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Home » High Holidays, Ki Tetze, Life Is Beautiful

Elul: A Rose Among Thorns

Submitted by on August 16, 2010 – 1:53 amNo Comment | 2,110 views

A Curious Verse

Describing our relationship with G-d, King Solomon, wisest of all men, wrote, “I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me; who grazes among the roses,” (1) a curious statement if ever there was one. The first half of the verse is perfect and symmetrical. I love G-d and He loves me. Beautiful. Powerful. Uplifting. Inspiring. But what is this about grazing among roses, how does that fit in?
On the subject of the rose, why is it that the beautiful rose grows only among thorns. Can anyone explain why such beauty resides in the prickliest of bushes?

Harsh Beauty

It was a harsh morning, overcast and gray, as I drove through lush fields and rolling hills. I could barely see through the fog and bemoaned my luck to be out on this ugly morning. Then I noticed a silo standing upright in the cold mist; its ramrod posture conjured up an image of sheer endurance and unyielding determination.

Raw and harsh realities are not without beauty, I reflected and began to view my surroundings through a fresh set of lenses. (2) I peered through the fog and took note of the land’s familiar features. The stables, race track, silos and farms were all familiar to me, but in the cold mist they were somehow different; they took on a new dimension – one of character and strength.

It was then that I finally understood why the thorns belong among the roses. At first glance it seems a contradiction, but when you peer through the veil you find that thorns are not only prickly little plants; they are also symbols of strength and protection. Beauty is not always packaged in soft petals and yielding curves; sometimes it is reflected in the strong lines of character and determination.

The rose is symbolic of the pious, but the thorn represents the penitent. It is not only the upright and righteous, who have a place in G-d’s world; sinners and penitents do too. Sins are prickly and they wound the soul, but sin also opens the doors to regret, resolve and reconciliation; the harshest, but also the highest form of beauty. The rose inspires; the thorn resolves. The rose offers love; the thorn, strength. Viewed through the proper prism the rose and the thorn fit like a hand to a glove.rose-among-thorns - innerstream

“I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me.” At first we thought it a symmetrical statement; upon reflection we are not so sure. My beloved is perfection; I am fallible, corruptible and sometimes even contemptible. King Solomon thus concludes his poetic verse with the words, “grazing among the thorns.” My beloved might be rose-like and I, thorn-like, but like a rose among thorns, we belong together.

The Three Scoop Ice Cream

Let us delve a little deeper and see if we can find any further insights from the rose / thorn metaphor.

Close your eyes and imagine a three scoop ice-cream cone. Laced with delectable caramel; the three scoops are of your favorite flavors. The cone is heaping with extra toppings and the ice-cream melts on your tongue. You walk out into the hot day and bask in the warm sunlight as the ice-cream drips from the cone and coats your fingers with sweetness.

If you, dear reader, have an inkling of desire for ice-cream you must be salivating by now. Stop and ask yourself how the ice cream came into existence. If you are a believer you will say that it was created by G-d. You will agree that a Divine creative spark resides within the sugar and cream that creates and recreates the ice cream at every moment. (3)

Allow me a question: Did you consider this Divine spark when you first read my description of the ice-cream? As the image of the three scoop cone took root in your mind and temptation began to form, were you at all attracted to its Divine spark? Were you alert to the fact that it was the actually the Divine spark in the ice-cream that was drawing you in?

If you are anything like me, I suspect the answer is no. Yet when you think about it you will see that the Divine spark did reel you in. Let us remember that your body was attracted to the refreshing, delicious, melting ice cream, but your body is not a living thing. It is merely a container. It is your soul that endows your body with life. If your body felt the attraction then it must have begun with your soul. What attracted your soul? Does your soul like Ice-cream too? No. It is the Divine spark inside the ice-cream that attracts your soul.

Of course your soul can find that Divine spark in a bland slice of spelt bread as easily in the ice-cream. To your soul the housing of the spark, the particulars of the dish, is irrelevant. That concerns only your body. Your body chose the ice-cream: your soul was pulled to the Divine spark within it.

Now consider this: Every pleasure in this world trickles down from the source of all pleasures, G-d. Just as the body ingests nourishing food, digests it, extracts the nourishment and expels the refuse so does creation at large. G-d radiates Divine light, which is absorbed by the heavenly bodies, digested by the angels who extract the Divine and sacred elements to be used in the Torah and leave the mundane and prosaic leftovers for the physical delights of the material world.

Material pleasures are the discarded refuse of supernal and G-dly delights. The Ice-cream contains two components of Divine presence; the spark, which is an unfiltered and unmitigated Divine radiance and the delicious physical sweetness, which is a faded glimmer of Divine light left over after myriads of veils, filtrations and concealments.

Another way of putting it is that the rose – the Divine spark – is embedded among the thorns – the physical delights that cannot measure up to the supernal.

Elul

The first letters of the four words “Ani Ledodi vedodi Li,” Hebrew for I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me, form an acronym for the word Elul, the last month in the Hebrew calendar. It is a month of reflection and introspection; a month when we prepare for the new year.

It is during this month that we are meant to discern the rose from the thorns and get our priorities straight. It is during this time that we are meant to realize that our fixation on the ice-cream prevents us from appreciating the Divine spark. It is during this month that we are meant to illustrate through our actions and repentance that the thorn is not an end for itself; it is merely a bedding for the rose. (4) (5)

Footnotes

  1. Song of Songs 6:3.
  2. This reflection is different from the usual sun
    above the clouds theory. That too is inspiring as it reminds us that it
    is not always gloomy; there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The
    clouds will soon part and the sun will shine again. This essay develops
    the idea that the gloom is itself constructive; it offers a beauty that
    cannot be found in the sunlight.
  3. This teaching is from the Baal Shem Tov, based on
    Psalms 119: 9, “Your words, Lord, stand perpetually in the heavens” and
    explained in Shaar Hayichud V’haemunah, chapter 1. The central thesis of
    the idea is the law of entropy, which states that, left alone, every
    physical object returns to its original state of equilibrium. In
    oversimplified form the argument goes something like this: The believer
    believes that before creation there was nothing; thus the original state
    of all created things is nothingness. Following this tenet of faith to
    its rational conclusion yields the fascinating result that unless
    continually forced out of its original state of nothingness, the
    universe must immediately revert to its original state and cease to
    exist. Since we continue to exist it follows that the process of
    creation must be continual.
  4. Consider also the color of the rose. The natural
    color of the rose is red, but when subjected to heat, the red pixels
    burn away and the rose turns white. Red is the color of sin; white, the
    color of atonement as indicated in the verse, “if your sins will be red
    like crimson they shall turn white like snow. (Isaiah 1: 18. Note that
    Eighteen in Hebrew is Chai – life, indicating that this verse espouses
    the purpose of life.)
    As we approach the High Holidays, when G-d sits on the throne of
    judgment, we acknowledge the redness of our appearance resulting from
    our sins in the past year. The heat of shame and bitterness wells up
    within us as we reflect on the nature of our soul, whom we have
    subjected to sin. We recall that there are an infinite number of
    spiritual worlds that rise toward G-d in ascending order, but G-d
    transcends them all. Before descending into our physical body, our soul
    stood directly before G-d; high above the loftiest and most rarified of
    spiritual beings. It was there before G-d created the world and has
    remained there for thousands of years since.
    It was then lowered to this world to take up residence in our body. The
    least we could do is respect its inherent sanctity and give it a home
    worthy of such distinguished company. Instead, we subject this holiest
    of holy beings to a life of sin and debauchery. As we consider this
    shameful proposition the searing flames of regret, remorse and shame
    rise within us. As the flame burns away the red pixels and renders the
    rose white, so does the heat of penance burn away the redness of sin and
    leave us before G-d white and cleansed.
  5. This essay is based on Mamarei Admur Hazaken, 5571, pp 266-267.
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