Masters of the Saf — Purim 2015 / 5775
In those days, when Mordekhai sat by the king’s gate, two of the king’s eunuchs, Bigthan and Teresh, Guardians of the Saf (Threshold), were angry, and sought to lay hand on king Ahasuerus. Mordekhai caught wind of the plot and shared it with Esther the queen, and Esther warned the king in Mordekhai’s name. Inquiries were made, the conspiracy was verified, and the two [men] were hanged on a tree. The incident was recorded in the Book of the Chronicles in the king’s presence. [Book of Esther 2:21-23]
בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם וּמָרְדֳּכַי ישֵׁב בְּשַׁעַר-הַמֶּלֶךְ קָצַף בִּגְתָן וָתֶרֶשׁ שְׁנֵי-סָרִיסֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ מִשֹּׁמְרֵי הַסַּף וַיְבַקְשׁוּ לִשְׁלֹחַ יָד בַּמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרשׁ: וַיִּוָּדַע הַדָּבָר לְמָרְדֳּכַי וַיַּגֵּד לְאֶסְתֵּר הַמַּלְכָּה וַתֹּאמֶר אֶסְתֵּר לַמֶּלֶךְ בְּשֵׁם מָרְדֳּכָי: וַיְבֻקַּשׁ הַדָּבָר וַיִּמָּצֵא וַיִּתָּלוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם עַל-עֵץ וַיִּכָּתֵב בְּסֵפֶר דִּבְרֵי הַיָּמִים לִפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ :
This passage employs two words for portal: Mordekhai sat at the shaar (the gate), while Bigthan and Teresh guarded the saf a Hebrew word with rich associations. It means doorsill but also refers to that first moment when something pokes into awareness and becomes visible to the outer senses or conscious mind. A saf marks a threshold of awareness.
Achashverosh certainly had guards at the entranceways to his palace, but he (like the rest of us) also had sentries patrolling his inner saf—the veil that divides between our conscious and unconscious selves. As below, so above. Just as our physical body has a diaphragm that separates our upper torso from its lower half, so is this true for our soul. Kabbala refers to our spiritual diaphragm as a parsa (פרסא ) which separates our conscious emotions—chesed, gevurah, tiferet—from their unconscious roots—netzach, hod yesod. The former triad occupies the heart area; the latter coincides with the reproductive and digestive organs but includes the legs as well. In kabbala, the farther something is from the head the less conscious it is. The lower torso, legs and feet thus symbolize the unconscious layers of psyche (or backside as it’s called in kabbala).
Creation began with tsimtsum. HaShem concealed His Infinite Light from a circumscribed space and emanated into that cosmic womb a single ray of light. The vessels that were present could not bear its radiance and shattered under the strain. The lights (אורות ) spilled out and ascended back to their root on high. Yet some of their photons, the most energetic of them, had absorbed into the vessels’ walls before they shattered. These drops of light (now called נצוצות) were trapped below and plummeted to the lowest edge of the lowest world. This cosmic rubble contains the most splendid beauties (sparks) and the most revolting corruptions (klipot and zuhama). It is the raw material from which we are forged.
HaShem takes a pile of this debris, sends it down into a guf and a child is born. Yet at that point only part of our soul is confined to our body. The rest of it, the still-shattered pieces of it, remain strewn throughout the universe. As we move through life we gather these sparks—these estranged pieces of ourselves—and in so doing we become more whole. A part of us, that we did not recognize as a piece of us, now becomes integrated into us, as a lesson learned, a skill acquired, a connection made, a habit integrated, a potential actualized.
And every time we raise a spark, we pull down a mini ray of the ascended lights (אורות) as well, for these two components (lights and sparks) are soulmates that were separated in the shevirah. Every spark has a match among the orot that is equally “out of sight” until its spark activates and pulls it down into the world.
These two ingredients (נצוצות ואורות) comprise our unconscious defined as: A part of us that we are unaware of and that appears instead as not us. The still-fallen sparks connected to our soul that are part of the bundle HaShem sent down as our incarnation, but which have not yet been integrated into our self-image…the sumtotal of these sparks (and their matching lights) comprise our unconscious. Sparks are subconscious and lights are superconscious yet since neither enters conscious awareness the term “unconscious” applies to both.
These sparks, before they have been raised, are still embedded in their klipot and laced with zuhama. They are flawed and often disgraceful. Our ego cannot admit that their humiliating weaknesses belong to us. The shame is just too great. So it posts sentries at the saf, to keep these ugly not-me’s out of sight…and out of the “palace.”
Yet the whole point of life is to raise these broken vessels. It’s how we earn our keep. We are the cleanup crew. We come in with a quota that we need to raise in the course of our days. That’s our contribution to tikun olam. When all the sparks are gathered (at least the bulk of them) the world will be (literally) enlightened and our messianic era will officially begin.
And really, the sparks that appear on our to-do list are not arbitrary. They are missing pieces of our very own soul. It is in our self-interest to raise them (even with all the chaos they bring), because the only thing that will make us happy is to finally become whole, which cannot happen without facing our shadow and processing its unseemly content.
Bigthan and Teresh guarded that saf for Achashverosh. They were trusted servants with keys to every door. Yet, shortly after Esther’s coronation they turned on the king and sought his demise. What changed?
Three events occur in quick succession: 1) Esther is crowned, 2) Mordechai relocates to the king’s gate, 3) Bigthan and Teresh bristle with anger and hatch their plot.
Esther and Mordekhai are luminaries—they are archetypes even more than people. When they appeared at the palace, Esther within and Mordekhai without, the whole energetic configuration of the royal court began to shift.
Esther personifies the Shekhina whose Indwelling Presence exerts an enlightening influence on Achashverosh (who plays the ego in this drama). Under her sway he softens and becomes more amenable to truth, a shift that allows the flow of sparks through the saf to accelerate their pace.
Mordechai sits “outside the gate” with the lights and sparks that are beyond the king’s awareness. They include the lessons Achashverosh will absorb in the course of his Purim drama (as well as those that will reverberate through the Jewish people around this event). Mordekhai’s presence energizes these sparks and they press against the saf trying to hasten their ascent.
The saf’s guardians personify the king’s defenses, both literally and psychologically. Bigthan and Teresh assumed their posts when Vashti was still queen and Achashverosh was regularly humiliated by her barbs. Their task was to be protect him (aka the ego) from threats arising within and without. They were trained to be vigilant, inflexible, reactive and vengeful. They were hired because of their natural affinity to the task.
Now, suddenly, with Esther as queen, their expertise is obsolete. These belligerent defenses are outdated. They are self-defeating, constricting and even poisonous. The world has moved on and is poised for a paradigm shift…but the saf will need to loosen up and let these new sparks through. Bigthan and Teresh were not about to budge. Their self-worth hinged upon their power to repress whatever threatened their status quo. In their dark corner of the palace, they were not beholden to truth. Truth was beholden to them.
Achashverosh, under the influence of his new queen, was instituting changes that eroded their authority. They saw only one recourse to defend their honor and that was to assassinate the king who had betrayed them by demoting them. They were incapable of examining their motives, facing their fears, and finding a more productive way to proceed. They guarded their own safs with the same techniques that they used in the palace. Shame, vulnerability and weakness were strictly banned. Whoever triggers insecurities is a source of dishonor and deserves death just like Vashti.
Mordekhai personifies the superconscious lights that are seeking to come down and enlighten the world. True to his role, Mordekhai uncovers the assassination plot, reports it to Esther, who reports it to the king. The superconscious lights connected to our soul are a (kind of) guardian angel that steers us through life and drops enlightening insights into our heart/mind at critical moments (if we are receptive to it). Achashverosh was not yet attuned to the superconscious, but Esther was. She received the message from Mordekhai and passed it down the chain.
It is no surprise that Mordekhai uncovered the plot, but why, asks R. Tsadok, does he take that next step and save the king’s life. If Achashverosh had died, Esther would be free to return to her people and to her conjugal union with him. What made Mordekhai sacrifice Esther’s spiritual life to save this (undeserving) king?
- Tsadok explains that Mordekhai questioned his own ability to discern HaShem’s will in this matter. He could not get a clear signal because of static emanating from his own saf. Did HaShem want Esther saved at all costs or was that his own preference impersonating HaShem’s will? Was this a Divinely choreographed opportunity to rescue his kidnapped wife who was forced to marry this pagan king, and Mordekhai’s job was to just keep quiet and let the murder proceed? Or was it simple envy that drove him to stay silent and let the king’s head roll?
This clash between Mordekhai, Bigthan and Teresh was a Battle of the Saf. Mordekhai had to become the change he sought to see. He had to face his shadow, admit its unseemly content, and then choose the high road despite the undertow. Sometimes this “high road” is the preferred option. But sometimes integrity requires us to choose against our self-interests and do what is “right” even though it hurts (perhaps even alot).
Modekhai considered the relevant factors (including, says R. Tsadok, his possible envy). He concluded that Halacha did not require him to save the king’s life and he could easily justify that decision as the most God-serving option. But on a more subtle level, Mordekhai sensed—below his saf, in his guts—that HaShem had revealed the murder plot to him in order for him to stop it. This was true even though Mordekhai’s will to free this captured Jewish maiden, was holy, noble, legitimate and right. Still (for some mysterious reason) HaShem needed something different here. When Mordekhai got the message and saved the king, he won the Battle of the Saf.
“[The old guard] Bigthan and Teresh were hanged… and the incident was recorded in the Book of Chronicles in [in both the earthly and heavenly] king’s presence.” Mordekhai’s deed made a splash in shamayim.
Months (perhaps years) later the king remembers his unpaid debt and in a stunning chain of reversals, the power relations between Morekhai and Haman invert in a flash. There are many turning points in the Purim story, but they are really just the domino effect of this very first about-face when the king made Haman Mordekhai’s slave for the day.
To listen down (to one’s shadow), and listen up (to one’s conscience) and then tease out the true calling of the moment without distortion…that is what it takes to be a master of the saf. R. Akiva describes his mystic journey in exactly those terms. When the soul ascends up through the PaRDeS (says he) each threshold has an entry fee. The gate only opens (above) if the corresponding darkness of soul (below) has been probed and illumined by the petitioner.
When Mordekhai acquires this mastery he becomes the messianic prospect of his generation—an honor reserved for those who face and fathom their dark side (instead of just ignoring, denying or suppressing it). And so the Megilla ends with Mordekai’s praise—the fruit of his fearless inner work:
For Mordekhai the Jew was viceroy to king Ahasuerus, and great among the Jews, and popular among most of his brethren, seeking the good of his people, and preaching peace to all his offspring.
“Mordekhai the Jew was viceroy to the king … and popular among most of his brethren…” Mordekhai was a Torah scholar of the highest rank—head of the Sanhedrin at that time. When Achashverosh offered him the position of viceroy he thought long and hard before accepting it. Torah study is the greatest virtue. His colleagues expected him to refuse the job and return to the House of study. But Mordekhai disagreed. He felt that he could be of even greater service to the Jewish people as their intercessor with the king.
The sages remained forever critical of Mordekhai’s “unpopular” decision to break from their ranks and accept a secular position. Yet, says the Komarna Rebbe, a messianic soul possesses the strength of character and the imperative of destiny to go out into the world, mingle with the masses, and serve them.
The ultimate perfection is when a person ascends to the highest heights and then returns to the mundane world and participates with it fully (unlike Moshe who separated from his wife). R. Elimelekh of Lizhinsk would say: “up and down, down and up.”…Mashiach will be distinguished by his ability to engage fully with the material world and not lose a trace of his exalted devekut in the process. In this way he emulates Divinity Itself, which fills every point of time and space (both glorious and debased) yet does not compromise Its innate holiness.
The Megilla informs us that Mordekhai became a lover of people, a preacher of peace and an exemplar of ahavat Yisrael.
Mordekhai did not wait for Jews to come to him with their problems, but actively sought ways to help them. He even spoke peaceably to those Jews who were not of the most upright character, seeking to improve them. Mordecai was generous to everyone, Jew and gentile alike. Since we are children of one Father, he reasoned, it is my duty to help whomever I can. Mordekhai was such a goodhearted ambassador for the Jewish people that the whole world honored the Jews and sought their benefit… Mordekhai avoided strife and sought peaceful solutions for every problem. Even his rebuke was delivered in a peaceable manner.
Mordekhai’s devotion to the Jewish people and love for every one of them is the direct result of mastering his saf.
Many of us today (perhaps even most) believe that our strongest weapon against anti-Semitism is to cultivate the virtue of ahavat Yisrael (unconditional love of each other). Towards this end people are studying the relevant halachot; engaging in outreach; resolving to cultivate tolerance; trying not to be judgmental; pledging to greet their neighbors with a smile, etc. Yet even with all these gallant efforts little has changed. Disregard, disrespect, feuds and intolerance still poison our society.
That is because the real source of our strife is the unexamined shame that skulks beneath the threshold. We guard our safs in the tradition of Bigthan and Teresh. Any thoughts or emotions that belie our self-image get bounced at the gate. And anyone who triggers those insecurities, fears, doubts (or lusts) gets labeled “bad.” We then proceed to hunt down their flaws and magnify them to recover our honor. We are fighting for our dignity. It feels like us or them. This survival reflex that happens below the saf is why we fail in ahavat Yisrael.
Let us follow in Mordekhai’s footsteps. Let us fire Bigthan and Teresh. Let us take a flashlight and start poking around beneath the saf and expose our outdated defenses that keep us from becoming the people we strive to be.
Purim is a propitious time for this “down and up, up and down” work. The saf is opened below for “wine in secrets out.” And the saf is opened above, for on Purim Hashem invites us to His innermost Chamber of Unconditional Love—called the Unknowable Head of Whiteness—and we realize, deep in our bones, that HaShem is good and does good and will turn everything, without exception into revealed good. We need to get with the program, and bring our tokho (our private life) into line with our baro (our public persona) for that’s what it takes to be Masters of the Saf.
Shine a New Light on Zion and let us together, all of us, quickly be worthy of that light.
אור חדש על ציון תאיר ונזכה כולנו יחד במהרה לאורו:
 MRE 3:9; Meam Loez 1:12.
 R. Isaac Luria, Pri Eytz Chaim, Purim, chapter 5.
 Tsidkat HaTsadik, ot 255.
 ספר סודי רזיא – אות ת
 Alshich on Esther 10:3.
 Rashi on Esther 10:3.
 R. Y.Y.Y. Safrin; Heichal HaBracha Lev. 1:1 (commenting on the small alef).
 Alshich, ibid.
 R. Yaakov Lorbeerbaum of Kalish (Imrei Yosher); Megilat Setarim on Esther 10:3.
 R. Eliyahu HaKohen of Izmir; Dina Pishra on Esther 10:3
 TB San 38a.