Monday, March 30, 2015

The Hyssop Paintbrush

Nature in the Parasha - The Pesach Torah Reading
Hyssop in Rebbetzin's Garden
On Pesach, we read a special Torah portion. It is a short except from Parashat Bo that describes the Exodus from Egypt. The Israelites were commanded to sacrifice the Pascal Lamb and to take a bunch of hyssop and use it as a paintbrush to paint the mezuzot (the doorposts) with its blood. Pesach, which means ‘skipped’ actually gets its name from this ritual when Hashem skipped over the homes of the Israelites during the plague of the death of the firstborn. Around Pesach time, as part of my weekly herbal workshop, I teach a special class about the hyssop, which is in its prime during this time of year. We go out to see how the native hyssop grows in the dry rocky soil, and then we pick a nice bunch of it. Seated around the picnic table in my garden, we learn both Torah texts about the hyssop as well as its medicinal properties, while we sip the pungent hyssop tea with honey. It tastes a bit like oregano and actually, the hyssop is a related specie of oregano. “It is called za’atar in Arabic and in foreign language ‘oregano.’ It is an important herb with several different tastes. However, I don’t know how to reconsolidate this herb with Scripture stating that it grows out of the wall” (Ibn Ezra, Shemot 12:22). Here in Bat Ayin, we are witnessing that although hyssop is an important herb, about which the Chida writes, “that it must always be found on the table,” it still is very low maintenance and grows almost out of a rock wall as written in the Book of the Prophets. At the end of my herbal workshop, we make a special za’atar spread, kind of a pesto, from fresh hyssop, sesame seeds, garlic and olive oil. This spread tastes delicious on matzo and is a much healthier choice than sugary jam. Here are some of the questions we discuss, and if you continue reading, I will attempt to give you some answers based on my own as well as some of the students’ insights. Why did Hashem need us to mark the doorposts of Jewish homes? Doesn’t He, who sees all, know where the children of Israel live? Why were we commanded to use specifically a hyssop plant as a paintbrush for the blood? Why is the hyssop more suitable than any other plant for painting our doorposts at the verge of the Exodus from Egypt?

The Hyssop that Emerges from out of the Wall
ספר מלכים א ה:יג וַיְדַבֵּר עַל הָעֵצִים מִן הָאֶרֶז אֲשֶׁר בַּלְּבָנוֹן וְעַד הָאֵזוֹב אֲשֶׁר יֹצֵא בַּקִּיר
“He spoke of trees, from the cedar tree that is in Levanon to the hyssop that comes out of the wall…”
(I Melachim 5:13).

The fact that the hyssop “comes out of the wall” teaches us about its strength of character to overcome hardships and obstacles. Likewise, Egypt was like a closed wall, from which the Israelites needed to pierce through and penetrate. This was not an easy task since we were absorbed in Egypt, “like a nation within a nation” (Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 43:19). The Hebrew word for Egypt מִצְרַיִם/Mitzrayim means narrow straights – constriction. We needed the ability of the hyssop to break through the wall; this is why hyssop was used to mark the doorways of the Jewish homes. It was not Hashem who needed to be shown where the Jewish people lived, but us who needed the power of the hyssop, dipped in blood of the Pesach Sacrifice, to propel us out of Egypt.

Emerging out of the Egyptian birth canal of Death
The culmination of the process of our redemption took place through the plague of the firstborn. This is why the description of this plague (Shemot 11) is interrupted by the description of the Pesach Sacrifice and the holiday of Pesach (Shemot 12-1-28). Only afterwards does Scripture return to describe the plague of the firstborn and how Pharaoh finally had enough and sent Israel away (Shemot 12:29-36). Through this last and final plague, the Jewish people were born, as the Children of Israel emerged out of Egypt. The plague of the death of the firstborn distinguished between life and death. It is ironic how the death of the firstborn and choicest of Egypt gave birth to the Jewish Nation. Egypt is a people of death; their religion obsesses with preserving the dead. The mummies conserved the death for centuries, and the pyramids were their burial places. Their weltanschauung is contrasted with the Jewish sanctity and preservation of life. The Jewish midwives are life-givers (chayot) (Shemot 1:19). Blood is the quintessence of life; it is the life force of a person. In order for us to break through the wall/peel of Egypt, we needed the courage to slaughter their “god” and use the life force of its blood for the sake of serving Hashem. We, furthermore, needed the power of the hyssop to break through the walls and bring us through the gate to a renewed redemptive reality. This can be compared to the birth of a baby. In order to be prepared for the life in this new world, the baby needs to pierce through the narrow walls of the birth canal. At a birth, there is blood as well, for the blood is the symbol of life. The effort it takes to break through the narrow straights is what gives us the strength to enter the new reality. The birth of Israel through the hyssop dipped in blood took place specifically at the doorposts to symbolize that the door of our bitter exile was opened. We opened it ourselves through the merit of the blood of the Pesach Sacrifice and the power of the hyssop. The ability of the hyssop to penetrate the hard wall entails its amazing capacity to pierce through the darkness and find the hidden light. This is the same ability the Jewish people needed in order to be redeemed. It was in the merit of the Jewish women who had hope and saw the light at the end of the tunnel.

The Humble Hyssop 
ספר שמות יב:כב וּלְקַחְתֶּם אֲגֻדַּת אֵזוֹב וּטְבַלְתֶּם בַּדָּם אֲשֶׁר בַּסַּף וְהִגַּעְתֶּם אֶל הַמַּשְׁקוֹף וְאֶל שְׁתֵּי הַמְּזוּזֹת מִן הַדָּם אֲשֶׁר בַּסָּף וְאַתֶּם לֹא תֵצְאוּ אִישׁ מִפֶּתַח בֵּיתוֹ עַד בֹּקֶר
“You shall take a bunch of hyssop, and dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and strike the lintel and the two side-posts with the blood that is in the basin; and none of you shall go out of the entrance of his house until the morning” (Shemot 12:22).

Sefat Emet explains that at the verge of the Exodus the Israelites were lowly like the hyssop, which is a relatively small plant. We were lowly and not worthy of redemption. This is why Hashem had to take us out “with a strong hand.” Afterwards when Hashem made us merit in the Torah and mitzvot the Jewish people rose and merited the redemption through the power of our good deeds. To symbolize how we originally were lowly like the hyssop, we had to take a bunch of hyssop. Moreover, using the hyssop as a sign of our redemption signifies how Hashem acts kindly to the lowly and poor and raises them up (Sefat Emet, Devarim, for Sukkot 1894). The hyssop is the most humble plant. It is one of the shortest perennial plants contrasted in several Torah passages with the tall cedar tree. It grows in the poorest soil opposed to the high maintenance rose. Pharaoh was full of himself, his haughtiness left no room for Hashem. His cruel exile humiliated us to the extent that we acquired the humility of the hyssop. In order to be redeemed from Egypt, even today, we need the humility that empowers us to overcome attachments. This is why the centerpiece of Pesach, “the matzo” is also called לֶחֶם עוֹנִי/Lechem Oni –“The Bread of Poverty” or Humility. Matzo is lowly because it has nothing but flour and water. The meager rations of food we received during the Egyptian Servitude can be compared to the poorest soil. Through these hardships, our lowliness and emptiness made us ready to be filled by Hashem. I hope this Pesach to internalize a little of the humility of the hyssop and allow Hashem’s light in! Stay tuned to more insights about the humble purifying hyssop in my upcoming commentary on Parashat Tazria/Metzorah. May we emerge from the attachments of our ego this Pesach and may we emerge through all the blockages of our lives with the power of the hyssop that emerges from the wall!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Twilight Ram

Nature in the Parasha - Parashat Tzav
The Curved, Bent Ram’s Horn for the Shofar
This week we will focus on the אֵיל/Ayil – Ram, mentioned eight times in Parashat Tzav. It was used for public burnt-offerings, guilt-offerings and peace-offerings.
ספר ויקרא פרק ח (יח) וַיַּקְרֵב אֵת אֵיל הָעֹלָה וַיִּסְמְכוּ אַהֲרֹן וּבָנָיו אֶת יְדֵיהֶם עַל רֹאשׁ הָאָיִל
“The ram of the burnt-offering was presented; and Aaron and his sons laid their hands upon the head of the ram” (Vayikra 8:18).

The ram’s horn is the choice kind of horn to blow on Rosh Hashana, because it is curved like repentance, which is a long-winding road, or rather in order to repent we need to be bent over and humble as if our heart is broken within us (Ramban, Teachings for Rosh Hashana). The curved and bend ram’s horn also teaches us to bend our hearts in prayer, and worship Hashem through awe and fear (Maharal, Netivat Olam, The Path of Service 11). The Ram’s horn, moreover, reminds us of the ram that was substituted for Yitzchak’s near sacrifice (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashana 16a). Rams are the male sheep and I have to admit I’m a bit afraid of them. Rams can be quite aggressive and are even known to sometimes attack women.

Transforming the Ram within to a Lamb

This month of Nissan corresponds to the astrological sign of Aries with the ram as its symbol. The ram has come to represent male fertility, aggression, and courage. The mitzvah to sacrifice a ram may signify channeling the male carnal desires towards the Divine will. I never understood why the astrological sign of this month is Aries the world over, but the Jewish equivalent is a טָלֶה /taleh – a lamb instead of a ram. The ram was associated with various gods from Egypt’s earliest history even though sheep were considered to be unclean, or pure, by the ancient Egyptians. In Egypt people worshipped the ram. Its strength was idolized. The Egyptian lifestyle was wild and uninhibited, they let the ram wild in themselves. They gave in to their every instinct. It was the evil inclination within themselves that they worshipped. It is this same ram, people worship today, at the bars, discotheques, beaches, streets, concert halls and on the internet.

The Jewish people represents the exact opposite of this kind of ‘civilization.’ We never idolized the ram; on the contrary, we sacrificed it to G‑d. When we realize that our life‑force is only a means to worship the higher powers, we are able to control the ‘ram’ within us and turn it into a lamb. The lamb symbolizes our striving towards subduing the animal instinct within us. This is perhaps why we were commanded to sacrifice the Pascal Lamb to G‑d before being able to leave Egypt. Our job is to tame the yetzer hara (evil impulse), the way you would tame a wild ram and transform its nature to the compliant lamb. This is what brings us holiness. 
The Twilight Ram
According to the Midrash, one of the mystical creatures that Hashem created at twilight of the Sixth Day of Creation was a special ram. At the near sacrifice of Yitzchak, “Avraham lifted his eyes and looked and behold behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns” (Bereishit 22:13). Hashem did not create this ram for nothing. The ‘Twilight Ram’ was waiting in the Garden of Eden for its special opportunity to make a difference in the world. When it saw that Yitzchak was close to being sacrificed, it ran from the Garden to save him. However, the Evil One tried to prevent the ram from reaching Avraham so it made its horns get stuck in the brush between the trees. Yet, this ram extended its ‘hands’ and ‘feet’ to hold on to Avraham’s talit (prayer shawl). Then Avraham looked behind him, saw the ram and sacrificed it in place of Yitzchak (Yalkut Shimoni 22:101).

Everything created at twilight on the Sixth day of Creation has a supernatural quality, such as the mouth of earth that swallowed up Korach the well of Miriam, the mouth Bilam’s donkey, the rainbow and the manna etc. (Pirkei Avot 5:6). Perhaps, the mention of the ram exactly eight times in our Torah portion alludes to the fact that the ram is included in the list of the special supernatural creatures created in between times, as number eight represent the miraculous.

The Ram for King David’s Music and the Horn of Mashiach
Rabbi Chanina son of Dosa explains how no parts of the special ‘twilight ram’ was created in vain. Its sinews became the ten strings of David’s violin that he would play. The skin of this ram became the belt of the prophet Eliyahu. Its left horn was blown at Mount Sinai when the Torah was given, as it states, “The voice of the shofar grew louder and louder” (Shemot 19:19 with Rashi). In the future Eliyahu will blow its right horn, which is greater than its left, as it states, “On that day it will blown on the great shofar” (Yeshayahu 27:13), (Yalkut Shimoni 22:101). I found this Midrash very interesting and asked myself, what does Yitzchak’s near sacrifice, David’s music, Eliyahu’s strength, the giving of the Torah and the proclamation of redemption have in common, and how do they all connect with the character traits of the ram?

The Eternal Power of the ‘Twilight Ram’
Each of the incidents in which a part of the ‘Twilight Ram’ was employed makes a very strong eternal statement in the world. The ram used in the near sacrifice of Yitzchak made a clear statement about Avraham’s merit, which stands eternally for all of his descendants, to such an extent that we draw upon this merit to protect us at the Day of Judgment every Rosh Hashana. King David’s music likewise is eternalized through his Tehillim (psalms) recited and sung for all occasions throughout the generations. It is part of the daily prayer service and anyone going through hardships can find solace in the eternal words of King David’s psalm.

In the future, they will be played once more in our eternal Temple. It is known about the prophet Eliyahu that he lives forever. He appears at every circumcision and attends all of our Pesach Seders until the end of days. At the Carmel Mountain, he was teaching the Jews to serve the one and only eternal G-d rather than impermanent idols. The Torah, as well, is eternal and will never ever be changed, as Rambam writes, “The perfection of the Torah is perpetual.

Since Hashem dictated the Torah, it consists of everlasting statutes for all generations; therefore, it is prohibited for anyone to add or diminish from either the Written Torah or its Oral interpretation. Anyone claiming to add to the Torah is a false prophet” (Rambam, The Thirteen Principles of Faith, Principle Nine). The Torah and Redemption go hand in hand and are two sides of the same coin, as are the two horns of the ‘Twilight Ram.’ The Torah heralds redemption, and redemption is the ultimate manifestation of the vision of the Torah. Each of these pivotal accomplishments embodied a consciousness shift that needed the strength and power of the ram to perpetuate their eternal messages. The ‘Twilight Ram’ exemplified in the very truest way the channeling of aggressive power towards the ultimate service of the Divine. As the power of spring awakens our desires, may too merit channeling them towards kedushah (holiness)!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Levona Spice

Nature in the Parasha _Parashat Vayikra
I was wondering about the לְבֹנָה/levona – frankincense, sprinkled on each of the daily Mincha grain offerings as it states,
ספר ויקרא פרק ב:א וְנֶפֶשׁ כִּי תַקְרִיב קָרְבַּן מִנְחָה לַהָשֵׁם סֹלֶת יִהְיֶה קָרְבָּנוֹ וְיָצַק עָלֶיהָ שֶׁמֶן וְנָתַן עָלֶיהָ לְבֹנָה
“When you present grain as an offering to Hashem, the offering must consist of choice flour. You shall pour olive oil on it, sprinkle it with frankincense” (Vayikra 2:1).

What kind of incense is Levona and why is it used specifically with the meal offerings?
The meal offering, consisting of a kind of cake made with the finest flour, is different from the other sacrifices because it is the product of human labor. It is an offering of the humblest human effort, as it is made from unleavened bread, and offered with holy joy represented by the consecrating oil. The purifying frankincense signifies the devotion of those cleansed of self-interest. Alschich explains that the meal offering corresponds to the nefesh – the lowest part of the soul, the oil to the ruach – the emotional part of the soul, whereas the levona corresponds to the neshama and is the highest of the components of the Mincha sacrifice (Alshich on the book of Shemot 27:20-21, Vayikra 2:1-2). The frankincense would produce a strong-smelling cloud of smoke when the offering was set on fire, corresponding to the smell of the animal sacrifices, described as producing a pleasant fragrance to Hashem. Fragrance connect the physical and the spiritual realm. Thus, the sweet smelling frankincense would facilitate the elevation of the meal offering and transform its physical ingredients to the vapors of the spiritual realm. Although the secret of the sacrifices is beyond human understanding, I’d like to explore the purpose of adding frankincense to the grain offerings, as well as some of the spiritual and medicinal properties of frankincense.

Raising up our Prayer like the Smoke of Incense
The sacrifices that Israel offered in the Tabernacle and Temple brought us close to Hashem, as the Hebrew word for sacrifice,קָרְבָּן /korban stems from the Hebrew word קָרוֹב/karov, which means ‘close.’ Today when we don’t have sacrifices, our prayer is considered our offering that brings us close to Hashem, as the prophet proclaims, “Instead of bulls we will pay the offerings of our lips” (Hoshea 14:3). Frankincense, moreover, represents purification and devoted prayer. The Jewish people in the dessert is compared to a woman perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, “Who is this that comes up from the desert like columns of smoke, in clouds of myrrh and frankincense?” (Shir Hashirim 3:6). When our prayer rises up to Hashem it is not the words of our prayer, but rather our heartfelt intention that receives an everlasting elevation before Hashem. Our love and awe imbued in the words of our prayer becomes like two wings that carries our tefila to Hashem. Like the smoke that rises from the flames of fire, the smoke of the levona symbolizes our pure thoughts and intentions of love and awe which form the midot (character traits) (Ohr HaMeir, on Shir Hashirim). Often myrrh and frankincense go hand in hand (Shir Hashirim 3:6, 4:6, 4:14). Perhaps, because they correspond to awe and love respectively. Myrrh with its purifying property may correspond to awe, whereas Levona with its connotation of pure white may correspond to love. Note that the word Levona in includes all the letters that spell out the English word ‘love,’ as well as the Hebrew letters for hear לֵב/lev. Interesting the numerical value of לְבֹנָה/levona (87), equals that of אֲנִי הָשֵׁם/Ani Hashem (61+26), which means, “I am Hashem.” When these words are annexed at the end of a Torah verse they refer to Hashem’s knowing the thoughts of our heart (See for example Yirmeyahu 17:10). So, if we want our prayer to go up before Hashem’s throne of glory, we need to take a moment to purify the thoughts of our heart.

The White Purifying Frankincense
The meaning of the Hebrew word לְבֹנָה/levona, from the word לָבָן/lavan – white, the color of purity, moreover, teaches us that frankincense symbolizes our pure intention. Levona got is name from the word ‘white’ as it comes from the milky white sap drawn from the Boswellia tree. When the tree bark is cut with a knife, a milky white sap flows from it. In addition, it occasionally produces small white flowers. In the process of sacrificing, the red flames of fire are transformed to the white ashes, the same way that the red stain of our sins are transformed to pure white forgiveness and atonement, like the crimson string on the Yom Kippur goat turning white at the end of the service. Whereas, the red color is the color of gevurah/might and power, white represents chesed/kindness (Rav Tzvi Elimelech of Dubno, Agra d’Kala 300/51). We need humility in order to think about others rather than ourselves. The simple color of white is, therefore, both the color of kindness and humility. On the holiest day of Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) would serve in white garments to signify his humility and self-effacement… (Maharal, Chidushei Agadot, 3:100, Baba Batra). “Humility is the most important quality in spiritual life. There is no quality that is more important because whatever qualities and powers you possess – if you do not have humility – they’re all in vain... So if you seek eternity and light and luminosity, seek humility first” (Rama – Dr. Frederick Lenz). Since Levona is linked to humility we can understand why Levona is such an important purifying agent for the soul. “The soul comes out of Gehenum (hell) and is cleansed of its sins like an iron whitened in the fire. Angels ascend with it until it arrives at the Lower Garden of Eden, where it is cleansed in the water and perfumed with its spices, as written: ‘Perfumed with myrrh and frankincense’ (Shir Hashirim 3:6),” (Zohar, Part 3, P 53a). The medicinal properties of frankincense are synchronized with its spiritual purification properties. Frankincense oil is effective as an antiseptic, and even the fumes or smoke obtained from burning it have antiseptic and disinfectant qualities that eliminate the germs in the space where the smoke filters out. It can be applied on wounds without any known side effects to protect them from tetanus and becoming septic. It is equally good on internal wounds and protects them from developing infections.

Frankincense Corresponds to the Matriarchs
Whereas the red fire of the sacrifice represents the outgoing masculine, the white vapor of the frankincense represents the feminine yearning also referred to as the raising of the feminine waters (Sefat Emet, Likutim, Parashat Tisa). The female quality of לְבֹנָה/Levona is embodied by its connection with the feminine moon called לְּבָנָה/Levana in Hebrew. There are three components of the Mincha offering, the fine flour, olive oil and Levona. Maharal explains that they correspond respectively to the body, mind and deeds. Levona corresponds to the deeds, which are pure and white (Maharal, Drush for Shabbat Hagadol). From all the grain offerings, the only one, which didn’t have Levona added to it, is the offering of the Sotah (suspected adulteress). Rashi explains that this is because she turned aside from the ways of the Matriarchs who are called Levona (Rashi, Bamidbar 5:15). Maharal adds that the Sotah who followed her bodily desires does not merit to add to her offering neither the oil corresponding to a pure mind, nor the Levona representing purity of deeds. Masters of good deeds have a good name because their fragrance can be sensed at a great distance. The frankincense is very deep and teaches us about purifying the body, which is the secret of true spirituality (Maharal Drush for Shabbat Hagadol). It is interesting to note that frankincense has been used for thousands of years in ceremonial incense for meditation and prayer because of its power to slow down and intensify breathing. Avraham Sand writes that its aromatherapic properties are elevating, spiritual healing, for ritual and meditation. Applied directly to the temples and the third-eye area of the forehead, frankincense quiets the mind and promotes meditative stillness. Throughout history, frankincense has been used to treat emotional disorders such as nervousness and hysteria. It relaxes both the mind and the body. As an ingredient in home remedies, frankincense promotes relaxation and treats stress and insomnia (

I’m sorry to learn that frankincense is near-extinction, according to the Journal of Applied Ecology. Perhaps, purifying our deeds with kindness and humility the way of our Matriarchs will help save the Boswellia tree so we can continue to burn frankincense in the Temple!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Crimson Creating Creature

Nature in the Parasha - Parashat VaYakhel/Pekudei
In this week’s double parasha the word שָׁנִי/shani – crimson or scarlet is mentioned 17 times – the numerical value of the word טוֹב/tov – good. This redder than red color was needed together with the sky-blue and purple for the garments of the Kohanim as well as for the various curtains and tapestries that adorned the Tabernacle and Holy Temple. It is a strong vibrant color that alerts your attention, and although I shy away from wearing this vivacious color I get energized by gazing at the crimson ripening pomegranates in my garden. This is the color of the string tied to the Yom Kippur goat and during Temple times it would turn white as snow at the end of the service as a sign that our sins were forgiven as the prophet proclaims: “Though your sins be like שָׁנִי/shani – scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be white as wool” (Yesha’yahu 1:18). Rachav, the harlot from Yericho, “bound the scarlet cord in the window” (Yehoshua 2:21), as a sign to save her house when the Israelites came to conquer the Land. The scarlet color is also employed to produce the purifying ashes of the parah adumah (Bamidbar 19:6), and for the purification procedure from the biblical disease called tzara’at (Vayikra 14:4, 49). The שָׁנִי/shani exclaims its message loud and clear, “No matter how immoral and wormy we may have become, there is always a way of return becoming completely pure again.

The Crimson Dye Prepared from Plant or Worm?
From the verse, “In order that the law of Hashem should always be in your mouth” (Shemot 13:9), the Talmud learns that whatever is used for the work of heaven must be from kosher items that we may put into our mouth (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 28b). This could imply that we can use only kosher species for the Mishkan and the garments of the Kohanim (Rabbeinu Bachaya, Shemot 25:3). Accordingly, there is a view that the source of the dye is either seeds that resemble worms or seeds on which worms are attached or berries consumed by the worms rather than the worms themselves (Rambam, Hilchot Parah Adumah 3:2); (Rabbeinu Bachaya, Bamidbar 19:2). However, most authorities hold that the source of the crimson dye is obtained from eggs of insects, which attach themselves to the oak tree. The word תּוֹלַעַת /tola’at means ‘worm’ and שָׁנִי/shani refers to the dye produced by it. The halachic requirement for kosher species in the production of holy items actually applies specifically to items that have words of Torah or Hashem’s name in them, such as tefillin, mezuzot or a Sefer Torah (Shu”t Noda Bi’Yehudah II, Orach Chayim 3). Therefore, dye from non-kosher animals may be used for various items in the Temple. In our exiting times of Redemption, where the holy items for the Temple are being rediscovered, the Temple Institute in Jerusalem has recently succeeded in producing the first authentic שָׁנִי/shani dye in 2000 years. After many years of intense research the שָׁנִי/shani dye was harvested from an insect in its larvae stage on the Samarian hilltop village of Neve Tsuf. The female larvae attaches herself to the trunk and branches of the kermes oak, and as its eggs develop during the early summer it grows from the size of a pinhead to its maximum of five to seven millimeters in diameter. It is essential to harvest them at this point, before the red eggs hatch and leave the mother, taking with them their red pigment (

As a support for the source of the שָׁנִי/shani dye from the larvae that attaches itself specifically to the kermes oak, the word Karmil is used in Divrei Hayamim as a reference to the שָׁנִי/shani dye (Rashi, II Divrei Hayamim 2:6). Perhaps this reddish color was produced specifically from a live animal to teach us to raise up even our most fiery animalistic parts in the service of Hashem. From the fact that the worm gives its life to produce the dye, we may learn to offer our excited life force to serve Hashem with all our hearts.

The Warming Color of Fiery Passion
We meet the color שָׁנִי/shani again every Friday night when singing the praises of the Eishet Chail (Woman of Valor). “She does not fear of the snow for her household, for all her household is clothed with שָׁנִי/shani – scarlet” (Mishlei 31:21). Each of the four Temple colors correspond to one of the four elements (Abarbanel, Shemot 28:6-43). The deep red color of scarlet is the color of fire. Perhaps we can say that the Eishet Chail has her own and her family’s fire in control. She channels the very same fire, which usually causes people to sin, into fire and passion for Hashem’s mitzvoth. This is what protects her family from the snow of Gehinum (hell), which is not only fire but also snow – the hell of coldness. These two kinds of hells correspond to the two kinds of yetzer hara. Most sins derive from fire – ta’ava, passion. This is the fire of Gehinum, yet, there is also the opposite kind of yetzer – coldness – a person who is indifferent and doesn’t care. He is not involved in what goes on all around him. He is cold and cynical as Amalek about whom it states, “אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ”/asher karcha b’derech – “that cooled you down on the way” (Devarim 25:18). He cooled down Israel’s desire and yearning for holiness – the fire of holiness which burned within our heart at the time of receiving the Torah. The Eishet Chail teaches us to be cold to sin, but hot for holiness. One of the problems at our time is when a person is able to overcome his passion for sin; he sometimes forgets to remain hot for holiness. It might be even worse to turn off the fire for holiness, which requires deed, initiative and warmth, like Torah learning, tefilah, yearning for the Temple and for Mashiach. For a woman it is not enough to keep her own fire for holiness going, she is praised for ensuring that this fire keeps burning within the hearts of her entire household; teaching them the correct balance between warmth and cold. Her house refers to her personal home but also to the whole house of Israel, for every woman is a mother of all Israel as well.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Holy Anointing Oil

Nature in the Parasha - Parashat Ki Tisa
Free Flowing Myrrh
From all the senses, I have always treasured the sense of smell. When baking, I use my sense of smell instead of a timer, I turn off the oven when the delicious aroma of the baked goods fills my home. Sometimes being sensitive to odor can cause problems. For example, when a house doesn’t smell right, it may be very difficult for sensitive people to spend any time there. Planting jasmine, roses or other great smelling flowers at the entrance of the house helps imbue our home with a delicious scent. Good smelling herbs are essential in the Torah, the Temple, the holiday of Purim and this week’s parasha.

Spirituality & the Sense of Smell
This week’s parasha includes both the sweet smelling spices of the holy anointing oil and that of the Ketoret (incense) burning in the Tabernacle (Shemot 30: 23-38; 37:29). From the five senses, the sense of smell is the most spiritual. Unlike the sense of taste for example, we cannot confine the sense of smell to one particular item, nor can we capture and hold in our hand. Rather, the scent is diffused within an entire room, garden, home or area and we cannot always determine its source. The etymology of the Hebrew word for smell ריח/re’ach, which is related to the word for spirit רוח /ruach, likewise supports the connection between the sense of smell and the spiritual realm. Both Mordechai and Esther, the holy heroes of the Purim story are connected with the sense of smell. Mordechai is associated with the free flowing myrrh as will be explained below. The righteous Esther is linked to the fragrant myrtle with its heavenly scent. Rabbi Meir said, her real name was Esther and why was she called Hadassah? In the name of the righteous people who are called hadassim. (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 13a). This is because the righteous are associated with a good scent as the sense of smell is the most spiritual.

Fragrant Connection between the Physical and Spiritual Realm
In order to produce its good scent the herbs need to be crushed, and broken. This teaches us that the sense of smell denotes nullifying the physical for the sake of the spiritual. Therefore, the chelbena (bad smelling herb) is included in the incense, because the good fragrance exudes by means of subordinating the ‘other side’ to holiness. Likewise, Ya’acov subordinated Esav’s exterior level to his own inherent holiness, by wrapping up his own spiritual essence within the exterior physical appearance of Esav (Bereishit 27:27). Ya’acov’s garment exuded a heavenly scent specifically when he was subordinating the persona of Esav in this way. For the same reason, at the Revelation at Sinai, every command that emerged from the mouth of G-d filled the entire universe with fragrance (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 88b). The whole creation of the physical world was dependent upon Israel accepting the Torah (Rashi, Bereishit 1:31). This subservience of the physical world to the spiritual domain is what gives birth to a pleasant fragrance. The nullification of the physical to the spiritual realm is also enacted by the beating of the spices into very fine dust in the production of the holy incense (Shemot 30:26). When beaten to such a fine powder none of the spices retain their original separate existence. Rather, they blend and merge to become one unified entity. This represents the nullification of our ego in order to become one unified people, elevating us from physical to spiritual existence.

Becoming Perfumed on Purim
The mitzvah “to become perfumed on Purim” is often mistranslated as “become drunk.” The exact words of the otherwise well-known Purim mitzvah is as follows: “Raba said, a person is obligated to become perfumed on Purim until he won’t know to distinguish between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai” (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 7b). The mitzvah of “l’besumei – becoming perfumed” is actually the exact opposite of getting drunk. Rather than getting drunk in a way that lowers the stature of a person to the level of the animals, to become perfumed means to give rise to a pleasant fragrance from nullifying the matters of this world towards holiness – kedusha. According to Rabbi Chaim Volozhin, the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge implied connecting the good with the bad, as the meaning of da’at (knowledge) is to connect. Since then, Good and Evil is mixed in our reality. There is nothing good without a drop of evil, and no evil without a drop of good, like in the yin and yang symbol. Our task is to clarify and elevate the hidden good sparks within the evil. This clarification process takes place through the sense of smell that raises the sparks of kedusha hidden within the coarseness of the material. This is the meaning of “Chayav Adam Libsumei b’Puria – A person is obligated to be perfumed on Purim.” – To raise up the fragrance of the physical matters until one does not know between “blessed and cursed;” until the good is clarified from the bad, and the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge Good and Evil is fixed. When bringing the matters of this world close to kedusha, an increased fragrance exudes. This explains why we smell sweet smelling spices at Havdala at the end of Shabbat when we bring the holiness of Shabbat into the mundane week.

The Head of Spices
Since Purim is about elevating the uttermost physical reality towards holiness, in the greatest unity, it is no coincidence that in Parashat Ki Tisa, which precedes Purim, Hashem commands Moshe to make a special holy anointing oil consisting of four fragrant spices steeped in olive oil. These spices are myrrh, cinnamon, calamus and cassia. Aharon and all the Kohahim were anointed with this fragrant oil and so was the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and all of its vessels. By means of this anointing, people of flesh and blood as well as physical vessels became consecrated towards the highest holiness.

ספר שמות פרק ל (כג) וְאַתָּה קַח לְךָ בְּשָׂמִים רֹאשׁ מָר דְּרוֹר חֲמֵשׁ מֵאוֹת וְקִנְּמָן בֶּשֶׂם מַחֲצִיתוֹ חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתָיִם וּקְנֵה בֹשֶׂם חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתָיִם:(כד) וְקִדָּה חֲמֵשׁ מֵאוֹת בְּשֶׁקֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ וְשֶׁמֶן זַיִת הִין
“Take for yourself the chief spices, of flowing myrrh five hundred shekels, and of fragrant cinnamon half so much, even two hundred and fifty, and of fragrant calamus two hundred and fifty. And of cassia five hundred, after the shekel of holiness, and of olive oil a hin” (Shemot 30:23-24).

מָר דְּרוֹר/Mor Dror – Free Flowing Myrrh
is the first spice mentioned in the holy anointing oil, as this is one of the most important spices in the Torah. Myrrh was possible a small tree with bushy branches and three-sectioned leaves, bearing a plum-like fruit, and producing a fragrant gum. Perhaps the reason why it is called “free flowing” is that when myrrh oozed out of the bark of the bush it looked like a gum resin that naturally flowed from the plant. It oozed out of the bush in the shape of a tear. Every drop is symbolic of the tears that life may bring forth. The tears that emerge from the brokenness may effect a deeper healing of soul.

The Hebrew word for myrrh is מוֹר/mor means bitter. This resin is extremely bitter, and therefore has the power to eliminate germs and bacteria. Myrrh is one of the most powerful natural antibiotic substances around. “From the days of Moshe to the 20th century, myrrh has proven over and again to be one of the finest antibacterial and antimicrobial agents on earth” (John Heinermann, the Science of Herbal Medicine). The emotional cleansing that myrrh promotes helps us give up all our many bitter experiences and let go of the fragments of life that hold negative emotions. Myrrh was traditionally used in ceremonial cleansing. All the maidens had to be purified in the oil of myrrh for six months before coming before the king (Esther 2:12). The free flowing myrrh, moreover, alludes to Mordechai in the Purim story, who facilitated the cleansing of the world from the impure Haman and his ten sons. “Where is Mordechai mentioned in the Torah. ‘Pure myrrh’ translated to Aramaic as ‘mira dechaya’ [similar to the word Morde-chai],(Shemot 30:23); (Babylonian Talmud, Chulin 139b). Myrrh also has a wealth of additional health benefits including anticancer compounds and wound healing properties (

קִנְּמָן בֶּשֶׂם/Kinamon Bosem – Fragrant Cinnamon
has a rich full bodied aromatic energy that permeates the atmosphere. Cinnamon strengthens us and stirs up our fire to keep going no matter the pressure. Cinnamon facilitates keeping our flame and passion for Torah & mitzvoth going even when we are under pressure. It is the spice of life that conveys spirited enthusiasm with courage, lion heartedness with bravery, and high-spirited excitement. Cinnamon warms and stimulates the digestive system relieving symptoms of colds and flu and has remarkable anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties. Cinnamon has been traditionally taken as a warming herb for ‘cold’ conditions. The herb stimulates the circulation, especially to the fingers and toes and has been used for arthritis (

קְנֵה בֹשֶׂם/Kaneh Bosem – Fragrant Calamus – is a reed that yields a very fine aromatic smell. When reduced to powder, it forms an ingredient in the most precious perfumes. It is also known as lemongrass or ginger grass. When the wind’s breeze kisses the reeds’ delicate stem and foliage, it creates a beautiful fragrance carried by the wind. It is this wind that releases the secret of the reeds’ fragrant nature into the air. A scent that was there all the time. This teaches us to be flexible and bendable to Hashem’s every move. When we get inspired, we can release the secret fragrance hidden within us all along.

Calamus is used as a tranquilizer and general ‘wonder drug,’ that can help ditch addictions. The oil is a sedative, hypotensive, and muscle relaxant

קִדָּה/Kidah – Cassia is the fourth ingredient in the holy anointing oil. It is an aromatic bark, like cinnamon, but differing in strength and quality. Cassia bark is darker, thicker and coarser. The Hebrew word can also refer to bowing (down), or prostrating oneself. This spice teaches us of the importance of humility and bowing to Hashem in prayer. Nearly all parts of the tree have medicinal properties. The fruits are, however, most medicinal. Their pulp is a well-known laxative and a safe purgative. The root of the tree is a tonic and useful in reducing fever and heal common colds. Its leaves are useful in relieving irritation of the skin and in alleviating swellings and pains. Their juice or paste serves as a useful dressing for ringworm and inflammation of the hands or feet caused by exposure to cold (

שֶׁמֶן זַיִת/Shemen Zayit – Olive Oil
was used as a base for the spices of the holy anointing oil since pure olive oil alludes to the Torah, which is written in the 27 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The numerological value of 27 equals that of the word זָךְ/zach – pure (Tzror Hamor, Shemot 30:20).This purity entails imbuing the physical with Divine spirituality, which elevates it to a level beyond nature. This explains why the holy anointing oil was miraculously everlasting as it states, “the holy anointing oil shall be for me for all your generations” (Shemot 30:31); (Kli Yakar, Shemot 30:23).

Becoming a Pleasant Fragrance to Hashem
Let us elevate the physical festivities with their eating and drinking this Purim and reveal the hidden holiness of Hashem within the physical world – the realm that can be explained away as coincidence, but in reality embodies the most hidden of miracles. Let us dance until we nullify our ego in complete unity that will disperse a good scent this Purim so the fragrance of the day may arise and become רֵיחַ נִיחֹחַ לְהָשֵׁם/re'ach nichoach l’Hashem, a pleasant fragrance to Hashem!