Sukkot 5783 / 2022
Sarah Yehudit Schneider
Based on Sod Yesharim, Sukkot #4

Yaakov leaves Aram with his wives, children and livestock. His scouts report that Essav (his aggrieved brother) is approaching with murderous intent.  Before these two actually meet, a spiritual battle ensues in which Yaacov wrestles with Essav’s guardian spirit—the angel samekh-mem, who we depict as evil (because he’s always pointing out our failings), but who’s actually more like HaShem’s “justice minister, comptroller and executioner” all in one. He’s the voice, within Divinity, that expresses HaShem’s uncompromising commitment to equity. Samekh-Mem’s job is to make sure that there’s no favoritism, and no free lunches—that whatever perks Israel receives, they have earned them fair and square (if not through deeds then through blood sweat and tears).

And everyone knows that in this dream-like battle between Yaakov and samek-mem, Yaakov prevailed. It was a personal victory and a cosmic paradigm shift—the birthright that Yaakov “stole” through deception was now conferred upon him with full title. Essav was spiritually disarmed, so their actual meeting the next morning passed without incident.

I want to focus in on the spiritual battle that ensued that fateful night, which also has parallels to sukkot. The Torah describes that encounter as follows:

וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב לְבַדּוֹ וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר:

And Jacob remained alone; and a man wrestled with him there until daybreak [Gen 32:25].

We all know what happens next: The angel is overpowered and (as morning approaches) he begs Yaakov to release him for the time has arrived to sing his morning praises to HaShem.  Yaakov demands a blessing first. The angel blesses Yaakov with a new name Yisrael which means (says the angel) that “you have striven with G-d and with man and prevailed.”[1] Yaakov rises, rejoins his camp and they proceed on their way. They meet Essav (with his 400 men) and their encounter is friendly. The two men part ways and Yaakov heads to Sukkot.

But I want to come back to the first line of this narrative:

וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ…:

…a man wrestled with him….

The midrashim note that the word for wrestle (וַיֵּאָבֵק) comes from the root א.ב.ק. )alef, bet, kof) which, as a noun, means dust (אבק). The implication being that when folks are wrestling they stir up the dirt until a cloud of dust surrounds them. And the midrashim teach that this spiritual battle—this tussle between Yaakov’s soul and Essav’s guardian angel—was so epic, that the dust reached all the way to the Throne of Glory.[2]

The midrash (SHSR 8:3) continues with some startling assertions. It claims that “all of Yaakov’s success in life—material and familial—it was all due to the dust that was raised in his spiritual skirmish with the angel samekh-mem. And not only that, but all the material success that his descendants (the people Israel) have enjoyed from peddling to big business, it’s all due to that dust…and also (the midrash continues) Israel’s success in war…and even their success in Torah…all of it.  It’s all due to the dust that was stirred up that fateful night.” So claims the midrash.[3]

So what’s the connection, and how does it work, and what does it mean to raise dust till the Throne of Glory and what is this dust anyway.

Let’s step back for a moment and review the larger context. Everyone knows that Essav and Yaakov were twins, and that Essav was the firstborn which, in those days, conferred upon him three benefits and responsibilities. The firstborn’s job was to fill the family’s priestly functions which basically entailed preparing their thanksgiving offerings.  Secondly, the firstborn received a double portion of inheritance upon the patriarch’s death. And finally, the first born received a special blessing (a transmission, actually) which empowered him to carry on (and oversee) the family mission which (in this case) was to spread the Avrahamic truth of ethical monotheism to the world.

And yet, as we know, Yaakov coerced Essav to sell his priestly birthright and then (years later) outright lied to steal the blessing of lineage.[4] Essav is devastated and enraged.  He comforts himself by plotting Yaakov’s death. Yaakov flees to Rivka’s family in Aram (where he prospers). And now, after twenty years, Yaakov returns to his holy homestead. After some days on the road, he learns that Essav is headed his way accompanied by four-hundred burly men on horseback. It certainly looks like Essav is taking his revenge. Yaakov prays, sends appeasement gifts, and organizes the camp to maximize damage control.

That night he sleeps alone and (as the Torah reports) he wrestles with a “man” till dawn. The midrash identifies this “man” as samek mem, Essav’s guardian angel. It is as if the auras of Yakaov and Essav meet and jostle before the men themselves meet in the flesh the following day.

Their point of contention is Yaakov’s right to firstborn status, to be the Patriarch of his generation through whom will come the root stock of the Jewish people, a distinction of epic proportions. In fact there is no greater honor in the universe than that…to be the founder of HaShem’s chosen people, the emissaries of ethical monotheism whose job is to share, model and shine the Torah’s radiant wisdom out to every corner of the planet and in so doing bring the world to its glorious perfection and messianic destiny.

The auras of Essav and Yaakov (their tslamim) wrestle through the night. I am going to dramatize their dispute and I am going to (unabashedly) employ anachronism’s in the script (such as quotes from the Talmud, etc).  Although the Torah and kal v’chomer the Talmud did not yet exist as written texts, the spiritual laws they explicate are built into the structure of the universe and so we say that the Patriarchs and Matriarchs derived the mitzvot through both observing the world and through self-reflection.[5]

Essav’s samek-mem rails against Yaakov: You are a thief, a liar and a hypocrite. You stole my birthright and my blessings.  You acquired a spiritual distinction through fraud. How can you live with yourself.  It’s like holding a sheretz while you dunk in the mikveh. It’s like building a sukka from stolen wood. A mitzvah performed with pilfered materials is not a mitzvah. It generates debt not merit. The blessing that you stole—the blessing of lineage—is not yours.

Yaakov: But you had already forfeited your birthright. You despised it, belittled it, by selling it to me for a bowl of lentils. The Torah itself witnesses: וַיִּבֶז עֵשָֹו אֶת-הַבְּכֹרָה [Essav despised his firstbornship].

Essav’s samek-mem: I was faint from hunger and dehydration.  You deviously exploited my dire state. I couldn’t say no, it was pikuach nefesh. A contract entered from coercion is no contract at all. I dispute the sale.

Yaakov: You and I both know that you have no affection for the spiritual side of life. Even in the womb you showed no interest when our mother would pray or meditate or commune with nature. You sold your birthright because you saw no value in it…because its demands of piety repelled you.  You are lying to yourself. You are the imposter, not me.

Essav’s samek mem: Hey, wait a minute. The first one born is the firstborn…period. It’s not a construct, it’s a fact. It’s HaShem’s rule that a firstborn acquires specific privileges and responsibilities.  And it’s HaShem who decides which soul comes out first and claims those honors and duties. You are twisting reality to justify your crime. I am the firstborn.  And you are a thief and an imposter. Can a Kohen sell his priestly status?  No! And so it goes for a firstborn.

Yaakov: Yes, you were the firstborn.  But you made choices that disqualified you from that role. You had many years to rise to its calling, to align with its values, and to do your teshuva (like the rest of us). Instead you rejected its demands and scoffed at its tenets. Our father saw your incredible potential but our mother saw that you had squandered it.

Essav’s samek-mem: Chutzpa that you dare to override HaShem’s law. Arrogance that you presume to know better than HaShem what should be.

Yaakov: OK, yes, you are right, my brother, I sinned…big time. I perverted HaShem’s law and lied to my father, and stole from you (exactly as you say). But, HaShem be my witness, I did it all for His sake. My motive was pure. I sought no benefit or personal glory. I know that there will be consequences for my sin, I’ve already experienced some of them.  Because of my deceit, I’ve been the victim of deceit. My fiancée was substituted for another on my wedding night, and I have been cheated a hundred times by my father-in-law in trying to get paid for my work. I am sure that’s not the end of it.[6]

Essav’s samek mem: Hah. I could say the same things about my sins, that they are also for HaShem’s sake. As father always said, you are the tsaddik and I am the baal teshuva. My job (as baal teshuva) is to raise the sparks that have fallen in derelict places and since the only way to raise a spark is through contact, that contact becomes a euphemism for sin. I was set up by my Creator with a wild inclination that brought me to exactly those sparks (the fallen wayward sparks) that are my portion to raise.  That is my job and I fulfill it, as you say, for HaShem’s sake.

Yaakov: It’s true that you were gathering sparks through your sins, and that, in the end, when your teshuva is complete and those sparks are cleaned up, the universe will have moved forward because of them and HaShem’s will will have been served. But there are different ways to sin. You “stole” ego gratification from your sins…they were not lishma—they were not for HaShem’s sake. You can’t fake lishma. And that’s the difference between you and me, my brother. And it’s something that only HaShem knows. Only One Who sees to the core can assess purity of intention.

Essav’s Samek Mem: Lishma is for tsadikkim.  HaShem does not expect that of baalei teshuva…its even a contradiction in terms….you can’t be both. And so in my role as baal teshuva I follow the Talmud’s advice which is to “Start with lo lishma and slowly come round to lishma.”

Yaakov: There are different kinds of baalei teshuva:  Those that are aiming for the high road but falling short, and those that are not even aiming. One who tries to incorporate a measure of lishma is, at least, on the path. True, they’re not tsaddikim and their lishma is almost non-existent, but still they are on track.

Essav’s Samek Mem: Your arrogance astounds me.  How are you so sure that I am void of lishma motivation. As you yourself stated…only the One who sees to the core can make that assessment.

 Yaakov: I listened to our mother, knowing that if HaShem supported her plan, meaning that (a) if her ruach hakodesh was right[7] and (b) our intentions were pure (ie lishmah), then her scheme would succeed. And if we didn’t meet those conditions then I’d be exposed, humiliated and banished from the family. I chose to take that risk, because I believed that HaShem needed me to do so. Mother assured me that it was an aveyra lishmah, a sin that was tsorek gevoha—a sin that Hashem actually, paradoxically, needed to be done. The most important thing, she said, was to renounce all personal benefit, and take no ego-gratification from my transgression and its profits. She further warned, that no matter how sincere I am, I will still need to pay full dues for the aveyra aspect of the aveyra lishmah. There are no discounts. She said that my willingness to incur a spiritual blemish and suffer its consequences, for HaShem’s sake, was the ultimate expression of loving G-d.[8]

Samek mem had no retort. Overpowered by the truth of Yaakov’s words, Essav’s emissary admits defeat. The Jewish mission requires a capacity for pure intent,[9] so it is Yaakov’s credential of selfless motive that secures his victory.

The midrash informs us that the “dust” of this epic battle of narratives reached to the Throne of Glory, and (to this very day) is the merit behind the Jewish people’s subsequent success in peddling, big business, war and Torah study. What does that mean?3

First of all it is noteworthy, that we Jewish people do seem to have a knack for business, and have been miraculously successful in war (certainly in the 50 years since Israel’s founding) and we have preserved the Torah’s ethical monotheism against all odds and spread its influence to all corners of the world. But what does all that have to do with the dust stirred up by Yaakov’s psychic battle with his twin brother Essav.

The dust referenced in the midrash as the source for all this good, is a spiritual mist.  It is the fallen sparks connected to Yaakov’s lineage (and by extension, the Jewish people).[10] In the cosmic breaking of vessels everything shattered, including our very own souls).  We all come into the world with only part of our soul inside our body, and part of it, the still shattered pieces of it, strewn throughout reality. HaShem leads us from coordinate A to coordinate B because there is a spark of ourselves “out there” that must be brought in, which happens through our encounter with it.

And so it goes for the Jewish people. All the lights and strengths and potentials of Kenesset Israel—their financial successes, Torah wisdom, courage and martial skills—all that we must integrate and manifest in the course of history—all that spiritual dust was churned up in the controversy between these brothers concerning who would be the forebear of the incipient Jewish nation. The more the skirmish persisted, the deeper Yaakov had to reach into his soul to find the virtue that justified his deceit—the teshuva that could turn his sins into merits. [TB Yoma 86b]

Finally Yaakov touched core and the dust that was stirred up their debate reached to the Throne of Glory and became the skhokh—the ohr makif—of the “sukkat shalom”[11] that holds the lights of all the beauty, wisdom and success that Yaakov’s descendants will shine out into the world in the course of their multi-millennial history.

As above, so below. The same goes for our mini, individual sukkot says Sod Yesharim. Through our Elul, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur avoda—our mitzvot, prayers, teshuva and personality inventories; our wrestling with laziness, lust, and inflated ego states—we also stirred up a cloud of spiritual dust. It includes the sparks of our yearnings, resolutions, challenges and Divinely ordained assignments for this coming year—the consciousness we must absorb, the lessons we must learn, the wisdom we must acquire, the resistances we must overcome. These lights are presently beyond our grasp. We have a year to grow into them. They are future lights. In fact says Sod Yesharim, these sparks settled into the skhokh and are radiating their guidance upon us as we sleep and eat and shake the lulav beneath its shade.

Souls are fluent in the language of symbols. They can read the pattern of sparks in the skhokh—its messages and premonitions.  Then, as we dwell beneath the skhokh, our soul imbibes that information and gets familiarized with what is on its agenda this coming year.  It’s like shining light through a negative to produce a corresponding image on photosensitive paper.  The skhokh is the negative, and we are the photosensitive paper. As the sparks radiate down into the sukkah our soul “absorbs the picture” of what’s in store for it this year. Our seven-day sukkot download primes the soul, and conditions its instincts to make the snap decisions that will facilitate the learning of our lessons along the most efficient and least painful route possible. And that is ruach hakodesh—intuitions that have been enlightened by a foreknowledge of the big picture that has imprinted onto the soul and settled into the bones simply by our dwelling under its holy canopy for seven days.

So much of life happens in our snap decisions. The extent to which they harmonize with our actual assignment (encoded by the sparks and skhokh) the more they promote quality of life. And it’s a holographic world which means that everyone’s sukkah contains traces of everyone else’s sparks within it.  So when we go visiting each other’s sukkot we are still absorbing messages that apply to our particular soul.

יהי רצון מלפניך…תשפיע שפע ברכות מדעת עליון לנוה אפריון למכון בית ﭏהינו…
Please HaShem, send forth an outpouring of influence and blessing from Your Supernal Daat [the place of devekut and source of ruach hakodesh] all the way down to the sukkah[12] of the bride [called Kenesset Yisrael, Malchut and Shekhina], [and may Your flow of blessing enlighten us to such a degree] that we become a House of God.

[1] Gen 32:29.
[2] The Throne of Glory, says kabbala, is the keter of the World of Briyah (the mental plane) that provides a support (called kisay/throne) for the malchut of Atzilut to enter and influence the lower three Worlds of Separation (the physical, emotional and mental planes).
[3] MR SHS 8:3: ALL POWDERS OF THE MERCHANT: this refers to our father Jacob, whose couch was flawless before God and in whose seed was found no defect.5 R. Tanhum said: Just as the peddler’s box contains all kinds of spices, so priesthood was from Jacob, and Levites and kings were from Jacob. Abraham gave Isaac all that he had, as it says, And Abraham gave all that he had unto Isaac (Gen. XXV, 5). But the gains made by Jacob were derived wholly from the dust beneath his feet.1 R. Judan made two observations. R. Judan said: All the success which Israel has with its merchandise to-day is due to the merit of that dust of our father Jacob.2 R. Judan made another observation. All the success which Israel has in business3 [big business as opposed to peddling] in this world is due to the merit of that dust of our father Jacob. R. Azariah made two observations. All the success which Israel has in war is due to the merit of that dust of our father Jacob. R. Azariah made another observation. All the Torah that Israel performs in this world is due to that dust of our father Jacob. R. Berekiah and R. Simon in the name of R. Abbahu said: That dust was taken by the Holy One, blessed be He, and put under the Throne of Glory, as it says, The Lord, in the whirlwind and in the storm is His way, and the clouds are the dust of His feet (Nah. I, 3).
[4] The Torah describes how Essav came to Yaakov’s tent faint from exhaustion and dehydration. On the verge of death he begged Yaakov for food and drink. Yaakov exploited Essav’s dire condition, by refusing to share his provisions unless Essav signed over to Yaakov his firstborn priestly rights. Desperate, Essav complied.
Then, some years later, Rivka hears that Yitzchak intends to confer the special blessing of lineage upon Essav and instructs Yaakov to impersonate Essav in order to steal the blessing for himself. Yaakov resists at first but eventually complies, and the deed is done. Isaac believed he was blessing Essav but transmitted the blessing to Yaakov instead.
[5] HaShem looked into the Torah and created the world, which means that the spiritual laws of the Torah could be derived by studying the world. BR 3:5, 64:8; Zohar, Truma 161a. 
[6] As we know, a further measure for measure consequence of Yaakov’s deceit (his aveyra lishma) was that his sons were going to break his heart, by selling Yosef into slavery and then displaying Yosef’s bloodied tunic to imply that he had died.
[7] Rivka, in her pregnancy, received the prophesy that the younger would rule the older before they were even born.  Rivka trusted her prophesy and orchestrated events based on its guiding light.
[8] Rivka was the first to employ an aveyra lishma, a sin for Hashem’s sake.
[9] It is interesting that the Leshem says that the only part of our life that really does endure, eternally, are the moments of lishma, pure God-serving intention.  So as a sukkah message, everything is impermanent except our moments of pure intent.  And, says R. Tsadok, at the heart of every Jewish soul and Jewish action is at least a point of pure intent (that is the definition of our chaylek Elokai (yechida). But the more we expand upon that, the more we touch eternity in the present. Tanya brings this capacity for pure intent as the distinguishing feature of a Jewish soul. ספר התניא – חלק ראשון – פרק א[10]
יעקב מיתתו שלימה (Yaakov, his bed was whole, meaning that all his children were Jewish).
[11] Maariv prayer after shema: hashkivaynu, refers to this collective sukkah.[12] Literally palanquin (the portable litter that carries the bride to the chupa).

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