Puting All Your (chaotic) Eggs in One Basket

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This article is based on a recorded lecture. You can listen to part 1 of the lecture by clicking here. You can listen to part 2 of the lecture by clicking here.

Processes of “Run and Return”

The relationship between the two portions (parashot) of the Torah titled Ki Teitzei and Ki Tavo is like the relationship between the masculine and the feminine. Ki Teitzei means “When you go out…” and indicates a state of extroversion, a male-oriented state. Ki Tavo means “When you go in…” and indicates a state of introversion, a female-oriented state. The two names, Ki Teitzei and Ki Tavo together refer to a single process, of going out (specifically, to a state of war), in order to come back in. Processes like this are in Kabbalah and Chassidut, called “run and return.”

There are many mundane and spiritual processes in life that are of the nature of “run and return.” One such process is that which is inherent in our weekly life: every six weekdays of toil are followed by one day of rest, the Shabbat. In Kabbalah, run without return is considered chaotic, i.e., its outcome cannot be utilized as the energy it produces is boundless. By including the Shabbat as the seventh day of the week, the seventh symbolizing the feminine element of reality everywhere, the product of our work on the six weekdays can be properly assimilated and utilized in an orderly fashion.

A Jew entering the Land of Israel after any stay abroad (whether the stay be one of a few days, weeks, months, years, or even centuries, as was the case for many of our parents or grandparents in the previous century) is also a process of “run and return.” This was so in the time of Moses and Joshua and it remains the same today. The Jewish soul (whether the body is male or female) is considered masculine energy, and the Land of Israel is considered to be the ultimate manifestation of the sefirah of kingdom, the revelation of the feminine in reality.

Elsewhere, we have seen that the essence of the Hebrew word for “army,” צבא, whose letters form an acronym for the two words: “go out” and “come in,” צֵא ובֹּא, is “run and return.” The army is also composed of two elements, the masculine, which goes out to war, and the feminine, which stays back and “holds the fort.”

The Instability of the First Fruit

The first mitzvah that the Almighty commanded us to perform upon entering the Land of Israel is Bikurim—bringing the first produce of the land to the priest in the Temple. The first produce of the Land of Israel is the child of the unification of the masculine energy of conquering the land (“When you go out to war…”) and the feminine energy of entering and settling the land (“When you go into the land…”). But, even though a complete process of “run and return” has transpired, the first fruit are considered to as yet be “unstable” and therefore cannot yet be utilized by the farmer. Instead, the farmer is commanded to bring the first fruit of the land to God.

There are many examples of first fruit (even of complete processes of “run and return”) being “unstable.” The first example is Reuben, Jacob’s first-born son, whom Jacob described as:

Reuben, you are my firstborn; my might and the beginning of my strength, preeminent in dignity and preeminent in power. Uncontrolled as water, you shall not have preeminence because you ascended your father’s bed; then you defiled it….

The second example is that initially, before the defilement of the Golden Calf, it was the first-born children of every family that would have formed the priest-corps of the Jewish people. Subsequently, God appointed the Levites and the family of Aaron, Moses’ brother, to this role. As a remnant of their original position, the Torah then commanded that every first-born child (of a non-Levite family) be redeemed from a priest for the sum of five silver coins; this signifies that by right, the first-born is God’s, but can be redeemed out of lifelong service. As explained elsewhere, the first-borns’ original appointment to the priestly corps and the subsequent command to redeem them are both geared to “rectifying” their yet unstable nature.

Why is it that the first fruit cannot be utilized for the benefit of its owner? Why is it that the first-born needs a Divine appointment in order to curb his unstable nature? Chassidut explains that with a firstborn child a parent cannot help but feel great satisfaction. With the second, the experience of having a child is already familiar and the feeling of self-satisfaction is lessened. The more something has been experienced, the less satisfaction it gives.

The question of how to stabilize chaotic energy, like the first-born’s or the first-fruit’s relates to the point made by the Rebbe in his famous discourse of the 28th of Nisan. The Rebbe said that to bring the Mashiach we must bring down the lights, the energy of the World of Chaos, and place it in well-developed, stable vessels that can contain them (known as “keilim detikun,” vessels of the World of Rectification).

Since a farmer is commanded to bring his first-fruit before the priest, it is clear that the commandment of bikurim acts to rectify, or energetically stabilize, the fruit. But the Torah is more specific. It mentions that the fruit must be placed in a special basket known as a טֶנֶא (pronounced “tene,” with a soft “e”), before being brought before the priest. This is a clear example of taking chaotic energy and placing it in a stable vessel. By placing the first fruit into the tene and bringing it before God, we are able to praise God for His greatness instead of feeling our own self-satisfaction. The vessel acts as a shield, protecting the energy of the first-fruit, guarding it from the chaos of our own pride in its growth.

Deconstructing the Vessel

Indeed, the uniqueness of this word in the Torah and our interest in the extraordinary task that it accomplishes prods us to search deeper into its meaning. Chassidut teaches us that the word טֶנֶא is an acronym for the three groups that come together in the commandment described later in the Torah, the mitzvah of assembly (hakhel). Once every seven years, on the Festival of Sukot that follows the Sabbatical year, the entire Jewish people are commanded to gather together in the Temple. The Torah describes that all the men, women, and infants must be present at the assembly. In Hebrew men, women, and infants are אנשים, נשים, and טף respectively, whose initials, in reverse order, spell the word טנא. At hakhel, the king read from the Torah and the laws of the Torah were explained to the people. Since the Torah mentions men, women, and children separately, it must be to stress that each participated in hakhel in a different way and took something else back with them. What did each of these three groups “get” from attending hakhel?

Going in the order of the word טנא, with the infants first, we might ask, what is it that an infant (who can walk but cannot perhaps even yet speak) can get from attending a gathering which he does not understand? Every person is affected by two elements that are contained in every experience in life: the context and the content. In Chassidut, the context is called the “or makif” (the encircling light), and the content is called the “or pnimi” (internal light). Because their conscious experience is limited, children are more affected by the context than by the content. As a child grows older, the content of an experience becomes more and more important; at the same time the impact of the context, the atmosphere surrounding the situation lessens. The same is true when bringing an infant to a Torah gathering. The context makes a deeper impression on the infant than it does on the adult. This is a general rule in raising children. The younger the child, the more important the overall atmosphere of the home; as the child matures the focus should shift to provide him or her with more content.

Women come to hakhel not to engage in Halachic dispute, but to catch the point of it all. The “point” underlies all the words being said and is their inner essence. This is what we call in Yiddish: derher. This follows the Talmudic saying that “the woman was given more understanding than was given to the man.” Even in an intellectual discussion, a woman has an “inner ear” that can more easily hear the essential point of what is being said.

Men come in order to delve into the depths of the Torah teachings being related at the Torah gathering.

The true order of dependence is expressed in the order related in the word טנא: infants, women, and men. Thus the ability of the men to engage each other intellectually is dependent on the women keeping their ears open to judge the verity of the “inner point,” which in turn is dependent on the infants’ presence which surrounds the whole event with the air of holiness and purity.

These three aspects of Torah study clearly reflect three ways of studying Chassidut. The highest level, which mimics the experience of the infant, is study that is not meant to have a direct effect even on our heart. This study is geared to connecting with the Almighty in a transcendent, supernatural way. Meditating on the inner point of a Chassidic discourse begets emotion and corresponds to the study of Chassidut as conducted before and during prayer (called hitbonenut, from the same root as binah, the Hebrew name of the sefirah of understanding). Finally, the primarily intellectual study of Chassidut and the study of the rationale behind the ways of Chassidut as expressed in Chassidic customs corresponds to the masculine aspect of Torah study.

Stability Through Torah

These three groups, men, women, and infants, and what they hear when the Torah is being read, can be further understood using another important set of three things that the letters of the word טנא stand for.

Kabbalah teaches us that the letters in the Torah text have four components:

  • cantillation (i.e., tone) marks (טעמים)
  • vocalization symbols (נקודות)
  • tags (תגין)
  • the letters themselves (אותיות)

When written on the Torah scroll, only the last two components are visible. The first two, the cantillation marks and the vocalization symbols remain “concealed” and need to be memorized by the reader of the Torah. Because the two lower revealed levels appear part and parcel together (the tags are an inseparable part of the written letters), they are sometimes referred to simply as “letters” (אותיות). Thus, the word טנא alludes to the components of the Torah: cantillation marks, vocalization symbols and the letters, whose initials in Hebrew spell טנא. Since every letter of the Torah is in its essence infinite light projected on a finite space, we have in the Hebrew letters a prototype for how to bundle the boundless energy of the lights of the World of Chaos in a compact vessel, namely a Hebrew letter that will not shatter from the light’s brilliance.

Let us now see how each of these components captures a different aspect of the boundless energy of meaning contained within each letter in the Torah.

Presently, the cantillation marks (טעמים) are used to “sing” the text, i.e., they provide the reader with a basic melody with which to interpret the text. Tone or melody of a text does not provide an intellectual experience but rather a super-rational experience. The cantillation marks reference the highest energy level and hence the deepest meaning included in the Torah text. Of all components of the Torah text, the secrets included in the cantillation marks have, until now, been explained the least. These secrets will be a major part of the Torah of the Mashiach. This level of the Torah text is presently only remotely picked up in a super-conscious way and mostly by infants who intuitively absorb the song of the Torah.

The vocalization symbols, whose Hebrew name literally means “points” (נקודות), refer to the same essential “point” that the woman is able to hear. The energy level referenced by “points” is slightly lower than the one referenced by the cantillation marks. Vocalization symbols provide the relatively (to the lowest level, the form of the letters themselves) with a feminine energy that animates the letters and make them pronounceable; in the same manner, male energy without female energy is still inanimate. An example of such a “point” is the way that the Rebbe would end every sichah, every Chassidic discourse, with a “point” that would reveal the practical application of the essence of all that was said. In Kabbalah and Chassidut, the sefirah of understanding represents the essence of any intellectual discussion and gives birth to the emotional sefirot (loving-kindness thru foundation) and creates an emotional bond with the subject matter. Without “getting the point,” it is impossible to actually connect with the idea and incorporate it practically into one’s life. Thus, by inputting feminine energy, the vocalization symbols give birth to the emotional weight that the words carry.

Finally, the forms and meanings of the letters themselves carry the lowest energy level that references the basic intellectual content of the Torah text. Hebrew, which is unlike any other language used today, is structured logically and almost algorithmically. Understanding the text at the level of its letters requires knowledge of the three-letter, two-letter, and single-letter “roots” of each word. Then, the various “meanings” of each word can be revealed. This level of meaning is left to the men.

We are reminded that the Alter Rebbe would always talk in a sing-song, melodious voice, regardless of whether he was learning the Torah or talking about everyday matters. The sing-song, melodious voice revealed the highest aspect of the Torah’s language, the melody referred to by the cantillation marks, the טעמים. All of his words were full of the liveliness of song together with the intellectual depth of the male aspect. This is a practical way of personally weaving the “basket” that is able to contain the great lights of the World of Chaos in a rectified manner.

From Chaotic Drops to Rainfall

The three letters that make up the word טנא, are seldom found together in the Bible. They are associated though clearly with the verse: “Behold, how goodly and how pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity.” The Zohar tells us that once there was a drought. Rabbi Yossi, Rabbi Yussa, Rabbi Chizkiya, and others went to see Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai to tell him about the drought. Surprisingly, Rabbi Shimon did not beseech the Almighty in prayer. Instead, to bring rain, he taught this verse, “Behold, how goodly….”

The initials of the words “goodly” (טוב) “pleasant” (נעים), and “brothers” (אחים), in Hebrew, spell טנא, the same word as the word for the “basket,” in which the first-fruit are brought to the priest. These three words that are central in the verse also follow each other with one word in between. In a beautiful example of self-reference within the verse itself, the numerical value of the first word, “behold,” in Hebrew (הנה), 60 is equal to that of the initials of these three main words of the phrase (and the numerical value, of course, of the word טנא).

Why and how did Rabbi Shimon connect this verse with rain? Rain is the most general symbol of blessing entering the world. From a number of verses in the Bible, we learn that the spiritual process of rainfall comprises two stages. First rain is gathered in the “skies.” Then, the “skies” must be opened and the rain falls on the earth. This verse, as explained by the various commentaries on the Zohar is related to opening the “skies” allowing the water that has been collecting in them to fall. This verse acts on consciousness to mend it by bringing it to its most fruitful state when both the sefirah of knowledge’s masculine and feminine aspects are equal. This is figuratively described in our verse as, “when brothers dwell together in unity.”

Now we must ask how it is that this verse relates to the טנא, the basket that is able to stabilize and to capture chaotic energy and make it useful. The answer lies in understanding that the reason that the rain does not leave the sky is because it is still in an energetically chaotic state. Were it to fall in this state, it would only lead to damage and could not be utilized properly. Thus, God is actually shielding the earth from the unbound energy contained in the rain. In order to temper the chaotic energy, a proper vessel (“basket,” טנא) must be made below. For rain, the vessel comprises the “goodly,” and “pleasant” dwelling together of “brothers” (whose initials are, as above, טנא) The literal interpretation of the phrase “when brothers dwell together in unity,” is retained. To draw the rain down, we must enter the conscious space of feeling how good and pleasant it is that brothers dwell together.

The very word “brother,” in Hebrew, means “to sew together.” Whenever there are tears in the fabric of Jewish society a certain soul, a prophet, can sew and mend the tears. Indeed, traditionally, it is the prophet Achiyah Hashiloni who is given the task of mending and sewing together the tears between Jews. The Ba’al Shem Tov received his Torah from Achiyah Hashiloni, indicating that the main inspiration (and goal) of the Chassidic movement is to mend the fabric of Jewish society.

Unfortunately, many times it seems that it is impossible to mend the tears in Jewish society. Inspiring Jews to “dwell together,” can be achieved if we correctly interpret what these three words—”goodly,” “pleasant,” and “brothers”—refer to.

“Goodly” is an adjective used in the Bible to describe the Torah. The Torah allows us to transcend the difficulties and hardships of life in this world, and the things that separate us by connecting us all to our common past. “Pleasant” is the feeling associated with the World to Come (the motherly figure, in Kabbalah), and thus represents the common future free of animosity that we all yearn for. Thus, these two words are relatively masculine and feminine and correspond to the sefirot of wisdom and understanding, respectively. They also share a numerical relationship: טוב = 17, and נעים = 170, so “pleasant” is equal to 10 times “good.”

The feelings of closeness shared by “brothers” represent the sefirah of knowledge, whose inner dimension and experience is the ability to unite. The unity inherent in a brotherly feeling is present as a comprehensive male and female energy in the infant, who is not yet fully male or fully female. The challenge we face is to bring the same feeling back to mature adults. Together the three components of the tene are thus the three intellectual sefirot: wisdom, understanding, and knowledge, or Chabad.

We now have a third understanding of what the extraordinary “basket,” the טנא, represents.

Based on a class given on 16 Elul, 5765 (september 19th, 2005) in Jerusalem

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