A curious 18-month-old was once playing with a nickel, and started to choke on it. His 4-year-old brother observed how their frantic mother administered the Heimlich maneuver in a desperate attempt to pump the nickel out. Their father hurried to dial for an ambulance, but to everyone’s great relief, the nickel miraculously came out. The next morning, the 4-year-old approached his mother with his blue eyes misting and a serious expression on his face. He said, “Don’t worry, Mommy, I don’t mind giving up candy or any other treats. I promise not to ask for money ever again.”

His mother was perplexed, and wondered what prompted him to make such a strange statement. He explained, “I saw how worried you were about getting back that nickel—that you pressed on the baby’s stomach, and Daddy immediately called for an ambulance. So don’t worry, I won’t ask you for money!”Each saw reality from a different perspective

Both the child and his mother observed the identical scene, but each saw reality from a different perspective. To the child, it all boiled down to a nickel. To the mother, it was about life itself. We, too, see a big world out there—how do we perceive it? Does it boil down to dollars and cents? Is it all a matter of materialism and physicality? Or are we cognizant of the G‑dly life force behind everything?

The opening words of the Torah are Bereishit bara Elokim, “In the beginning, G‑d created the world.” The Midrash1 explains that this can also be interpreted to mean that G‑d created the world in the merit of the mitzvot that are referred to as reishit, first. One such mitzvah is the mitzvah of “separating challah,” a commandment to reserve part of the bread dough for kohanim (click here for details on how this mitzvah is observed today). The portion of dough which is separated from the rest is described in the Torah as reishit arisoteichem, the first of your dough.2

What could possibly be so important about separating a piece of dough that the Midrash states that it is the purpose of creation?

In addition, Torah is well-known for its brevity. Many commandments are derived from just a single verse or even word. In contrast, five verses in the Torah portion of Shelach are devoted to the topic of separating challah.3 Why does this mitzvah warrant such great elaboration?

To add another puzzling dimension to this picture, there is another Midrash4 that notes that the mitzvah of separating challah in the Torah is followed by the prohibition of idol worship. The juxtaposition of these two laws teaches us that “one who fulfills the mitzvah of separating challah, it is as if he has nullified the worship of idols; while one who does not fulfill the mitzvah of separating challah, it is as if he sustains the worship of idols.”5 What association can there be between the simple act of separating challah and idol worship, which goes against the most basic tenets of Judaism?This act signifies her recognition that the dough is a gift from G‑d

There are many preliminary steps that go into the process that results in separating that elastic piece of dough in the comfort of our kitchens. One must plow the soil, plant the grains, water them meticulously, cut the crops, sift the kernels . . . and the list goes on and on. After investing intensive time and effort, the farmer may come to the erroneous conclusion that it was his great exertion, with the help of “Mother Nature,” that led to his success.

On a broader scale, bread, also known as the “staff of life,” is a metaphor for all of physicality and materialism. In many cultures, the term “dough” is slang for money (as in “got dough?”). This is because money enables us to buy our “dough”—our sustenance, as well as all our material needs. It is also why one who earns an income for the home is called the “breadwinner.” Just as the farmer can mistakenly conclude that it was his talent and effort that resulted in his dough, it is all too easy for a person to attribute his “dough” (his material success) to his brilliance, beauty, creativity or charisma.

This is where the mitzvah of separating challah comes in. The ingredients have skillfully been mixed together, and pliable dough has been formed. Amid the delicious aroma that has begun to envelop the kitchen, the woman of the home pauses for an introspective moment. She separates a portion of the dough and says the blessing. She then lifts it up and says, “This is challah.” This conscious act signifies her recognition that the dough, and by extension, all of our material success, is not simply a result of human effort, but is a gift from G‑d.

How does this mitzvah, and the concept it represents, negate—or, G‑d forbid, sustain—the worship of idols? Idol worship can take many forms. The crudest form of idol worship of bygone eras was prostrating in front of figurines of wood and stone. Today, with equally passionate enthusiasm, we worship the idols of wealth, power, beauty and success. There are other, more subtle forms of idol worship as well. There is, for example, the mistaken notion that after G‑d created the sun, moon, and all of nature, He invested in them individual power, when in truth, nothing in this world has individual power; it is all controlled by G‑d.6 To take this a step further, if someone believes that anything in this world even exists independently of G‑d, that too, on some level, is idol worship. This is the opposite of what we, as human beings, perceive. The world seems to cry out “I exist,” when in reality, the real and only true existence is G‑dliness, something that we cannot see but have to deeply contemplate.

It’s interesting to note the choice of wording that the Midrash uses. It says: “One who fulfills the mitzvah of separating challah, it is as if he nullifies the worship of idols; while one who does not fulfill the mitzvah of separating challah, it is as if he sustains the worship of idols.” This implies that there is an idol that is currently in existence whose validation or nullification is tied to the mitzvah of challah. The idol we are referring to is the entire universe. It acts as one big “idol” by presenting a façade that it exists independent of G‑d. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains7 that, in truth, G‑d is constantly recreating the world every second; and if He were to stop, the entire universe would instantly cease to exist. So despite the facade that the world presents, it all amounts to “nothing” without the G‑dly life-force that is energizing it.

So separating a portion of the dough shatters that idol of independent existence. This, albeit small, act reflects our great awareness that despite its veneer, the entire world is G‑d incognito.8It reflects a desire to connect with the One above

Interestingly, this idea is also reflected in the actual word “challah.” It begins with the Hebrew letter chet, which is closed on the top as well as on both of its sides. There remains only an opening from below. This is symbolic of one who is tempted by the negative impulses from “below”—the base, animalistic desires, and the temptations of the material world. “Challah” concludes with the Hebrew letter hei, which is very similar in shape to the chet. It, too, is also almost entirely closed on all three sides, with an opening at the bottom. But, in contrast to the letter chet, the inner leg of the hei has a small opening at the top. Despite the gaping hole at the bottom, which is one’s natural inclination to be drawn after materialism, the additional opening at the top reflects an awareness of, and desire to connect with, the One above.9

According to Kabbalah,10 the word “challah” can be divided into two words, chol hei, meaning “place the hei.” The world that we inhabit appears to be like the initial letter chet; it is a world where we are inclined towards the corporeal, and G‑dliness seems to be out of the picture. The purpose of our existence is to “place the hei” in the picture of life: to tap into the miniscule opening at the top, and become cognizant of the divinity in all of creation.

One time, the son of the famed Maggid of Mezeritch came to his father in tears. He explained that he had been playing “hide and seek” with his friends, and it had been his turn to hide. “So what happened?” his father gently asked him. “No one found me,” he responded. Said his father, “That’s wonderful—that means you won the game.” “No,” he responded sadly, “my friends simply stopped looking for me.” At this point, the Maggid, too, started to cry, as he raised his eyes heavenward and said: “G‑d feels the same way. He concealed Himself in the universe and wants us to seek Him out. He, too, cries when we stop searching for Him.”

Challah is our steadfast commitment not to give up in the middle of the game.