This has been a difficult winter in America: Temperatures have been the lowest in years, and the snowfall has been significant in many parts of the country, belting Atlanta and burying Buffalo 7 feet under. Frigid temperatures mean the snow has not melted, making a simple walk around the block a risky endeavor, not to mention the driving hazards. Many travel plans have been postponed causing much frustration and aggravation. Traffic is snarled, schools and businesses are closed, and toes are frostbitten.
I wonder: On the one hand snow is described as an illuminating force that is akin to spiritual light. It is this spiritual light that we are reminded of specifically in the winter season when the for potential spiritual growth is weakest. (See 'Mystical White Snow.) But how can something that causes so many problems be a symbol and reminder of holiness and God's presence? How do we explain the negative effects of snow that seem contrary to the idea of growth and inspiration?
SNOW IS NOT ALWAYS PURE
Rabbi Tzadok of Lublin explains that there is a mystical klipah (barrier to holiness) called snow which is associated with the nation of Amalek, the Jews' arch-enemy. Amalek attacked the beleaguered Jewish people as they left Egypt, and God instructed us to remember this evil deed of Amalek, as they will always seek to harm the Jewish nation. (see Exodus 17:8-16; Deut. 25:17-19)
In fact, the Hebrew word for snow -- sheleg -- has a numerical value (gematria) of 333 -- the same as the word shich'cha, which means forgetfulness. This seems to suggest that snow is not a vehicle for growth at all. And when we venture outside on a snowy day, we are surrounded by forgetfulness and Amalek. What could this possibly mean?
It seems like snow isn't a vehicle for growth at all!
The Torah tells us to remember what Amalek did as we left Egypt because he "happened upon you (karcha) and attacked." (Deut. 28:17-18)
The simple reading, as Rashi explains, is that Amalek's attack was a surprising and unexpected one -- "he happened upon you." A key aspect of their hideous crime was the sheer brazenness and trickery involved. However, Rashi suggests that karcha can also mean "he cooled you off," coming from the Hebrew word kar -- cold.
As Rashi explains, the Jews were compared to a hot, scalding bath of water, symbolizing their great passion for spiritual achievements as they left Egypt. But Amalek was willing to burn themselves by attacking the Jewish people with the aim of showing that the heat of inspiration will not endure. By doing so, Amalek cooled off the tremendous fear that all of the other nations had for the Jews, giving them license to attack as well.
Amalek, we see, relates to cooling.
TWO SIDES OF PURGATORY
Rabbi Tzadok explains that Amalek is the force of the Yetzer Hara, the evil inclination that whispers continuously in our ear, "Who do you think you are? You aspire to become great? You'll never get there!" Amalek makes us "forget" (as in snow's gematria, mentioned earlier) that we can reach majestic levels, and cools us off and away from our path of service of God. The coldness of Amalek seeks to depress us and convince us that our spiritual energy and heat will quickly fade to despair.
When we describe a "cold personality," we refer to the lack of vitality, enthusiasm, and zest for life. Such a person approaches life in a pessimistic, morose way, and often knocks everything down, thinking that nothing good will ever happen. No significant, lofty heights can be reached. This is Amalek.
A cold personality has lack of vitality, enthusiasm, and zest for life. This is Amalek.
With a cold Amalekite attitude, the growth that we fought so hard to gain throughout the Jewish holiday period in the Spring and Summer months, can be lost to the deep freeze and the cold winter snow.
The battle against Amalek, one that lasts for all generations (see Deut. 23:17-19), has a plus side as well: to ensure that we do not lose our passion and excitement for Torah. We must continually strive to make our service of God dynamic. We must not let ourselves fall into the insidious trap of coldness and negativity. We should always think big and accomplish big things.
The Midrash (Tanchuma - Re'eh 13) emphasizes this point:
Chizkiyah said: There are 12 months of judgment for the wicked in purgatory (Gehenom). Six months are suffered in heat, and the other six months in cold. God first places them in the heat, and then puts them in the snow.
The Torah commentator Aitz Yosef (19th century Bialystok) explains that there are two distinct places of purgatory. "Gehenom of Fire" is a punishment for all sins that were done with passion and energy against God. "Gehenom of Snow" is designed for all sins that are due to laziness and lack of energy. In addition, the punishment of snow is given for all good actions done without zeal and excitement. The message: We must live with passion for the service of God, to avoid the Gehenom of Snow and Amalek's coldness.
We have seen sources that describe snow as a symbol of lack of growth, and others that describe it as a positive, inspirational symbol for growth. How are we to bridge this dichotomy and contradiction?
As with many concepts in Judaism, we must refer back to the Garden of Eden, a major foundation of Jewish mysticism.
After the forbidden fruit, good and evil became mingled confusingly in the world.
One of the disastrous effects of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit -- from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil -- was that good and evil became mixed and combined. Before the sin, a person could decide to be good or evil, because the two were clearly distinct. After the forbidden fruit, good and evil became mingled confusingly in all people and objects of the world. It became difficult to know clearly what is right and wrong.
This confusion gave rise to the unique human ability to rationalize almost anything. Thus, humanity's task from that moment onward became the sifting and separating of good from bad (known in Kabbalah as birrur). Our mission is to seek only the good, while eliminating the evil, and attach ourselves to purity in all things we encounter.
Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin offers an example of this challenge vis-a-vis the act of eating. If we eat with proper behavior and intent (in order to be healthy, to serve God) then we extract the holy elements from the food into our souls. If we eat merely to fill our stomachs in an animalistic fashion, we increase the potential for evil within us.
SEEING NEGATIVE OR POSITIVE
This concept of "seeking good while removing evil" applies to everything in the world -- including snow. Some verses in the Bible imply that snow is a negative force, while others indicate that snow is a positive one. Both are true, even simultaneously.
The question is how we relate to snow. Do we look at the superficial, hampering, destructive effects of snow, become discouraged and annoyed, and stop at that? If yes, then all we will see are snow's negative aspects. But if we allow ourselves to dig deeper, to uncover and sift the depth of what snow is, then we will touch the beautiful, holy and spiritual aspects of snow.
This is precisely the battle against the coldness of Amalek as well.
Let's stay away from cold snowball fights, and become holy snowmen instead.
Snow may be a symbol of Amalek, but the Hebrew word ka'sheleg, which means "like snow," [as in "ka'sheleg yalbinu" in Isaiah 1:18, which means "your sins will become white as snow"] is the gematria 353 -- the same as simcha, happiness.
Snow is a symbol of purity and holiness, but paradoxically within it lies the potential for evil. The Yetzer Hara knows how powerful and inspirational snow can be, and therefore has his stake in snow as well, trying to force people to view it only as negative.
The decision is ours. We can focus on the negatives of snow, become cynical in thinking like Amalek, or we can see the purity of God in snow.
So when those white flakes begin to fall, and a blizzard is on the way, let's fight cynicism and win the battle for positive attitudes. Let's stay away from cold, Amalekite snowball fights. And let's become holy "snowmen" instead.