The Contradiction

The great mystic Rabbi Yehudah Loew, otherwise known as Maharal, once explained that matzah is a symbol of freedom because it is poor man’s bread, comprised of only flour and water. Ordinary bread, “rich” with additional ingredients, is enslaved to sugar and yeast for flavor and texture. Matzah stands on its own, glorified in its unencumbered freedom.1

The ascetic eschews material pleasures and luxury.

This lesson appears to endorse asceticism. The ascetic eschews material pleasures and luxury, because they corrode spiritual purity. They encumber us with concerns, responsibilities, and ultimately proclivities that pollute our minds and sully our wholesome attachment to G‑d.

But what of the promise G‑d made to Abraham and delivered through Moses, that our ancestors would be freed from Egypt with great wealth? If austerity is the symbol of freedom, why did G‑d muddy their crystal purity with the burden of prosperity?

A similar question presents itself in this week’s Torah reading, which exhorts us to strive for holiness, as G‑d is holy.2 Kedushah, translated as “holiness,” really means “dedication,” a single-minded focus on one goal to the exclusion of all else.3 Thus, an exhortation to be holy appears on the surface as a mandate to reject material absorption in favor of G‑dly pursuits.

Which is the truly Jewish way of life?

Yet, when the Torah elaborates on the dedication required, it speaks of honoring parents, being charitable and honest, and guarding against gossip and slander, hatred and revenge, idolatry and paganism. These values imply a material lifestyle, not an ascetic, puritanical one. The ascetic is detached from society, and has little opportunity to gossip, hate, or be dishonest in business.

So which does G‑d desire? Which is the truly Jewish way of life?

The Sparks

In a fascinating insight, the Baal Shem Tov explained that both are true Jewish values. Eschewing the material for the spiritual is precisely what G‑d desires, but He also wants us to embrace the world into which we were born, including its material pursuits.4

To resolve this contradiction, the Baal Shem Tov drew on the idea of divine sparks. Jewish mystics taught that every physical object is endowed with mystical sparks cast from the original divine flame. These sparks are deeply embedded in all our possessions: the shoes we wear, the food we eat, the homes in which we live and the items with which we do business.

The sparks remain trapped inside the physical, until a human comes along and uses the object in the service of G‑d. When we give money earned in business to charity, the mystical sparks in our place of business, in the items with which we conducted business and in the people with whom we did business are released from their imprisonment and return to their original abode. Every physical object is intended to serve G‑d in one way or another, and when it does, it has fulfilled its purpose.

The Mystical Secret of Ownership

But there is a double catch. First, any one object can carry multiple sparks. This means that a single object can be destined to be used in the service of G‑d multiple times. Each time it is so used, a single spark is released. The other sparks remain embedded within it until it is used again in G‑d’s service.

A single object can be destined to be used in the service of G‑d multiple times.

The second catch deals with the assignment of sparks. The sparks in a single object can be assigned to multiple individuals. The home in which I live has a number of sparks in it that were assigned to me, a number of sparks that were assigned to its previous occupant, and a number of sparks that were assigned to those who will live here after I move out.

Herein lies the Baal Shem Tov’s insight. The physical things I own were assigned to me before the world was created, but they came into my possession only when their previous owners successfully released the sparks that were assigned to them. Further, they will remain in my possession only until I release the sparks assigned to me. When I complete my assignment, I will be led by divine providence to sell them to the people who have been assigned the next set of sparks.5

The Paradox of Mine and G‑d’s

This allows us to understand why Judaism cannot endorse an ascetic lifestyle. We can no more eschew the comforts to which divine providence led us than we can reject the primordial mandate assigned to us. These sparks belong to us, and we belong to them. It is a marriage destined from above.

Judaism cannot endorse an ascetic lifestyle.

On the other hand, Maharal is correct. So long as we are encumbered by a plethora of possessions, holdings, desires and responsibilities, we can never be truly free.

The trick, then, lies in recalling that these possessions are not ours, but G‑d’s. They were assigned to us for some duration, so that we can fulfill our mandate through them. They came into our possession precisely when they were meant to arrive, and they will leave our possession precisely when the time is right. Our possessions are not ours to obsess over; they are ours to make whole for G‑d. They are not ours to own; they were given to us for the duration. They are not ours to fill us with pride, but to render us servants of the divine.

This attitude can lead to true freedom; it endows us with clarity, and allows us to remain unencumbered by our multitude of possessions. Our lives can be simple and adorned, comfortable and sparse, enjoyable and dedicated.

It is a paradox, but so is all of Judaism.