The Rebbe, Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch, called for his shamesh, Ben-Zion, and asked him: “Have you eaten today?”
“Yes,” he answered. “I have eaten.”
“Did you eat well?”
“Well? I am satisfied, thank G‑d.”
“And for what reason did you eat?”
“In order to live.”
“And for what reason do you live?”
“So that I can be a proper Jew and do what G‑d wants me to do.” And then he sighed.
“Please send me Ivan,” the Rebbe concluded.
When the wagon driver appeared, the Rebbe asked him: “Have you eaten today?”
“Yes,” he answered.
“Did you eat well?”
“And for what reason do you eat?”
“So I can live.”
“And for what reason do you live?”
“So I can have a swig of whiskey and fill my stomach.”
When Ivan had gone, the Rebbe turned to his children: “You see, then, that Ben-Zion eats in order to live, and lives in order to be a proper Jew and do what G‑d commands him to do. Not only that, but he lets out a sigh, too, because he feels that perhaps he is not yet serving G‑d as truthfully as he could. As for Ivan, he lives for the sake of his whiskey and his food. Not only that, but he smirks, too, because he’s picturing the pleasure he gets out of eating and drinking, and it is for the sake of that pleasure that he lives.”
The nineteenth letter of the alef-beis is the kuf.
The design of the kuf is similar to that of the hei. But while the hei represents holiness, the kuf represents kelipah, or unholiness. Both have three lines, two vertical and one horizontal. These three lines, depicting thought, speech and action in the hei, are also represented in the letter kuf, but its three lines represent unholy thoughts, profane speech and evil actions. These negative qualities are illustrated within the actual form of the kuf. Its long left leg plunges beneath the letter’s baseline. It represents one who ventures below the acceptable, an individual who violates the circumscribed boundaries of the Torah.
It is also significant that the head of the kuf is a reish (in contrast with the dalet that comprises the hei). We said previously that the difference between the dalet and the reish is the yud in the right-hand corner of the dalet, representing G‑dliness. Given this, the difference between the holiness of the hei and the unholiness of the kuf is even more pronounced.
The Zohar calls the kuf and the reish the letters of falsehood and impurity. We observe this by combining the kuf and the reish, forming the word kar, קר,which means “cold.” Coldness represents unholiness and death. It is antithetical to the state of warmth, life and passion. Who is alive? “Every one of you who has cleaved to G‑d your L-rd is alive today.” One who is connected to G‑d every moment of his life is perpetually warm and alive. On the other hand, coldness signifies an abyss—the severance of the connection between man and G‑d—and ultimate death.
Now reverse the kuf and the reish and it spells the word reik, רק. Reik means “empty.” As we read in the portion of Vayeishev: “The pit was empty (reik); there was no water.” Rashi explains that there were snakes and scorpions in the pit. Why would we assume that the pit contained snakes and scorpions if the Torah does not mention it explicitly?Rashi answers with a question: “Isn’t it obvious that if the pit is empty there’s no water there? The fact that the Torah says there was no water must come to teach us that there were snakes and scorpions.” We are told that Torah is synonymous with water. Without Torah, there is only poison and doom.
The gematria of kuf is one hundred. In this, too, we find the concept of death. The Talmud tells of a time when one hundred of King David’s soldiers would perish daily from an epidemic. David beseeched G‑d for help. G‑d’s reply was to institute the recital of one hundred blessings a day, which David enacted to counteract the one hundred deaths. The one hundred blessings are hinted at in the verse: “What (mah) does G‑d ask of you?” The word mah, “what,” can also be read as meah, which literally means “one hundred.” What does G‑d ask of you? Only to recite one hundred blessings daily. And how do we accumulate these one hundred blessings? One recites the Shemoneh Esreh (the Amidah) three times a day, which contains nineteen blessings each for a total of fifty-seven. In the morning prayers, there are an additional twenty-six blessings. Maariv, the evening service, contains four more. Saying the “Grace After Meals” also has four blessings, plus two when we wash our hands and make a blessing on bread. It is thus quite easy to reach one hundred blessings in a day. The kuf, one hundred, represents death. But if one recites these one hundred blessings daily, one can transform a negative decree into a celebration of life.
The name kuf in Hebrew means monkey. What is a monkey? A mimic, as in the well-known adage: “Monkey see, monkey do.” The letter kuf is also a mimic. It imitates the letter hei. It is the kuf’s extended left leg and the reish for its head that create the difference between life (hei) and death.
Recalling the story in the Zohar, each letter of the alef-beis approached G‑d when He created the world, saying, “G‑d, create the world with me.” When the shin appeared before G‑d, He said, “I cannot create the world with you, for you spell the word שקר, sheker (falsehood).” Even though the letter shin is holy, the fact that it is united here with the kuf and the reish taints its holiness. The world could thus not be created with the letter shin. But if the kuf and the reish by themselves signify falsehood and impurity, why did they need the shin? Because the shin is the letter of truth. And if falsehood does not attach itself in some way to truth, it cannot stand. Without it, a lie simply becomes ridiculous. Therefore the kuf and the reish must incorporate the shin, the letter of truth, to form a viable and convincing falsehood.
It is man’s responsibility to transform the word sheker, שקר, into the word keresh. Keresh, קרש, is composed of the same three letters, but it means a “board.” When the Jews were in the desert, they used kerashim (boards) to construct the Mishkan, or house of G‑d. The Torah tells us that these boards were fashioned from atzei shitim, acacia wood. The commentators ask, “How is it possible that this Jewish nation, in flight from Egypt, should find acacia wood in the middle of the desert?” The answer is that Jacob our Forefather saw through Divine inspiration that the Jews would need the acacia wood. He planted these trees when he went down to Egypt 210 years before. So why acacia wood? Why not oak, or pine?
The word shitim (acacia) in Hebrew means shtus, folly. It states in the Talmud that one does not sin unless a spirit of folly has entered him. In other words, a Jew by nature neither wants nor can sever his relationship with G‑d. It is only the spirit of folly that makes him do so. Such a person may say, “Who cares about a bunch of silly rules? What does G‑d care if I light Shabbos candles or not? What difference does it make if I keep kosher or put on tefillin? It has no bearing on my life.” Due to this irrational way of thinking, a person will come to sin.
The antithesis of irrational thinking which leads to sin is suprarational thinking which can lead to great and praiseworthy accomplishments. As the Talmud relates, there was once a Sage, Reb Shmuel bar Rav Yitzchak, who would juggle three myrtle branches before a bride to perform the mitzvah of bringing joy to a bride and groom. The other Sages made fun of him. “How can you do such a thing? You’re a holy Sage. You embarrass us.” When this great Sage died, a pillar of fire shot from his grave all the way to Heaven. His colleagues concluded that he merited this bolt of light due to his “folly in the realm of holiness.”
The same concept holds true with regard to the Mishkan. The folly of this world must be transformed into a folly that is suprarational. One must be willing to serve G‑d beyond his comfort zone and rationality.
This is reflected in the transposition of the letters of sheker, שקר, into the word keresh, קרש. By acting against the currents of the world’s standards and devoting oneself to purifying the material world, one transforms falsehood (sheker) into the upright beams of acacia wood (keresh) that form the Sanctuary. Through this, one brings G‑dliness down from the heavens and fashions a home for G‑d here on earth.
We can also relate this transformation to the holiday of Chanukah. It states in the Talmud that one is to light the Chanukah candles when it gets dark. Until what time may one light the candles? The Talmud says, “Until there are no longer ‘feet’ walking in the marketplace.” The concept of the foot, or leg, is relevant to the letter kuf. What do we find in the marketplace? A cavalcade of feet. Remember that the foot of the kuf extends beneath the baseline; it sinks below the level of Torah. Indeed, a marketplace is a place of chaos, an environment where G‑d is barely known. In a place of falsehood, the act of lighting candles can obliterate the darkness and instead fill the area with light and joy. By lighting the Chanukah candles at the prescribed time, we thus help elevate the feet that have fallen below the line to the level of holiness. We transform the negativity of debased thought, speech and action into behavior that will submit to and embrace His law.
Thus, on one hand, the kuf represents death and negative thought, speech and action. On the other hand, it invites transformation. Just as the design of the three-sided beis embodies a certain tension that is resolved in the four-sided mem, so does the foot of the kuf call out to be elevated from its station below the horizon. We all have the ability to transform the irrational to the superrational, thus directing our thought, our speech, and our action solely toward G‑d and holiness.