Amidst the snowy peaks the majestic mountain stood out; no-one had ever seen its full height, because its peak was always enshrouded in a dome of clouds. Its tremendous height caught the imagination of thousands of mountain climbers, and the fact that no-one had yet conquered it, spurred them on even more. Old folk tales spoke of hundreds of climbers buried at its foot; climbers who had found their death in the wide open depths that lay between its sharp cliffs. The few who had returned from it in the middle of their journey told of a treacherous path, smooth rocks and sparse oxygen.
Like others his age who had grown up at the foot of the mountain, he’d heard the folk tales again and again, seen the mountain both in his waking hours and in his dreams and he knew in his heart – “I will beat it.” He began training on the neighbouring mountain ranges; he learnt the terrain, the skills, and became a professional climber – ,then ripened in his heart his resolution – to conquer the mountain and reach its peak.
Everything was well planned – he bought the best and newest equipment, climbing boots, ropes, maps, appropriate clothing, and off he set on his journey. The trek stretched out into many long weeks. At first he was accompanied by green undergrowth and a clearly marked path. After that all he could see was snow and rock. At times the path disappeared and it was only knowledge of the route passed on to him by seasoned climbers that enabled him to chose his next step. Many times death lay in wait for him on the edge of a cliff, the freezing wind surprising him from behind the rocks, seeking to turn him into a human kite. And then, one morning, the dome of the clouds was pierced and amongst the hazy white fog the peak of the mountain rose up a few hundred metres, breaking the horizon straight up into the sky. New strength flowed through his weary muscles. The last leg of the journey was so difficult as to be almost impossible. The rock of the mountain was absolutely smooth, steep and straight like a wall. But he was resolute – “If I don’t get to the peak, what’s life worth!”
With his two hands on the tip of the rock he lifted himself up, just one more moment and he’d find himself lying on a shelf of stone. “Hurrah!” escaped the cry from within him. He started to feel around with his feet to find a soft piece of earth where he could plant a flag, and then his eyes darkened. A few steps away from him, on a fold-up deck chair, sat a man.
“Who are you?” he choked with a coarse voice. “How… How did you get here?” He started to drag his feet to the edge of the cliff. “What do I have to live for?” he mumbled, a moment before throwing himself into the dome of clouds.
A strong arm grabbed him tightly, “What on earth are you doing? I was brought up here by helicopter to capture the moment the peak was conquered, I’m not a climber.”
The force of gravity is one of the strongest forces known to man. Its intensity and magnetic force keep gigantic mountains, houses, rocks and billions of people stuck to the earth. No-one can beat it, though many try again and again to escape its clutches, to leap to a sphere beyond its influence. Birds spread their wings and fly high in the sky, they battle it with their wings, but in the end they too bow their heads to its power, and come back down to earth.
From the moment our soul was bound to our physical body, it desires only one thing – to escape, to spread its wings and take off. If the body would loosen just a little its strong hold on the soul, it would vanish in a moment into the spiritual horizon. Everything longs for its source and our souls also long constantly for their source. Holiness, kedushah, like the earth, has a gravitational pull. The Rebbe (Likutei Moharan Torah 70, first section) calls this the (spiritual) ‘force of gravity’.
If holiness is a gravitational pull, then the body is a compelling and opposing force – it compels the soul, against its spiritual nature, to remain constrained within the physical boundaries of matter, time and space. These two forces – the spiritual gravitational pull and the physical compelling force work together in partnership. They appear to be in absolute contradiction, but in fact it is specifically between these two extremes that the creation was made and is sustained.
Reb Nosson explains this with a parable of a wind-up watch. Such a watch works precisely on this principle. Inside it is a strip of metal which is wound around tightly until it cannot be wound any more, creating tension and potential energy. As the strip attempts to return to its natural state, it is forced to turn the wheels of the mechanism, and the watch functions.
This spring in the watch – what a pitiful existence it has. Bent and wrapped tightly around a wheel, it has only one wish – to stretch out and expand. What sin did it commit that such a decree was made on it, that it must spend its whole life in this painful and unnatural state? It never adjusts to its situation. It puts in so much effort to get back to its original state – to straighten out, and just as its about to achieve this, it’s wound up again, and has to start all over.
Our soul is like this spring. Naturally it is used to the wide open expanses of the spiritual realm. Suddenly it finds itself in such an uncomfortable environment. A world of physical matter and a heavy, cumbersome body. Bent and bound to 248 physical limbs and 365 sinews. There’s no room, everything’s cramped, confined and constricted. The waves of thoughts are hard to bear, the heartstrings tough, hard and relentless, and it doesn’t know itself. “Enough!” it cries out silently, “Give me some room, some space, I’m suffocating!”
At last it succeeds in reviving its bent limbs over a page of Gemorrah, it smells the scent of freedom in its nostrils, it can see itself outside the limits of space and time. But then the body stretches out its arm and puts on the brakes – it’s time for breakfast.
Throughout his life a man attempts to break barriers, to elevate himself, to climb. To find himself beyond all this. But at the very moment that this goal would be achieved – the moment the soul would break through all the barriers of physicality, would also be the moment when the whole story would come to an end.
Why don’t we take mercy on the poor spring, take it out from the cruel clutches of the watch mechanism and let it return to its natural state – a straight and free piece of metal? Why? Because we all know that at that moment it would cease to be a watch. Straight, free pieces of metal can be found anywhere. But the wonderful contraption of a watch exists only when there’s a piece of metal inside it, wound around to the highest tension possible.
Just like the spring, our souls placed down here in this world act as a mechanism that keeps all the worlds spinning on their axes. What creates the force of movement, what causes tens of thousands of angels and firmaments to sing songs every day? A strip of metal – a soul bound and wrapped up in a physical body. The spring inside us, which is sometimes wound to the point that it can’t take any more tension, and that’s stuck between the contradiction of the gravitational pull and the compelling, opposing force – is the pivot upon which Hashem’s wondrous creation spins.
We’re heading to meet Rosh Chodesh Nissan, the day that the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, was erected. The word “Mishkan” is an expression of “Moshchaini – draw me,” “Draw me, we will run after you,” (Shir HaShirim 1:4). “The Mishkan,” says the Rebbe, “had the power to draw the Divine Presence to wherever it stood. And all the creations are drawn to this place, because they are all drawn towards their source.”
The force of gravity is concealed deep in the earth, because humility is the source of all creation. This is why the Mishkan could only be built by a Tzaddik who had absolute humility.
In Nissan the spiritual gravitational force is aroused. The soul begins to extract itself from the shackles of its physical exile, to stretch out its limbs and spread its wings. Nissan is the month of yearning, when in the core of the earth the wondrous song of the future is sounded, a song of wonders and miracles. But let’s not forget that we are still in the physical world, within a mechanism of spinning wheels and cogs, amidst time, space and a myriad of physical details. This is the mechanism that we are shackled to, and this we bear, move and push.
This is how we build the Mishkan. If the only force in the Mishkan was the spiritual pull, it couldn’t have existed within the physical realm. The Mishkan was specifically assembled from physical objects, and it had precise spatial measurements and boundaries, and a precise timetable of events, because it was the perfect balance between the spiritual gravitational pull and the opposing physical force.
From where can we draw the strength to live in a balanced way amidst this contradiction? Together with the erection of the Mishkan we have Rosh Chodesh. The Rebbe says that on Rosh Chodesh Nissan everyone receives greatness from the Tzaddik. And what is this greatness? Humility. The Tzaddik, who is the source of humility, places in everyone’s soul a power of humility. Without this humility it would be impossible to distinguish between the spiritual and physical pulls. In this physical world it’s very easy to get confused and mistake one for the other.
Humility is already within us, it’s hereditary for us. But we need someone to arouse it in us. This is done on Rosh Chodesh Nissan by the Tzaddik who’s humbler than all men, who erects the Mishkan. He gives each one his greatness, meaning the ability and strength to utilise the spiritual pull to correctly manage the opposing physical force, and forge a wondrous life, a life of joy, a life of service in the Mishkan.
To be up on top of the mountain takes no great skill or wisdom, the wisdom is in climbing to the top. The mountain isn’t conquered in a helicopter. The mountain is only conquered when you schlep up to its peak a heavy physical body, that could have fallen at any point along the way. Hashem placed us in this world, not so we should escape or avoid the mechanism. We’re wound up like a spring, and we simply can’t adjust to this limited physical existence. And this is good, because woe to us if we stop exerting ourselves. The limits that surround and constrict us are also what give meaning to our yearnings and strivings, because only when there is a soul within a body is the Divine purpose achieved and Divine pleasure aroused.
You can download the entire parasha sheet here: Vayakhel 5770