By the time you read this, all that beautiful snow that fell on this area last Friday night and early Shabbos morning may be gone. The piles that remain are probably darkened and dirty, nowhere near resembling the pure innocence depicted by the whiteness that we witnessed as the sun rose last Shabbos morning.
In the world dominated by Torah and cognizant of ever-present G‑dliness, we see things around us and frequently are required to take a step back, to analyze and wonder what is taking place before us. So who doesn’t like snow? It represents many things to a broad variety of people.
Ask almost any school-age child about snow, and the usual response you will get is that aside from the fact that it is fun to play in, it also means at least one day off, and possibly more, from school. Why is snow so beautiful as well as difficult to the point of causing paralysis amongst the masses? Perhaps it is to force us to observe it, gawk at it, and analyze its impressive face value.
Of course, snow is just a meteorological phenomenon that can occur when the outside temperature dips below the freezing mark. But, while we are distracted and playing with the science of it all, is the weather communicating something else?
Snow fell in Jerusalem and other parts of Israel earlier this winter, and there it was immediately considered much more than an atmospheric anomaly. Almost immediately those who see things from a cosmic or Kabbalistic perspective commented upon what snow means to us beyond staying home from school or checking to see if the shovel is in the garage.
Rabbi Yitzchak Batzri in Jerusalem observed the falling snow in not too different a way than we look at a rainbow when it appears in our skies following a heavy rain or thunderstorm. The rainbow communicates a message to us that has been explicitly understood for many thousands of years. That is, despite the fact of our communal undeserving state, G‑d has made a vow that He will never again bring a deluge on earth of the destructive magnitude of the flood in the time of Noah.
So the skies still speak a language and communicate a message that we are capable—even in this day and age—of comprehending. So then what of the snow? Rabbi Batzri said when it snowed in Israel a few weeks ago that the snowfall was a sign of forgiveness. He associated the soft blanket of whiteness with the symbolic emphasis we place on donning white clothing, kittel, yarmulke, and so on when Yom Kippur arrives. We specifically utilize whiteness as an indication of cleanliness and forgiveness. It’s not unlike clicking the word “New” right here on my Word program on the computer I am writing this on. When you do that, the screen presents before you a startling full screen that is totally and exclusively white.
The Kabbalists, both ancient and contemporary, discuss what the manifestation of snow means to us down here in the physical realm. Some write that while water is representative of Torah, snow evokes the idea of the knowledge of Torah presented to us in a more discernible and slightly less mysterious fashion. After all, snow is more tangible than rain, at least until it turns into good basic, old-fashioned water.
Watching the snow silently fall last Friday night and through the early part of Shabbos morning makes one wonder what else is out there right before our very eyes that we may be overlooking. And that’s where the beginning of last week’s parashah comes into the picture. It is an unusual description of what happens when, after serving for six years, a Jewish slave decides that he likes the life he is living and wants to remain in the employ of his master.
The Torah describes how the man, that is the slave, is moved to stand at a doorpost and the person that he works for, the so-called master, pierces his right ear, which signifies that he is now a slave to this particular master forever (or not exactly forever, but until the Yovel, the Jubilee Year, arrives).
Several commentaries address why specifically the ear is pierced. What is it about this part of the anatomy that is the focus of this practice? Several reasons are offered.
First of all, the Torah had just been given at Sinai. The highlight of that event was the establishment and proclamation of the Jewish nation’s subservience to G‑d. We just made the commitment to serve only One Master and, what do you know, not too much time elapses and there they are choosing for themselves a master of flesh and blood. That ear that just stood at Mount Sinai and heard from and about the King of Kings seems to have forgotten and failed to internalize a most fundamental lesson. That’s why the ear is punctured.
That is the reason for one who had sold himself into slavery because he was destitute and poverty-stricken and needed food to eat. (And by the way, what is that about? The Jewish people just came out of Egypt laden with treasures; what did this guy, the subject of this situation, spend all that money on?)
And then there is the matter of thievery, where our subject gets caught up in a bad situation and the courts, as a punishment, sell him into slavery for a six-year term. It turns out that the individual likes the setup and wants to stay. In this case, because that ear heard at Sinai that one should not commit the offense of theft, the ear is in a sense punished, by being pierced for not listening.
So where is the contemporary application and lesson to all this, I wondered. Have you noticed out there on the streets how many men are walking around with at least one and sometimes two ears pierced? No, it is not a new thing but it is a growing phenomenon. I can’t venture to guess what motivates a man to want his ear pierced. That is, unless as it states in Parashas Mishpatim that he is a slave that didn’t pay ample attention to the proceedings at Sinai (or elsewhere since then) and as a result had to have his earlobe punctured.
Of course, that was quite a long time ago, and over such a period of time things tend to change. Perhaps it is that people are so difficult and obdurate and simply refuse to listen to anything. Not just that they select for themselves a variety of mortal and other kinds of masters. So misdirected are they that they choose to pierce their own ears without any understanding or focus about what is truly taking place.
Which bring us to another part of last week’s parashah, which dealt with the mixing of meat and that other staple of a white substance other than snow—milk. The Torah portion states in some of its listing of fundamental tenets of law that we are not to “cook a tender young animal in its mother’s milk.” And this is taken to simply mean, as we all know, that we are forbidden to cook or consume meat and milk together.
And the Torah commentaries teach us what we deduce from this requirement. Ramban states that we learn to refrain from being morally insensitive. How so? By being instructed not just to desist from eating milk and meat together but also that we are prohibited from even preparing the mixture.
Kabbalah explains that meat and its natural redness represents the Divine power of Gevurah or severity. Milk, on the other hand, has its spiritual roots in the Divine power of Chesed or kindness, indicated by the white color. Being that these two powers have an opposite effect, they may not be mixed.
But wait; there is hope for you down the road if you desire Swiss cheese on that turkey or roast-beef sandwich, as Rabbeinu Bachaye writes that in the Messianic era it will become permissible to eat meat that was cooked in milk. He explains that today the characteristics of Gevurah and Chesed cannot be mixed, because they are opposites. But in the time of Mashiach, when G‑dliness will be evident and palpable, the two together will not be counterproductive but will rather be able to coexist. Each Divine power will work in harmony with the other, since both powers will respect that they both emanate from the One G‑d.
So you see, those snowstorms, ear piercings, and even those cheeseburgers may be trying to tell us more than meets the eye or ear or your taste buds. v
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