IF YOU don’t have your health, then you have nothing. At least that is what I have heard many people say over the years, and it does ring true. If a person is asked, “Lots of money, or good health?” I think many would answer good health—after finding out that both is not an option—because money can only do so much to alleviate suffering.
Most people are protective of their health, to a point. Who wants to be sick? Who wants to suffer? Sometimes we take risks, eating too much or drinking too much, etc., but it is with the hope that we will not suffer any consequences, and we kick ourselves later if we do. There is nothing heroic about throwing caution to the wind when it comes to health.
Until recently, though, I lost track of the real reason for not getting ill, and when I questioned others about this as well, it seems we were all in the same misguided boat. The real reason to stay healthy? So you can serve God to the best of your ability. Illness is debilitating, and it drains a person of the energy necessary to do mitzvos properly.
This is no different from anything else in life in which we may indulge. We eat food so we can have energy to perform mitzvos. We sleep to recharge our batteries so we can continue on with our service of God tomorrow as well. People who are not destined to go to the World-to-Come can enjoy this world for its own sake, but not a Jew. We eat so that we can make a brochah, not the other way around.
When it is the other way around, then the mitzvah of maintaining health can become just the opposite. It can interfere with the service of God. A person can quote the mitzvah of “v’nishmartem me’od l’nafshoseichem—protect yourselves well,” as the reason for their decision to do one thing or another, but they have lost perspective of it regarding more important mitzvos, like listening to Torah leaders, even when it seems as if their idea of “right” is our idea of “left.”
According to the law they instruct you and according to the judgment they say to you, you shall do; you shall not divert from the word they tell you, either right or left. (Devarim 16:11)
Even if this judge tells you that right is left, and that left is right. How much more so, if he tells you that right is right, and left is left! (Rashi)
As Rebi Chanina ben Dosa told the Bais Midrash, “It is not snakes that kill, but sin.” And as Rebi Akiva told Zonen, it is not doctors or medicines that cure, but God, as it said in Parashas Beshallach:
And He said, “If you listen to the voice of God, your God, and you do what is proper in His eyes, and you listen closely to His commandments and observe all His statutes, all the sicknesses that I have visited upon Egypt I will not visit upon you, for I, God, heal you. (Devarim 15:26)
THIS SHABBOS is the first of the four parshios we read prior to and after Purim, Parashas Shekalim. It recalls the giving of the half-shekel given by each Jew during Temple times to keep the Temple stocked with communal sacrifices. This is the time of year it was given, so we read it now. This is what was given in the desert to pre-empt Haman’s future attack on the Jewish people, so we read it in advance of Purim.
Everything we do in Torah is very symbolic of deeper ideas, especially with respect to Purim. Even if there are obvious reasons to do something, it does not mean there are also deeper, more mystical reasons as well, especially with respect to Purim.
The half-shekel is a good example of this. The Temple could easily had filled its coffers with sufficient funds for all the sacrifices by fundraising from the wealthier people, like most organizations do today. It was certainly a much bigger hassle to solicit and manage a half-shekel from the entire Jewish population. It wasn’t the money God was after. It was what the money led to that He “solicited.”
The answer to this was in last week’s parsha. As Rashi explained, the Jewish people reached the amazing and unprecedented level of “k’ish echad b’leiv echad—like a single person with a single heart.” The humility that the war with Amalek led to in the Jewish people, combined with the awe of standing before God at Mt. Sinai melted away all the differences that separated one Jew from another. It didn’t make a difference what a person looked like, how popular they were, how much money they had, etc. “If you were a descendant of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov,” people felt at that time, “you are just me in another personage.” That’s unification.
That was the underlying message of the Chetzi-Shekel. Little unifies people better than a common investment. There are no competitors, just partners, and at only a half-shekel, it was a very profitable one at that. With their half-shekels they not only bought into something much bigger than the sum of the parts, they set up a defense system that protected their descendants when one of the worst enemies of Jewish history arose to eliminate the Jews of Persia, pretty much the entire Jewish people at that time.
There is another important point as well. Everyone knows that a person feels differently about something into which they have put their own money versus something they get as a gift. Money that we earn represents our effort and energy, and is therefore a part of us. When we give it up, it is like giving up part of ourself, which we don’t mind doing if we get something back in return that makes it worthwhile.
Not too much is more worthwhile than owning a part of the communal atonement sacrifice, and being a fully paid member of the Jewish people. And though there are tremendous benefits for this already in this world, they multiply tremendous when cashed in in the World-to-Come. It is a very small yearly price to pay to reach the level of “k’ish echad b’leiv echad.”
IT IS in this week’s parsha that we find the famous words, “Na’aseh v’nishma—we will do and we will understand.” The Talmud calls it the “language of angels,” because most people will not obligate themselves even to small things without first knowing what’s involved, so how much more so an entire way of life!
How did the Jewish people get to such a level to be able to give such an angelic response to God’s offer of Torah, and in national unison too? They literally answered “like a single person with a single heart,” something that hadn’t happened previously, and has yet to happen since.
The answer is actually embedded in the words themselves, “na’aseh” and “nishma.” Each word can be divided into two parts, the first letter Nun, and the rest of the word that follows. Na’aseh therefore becomes “Nun-Aseh” and Nishma becomes “Nun-Shama,” which tells the whole story, including why Haman built, and then was hanged, from a gallows that was Nun—50 amos high.
We’re talking about the Nun Sha’arei Binah, or the “Fifty Gates of Understanding.” The Talmud says that the world was made with Nun Sha’arei Binah, that Moshe Rabbeinu received 49 of them, and then says no more. It’s Kabbalah, so Kabbalah is left to explain it, as only Kabbalah can do.
The long and short of it is that the Nun Sha’arei Binah are spiritual portals, if you will, for the infinite light of God that allow for the creation and maintenance of everything below them according to the exact will of God. If something exists down here, physical or spiritual, it is the product of Divine light that passed through the Nun Sha’arei Binah.
Most importantly of all, the Nun Sha’arei Binah are the basis of Torah, the wisdom that allows us to use life and Creation as God intended. If you plan to live eternally and go to the World-to-Come, you will have to, so-to-speak, pass through the Nun Sha’arei Binah along your way, and that is not an automatic reality.
In essence, this is what the Jewish people were committing themselves to with the words “na’aseh v’nishma.” They were saying, “Nun-aseh—we will do 50,” and “Nun-shema—we will understand 50,” by learning and living Torah. It’s what Torah is all about. It’s what the Jewish people are supposed to be all about.
But not if Haman could help it. So he built his gallows 50 amos high, to try and counteract this. It was like applying negative 50 to positive 50 to cancel it out. Thank God, He had other plans and used the Nun Sha’arei Binah instead to cancel Haman out, whose name actually can be read, “heim Nun—they are 50,” thanks to the Chetzi-Shekel.
THE JEWISH people received Torah on the 50th day of freedom. It is no coincidence that it brought them to the level of k’ish echad b’leiv echad, because it takes the wisdom from the light of the Nun Sha’arei Binah to reach such a sublime level of selflessness.
This is what means when it says:
If you meet someone disgusting along the way, bring “him” to the Bais Midrash. (Succah 52b)
The “him” to which this refers is a person’s yetzer Hara, called “disgusting” because it has no concern for spiritual growth. It lives for physical pleasure and has no problem sacrificing long-term spiritual gain for short-term physical satisfaction. Sometimes it wins, sometimes the person does, but most of the time it forces them to compromise. Sometimes that is better than nothing, other times it is worse.
Meeting “along the way” is a metaphor for life itself. The Talmud is advising that every time your yetzer hara starts to tug at your heart and impose its desires on your plan for life, take a good dose of Torah, that is, of the Nun Sha’arei Binah. The experience, the clarity, and the atmosphere of a place of Torah study will neutralize your yetzer hara…just as the wine on Purim is supposed to do (as I discuss in my Purim books and current webinar).
This is why we can rely on our Chachamim to tell us what to do, even when what they say seems to go against the current conventional wisdom. What they may lack in secular knowledge they more than make up for with their access to the Nun Sha’arei Binah, and control over their own personal yetzer haras. At the end of the time, that is the only real knowledge that counts and can be relied upon.
This is why the Talmud says that a chacham is better than a prophet, which is better than any secular expert around. At least a prophet can know the future before it becomes the present and too late to change. But that is only when God tells it to him, whereas a talmid chacham can access it at will through his learning.
It’s not that a chacham actually can see the future. But, through their learning and heavenly help, they can anticipate how best to prepare for it. It’s the reward for having labored in Torah for so many years.