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Parshas Vayechi (5777)

Havdallah and Your Soul

When our forefather Jacob died in Egypt, the Torah tells us that his son Joseph, then viceroy of the entire country, ordered his servants, the physicians, to embalm his father. Embalming was an Egyptian custom involving the use of a mixture of aromatic spices that would preserve the body from dissolution and decomposition in the grave. Numerous mummies have been found in a state of preservation that testifies to the skill of the ancient embalmers.

Jewish law, however, forbids embalming; it mandates an unimpeded return to the elements by burial in the earth so that the body will decompose naturally. The soul rises to G-d, but the physical shelter, the chemical elements that clothed the soul, sink into the vast reservoir of nature. G-d's words to Adam were, "For you are dust, and unto dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:10). The commentators are thus troubled how it was that Joseph ordered his physicians to embalm his father when the Torah forbids it.

The truth is that Joseph did not go against the Torah at all. This is because the Torah only forbids embalming a person who has died. With regard to the patriarch Jacob, however, the Talmud in Taanis 5b tells us that "Our father Jacob did not die". Now, I bet you're wondering ... what does that mean?

As quoted in the Artscroll Stone Edition Chumash commentary to Genesis 49:33, the Resisei Laylah explains that Jacob had so perfected his body that it was no contradiction whatsoever to his soul. 'Death' is a wrenching, painful concept only because - and to the extent that - it involves the removal of the soul from a material existence it has come to crave. The more materially lustful a person is, and the more he identifies himself with his body, the less he can bear to part from this life for the holier one awaiting him. And the more spiritual his life on earth has become, and the more he identifies himself with his spiritual soul, the less he cares to be encumbered by his body with its demands and animal instincts. Jacob had perfected himself to the point where leaving earthly life meant no more to him than removing a coat means to us. His soul simply discarded its earthly remnant - his body - and continued essentially unchanged. 'Death' in the deeper sense simply did not exist for Jacob - hence ‘he did not die'.

Now, for most of us who are nowhere near the spiritual level of our forefather Jacob, it's a whole different story. The Malbi”m explains why Jewish law requires burial in the ground, and of the sort that will not delay the natural decomposition of the body. To the extent that man sins, utilizing his heavenly soul in the service of his body and its material needs and desires, the soul identifies and bonds with the body. And upon death, the soul still clings to the body, finding it difficult to depart from its "partner in crime", and is unable to return Heavenward to G-d from whence it came. Only as the body decomposes does the spirit become free to return to its heavenly home. Slowly, the soul goes through a painful separation from the body, ultimately coming to the realization that the body was merely a casing for it to move around in this world, but not its true identity.

Embalming, therefore, is a disservice to the deceased because by preserving the body, it entraps the soul. In Jacob's case, however, his life was so righteous and holy that his spirit had been totally freed of any bodily attachment. He so identified in his lifetime with his true self - his neshamah, his soul - that after his death he could easily part from his physical body, even if it were preserved by embalming and thus not decomposing.

So what does all this have to do with Havdalah, you ask?

You see, it is very hard for us not to identify with our bodies the way we so often do. After all, our soul is an intangible, other-worldly concept – so intangible, in fact, that many people don’t even acknowledge its existence (before it’s too late!) – whereas our body is right there in front of us - all over us - and much of what we do throughout the day involves our body much more than it does our soul. So what can we do to constantly remind ourselves of this most important reality – how can we detach ourselves, so to speak, from our bodies in this world where it is less painful, rather than having to wait until after death when the separation will be much more difficult?

That’s where the Havdalah ritual comes in. Havdalah comes from the Hebrew word l'havdil, meaning “to separate”. The mitzvah of Havdalah is performed at the conclusion of Shabbos, and it involves making a verbal separation between Shabbos and the rest of the week. Havdalah functions as a time divider, separating the serenity of Shabbos from the “workaholism” of the weekdays. Havdalah is to the end of Shabbos what Kiddush is to the beginning - Kiddush ushers Shabbos in, Havdalah ushers Shabbos out. [For great explanations and a play-by-play on how to perform this beautiful ritual, see Lori Palatnik’s article: ]

One of the really fascinating parts of the Havdalah ritual is when, after smelling the fragrant besamim (spices), we hold our hands up to the multi-wicked Havdalah candle and we gaze at our fingernails in the light of the flame while reciting/hearing the blessing on it. There many halachic (legalistic) and mystical reasons given for this seemingly strange ritual. One cryptic explanation put forth by the Kabbalists is that prior to the sin of Adam in the Garden of Eden, he had a “skin of nails” which covered his entire body. Afterwards, the nails remained only by the fingers and toes. We remind ourselves of this at Havdalah when we use the light of the fire to view our fingernails.

Rabbi Uziel Milevsky ZT”L explained this idea as follows: Nails are different than other parts of our body. While we would be in incredible pain if someone were to cut off one of our fingers, we regularly pay manicurists nice money to cut and trim our fingernails. This is because as much as nails are attached to our body, and cover parts of our body, they are not our actual body like our fingers.

We can thus say that nails covering the body are a metaphor for the clarity we must have about our bodies as a whole. The body is attached to our soul, “covers” the soul – but is not our actual essence. It is just a garment clothing the soul, only to be shed when we die and move on to the Heavenly realm.

Adam, before his sin, had that “fingernail” clarity – he knew exactly who he was and what role his body played – and that clarity was manifest in his body being entirely covered by nail-like substance. But then he partook of the forbidden fruit and, by so doing, brought about a cosmic distortion and lack of clarity to the world. Now he - and all of us, his descendants – are no longer in the other-worldy Garden of Eden, but instead are surrounded by a very physical world where we have to struggle with this great and constant identity crisis, never knowing for sure if we are just a physical body or a Divine soul clothed with one.

There is of, course, one day a week when we can gain back some of that original clarity that Adam once had. That day is Shabbos, a day when we pull ourselves away from the world of work and physicality, giving us the opportunity to see our lives in a proper perspective. And at the close of Shabbos, just as we are about to go back to the mundane world in which the body often reigns supreme, we gaze at our fingernails – that last remnant of a world of clarity long gone – to remind ourselves about who we truly are and what’s really important in life.

May G-d bless us that we merit to spend at least as much time, energy and money on our spirituality – our Divine soul and the mitzvos and good deeds it craves – as we do on our physicality – our body and its needs. This way, after 120 years, when we ultimately leave our bodies behind and our souls ascend heavenward, instead of feeling pain and anxiety at losing our very identity, we can hope to experience what our forefather Jacob did when he died – a sort of heavenly “manicure” in which the body that is no longer useful is cut away, leaving only our true selves to bask in G-d’s Presence in the World to Come. Amen.

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