Tag Archives: chasidic

Face to Face on Purim

“Face to Face on Purim”
Rabbi Rick Brody

The apparent silence of the Divine, such a prevalent undercurrent
in the Purim story of Megillat Esther, is written into our very faces. Our hiding behind masks at this holiday alerts us to the holiness beneath the surface.

There is a very beautiful Chasidic teaching from Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Horowitz (1760-1827), the Ropshitzer Rebbe—in his collection the Zera Kodesh (Holy Seed), vol. II, p. 40a—that I find very compelling as we prepare for the holiday of Purim. Reb Naftali shares two insights that I find relevant. (You can click here for the entire text.)

  1. AlephThe letter Aleph consists visually of a letter vav (the main line that runs diagonally from the top left to the bottom right) and two letter yuds (the small extensions that branch off to the upper right and lower left).

    In gematria, the ancient Jewish system of assigning number values to each letter (Aleph = 1, Bet = 2, etc.), the vav (= 6) and the two yuds (10 x 2 = 20) total 26, which is the same value we achieve when we add up the 4 letters of the traditional name of the Holy One,
    Yud Heh – Vav – Heh (10 + 5 + 6 + 5).

    The “hidden” message that emerges from this connection is that the letter Aleph is not even just an abbreviation for God’s name, but is identical in value to expressing God’s name. (But, of course, the Aleph is silent! More on that below.)

  2. The letter Aleph offers another stunning image when we identify its various parts and use a little more creativity. The part that looks like a vav can be compared to a nose, and the two yuds can be compared to two eyes. It’s somewhat of a cubist rendering, but if you tilt your own head to the left and use a little imagination, you can see the contours of a face—two eyes and a nose! In other words, not only is God’s name expressed in the letter Aleph, but it also appears imprinted onto every human face

The amazing thing about both
the Aleph and the human face
(when it’s not depicted with a mouth, as is the case in the description above) is that neither makes any sound. Each one is silent. But a face still has so much power—to gaze, to emanate humanity and divinity, to be in relationship with another, to indicate the presence of soul. How much more significant is that power when we see it as the letter Aleph, the silent letter that mystically expresses God’s name and therefore the Divine essence.

See if you can spot the face in this Picasso and in the other cubist faces that appear below. (Here, it helps to turn your own head to the right while viewing.)

See if you can spot the Aleph in this Picasso and in the other cubist faces that appear below. (Here, it helps to turn your own head to the right while viewing.)

For me, this teaching is an inspiration and a challenge to see God’s presence through active engagement with a face, be it our own or that of another. That engagement can be “pre-verbal,” freed from the complications of language and all the noise we create with our mouths. At our core, we are Aleph, a pristine essence that surely needs sounds added to it in order to participate fully in this chatty world, but that when standing alone—silently—might bring us closer to God. In recent days, I have looked into the mirror to behold the Aleph on my face, God’s imprint of Self that reminds me of being part of something greater than my own individual life. And then I try to see that same holy manifestation in every other human being I encounter.

On Purim, we cover up our faces and we make a lot of noise. We act as though we are fleeing from the holiness of our silent faces, afraid to rest content with the divinity that surrounds us. Like Esther, we hide. So too, in the Book of Esther, God is hidden, never being named or appearing as a character. Indeed, the Rabbis point out (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Chullin 139b) that in the Torah, God says, Anochi hasteir astir panai—“I will surely conceal my face” (Deut. 31:18)—and suggest that this verse is an allusion to God’s absence from the Book of Esther (note the word play with hasteir astir).

But Purim is all about the world being upside down, about things turning out in precisely the opposite way from which they were planned. Through the irony of God’s silence and absence, the Book challenges us to apprehend God’s presence in a complicated world. In reading a story that is so focused on outer beauty, we remember to look deeper into the hidden Godliness that is imprinted on all of our faces.

Perhaps the mouth below the Aleph is the vowel (a kamatz [ah] or a segol [eh]?) that can give sound to the otherwise silent letter. But alas--maybe in sacred paradox--the mouth is closed!

Perhaps, in these two paintings by Fedro, the mouth below the Aleph is the vowel (a kamatz [ah] or a segol [eh]?) that can give sound to the otherwise silent letter. But alas–maybe in sacred paradox–the mouth is closed!  (“High Time“)

When we pretend on Purim to be running from ourselves and from God, we are actually challenging ourselves to run towards God. We can think of it as running in a circle—eventually we catch up to our starting point! By devoting so much joyful energy one day of the year to run and hide, we empower ourselves to move that much closer all the other days of the year towards the holiness of our silent faces. We get closer to the holiness of the Aleph that is God’s name, silently present—just as God’s name is never uttered in the recitation of the Megillah but is still so palpably close; if only we truly look at one another.

This artist, Jerry Schwehm, brilliantly reveals the Aleph most recognizably among the images here–by relying on the face-to-face encounter of two individuals to give the sacred letter its discernible shape. (“The Kiss”)

Chag Purim Sameach—Have a Joyous Purim!


Thanks to Rabbi Or N. Rose, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, and Rabbi Adam Stein–for text, graphics, and inspiration–and to the cubist artists whose work is featured here, courtesy of Google’s image search and the linked websites.

How Do I Rise? On Being Human and Not Being Chameitz

Much has been written about the symbolic meaning of the matzah. One popular mode of interpretation is to ask how we, as human beings, can be unleavened. What is the difference between having our (inner) dough rise — fermented by some kind of invasive yeast — versus having it remain simple and pure?
My friend and colleague Rabbi Aaron Alexander (and soon-to-be-rabbi Ronit Tsadok) published a lovely entry on the Huffington Post about certain aspects of the Pesach experience we would do well to focus on for our own spiritual elevation. One area of focus was on this idea of ridding ourselves of our personal chameitz, the “hubris and unhealthy ego” that stands (rises?!) in contrast to the “humility and self awareness” that matzah represents.

One response from a well-respected teacher of Torah was to question the idea of matzah representing self-awareness. He wondered if part of humility was about turning our attention towards God, essentially fulfilling the injunction to “know before whom you stand.” Below was my response to that challenge, which also serves as a general elaboration on this entire theme.

Much of this interpretation, by the way, is expressed quite powerfully in a teaching by the Chasidic master, the Sefat Emet:

On every Pesah a Jew becomes like a new person, exactly like the newborn child that each of us was as we came forth from Egypt. More precisely, the internal essence implanted by God within our hearts is renewed, again. That essence is called lehem ‘oni (poor people’s bread), because it is totally without expansion. By definition, matzah is just the dough itself, not having changed through fermentation. Every Jew has this inner essence, a gift from and of God. Our task is really to expand that essence, to draw all our deeds to follow it. This is our job throughout the year, for better or worse. But this holiday of matzot is the time when the inner essence itself is renewed, purified from any defilement. Therefore, it has to be guarded from any “fermenting” or change on this holiday.

If our “rising” does not occur within the context of knowing before whom we stand, then it is chametzadik rising. If it is not before — in deference to and reverence for — the One, and all that the One commands and “stands for,” then it is vain and “in vain.” It is a misguided rising, corrupted — fermented — by the yeast of ego, what the Rabbis call yetzer ha’ra but which isn’t “bad” at all if applied properly and in moderation with a mindfulness of the One before whom that rising occurs: it facilitates marriages, children, the building of homes, etc. That’s why the symbolic application of this phenomenon to bread can’t be in place all year: We need that process that we call “culturing” — that occurs in the social realm parallel to its biological manifestation in the raw ingredients of flour and water. The essential chumra (stricture) of Pesach — the fence we build around the biological chameitz — trains us to be more acutely aware of the parallel chameitz that manifests in our social existence, that distorts the simpler admixture of our embodied existence in relationship to the One, turning us away from the One and the unadulterated awareness of rising before the One.

Perhaps we can think of God as the water and us as the flour. The free will and immense capacity for knowledge that God gives us usually allows for the flourishing of the yeast, those unique aspects of human culture that enable us to “rise above” the rest of Creation as representatives of Divinity, standing upright in our quest of “heaven.” But we know too well the dangers of that rising. In fall, just as inclement weather would drive us into our warm, perhaps luxurious homes, Sukkot forces us to step out of our comfortable palaces (built by that same human “yeast” we’re talking about) and “return” to a simpler, more harmonious relationship with nature — God’s Creation that we inhabit — that virtually none of us would argue for embracing fully year-round.

In spring, the natural world is bursting out of its hiding places of hibernation and inner growth — engaged in its own harmonious rising that the Psalms tell us are living odes to the Creator. But Pesach reminds us not to let our own natural, human, gifts lead to an excessive, distracted bursting forth. Rather, the holiday forces us towards a more harmonious engagement with Eternity — symbolized by the water that moistens us, the flour. That “harmonious engagement” is solidified through the baking that preserves the simplicity of the mixture, locking us in more intimately with the transformative water and simultaneously keeping us free from the more complicated and complicating transformations that the yeast facilitates.

Chag sameach!