Matzah: Bread of Humility — Pesach 2008

Pesach 2008 / 5768
Pesach Teaching from A Still Small Voice

הא לחמא עניא

“This is the bread of humility [and of affliction that brings us to humility]”

Kenesset Yisrael (the mystical Body of Israel) was conceived by Avraham and Sarah, floated through the fallopian tube with Yitzchok and Rivka and implanted in the dark womb of Egypt when Yakov descended there with his clan of seventy souls. They gestated “like a fetus in utero”[1] for 210 years and then, on sedar night they prepared for birth. The contractions had begun nine months earlier (in the month of Av) with the first plague, but on sedar night they crowned (a medical term that describes the child’s head as it first appears to the outside world in the birth canal). And then, says the Ari, Kenesset Yisrael was finally delivered seven days later on the last night of Pesach, with the parting of the sea which served as the cosmic birth canal.[2]

According to kabbala the third (and highest) level of soul, called neshama, enters the child at the point of crowning.[3]  The nefesh takes root at conception (when the sperm and egg ignite with life), the ruach at forty days, and the neshama only at birth. According to Jewish law, up until crowning, if the pregnancy threatens the mother’s life, the child is sacrificed for the mother’s welfare, since the child (with its ruach) is a lower level of life than the mother (who possesses a neshama). But once the child crowns, its neshama enters and the two are now of equal rank and neither can be scuttled for the other’s sake.

Conception marks the moment when a soul first comingles with a body. This means that when the child crowns, there is also a conception of sorts, for the neshama first makes contact with its fleshy self. That child will spend the rest of its days integrating the profusion of lights that comprise its holy neshama. So though we usually think of conception as preceding birth by nine months, that is only partially true. Another conception transpires at the very end, when the neshama drops into the body at the point of crowning.

This is what the Ari means when he declares that “on sedar night [at midnight] a conception occurred, and seven days later was the birth.”[4] Yet what is this Kenesset Yisrael that was “conceived” on sedar night and born at the sea?

This question can (and must) be answered at several levels. (1) Kenesset Yisrael is the sum-total of soul-stuff that has incarnated as the Jewish people throughout history, from the beginning of time to its end. (2) Kenesset Yisrael is a higher-order-unity that is greater than the sum of its parts (i.e., the individual people that comprise its soul-cells). (3) Kenesset Yisrael is the inner soul core of the universe encompassing Adam that spans from heaven to earth and includes the entirety of creation within its bounds. (4) Kenesset Yisrael possesses one unique trait—the capacity to understand what it means that G-d is one on the deepest possible level—and that becomes its mission: To demonstrate to the world that there’s nothing but G-d. And since the path of knowing G-d is the path of grasping Oneness (for that is the way HaShem appears to us below), Kenesset Yisrael (the promulgator of Oneness) becomes a synonymous term for the Shekhina.

3320 years ago, on that first Passover night, the level of consciousness called Shekhina (the permeating light of Divine Oneness at the level of neshama) contacted the physical plane and embodied itself as Kenesset Yisrael (the soul community of Israel) whose mission is to shine the light of Divine Presence out into the world through speech and deed. There is no greater honor (or gift) than to be a part of this holy mission, yet there is also no greater burden. To identify with the Shekhina is to claim a role that exacts absolute standards of selfless purity.  Only a perfectly transparent (and infinitely elastic) ego can hold that exhilarating truth. You must be invisible to claim your divinity. Those almighty lights will not tolerate the slightest blemish of motive.  Even a hairline crack of self-gain will trigger a ferocious backlash upon the one whose ego dares to steal gratification from this profoundly delicate truth.

And so every year when Pesach comes around and we relive our “conception and birth,” we recommit to our role as emissaries of the Holy One, reaffirm our membership in Kenesset Yisrael, and reassert our identification with the holy Shekhina. The challenge of this mission is daunting, for there is zero tolerance for graft. If the ego exploits the honor and puffs with pride, the repercussions are swift and harsh. And so we are commanded to prepare for this day by purging our homes (and souls) from all trace of chametz (leavened edibles), which translates on the inner planes as a renunciation of hubris (and all manner of inflated ego-states).[5] The Torah employs a scorched earth policy when it comes to chametz at this delicate time of rebirth. No crumb must remain to feed the ego’s swollen head.

This ban on inner chametz applies on both the personal and collective scales, but the latter takes precedence since Pesach commemorates our collective rebirth. If we clean our homes but still inflate with racist pride we have not removed our chametz. If we take this precious honor, this pure and undeserved gift, and turn it into petty bigotry, we are liable for the equivalent, on the inner planes, of enjoying chametz on Pesach.

Let it be on this holy sedar eve, as we celebrate our birth as a higher-order unity, emissaries of Divine oneness, slivers of the Shekhina’s neshama, that we remove the chametz from our hearts and celebrate our sacred destiny with humble gratitude, untainted by the swell of racist pride. And let the purity of that moment pull heaven down to earth so that, right then and there, we complete our cosmic labor and birth mashiach NOW!

 

[1] שוחר טוב ק”ז , ספר ליקוטי אמרים – אות טז

[2] Shaar HaKavanot, p. 108, amud 1,2,3.

[3] Although Judaism identifies five primary levels of soul (nefesh, ruach, neshama, chaya, yechida) only the lowest three are actually internalized, while the upper two (chaya and yechida) exert a more surrounding influence on the individual.

[4] Ari, Shaar HaKavvanot. R. Tsadok or 41, Mavo HaHagada.

[5] R. Y.Y.Y. Safrin of Komarna, Zohar Chai, 3:48b-49a.

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