’viras hakeilim, the “breaking of the vessels.” Negative mitzvos (“do not do such and such”) separate the good from the bad; positive mitzvos (“do this and that”) elevate the good to its source.

That is also why each mitzvah is subject to a detailed set of laws – halachos – that define the proper, valid, way to perform that mitzvah. If a mitzvah is attempted in a manner that does not comply with the “halachic” (a hybrid word combining the Hebrew word halacha (Jewish law) and the English “ic” suffix, as in “gastronomic,” “artistic”) requirements of that mitzvah, the mitzvah observance is invalid, or pasul. It will not have the spiritual effect of drawing down the Light of the Infinite One, or liberating and elevating the sparks of holiness. By adhering to the distinctions and requirements of halacha – seeing to it, for example, that that esrog is the required shape and complexion and does not possess impermissible blemishes or other invalidating characteristics – we separate the good from the bad and thereby set the stage for the Or Ein Sof to shine forth when that physical fruit is used to perform the mitzvah. Only then can the sparks of holiness within that esrog be extracted and elevated, by the Or Ein Sof, back into Olam haTohu.

The above is a satisfying insight into the “mechanics,” so to speak, of the spiritual process involved in Torah study and mitzvah performance. Yet it leaves one great question unanswered: why should all this grand spiritual benefit – the elicitation of G-d’s Infinite Light and the separation of good from evil – depend upon such a seemingly insignificant thing as what a human being does? What possible connection can there be between our physically putting on t’fillin or wearing tzitzis and the elicitation of the Or Ein Sof; what does our own avoidance of evil have to do with the cosmic purification of good from bad?

In order to understand this, we must first examine the manner of progression of G-dly revelation from on high down to us.

G-d Himself is simply overwhelming; no created entity could possibly perceive G-d in all His glory and continue to exist. Clearly, in order to bring about His purpose of creating the world, it was necessary that G-d conceal His full radiance from us. This is similar to (but not by any means exactly so) how the sun must be dimmed – e.g., by sunglasses – in order for us to be able to withstand it. G-d is so infinitely exalted, however, that even this concealment of G-dly revelation was not accomplished in one step: no sunglasses in the world are strong enough to block out the full brilliance of the sun when the sun itself is just on the other side of the glass. Accordingly, there was an initial concealment or contraction (tzimtzum) of G-d’s radiance – this entire discussion must be understood as referring only to G-d’s radiance, His revelation to us, and not, of course, to any “contraction” of G-d Himself – which resulted in a spiritual state in which a high degree of G-dly “light” still “shone through.” This was followed by another degree of concealment, resulting in a somewhat lower level of G-dliness perceptible at that level, and so on, over an infinite number of times, all the way until, in our physical world, all the G-dly light is concealed.

In general, the way this series of concealments progresses is described by the mystical concept of iggulim and yosher, “circles” and “straight [lines].” Let us illustrate this by means of an example. Say a teacher wishes to transmit a profound concept to his or her student. Before the teacher can teach, he or she must first tailor the teaching to the student’s level. If a young child wants to know how someone gets to be President of the United States, the parent or teacher might explain, “Well, all the people get to vote for whoever they like best, and the one who gets the most votes wins.” This is an oversimplification, to be sure, but it does express the idea in its entirety. It is only the details – How does someone get on the ballot? What is the difference between the electoral vote and the popular vote? What if there’s a tie? – that are not specified.

Let us change the scenario and imagine that it was not a child, but a sophisticated political science student (who just “got off the boat” from some country where the American political system is not known) who asked the question. In that case, the same answer would still express the entire idea, and the student’s first reaction to the answer would be that he or she now knows how it works. However, on giving the matter more thought, the student would realize that many unspecified details are implicit within that simple answer. The student him- or herself might come to understand these details on his or her own, by developing, in their own mind, the basic concept that was taught.

Now, the teacher’s conception is far superior to that of the student and may be said to include within it every aspect of the student’s conception. When the teacher formulated the simplified answer presented above, the teacher already knew how that answer implicitly contained all the intricate details that the political science student would derive from further reflection on the idea. As formulated by the teacher, all those details may be thought of as “concealed” within the simple formulation. The teacher’s presentation may be compared to a circle, for its outer face to the world is closed and uniform, but hidden inside it contains everything we have been discussing. This comparison to a circle applies to the idea, not only as transmitted by the teacher, but as initially received by the student, since at first – before the concept begins to “sink in” – the student’s mind perceives it as a complete answer. For this reason, what is perceptible on this level is called an or makif, transcendent or encompassing light, since it does illuminate, but in a transcendent, from-without manner.

Once the concept does sink in in the student’s mind, however, his or her relation to the concept changes. No longer is it “above his or her head,” as the saying goes; it actually does “sink in” and become internalized for the student. As the details become laid bare, the student forms a more complete perception of the concept, recognizing the various details and how each part fits into place. This perception of something as revealed and parsed into its individual components is referred to as yosher – linear or “straightforward.” (Paradoxically, in another respect, yosher is considered inclusive and composite as opposed to separated into distinct parts – but that is a subject treated elsewhere.) It is called or p’nimi, penetrating, suffusing light, since it penetrates and illuminates through and through.

With respect to G-d’s transmitting His revelation to us, the same scheme applies. What is perceptible on the first level of revelation starts off as iggulim and progresses to the inner perception of yosher. Thereafter, the G-dly light is passed on to the next “lower” level of revelation, with respect to which it also originates as iggulim (which, however, is like the yosher of the higher level) and progresses, as it becomes “internalized” within that second spiritual plane, to yosher, and so on throughout all the levels until this very world. On each level, the degree of concealment associated with iggulim determines the parameters of the spiritual world that results, as, for example, the darkness of the filter defines how much light is perceptible on the other side. In spiritual terms, this means that, for example, for the angels on a certain spiritual realm to be endowed with a particular degree of love or fear of G-d, the concealment which made possible the existence of that realm must be such as to transmit precisely that level of love or fear. The igul, or “circle” within which that love, fear, etc. is initially contained is referred to in mystical texts as that particular realm’s heichal, or “chamber,” of love, fear, etc. This is the same concept as that of the keilim, or “containers,” “vessels,” that define the oros, “lights,” within them.

With each progressive step of the process outlined above, more and more G-dliness is concealed from the perception of the lower realm, as though the sunlight which passes through the filter is then sent through another filter, after which the further-dimmed light is filtered again, and so on – to the point where, in this physical world (the creation of which is the goal of the entire process) G-d is completely concealed from our perception. That is the reason G-d created the physical “dome of the sky” and the earth itself round: to hint at the awesome fact that their very existence is a function of iggulim, the concealment of the otherwise overwhelming G-dliness that would preclude their creation. Indeed, the Hebrew word for “world,” olam, is derived from the same root as the world he’elem – concealment.

The ultimate source of all degrees of concealment everywhere throughout the chain is the original, primary concept of iggulim as it exists beyond the lofty spiritual realm of Atzilus: the very concept of concealment itself, in which light is hidden and does not emerge. The fact that G-d created the very concept of concealment, this spiritual “black hole” of iggulim, allows for light to be concealed and filtered by the keilim of Atzilus in the first place, and by all the levels below, until completely hidden in our own world.

Now, to this point, we have been discussing the various degrees of concealment and revelation of G-dly light as a technical matter: a certain degree of concealment, or filtering, allows for a particular level of light. But a person faced with too little light can also do something about it: he or she can strain to see better, can take off their sunglasses, can try whatever it takes. We Jews all the way down at the bottom of the entire chain of the universe nevertheless have this unique capability as well: we have the ability to do something about the concealment of G-dliness; we can accomplish a triumph of light over concealment, so that G-d’s Infinite Light bursts through all “containers” and spreads everywhere to the same degree as though it had never been concealed.

G-d grants this to happen in response to a person’s own efforts. True the world appears to exist as something apart from G-d, and one cannot see anything holy within it. But if a person refuses to accept this nonsense and deeply applies their mind and heart to the certainty that G-d, in His goodness, renews the creation of the universe from naught and nothingness each day; that all is utterly insignificant before G-d; and that the only reason things appear otherwise is that the G-dly light is concealed from our limited perception, whereas in fact, there is literally nothing else but G-d – then that person brings about a removal of the contraction and concealment and a revelation of G-dliness as though it were not concealed from him or her at all.

This in turn causes the same thing to happen in a cosmic, spiritual sense: the keilim, or “vessels” which we took such pains to describe above as “technically” concealing the revelation of G-dliness throughout all the levels of the spiritual hierarchy, are no longer able to keep the light back, and it bursts forth and illuminates all realms, even this lowest world, as though nothing stood in the way, as though that ultimate, primordial igul that is the source of all ensuing concealments had never covered it up at all. This is the way things will be naturally in the Messianic era, about which it is written (Isaiah 40:5), “the glory of G-d will be revealed.” It is also how things were for Adam before the sin of the Tree of Knowledge: even in his physical, bodily form he was able to perceive spirituality as expressed by the very secrets of the Torah. In fact, the entire spiritual universe was more refined then: the level of revelation that exists now on the spiritual plane known as za of Atzilus (for an explanation of this term, see the latter half of the adaptation of the discourse V’Hinei Anachnu M’Almim Alumim referred to above) was then a feature of the lower realm known as Beriah.

This is the meaning of the Kabbalah’s teaching (Zohar II:128b), “When the ‘Other Side’ [that is, the realm of unholiness] is bent [to the will of G-d in this world] below, the glory of the Holy One, Blessed is He, goes into all realms.” That is, through our resisting the temptations of this physical world (by observing the negative prohibitions of the Torah) and utilizing material things for holiness instead (by performing the positive mitzvos of the Torah) – known as “bending the ‘Other Side’ to the will of G-d” – we cause the revelation of G-dliness to burst its “containers” and shine revealed throughout all realms. This is the revelation of the Or Ein Sof we spoke of earlier as being elicited through Torah and mitzvos, and which liberates and elevates the inherent sparks of holiness in the world back to their spiritual source.

Eretz Yisroel – the Land of Israel – is described as (Exodus 3:8), “a land flowing with milk and honey.” “Milk” and “honey” symbolize the two main channels of full, unrestrained transmission of G-dliness. Milk symbolizes the benevolent, unlimited nurture and growth associated with the spiritual attributes of chassadim (kindness, generosity) – as actual milk nurtures a child and promotes growth – and honey represents the mighty flow of G-dliness associated with the attributes of gevuros (might). The Hebrew word used in the above verse for “flowing,” zavas, is better translated “[that] flows,” and can be understood as a transitive verb, in which sense it would mean that the land “flows” milk and honey: it enables them to flow. This means that the land itself possesses the spiritual quality of enabling the two forms of unrestrained flow of G-dliness symbolized by milk and honey. That is why it is specifically within the Land of Israel that most practical mitzvos of the Torah are to be performed, as it states “to do [the mitzvos] in the Land” – because this brings about the utterly unrestrained flow of G-dliness discussed above. The fact that the Land of Israel is actually blessed with real, flowing milk and honey is but the physical manifestation of this concept.

Finally, this was the error of the m’raglim:

As mentioned above, they derived from the lofty spiritual level known as Olam haMachshava, the world of thought, while Eretz Yisroel was of Olam haDibbur, the world of speech – associated with the spiritual level of malchus of Atzilus, the source of deed and action. They thought it was not necessary to descend to that “lower” level in order to achieve what we discussed above through Torah and mitzvos; instead, the m’raglim mistakenly believed that G-dly light could be revealed within all realms by performing the mitzvos in a spiritual sense. After all, is it not written about our patriarch Abraham (Yoma 28b) that he fulfilled all the mitzvos of the Torah even though he lived before they had been given? This does not mean Abraham physically performed all the mitzvos, for some mitzvos (e.g., involving the Holy Temple) were obviously impossible for him to actually perform. Rather, the meaning of this teaching is that Abraham was able to accomplish the same effects through his spiritual devotions as are achieved through performing those mitzvos in a physical sense. The m’raglim reasoned that if it was possible to do this, why descend to a level requiring involvement with physical affairs, such as working in the fields, to perform mitzvos? They were afraid such exposure to the material world would have a corrupting influence on the refined and spiritually-oriented Jews; the land might end up pulling them down, “consuming” its inhabitants.

However, they were wrong. There is (as we recite in the Friday night Lecha Dodi prayer) a spiritual principle that “the end result arose first in thought.” If a person wishes to build a house, he or she needs to go through a number of steps to achieve that goal, but the very first conception of the project, the earliest glimmer of the idea that motivated it all, was the vision the person had in their mind of that finished house and all the satisfaction they would derive from it. Thought represents a higher spiritual level than deed; the statement that “the end result arose first in thought” alludes to the fact that what we see expressed in this physical world as the “end result” actually has its spiritual genesis in the very highest level of G-d’s “thought,” just as a finished house or other project expresses the idea as it first arose in the mind of its planner. It is specifically through actual performance of physical mitzvos, in the physical Land of Israel, that G-d’s ultimate purpose could be expressed. Moshe knew this well, and that explains why, as our sages teach (Sota 14a), he prayed incessantly to be allowed to enter Eretz Yisroel.

Lo Tov Heyos HaAdam Levado
Mayim Rabim Lo Yuchlu L'Chabos
B'Etzem HaYom Hazeh Nimol Avrohom
Erda Na
Chayei Sara
V'Avraham Zakein Ba Bayamim
Vayachp'ru Avdei Yitzchok
Vayashkeim Lavan Baboker
Vayeavek Ish Imo
VeHinei Anachnu M'Almim Alumim
Ner Chanukah Mitzvah L'Hanicha
Vayigash Eilav Yehudah
Chachlili Einayim Miyayin