How Was R’ Akiva Able to Return in Peace?

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Passing Through the Three Evil Klipot to Merit Prophecy

Yechezkel ha-Navi describes in great detail the ‘prophetic journey’ that one must go on in order to receive nevuah. He begins his description with these words (Yechezkel 1:4): וָאֵרֶא וְהִנֵּה רוּחַ סְעָרָה בָּאָה מִן־הַצָּפוֹן עָנָן גָּדוֹל וְאֵשׁ מִתְלַקַּחַת וְנֹגַהּ לוֹ סָבִיב וּמִתּוֹכָהּ כְּעֵין הַחַשְׁמַל מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ (And I saw, and behold, a storm wind [ruach s’arah] came from the north, a great cloud [anan gadol], and a flashing fire [eish mitlakachat], and a glow surrounding it, and from within it was something like the appearance of the chashmal from within the fire). In short, Yechezkel is telling us that prior to receiving nevuah, he had to ‘pass through’, so to speak, three negative, i.e. ‘evil’, forces. In our holy writings, they are called klipot, i.e. external barriers, which must be ‘peeled’ away before arriving at the ‘fruit’, which in this case is the actual nevuah itself. But what exactly are these klipot? In general terms, they are negative states of the mind, constricted consciousness, mochin d’katnut.

Before explaining the specific meaning of each of the three klipot, let’s first look at another place in the Nevi’im where a prophet recorded a very similar description. After Eliyahu ha-Navi triumphantly defeated the false prophets of the Ba’al and the Asherah at Har Carmel, Izevel the Queen sent out word that she wanted him dead. He became overwhelmed by this news, fell into despair and fled south. After fasting for 40 days and 40 nights (like Moshe Rabbeinu), Eliyahu ha-Navi arrived at Har Sinai and entered the same cave that Moshe Rabbeinu had entered many years earlier. As he entered into the prophetic state, he had to experience or ‘pass through’ the same three klipot that Yechezkel ha-Navi had to pass through. Although described with slightly different wording, the klipot are essentially the same. The first is described as רוּחַ גְּדוֹלָה וְחָזָק מְפָרֵק הָרִים וּמְשַׁבֵּר סְלָעִים (a great, strong wind [ruach gedolah v’chazak] that tears apart the mountains and breaks the rocks). The second is described simply as a רַעַשׁ [ra’ash]. Although normally translated ‘earthquake’, ra’ash really just means ‘noise’. The third and final barrier that he had to pass through in order to receive nevuah was אֵשׁ [eish, fire].

It seems like we are reading slightly different descriptions of the same thing. The ruach s’arah of Yechezkel corresponds to the ruach gedolah v’chazak of Eliyahu, and the eish mitlakachat of Yechezkel clearly corresponds to the eish of Eliyahu. However, the second klipah is described differently by the two prophets. To Yechezkel it’s a big cloud, the anan gadol, while to Eliyahu it’s a loud noise, a ra’ash. In truth, they’re just describing two facets of the same klipah. On the one hand, it can be perceived as a huge cloud, while on the other hand, it can be perceived as a very loud noise. In fact, the Malbim describes Eliyahu’s ra’ash as רעש הענן (ra’ash ha’anan, the noise of the cloud), clearly indicating that the two descriptions are two aspects of the same experience. Perhaps it’s some type of thunder that is heard within a large cloud.

In Hilchot Yesodei ha-Torah 5, the Rambam explains how we are to deal with two apparently contradictory demands of the Torah. On the one hand, the Torah says (Vayikra 22:32): וְלֹא תְחַלְּלוּ אֶת־שֵׁם קׇדְשִׁי וְנִקְדַּשְׁתִּי בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל (You shall not desecrate My holy name, and I shall be sanctified in the midst of B’nei Yisrael). Yet, on the other hand, the Torah says (Vayikra 18:5): וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת־חֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת־מִשְׁפָּטַי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם הָאָדָם וָחַי בָּהֶם (And you shall guard my statutes and my judgments, which a man shall do them and live in them). So, we are told not to desecrate the sanctify of Hashem’s name by violating the mitzvot of the Torah, yet we are also told to ‘live in them’, i.e. we are not supposed to die because of them. So what is someone supposed to do if he is ordered upon penalty of death to transgress one of the mitzvot of the Torah? Generally speaking, he is supposed to violate the mitzvah rather than get himself killed. However, this is not a hard and fast rule. There are three mitzvot of the Torah that a Jew must not violate even upon penalty of death. In the words of the Rambam: חוּץ מֵעֲבוֹדַת כּוֹכָבִים וְגִלּוּי עֲרָיוֹת וּשְׁפִיכַת דָּמִים. אֲבָל שָׁלֹשׁ עֲבֵרוֹת אֵלּוּ אִם יֹאמַר לוֹ עֲבֹר עַל אַחַת מֵהֶן אוֹ תֵּהָרֵג. יֵהָרֵג וְאַל יַעֲבֹר (The three exceptions are idolatry, illicit relations, and murder. These three sins, if someone says to him, ‘Transgress one of these or you’ll be killed’, he should allow himself to be killed and not transgress).

We will now show how these three transgressions correspond to the three klipot that one must pass through in order to receive nevuah.

Murder, or wanton bloodshed, which includes baseless hatred, harboring grudges and many associated sins such as embarrassing someone in public, corresponds to the ruach s’arah. Yechezkel stated in the pasuk quoted above that the ruach s’arah came from the north. Why is the direction the storm wind relevant? In Kabbalah, the north corresponds to the left side (of a man facing east), which corresponds to the sefirah of gevurah which embodies strictness, harshness, judgment. This is also why gevurah is often associated with the color אָדוֹם [adom, red], the color of blood. Let’s not misunderstand. There is nothing wrong with the sefirah of gevurah. It is an important fundamental building block of creation, and when utilized properly (such as was the case with Yitzchak at the akeidah), it is a tremendous spiritual asset. However, when used incorrectly, (such as was the case with Esav, who is also known as אֱדוֹם [Edom, ‘Red’]), it becomes a destructive force of mayhem, hatred and murder. Therefore, for someone to receive nevuah, he must purge all shades of murder, even the spirit of murder, from his heart.

Idolatry, or avodah zarah, the worship of other entities (including money, kavod, etc.) besides G-d, corresponds to ra’ash ha-anan, and is also connected to a blemish in emunah. R’ Nachman states this explicitly in Likutei Moharan II:62:1: כִּי קִלְקוּל הָאֱמוּנָה הִיא גַם־כֵּן בְּחִינַת עֲבוֹדָה־זָרָה (For the damage of emunah is also an aspect of avodah zarah). But why is this likened to a noise [ra’ash] of a great cloud? Ra’ash is associated with worship, as we find in Yechezkel 3:12: וַתִּשָּׂאֵנִי רוּחַ וָאֶשְׁמַע אַחֲרַי קוֹל רַעַשׁ גָּדוֹל בָּרוּךְ כְּבוֹד־יְיָ מִמְּקוֹמוֹ (And a wind lifted me up and I heard behind me a sound of a great ra’ash [saying], ‘Blessed is the honor of Hashem from His place’). We quote this pasuk in Uva l’Tzion, and we also refer to it in the first brachah before the Shema in the morning, when we say: וְהָאוֹפַנִּים וְחַיּוֹת הַקֹּדֶשׁ בְּרַעַשׁ גָּדוֹל מִתְנַשְּׂאִים לְעֻמַּת שְׂרָפִים לְעֻמָּתָם מְשַׁבְּחִים וְאוֹמְרִים בָּרוּךְ כְּבוֹד־יְיָ מִמְּקוֹמוֹ (And the Ofanim and the Chayot ha-Kodesh, with a great ra’ash rise up to face the Seraphim, facing them, praising and saying, ‘Blessed is the honor of Hashem from His place’). So although ra’ash here is associated with worship of Hashem, we may understand that it is a general term accompanying worship, either for good or for bad. In the case of the klipah, it’s in the context of misdirected worship. Now that we have addressed the ra’ash aspect of this klipah, what about the anan, the cloud? Physically speaking, a large cloud obscures and blocks out the light of the sun. This metaphor perfectly describes the danger of avodah zarah. Spiritually speaking, it covers the mind in darkness and prevents one from seeing the true Light of Ha-Kadosh baruch Hu. The klipah of ra’ash ha-anan, therefore, represents false worship, i.e. clouded worship, that is incapable of perceiving the true Light. If one is to receive nevuah, all aspects of avodah zarah must be purged from one’s life.

Illicit relations, which includes the prohibition against seeing or touching things one should not see or touch, correspond to the eish. How so? As is brought down in the Tikkunei Zohar (Tikkun 22, 64b), the first word of the Torah בְּרֵאשִׁית [bereshit] can be rearranged to spell בְּרִית אֵשׁ [brit eish, covenant of fire]. As is known, brit corresponds to the sefirah of yesod, which corresponds to circumcision, the foundational covenant of the Torah, and yesod itself corresponds to eish because it contains an aspect of gevurah. It is just like we saw above with the attribute of gevurah. It too is a two-sided coin. When used correctly and within the proper framework, the brit kodesh is a powerful force for drawing down the eish of Torah into the world; however, when used improperly in a forbidden context, it becomes an all-consuming eish that destroys everything in its path. That being said, the brit is also an אוֹת [‘ot, sign] because all the worlds, the upper worlds as well as the lower worlds, exist and endure on account of the sign of this covenant. This is the deeper meaning of Yirmeyah 33:25: כֹּה אָמַר יְיָ אִם־לֹא בְרִיתִי יוֹמָם וָלָיְלָה חֻקּוֹת שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ לֹא־שָׂמְתִּי (Thus says Hashem, if not for having established My covenant [brit], day and night, the statutes of heaven and earth…). What is the brit that Hashem is referring to here? As the Matok mi’Davash explains, it’s the sefirah of yesod. If the brit which is the sefirah of yesod had not continued to bring down shefa day and night to all the worlds, then ‘heaven and earth’, i.e. Ze’ir Anpin and Malchut, would never have been able to be in yichud with each other, and they never would have been able to give birth to new souls and renewed shefa to all the worlds. So we see that if someone is to receive nevuah, he must be completely pure from any taint of sin regarding his holy brit.

What is the point of all this? It might be an interesting study, but what’s the practical side? After all, we’re not prophets (at least not yet!).

It is brought down in Chagigah 14b that four great sages entered Pardes, i.e. they sought out to understand the lofty secrets of the Torah: pshat (corresponding to the World of Asiyah), remez (corresponding to the World of Yetzirah), drash (corresponding to the World of Beriyah), and sod, the deep Kabbalistic secrets of the Torah (corresponding to the World of Atzilut). Ben Azzai gazed and died, Ben Zoma gazed and went insane, Acher (Elisha ben Avuya) became a heretic, and R’ Akiva returned in peace. Without going on here? Each of the three sages who didn’t make it back safely stumbled in one of the three klipot that we have been describing.

Ben Azzai died because he was unable to pass through the ruach s’arah, the storm wind, which as we explained, corresponds to the klipah of murder. He had failed to completely purify himself from all thoughts of hatred which is really like murdering other people. Therefore, middah k’neged middah he died. Ben Zoma went insane. Actually the word used to describe what happened to him is נִפְגַּע, i.e. he got injured. What kind of injury did he suffer? Rashi says it means that נטרפה דעתו (he lost his mind), i.e. he went insane. But if we were look at Rashi’s more carefully, we could understand them to mean that ‘his da’at was torn to pieces’. So which klipah does this correspond to? It corresponds to the lust for niuf, for a blemish in the brit leads to a loss of da’at (Likutei Moharan 20:10): כִּי פְּגַם הַבְּרִית הוּא פְּגַם הַדַּעַת (For the blemish of the brit is [associated with] the blemish of da’at). Finally, Acher became a heretic. Clearly, this corresponds to the klipah of idolatry that festered in his mind, as the Gemara states in Chagigah 15b: זֶמֶר יְווֹנִי לָא פְּסַק מִפּוּמֵּיהּ (Greek music never ceased from his mouth).

R’ Akiva, on the other hand, returned in peace. Like his predecessors Eliyahu ha-Navi and Yechezkel ha-Navi, he passed right through each of these barriers. How was he able to do this? It is written in Tosefta Chagigah 2: רבי עקיבה עלה בשלום וירד בשלום (R’ Akiva ascended in peace and descended in peace). In other words, he was able to leave in peace because he entered in peace. He was already in an inner state of peace when he began, a quality of the mind that the others did not have, at least not completely. And that’s the reason for his successful journey.

What was the exact nature of the peace that protected R’ Akiva? It was a threefold peace. He was at peace with others, with Hashem and with himself. Being at peace with others allowed him to pass through the ruach s’arah (the klipah associated with the spirit of murder), being at peace with Hashem allowed him to pass through the anan gadol (the klipah associated with avodah zarah), and being at peace with himself allowed him to pass through the eish mitlakachat (the klipah associated with niuf).

But this doesn’t just have to be the case for R’ Akiva. It can become the case for all of us as well, as it is written (Yoel 3:1): וְהָיָה אַחֲרֵי־כֵן אֶשְׁפּוֹךְ אֶת־רוּחִי עַל־כׇּל־בָּשָׂר וְנִבְּאוּ בְּנֵיכֶם וּבְנוֹתֵיכֶם זִקְנֵיכֶם חֲלֹמוֹת יַחֲלֹמוּן בַּחוּרֵיכֶם חֶזְיֹנוֹת יִרְאוּ (And it will come to pass afterward, that I will pour out My spirit on all flesh, and your sons and daughters will prophesy, your elders will dream dreams and your unmarried men will see visions).

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