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THE HOLIDAY of Tisha B’Av, on which we mourn the tragic destruction of both Holy Temples and the resultant Jewish exile that has lasted unto the present day (may G-d in His mercy end it immediately!), is the culmination of the period known as “the Three Weeks,” also focused on the above theme. However, this mourning does not imply despair, for we are ever mindful of the fact that G-d does nothing that is not for the good: even such a national calamity as the destruction of the Holy Temple is merely, at its deepest root, a veil hiding an essential good which is so supreme as to elude our limited mortal perception. Furthermore, with the imminent arrival of the Moshiach (Messiah), we will be able to perceive the underlying good of G-d’s actions. That is why – in addition to the obvious fact that the holiday which once marked the destruction of the Temples and the beginning of exile will then assume a joyous aspect in that the Temples will have been rebuilt and the exile ended – our sages teach that with Moshiach’s arrival, Tisha B’Av will be transformed into a day of indescribable joy: its true nature will then be apparent, and we will celebrate the great good that G-d had bestowed upon us all along.
In keeping with the above, the “Three Weeks” is a time of hope and anticipation, as we look forward expectantly to G-d’s transforming our very suffering itself into joy. This is hastened by our doing what G-d expects of us: study of Torah and performance of mitzvos, especially the mitzvah of tz’dakah, charity, which is considered equivalent to all the mitzvos. By our having compassion on others, may G-d have compassion upon us and rebuild the Holy Temple immediately.
This idea is expressed by the verse (Isaiah 1:27), “Zion will be redeemed with justice, and her returnees with charity.” As this week’s Torah portion, D’varim, is always read on the Shabbos before Tisha B’Av, it is fitting to reflect on the above verse and explore some of its inner significance.
The verse (Deuteronomy 6:6), “and these words [i.e., the Torah], which I command you this day [shall be upon your heart],” means that a person should consider the words of Torah ever fresh and relevant to him or her, as though he or she received the Torah anew each and every day – as our sages teach (Sifri on the above verse, 33; quoted by the classic commentator Rashi in his explanation of Deuteronomy 26:16), “Every day, they should be new in your eyes.” To understand how a person can surpass mere platitude and achieve this feeling genuinely, we need to realize why it was necessary for the soul to descend into this physical world: after all, was not the soul, which originated in the loftiest heights (even higher than angels) perfectly well off as it was? What does it gain by being born into a body, even if it does live a life of Torah and mitzvos?
The answer is hinted at in the wording of the prayer Elokai Neshama, which we recite upon awakening every morning. It reads as follows: “My G-d, the soul that You have placed into me is pure. You created it; You formed it; You breathed it into me; and You preserve it within me .… As long as the soul is within me, I give thanks before you, O G-d …. Blessed are You, G-d, Who restores souls to dead bodies.”
The reference to the soul as “pure” alludes to its origin in the supernal purity (“tahiru ila’ah,” see Zohar I, 15a) of heaven. The expression, “You created it” is a reference to G-d having brought the soul as we now know it into being out of nothingness. This is the first of many spiritual steps allowing for the possibility of actual investiture of the soul within a physical body: “You breathed it into me.” But even this last is not all there is to it; the soul’s character remains spiritual and its natural tendency is to leave the body and return to G-d. Accordingly, it is necessary for G-d to exert some “supervision” over the soul, watching over it and preserving it in its bodily form. This is what is meant by “You preserve it within me.”
The above corresponds to G-d’s relation to the world as immanent within creation, responsible for the individual nature and details of every thing; and also as transcendent, exerting influence from above, as it were, without investing Himself within the specifics of the universe.
The prayer goes on to express thanks to G-d, and concludes with the traditional form of blessing, “Blessed are You, etc.”
In Talmudic times, this prayer was the very first thing uttered upon awakening from sleep (see B’rachos 60b); it was thus the beginning and foundation of our worship for the entire day.
In the Elokai Neshama prayer, the expression, “I give thanks to You” is modeh ani l’fanecha. The Hebrew language does not have a word that is precisely equivalent to the English “thanks”; the concept of “thanks” is expressed by the word hoda’ah (of which modeh is a form), which literally denotes “concession” or “admission.” That is, one who has received something “concedes” his or her indebtedness to the benefactor. Yet the word hoda’ah carries (as do its English equivalents) an implication of prior dispute; one side is now conceding to the other, as in, e.g., the Talmudic expression, “the Sages concede (modim) to Rabbi Meir.” This being the case, and in light of the fact that the Hebrew language is the “Holy Tongue,” whose every nuance is meaningful, we must ask how the expression hoda’ah is appropriate as applied to G-d. What possible “difference of opinion,” as it were, could exist between G-d and us insignificant mortals, that we should “concede” to Him upon awakening from sleep?
The answer, however, is not really that difficult, for indeed, one may identify two conflicting perspectives on the universe. It appears to us (albeit due to our own inadequate perception) that our earthly existence is “reality” and anything we cannot see or touch is only “ideal,” “imagination,” or some such term. Thus, even with the best of intentions, we speak of having been created by G-d yesh me’ayin, “something out of nothing” – as though we are the “something” and G-d is the “nothing.” But, of course, that is a fundamental mistake. G-d’s perspective is exactly the opposite: it is He Who is the true existence, the true “Something,” and we who are but “nothing” before Him. Thus, the very foundation of our worship is to “concede” this point to G-d: as soon as we regain consciousness in the morning, we must adopt G-d’s perspective, the true perspective, on reality.
Each and every Jew has it within him or her to achieve this “concession” to G-d, this recognition of His truth. However, this is not to say that everyone has fully internalized this idea; unfortunately, that may not be so at all. Hoda’ah does not imply that one has thoroughly embraced and internalized the proposition in question, has become suffused with a realization of its certainty. Hoda’ah simply means that one admits and recognizes that this must be so, but one can still be quite remote from a true internalization of the idea. In this respect, hoda’ah corresponds to the “transcendence” discussed earlier: the idea is not really one’s own, it does not pervade one through and through, it may be thought of as something taken on faith, which transcends one’s own reason.
On the other hand, the Hebrew word for “blessing,” b’racha, connotes drawing down from above to the point of being internalized. For example, the Talmud (B’rachos 7a) tells of an incident involving the High Priest Rabbi Yishmael son of Elisha, who related, “Once, I went in to offer up the incense in the Holy of Holies, and I beheld [G-d] sitting on a high and exalted throne. He said to me, ‘Yishmael, My son, bless Me.’” Although in context, this Talmudic narrative teaches us not to take the blessing of an ordinary person lightly (even G-d Himself valued the blessing of Rabbi Yishmael, a mortal), it has deeper, mystical significance. G-d did not really need Rabbi Yishmael’s blessing, of course; rather, the word barcheini – “bless Me” – is to be understood in its elemental sense of “through your worship, accomplish the drawing down of My holiness even into the physical world.” Likewise, we find the expression (Psalms 106:48), “Blessed is G-d from world to world,” which does not mean so much “May G-d receive a ‘blessing’” as “May G-d’s holiness be revealed and transmitted down to us from the lofty spiritual world known as alma d’iskasya (the “hidden realm,” so called because it is beyond our ability to perceive) into this world in which we live, known as alma d’isgalya (the “revealed world,” that is, in which G-d’s manifestation takes a form more accessible to our limited perception).”
The point is that although we start our prayers with hoda’ah – recognition of G-d’s truth, even if only as an article of faith – we must work towards achieving b’racha, the point at which the knowledge of G-d’s true perspective is as certain to us as if we could actually see it. This is to be accomplished in the Sh’moneh Esreh prayer, so called because it means “eighteen,” a reference to the eighteen b’rachos, blessings, it contains.
For this to happen, we need what was referred to in the verse quoted earlier: “and these words [i.e., the Torah], which I command you this day.” For it is only through Torah and mitzvos (which cannot be performed by souls in Heaven, but only in this life) that one can draw G-d down to an immanent, “internal” level. And this in turn depends upon the prior verse “And you shall love G-d your G-d”: it is love of G-d that motivates performance of mitzvos. These verses are recited in the Shema prayer, which comes before the Sh’moneh Esreh: in order to progress from the level of hoda’ah to the level of b’racha, one must attain ahava – love – along the way.
In the Shema, the abovementioned verses are preceded by the verses, “Hear O Israel, G-d is our G-d, G-d is One,” and “Blessed is the name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever.” Another way to understand the characterization of creation as “something out of nothing” is that G-d Himself is so exalted, so utterly above all, that creation can only be attributed to Him in the same way that the projects of a king are attributable to him. The king commands, for example, that a bridge be erected or a city built, and those things are done without his ever having physically lifted a shovel. Nevertheless, they are considered the king’s deeds, the king’s accomplishments; they reflect glory on the king even though he was not personally involved. Similarly, G-d’s creation of the universe is said to be a function of His attribute of Sovereignty, for He Himself is exalted above creation, yet brought it all into being by His command. The expression creation out of “nothing” can be understood to allude to this idea: the spiritual level that is the source of our creation is itself “nothing” as compared to G-d’s actual “Self” (allegorically speaking). And this is the inner meaning of “Blessed is the name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever”: the Hebrew word for “forever,” l’olam, also means “world”; the implication being that it is “the name of G-d’s glorious kingdom,” His attribute of Sovereignty, that allows for the creation of all worlds.
However, the above – that creation stems from “nothing” in the sense that everything is rooted “only” in G-d’s attribute of Sovereignty (malchus) – only describes the state of affairs G-d has seen fit to establish as the usual order of spiritual progression. There is an advantage in Torah and mitzvos in that, through them, we can supercede this natural order (seder ha-hishtalshelus) and draw down into the world an element of the transcendent aspect of G-d. That is why the Shema prayer goes on to include the verse “and these words [i.e., the Torah], which I command you this day.” The Hebrew word for “I” in this verse is anochi, which implies a level of G-dliness so deep, as it were, that it cannot be expressed by any Divine name; G-d is simply “I.” The word for “[I] command you,” m’tzav’cha, implies connection, attachment. The verse is thus saying that through “these words [of Torah],” you are literally connected and attached to, not merely G-d’s attribute of malchus, a relatively “superficial” manifestation of G-dliness, but that lofty and inexpressible level of G-d’s “personal” Self (allegorically speaking) that can only be referred to as “I.” This can only be accomplished “this day” – i.e., in this life, wherein we have the opportunity to study Torah and perform mitzvos.
That is another aspect of what is meant by the feeling that the Torah is fresh and new “every day”: that through the entirety of “this day,” that is, our present, worldly life, one should value the Torah and mitzvos because they represent one’s opportunity to break free of the boundaries and limitations of this world and the entire fixed order of spiritual progression and link up with the transcendence of G-d.
This also sheds light on the Shema’s exhortation to “love G-d your G-d with all your hearts.” The plural (“hearts”) is used instead of the singular, despite the singular context of the rest of the verse, a fact which our sages explain (see B’rachos 54a; Sifri ch. 32) as meaning that one should love G-d with both chambers of one’s heart. Jewish philosophy associates the right chamber of the heart with joy and the left chamber with bitterness and regret. In that light, the verse means that one should love G-d to the point that the true recognition that “G-d” is “your G-d” – that is, that the lofty spiritual level associated with the Divine name Havaye (the first word used in the verse for “G-d”) should be so close to you that you relate to G-d on this level as Elokecha (the second word for “G-d”); your own, personal G-d – should be expressed in both extremes of your emotions: bitterness over the recognition of how low one is mired in this physical world and its temptations, and at the same time, joy over the priceless opportunity to transcend all that through Torah and mitzvos. And the greater the bitterness one feels over distance from G-d, the greater the joy at the revelation of G-dliness though mitzvos.
(Although the full revelation of G-dliness inherent within mitzvos will not be apparent until the future, one can still rejoice, just as someone would who possesses a closed treasure chest full of precious jewels. He or she may not see the jewels, but still rejoices over having them.)
Now, everything we have said above is the way things ought to be: one’s bitter feelings should be over distance from G-d and one’s joy should be over attachment to Him. What can one do, however, if one’s emotions are not that well “trained”? What, in other words, about most of us – whose bitter regrets and sadness concern not having enough worldly satisfaction (not necessarily from forbidden things (G-d forbid), but even in such important matters as family, health and food), and whose joys are because they do have those things?
That situation is considered “exile” for the spark of Divinity within each of us: our G-dly souls are “captive” to our animal souls. This essential spark of G-d in every Jew is termed “Zion,” since this word means a “sign” (see Ezekiel 39:15; also Zohar I, 225a): it is the focal point and sign of the Jew’s very essence. This, then, is the meaning of the verse, “Zion will be redeemed with justice, and her returnees with charity.”
“Justice” – mishpat in Hebrew – refers to the laws (halachos) of the Torah and its mitzvos, as seen from the translation by the classic Aramaic translator Onkelos of the verse (Genesis 40:13), “kamishpat harishon” as “k’hilchasa kamaisa.” That is, through “justice” – studying the exact requirements, halachos, of the Torah’s mitzvos – “Zion” – the inner point of G-dliness within us, motivating the natural love for G-d hidden within each Jew’s heart – will be redeemed from its exile within our animal souls. This is in accordance with the teaching of our sages (Vayikra Rabba 7:3), “the exiles would not be gathered in but for the merit of mishnah study [which embodies the halachos].”
The next part of the verse, “and her returnees with charity,” can also be read “and her captives with charity,” since the Hebrew words are cognates. The “captives” are the two chambers of the heart, whose emotions of bitterness and joy are, in their “exile” and “captivity” within the animal soul, misdirected to worldly matters. (Note, however, that the expression “captive” is not used with respect to “Zion,” the G-dly spark itself in the heart of each Jew, for this cannot be captive.) These are redeemed with charity, since charity involves compassion on those less fortunate. Our treating others with compassion leads G-d, in turn, to treat us with compassion, as we pray (in the introductory blessing to the Shema), “have compassion upon us and place understanding within our hearts” – so that their two chambers will then, so to speak, realize what are the fitting objects of their emotions, i.e., G-dly as opposed to worldly concerns.
Finally, we said earlier that our objective is to achieve not merely hoda’ah, recognition “from a distance” and as an article of faith, but that internalized, pervasive realization of G-dliness that is associated with the concept of b’racha, blessing, or drawing down from above. This level is identified with Zion (the very inner point of the heart, deeper than conscious love), as it is written (Psalms 133:3), “… like the dew of Chermon that descends upon the mountains of Zion; for there G-d has directed the blessing….” Now, the Torah itself involves that same “drawing down” represented by blessing. This is because, in accordance with the well known teaching (Zohar II, 121a; see there also at 85a) that “the Torah comes forth from [G-d’s] wisdom,” the Torah stems from an utterly inscrutable level of holiness, and in order for it to be expressed for us in a manner we can relate to, it must be drawn forth in the manner of b’racha. It is therefore specifically “Zion,” associated as it is with b’racha, that is redeemed through mishpat, i.e., studying the halachos of the Torah, which is also associated with b’racha.
May G-d, in His mercy, grant that “Zion will be redeemed with justice and her returnees with charity,” especially in the plainest, most simple sense, i.e., the immediate rebuilding of our Holy Temple and the end of all exile, and may these days be transformed into rejoicing and happiness right now!
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