In Parshat Re’eh, Moshe warns against false prophets and idolatry. He reminds us of our obligation to put to the sword anyone who attempts to lead us astray.
“If you hear it said, of one of the towns that Hashem your Gd is giving you to dwell in...that some worthless from among you have gone and subverted the inhabitants of their town, saying, ‘Come let us worship other gods’—whom you have not experienced—you shall investigate and inquire and interrogate thoroughly. If it is true, the fact is established—that abhorrent thing was perpetrated in your midst—put the inhabitants of that town to the sword and put its cattle to the sword. Doom it and all that is in it to destruction–gather all its spoil into the open square, and burn the town and all its loot.”1
It makes sense that the perpetrators of the idol worship should be punished, but their things and animals as well?
A Midrash tells us that Hashem consulted the Torah when he fashioned our world from nothingness. The Midrash personifies the Torah and quotes it saying, "‘I was the artisan's tool of Hashem.’ In the way of the world, a king of flesh and blood who builds a castle does not do so from his own knowledge, but rather from the knowledge of an architect...so too Hashem gazed into the Torah and created the world.”2 The implication here is that the Torah preceded the creation of the world.
How can the Torah possibly have preceded Creation? What we must understand is that the entire point of our existence here is to perfect our middot – our inner world, our character traits, our egos. We are supposed to become more like Gd – Tzelem Elokim – more compassionate, more present, more empathetic, more filled with wisdom. This world is simply a training ground for our souls to let go of our walls and become fuller embodiments of our truest self.
The Vilna Goan says as much in his commentary on Mishle (Proverbs), “Because a person lives in order to break whatever trait he hasn’t broken up to now, therefore he needs to perpetually strengthen himself, because if he doesn’t – why is he alive?”3
Why are we alive? So we can free our souls from the confines we put on them and truly see the divine spark in everything. Torah and mitzvot are meant to help us achieve this. They are the Creator of the Universe’s guidebook to us on how to become perfected beings. This is why it is never enough to simply do the mitzvot. We must understand (to the best of our ability) what change within they are meant to bring about.
If we understand that mitzvot are there to train our soul towards perfection, then we also need this world. How can we practice gratitude if we have no fruit to bless? How can we practice emunah if there is no death, no loss? How could we practice generosity if there is no money to give to tzedakah. The Torah was not created to help us navigate the world. The world was created so we can bring Torah into our hearts.
Thus we understand that the world is not against us, but rather with us. The entire purpose of everything in this world is to help us become our perfect selves, to connect us to Hashem. This world was created for us to connect deeply through it. When we use physicality for our own sake, we degrade it. We bring it down. When we use it as a tool for connection, we actually elevate the world up with us.
So writes the Ramchal in Mesilat Yesharim, “The world was created for the use of man...If man is drawn after the world and distanced from his Creator, he becomes degraded and degrades the world with him. However...if he uses the world only as an aid in the service of his Creator, the world itself becomes elevated with him.”4 What is the surest proof of this? That physicality is never enough. People with enormous riches still kill themselves if they lack connection to purpose and meaning. Yet spiritually-minded beings can live in true joy with near nothing. Physicality is thus never the purpose in itself, but rather a means to the purpose.
This was one of the defining characteristics of the spiritual master, Ya’akov. He saw the world only as an avenue for connection. When he arrived at Har Moriah, prior to his dream of the ladder, he lay down and rested his head upon a stone. Rashi comments to say, “They (the stones) began quarreling with one another. One said, ‘Upon me let this righteous man rest his head,’ and another said ‘Upon me let him rest it.’ Whereupon the Holy One, blessed be He, straightway made them into one stone!”5 The implications of this are beautiful. In much the same way we want to fulfill our purpose, the world too wants to be sanctified.
How do we elevate the world with ourselves? How do we use the world to aid us in our service of Hashem? Mindfulness. What is mindfulness but the simple act of staying conscious in every action of ours? When we are truly mindful, we are aware of exactly why we are doing the action. When we remain conscious, we connect all that we are doing to the very reason that we are alive at all. We do not simply eat because there is food in front of us and a biological urge within. We eat because we have a body that needs fuel so that we can fulfill our purpose and take care of those around us. We remain conscious of the fact that food is not a given, that our ability to taste and enjoy food is not a given. We are overwhelmed with gratitude that we have sustenance. And we take that gratitude with us into the next moment. Thus, as we elevate our consciousness through food, so too do we elevate the food.
However, when we approach the world through the eyes of greed, of fear, of lust, of hate, we commit a holocaust. We burn in that moment the potential of this world. We burn the potential to connect in the fire of disconnection.
It then becomes clear why the idolaters’ property must be burned too. They interacted with the world through the fractured lens of idols. They took the Oneness of the world and corrupted it for their own personal gain. Along the way, they degraded the world as well. They fundamentally deprived the world of the opportunity of fulfilling its purpose. It is comparable to a spouse who plans a vacation for their partner. The other simply takes the ticket and travels alone. “But we were supposed to go together. This was supposed to connect us,” the other says. How sad must it make Hashem when we go about this world in a sleep state, lost in our own minds, devoid of connection.
It makes sense that immediately following the instructions around idolatry, Moshe reminds us of the laws of our bodies and of kashrut. “You shall not gash yourselves or shave the front of your heads because of the dead.”6 “You shall not eat anything abhorrent.”7 Moshe reminds us, you are guardians of the world, now use it properly.
As Rav Doniel Katz points out, there are some who look at this world and see that “everything in the world is nothing and diminished and is just there to feed your desires.”8 Rav Katz goes on to teach, nothing could be further from the truth. This world is not bad any more than you make it bad. This world is not disconnecting anymore than you let it disconnect you. Rebbe Nachman teaches, “A Jew must always focus on the inner wisdom of everything, and bind himself to the wisdom that is to be found in each thing. Then, the wisdom which is in each thing may enlighten him, and he may draw closer to God through that thing.”9 Everything has the wisdom to be an agent of connection.
We are conscious beings. Everything we see, every word we say, every morsel we eat must be connected to our purpose. We don’t do this because we fear punishment. We do this because we long for connection. Consider eating the most delicious breakfast you can imagine, alone, day after day. After how long do you tire of it? What if that breakfast was made by the love of your life and you ate it together? The food then becomes a way of connecting deeper and it gains such unbelievable holiness.
May we merit to be agents of connection in this world.
May we realize the power that a good eye has.
May we realize that literally, the entire world is with us in our effort.
It wants to be raised up.
It wants to join you in your journey.
Transitions are the perfect time to bring awareness to why we are now doing something. When we transition from one activity to the next we should stop and breathe, reminding ourselves why we are doing it. This is why we have blessings when we eat, blessings when we wake and sleep, and even mezuzot on our doors, which remind us of Hashem’s Oneness when we move from room to room, or leave our homes. You may feel resistance to doing this. The longer we have been disconnected the more resistance we will feel when we reach for connection. Commit to just watching the disconnection.
Can you sit in it for a minute while your ego screams, there’s not enough time for this!!
- Devarim: 13: 13-17
- Bereishit Rabbah 1:1
- Vilna Goan’s Commentary on Mishle
- The Ramchal: Messilat Yesharim: Chapter 1
- Rashi: Bereishit: 28:11
- Devarim: 14:1
- Devarim: 14:3
- Rav Doniel Katz: The Elevation Course
- Rebbe Nachman: Likutei Moharan 1:2