“…And he shall take the ashes… and place them beside the Mizbeach. He shall then take off his garments and put on other garments…”

It is commonly assumed that “breaking our traits” or “overcoming our desires” is imperative to spiritual growth and attaining the completion of character for which we were sent down to this world. The Baal Shem Tov and his students revealed a new path toward the service of God for the last generation before the ultimate redemption. To these tzaddikim, it was not about “breaking” or “overcoming” negative traits but rather about nullifying the ego to Hashem’s will and elevating these traits by channeling them for a holy purpose. In line with his understanding that everything in our world contains a spark of perfect goodness, the Baal Shem taught that even the basest human desires and the most negative impulses can be utilized within the framework of avodas Hashem for a lofty cause. All that is needed is to replace the “dirty garment”, the improper use. A Jew who struggles with an angry nature is able to transform that natural energy into passionate prayer or a fiery session of Torah study. Love and desire could be gently lifted from the wrong destination, dusted off, and refocused on the proper object of a Jew’s deepest love and desire, our Father in heaven.

The Noam Elimelech sees this concept hinted to in a verse from this week’s Torah reading. “And he shall take the ashes…”: The method for dealing with the “ashes”, the negative aspects of our personality is: “and place them beside the Mizbeach”. As the tool which transformed lowly animals into the holiest sacrifices, the Mizbeach represents elevation of the physical to the realm of spirituality. The key to fixing one’s personality is by elevating physical desires to the pursuit of holiness. Indeed, “He shall then take of his garments and put on other garments”: one must remove the impure shell from the negative trait and replace it with freshly laundered garments of holiness and proper intent.

A negative trait is merely a dirty bottle filled with clean water. Our middos, rooted in Hashem’s revelation, are essentially good. The question is, what garment are they wearing?

Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk
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R’ Yaakov Klein is the founder of the Lost Princess Initiative, an author, musician, and lecturer devoted to sharing the inner light of Torah through his books, music, and lectures.

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