Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Secret of the Seder's Fifteen Steps

At Sukkot the Levites sang spiritual songs that kept Jerusalem wide-eyed till dawn as they stood upon the “fifteen steps of descent from the Israelites’ courtyard to the women’s courtyard, that correspond to the fifteen ‘Songs of Ascents’ (shir hamaalot) found in Psalms.”  The lower or feminine waters complained to God, “We, too, want to be close to You!” God consoled them, saying, “There will come a time when you, too, will be close, when your waters will be poured upon the altar during the holiday of Sukkot, to celebrate the drawing of the water.”

The fifteen steps “that correspond to the fifteen Songs of Ascents in the Book of Psalms” seem out of place? Besides, here the priests descended those Steps of Ascents!

Rav Chisda asked “a certain rabbi” why King David composed these fifteen Songs of Ascents to begin with. The rabbi replied that when King David had begun the excavations for the place of the Temple’s altar, the waters of the subterranean deep rushed upwards and threatened to engulf the planet. David thereupon composed fifteen Songs of Ascents, and the depths safely subsided.

If so, Rav Chisda immediately protested, why not call them the Songs of Descent, to reflect on the subsiding waters, instead of Songs of Ascents!

Replied the anonymous rabbi, this is what occurred: When the deep surged upwards, King David thought to inscribe the name of God on a piece of earthenware and cast it into the waters. His teacher, Achitofel, ruled that it would be permissible to do so based on the following reasoning: if, for the sake of harmony between a husband and his wife, God commands us to erase His name by placing the written parchment into a container of water and giving it to the woman to drink, then it is certainly permissible for King David to cast the divine name into the surging waters to bring peace to the entire world!

King David immediately cast the name into the waters, which then subsided sixteen levels. King David realized that the earth’s irrigational needs would henceforth be lacking, and therefore voiced fifteen Songs of Ascents that brought the waters back up to a safe and useful level.

In his commentary on the Talmud, Maharsha adds that the particular divine name that King David wrote was Yud-Hei, which bears the numerical value of fifteen. The two priests who descended these steps on the way to draw the water on Sukkot specifically paused on the tenth step, to indicate that the fifteen steps are divided into two parts, ten and five, to correspond to the yud (ten) and hei (five) respectively.

Maharal quotes the verse from Isaiah 26:4, “For in God (Yud-Hei) is the strength of the worlds.” Our sages stated that all creation comes into being via these two divine “letters,” yud and hei. These divine letters are likewise comprised of “form” that comes from the yud, and “matter” that comes from the hei. That makes all material substance - the recipient, and all spiritual existence - the source of bestowal.

This, then, is the secret behind the fifteen Songs of Ascents corresponding to the steps in the Temple that led a person upwards from the more material, therefore “feminine” women’s courtyard, to the more spiritual, therefore “masculine” aspect, the Israelites’ courtyard.

Israel left the clutches of Mitzrayim (Egypt) journeying to the depths of Yam Suf (Red or Reed Sea) where they cast their souls, comprising God's name, into the lower waters and from where they made their Ascent as a nation.

Each year we renew the ascendant with 15 steps of the Pesach seder pausing after the tenth to ingest the festive meal then we continue with five more steps before we continue the week radiating our chametz free internal state. Six months later we arrive at the descendant 15 steps of Sukkot and we move toward the feminine waters where we take the Lulav and continue the week in the surrounding external transcendence of the Sukkah.

Finally we have arrived at  the year 5775, the millennial hour considered ‘mincha gedola’ the time of transition, at the doorstep of Moshiach. From the Pesach seder we derive the compliment of Sukkot’s 15 holy steps. With it, perhaps we will finally realize our mission so we will not need to utter the Seder's concluding words "next year in Jerusalem" ever again!

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