Sunday, February 24, 2013

For this did they call these days "Purim," after the pur... (Esther 9:26)
It's worthwhile to consider why Purim is called Purim; all of the other holidays are named for their associated miracle. Pesach is named after the event in which God passed over the houses of the B'nei Yisrael, Shavuot due to the revelation at Sinai, etc. Why then is Purim named after the dreaded plot that the wicked Haman attempted to carry out?

The AR"I HaKadosh writes that the months of the Jewish calendar correspond to different parts of the human head. The month of Tishrei is the cranium, Cheshvan and Kislev are the two ears, and Tevet and Shevat are the two eyes.

The month of Adar corresponds to the nose, the appendage that is associated with the sense of smell.

As we mentioned earlier, all of the senses were implicated in the original sin of Adam, and consequently blemished by that sin. The only exception was the nose, which is why until this day the sense of smell is entirely spiritual (i.e. the soul and not the body derives benefit from it), and in fact will be the means for Moshiach to root out the evil from the righteous.

Now, we know that Haman the descendant of the wicked Agag of Amalek drew his strength from the primordial serpent who enticed Adam and Eve to sin by eating and enjoying the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. In fact, we see that Haman himself sought to cause the Jews to sin in a similar manner by attending the massive celebrations in Achashverosh's palace where all sorts of food, drink, and diversions were available. His very intention was to evoke the Original Sin and bring about the Jews' destruction in the same way that the original sin caused that all of Mankind became mortal, starting with Adam himself.

It is at this point we see the wonders that the Creator effected!

That Haman cast lots to determine which month would be most fortuitous to carry out his plot and landed on Adar was in fact the turning point! Adar, which corresponds to the nose, the organ that enables the sense of smell, the only sense that was not blemished by that Original Sin that Haman tried to recall and repeat; this is why it is called Purim because Haman's lottery proved to be fortuitous for us, not him! The sense of smell that is completely spiritual - that is called a ko'ach niskayemet - as represented by the month of Adar remains unblemished still, and protected the Jews again from annihilation.

This sense of smell is a dominant theme in Purim especially: Mordechai's name can be broken down as mara dechai one of the ingredients of the ketoret; Esther's true name Hadassah is a fragrant leaf that is often included in the besamim of Shabbos Kodesh...

There is much to be said about these themes. For much more, see the writings of the B'nei Yissaschar on Chodesh Adar.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The nose knows...

All of the senses are implicated in the sin of Adam: "The woman saw that the tree was good..." "And she took of its fruit and ate..." "And they heard..." (Gen. 3:6-8).

Sight, touch, taste, and hearing - our senses that allow us to interact with the world around us, now damaged - blemished as a result of the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge.

The one exception is the sense of smell. Smell was not damaged in the original sin; as a result, the sense of smell is still entirely spiritual - the soul alone benefits from it, not the body (This is demonstrated to a degree in our actual physiology. The other sensory organs have exceedingly complex processing systems that enable the brain to process the information being received on the surface. These processes go through a number of filters before they actually reach any of the particular parts of the brain that they are associated with. Smell, however, goes through a comparatively much simpler process via the olfactory bulbs that are located very close to the actual brain. In a superficial way, we can say that the nasal/olfactory system is a direct line to the brain - an apropos description when we consider that the seat of the soul is the brain, and that for Adam, God breathed "nishmat chaim" through his nostrils...).

There is a Talmudic debate regarding the requirement for one to make a blessing on pleasant smells. At first glance, this question is mystifying: we have a general rule that one cannot derive pleasure or benefit from anything in this world without making a blessing on it. Why then, should pleasing smells be excluded from this generalization?

Blessings serve the function of birur, separating the pure elements from the damaged parts. Without that discriminatory function, one would not be able to properly utilize anything, as can even be seen in the physical world. The body takes the necessary nutrients from food, assimilating it into the actual system; excess and waste materials are soon ejected from the system to ensure the continued functioning of the organism. So too in a spiritual sense the blessings extract the untouched unblemished parts of the physical world and leave the bad. Objects that we use, foods that we eat, pleasing sights, etc. all require blessings to properly separate the good from the bad.

Because smell is completely spiritual, one can easily assume that this birur process is unnecessary - and in theory that would be the case. But because the sources of pleasing smells are often physical objects that are subject to this primordial contamination, some element of this separation is in fact required.

Adapted from B'nei Yissaschar. Any mistakes are mine alone, a product of my haste and carelessness.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Tales In Transit

Before he even steps onto the subway car, the previously crowded area around me magically becomes spacious as fellow straphangers move away. Carrying his various plastic bags filled with the flotsam of transient life and all of his worldly possessions, the homeless man takes a seat on the bench across from me.

The stench of days-old urine washes over me in mild waves as he glances around the car with the saddest eyes I have ever seen. If he didn't know that he's a pariah before getting on the train, he knows now.

His gaze settles on me, the lone person remaining in the vicinity; the rest of the passengers have all grouped crowded in opposite ends of the car trying to make themselves as physically distant from this walking wreckage of a man as possible. I look back at him. He's disheveled. He smells very bad, enough to make me pause the shiur I'm listening to and attempt to breathe only through my mouth for the duration of our companionship. As we hurtle through the underground tunnels of New York City to very different destinations I ruminate on our commonalities, ignoring that instinct in my legs that urges me to join the rest of the passengers and remove myself from his presence as fast as possible.

He's rubbing his hands, trying to get some warmth in them before he has to go back out into the frigid surface. Who is he? How did he get here?

By "here", I mean this station in life, not the station on 34th street...

I find it very difficult to empathize with this man; by witnessing what he lacks I become that much more aware of what I don't - and I offer a silent prayer of thanks to God.

Perhaps he's made all the wrong choices in life. I can relate to that; our capacity to make choices is what distinguishes us from others, and those choices lead us down very interesting paths.

As I accidentally catch a whiff again, my legs remind me that the "normal" thing to do would be to GO and not look back, not allow myself to care, perhaps even judge this man without knowing him. But I can't move - I cannot allow myself to rob him of another shred of dignity by expressing my unwillingness to share even a brief moment of time and space with him. He's a human being, and my compassion is aroused enough to quiet down that voice of self preservation.

And he notices it. When he finally stands to get off at the next stop, a barely perceptible nod in my direction tells me that he recognized what I "did" for him.

I nod back.

The reality is, he did more for me than I did for him.