Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Great Maggid on “Nothingness”

(Painting by Larry Poons)

In honor of the upcoming yahrtzeit of the Maggid of Mezeritch, “Yud-Tes Kislev,” we are posting several translations from the Maggid’s teachings on “Nothingness (Ayin)” from Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s “Meditationand Kabbalah” (Samuel Weiser), pp. 300-303.

As Rabbi Kaplan later shows in his ground-breaking book, this mystical theme is picked up by the Maggid’s illustrious disciple, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev in “Kedushas Levi.” It is also central to the thought of another towering disciple of the Maggid, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, in “Pri Ha’aretz.” In recent years, these concepts have served as the foundation for a revival of Chassidic meditation in Jerusalem.

Nothingness (Ayin)

The many levels of the mind include the thinker, thought and speech. One is influenced by the other.

Speech exists in time. Thought is also in time, since a person has different thoughts at different times.

There is also an essence that binds the thinker to thought. This is an essence that cannot be grasped. It is the attribute of Nothingness. It is often referred to as the Hyle [the state between potential and realization].

An egg becomes a chicken. There is, however, an instant when it is neither chicken nor egg. No person can determine that instant, for in that instant, it is a state of Nothingness.

The same is true of the transition of thinker to thought, or of thought to speech. It is impossible to grasp the essence that unites them … In order to bind them all together, one must reach the level of Nothingness.

Moses thus said, “If Nothingness, erase me” (Exodus 32:32). [The Israelites had bowed down to the Golden Calf and] had been blemished by idolatry. What Moses wanted to do was elevate them back to their original level. He therefore brought himself to the level of Nothingness, and [wishing to go still higher he prayed, “erase me” [Rabbi Kaplan here references the Abulafian technique of “erasing (mechikah)” all mental images from the mind.] When [Moses] reached the highest level, he was able to bind all things on high (Maggid Devarav le-Yaakov #96).


Think of yourself as nothing, and totally forget yourself when you pray. Only have in mind that you are praying for the Divine Presence.

You can then enter the Universe of Thought, a state that is beyond time. Everything in this realm is the same, life and death, land and sea.

... But in order to enter the Universe of Thought, where all is the same, you must relinquish your ego, and forget all your troubles.

You cannot reach this level if you attach yourself to physical worldly things. For then, you are attached to the division between good and evil, which is included in the seven days of creation. How then can you approach a level above time, where absolute unity reigns?

Furthermore, if you consider yourself as “something,” and ask for your own needs, then God cannot clothe Himself in you. God is infinite, and no vessel can hold Him at all, except when a person makes himself like Nothing (Maggid Devarav le-Yaakov #159).


In prayer, you must place all your strength in the words, going from letter to letter until you totally forget your body. Thinking how the letters permute and combine with each other, you will have great delight. If this is a great physical delight, it is certainly a great spiritual delight.

This is the Universe of Yetzirah, [the world of Speech].

The letters then enter your thoughts, and you do not even hear the words that you pronounce. This is the Universe of Beriyah, [the world of Thought].

You then come to the level of Nothingness, where all your [senses and] physical faculties are nullified. This is the Universe of Atzilut, [which parallels] the Attribute of Chokhmah‑Wisdom (Maggid Devarav le-Yaakov #97).


Nothing can change from one thing to another [without first losing its original identity]. Thus, for example, before an egg can grow into a chicken, it must first cease totally to be an egg. Each thing must lose its original identity before it can be something else.

Therefore, before a thing is transformed into something else, it must come to the level of Nothingness.

This is how a miracle comes about, changing the laws of nature. First the thing must be elevated to the Emanation of Nothingness. Influence then comes from that Emanation to produce the miracle (Imrey Tzaddikim [Ohr ha-Emes] 19c).


When a person gazes at an object, he elevates it to his thought. If his thought is then attached to the supernal Thought, he can elevate it to the supernal Thought. From there it can be elevated to the level of Nothingness, where the object itself becomes absolute nothingness.

This person can then lower it once again to the level of Thought, which is somethingness. At the end of all levels, he can transform it into gold (Imrey Tzaddikim [Ohr ha-Emes] 19cd).


God is boundless. This means that there is nothing physical that can hinder His presence. He fills every element of space in all universes that He created, on all levels, and there is no place devoid of Him (Imrey Tzaddikim [Ohr ha-Emes] 23d).


When a person ascends from one level to the next, but still wants to attain more, then he has no limits and is literally like the Infinite. This person then has the attribute with which to grasp the seed transmitted from the Infinite Being.

But when a person says, “That which I can grasp is sufficient for me,” he then only aspires to the straw and chaff, which are the Husks (Ohr Torah 72a).


Man is primarily his mind. It would be natural for something which is mind to only bind itself to mental concepts.

One should therefore keep in mind this thought: “Why should I use my mind to think about physical things When I do this I lower my mind by binding it to a lower level. It would be better for me to elevate            my mind to the highest level, by binding my thoughts to the Infinite.”

Even physical things must serve the Creator in a spiritual manner. It is thus taught, “They are My slaves, and not slaves of slaves” (Imrey Tzaddikim 18c, citing Bava Metzia 10a).


Love is not restricted by limitations. For love does not have any bounds, being an aspect of the Infinite Love.

If one has love for something physical, then this physical thing becomes a vessel [that limits] his love.

But when one has love for the Infinite Being, then his love is clothed in the Infinite. Both the love and its vessel are then boundless. The same is true of all other attributes (Imrey Tzaddikim 18c).


When a person repents and directs his love toward God, his thought is , “Why did I expend my love for physical things? It is better for me to love the Root of all Roots.” His love is then rectified, and he draws the Sparks of Holiness out from the Husks (Ohr Torah, Bereishis 2d).


[God is called] the Endless One (Ain Sof) and not the Beginningless One. If He were called the Beginningless One, it would be impossible to even begin to speak about Him. But to some extent, it is possible to comprehend Him through His creation. This is a beginning, but it has no end (Imrey Tzaddikim 28b). 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Rabbi Rieitti Online

Have you seen Rabbi Rietti's Jewish Inspiration website? It features free downloads of his wonderful lectures as well as an MP3 collection on IPod Nano.
Rabbi Jonathan Rietti - a descendant of the Sephardic leader
the Ben Ish Chai and son of the famous British actor Robert
Rietti, known as ‘The Man of a Thousand Voices' and ‘King of
the Dubbers' - received his rabbinical diploma from
Gateshead Talmudical College, England, after which he
helped establish the now flourishing Kollel in Gibraltar.
Having received a Master's degree in education, he
practiced for eighteen years as an educational consultant
to parents of gifted children and those with ADD. With
Montessori training, he has developed a curriculum which
dovetails a Torah education with Montessori methodology.

Rabbi Rietti has authored over twenty five lecture albums
on topics including inner growth, health, parenting and
Jewish identity, and draws upon his background in the film
and advertising industries to entertain the listener while
sharing powerful insights on love, happiness and ‘emotional

Based in Monsey, NY, Rabbi Rietti currently lectures across
the U.S. for the Gateways Seminar Program.
He also gave a popular weekly class on the Upper West
Side for the Breslov Center during our first years, the
recordings of which are still available. His "Breslov
credentials" include decades of study and friendship with
Rabbi Chaim Kramer of the Breslov Research Institute,
with whose group he spends Rosh Hashanah every year
in Uman.

Rav Avrohom Tzvi Kluger In Woodmere

Rav Avrohom Tzvi Kluger, author of "Nezer Yisroel" and other seforim, will be giving the Chassidus shiur at Aish Kodesh, Monday, November 26/ Evening 13 Kislev, at 8:00 p.m.

The shiur will be in Ivrit Kallah, and is open to both men and women.
Based in Beit Shemesh, Rav Kluger is one of the leading young Chassidic teachers in Eretz Yisrael today, known for his unique fusion of Chabad and Breslov teachings. 

Congregation Aish Kodesh | 894 Woodmere Place | P.O. Box 361 | Woodmere | NY | 11598

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Canfei Nesharim - Let the Land Rest: Lessons from Shemita, the Sabbatical Year

Video - Rabbi Meir Elkabas - Likutey Moharan I:29

Received From Rabbi Meir Elkabas:

With gratitude to Hashem, I am sending you the latest video that we put out, based on Rebbe Nachman's Likutey Moharan, lesson #29.

To get more out of the lesson, it is worth taking a look at the actual lesson in the Likutey Moharan (volume 4 in the English BRI edition) along with the corresponding prayer composed by Reb Noson on this lesson - the Fiftieth Gate volume 2 prayer 29. You can also take a look at the abridged version in the Abridged Likutey Moharan part 1 lesson 29.

In line with all that is happening now in the world... it is worth working on activating the general remedy at all levels.


The Breslov Center also wishes Rabbi Elkabas a warm "mazal tov" on the bar mitzvah of his eldest son, Menachem Nachman. May he be zokheh to "simchah shel mitzvah" throughout his life and continue to go "from strength to strength." And may the Elkabas family celebrate many, many simchas!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Urgent Message from Agudath Israel of America

TO: All friends and constituents of Agudath Israel of America
There has been an escalation of rocket-fire, Rachmana litzlan, from Gaza into southern Eretz Yisroel over recent days.  Rockets have hit Beersheba and Kiryat Malakhi, where three people were killed, Hy"d.  Today rockets landed in central Israel, in Holon and Rishon Letzion.  Israeli military authorities have told the citizenry to be prepared for more Arab violence, chalila
There has been violent activity in the north as well, as Syrian mortar shells have landed near Israeli army posts.
This is a critical time for Acheinu Bnei Yisroel in Eretz Yisroel.  We call on all Yidden to daven for our brethren and beseech HaKodosh Boruch Hu to undermine the evil designs of those who relish the spilling of Jewish blood, R"l
Our gedolim have long called on us to recite Tehillim (in particular kapitlach 83, 130 and 142) in behalf of our brethren in Eretz Yisroel.  That is certainly most appropriate at this urgent moment. 
May we be zocheh to the bracha that includes all, birchas hashalom.
David Zwiebel, Esq.
Executive Vice President
Agudath Israel of America
42 Broadway
New York, NY 10004

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Jewcology: Launch of Online Jewish Environmental Source Library

Received via e-mail from Jewcology:

What does Jewish tradition teach about the environment?   What can we learn from Jewish sources about food, consumerism, water and waste?  Now you can go straight to the sources to learn - and build your own source sheet to teach others. 

On November 13, at the  Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly, Jewcology announced the launch of a new Jewish Environmental Source Library, available online now at  www.on1foot.org/environmental-library.  

On1Foot is a open source library of Jewish texts on a range of social justice topics, where you can browse texts and source sheets, offer comments and discuss ideas, and build your own source sheet.  Now, with Jewcology's partnership, On1Foot features an environmental source library with over 400 Jewish texts and a wide range of source sheets for you to explore.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Gates of Eden

Gates of Eden
Likutey Moharan I, 286
Translation and (Tentative) Commentary by Dovid Sears

Reb Noson prefaces this short teaching with the disclaimer:

Awhile ago, I heard in the Rebbe’s name—that is, he did not hear it directly, but from a fellow disciple—what he said about the Torah reading “Shoftim vi-Shotrim (judges and enforcement agents [of the Beis Din]…)” (Deuteronomy, chap. 16-21), but most of it was forgotten. The following is the gist of the lesson, that which we still remember.

Rebbe Nachman taught:

There is a Garden of Eden. These are two paradigms: “Garden” and “Eden.” They correspond to Chokhmah Ila’ah, the “Upper Wisdom,” and Chokhmah Tata’ah, the “Lower Wisdom.”

In this context, “chokhmah” does not mean intellectual wisdom in the ordinary sense, but the direct perception of the wondrous way in which God creates, animates and sustains each level in the order of the worlds (seder hishtalshelus). Chokhmah Ila’ah denotes the sefirah, or Divine power, which animates and governs the entire structure of all “Four Worlds” as a unitary whole; Chokhmah Ta’atah is another term for the sefirah of Malkhus, which vitalizes all things in their specificity and uniqueness.

The Rebbe expounds on Chokhmah Ila’ah and Chokhmah Tata’ah in a more human sense in Likutey Moharan II, 91, comparing the higher Chokhmah to the mind and the lower Chokhmah to the heart, the higher Chokhmah to the intellect of the teacher and the lower Chokhmah to that of the student. He also describes the awesome nature of Chokhmah Ila’ah in Likutey Moharan I, 61, sec. 6, as synonymous with the “sekhel ha-kollel,” the divine intellect that governs the entire universe and which orchestrates the providential occurrences in the lives of every person and every speck of existence. (The Tzemach Tzedek points out that it is beyond the mortal mind to fathom the essential nature of Chokhmah Ila’ah, but only its description; see Derekh Mitzvosekha [“Ma’amorey Tzemach Tzedek”], Pesach u-Matzah, 4. However, in the present lesson from Likutey Moharan, we see that this awesome state of consciousness will be granted to those who are worthy of entering the Garden of Eden, which is a great wonder.)

For the essential delight of the Garden of Eden is the apprehension of Divine Wisdom, i.e., Chokhmah Ila’ah and Chokhmah Tata’ah, which are an aspect of “Garden” [and] “Eden.”
The very name “Garden of Eden” thus corresponds to the fullness of divine perception, two levels in one.

However, one cannot attain this except through the “gates.” For there are gates, namely the “Gates of the Garden of Eden.”

That is, one must find the right means to access these two levels of perception. This quest has its difficulties, to say the least.

Genesis 3:24 mentions that God stationed two angels with “revolving swords of fire” to the east  of the Garden of Eden to guard the Tree of Life; thus, the unworthy may not enter.  Reb Noson interprets this symbolism to denote mental confusions that obstruct divine perception (Likutey Halakhos, Netilas Yadayim Shacharis 4:12; ibid. Birkhas HaShachar 3:2; cf. Tzava’as HaRiVaSH 58, which might have a corrolation here, although the Baal Shem Tov seems to be using the paradigm of the “revolving swords of flame” in a broader sense). The “Tree of Life” in the “center of the Garden” (Genesis 2:9) represents the unitary essence of existence (Tiferes).

The Gemara in Eiruvin (19a) refers to the gates of the Garden of Eden, although it uses the term “pesach,” meaning “opening” or “entry way,” rather than “sha’ar,” meaning “gate.” However, the Maharsha (ad loc.) references the tractate Shabbos, which uses the term “sha’arey Gan Eden” (a “tip of the hat” to Rabbi Dovid Shapiro for pointing this out to me). The Zohar frequently speaks of the gates of the Garden of Eden using the term “sha’ar.” For example, the Zohar (I, 65b) describes how Adam sits at the gate of the Garden of Eden to gaze upon all souls of the righteous who heeded the laws of the Torah during their lives in earth.

As an aside, one of the popular kabbalistic works of the day, which Rebbe Nachman is cited as discussing (although critically) in Chayei Moharan, was “Sha’arey Gan Eden” by Rabbi Yaakov Koppel. The latter also compiled a version of the Siddur Ari (“Kol Yaakov”) with the kavannos (meditations) that was widely-used used by initiates. The Rav of Tcherin mentions the Siddur Kol Yaakov by name in Parpara’os leChokhmah, his commentary on Likutey Moharan, although I have forgotten where. Reb Noson (also critically) mentions the Introduction to the Siddur Kol Yaakov in Likutey Halakhos, Birkhas ha-Shachar 3:4 (another tip of the hat to Rabbi Shapiro for this reference).

However, these gates are hidden and concealed in the earth, as in “Her gates are sunken into the earth” (Lamentations 2:9).

The verse Rebbe Nachman quotes is from Jeremiah’s lament over the destruction of the first Holy Temple in Jerusalem. But as Nevuchadnezzar’s armies approached the Holy Temple, her gates miraculously sank into the ground (Rashi, ad loc.).

The verse goes on to say “her kings and princes are [exiled] among the nations, without Torah; her prophets, too, receive no vision from God.”  According to Rashi, this means that the nation lacks Torah authorities who can clarify the halakhah. This is why “her gates are sunken in the earth.” However, as Rebbe Nachman explains in this lesson, when there are Torah authorities who clarify the halakhah and their works are studied, “her gates,” which are the gates of the Garden of Eden, are unearthed.

This requires that there be one who is a “master of the house” (baal ha-bayis) over the earth, some one who rules over the earth, who is able to bring forth, erect and establish the gates that were sunken in the earth.

That is, the person qualified to unearth the gates of the Garden of Eden must have overcome his own “earthiness,” namely his physical desires. Then he become a “master of the house over the earth.”

And know that by studying the Poskim (authorities in Torah law) one becomes worthy of being a regent and ruler over the earth.

These works include the RaMBaM’s Mishneh Torah; the Tur and Shulchan Arukh along with their commentaries, such as Turei Zahav and Sifsei Kohen; and later halakhic compendia such as Chayei Adam and Chokhmas Adam, Shulchan Arukh HaRav, Arukh HaShulchan, Kaf HaChaim, Ben Ish Chai: Halakhos, Mishnah Berurah, etc., as well as the huge responsa literature. All are part of the awesome process of working out the detailed practical implications of the Torah’s laws according to the rulings and guidelines of the sages of the Gemara.

Then one can erect and establish the gates that had sunk into the earth. This is the paradigm of “Through justice, a king establishes the earth” (Proverbs 29:4). “Through justice,” specifically. That is, by means of justice (mishpat), which denotes the judgments (mishpatim) and laws of the Torah—i.e., by studying the Poskim, which clarifies the judgments and laws of the Torah—one becomes a regent and ruler. And through this one becomes capable of establishing the earth. Then one erects, establishes and reveals the gates that were sunken in the earth, through which one is worthy of [entering] the Garden of Eden, as mentioned above.

With this, I think that Rebbe Nachman is telling us that nigleh, the revealed, legalistic parts of the Torah, and nistar, the mystical, inner dimension of the Torah, are actually “two sides of the same coin.” (My teacher, Rabbi Elazar Kenig, has often said that what “pnimiyus ha-Torah” really gets down to is “hasagas Elokus,” the perception of Divinity.) And one cannot enter the inner dimension, which is the “Garden of Eden,” Chokhmah Ila’ah and Chokhmah Tata’ah, without overcoming one’s physical nature. This entails studying the Poskim and living according to the Torah’s laws, most of which concern the physical world and its tikkun, or perfection.

This requirement was not always the case; Adam and Chava originally were created in the Garden of Eden and were privy to unimaginably lofty levels of divine wisdom. Only after the sin of eating from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and their subsequent exile did the problem of finding and entering the “gates” arise. This primal exile was echoed centuries later with the destruction of the Holy Temple, which spiritually was a miniature Garden of Eden, and the exile of the Jewish people from our homeland. 

The way back is through our engagement in the nitty-gritty of studying the Torah’s complex laws, clarifying them and living by them. With this, we can unearth the gates to the most elusive divine wisdom represented by the terms “Garden” and “Eden.”

And this is [the meaning of] “Judges and enforcement agents [of the Beis Din] you shall appoint for yourself in all your gates … for shevatekha (your tribes)” (Deuteronomy 16:18). “Shevet” (“tribe”) is an acronym of “Tav’u ba-aretz she’areha (Her gates are sunken in the earth” (loc. cit.) (that is, the gates that are submerged in the earth).

With this homiletical device of reading part of one verse into a word from another verse, Rebbe Nachman links justice/study of Poskim and the hidden gates to the Garden of Eden.

Reb Noson concludes his redaction of this lesson by recapitulating its main points:

This is [the meaning of] “judges and enforcement agents you shall appoint for yourself…”—for “judges and enforcement agents” represent the paradigm of leaders and rulers of the earth. This is [why the Torah uses the term] “shoftim (judges),” specifically—because this is primarily accomplished by the judgments of the Torah, which are [clarified by] the Poskim, as in “With justice, a king establishes the earth” (op. cit.).

Without the Poskim, we wouldn’t know how to perform the mitzvos correctly and in all their details, and thus gain the ability to unearth and enter the gates to the Garden of Eden.

Through this, the gates that sank into the earth are revealed. And this is the explanation of “appoint for yourself in all of your gates … for your tribes.” Because the “judges and enforcement agents” erect the gates that were sunken in the earth. This is [indicated by] “in all your gates, for your tribes (shevatekha)”; for they erect and reveal the gates that were hidden, in an aspect of “Tav’u ba-aretz she’arehah” [the initials of which spell “shevet/tribe”]. They erect them through their justice, namely through study of the Poskim, the aspect of “Through justice, a king establishes the earth,” as stated above.

Thus, in the Jewish conception, especially according to Rebbe Nachman, the spiritual path does not entail simply side-stepping the physical, nor does it conceive worldly life to be futile, unworkable, or a distraction from a higher, enlightened plane of existence. Rather, by virtue of the Torah and mitzvos—and by “ruling over the earth,” namely one’s physical nature—the mundane will be transformed to a gate and entry-way to the “Garden of Eden.” Which is the communion with God and the attainment of Chokhmah Ila’ah and Chokhmah Tata’ah, here and now. As our Sages were wont to bless one another, “May you experience your ‘World to Come’ in your lifetime” (Berakhos 17a), amen.

Friday, November 9, 2012

How to Help Victims of Hurricane Sandy

Received via e-mail from the Emergency Sandy Chesed Fund:

New York's leading Jewish chesed groups have created an emergency fund to support local victims of Hurricane Sandy. The "Emergency Sandy Chesed Fund" was formed at a meeting called by Councilman David G. Greenfield on November 1, 2012 to thank the groups for their efforts since the storm hit and to improve coordination between them.

All proceeds of the "Emergency Sandy Chesed Fund" will go directly to victims and victim services. No donations will be used for administration or overhead. The fund will be managed by Chevra Hatzalah with the support of the following organizations: local Hatzalah groups, Shomrim, Misaskim, Chaveirim, Met Council, Yad Ephraim and neighborhood Jewish Community Councils.

You can donate online here. If you prefer to mail a check please make it out to the “Hurricane Sandy Chesed Fund” and mail it to 1340 East 9th Street, Brooklyn, New York 11230 c/o Chevra Hatzalah.

A Biblical Generation Gap

Based on Likutey Moharan I, 10
Dovid Sears

When Yaakov Avinu disguises himself in his brother Esav’s garments to receive his father’s blessings, Yitzchak Avinu exclaims, “Behold, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field that Hashem has blessed!” (Genesis 27:27). Only then does he bestow his blessings. What is the connection between the field and the blessings? Why does this exclamation immediately precede the transmission of these all-important—and irrevocable— spiritual gifts?

There are several connections with this story and the paradigm of the field. First of all, Esav is described as an ish sadeh, “man of the field” (Genesis 25:27). Yitzchak, too, is associated with the field, because it was his custom to pray in the fields, as the commentaries state in connection with his first meeting with his future wife, Rivkah (Rashi, Malbim, et al. on Genesis 24:63: “And Yitzchak went out to supplicate in the field…”). This suggests a spiritual affinity between Yitzchak and Esav—despite the fact that the father was a tzaddik and the son an evildoer. Both are connected to the field and the outdoors, whereas Yaakov is described as “a simple man, dwelling in tents” (Genesis 25:27). This may be why Yitzchak apparently favored Esav: perhaps it was easier for him to relate to another “man of the field.”

Rebbe Nachman of Breslev discusses the differences between Yaakov and the other Patriarchs in Likutey Moharan I, 10 (section 3). Citing the Gemara (Pesachim 88a), he states that Avraham called the future site of the Holy Temple a “mountain,” because this conformed to his mode of divine service; Avraham sought Hashem my separating himself from the rest of the world. Yitzchak called the same place a “field,” because he was able to bring the divine light a little closer to the ordinary things of this world. However, Yaakov called it a “house,” because he was able to reveal Godliness even on the most mundane level.

Because of these three distinct types of avodah, each of the Patriarchs seems unlike the others. However, despite their apparent differences, they represent three stages in one process, three parts of one whole. This is borne out by the rest of the biblical narrative, which tells how Yaakov’s children, the future Bnei Yisrael, became the sole bearers of the monotheistic legacy of all three Patriarchs, ultimately teaching it to the rest of the world.

Yet when one is in the middle of a process, it is hard to understand what is really going on. Therefore, it was unclear to Yitzchak that the son who would bear his torch was not Esav, the “man of the field” like himself, but the son who seemed so different than both himself and his iconoclastic father, Avraham: the “dweller in tents,” Yaakov.

His very name alludes to his divine mission. “Yaakov” is related to ekev, the heel of the foot, because it would be the task of Yaakov and his descendants to draw down the divine light to the lowest levels, bringing the world to perfection. Perhaps this is why, upon realizing that Yaakov had tricked him, his father exclaimed, “And indeed he shall be blessed!” (Genesis 27:33). At that moment, he understood that his spiritual mission would be fulfilled through the son who represented the next stage in the process of revelation: Yaakov, who would soon receive his prophetic vision on the site of the future Temple, and whose descendants would build the “house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56:7).

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Human Responsibilities Toward Animals

Painting by Edward Hicks

From David Sears, “The Vision of Eden” Animal Welfare and Vegetarianism in Jewish Law and Mysticism” (Orot 2002), Chapter 1. Although currently out of print and in need of updating concerning the practical realities of kosher animal slaughter today, as well as more recent statistics related to Chapter 3 (“Judaism and Animal Welfare”), a free pdf file of the original ms. is available here.

Respect For All Creatures

“God is good to all, and His mercy is upon all His works” (Psalms 145:9). This verse is the touchstone of the rabbinic attitude toward animal welfare, appearing in a number of contexts in Torah literature. At first glance, its relevance may be somewhat obscure. It speaks of God, not man. However, a basic rule of Jewish ethics is the emulation of God’s ways. In the words of the Talmudic sages: “Just as He clothes the naked, so shall you clothe the naked. Just as He is merciful, so shall you be merciful...”[1]

Therefore, compassion for all creatures, including animals, is not only God’s business; it is a virtue that we, too, must emulate. Moreover, rabbinic tradition asserts that God’s mercy supersedes all other divine attributes. Thus, compassion must not be reckoned as one good trait among others; rather, it is central to our entire approach to life.

The Unity of All Things

A fundamental premise of Judaism is belief in the absolute and encompassing Oneness of the Creator, Who brings all things into being.[2] In addition to defining our view of the Creator, this premise informs our view of creation. Since creation in all its diversity flows from the Divine Oneness, it follows that in its Essence, all creation is one—a mystical concept that has profound spiritual and ethical implications. If all creation constitutes a unitary whole, then all things, from the highest to lowest entity in the hierarchy of creation, share a spiritual affinity with one another.

Not that the universe as such is divine; the identification of nature and God is pantheism, a belief inconsistent with the doctrine of God’s incorporeality. Pantheism also disputes the concept of free choice through its implicit moral determinism. Rather, the spiritual affinity of which we speak exists by virtue of the Infinite One Who produces and imparts existence to all things, while at the same time transcending them. As the verse attests, “How worthy are Your works, O God; You have created them all with wisdom” (Psalms 104:24). For this paramount reason, it is natural and proper for human beings to feel kinship with animals and all forms of life, despite the physical and spiritual differences between them.

Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (1522-1570) states: “Although God transcends creation, He sustains all living beings, from the highest to the lowest, and does not disparage any creature—for if He were to reject any creature due to its inferiority, none could exist even for a moment. Instead, He watches over and shows mercy to all. Similarly, a person should be benevolent to everyone, and no creature should seem despicable to him. Even the smallest living thing should be exceedingly worthy in his eyes.”[3]

Kindness Toward Animals

Benevolence entails action. Thus, Judaism goes beyond the subjective factor of moral sentiment and mandates kindness toward animals in halakhah (religious law), prohibits their abuse, praises their good traits, and obligates their owners concerning their well-being. As we shall see, even man’s self-serving use of animals can bring about their spiritual benefit. Certainly, this should be part of our conscious intent in using animals, as well as in using any of the world’s resources.

By example of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, the Torah describes the ways of right action. Abraham personifies the divine trait of chesed (kindness). Thus, the Midrash cites a dialogue in which Abraham tells Noah and his sons that they survived the flood because of the faithfulness with which they cared for the animals on the Ark.[4] In the Book of Genesis, Abraham’s servant Eliezer determines that Rebecca is a worthy bride for Isaac when, after serving him water, she voluntarily gives water to his camels. This act of kindness, both to strangers and animals, proves her worthiness to enter the family of Abraham, and thus to become one of the mothers of the Jewish people. Jacob, too, is distinguished by an act of kindness toward animals. Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar (1696-1743) speculates that Jacob may have been the first person to build animal shelters out of compassion for his flocks.[5]

Not only are animals deserving of our compassion, but we may learn a number of good traits from them. The Talmud attests that had the Torah not been given, “we might have learned modesty from the cat, honest labor from the ant, marital fidelity from the dove, and consideration of one’s mate from the rooster.”[6]

To be sure, Judaism asserts that the world with all it contains is not an end unto itself, but serves as a backdrop for man—in particular for man’s exercise of free will.[7] In the phrase of Chassidic master Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810), “Everything you see in the world, everything that exists, is for the sake of free will.”[8]

This is the central challenge of our lives; for by choosing the path of belief in God and Torah observance (or, in the case of non-Jews, by heeding the Seven Universal Laws of Noah), a person can achieve intimacy with the Creator.                                                                                                                                  

This is not true of a master-slave relationship, which is devoid of the element of choice. Nevertheless, if man is the main performer on the stage of creation, this does not mean that the “supporting cast” is of small consequence. Indeed, the divine call to venture beyond the ego and develop a sense of compassion for the rest of creation is a key part of the cosmic test.

“One should respect all creatures,” asserts Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, “recognizing in them the greatness of the Creator Who formed man with wisdom. All creatures are imbued with the Creator’s wisdom, which itself makes them greatly deserving of honor. The Maker of All, the Wise One Who transcends everything, is associated with His creatures in having made them. If one were to disparage them, God forbid, this would reflect upon the honor of their Maker.”[9]

As the central figure in creation, man is responsible for the rest of the world. The Torah describes how God placed Adam and Eve in the center of Eden and commanded them to “tend” and “watch over” the garden. Symbolically, this defines humanity’s continuing role as custodian of nature.[10] As a point of theology, it has important halakhic and ethical consequences: we must seek to  relieve the suffering of animals; we must properly feed and attend the domestic animals under our care; our animals must rest on the Sabbath; we only may take the life of an animal to serve a legitimate human need; acts of wanton destructiveness are forbidden; and, according to the  Sefer HaChinnukh  (13th century c.e.), the prohibition of slaughtering an animal and its young on the same day teaches us that it is forbidden to bring about the destruction of any species.[11] Through our emulation of God, we become the instrument of God’s compassion for the world that He created and pronounced “good.”

The Hallmark of Wisdom

Compassion for animals is the measure of spiritual refinement. In his classic work of Jewish ethics, Mesillas Yesharim (Path of the Upright), Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746) asserts that it is one of the basic characteristics of a  chassid, by which he means a person striving for spiritual perfection.[12]

Indeed, the Midrash states that both Moses and King David were chosen by God to be leaders of Israel because of the compassion they had previously demonstrated toward their flocks.[13] There are countless tales of tzaddikim and their concern for the well-being of animals. As several stories in this volume demonstrate, this concern may extend even to wild creatures for which we bear no direct responsibility.

Despite the apparent multifarious character of the universe, there is an underlying spiritual connection between all things. Kabbalistic works speak of  four elements: earth, water, air, and fire; in modern scientific terms, these may be related to the four states of matter: solid, liquid, gas, and energy. The four elements, in turn, parallel the four levels of existence: “silent” things such as minerals, earth, and water (domem), vegetation (tzomei’ach), animals (chai), and human beings (medaber), as well as the Four Worlds, or levels of reality. The World of Action (Asiyah) includes the entire physical universe; the three higher “worlds” are those of Formation (Yetzirah), Creation (Beriah), and Emanation (Atzilus). Beyond these categories are transcendent levels of which we cannot even begin to speak. The universe is wondrously diverse; all things differ in form, intellect, and purpose. Nevertheless, a fundamental interconnectedness exists between all creatures in that everything reflects God’s wisdom and plays its part in the divine plan.

This is not merely an abstract concept, but a potent subject of contemplation for anyone who seeks a more enlightened way of relating to the world. The Baal Shem Tov (R. Yisrael ben Eliezer, 1698-1760), founder of the Chassidic movement, declares: “Do not consider yourself superior to anyone else... In truth, you are no different than any other creature, since all things were brought into being to serve God. Just as God bestows consciousness upon you, so does He bestow consciousness upon your fellow man. In what way is a human being superior to a worm? A worm serves the Creator with all of his intelligence and ability; and man, too, is compared to a worm or a maggot, as the verse states, ‘I am a worm and not a man’ (Psalms 22:7). If God had not given you a human intellect, you would only be able to serve Him like a worm. In this sense, you are both equal in the eyes  of Heaven. A person should consider himself, and the worm, and all creatures as comrades in the universe, for we are all created beings whose abilities are God-given...”[14]

Compassion and Enlightenment

The Baal Shem Tov’s words proceed from a deeply mystical perception: all things are animated by God, and thus constitute a “garment” for Him. As he observes, “All the worlds are garments, each one for the next, down to the lowest aspect...”[15]

This concept is suggested by the verse that states, “He covers Himself with light as with a garment” (Psalms 104:2). In Kabbalistic terms, this alludes to the Infinite Light of Creation (Ohr Ein Sof). The Infinite Light, in turn, is “garbed” through numerous acts of constriction (tzimtzum) that produce the various “worlds,” culminating in the physical universe.[16]

Thus, the universe may be conceived as the “outermost” garment of God, beneath which His Infinite Light is concealed. Although some elements may be primary and others secondary, all parts of the garment exist in symbiotic relationship with one another, and possess meaning by virtue of the One Who fashioned the garment for His own purpose.

Therefore, the Baal Shem Tov teaches us, the enlightened person will sense the kinship of “man and the worm and all small creatures,” and relate to all of God’s works with love. As the Maharal of Prague (R. Yehudah Loewe ben Betzalel, 1512-1609) observes, “Love of all creatures is also love of God; for whoever loves the One, loves all the works that He has made.”[17] The realization of this truth is the central point of Jewish mysticism, and it is the root of the Jewish ethic of compassion for all creatures.

[1] Sotah 14a; cf. Sifré on Deuteronomy 11:22. Also see R. Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, Me’or Einayim, Tetzaveh, n. 8.
[2] Mishneh Torah, Yesodei HaTorah 1:1
[3] Tomer Devorah, chap. 2.
[4] Midrash Tehillim on Psalms 37:6.
[5] Ohr HaChaim, Bereishis 33:17.
[6] Eruvin 100b.
[7] Likkutei Moharan II, 71, citing Berakhos 6b. Thus, it is said in the name of Kabbalistic master R. Yitzchak Luria, best known as the Ari z”l (an acronym for “our master, Rabbi Yitzchak, of blessed memory”): “Man is a microcosm, and the cosmos are a macroanthropus.” The aphorism may be apocryphal, but is entirely consistent with Lurianic thought; cf. R. Chaim Vital, Sefer Eitz Chaim, Chelek II,  Heikhal A-B-Y-A,  Hakdamah Li’ha’Drush,  Sha’ar Tziyyur Olamos; Sha’arei Kedushah 3:2, s.v. Ve’od yesh chiluk,  and 3:5 (beginning); R. Avraham Azulai, Chesed L’Avraham, 4:1; R. Yaakov Yosef of Polonoye,  Toldos Yaakov Yosef, Kedoshim, s.v.  V’hu achar she-kol ha-olam heim komah sheleimah; R. Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sudylkov,  Degel Machaneh Ephraim, Bereishis, pp. 5, 7; R. Chaim of Volozhin, Nefesh HaChaim 2:5. That is, all the various levels and facets of creation are contained in each human being—and creation as a whole, including the various spiritual “worlds” beyond the physical universe, reflects the human form in its metaphysical structure. This is why the order of the Ten Sefiros, or divine powers operative in creation, is depicted as corresponding to the human form; cf. “Pasach Eliyahu,”  Hakdamah, Tikkunei Zohar. Moreover, all creation is animated by means of the “Cosmic Soul” known as Adam Kadmon, which is the highest spiritual root of all individual souls, and indeed all phenomena. The Kabbalists caution that the nature of Adam Kadmon is utterly beyond the grasp of mortal intellect, thus nothing can be said about it.
[8] Sichos HaRan 300; also cf. Si’ach Sarfei Kodesh I, 385.
[9] Tomer Devorah, chap. 2.
[10] Rabbenu Bachaya (Genesis 2:15) explains this verse on the literal, homiletic, and mystical levels. Like other Rishonim, he interprets the verse in the most basic sense as indicating man’s stewardship over nature. Then he cites several Midrashic teachings: according to the first, the terms “tend” and “watch over” allude to the study of Torah and observance of the commandments; the second interprets these terms as alluding to our divine service during the week through creative activity, as contrasted with our divine service on the Sabbath through non-action and rest; and the third relates them to the sacrifices in the Holy Temple, which elicited God’s blessings. The Kabbalistic explanation relates the two terms to the “upper” letter hey and the “lower” letter  hey  in the four-letter Divine Name YHVH. (The former corresponds to the spiritual source of understanding, whereas the latter corresponds to the spiritual source of action.)
[11] Sefer HaChinnukh, Mitzvah 545.
[12] Mesillas Yesharim, chap. 19.
[13] Shemos Rabbah 2:2.
[14] Tzava’as HaRivash 12.
[15] Sefer Baal Shem Tov, Bereishis 12, citing Chesed L’Avraham; ibid. Bereishis 15, citing Likkutim Yekarim 17c; also cf. R. Pinchas of Koretz, Midrash Pinchas, 2:6, R. Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sudylkov, Degel Machaneh Ephraim, Kedoshim, s.v. al tifnu le-elilim, pp. 162-163; R. Nachman of Breslov, Likkutei Moharan, I, 64 (end), citing Bereishis Rabbah 21:5.
[16] Likkutei Moharan I: 24, I: 33; Sefer HaTanya 1:2, hagahah, citing Sefer Eitz Chaim of the Ari z”l; R. Yosef Chaim of Baghdad, Od Yosef Chai, Chut HaMeshulosh; et al.
[17] Nesivos Olam, Ahavas Re’a, 1.33.

Commentaries on Sippurei Ma'asiyos - Recommendations from Rabbi Moshe Rosen:

Niflo'im Ma'asecho
Available via Everything Breslov:

Description: A masterful commentary on the first tale of "Sippurei Ma'asiyos", (The Lost Princess).The author delves into the story and focuses on each and every word, revealing their deeper meaning. Drawn from Kabalistic and Chassidic sources, it grants the reader an authentic interpretation of the story. Crowned with haskomos from Gedolei A'nash. Publishing data: Jerusalem 2007 305pp. 7"x9" HB without nekudos.

Livyas Chein
Available via Everything Breslov

Description: Although this edition does not contain the Yiddish translation of Sippurei Ma'asiyos ,it surely surpasses all other editions of this sefer .It includes all of commentaries that have ever been published, and many which are presently out of print. The sefer is crowned with "Sichos" and lessons given by Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Bender on each of the thirteen stories. A must for every Breslover Chassid! Publishing data: Eretz Yisrael 2009 pp751 HB 6"x9" partly with nekudos.