Kernel and Husk
Summarized by Matan Glidai
Translated by Yoseif Bloch
The Gemara (Avoda Zara 5b) notes that only at the end of the Jewish people's forty-year sojourn in the desert does Moshe see fit to mention their ingratitude towards God, as we see throughout the Book of Devarim. Based on this, the Gemara asserts that "No one can know his teacher's mind before forty years' time." What is the significance of this observation? Does it really take four decades to learn a lesson?
To understand this, we need to employ the famous Talmudic analogy (Chagiga 15a) of tokh and kelippa: a core or kernel (tokh) of meaning, value and truth is often surrounded by a shell or husk (kelippa), which can take many forms. Chasidic thought differentiates between a kelippa of desire, which one may penetrate to reveal the truth, and a kelippa of falsehood, which has no tokh at its core. In such a case, the shell is truly empty.
Indeed, this is the challenge of our time, when we confront a new culture of falsehood. A generation ago, behind the Iron Curtain, there was a culture of obvious lies: everyone knew better than to lend credence to anything or rely on anyone. People believed solely in that which could benefit them pragmatically, not in what they were allowed to see. Now it is the mantra of the West which rules, that image is everything, that only kelippa counts. Within this culture of hidden lies, falsehood is attractively packaged and marketed. Whether it is commercial advertisement or political propaganda, modern media present us with enchanting and beautiful externals, the connection between them and the internal value of the product or person being negligible. There are even those who attempt to sell the tokh of Judaism in the same way, by exhibiting all of its ostensibly desirable and appealing elements, instead of delving into its content and depth.
The Yerushalmi (Chagiga 2:2) exposes the seriousness of this misconception. It tells us about two righteous men, one of whom died and then appeared to his friend to describe the afterlife. Among other things, he relates to him the fate of a woman by the curious name of Miriam Onion-Leaves, in whose ear the hinge of the gate of Gehinnom revolves. What did she do to earn this punishment? The Yerushalmi attributes it to her supposed piety in fasting, which she took pains to publicize, or, according to another opinion, to exaggerate. Nevertheless, the departed relates, Miriam is scheduled to be relieved of this onus by none other than Shimon ben Shetach, the Nasi (President of the Sanhedrin), who will replace her upon his passing. What was his sin? Before becoming nasi, he promised to use his position to eradicate the scourge of sorcery, but he failed to do so upon attaining his office. Upon hearing this, the friend immediately goes to Shimon ben Shetach, who undertakes to fulfill his campaign promise, while marveling that he had never even expressed it verbally to the public, but merely had resolved in his own heart to do so! What are we to glean from this passage?
This perplexing tale begins with Miriam Onion-Leaves, and it is her name that gives us the clue to unraveling this enigma. There is a striking difference between the onion and other vegetables: other vegetables have a kelippa and a tokh, but the onion has only the former; after each peel comes another peel. The onion is thus the symbol of things which have only an exterior, but no core. The Yerushalmi condemns that which has no inner truth, that which merely consists of a nice package. Miriam Onion-Leaves pretends that her fasting is about a desire to better herself, but the core is a desire for public acclamation; Shimon ben Shetach fools himself into believing that he wants the position of nasi in order to eliminate paganism, but he soon forgets his resolve. It is the message from the next world that reminds the Nasi of the consequences of breaking a promise, even one made in his own mind.
Judaism demands that, just as one should not write a check unless he has funds to cover it in the bank, one must also have “coverage” for all his assertions, promises and even intentions. The Torah despises facades and hypocrisy. We must inspect our actions, making sure that they validate our words and thoughts. Indeed, this explains another detail, namely, that Miriam was punished through her ear. This alludes to the fact that she related to things as they sound, not as they truly are.
With this in mind, we can return to the Gemara in Avoda Zara cited above. The template of Moshe in the desert shows us that it is insufficient to memorize and declaim the rabbi's words verbatim, being satisfied with the way they appear at first glance, on a kelippa level. Instead, we must understand them well and plumb their depths, exposing the tokh. This requires a great deal of time, but it is the only way to ensure that at our core, we are people of truth.
(This sicha was delivered at se'uda shelishit of Shabbat Parashat Ki Tavo 5756 .)