She sat on the white chair, beneath an arch of flowers, whispering words of prayer known only to her. She had waited so long for this moment, counting the days like precious pearls. The music slowed to the quiet but joyful traditional wedding melody, and the crowd of loving relatives and her closest friends stood aside in hushed silence as the groom approached her, walking slowly down the aisle, accompanied by his noble attendants. He bent towards her, and their eyes met in a long gaze of radiant love. Gently taking the veil in his hands, he lowered it over her face, and slowly took a step back to make his way towards the wedding canopy, where she would soon be joining him to fuse their lives’ fate in an eternal bond.

A Tough Nut to Crack

Have you ever succeeded in cracking a walnut and eating it in one piece?

If a walnut falls into the dirt, the nut inside is not taintedEven if you may have occasionally managed to use just enough pressure to extract the nut from its casing without damaging it, you were probably met by that aggravating sliver of wood in the middle of the nut. It defies all gentle attempts to remove it while leaving the nut in one piece and, upon removing it, you are invariably left with the nut split in two separate halves.

Yet, of all things, the walnut is mentioned explicitly in the “Song of Songs” as an allegory for the Jewish nation.1 The commentator Rashi explains that although the walnut looks just like an amorphous chunk of wood, once it is cracked open, we discover that is filled with many compartments of good food. This represents the fact that although at first glance the behavior of the Jewish people as a whole does not arouse any particular interest—and they don’t tend towards self-aggrandizement—when assessed rigorously, one discerns that they are full of wisdom and good deeds.2

Another explanation of this parable is that if a walnut falls into the dirt, the nut inside is not tainted. So, too, even when the nation of Israel is distressed by the many afflictions of the exile, their deeds remain clean and unaffected.3

The problem with the walnut allegory4 is that it appears to insinuate the threat of breakage, because in order to access the “nut”rition within, the tough outer shells on the outside of the nut must be destroyed through a process that is hazardous to the entire nut. It would be nice if there was a way to obtain the best of the Jewish people without smashing us into smithereens or even just splitting us into two separate factions.

So, is there a way in which we can have our nut and eat it, too, so to speak? As a woman, I wonder if what I have in my hand is indeed a nut—or perhaps it is a chicken egg in which a new life is being formed, like that which will emerge from a laboring woman. “Shall I bring about labor and not give birth, says G‑d?”5 Or perhaps rather than that young mother, sitting listlessly on the sofa like a couch potato, the Jewish people are better compared to the cocoon of a silkworm.

From Silkworm to Butterfly

When you come across a cocoon, you would probably think that it was just an inanimate piece of debris, like those dry bones that Ezekiel saw in the valley.6 There seems to be nothing autonomous about the cocoon at all, and it seems quite unlikely that anything good will ever come of that useless lump of nothingness hanging lifelessly from the branch of a tree. But someone watching the actions of the tiny silkworm from which the cocoon eventually ensued would know that for some time before it exiled itself in its ghoulish shroud, it had two major interests which occupied its entire being: self-provision and self-protection. It ate every green leaf in its path and soon metamorphosed from an inconspicuous larva that needed encouragement—“Do not fear, O worm of Jacob7—to a gigantic caterpillar. It took care to conceal itself from its enemies by mingling amongst the leaves of the plants that it consumed with such gusto. But then it became tired from so much food, “and Yeshurun became fat.”8 Until finally, too obese to move, it took its silken suicidal cords out of its knapsack and tied them around itself in ever-complicated loops, never to be recognized again as a living creature.

Indeed, with no violent intervention from outside, a quiet revolution is taking place inside the cocoonActually, at a superficial glance, the cocoon is not so different from a walnut. Perhaps we should just crack it open and remove the butterfly. But having discussed the fragility of the walnut above, we obviously realize that we cannot expect to extract a butterfly unscathed from a harsh blow on its outer shells.

Indeed, with no violent intervention from outside, a quiet revolution is taking place inside the cocoon. Although it may appear to be lethally paralyzed, after a while, one can once again identify a delicate flicker of life. From within begins the process of gnawing away at the cords that bind him, until gradually the life-force succeeds in breaking loose of even the outermost shell. Then the butterfly creeps out onto a sun-bathed leaf and spreads its wings towards the shimmering light. For a breathtaking moment, it stands motionless until it finds the strength to spread its wings in flight and rise skywards to its ultimate heavenly goal.9

Like the walnut, the butterfly has two identical halves, yet instead of a separating divisor between them, the two wings of the butterfly are those that together allow him to elevate himself above the confinements of his self-imposed prison and reveal himself in all his glory. “Your eyes will envision the king in his beauty, and they will see distant lands.”10

So which parable is the right one for the Jewish people: the walnut or the butterfly?

What Happened at Sinai?

Every single phenomenon on earth can be perceived as a metaphor for some kind of Divine service. And if there is more than one metaphor for a particular idea or fact, then each metaphor must emphasize a different aspect or perspective of the same phenomenon.

There are two principal names of G‑d that reflect two angles of Divine providence. The first is G‑d’s intrinsic, four-lettered name, which is the higher G‑dly perspective. It is responsible for all that we see as supernatural, and is associated with learning the inner teachings of Kabbalah and Chassidut. The second is Elokim, the name that is reflected in all natural phenomena and the natural, human consciousness of the revealed level of the Torah.

Applying this concept to our walnut and butterfly parables, we can begin to understand that from G‑d’s perspective, the Jewish people is like a walnut that holds only good things in store, and is never sullied by the forces of evil that surround it. Yet from the point of view of the Jewish people, we feel the ropes of the exile being pulled tighter and tighter around us, unaware of the subtle changes that are occurring within ourselves that will eventually lead to us breaking out of the shells of our physical confinement.

When the Jewish people stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, from G‑d’s perspective they looked like a ripe walnut, ready for eating. He took the mountain and held it above them,11 ready to crack them at once and partake of their nourishing nucleus. Yet, when the Jewish people proclaimed wholeheartedly, “We will do and we will listen,”12 the angels on high with fiery butterfly wings were stunned. “Who told them our secret?” they cried out.13 Indeed, when G‑d spoke, His words hit the people like a hammer hitting a rock,14 and their ethereal souls fluttered out of their bodies like so many spiritual butterflies. It was only by a miracle that G‑d, in His infinite patience, returned their souls to their bodies, to mature and develop by studying the words of His Torah until the final redemption, when G‑d’s perspective from above will merge with ours from below in a magnificent moment when there is neither nutshell nor cocoon to divide us.

But in order to illustrate how these two parables can actually meet, we need another parable.

Bride and Groom

We can see that a premature attempt at unifying the two parables is liable to bring about catastrophic resultsWhen G‑d created the first couple, we are taught that He first created them attached to one another in a paradoxical back-to-back union of male and female. Then He sawed them apart into two distinct people, and they became man and woman.15 We are taught that the original union at the back was essential in order that they should eventually recognize each other when they met face-to-face, and realize that they are indeed meant for each other from time immemorial.

We stood at Mount Sinai as a bride stands by her groom beneath the wedding canopy. G‑d (the Divine groom) presented us with the wedding gift of His Torah, and there He sanctified us to become His nation. At that moment, the Jewish nation (the bride) was still apprehensive. Never having climbed to such spiritual heights before, she was afraid of falling from the 50th rung of the ladder of purity that she began climbing on the eve after the exodus from Egypt, with the counting of the Omer. It was this apprehension that caused the Jewish people to believe that Moses had died up there on the mountain, and they fell, just as Adam and Eve fell in the primordial sin. The two tablets of stone in Moses’ hands, which had previously been as light as butterfly wings, fell to the ground and shattered into so many pieces of broken nutshell. Thus, we can see that a premature attempt at unifying the two parables is liable to bring about catastrophic results.

On the one hand, using just enough impact to break through a walnut shell, leaving the nut intact, is a supernatural feat. On the other hand, it is only natural for a butterfly to break out of its bonds and leave its cocoon.

In this way, perhaps the walnut is an analogy that is equivalent to the expression, “a stiff-necked people,”16 which Rashi interprets to mean, “they turn the back of their necks to their rebukers and refuse to listen.”17 G‑d used this phrase to describe the Jewish people to Moses as they stood worshipping the Golden Calf even as Moses received the two tablets of the Torah. But Moses pleaded with G‑d not to annihilate the Jewish people, and G‑d listened to his plea, as He wishes that we turn around to face Him and listen to His rebuke.

The way that we can facilitate the change necessary for the bride and groom to unite is by turning our natural “butterfly” consciousness inside-out, making a 360-degree turn and meeting G‑d’s supernatural aspect face to face, thus invoking Him to act on our behalf. If only we would look at things from G‑d’s perspective and merge it with our own, we could be witnesses to supernatural phenomena that can act as catalysts to release the beautiful butterfly that is struggling to get out of its cocoon.

She arose from her chair and, led by her own loyal attendants, walked graciously to stand beside the groom, who stood awaiting her beneath the wedding canopy. The blessings over the wine were made and, before the reading of the ketubah, their covenant of mutual loyalty, in a moment more precious than jewels, the bride turned to the groom and extended her forefinger. It was then that the groom tenderly placed the ring securely on her finger after declaring, “Behold, you are sanctified to me ... ”