The following letter was addressed to the president and the members of the Nusach Ari Shul in Montreal.1

B”H, 15 MarCheshvan, 5711,
Brooklyn

Greetings and blessings,

I received with satisfaction notification from R. Moshe Chayim Sapochinski that the study session in Mishnayos which is held in your important shul is proceeding successfully, and that on the coming Sunday, with G‑d’s help, you will make a [celebratory] siyum for [the conclusion of] the Order of Moed.

I would like to send my blessing that [the study session] proceed with even more success than it has had until now and, like every living thing, it will continue to grow, both quantitatively and qualitatively, [meaning that] the numbers of participants will increase as will the vitality of the participants and the understanding and explanation [of the subject matter].

Our holy Torah — which was given by G‑d Who is infinite — is itself infinite and applies unvaryingly in all places and at all times. Its strength in our time, in this dark exile, in all places across the globe, is the same as it was when G‑d gave it to the Jews through Moshe our teacher at Mt. Sinai.

The Torah is also infinite in that every concept in the Torah has an infinite number of interpretations which are divided into four categories: pshat, the simple meaning, remez, the allusion, derush, its homilies, and sod, its mystic dimension.2

* * *

The mishnayos of the Order of Moed (tractate Chagigah) conclude with the law that the Golden Altar and the Copper Altar (do not contract ritual impurity) “‘because they are like the earth.’ These are the words of Rabbi Eliezer. The Sages say: ‘Because [the metals] are [merely] overlays.’”

The simple interpretation of the above is that the Golden Altar and the Copper Altar which were in the Temple did not contract ritual impurity. Rabbi Eliezer explains that the reason for this is that the Torah deems [these altars] analogous to earth,3 and earth cannot contract ritual impurity. Our Sages, by contrast, state that the reason is that the gold or copper coverings were merely an overlay. As such, they were subordinate to (and considered an extension of) the altars’ inner material, which was not susceptible to ritual impurity.4

The allusion and the ethical teaching derived from the above-mentioned Mishnah [provides us] with lessons relevant to our daily lives: In his own place, every person serves as a “sanctuaryin microcosm” in which the Divine Presence rests, as it is written:5 “I will dwell among them.”

There were several sacred articles in the Sanctuary and the Beis HaMikdash. Similarly, within our individual “sanctuaries” there are “sacred articles”: our intellect, our feelings, and the like. In these matters, there is the possibility that an external intent — an everyday rather than a holy thought — [may creep in]. There is even the possibility for thoughts that are not only everyday, but that are also impure, something that is associated with sin, Heaven forbid, i.e., doing the opposite of G‑d’s will and [acting] in conflict with the Torah and its mitzvos.

In other words, [sin makes] a person’s “sacred articles” — his intellect, his thoughts or other powers — impure. It thus becomes necessary to devise a means whereby that “sacred article” can again become pure and [be fit to be returned] to G‑d’s sanctuary. For G‑d’s sanctuary — every Jew: man or woman — must be pure.

(With regard to [both] material and spiritual matters), mankind is divided into the rich and the poor. For the rich, everything is gold,6 while the poor use coins of copper.7

Every Jew, without exception, regardless of the inner or outer dimensions of his personality, possesses a Jewish core, the pintele Yid, which alwaysremains intact. And this aspect of his being desires to fulfill G‑d’s will. As my revered father-in-law, the Rebbe, would say:8 “No Jew desires to — nor can he — sever his bond with G‑d.”

[This inner spiritual quality] can be considered an altar. [For what is] an altar? A place where one slaughters [one’s yetzer hara] and brings [it as] a sacrifice for G‑d.

This concept is relevant to all Jews: both the rich — who can be compared to the Golden Altar, and the poor — who are likened to the Copper Altar. When one recalls that he is an altar, his inner, true desire [is aroused]: to slaughter the yetzer hara and fulfill G‑d’s will. [Therefore] they are not susceptible to ritual impurity.

[The two rationales for the purity of the altars mentioned above can also provide us with lessons in our Divine service.] The [first] rationale holds that [the altars] are likened to the earth. This refers to the quality of humility, as we say in our prayers:9 “May my soul be as dust to all.” Just as everyone treads on the earth, so, too, a humble person has no individual will and no desire other than to fulfill G‑d’s will as expressed in the holy Torah.

[This is the rationale taught] by Rabbi Eliezer ben Horkenus. Rabbi Eliezer was referred to as “Rabbi Eliezer the Great,” and was considered “equivalent to all the other Sages of Israel.”10 Nevertheless, he did not consider himself important at all, to the extent that, as the Talmud states, he “never mentioned a teaching that [he] had not heard from [his] teachers.”11

[This approach] enabled him to immediately see the inner dimension of every Jew’s character, his Jewish core, the level of which it is said:12 “Israel, the Torah, and the Holy One, blessed be He, are all one,” i.e., a Jew’s entire life consists of the observance of Torah and mitzvos. Rabbi Eliezer taught his students a path that shows how] awesome intellectual [prowess] and complete bittul (self-transcendence) can coexist, as reflected in his own approach: “never mention[ing] a teaching that [he] had not heard from [his] teachers.”

The Sages [offer a second rationale]. The other Sages maintained that [Rabbi Eliezer’s] approach is too strict for the general public. There are not many who can carry out this approach. Instead, they focus on a Jew’s external dimension. For it may happen that a person will stumble in his path of Divine service. This is particularly true of a Jew who can be compared to a Golden Altar. Since he is excited about matters concerning gold, [he may be distracted,] and for a brief time may ignore the fulfillment of G‑d’s will. Similarly, because the income of a poor man (who can be compared to a Copper Altar) comes to him with difficulty, he can also transgress G‑d’s will at times. Nevertheless, our Sages maintain that the inner Jewish core (the altar) is not susceptible to impurity, because “[the metals] are [merely] overlays.”

Both the rich man’s gold and the poor man’s copper are superficial coverings. The inner dimension [of every Jew] remains pure, immune to impurity. Moreover, this inner dimension is so powerful that the external dimension becomes subordinate to it. In other words: every person will ultimately turn to G‑d in teshuvah and appreciate the Truth. He will comprehend that a Jew’s life and existence is solely G‑dliness and that [this G‑dliness] can be tapped only through the study of the Torah and observance of the mitzvos.

Moreover, such conduct is the medium which enables us to receive the blessings which G‑d promises in the Torah, [as it is written]:13 “And if you walk in My statutes and observe My commandments... the land will provide its yield, and the trees of the fieldwill give their fruit.”

With blessings for success and all forms of everlasting good for all the participants in the study session,

Menachem Schneerson

N.B.

To briefly explain the above on a deeper level: [As stated in] the Tzemach Tzedek’s Sefer HaMitzvos, Mitzvas Binyan Mikdash, sec. 2, there were four sacred articles of fundamental importance in the Beis HaMikdash: the Menorah, the Golden Table, and the two Altars. These articles correspond to the attributes of Chessed, Gevurah, Tiferes, and Malchus.

On this basis, we can understand the first clause of the above mishnah: that the Menorah and the Golden Table, [corresponding to Chessed and Gevurah,] were susceptible to ritual impurity. This does not apply to the Altars, [because they] are associated with the middle vector (see also Likkutei Torah, Bamidbar, p. 60a and 51a), and the middle vector “ascends to the inner dimensions of Kesser.

[Similarly,] the Ark (which was entombed, for it is not possible [that gentiles] would attain power over it) that was located in the Holy of Holies, which contained the Tablets [of the Ten Commandments, was not susceptible to ritual impurity].

Nevertheless, a reason must be given [why the altars cannot contract impurity. For although they are represented by] the middle vector, they relate to attributes [which are limited in nature].

The reason [given by Rabbi Eliezer] is that they are likened to earth; i.e., they reflect the utter selflessness that characterizes the quality of Kesser (Hosafos l’Torah Or, the beginning of Megillas Esther). There is [indeed] an explicit verse which identifies the external altar with earth, as it is written: “You shall make an altar of earth for Me.” This, however, is stated explicitly only with regard to the external altar, the level of Malchus, because “the end is rooted in the beginning, and the beginning in the end.”14 [Therefore,] even [when] the vessels of the World of Tohu were destroyed,“the earth (alone) became nullified.”

With regard to the altars themselves, the inner [golden] altar is identified with Tiferes d’Z’eir Anpin, and is thus considered “rich” when compared to the external [copper] altar identified with Malchus, of which it is said:15 “It has nothing of its own.”

The reason that the altars did not require tevilah (טבילה), which shares the letters of [— and is thus identified with —] bittul (ביטול),16 is that they themselves are expressions of bittul. [Two reasons are given for this:] they are likened to earth, and their [outer] surface is subordinate to their inner substance.

[The name] Eliezer (אליעזר) refers to the essence of G‑d, as reflected by the association (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:7) of his name with the verse (Shmos 18:4): אלקי אבי בעזרי, “The G‑d of my father provided assistance for me.” He is called “the Great,” and it is said:17 “In the place of His greatness, there you find His humility.” While looking at the external dimensions [of existence], he was able to perceive the inner dimension. Thus the fact that the external substance of the altar was subservient to its inner substance was not significant for him. [For according to his conception,] the external substance was inherently batel, for “There is nothing [but Him].”18

The Sages [differ], and the halachah follows their opinion, for “[Torah law] is not in the heavens,”19 but rather is determined according to the principles which prevail within the spiritual cosmos (Seder HaHishtalshelus). [On this level,] the external surface of the altar in and of itself could be susceptible to ritual impurity. Nevertheless, since it is batel to its inner substance, it is not. This is not the place for further elaboration concerning this matter. This is sufficient for a person of understanding.