Lecture #19b: Esh Kodesh – On the Song that Rises from the Ashes (Part 2)
C. The Song Makes our Situation Known in Heaven, Through the Sacrifices
In the previous section of this lecture, we saw that, from the perspective of his reality, the Rebbe views the ashes upon the altar as the ashes of our own dead. What is the "music" that rises up from the ashes of the victims of the Holocaust, or from the ashes upon the altar? The Rebbe proposes three levels for interpreting this concept of the "music of the magrefa:" a. music as a symbol; b. music as a manner of Divine service; and c. music as a reflection of an existential reality.
According to the first approach, the music that arises from the ashes is like the other types of music in the Temple, whose role is to elevate the service to the heavens; it symbolizes our desire that our sacrifices indeed rise up to there. The significance of this elevation is that the loss that we feel upon the death of our loved one has an effect not only on us, but also in heaven. The song is a sort of requiem to the dead, expressing their status and importance. More importantly, it expresses a prayer, a supplication that our sorrow - arising from the present death - will bring about an abundant flow of mercy from on High, arousing God to come to our deliverance:
The ritual shovel, the magrefa, which was specifically made for moving the ashes of the sacrifices on the altar in the Temple, resounded with loud music. The purpose of all the music and singing in the Temple was to raise a clamor on high, in heaven. The music was for God to hear, as it is written (Bamidbar 10:9-10): "When you go to war… you shall sound a staccato on the trumpets. You will then be remembered before God your Lord, and will be delivered from your enemies. On your days of rejoicing, on your festivals, and on your new mood celebrations, you shall sound a note with the trumpets over your burnt offerings and your peace offerings. This shall be a remembrance before your God." So it is not just we one earth who are more moved by the ashes remaining after the sacrifices have risen up on high. In heaven, too, there is a similar heightening of appreciation. What people were unable to achieve during their lifetime, they can achieve now on high, by arousing an awakening in heaven of the profoundest mercy and salvation for the Jewish people, immediately and without delay. (ibid., pp. 263-264)
D. Song as Victory Over the Ashes
The Rebbe introduces his second explanation with an attempt to understand the psychological significance of the ashes. In kabbala and in chassidut there is a concept that links the principle of the four elements of the natural world with the principles of spirituality, proposing that the different aspects of the negative forces in man have their basis in the four different elements nature: fire is the source of anger; wind is the source of pride, etc. Ash, identified with the element of earth/dust, is identified, according to this system, with sloth and the associated psychological state of "heaviness" or "inertia:" apathy, skepticism, passivity, etc. All such qualities arise from the element of earth:
What can this teach us, that we may use in our worship? There is a teaching in the book Sha'ar Ha-Kedusha by R. Chaim Vital, of blessed memory: "The evil inclination in man is patterned on the four elements from which human beings and the entire universe are fashioned. From the element of Fire comes anger. From the element of Air comes pride… From the element of Earth comes sloth and indifference."
In his holy book (Imrei Elimelech (p.40), my late father, of blessed memory, explains how one may exploit the passion inherent in the evil inclination derived from the element Fire by harnessing it to good purpose and using it to worship God. "The same passion a person might use to do wrong can be used for doing good, because a person in his progress toward spiritual renewal can utilize passion. However, the principle does not work with the characteristic of sloth and indifference resulting from the evil inclination derived from the element Earth. There, we are dealing with Amalek, who functions by chilling the passions of the Jewish people. Indifference and cynicism are devoid of passion, so they cannot be inverted and sanctified." (ibid. pp. 264-265)
As we know, many chassidic teachings address the possibility of elevating the negative aspects of man's inclinations. However, dust – the element of sloth and apathy – cannot be elevated. Why not? The Rebbe explains that these qualities affect one's very faith, not only one's moral attributes. Desire, for example, arising from the element of fire, does not intrinsically contradict faith; one can have faith and, at the same time, experience various forms of desire. Inertia or apathy, on the other hand, eats away at a person's faith, as well. Faith is dependent on one's psychological ability to lift one's head and one's heart above the waves of reality; to carry one's consciousness beyond the pragmatic and the rational; to feel that which is holy and lofty; to sense the mystery. When reality and its values chain a person – and, even more so, when he is caught in inertia and apathy – then he is unable to feel or see anything beyond his immediate surroundings and needs. When a person is drowning in existential needs, completely absorbed in the business of survival, then he is sucked further and further downward. It is possible that, at first, the religious awareness with which he was raised will not be affected. But faith is not only primal knowledge; it is also an approach, a view of reality that allows one to see higher, further, deeper. The loss of this view, as one sinks in the struggle for physical survival or into despair, may ultimately lead to a loss of faith:
One might ask how laziness and the Earth element damage faith, and how does the evil inclination ruled by Amalek use someone's Earth element to ruin his faith? The answer is as follows: We have previously described how a Jew's faith originates in the spirit of sanctity residing in every Jew, making him capable of faith far beyond his comprehension or intellectual abilities. However, once the Jew is trapped in depression and apathy, his heart, mind, and all those parts of his body influenced by the evil inclination are dragged down, growing incapable of shaking off their depression. When thus prevented from cleaving to holiness, his faith is damaged, God forbid. That explains why calamities and crises that beset a person, God forbid, breaking him or forcing him to succumb, can also damage his faith. At first, even though a person does not have heretical thoughts, God forbid, he also does not have exalted, spiritual, faith-filled thoughts either, because he is so numbed, dumb, and stolid, choked in heart and brain. Then, little by little, impious and irreverent thoughts may begin to creep in, God forbid. (ibid. p.265)
The ashes do not rise up to God, but rather remain upon the altar. Similarly, in man, lethargy and apathy cannot be directed to God, in the way that other attributes can. What, then, becomes of the ashes – those on the altar and those within man? How can one prevail over that lethargy, that blunting which sometimes overcomes us, especially when existential concerns are overflowing their boundaries to the point where the person in his entirety becomes as heavy and lifeless as the dust?
The raking of the ashes, the "terumat ha-deshen" (in the sense of "raising up" – see Vayikra 6:3-4) with the magrefa that produces music is the answer – not only in the physical reality of the Temple, but also in the psychological and spiritual realm. We must use the faculty, or attribute, that is the opposite of the earth. The music of the magrefa arouses joy, and perhaps even a feeling of the beginning of salvation for the soul. This is exactly the strategy for tackling the heaviness and lethargy: music and song, which arouse joy and remind a person and his soul of their fundamental essence and status, thereby elevating them:
This is why even in the Temple, where the Jewish people offered sacrifices upon the holy altar, wanting nothing but to elevate everything to God in a fire of holiness, the ashes - the element of Earth - remained on the altar. The Earth element could not be elevated to holiness, and so the ashes had to be consecrated in the daily ritual of terumat ha-deshen, tithing the ashes. How can this tithing be done? Only with the music of the magrefa, representing simcha (joy) and salvation of Israel - for with simcha and an expression of salvation, anything can be elevated, and darkness can be transformed into light.
That was why terumat ha-deshen was not done during the great pilgrimage festivals. At those times, nothing upon the altar needed elevating, because the festivals themselves are a time of simcha, brilliance, liberation, and tremendous sanctity. They are a taste of the World-to-Come, when everything will be elevated to holiness. (ibid.)
Admittedly, to start up the joyous song we need some sort of catalyst. Perhaps the spark of joy can indeed fan a great fire of joy and hope – and indeed, music and song have the power to extract a person from his despair. This is a significant answer for us in normal life situations. But is it possible to initiate music or song when a person is completely mired in the reality of "dust?" How can the spark itself be ignited? We know that in the Warsaw ghetto, as in other places, there were such attempts, even with terror and death all around, and there can be no doubt that pointing out the dangers associated with the element of dust/ashes, and the advice to elevate it by means of song, has significance. However, it may be that in certain situations this becomes very difficult, almost impossible. It is perhaps for this reason that the Rebbe proposes one more way in which music can still be produced.
E. The Music that Rises from the Ashes
We must begin with a brief introduction to the kabbalistic foundations of the third explanation. According to kabbala, the four elements in nature are drawn from the four letters of God's name (Y-H-V-H). The Name Y-H-V-H is an expression of the full manifestation of God in the world; it also embodies the ten "sefirot." Thus, the element of dust/earth corresponds to the last "heh" of God's Name, as well as to the sefira of malkhut, which is the feminine side. "Malkhut" (kingship) is the aspect of the Divine which is able to become disconnected from the other sefirot and thus, heaven forefend, separated from its Source. The reason for this is that all of reality comes into being from and within malkhut, especially in view of the fact that it stands vis-א-vis God; it is not simply a manifestation of Him. The purpose of inner, religious work is the unification of the sefirot – that is, restoring malkhut to its Source, or (to adopt the language of prayers and blessings) "to unify the Name of the Holy One, blessed be He, and His Divine Presence [malkhut]." The principle of separation and distance followed by rapprochement and reunification is the most fundamental movement of all of reality. Thus, for example, woman was separated from man so that they would long to be reconnected; the moon grows distant from the sun (is gradually darkened) in order that it will desire to once again be illuminated by it. All of Shir Ha-Shirim is based on this movement of "running and returning," of separation and coming together, giving rise to a sense of longing:
There is perhaps a still deeper level of understanding that even we with our meager comprehension can add. It is well known that the four Elements are drawn from the four-letter name of God, Y-H-V-H, and that the Earth element is drawn from the fourth and final letter, the second heh, representing the sefira of malkut. When the final heh is, God forbid, sundered from the Name of God, Y-H-V-H, and falls, there occurs something akin to the worlds of the famous kabbalistic poem Kel Mistater [a hymn from the Shabbat afternoon liturgy, after Mishlei 16:8]: "Who disunites the One, will see no light." This is a state similar to that of the moon, who brought about the loss of her own luminosity (see Chullin 60b).
When the Sefira of malkut is aroused to connect with her beloved, she begins by singing, (Yeshayahu 35:10-2) as is well known, "Arousing the Lily of Sharon to song… abundance will blossom, and rejoice with joy and singing" (see Midrash Tanchuma, Devarim 2:2). Only then does it become obvious that the detachment had to precede the arousal. The longing for union grows out of the feelings of disconnection, and so the song issues directly from the pain of separation. This is why the Song of Songs is all about separation and then closeness, e.g., "My beloved is slipped away and gone," (5:6) which brings the state of "My heart dissolved when he spoke," (ibid.) as is well known. (Ibid.)
The soul that is drawn by the element of dust (which is connected, as noted, to the final heh of God's Name and to the sefira of malkhut) grows distant from its root, from its higher, internal elements. How is it possible that a person of faith, with understanding and sanctity, is drawn to a situation of lethargy and apathy? Apparently, these are two elements that exist within the soul itself. The "dust" that is in the soul may distance it from itself, but then it feels torn and cut off from its source. In other words, my awareness of the inner dissonance, of the fact that I have become inanimate ashes, will arouse within me a longing for the previous situation, for my Source. The song that rises up from the ashes is one that is born out of distance and longing - distance from myself and distance from the Master of the Universe – and a plea for redemption from this reality.
Paradoxically, it is specifically the experience of distance that is the consequence of the sinking of the soul – it is that experience that gives rise to profound longing and a longing for self-redemption. This is the self-song of the ashes, a song of longing, which may be heard when the musical instrument – the magrefa – is placed upon it:
This same process can also be experienced in the link between father and son, for, as we see, the more they are parted the more their love burgeons and intensifies.
This is the significance of the music that came from the magrefa with which the ritual of terumat ha-deshen was performed. The ashes themselves, because they were so disconnected from their spiritual source, were filled with longing and, hence, even more song. This is why the ashes were left on the altar on Festival days: because they beautified the altar, brining about even greater unification within and between heaven and earth. (Ibid.)
Translated by Kaeren Fish