פרשת בשלח

Who is like You, O Lord, among the mighty;
Who is like You, majestic in holiness?

Who is like You, O Lord, among the mighty – God’s essential being is hidden from the eyes of all living creatures, and no one can grasp Him, as is explained in the Talmud (B. Gittin 56b),

Aba Chanan said (Psalms 89:9), Who is mighty like You, O Lord? [Rather it should be read] Who is like You, mighty in self-restraint? You heard the blasphemy and insults of that wicked man, and You kept silent!
In the school of Rabi Ishmael it was taught: Who is like You, O Lord, among the mighty באלם [Rather read] Who is like You among the mute באלמים!

Majestic in holiness – meaning explicitly revealed. Within everything one can recognize distinctly and with clarity that there is a Creator, for all that is created reveals there must be a Creator. Every time she encounters the world, the God-seeker will ask herself “Who created this?”

This is the interpretation of the liturgical hymn Majesty and Faithfulness are His who lives forever. Majesty refers to being explicitly revealed, and Faithfulness refers to being hidden and concealed. Something which is not hidden does not require faith, rather it is what is concealed that necessitates faith.
Conversely, the only thing [about God] which is “explicit” to a person is the radical wonder which engenders the question “Who created this?” These two things, the hidden and the revealed, are only able to coexist in God alone.

 

The Jewish people just crossed the sea and witnessed something beyond belief.  It was so miraculous that they were collectively and spontaneously moved to song, to give praise and thanks and expression to this overwhelming feeling inside.  And even there, at the climax of God’s entrance into the world, they resist the urge to make a statement, to solidify and concretize this ecstatic experience of the Divine, to try and make an absolute claim about God in world.  Instead they ask the question “Who is like You?”

Because a question, as the Ishbitzer points out, is all we have.  Not in a limiting way.  It is the only way.  A question allows the object of one’s questioning to never be tied down, to remain larger and greater than any answer we could provide.  Whether we are questioning if God is even here, silent in the face of injustice, or because we are so moved by a beauty in the world that transcends the boundaries of what we thought was possible, it is always a question.

 

Link to original Hebrew text

פרשת וארא

God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am the Lord.”

After Moses spoke his words at God [questioning God’s judgment in sending Moses to petition on behalf of the Jewish people], God reprimanded him. This is seen from text’s use of the word spoke דבר, for this implies harsh language. Similarly, the divine name of God אלהי-ם is a reference to [harsh language and judgment].

Immediately afterwards, the text follows with And said to him. This is like a person who gets angry at his friend yet loves him dearly, and when he sees his friend standing in shock and fear, he intimates to him that all his anger was surface-deep and is fleeting.

This is the essence of And said to him, “I am the Lord,” for the word said אמר implies soft and gentle language. God whispered to Moses that He was not speaking out of anger, God forbid. This is also demonstrated by Him saying

I am the Lord י-ה-ו-ה. The blessed divine name abounds in compassion, and the rebuke I gave you was only for a moment, and you have nothing to fear at all.

 

There is a difference between how we speak to others and how we wish we spoke to others. We are always trying to express a deep part of ourselves and make that known to another, striving to say “This is who I am and this is how I so badly want to be and act in the world, and please see that.” Sometimes it can be harsh, but underneath it is this endlessly fertile ground of compassion.
So too with God. He starts out with a caustic rebuke of Moses’s doubt, but is able to be so quick in reassuring Moses of His love for him. God’s actions are remarkable here because He can do it in the same breath. Some of us take much longer to really see the impact of our words on the people we love, and only later can we bring compassion into the relationship.

These early chapters of Exodus are all about Moses and God getting to know each other, figuring out who the other is, and setting the groundwork for everything that will follow from this partnership. There is a lot of back and forth between them about who God is, what name to use when introducing Him, what kind of a deity will He be for the Jewish people. The Ishbitzer is showing us a beautiful moment early on in this courtship. God recognizes the power of His words and rushes to comfort Moses when He sees the frailty and vulnerability of human beings. He tells Moses not to be afraid, that everything they do that is lasting and eternal (leaving Egypt, receiving the Torah, their wanderings through the desert towards the Promised Land) will be rooted in and filled with compassion. This simultaneous acknowledgment of the other’s limitations and reassurance is the promise that God lovingly whispers to Moses. It is the foundation of everything they and we will do as partners with the Divine, as we relive these episodes over and over again, in the text and in our lives.

 

Link to original Hebrew text

פרשת שמות

But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?”
And He said, “I will be with you; that shall be your sign that it was I who sent you.
And when you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain.”

Moses was asking two questions:

  1. Who am I – he was requesting that God reveal to him why he was chosen over all others to free the the Israelites
  2. And free the Israelites from Egypt – While it is true that the Egyptians were forcing the Israelites to do oppressive labor and obviously they should be freed, what will be when they leave? Certainly it is not God’s intention to improve their situation only on a physical level [accomplished by simply taking them out of Egypt].

And so God answered:

  1. To the question Who am I, God responds I will be with you – Because I know that you, Moses, are not drawn to anything for yourself, only what I send to you.
    Moses’s name actually indicates this, as it says (Exodus 2:10), “She named him Moses משה, explaining ‘I drew him משיתהו out of the water,’” meaning that he was stripped of all personal desire and pleasure, and felt no pride from that fact that the Divine Presence was speaking to him.
  2. To the question And free the Israelites from Egypt (and the concern about God merely providing physical respite), God responds I will be with you…you shall worship God at this mountain – I will bring all of you under my yoke of Torah, and I will be engaged with you in that which is alive and eternal.
    This is why God says to Moses That shall be your sign that it was I  אנכי who sent you, and not I  אני, for the letter כ refers to something eternal [and infinitely unfolding], as is known.

 

The work of becoming, of figuring out Who am I? is not about getting to a comfortable place where we are focused on satisfying anything and trying to definitively answer the question. It is about constantly touching and uncovering that infinite part within, that inexhaustible vitality which is so much bigger than we could ever imagine.
Moses is exemplary for a few reasons. His humility does not restrict or inhibit him. It puts him in dialogue with a God who sends him to repair a broken world. To elevate those around him, allowing them to tap into something so much greater, placing themselves under a yoke that is not oppressive and dehumanizing, but enlivening and endless. He can do this because it’s not about him. It’s about the divine will flowing unrestricted through him.
The Ishbitzer points us to something else about Moses. In his initial question Who am I
מי אנכי, he’s intuiting the sign that God will provide and placing it on himself, the כ that is infinite and everlasting and is always in a process of being revealed, but never being finale. He understands that this question, this work, is without end. Who we are can never fully be answered, because there is no end to who we can be. By living for something other than ourselves, by attaching ourselves to that infinite, we begin to reveal ourselves and surprise ourselves and gain the strength to go closer and deeper.

 

Link to originial Hebrew text

פרשת ויחי

And Jacob called to his sons

In the Midrash (Tanchuma Vayehi, 8), it is taught (Psalms 57:3),
I will call to God Most High,
to God who completes it for me.

When Jacob wanted to bless his sons, he was unsure if he really needed to bless them on account of all the distress they caused him (from the selling of Joseph), for it is taught (Talmud Yoma 22b), “Any scholar who is not vengeful and vindictive like a serpent is no [real] scholar.” Therefore, the text says called, meaning crying out and yearning with all his heart that Heaven should guide his heart and mind, and that God should place the right words [the blessings] on his tongue. This is the intention of Midrash in citing the verse from Psalms, that Jacob requests from God to complete the blessing for him.
This is why the text does not initially use the traditional blessing form, for Jacob was still not sure what he was going to say to them. However, Moses begins immediately when he says (Deuteronomy 33:1), “This is the blessing…” for the word This refers to all his words being clear the moment he starts speaking. It only became clear to Jacob after his blessings, when the text reads “This is what their father said to them,” that everything he said was from God, and not before.

At the start, God put words of annoyance in his mouth to goad his first three sons, for a scholar needs to be avenged and vindicated. When he gets to Judah, God reveals to him that he should overcome these spiteful qualities, for the name Judah יהודה contains the Blessed Divine Name י-ה-ו-ה. The dalet ד in his name hints at (Isaiah 66:2), “Yet to such a one I look: To the poor and brokenhearted, who trembles at my word.” meaning one who understands that nothing he does comes from him, as is taught in the Zohar that dalet ד takes [Jacob understands that everything Judah did was divinely inspired, so it would be inappropriate to employ the same vitriol that he used when blessing his first three sons].
That is why there is no room for any anger or fury at all. When the aspect of compassion opened up with the blessing of Judah, it overcame [all the negative words of Jacob’s previous “blessing”] and reincorporated all the tribes in this blessing.

Jacob is hurting. He has been put through so much, and even though everything turned out for the best, it does not mitigate the anguish and heal the deep scars within. And yet from that tormented place he is able to give blessings. It is because of that uncertainty that he calls out to God to just guide him to do the right thing, which he knows is bless his kids. He knows they need it and that he needs to be the one doing it, but he isn’t at the place (yet) where he can do what is required of him. So he asks God for help finding the words.

The Ishbitzer points out how we get to watch Jacob’s process unfold. He chastises and holds the first three accountable for the damage they caused. He isn’t over it yet. When he gets to Judah though, he sees how there was something bigger in the works, his heart breaks and opens, and compassion comes flooding in.

It is like we have seen over and over again with the Ishbitzer. Be real about where you are at and don’t pretend. AND work through it and with it to transcend your current state, to come to the place of being able to do what needs to be done. It is only from confronting the depth of your emotions, by bringing all of yourself, with all the pain and yearning and hope, that the divine will can begin to speak and act through you.

Link to original Hebrew text

פרשת מקץ

After two years’ time, Pharoah dreamed

In the Zohar (Genesis 193b):
Rabbi Elezar opened (Psalms 18:47),

The Lord lives!
Blessed is my Rock!
Exalted be God, my salvation.

The Lord lives! – this is one who has a pure heart and is cleansed of all earthly desires. She cleaves only to what is Eternal in this life.
Blessed is my Rock! – she recognizes that all good comes from God, and therefore is able to see the good in everything [since she understands the divine source of reality].
And thus, exalted be God, my salvation – she will achieve an even loftier kind of salvation, surpassing the limits of her comprehension.
Before a person has refined herself in these two ways, God is not able to provide her with salvation, for she has not yet made herself a vessel with the clarity to receive it.

After two years’ time, after Joseph had refined himself according to these two paths, only then did Pharoah dream, and Joseph immediately achieved salvation.
[Referring to Joseph, the Psalmist states (Psalms 105:19)], “Until his prediction came true, the decree of the Lord purged him.
On that night, Joseph’s crying out to God became so great, “Return, O Lord! How Long?” and immediately he was saved.
About this it is written (Psalms 88:2), “O Lord, God of my salvation, when I cry out in the night before you,” This is God’s way: Before He saves, He draws out this cry of desperation in a person’s heart so that when she cries out, it will be her own.

 

Why does the Torah go out of its way to mention these two years? Turns out Joseph was doing the necessary (TWO-tiered) soul-searching in order to get saved. What does this work look like? The Ishbitzer on the Zohar (on Psalms) lays out two preconditions for salvation.
The first is letting go of the pull of physical reality. The world is bigger than what you see, so do not get bogged down in how things present themselves (to you). But it is not about denying this world. The Ishbitzer makes the subtle turn back towards the goodness inherent in everything. When I let go of my “desire” towards something – my complex and muddled self-absorption in a thing – then I can begin to see the real beauty in it, the good behind it all that is separate from me, and comes from a much deeper place.
And then Boom. Salvation. Enlightenment. Which is entirely God’s doing. But if I cannot let go of the world so I can fall madly in love with the world, then God won’t (can’t?) do anything for me.

 

Link to original Hebrew text

פרשת וישב

But Er, Judah’s first-born, was displeasing to the Lord, and the Lord took his life

Rashi explains “Er’s sin was wasting his semen and not impregnating Tamar, and he did so lest he ruin her beauty.”
Er’s sin arose (as has been explained) from Jacob’s request to dwell in tranquility, ie. to avoid any potentially transgressive behavior. But this is not what God wants in the world. Therefore, God reveals to him “See that one of your progeny will also intentionally avoid actions that could cause a loss, only his will be from the loss of something physical. Open your eyes and mind to the importance of this!”
Jacob had this failure of character as well, only his was in his service of God. He did not want to ruin the beauty of his service. When this kind of internal flaw spreads and becomes actualized, it manifests as an explicit sin. So it is with all the thoughts of our forefathers. They put little stock in their own thoughts, but later God refines it and creates an entirely new soul/person to actualize that potential, and thus She clarifies the extent of this refining [and the incredible potential of their seemingly insignificant thoughts].

The sin of Er and Onan can be explained by the Mishnah (Avot 2:1),

Rabbi would say: Which is the right path for man to choose for himself? Whatever is
1) Harmonious for himself, and
2) Harmonious for humankind

Harmonious for himself – The action the person does finds favor in the eyes of others.
Harmonious for humankind – The action will be Good, down to his very core, such that it accords with the ideal of human existence.
A person has to look and make sure that all his actions line up with these two paths. If one is faced with a situation where there is not a synthesis of these two paths, then the disagreement between the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai is brought to life (Talmud Ketubot 17a):

Our Rabbis taught: What does one say when he dances in front of the bride? The House of Shammai say: Praise her as she is, and The House of Hillel say: The bride is pleasing and pious.

Shammai holds that what is essential is being harmonious for himself, for if he says that the bride is pleasing and pious, then he will not find favor in the eyes of others since the Torah tells us to stay far from lies.
Hillel says the bride is pleasing and pious. Even though there is no harmony for himself due to his lie, one does not have to live according to the normative standards of others, for he is doing what is harmonious for humankind, and one is obligated in this, [as it is written (Proverbs 3:4), “And you will find favor in the eyes of God and (only afterwards) man.”] And as we explained there (Talmud ibid.),

The House of Hillel said to the House of Shammai: According to your words, if one made a bad purchase in the market (and cannot replace it), should one praise it or denigrate it in his eyes? Surely one should praise it in his eyes!

Er governed himself according to the principle of harmonious for humankind.
It is known that new life cannot come to this world except through hiding and forgetting. Just like a planted seed cannot grow unless it first decays in the ground, so too with humankind. The Drop of Life that descends from the mind cannot be birthed into the world except through the process of thickening and materializing into semen. In this moment (of ejaculation) a person’s consciousness is suspended and forgotten, and if he were to always have God Consciousness, he would not be able to achieve this necessary forgetting that allows birth to occur.
Er was only in the state of harmonious to humankind. He always had clear insight into what God wanted of him and constantly stood in awareness of God. He never wanted to lose sight of this awareness. This is the meaning of Rashi’s explanation that he did not want to ruin her beauty, “her” being the harmony/beauty of Israel [which assumingly was achieved by his unwavering state of God Consciousness].
Onan took the second path. He saw that Judah wanted him to perform Levirate marriage with Tamar to preserve his brother’s name via his seed. This was wrong in his eyes, as it was only for his brother’s sake and he gained nothing from it, and so he bore a grudge. This way is characteristic even of great and righteous individuals, and this is referred to as harmonious for himself.

 

It is a sin to forget about God, but according to the Ishbitzer it is also a sin to never take any risks and not forget about God! This is big for the Ishbitzer. A sin for a higher purpose. It is still a sin, but it is built into the fabric of existence and necessitated by God. I’m going to posit though that this is not supposed to be some radical teaching all about holy sins (even though it is). It is about how we walk on our Path in this world. It is going to be mamash so hard. You may even have to lie to brides and your friends along the way. That’s just how it is. It is a character flaw to wish it wasn’t. By saying you have to forget about God sometimes, by allowing us to sin for God and make our divine service filthy and unattractive, the Ishbitzer is giving us one more tool to try and walk in this world. He is saying “Go for it, and don’t worry so much about how it is going to look. Just get started!” If we can forget about God, just for a second, it may allow for the I to come back into focus long enough to ask “What is it that I am supposed to be creating/bringing to the world?” Maybe that is why Er has to die, or put another way, why he is unable to exist in this world. There is simply no place here for a person who is so afraid to ruin something beautiful that he is paralyzed from doing anything at all. Of course God wants your absolute devotion! But when it gets to the point that you are not breathing new life into it, that you are unable to move from your current place to an unknown and potentially more difficult place of growth, what’s the point at all?

Link to the original Hebrew text (מ״ויהי ער״ עד ״אונן נקרא תפארת לעושיה״)

פרשת וישלח

God parted from him at the spot where He had spoken to him

God revealed to Jacob that he required further clarification [concerning the sale of Joseph], thus “God parted from him.” It is as if Jacob still needed to cleave to God.
At the spot where He had spoken to him,” The same language of spoken to him is employed elsewhere in reference to money, and it is in this matter [of money] that Jacob requires further clarification, for he was not yet entirely at peace [with what is to come].

Similarly with Abraham, the Torah states (Genesis 17:22), “And when he was done speaking with him, God was gone from Abraham,” which occurred after the episode of circumcision. Even though Abraham still had to be tested with the Binding of Isaac, the text does not state “at the spot where He had spoken to him,” for he was ready to move on to an altogether different divine test.

 

(This time more than others I truly hope I understand what the Ishbitzer is trying to tell us, but no promises)
Why does the text need to mention the detail about where God left from? When speaking to Abraham, the Torah did not find it necessary to mention it – just that God left him post-prophecy. The Ishbitzer is trying to get us to see that Jacob still had more to do in himself. He was not yet ready to accept what God had said, and believe that everything would be for the good. He needed to go through the painful work of confronting the sell/loss of Joseph and somehow remain a person of unwaivering faith in God’s promise.

Not so with Abraham. Abraham understood clearly how things were going to play out with Isaac and Ishmael and their respective birthrights, and so he didn’t need God to stick around. Or rather, he didn’t need to keep holding on to God and let Her reveal the depths of this trial. Or, he didn’t need to continue being in constant dialogue with God about how conflicting realities can exist simultaneously in the world, and how to live as a complete person in this complex and paradoxical world.

Jacob needed more time. So it says God left him “at the spot.” Jacob is still in the same place. The trial is the same but the details keep changing. Sometimes we are like Jacob. God is not speaking to us and revealing Herself, but we need to press on with our work anyhow. We need to keep going deeper and working on ourselves until we arrive at that place of inner peace.

Link to the original Hebrew text