The story is told that the Baal Shem Tov once told his students that everything that they see and hear should serve as a lesson in their service of G‑d. As they left the Baal Shem Tov’s study, they passed a frozen river and saw a gentile hewing a cross out of the ice. They could not understand: Right after receiving this lesson from the Baal Shem Tov, they were presented with an event which confounded them. What lesson could they possibly learn from that sight?

Seeking direction, they returned to the Baal Shem Tov, told him what they had seen, and asked him what they could learn from it. The Baal Shem Tov explained to them that the Torah was like water. When the Torah is studied with warmth and vitality, it serves as a source of life and growth. But when it is cold and frigid, that dimension is lacking and indeed, the very opposite can result.

Parshas Tzav

This week’s Torah reading contains the verse: “A continuous fire shall burn on the altar. It shall not be extinguished.” Every element of the Sanctuary and the Temple is not merely part of our people’s spiritual history, but is instead an ongoing dimension of our spiritual lives.

The altar refers to our hearts, the element of our being involved in the spiritual service of sacrifices (korbanos) which is interpreted as referring to our efforts to draw close (likareiv) to G‑d. Within our hearts, a flame must continually burn. There is no way that our service of G‑d should remain merely cold and cerebral. Instead, it should be ablaze with fire and energy. Our religious life should continuously vibrate with vitality and vigor.

The above concepts relate to one of the lessons of the recently celebrated Purim holiday. Haman came from the nation of Amalek, the arch-enemy of the Jewish people. And Amalek is described as the nation asher korchacha baderech, literally meaning “who encountered you on the way,” but figuratively interpreted as “who cooled you off on the way.” The Jews were proceeding from the Exodus from Egypt to the Giving of the Torah with heightened spiritual consciousness and then Amalek stood in the way to cool them down.

Similarly, while the decree of Amalek’s descendant, Haman, was directed at annihilating the Jewish people in a physical way, there was also a spiritual element to it. Had a Jew been willing to reject his Judaism, Haman would have left him alone. If one could coldly forgo all connection to his Jewish heritage, Haman didn’t consider him an enemy.

How did Mordechai respond to threat of annihilation? He aroused the Jews and awakened their spiritual vitality. Our Sages relate that at that time, our people renewed the commitment they made at the Giving of the Torah. At Sinai, our people acted rashly, promising “We will do” before “We will listen.” And at the time of Purim, they reaffirmed that commitment, showing a dedication to their heritage unfettered by the limits of logic.

Looking to the Horizon

That same type of rash commitment is required in the present day. At the time of the Purim miracles, the Jews were threatened by annihilation and they rose to the occasion, demonstrating a commitment that stemmed from the essence of their souls.

Today, most of us can’t picture such a situation. We live in comforts greater than those afforded to the wealthiest of previous generations. We have religious freedom and personal liberty the likes of which were never experienced in history.

And yet, we are in exile; G‑dliness is not revealed. On the contrary, the material dimension of our existence pervades our consciousness to the point that we can hardly conceive of anything else.

That alone should shake us to the very core of our beings. It should motivate us to want to do something, to change ourselves and our environment, to make ourselves and the world better. The realization that we possess a G‑dly spark within our souls that does not have complete expression and that the world possesses a spiritual dimension that lies hidden, naturally shakes us out of inertia. We are not “up against the wall” as the Jews were in Haman’s time, but we are “up against a wall” of spiritual frigidity. We are cold and insensitive to the deeper spiritual reality that pervades our existence. This insensitivity prevents us from realizing our potential and becoming who we really are. Nevertheless, when we confront this lack of responsiveness, our inner potential is aroused and inspired to do whatever is necessary to bring about the revelation of G‑dliness in ourselves and in the world at large.