A Lesson from the Smoky Haze

Friday, 9 June, 2023 - 10:34 am

The news and images of the Canadian wildfires and the impact it is having on the air quality and visibility are quite alarming. Vast swaths of the US and Canada are affected, and the smoke has even reached as far as Norway.

The Baal Shem Tov taught that everything one encounters in life should be a catalyst for a lesson in the service of Hashem. The smoke generated by the wildfires recalled a Biblical instance where smoky haze played an important role. The Torah states regarding the moment preceding Divine Revelation at Sinai, “And the entire Mount Sinai smoked because the L-rd had descended upon it in fire, and its smoke ascended like the smoke of the kiln, and the entire mountain quaked violently.”

The word for smoke in the Holy Tongue is Ashan. The three letters of that word (ayin, shin, nun) are an acronym for three words, Olam (world), Shana (year), Nefesh (soul). The earliest Kabbalistic work, Sefer Yetzirah, teaches that these three words are the basis for all of existence. Olam represents space. Shana represents time. Nefesh represents those who inhabit the universe that is defined by space and time. Throughout Jewish philosophical teachings we find ideas categorized via these three concepts.

For example, On Yom Kippur the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies as part of the service of the day. The moment of his entry to the Holy of Holies was a convergence of the highest levels of Olam, Shana, Nefesh. The entry of the holiest person into the holiest space on the holiest day of the year.

The Rebbe argues that the centrality of “ashan” (smoke) at the giving of the Torah compels us to consider how important it is to maximize all three concepts alluded to in the word “ashan” as it relates to the study of Torah.

Olam – Space: We must bring the study of Torah to as many spaces as possible.
Shana – Time: We must increase the quantity of time spent on Torah study.
Nefesh – Soul: We must raise the quality of our Torah study by infusing it with more energy, thereby also increasing the quantity of our knowledge and depth of understanding.

Increasing in these three aspects will certainly improve our daily conduct and personal character, as Proverbs 6:23 states, “The Mitzvah is a candle, the Torah is light, and reproofs of instruction are the way of life.” This in turn brings Hashem’s blessings into every aspect of our lives.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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