Message in a Bottle
Last week my creative eye took interest in a cute, small bottle of makeup that I own forever but have not used–an impulse purchase never returned. In my mind’s eye I imagined that if I’d just empty out the contents, I could transform it into something decorative and pretty, and fill it with something artistic and sparkly. A two-inch bottle, how hard could it be? Maximum, it would be a 20-minute effort which would suit my patience quota for such projects. How could have I anticipated that the makeup content inside was not only waterproof and sun proof, but also boiling-water proof, soap proof, Windex proof, vinegar proof, oil proof, acetone proof and, two hours later, I suspected even nuclear proof as well. Its tiny, narrow neck offered limited maneuverability and access to clean it. I wasn’t giving up. I couldn’t help but laugh through my frustration and have mercy on this little bottle screaming with artistic potential and all that I put it through. But for potential to go in, the muck had to come out. And so, I tackled each smear until the bottle was clear–crystal clear. The only residue that remained upon the battle-weary glass was my lingering question, “Why does everything have to be so hard?” And the answer to that became clear after reading last week’s Torah portion.
So many of us in our lives are going through such difficult times—crushing times. It is rare I speak to someone lately, including myself, who doesn’t feel their problems are unprecedentedly huge and seemingly insurmountable. And we suffer great sorrow. And more often than not, we question, “Where is God?,” rather than question ourselves, “Where am I in relation to God’s Will?” “What does He want from me that I’m not doing?” And then I think back to Operation Clean-the-Bottle, and therein, I recognize you and me. The sages teach us that sin sullies our souls and blocks us from being vessels for the Godly light. We become so veiled and dirtied by sin that we can neither be, nor see, the light. Nothing beautiful can radiate in or out becomes we are such a mucky mess.
Before Adam sinned “man was enveloped in a halo of light…But after the sin, the halo of glory which illuminated man’s spirit disappeared” (Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, Via Rabbi Elie Munk). The garment of “light” which cloaked man and also radiated through his body was diminished and replaced by garments of skin. “When man sinned he reduced his soul to a state of opaqueness and concealment making it ever harder to recognize itself and its relationship to God.”[i]
What is our job, great nobility that we are? We are the cleanup crew. But bleach won’t do the job to raise the shattered holy sparks which became dispersed in all things in this world through creation and Adam’s sin (Rabbi Isaac Luria Ashkenazi ). God gave us the directives on how to clean our souls and bring the light (sparks) out of the dark places if we follow His Torah and make it our Torah. Each of the 613 commandments cleanses us and elevates us and makes us worthy receptacles of God’s blessings and Light. Clean the bottle and prepare it for beautiful things. The kabbalist known as Or ha-Ḥayyim teaches that, “When God turned the skin of Moses’ face into a source of light, He demonstrated that the process which had once turned light into skin was reversible and that man could be rehabilitated to the spiritual level he once enjoyed prior to the sin.”
But what if we didn’t change our ways, repent, clean ourselves up on our own, then God will clean us up and it usually takes the form of punishment. In this past week’s Torah reading we read of all the 42 encampments (and backtracking) the Israelites set up and broke down during their 40 years of wandering. Not an easy, smoothly-paved road. But they created many of the bumps and hurdles by themselves by continually sinning and rebelling against God and Moses and failing the many tests God set before them. When we are haughty and happy we feel we don’t need God and when we suffer we don’t believe He is there. How foolish is mankind? The rabbinic sage, Sfas Emes, says that each hardship and encampment through which the Israelites journeyed was a cleansing and served as a preparation for the gift of the Land of Israel. Do you personally really want to figuratively wander blindly for 40 years and wonder why your life resembles a man-made disaster zone that only God can repair? Or would you prefer to take matters into your own hands? Start keeping kosher, lighting Sabbath candles, pick up a book of Judaism, stop sinning and spinning in circles like a misguided dog chasing his own tail…just start cleaning up somewhere in your spiritual house.
Or you can wait and if He loves you and has faith in your potential, He will clean you Himself, but often His way hurts! Sickness, financial woes, betrayals, humiliations, the list is long.
Further proof that God cleans what He loves is that the Israelites are not commanded to merely meander into town and make friends with their new Canaanite neighbors, but they are commanded to drive them all out of the land and destroy their structures of worship and idols. Before something Godly can enter, before blessings can enter, “the bottle” has to be thoroughly cleaned. The filth had to be demolished before God’s holy nation with their holy mission could settle in the Land. The Israelites are also warned, “And let the land not vomit you out for having defiled it, as it vomited out the nation that preceded you.” You can’t be holy and unholy at the same time. Which do you choose to be?
Imagine you are a crystal-clear bottle. Each time you sin, (i.e., violate the Torah) the bottle gets filled with black coal. When you follow God’s Torah it gets filled with luminous gems. Now stand back and look at the bottle and judge. Have you made room for the light? Are you sparkling? Or is your bottle 3D: dense, dark and dastardly? Perhaps it’s time to polish your own soul before God brings in the pressure washer. To thine own self be true, and never underestimate the message in a bottle.
[i] Lecture by Rabbi Kessin, Mendel, June, 1991