Among the laws covered in this week's parasha is one concerning the ritual purification of utensils captured from idolaters. Pans, skewers and other items that were used to cook over a fire had to be purified by putting them again through fire in order to be made pure enough to be used in the holy Israelite camp. This concept that fire purifies, sparks a discussion between Rabbi Aba, Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Yitzchak where they liken fasting, prayer and even Torah learning to this purification process. He directs His world with roses…

Rabbi Aba opened his discourse with the verse: "My Beloved is mine, and I am His; he pastures his flocks among the roses." (Songs 2:16) What is it that causes My Beloved to be mine as I am for Him? It is because He directs His world with roses.

One of the delightful things about studying the Zohar is the seemingly bizarre statements like the above that make perfect sense when one understands the metaphors used to explain how G‑d rules reality. A rose comes in two basic colors, red and white. Modern breeding has added a multitude of colors but the historic fact of two main colors is shown by the English "War of the Roses" between the red rose badges of the Lancastrians and the white rose badges of the Yorkists. The color red in the Zohar represents the sefira of gevura, strict judgment. The color white represents the sefira of chesed, loving-kindness. G‑d, who is the "beloved" in the quoted verse, directs the world through the sefirot of chesed and gevura. Note also that roses of both colors have a beautiful fragrance. This hints that the positive and negative forces symbolized by these two sefirot have a common, loving source.

Just as a rose has a fragrance and is red in color, if it is passed through fire [by boiling the petals in water], the petals turn white, yet its fragrance never leaves, so does the Holy One blessed be He, conduct the world.

If a person sins he causes judgment to come down on him. If he strives to repent (an inner process likened to fire) and returns to G‑d, the judgment is sweetened and becomes "white" and mercy enwraps him.

If it were not so, the harsh judgment generated by the sinners would prevent the continued existence of the world. Sin is called "red", as we learn from the verse "Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as [white as wool." (Isaiah 1:18) [And after a person repents] he brings his sacrifice and burns it on the red fire of the altar. ...the red blood is…sprinkled around the altar causing completely white smoke to billow…

He [through the agency of the Cohen] sprinkles the red blood around the altar. The attribute of din/judgment is red. It [symbolized by the red blood] is poured out and sprinkled around the altar causing completely white smoke to billow. Then the [red] flesh of the sacrifice [is consumed by the fire] and turns into white [ash]. The attribute of din has turned into the attribute of mercy.

So in the actual bringing of a sacrifice in the Temple a person caused red to become white in the physical world, indicating that he was causing judgment to become mercy in the spiritual dimension, which runs in parallel with this world.

And come and see. We don't need the smell of the attribute of judgment, except from the aspect of the flesh. That is explained by what Rabbi Yehuda said [about the prophets of Baal who stove with Elijah]: "And they cried aloud, and cut themselves after their custom with knives and lances, till the blood gushed out upon them." (Kings I 18:28)

The purpose of their gashing themselves was to cause their red blood to flow, symbolizing that they were calling upon the attribute of judgment to manifest itself in the world.

They knew that they wouldn't grasp the attribute of judgment to do their will other than through manifesting the color red.

Rabbi Yitzchak said that, in addition, the colors red and white were always sacrificed on the altar and the smoke went up between them. Just as the rose [species] is red and white so does the smell of the sacrifice [come from the red flesh and the white fat]. The sacrifice itself is from red and white. Come and see [also] from the perfume of the incense, that was composed of either white or red ingredients. For example the frankincense was white and the musk was red and the [white] smoke that went up was from both red and white. So it is that the Holy One blessed be He administers His world with roses that are red and white, as it is written, "to sacrifice to Me the fat and the blood" (Ezekiel 44:15)

Corresponding to this a person sacrifices his own fat and blood [when he fasts to attain forgiveness for his wrongdoings] and this atones for him. One is red and one is white, and just as a rose which is either red or white can't be poured out as only white other than through the process of fire [to cause the water the petals are steeped in to boil] so the sacrifice can only be poured out purely white by way of [utilizing] fire. Nowadays, a person who sits and fasts, and sacrifices his fat tissue and blood, can only shrivel himself back to white through fire.

This is as Rabbi Yehuda said, that through his fasting a person weakens his limbs and fire strengthens within him. At that very time he should [consciously] sacrifice his fat and blood in that fire which is the equivalent of the atoning altar. And Rabbi Elazar when he was sitting in his fast would pray, saying, "It is revealed and known before you G‑d, my G‑d and the G‑d of my forefathers, that I have sacrificed my blood and fat before You and boiled them in the fire of the weakness of my body. May it be Your will that the smell that rises from my mouth at this time be as the fire of the sacrifice on the altar, and be found pleasing before You." So we find that a person actually sacrifices his fat and blood in a fast, and the smell that rises from his mouth is the atoning altar. This is why they [the Sages] have established prayer in the place of sacrifices on the condition that he intends what he says. The enthusiasm of the prayer is like fire of the altar…

Firstly, the morning prayers are said before eating. Secondly, the enthusiasm of the prayer is like fire of the altar that, by using his own energy, is sacrificing his blood and fat to G‑d. This is a period of fasts, and the prayer of Rabbi Elazar is good to have in mind for the coming fast of the 9th of Av.

Rabbi Yitzchak said from here and on [even broader than only applying to fasts] relates the verse: "Everything that can stand the fire shall be brought through the fire and purified." (Num. 31:22)

If a person fires himself up physically to learn Torah or perform a mitzvah with enthusiasm, then he is purified in the process from his sins as though he brought a sacrifice in the Temple.

Rabbi Yossi said that when the Temple stood, a person would bring his sacrifice in this secret [of red and white] and it would atone for him. Nowadays a person's prayer atones on his behalf in place of the sacrifice but in the same manner.

Note also that the English word "atone" consists of two syllables "at" and "one". The consciousness of unity is the goal, and by sacrificing his time and putting effort into his relationship with the beloved of his soul, a person can truly achieve atonement, i.e., unity.

Zohar, parashat Shemot p. 20b; translation and commentary by Simcha-Shmuel Treister

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