Uniting the Physical and the Spiritual

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Sermons of the Aruch HaShulchan, Week 16, Sermon 17: Uniting the Physical and the Spiritual

Entering the Holy of Holies

Vayikra Rabbah 21;5 quotes R. Yuden, who fastened on the Torah’s use of the word be-zot, with this, to describe what Aharon brings with him into the Kodesh Kodashim, the inner room of the Mishkan. R. Yuden suggested the odd word was a veiled reference to other places the Torah used that word, mitzvot in general, berit milah, and Shabbat. It’s those observances the High Priest should bring with him when he enters.

Aruch HaShulchan is surprised, since the word fits the verse well; it’s telling Aharon what he has to do to be able to go in. After noting a Midrash that said that Aharon could use this ceremony to enter any time he wanted, he says that R. Yuden was pointing out that our verse expands that to all of Aharon’s descendant High Priests. For them, entry, even on Yom Kippur, even with this ceremony, needed some other supporting qualities. It’s for them that R. Yuden thought be-zotreferred to those mitzvot. To understand why, we have to take Aruch HaShulchan’s discursive road to an answer.

The Physical Ramifications of the Spiritual

His first stop is the brachah of Asher yatzar, which we say after finishing in the bathroom. The blessing closes by sayingrofeh kol basar u-mafli la’asot, heals all flesh and acts wondrously. What’s the great wonder, especially since Tehillim136;4 speaks of Hashem as doing niflaot gedolot, great wonders, and Iyov 5;9 speaks of innumerable such wonders. Why single out the physical process of eliminating waste as a paradigm of Hashem’s wondrous acts?

[As I was preparing this summary, it struck me that Aruch HaShulchan frequently weaves in verses in Tehillim to highlight or explicate a point. I skip many of those expositions because they feel like digressions, but I think it might be that his audience was so familiar with Tehillim that these pauses helped keep them connected to the drasha. It was a feature of the presentation, not a bug. It took the ideas he was trying to convey and put them into a familiar framework, giving them a verse they knew well to attach to his ideas].

He says the answer lies in Rema’s explanation of the phrase in Orach Chayyim 6 (the notes point out that he repeats this idea in his Aruch HaShulchan Orach Chayyim 6;5). The wonder is how the physical is intertwined with the spiritual, says Rema. At the simplest level, that means soul and body function together. Souls don’t need food, other than when they’re in a body.

Hashem’s Continuing Connection with Creation

Magen Avraham explained that the soul gains sustenance from the spiritual part of the food. That spiritual part, Aruch HaShulchan says, is a function of Hashem’s continuing involvement with creation (this is an idea he attributes tokadmonim, earlier thinkers, but gives no name). Different from other creators, Hashem always supports and maintains creation, such that there is an “Hashem-aspect” to all of creation, even food.

Similarly, when Devarim 8;3 says that people cannot live by bread alone, the verse continues that, rather, we live “al motza pi Hashem, by that which comes out of Hashem’s mouth,” as it were. We usually read that as referring to Torah andmitzvot, but the Ari said it means the Word of Hashem that’s in the food.

For Aruch HaShulchan, we refer to that as well when we recite Elokai neshama in the morning — we declare our understanding that our soul is in our bodies temporarily, to be taken out later and then returned at the resurrection of the dead. All the time it is linked to our bodies, it’s so that we’ll remember to use our bodies for Hashem’s service, through Torah and mitzvot, to make clear our awareness that Hashem is the Master of the physical and the spiritual.

The Wonder and Value of Intertwining

Rema’s reading of the post-bathroom blessing explains for Aruch HaShulchan why Tanach uses the phrase u-mafli la’asot, “and wondrous to perform” about the angel who left Shimshon’s parents by ascending with the fire they had lit to cook the feast they intended to serve him. The fact that a purely spiritual being could seem so human, clothing the spiritual in the physical, was itself the wonder.

That’s why when Manoach asks the angel his name, he or the text comments that it was Pel’i, wondrous (or hidden), whereas no such comment is made when Ya’akov asked the name of the angel with whom he wrestled. Since Ya’akov easily crossed the boundaries between the physical and the spiritual, he well understood how Hashem could link the two; it was no wonder that the “man” with whom he had been wrestling turned out to be an angel. For Manoach and his wife, it was astounding.

That’s also why we say the bracha after eliminating waste instead of as we ingest the food— that Hashem can be present in some way even in that otherwise disgusting process catches our attention. It’s human beings who best exemplify this linking or intertwining, which is the answer to Tehillim 8’s astonishment at the role we play in Creation, when there would seem to be beings more exalted than us. It’s that we both exemplify and actualize the spiritual being made part of and connected to the physical that’s the point.

Of course, to be intertwined does not mean to be equal. Where Hashem takes pride, as it were, is where humans put their spiritual side ahead of their physical, the two working together to foster awareness and love of Hashem in the world. That is, for Aruch HaShulchan in this sermon, the meaning of ahavah, love of Hashem, that Shema orders us to cultivate.

The Akedah as a Demonstration of Such Love

In his reading, the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, points us in that direction. To take only one of his points, he recallsSanhedrin 89a, which wonders how Yitzchak could have submitted to the Akedah, to human sacrifice (a violation of Hashem’s laws, only allowed when a prophet says to do so), when Avraham did not offer any supporting sign to prove that Hashem had told him this was what they should do [Avraham himself heard it directly from Hashem; the Gemara is curious as to what allowed Yitzchak to go along].

The Gemara answers that a navi muchzak, an established prophet, is different. That’s fine for most views, but Rambam inYesodei HaTorah 10;1-4 said that we authenticate a prophet by his positive promises. If even one of those is not borne out, we know he is not speaking in Hashem’s Name.  Avraham had prophesied that Yitzchak would bear his name, have children, and inherit the Land. His new idea, that Yitzchak had to be sacrificed, would mean the previous promise would never come true. Yitzchak should—if he followed Rambam’s standards—have taken this as evidence that his father wasn’t a prophet, and refused to go along.

There are many answers to that question; Aruch HaShulchan’s is notable because he assumes something about Avraham and Yitzchak’s experience of the Akedah that’s diametrically opposite to what people take for granted today. Had Hashem commanded any of us to sacrifice children, he says, we’d have listened [his confidence in people’s obedience is touching and, sadly, not as obviously true in our times], but we’d do it with tears, sadness, and grief.

Both Avraham and Yitzchak were at a level, he says, that the opportunity to fulfill Hashem’s command was, to them, an unequivocal good [that’s where people today assume the opposite, that Avraham and Yitzchak certainly were sad and upset while involved with the Akedah], such that it didn’t seem a taking away of the previous promise, a bad following a good. That’s why Yitzchak continued to see his father as a prophet—his previous prophecy had been supplanted by one as good or better.

It’s that ability to bring our physical fully in line with the spiritual that makes the Patriarchs who they were, and should be a goal of ours.

Back to Entering the Holy of Holies

With all that established, Aruch HaShulchan is ready to explain the original Midrash, that be-zot yavo Aharon, with this Aharon shall enter the Holy of Holies, refers to other places where the Torah uses the word zot, Torah, circumcision, and Shabbat.

The three “zot” elements that the Midrash pointed to as being what the High Priest took in with him address each of three types of sanctity– of the world itself [I think today we’d say that’s the sanctity of place], of people, and of time. Torah sanctifies the world as a whole, circumcision the human body, and Shabbat, time. Those mitzvot are what help turn this otherwise ordinary human into a figure so wondrously sanctified (he is referring back to the wonder of u-mafli la’asot), that even angels cannot be in the Holy of Holies when he is there.

The sermon stops there, without making clear how this should affect his listener’s lives, but it seems to me to imply—perhaps too weak a verb—that they should know that the physical can be sanctified and valuable, as long as it is made subservient to Hashem’s service.

When and if it is, it is a wonder to behold.

About Gidon Rothstein

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