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Elevating the Permissible

By: Rav Yonny Sack

In the opening chapter of this week’s parasha, Ki Tisa, Hashem commands the construction of Kiyor – the copper basin which was to serve as the washing station for the Cohanim before their service in the Mishkan/Temple each day. The Cohanim were to wash their hands and feet from the water in the basin, fulfilling Netilat Yadaim, which would prepare them in purity to commence their avoda (service).

 Interestingly, Rashi explains[1] that this washing involved the Cohen placing his right hand on his right foot and his left hand on his left foot and washing them, but Rashi does not use the word ‘wash’ but rather “Umekadesh”  - ‘and sanctifies them’ ( sets them aside for Holiness).  Onkelus[2], also hints at this as he translates the verse “they shall wash their hands and feet” as “ Veyikadshun . . .” – “They shall sanctify their hands  . . .”. Rashi and Onkelus thus describe the washing of the hands and feet as a sanctification. 

What is the meaning of this sanctification?  To understand this we must focus on another question; what was the source of the copper that was needed to build this basin? Where did one get copper from in the middle of the desert? 

In next week’s parasha, Rashi explains (from the Midrash) the fascinating background. The woman of Israel possessed their own personal copper mirrors which they had in their possession back in Egypt and had used to beautify themselves. During the donation period, legions of women came to donate their personal copper mirrors to be used in the building materials for the Mishkan.  When Moshe saw these mirrors being brought he did not want to accept them for they had been made to fulfill the ends of the Yetzer Hara. Hashem told Moshe that he must accept them, and that these were in fact Hashem’s most cherished gifts of all that was donated [3]. What was so special about these mirrors?  During the time of servitude in Egypt, the woman would use these mirrors to beautify themselves to entice their husbands thereby ensuring the continued procreation of the Jewish People even under the most trying circumstances. Indeed, the Egyptians had purposely orchestrated the work hours so that husband and wife would hardly see each other and, together with the back breaking labor and despair, the Jewish people would slowly deteriorate in numbers. The Jewish women, putting their lives on the line, ensured that the Nation of Israel would continue to grow in strength. These mirrors were then used to make the basin for washing the Cohanim’s hands and feet before service.

Why were these mirrors used specifically for the washing basin?

We mentioned above that the basin was used for washing but that this washing was described as sanctification before service. In order to gain deeper insight into what this means, let us again diverge and delve briefly into the concept of Netilat Yadayim that each Jew is to fulfill each morning as we awaken. 

According to Jewish Law, one must wash his hands (3 times on each hand alternatively [4]) each morning upon rising. There are numerous levels of depth behind this washing and it is treated with particular spiritual seriousness [5]. On a simple level though, the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch describes how each person must wash upon waking to sanctify himself and wash his hands just as the Cohen washed his hands and feet from the Kiyor each day before service.  Sanctification (or making something holy) is the process by which you set aside something for a lofty, meaningful purpose, to be used for the honor of Hashem. This is the meaning of the word Kadosh (holy)  - set aside for a higher purpose. This is the reason that the commitment of husband and wife is known as Kiddushin.  Hands represent our actions in our day to day living. When we awaken, we can choose to live our day resigned to the realm of the mundane, acting and behaving according to the dictates of our lower animal self or we can elevate ourselves to our holy source, choosing to reveal holiness through our actions and behaviors – revealing the unique ray of G-dly light that Hashem has given us to shine into this world. This is one of the reasons we say the bracha “Al Netilat Yadayim” which literally means ‘taking of the hands’ as we are drawing our hands up, taking them out of the mundane, the lowly, and elevating them to be used in holiness. This is a profound statement of purpose and meaning as we awaken and begin each day in this world. 

This is then perhaps an insight into why the mirrors were used in the sanctification washing basin in the Mishkan [6]. Such mirrors that recalled intimacy would seemingly have no place in the holy Mishkan, never mind being used to make the very vessel which served to elevate the Cohanim for their service! However, this is indeed what Judaism teaches as holiness. Hashem created the world with physical, material pleasures. The work of Kedusha (sanctification) is the work of elevating the physical to be used appropriately for a revelation of G-dliness and not its concealment. For example, food is given to us to strengthen ourselves as fuel for the body to be able to act in accordance with what is right and good. Additionally, the pleasure of food is meant to be [7] a vehicle for appreciation of its Creator. In order to ensure we do not get lost on personal indulgence of this physical pleasure we make a blessing before and after eating [8], thus elevating the mundane animalistic act to a holy, connective, G-dly experience.  Not all elements of the physical/material world can be used for good at all; there are many things which are impure and spiritually destructive and must have no right of entry into our life (such as non-Kosher food, illicit relationships and the like) but it is not only through refraining from the impure which elevates us, it is particularly how we relate to the permissible pleasures of this world that elevates us to holiness [9].   The realm of "reshut", the "mutar", permissible, that area of life which is neither assur (forbidden) nor a mitzvah, is in fact our greatest challenge and battle ground for growth. It is in this area where we either will have the right intentions and use the permissible for elevation, or the wrong intentions and be taken down into the unholy. The famous phrase "the King is in the field" was explained by some chassidic masters as to mean "the King", Hashem, is really to be found and revealed in the "field" the area of reshut, the 'field' of the permissible, that is where we must reveal Malchut Hashem.

Therefore, the basin, the very vehicle of elevation to holiness before service in the Mishkan/Temple was to be made of the very materials which epitomized the use of the physical in its most elevated status.

This of course is the one of the most important messages of Purim.  Purim is one of the most spiritually powerful days of the year, a day in which you can achieve spiritual heights like no other. The great Kabbalist, the Arizal, teaches that Yom Kippur, referred to as Yom Kippurim in the Torah, is actually only Yom Ke-Purim (the prefix ‘Ke’ meaning “like”) a day that resembles Purim. In fact the Chassidic master and Kabbalist , Rav Tzadok of Lublin, wrote that Purim is a time that holds certain spiritual potency for growth and connection that far outscores Yom Kippur! How could this be? 

In many Torah sources it describes Hashem’s purpose in creation of the world as rooted in a Divine desire to have a dwelling place in the lower realms. The Tanya beautifully writes therefore that the G-dly light produced in the dark lower realms of this physical world through our G-dly actions, is a light far greater in its potency and luster that the light that shines in the upper spiritual worlds. In other words, the light of being holy while doing normal things like eating and drinking, is uniquely brighter than that of ‘easier’ spirituality that is divorced from anything physical. 

Thus Purim presents a unique challenge and opportunity. Instead of ascending to the Heavens as we do on Yom Kippur, we bring Heaven down to earth.  On Yom Kippur we remove the physical barriers impeding our ascension by not connecting to physicality. On Purim, the barriers are also removed, but this time it is nullified as it becomes a medium as we rise through the mundane. When we connect to Purim in this way, we are able to access some of the light and happiness that the Jews in the time of Esther felt, an elevation of faith and clarity that was unparalleled. An elevation that takes us beyond evil, to a place of pure good. 

“La Yehudim Hayta Orha  VeSimcha, sasson Veykar, Ken Tehiyeh Lanu” - “For the Jews there was light, happiness, rejoicing and honour. So may it be for us!”

May we merit to elevate our daily interactions with the permissible areas of life, bring the King into the field, sanctifying ourselves in holiness and purity in the service of and connection with the Almighty - thus becoming ourselves sanctuaries for G-dliness to dwell within and shine forth from. 

Shabbat Shalom and Purim Sameach


[1] From the Gemara Zevachim

[2] The great Sage whose Aramaic translation of the Torah is found along side the main text in any Chumash.

[3] Rashi, Shmot 38:8

[4] The procedure for washing hands in the morning is as follows: ideally keep the vessel of water and a basin as close to your bed as possible.  Take the vessel of water in your right hand and then place it in your left and first pour on the right hand and then alternate three times, preferably washing your hands until the wrist. One should also wash their face in deference to the Creator as it is said: “For in the image of G-d He created man”. One should also wash their mouth so as to pronounce the great Name of G-d in holiness and purity and then dry one’s hands and face. (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 2:3)

[5] On a deeper level, when man is asleep, his holy soul separates from him and a spirit of impurity dwells upon his body, departing when he awakens from his entire body except for his fingers until he pours water on them as in the specific manner

[6] Please note that Rashi gives an alternate reason for the use of the mirrors in the basin. The idea presented here was inspired by an article I read by Rabbi Aron Tendler on this topic. He writes very beautifully and deals with this subject in great depth. You can access this article at http://torah.org/learning/rabbis-notebook/5764/kisisa.html.

[7] Of course this is only one of many possible reasons.

[8] There are many other deeper reasons for why we make Blessings before and after eating, but this is not the place to go into detail.

[9] This is the explanation of the Ramban to the verse “Kedoshim Tihiyu” – “ Be holy” - where he describes the obligation to be holy in how you relate to that which is permissible.  See also the Tanya in perek 6 and 7 regarding Klipat Noga and elevating the realm of Reshut. 

 

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