From every incident in a person's life, one can acquire profound insight into the service of the Creator. So says the holy Baal Shem Tov. Fortified by this idea, I began my descent in the morgue elevator of the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at McGill University.

As the director of a neuroscience course, I was responsible for the annual inventory of brain prosections used in the student laboratory. These were stored in containers at the back of "the cold room", a sort of walk-in refrigerator, which also happened to house some forty cadavers awaiting the scalpels of the first year medical students.

I am uncomfortable with these yearly expeditions. The departmental morgue is no place for a nice Chassidisher Yid (Chassidic Jew). In fact, in my opinion, it is no place for anyone. Why then, did providence arrange things so that I had to go there? What sage wisdom in the service of my Creator was I supposed to attain in that dismal place?

I completed the inventory with customary dispatch and happily left the cold room to its silent occupants. While ascending in the elevator, I began to wonder if there might not be exceptions to the Baal Shem Tov's maxim. Later that day, however, the meaning behind the trip to the morgue dawned on me in the form of a question: What is the difference between the denizens of the morgue, and the students, colleagues, technicians, and secretaries scurrying about on the floors above?

Lest the reader dismiss this thought as the morbid musing of a crackpot, I must emphasize that it is firmly rooted in Chassidic teaching. Indeed, it represents one of the most perplexing paradoxes in Chassidic literature, namely that anything destined to die and deteriorate is dead and deteriorated, while it is yet alive. I had wrestled with this conundrum in the past without success and I had long since shelved it away in a remote region of my brain reserved for intractable enigmas. The morgue experience, however, recast the question in visual imagery that demanded reconsideration. How was it possible to relate, much less equate those young, happy, healthy, rambunctious students with the inhabitants of the cold room?

Life as an Add-On

It is, of course, clear from the Torah perspective, that life and death define states considerably more complex and subtle than the simplistic physical notions held by the secular world. A creature does not necessarily have to be biologically defunct in order to be properly identified by Torah as "dead". Conversely, departed souls of the so-called dead, experience life far more intensely than do their earthly "living" counterparts.

What then, is life? Inasmuch as G‑d is not only the ultimate, but the sole reality, life, quite simply, is G‑dliness or Divinity. The degree to which an entity partakes of, and is identified with G‑dliness determines the extent to which it is alive. The divine soul, for example, is intrinsically and eternally alive because its very being is an uninterrupted extension of pure G‑dliness. The body, on the other hand, is dissociated from the Divine source of its own existence and its life is thus bestowed from without, as it were. Bodies, unlike souls, are not innately G‑dly and are not, therefore, inherently alive.

The life of the body is a little like the weight of an object. Although we regard weight as an innate characteristic, it is really an alien property imposed externally by the gravitational force of the earth. Indeed, in space, an object has no weight. Since the body, per se, is not transparent to G‑dliness, its life is only borrowed. It is an external feature bestowed provisionally in order to afford the body limited existence in this world. The fact that bodies are animated indirectly by transcendent levels of G‑dliness precludes their awareness of the Divine source of their own being, which results in a powerful impression of independence.

This state of affairs pertains to the entire realm of kelipot ("shells"), which comprise most things and creatures in this material world. The process that gives rise to, and sustains the world of kelipah (also referred to as the sitra achra, "other side") differs fundamentally from the manner in which Divinity channels life to creations in the domain of holiness, such as souls or sacrosanct angelic beings. G‑d extends life to the side of holiness by means of ten divine attributes or sefirot, whereas kelipot are animated through the agency of eleven sefirot referred to in the language of Kabbalah as the "eleven crowns of impurity".

The reason the realm of Kelipah requires an "extra" sefirah becomes clear once we understand the necessity for sefirot altogether. We can best appreciate the significance of sefirot by drawing an analogy to the soul.

The soul, as an emanation of G‑dliness, is a simple (uncompounded) unified essence, which is, nonetheless, capable of expressing itself in a variety of specific ways. The attributes (sefirot) of the soul, such as wisdom, understanding, kindness, etc., are the particular abilities through which the soul-essence achieves this diversity of self-expression. Similarly, G‑dliness transcends particularization, definition or limitation, whereas the creations that it animates are finite and multifarious. It is through the agency of sefirot that the infinite, unitary, supernal source of all life (G‑dliness) can be expressed in distinct modes in order to sustain and vitalize a multiplicity of finite beings.

In the realm of holiness, G‑dliness fuses with the sefirot and thereby acquires definitive characteristics such as kindness, or justice. A well-known analogy for this process is light passing through a colored glass. Although the light remains light, it has acquired the restrictive property of "color". Similarly Divine Will shining though each the ten sefirot represents a direct and continuous extension of G‑dliness (life) that has acquired the limiting features necessary to engender a variety of finite creations.

In contrast, G‑dliness (life) is detached from the "other side", and thus relates to the sefirot of sitra achra at a distance, so to speak. Its influence encompasses them but is not invested within them. The Divine light that indirectly vitalizes the sitra achra is thus accounted as an eleventh "separate" sefirah.

Since G‑dliness is the very soul or life force of sefirot, the sefirot of the sitra achra, in a sense, have no soul, and they can, therefore, be considered "dead". It follows that the kelipot that derive from these sefirot are also "dead", even while they cavort about in this world.

A Practical Application

Because life is a peripheral rather than an integral feature of the body, it is hardly surprising that the body, as well as all other manifestations of kelipah, must eventually die in actual fact. A practical consequence of this is that bodily pleasures and worldly terrors are transient and insubstantial and we must not be seduced by the former or immobilized by fear of the latter.

A powerful recent object lesson is the sudden, inexplicable demise of the Soviet Union. Anyone who watched the West quiver in fear when Khrushchev banged his shoe on the table at the U.N., or who cowered beneath his grade-school desk during an air raid drill, knows the monster that was the Soviet Union. The USSR was fully capable of destroying the entire world on a whim. Then, one day, for no apparent reason, it utterly vanished. It did not gradually deteriorate, it did not collapse under the weight of its own success, and it was not a casualty of strategic or political miscalculation. At the height of its influence, it just disintegrated.

Although the world was stunned by the totally unexpected dissolution of the USSR, students of Chassidut should not have been surprised. The USSR was, after all, a kelipah, immense, obstreperous, and intimidating, but a kelipah nonetheless, and kelipot, as we know, have no life. Thus, once the USSR had fulfilled whatever role the Almighty had in mind for it, in accordance with its true nature, it simply ceased to exist.

This is all good and well, but it only partially addresses our original paradox, which is that anything destined to die and deteriorate is dead and deteriorated (nifsad in Hebrew), while it is yet alive. We can now understand that since kelipot are not essentially and intrinsically alive, the designation "dead" accurately describes their status even while they exist in this world. But what do we do with the term "deteriorated"? Although an entity can be considered dead even before it palpably expires, how can something be deteriorated before it deteriorates? Deterioration, unlike death, refers to a purely physical condition.

Furthermore, despite the fact that kelipah is founded on a mirage, the misery that kelipot, such as the USSR, are able to inflict on humanity during their earthly tenure is disturbingly authentic.

So, although the morgue experience had inspired me to focus attention on this classic riddle anew, my insight was no keener than when I had first encountered it years before. After a week of abortive mental gymnastics I was ready to abandon the question once again, when, while setting my alarm clock one evening, the answer suddenly crystallized.

Being vs. Becoming

My alarm clock is of the electrical digital variety on which the time is set by pushing a button that drives the number display. When the desired time is reached, one simply releases the button. As I gazed absently at the hours speeding by, I was jolted by a phenomenal discovery. Time designations are fictitious. It is never three o'clock, nor is it ever four o'clock, midnight or noon. Because the movement of the number display never ceases, the time may approach twelve or depart from twelve but it never is twelve. Even if it were possible to determine the exact position on a clock that indicates noon, since the second hand never stops at that position, it is never noon.

To put it another way, we can ask the question: for how long is it noon? for one second? one hundredth of a second? one thousandth of second? Clearly it is noon for no measurable time, which is to say, it is never noon. The verb to "be", of which the word "is" is the third person singular present form, confers upon its subject the status of reality. This verb, therefore, can not apply to any entity governed by time. Since time-locked creations are in a state of incessant becoming, they never "are". An entity ceases "becoming" only when it escapes the inexorable course of time and achieves a final, immutable stable state. It can then be said to "be".

This then, explains why anything destined to die and deteriorate is dead and deteriorated while it is yet alive. The permanent, eternal, stable state of a kelipah is nonexistence. That is its reality, and its entire earthly duration is directed toward this condition. Once it totally deteriorates, all change ceases. It is no longer under the influence of time, which is to say that it is no longer becoming what it is ultimately supposed to be, but rather it now simply "is".

Intuitively, we appreciate this even without the foregoing explication. We know, for example, that the Almighty liberally stocks life with obstacles and trials with the express intention that we overcome them. The reality of obstacles, therefore, the end to which they are conceived, is negation. Evil exists only to be vanquished and darkness is created only to be dispelled.

Now that we understand why the physical integrity of kelipah is as illusory as is its life force, we can properly appreciate our own condition. Just as the reality of kelipah is death and disintegration, so is the reality of the Jewish people life, on both the spiritual and physical plane.

The Divine soul is a direct uninterrupted emanation of G‑dliness, and since G‑dliness is eternal, any concept of death is inapplicable to the soul. Moreover, the death of the body is merely a transient condition, just as life is a temporary phase for kelipah. The consummation of G‑d's purpose in creating the universe is z'man techiah, the time of resurrection of the dead. At this point physical change will cease as the Divine Will that drove existence toward perfection is realized. We will then be what we have been in the process of becoming these thousands of years, and what we were intended to be from the outset.

What About the World?

There is yet one remaining loose end. When that glorious day arrives, in what sort of world will we live? Our world, at present is described in the Tanya as a world "filled with kelipah and sitra achra", the ultimate stable state of which is nonexistence. What then, will remain of the physical universe, and more specifically, our home planet when G‑d's supreme purpose is realized?

Obviously, the universe, including our world, will continue to exist if for no other reason than that we (body and soul) will need a place to live. Moreover, inasmuch as the physical universe is the ultimate expression of G‑d's creative ability, simple common sense dictates that it is neither ephemeral nor illusory. Indeed, the Torah (Isaiah, 45:18) tells us as much: "Not for dissolution did He create it, but to be inhabited".

In fact, the eternal nature of the universe is even now apparent in the immutability of natural law and in the constant endless pattern of celestial movement. Throughout the natural order one detects the infinitude that is the signature of the Almighty. The limitlessness of G‑d's generative power is even discernible in living beings. Although individuals die, the species to which they belong are perpetuated without end.

It would appear then, that the world as a manifestation of G‑d's supernal Will is very much "alive" and will remain so. How do we reconcile this with the fact that the ingredients of worldly existence consist mostly of kelipah?

Understanding Kelipah

The problem is easily resolved once we refine our concept of kelipah.

The term kelipah literally means a "shell" or a "rind". To what extent does the shell represent the reality of a nut? Clearly, the shell is a minor, if necessary component. We do not buy walnuts because we are enamored of their shells. Yet although the significant feature of a nut is obviously the fruit, it is the shell that endows the nut with its characteristic appearance.

Similarly, kelipot do not constitute the reality of anything in this world. They are merely external garments that conceal the particular expressions of G‑d's creative will that bring worldly beings into existence. By masking the Divine light that is the true essence of created beings, kelipot simulate a schism between Creator and creation. Indeed, the effect of kelipah may be so powerful that not only is the unity of G‑d with creation obscured, but the very existence of Justice and a Judge may appear doubtful. When confronted with the apparent triumph of emphatic evil, it is not always easy to remember that kelipah is only a deceptive, lifeless husk.

Although the world is indeed filled with kelipot, since they constitute only the most superficial dimension of any given creation, they really do not add up to much at all. Moreover, it is only this superficial exterior that has no connection with life and for which nullity is its absolute terminal condition.

Indeed, the temporary (hence, unreal) death and deterioration experienced by the body serves to free it of its kelipah aspect, such that at techiat hamaitim (the resurrection of the dead), the body will be reestablished in its essential pure condition. In the case of the righteous, who have purified their bodies of the dross of kelipah through their divine service, the body does not undergo deterioration altogether. When, following the advent of Moshiach, the veneer of kelipah dissipates, G‑d's living creative will will be revealed as the underlying reality of all being.

It was in order to learn this lesson, that Providence sent me year after year to the morgue, until I finally caught on. How can I be so certain? Simple. A few months following this episode, the department built cabinets for the brain prosections adjacent to the student laboratory, and I have never had to return.