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The weekly haftorah demonstrates the soul's longing for divine aid

Empty Vessels

Empty Vessels

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Empty Vessels
The weekly haftorah demonstrates the soul's longing for divine aid

This week's haftorah (Kings II 4:1) tells the story of a woman whose husband, a student of the prophet Elisha, had passed away leaving her without money. She went to Elisha and cried: "Your servant, my husband died, and the creditor has come to take my two children for himself as slaves." Elisha asked her what she had left in her house and she replied that she had nothing more than a jar of oil. Elisha then told her to gather many empty vessels and then pour from the jar into them. Miraculously the one jar was able to fill all the vessels. Elisha told her to sell the oil "and pay the creditor, and you and yours sons will live on the remainder." The following is the kabbalistic interpretation of the story.

And one woman, of the wives of the prophets' "children" [i.e. disciples] cried to Elisha: your servant, my husband, died…and the creditor has come to take my two children for himself as slaves… (Kings II 4:1)

"And one woman": "Woman" refers to the soul, referred to by King Solomon as "the G‑d fearing woman." (Proverbs 31:30) It is called "one woman", since the soul is one with G‑d.

"…of the wives of the children of the prophets": The Hebrew word for prophet, "navi", is related to the expression "neev", which means "speech" (as in the phrase "neev s'fasayim", "speech of the lips" from Isaiah 57:19), referring to the speech of G‑d, which the prophets perceive and grasp. So prophets, in this context, refers to the soul, which also perceives and grasps Divinity.

"…cried to Elisha": "Elisha" refers to G‑d (Ei-li Sha, lit. G‑d turned to pay atention). The soul cries out to G‑d that… The soul cries to G‑d that this love has died…

"…my husband has died": "My husband" - in Hebrew, "ishi" can be read as "aish" - the Hebrew word for "fire", and the letter yud: i.e. "the fire of yud"; this refers to the burning love of the soul that inspires its desire to be subsumed in the yud, the supernal chochma. The soul cries to G‑d that this love has died.

"…and the creditor": The Hebrew word for creditor, "nosheh", is related to the word for "forget". Joseph called his eldest son Menashe, because "G‑d has made me forget…[my father's house.]" (Gen. 41:51) "The creditor" thus refers to the animal soul, which has caused the soul to forget its root, its source in divinity.

"…my two children": "Children" refers to love and awe of G‑d. The emotions are called offspring, since they are produced by the intellect. Love and awe are the primary emotions, the others being its offshoots. (Tanya 1:3)

So "the creditor" has come, cries the soul to G‑d, to take my "two children" as slaves, to employ them toward destructive loves and debilitating fears. Not only does the animal soul cause me to forget Divinity and to squelch my love and awe of G‑d, it wishes to take these very attributes and enslave them to its ends.

"And Elisha said to her…": G‑d says to the soul…

"What have you in your house?": What part of you has not been commandeered by the animal soul? What is left "inside your house", i.e. in your deepest depths?

"And she said, 'Your maidservant has nothing but a jar of oil'": The soul responds that it still retains its essence, its untouchable core.

[Oil is associated with chochma. (see Zohar 3:34a, 38b, and Nitzutzei Orot ad loc.; Tanya 1:53) Regarding olive oil, the Gemara cites the verse (II Samuel 14:2): Yoav sent to Tekoa and brought a wise a woman from there…. The Talmud then inquires as to the distinction of Tekoa and explains that because the people of Tekoa use a lot of olive oil (regilin bishemen zayit), wisdom is found among them. Thus also Rashi ad loc.: "Olive oil opens the heart."(Menachos 85b)

The jar of oil thus refers to the chochma of the soul, over which the animal soul can have no control. See Tanya: This aspect of the soul causes the Jew to remain loyal to his faith in the face of death. This loyalty cannot be explained rationally (since it is exhibited by those who otherwise ignore their faith) and is therefore attribute to the intuitive nature of chochma, which is the soul's knowledge of G‑d that cannot be rationally defined. (1:19)] Torah and mitzvahs…are vessels to contain the light of G‑d…

"And he said to her, 'Go borrow for yourself vessels from the outside…empty vessels - do not be sparing…": G‑d tells the soul to engage in Torah and mitzvahs, which are vessels to contain the light of G‑d.

Finite man does not by nature possess the tools with which to interact with the Infinite. The most sublime, spiritual, transcendent, human experience is just that - a human experience. It is only through fulfillment of the divine mitzvahs that man creates a connection with the Infinite. (See also Likutei Torah, Re'eh, 32d)

And even if those vessels are empty, even if your fulfillment of Torah lacks a spirit of love and awe, even if it is like a body without a soul, nevertheless, do not be sparing.

"Pour oil upon all these vessels…": Draw into your "empty vessels" - uninspired acts - the revelation of the essence of your essence. Then…

"You and your children will live with the remainder…": The soul and its attributes of love and awe will eventually be enlivened.

Providing empty vessels has another interpretation as well: Recognize and let it sink in that you are an empty vessel, devoid of true wisdom, lacking love and awe of the Ultimate Reality. Mourn your distance from divinity and this will allow the light of the soul to shine. This advice is given in the Zohar, which cites the master of the academy of Gan Eden:

"A wooden block that the fire does not ignite, is crushed…a body that the fire of the soul does not ignite is crushed and then it is ignited..." (Zohar III:168a. See Tanya 1:29)

In fact, the light of the soul that is introduced through this meditation surpasses the natural light of the soul. This is as in the verse, "like the increase of light from darkness." (Ecclesiastes 2:13) The simple meaning of the verse is "I have seen the advantage of wisdom over folly like the advantage of light over darkness."

The Last Gate

Now we can understand the connection between this section of the haftorah and the parasha. (The second half of the haftorah speaks about Elisha's promise to a woman that she would have a child, which parallels the story of the promise of the birth of Isaac in this parasha. What, however, is the connection between the parasha and this part of the haftorah?)

The beginning of the parasha speaks of G‑d's revelation to Abraham. Abraham had just been circumcised and G‑d came to him to fulfill the mitzvah of visiting the sick. Our soul contains…all of the 49 gates that were attained by Abraham through his own efforts as well as the fiftieth gate, which he was given as a gift by G‑d…

[Editor's note: Fifty gates: The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 21b) speaks of fifty "gates" of bina ("understanding"). These fifty gates are seen to comprise the seven emotions inter-included of each other (7x7=49) plus one additional, transcendent level. This division into 49+1 is reflected in the fifty-year agricultural cycle, which is composed of seven 7-year sabbatical cycles (7x7=49) followed by a fiftieth super-sabbatical, the jubilee year. See Rabbi Moshe Wisnefsky's commentary on Arizal.]

The Ari (Taamei Hamitzvot, beginning of Vayeira) writes that the word "choleh", meaning a sick person, has the numeric equivalent of 49. This means that before Abraham was visited by G‑d, he was on the level of the 49th gate of understanding. This is the level to which a human being can reach through his own efforts. The fiftieth level cannot be attained by man through his own deeds. Rather, after he has done all that is in his power, he is granted the revelation of the fiftieth gate by G‑d as a gift.

Similarly, during the 49 days of the Omer, between Passover and Shavuot, we count each day, ascending the 49 gates of understanding. The fiftieth day is Shavout, but we do not count it. It is beyond us; thus we receive it from G‑d as a gift.

The significance of G‑d visiting Abraham is that G‑d grants Abraham the fiftieth gate. Until then Abraham had been limited to the realm of creation, 49. He had reached the pinnacle of achievement for a human being. Yet he was not complete. He had reached the ceiling of human completion. G‑d cured Abraham from being sick - choleh, 49 - and granted him the power of the fiftieth gate. He then entered the realm of the Creator.

As heirs of Abraham, our soul contains within it, in potential form, all of the 49 gates that were attained by Abraham through his own efforts as well as the fiftieth gate, which he was given by G‑d.

This, however, speaks only of the soul. The body introduces a quite different reality. The body and animal soul conceal the natural resources of the soul. This conflict is addressed in the haftorah. The soul is reassured that, though its fire seems to have been doused, it is still one with G‑d. Indeed that is why it cries out to G‑d; it is disturbed by the concealment. It is not completely numb.

The outcome of this cry is that "you and your children will live with the remainder", i.e. the soul is awakened to such an extent that it performs beyond its natural capacity; there is a surplus of light that can be channeled for goodness.


Adapted from Maamarei Admur Hazaken Haktzarim, p.137, Sefer Hamaamarim Melukat 4:43. Likutei Sichos 5:334-5

Copyright 2003 by KabbalaOnline.org. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this work or portions thereof, in any form, unless with permission, in writing, from Kabbala Online.

Yosef Marcus is director of the Chabad center in S. Mateo, California, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. He is a translator and adaptor of Judaic texts and a contributor to several websites including: Chabad.org, Askmoses.com and Kabbalaonline.com. He can be reached via his website www.chabadnp.com
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