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Thursday, 9 July, 2015 - 12:05 pm

A man wanted a boat more than anything. His wife kept refusing, but he bought one anyway. "I'll tell you what," he told her, "In the spirit of compromise, why don't you name the boat?" Being a good sport, she accepted. When her husband went to the dock for his maiden voyage, he saw his boat with the name boldly painted on the side: "For Sale."

During these Three Weeks—between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av, July 5, -July 26, 2015 when both Holy Temples were destroyed—Jews study about the structure and laws of the Holy Temple. The physical edifice may have been destroyed, but its spiritual structure and significance remain alive in our minds and hearts. We Jews understand that fire can destroy buildings, but not ideas. The ideas remain vibrant and relevant, outliving those who ignited the flames confident that they were finally laying the Temple to rest.

The Talmud relates that the Ark in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, which held the Two Tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, possessed most unusual physical qualities: It did not occupy any space in the chamber that housed it. Miraculously, if you measured the Ark it had a measurement. Yet, paradoxically, if the length of the room was 30 feet long, when one measured the wall with the Ark, the wall space alone consisted of 30 feet even though the Ark was "officially" taking up wall space! The Ark was both spatial and space-less simultaneously.

What was the point of this amazing miracle? Kabbalah and Chassidism explain it thus:

Every person, in his or her quest to better himself, is forever faced with a dilemma. Should he strive to break free of his nature and its limitations? Or, is it preferable to work within the parameters of his natural self, to make the most of what he is?

Imagine I have been working for days and days without sleeping or eating properly. I need to get my project done. I am madly ambitious. I want to be very successful. My inner system tells me: Calm down! Relax. You are not infinite. Yet there is another voice that whispers that I am capable of so much more. The sky is not the limit! The first voice says, Dream on and you will become neurotic. Still, deep in my soul is embedded the voice of my mother and father who believed—and still do—that I am destined to heal the world!

Who has it right?

This was the purpose of the miracle of the Ark.

The Ark’s “physics” teach us that the two definitions are not mutually exclusive. The Ark transcended the spatial, yet it retained all of its spatial qualities. It was both infinite and finite at the same time. In the same way, when we become one with Torah, with the Ark, we can embody that paradox: Grow to infinite heights, and yet not collapse, but rather contain it within our pedestrian, human selves.

How can we do this? A life lived according to Torah enables man to reach beyond the confines and dictates of his physical environment and society. Each mitzvah is a link to the infinite, concealed within the finite.

The famed Talmudist, Rabbi Adin Even Yisrael, who recently completed a 40-year labor of translating the Talmud, once related this personal story:

"It was around 1992. I wrote a letter to the Rebbe. I tried to describe what I was doing, and that one project I was involved with was enough to occupy me all day, every day. There was a second project I was involved with which, itself, was also enough work to fill my entire day. And then there was a third undertaking which was a full day's work. I told the Rebbe that I found it hard to work on them all, and that each day was more difficult than the one before, because there was just so much. What should my priorities be? What should I cut out? This is the letter I wrote. So he responded—this is practically the last letter I received from the Rebbe—to 'continue all these things that you are doing and add more to all of them.' "

You know the famous story about the farmer who comes to the rabbi complaining about his small house so full of children. It's unbearable. So the rabbi tells him to take a goat into his house, a noisy, smelly, goat. Very soon the farmer comes back to the rabbi. "Everything is worse!" he cries. The rabbi tells him to bring in a cow, but everything gets even worse! Then the rabbi tells him to take out the animals. He does so, and soon he's back to tell the rabbi what a big wonderful house he now has. A very old story, but what the Rebbe did was similar and yet quite different. When people complained about how hard their work was he would give them more to do. When they complained how terrible that was he would give them even more. Whenever anybody complained about their inability to cope or the hard times they endured, he would suggest to "take on something more."

Obviously, this is against the laws of nature. We have a certain amount of space; we are confined by the limits of the human condition. What was the Rebbe doing? How could he overburden people this way?

The Rebbe believed that each of us is capable of becoming the Ark. As the Talmud puts it: “The Ark carried its carriers.” When the Ark's carriers would lift it up, they felt that they themselves were lifted and carried by the Ark, instead of them carrying the Ark. When we carry the Torah, it begins to carry us. We are uplifted beyond the gravitational pull.

It is said of Rabbi Shabtai HaKohen that when he would immerse himself in the profundities of Talmudic law, the world would cease to exist. Late at night he would be seen strolling the rooftops of Cracow, oblivious to all but the arguments and counter-arguments coursing through his mighty mind. Once, he was seen walking off the edge of a roof, across several yards of moonlit air, and on to the neighboring rooftop—without noticing a thing.

The Rebbe, in relating this incident at a Chassidic gathering, remarked: “Do you think that this was a miracle? Not at all. There was nothing supernatural about the Shach's mid-air walk. Rabbi Shabtai thought not only with his brain, but with every fiber of his being; when he engaged his intellect, he was intellect. And intellect, of course, is not subject to earth's gravitational pull.”

In the town of Mezritch there lived a wealthy and scholarly young man. One day, he thought to himself: People come from far and wide to seek guidance from the famed Rabbi DovBer who lives right here in Mezritch, while I have yet to sample his wisdom. Ought I not go and see what this man is about?

The young man visited the Chassidic master and found a new world opened up before him: a world of heightened awareness and deepened commitment, a world in which everything was imbued with purpose and significance. He soon became a devoted follower of Rabbi DovBer’s.

But as his spiritual life richened, his material fortune plummeted. His business went from bad to worse; soon, he was a poor man. Finally, he mustered the courage to bring the matter up with Rabbi DovBer. “Rebbe,” he asked, “why is it that from the time I became your disciple I began losing my wealth?”

“They say that you are something of a scholar,” replied Rabbi DovBer with a smile, “so I have a Talmudic question for you. The Talmud says, 'One who wishes to grow wise should orient himself southward; one who wishes to grow rich, should orient himself northward. But what if one desires to be both wise and rich? South and north are quite distant from each other....'

“I see that you are silent,” continued Rabbi DovBer, “so I will answer my question. When a person humbles himself before G-d and man, and makes himself naught, he ceases to take up space in this world. He can then be south and north at the same time.”

The dilemma we all face—are we small or big, limited or unlimited—we must solve not by denying our bigness or denying our smallness, but rather bydemonstrating the truth: Our job is to reveal the infinite within the finite, to make the ordinary extraordinary and to infuse our daily limited and mundane acts with the infinite light of Torah and Mitzvot, until we will speedily in our days once again vividly see the Holy Ark, integrating space and that which is beyond space.


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky


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