Friday, April 12, 2013

Breslov Insights on Pirkey Avot, Chapter 2



From “The Breslov Pirkey Avot,” Chapter 2, Mishnah 4

הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, עֲשֵׂה רְצוֹנוֹ כִּרְצוֹנֶךָ, כְּדֵי שֶׁיַּעֲשֶׂה רְצוֹנְךָ כִּרְצוֹנוֹ. בַּטֵּל רְצוֹנְךָ מִפְּנֵי רְצוֹנוֹ, כְּדֵי שֶׁיְּבַטֵּל רְצוֹן אֲחֵרִים מִפְּנֵי רְצוֹנֶךָ.
הִלֵּל אוֹמֵר, אַל תִּפְרוֹשׁ מִן הַצִּבּוּר, וְאַל תַּאֲמֵן בְּעַצְמָךְ עַד יוֹם מוֹתָךְ, וְאַל תָּדִין אֶת חֲבֵרָךְ עַד שֶׁתַּגִּיעַ לִמְקוֹמוֹ, וְאַל תֹּאמַר דָּבָר שֶׁאִי אֶפְשָׁר לִשְׁמוֹעַ שֶׁסּוֹפוֹ לְהִשָּׁמַע. וְאַל תֹּאמַר לִכְשֶׁאֶפָּנֶה אֶשְׁנֶה, שֶׁמָּא לֹא תִפָּנֶה:

He [Rabban Gamliel] used to say, “Do His will as if it were your own will, so that He may do your will as if it were His will. Nullify your will before His will, so that He may nullify the will of others before your will.”

Hillel said, “Do not separate from the community; do not trust yourself until the day of your death; do not judge your friend until you have reached his place; do not say something that cannot be understood, assuming that eventually it will be understood; and do not say, ‘When I have spare time I will study,’ for you may never have spare time.”


Digest of Commentaries:

This teaching continues with sayings of Rabban Gamliel and then turns to Hillel the Elder, from whom Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai received the tradition (Tosefot Yom Tov).

Do His will as if it were your own will – that is, fulfill God’s will with eagerness and devotion – so that He may do your will as if it were His will, in fulfillment of His true desire to benefit His creatures. Another interpretation: Meiri translates this teaching as, "So that He may render your will as if it were His will" - and thus enable you to create harmony between the Divine will and your will (Bet HaBechirah, ad loc.). The reward for doing God's will as if it were your own is a profound spiritual transformation: You will be transformed from an ego-centered person to a God-centered person.

Nullify your will before His will, so that He may nullify the will of others before your will. The previous statement refers to the positive commandments, whereas this statement refers to the negative commandments (Tosefot Yom Tov).

Do not separate from the community. Rather, share in the sorrows of the community. As the Sages say, “When the community dwells in sorrow, let no one say, ‘I shall go home and eat and drink … and all will be well with me.’ Instead, he should should grieve with the community. … For whoever shares the sorrows of others will be privileged to witness their consolation” (Ta’anit 11a).

Do not trust yourself until the day of your death. Do not rely on your righteousness and think that you cannot stumble, for Yochanan the High Priest served for eighty years, yet in the end he became a Sadducee who denied the Oral Law (Berakhot 29a).

Do not say something that cannot be understood, assuming that eventually it will be understood. Rather, strive to express your thoughts clearly so your words need no further clarification.

Do not say, “When I have spare time I will study,” for you may never have spare time. As Shammai taught (Pirkey Avot 1:15), you must set aside fixed times for Torah study or else you may come to the end of your life without having studied the Torah (Rambam; Rabbenu Yonah). Even communal leaders and busy people who can spare only fifteen minutes here and there in the course of their day should know that such modest efforts are meaningful and add up to something of worth; for the optimal time for Torah study may never arrive (Tiferet Yisrael).

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Nullify your will before His will

Reb Noson: The Torah and its commandments collectively embody the Divine will.[i] By actively fulfilling the mitzvot of the Torah, we bind all our wills (that is, our desires) to the source of will, which is God’s will. This is the paradigm of “Nullify your will before His will,” which is the underlying principle behind our fulfillment of all the commandments.

For example, we might wish to eat right away in the morning, but we nullify our will before the Divine will and wait until we complete our prayers. Some people might even prolong their hunger by studying Torah and reciting Psalms after they pray. Similarly, when we sit down to eat, we do not partake of foods which the Torah prohibits, and we wait until we have washed our hands before reciting the blessing over bread.

This restraint applies to all the commandments of the Torah. In this way all who are God-fearing continually sanctify themselves, even in matters which are permissible.[ii] The underlying principle of the Torah calls for us to bind all our wills (desires) to God’s will (Likutey Halakhot, Birkhot HaShachar 5:28).

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Reb Noson: The foundation of the entire Torah is that we follow the pathways of our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and Moses our teacher, as well as the pathways of all the tzaddikim who came after them. Even if we do not succeed in overcoming all our physical desires as they did, we can attain the ultimate spiritual goal by yearning to draw close to them and emulating their holy ways. Thus, over the course of time, we can use our free will for its highest purpose, aligning it with God’s will.

The power of the true tzaddikim is so great that by virtue of the tremendous holiness they attain, they can nullify the laws of nature through their prayers. In this way they reveal that everything is determined by God’s will. For they nullify their will to God’s will to such an extent that God nullifies His will to theirs.

This is exceedingly wondrous. By truly wanting only what God wants, the tzaddikim cause God’s will to shine forth so everyone can see that God rules His world according to His will. Then, when they pray and God answers their prayer, they demonstrate that their will conforms to – and is none other than – His will (Likutey Halakhot, Birkhot HaShachar 5:75, abridged).

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Reb Noson: The Torah teaches us how to fulfill God’s will and thereby bind all our desires to God’s will. The tzaddikim exemplify this principle. When a tzaddik overcomes his physical desires and nullifies his will before the will of God, he is able to draw down a life force from the highest source. He can do this by overcoming all discord within himself (between his soul and his body), which enables him to binds himself to the Divine Oneness that transcends all distinctions. By connecting to the Divine Oneness, he is able to perform miracles and wonders. Because he has overcome his own physical nature, he is able to overturn the laws of nature (Likutey Halakhot, Birkhot HaRe’iyah VeSha’ar Berakhot Pratiyot 4:3, abridged).
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Reb Noson: You can nullify all conflict by fasting– be it actual conflict caused by your adversaries and enemies, or inner conflict caused by your evil inclination.[iii] By definition, conflict is that which contradicts your will. You desire a certain thing but your enemies desire something else, and therefore they oppose you. According to the Zohar, fasting subjugates the will of the heart (i.e., all desires) to God.[iv] In this way you can nullify all conflict, as Pirkey Avot states, "Nullify your will before His will, so that He may nullify the will of others before your will" (Likutey Halakhot, Birkhot HaRe’iyah VeSha’ar Berakhot Pratiyot 4, Introduction).

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The Tireless Foe

Reb Noson: A person never knows what will become of him in life, for the evil inclination lies in wait every day and at every moment. This is what our Sages meant when they said, “Do not trust yourself until the day of your death” (Likutey Halakhot, Shabbat 6:12).

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Do not trust yourself until the day of your death

Reb Noson: The incident of the Golden Calf is a great enigma. How could the Jewish people commit such a sin after receiving the Torah? Having collectively attained such a high spiritual level, experiencing prophecy “face to face” with God, how could they fall so low?

The answer lies in Rebbe Nachman’s explanation (see Likutey Moharan I, 25) that whenever we strive to ascend from one level to the next, the power of delusion – which is an instrument of the kelipot that trap and conceal the good – attacks anew. When we fail to destroy all the delusions on one level, we become particularly vulnerable when we attempt to ascend to the next level, and then we may fall. Pirkey Avot refers to this when it states, "Do not trust yourself until the day of your death." This is why the Jewish people came to misfortune at the end of the forty-day period [v] in which they sought to ascend to a lofty plane. They did not exert themselves sufficiently to rectify their imagination and consequently, they fell into sin.

When, through the intercession of Moses, God forgave them, God ordered the construction of the Tabernacle (Mishkan). In doing so, He revealed to Moses the secret of how to destroy the kelipot and rectify their delusions on every level: through building the Tabernacle, which is an embodiment of charity and a giving heart. Charity and the spirit of giving destroy the kelipot at every turn.

For the same reason, the Tabernacle had to be taken apart and rebuilt again and again throughout the journeys of the Jewish people in the desert. The supernal lights that shone from the Tabernacle, created by acts of charity and altruism, drove away the kelipot surrounding every spiritual level that the people aspired to attain (Likutey Halakhot, Geviyat Chov MeKarkaot VeHilkhot Apotoki 3:6, abridged).

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Reb Noson: The word emet (“truth”) contains the first, middle and final letters of the Hebrew alphabet (aleph, mem, tav). This teaches us that truth attains perfection when it is consistent from beginning to end.[vi] For example, someone might begin a discussion by stating a certain truth, but in the end this very point may lead him to a completely false conclusion. The small amount of truth with which he began makes the false conclusion possible. As our Sages state, “Any lie that does not begin with the truth cannot endure.”[vii] Something is really true only when it is completely consistent from beginning to end.

This rule applies to individuals as well. A person may be upright at the beginning, but this doesn’t insure that the evil inclination won’t trick him and cause him to stumble and fall into falsehood.

This is why our Sages state, "Do not trust yourself until the day of your death." The truth that is bound up with the end of things is the truth that matters most. This corresponds to the aspect of the "feet," corresponding to “the feet of the Mashiach” through whom the entire world will be rectified. As it is written, “On that day, his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives” (Zechariah 14:4). According to the Zohar and the writings of the Ari, this involves the mystery of the descent of the Shekhinah down into the "feet" [i.e., the deepest depths] of the kelipot in order to retrieve holy souls.[viii]

This is why the truth that will be revealed through the Mashiach is described as “the truth [that] shall sprout from the earth” (Psalms 85:12). [Earth represents the lowest level, and is closest to the feet.] Through the Mashiach, truth will attain perfection, for it will incorporate all levels from beginning to end in one encompassing whole. This is the ultimate tikkun (Likutey Halakhot, Ribit 5:15).

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Do not judge your friend until you have reached his place

Rebbe Nachman: Conflict can arise if your friend is more advanced than you and, because you have not attained his spiritual level, you oppose him. In such a case, you must strive to achieve his level so that the two of you can be equal.

However, at times the roles reverse. You may be more advanced than your friend. Strife arises because he is jealous of you, since he has not attained your spiritual level. In such a case, you should judge him favorably. By doing so, you elevate him onto the scale of merit, and you can both stand in the same place.

Conflict exists only because people are different. Either your friend is more advanced than you, or you are more advanced than your friend. But if you could both stand in one place and occupy the same level, there certainly would be no strife. For when there is unity, there is no conflict.[iv]

This is the meaning of, "Do not judge your friend until you have reached his place." That is, you should strive to be with him in one place. If he is greater than you, strive to reach his level; and if you are greater than him, judge him favorably and soon he will catch up to you. Then surely there will be no conflict (Likutey Moharan I, 136).

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Reb Noson: When God commanded Abraham to bring his son, Isaac, to Mount Moriah and offer him up as a sacrifice, Abraham overcame his natural fatherly compassion and hurried to fulfill God's will. Arriving at Mount Moriah, he bound Isaac, placed him on the stone altar, and was about to place the knife to his throat when God ordered him to stop: “Do not stretch your hand forth against the lad! Do not do anything to him!” (Genesis 22:12). This may be explained as follows.

Isaac represents Gevurah (harsh judgment). Harsh judgment exists “within space” and can be mitigated only by that which is “beyond space” – God’s infinite light which surrounds and encompasses all worlds.[x] This is the basis of the saying of our Sages, “The Holy One is the Place of the World, but the world is not His place.”[xi] At that level of “beyond space,” all judgment is mitigated and sweetened.

This is why it was necessary to bring Isaac to the altar atop Mount Moriah – the future site of the Holy Temple and the Holy of Holies. Mount Moriah was the unique channel for all spiritual ascent to the dimension "beyond space," which is the paradigm of the “Place of the World.” As soon as Isaac reached the summit, God rescinded His original command, for the harsh judgment was nullified by the ascent alone.

Through the paradigm of the “Place of the World,” everyone is judged as meritorious and the root of harsh judgment, represented by Isaac, is sweetened. Pirkey Avot reflects this principle when it states, "Do not judge your friend until you have reached his place" (based on Likutey Halakhot, Shluchin 4:8)

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In God's Place

Rebbe Nachman: Who can know and reach his friend’s place, but God? Since “He is the Place of the World, but the world is not His place,” everyone has a “place” with Him. Therefore only God can judge a person (Likutey Moharan II, 1:14).


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Reb Noson: When we recite the third paragraph of the Shma each morning, we gather together the four corners of our tzitzit and kiss them. Through this action, we participate in bringing about the final ingathering of the exiles [including all the sparks of holiness] that are scattered to the “four corners” of the earth.

[The four corners represent the limitations of “place.”] It is often the case that a person falls because of his “place” and circumstances; his “place” has influenced him. For this reason, Pirkey Avot warns, "Do not judge your friend until you have reached his place."

God is the “Place of the World.” Being above the limitations of “place,” He understands the “place” of every individual soul and therefore can judge each one favorably. When God wishes to extend His mercies toward someone, He elevates that person from a constricted place to His Place, which is the paradigm of the "Place of the World.” At that level, all harsh judgments are sweetened and rectified [and each person finds he has another chance] (Likutey Halakhot, Tzitzit 3:9).




[i] Thus we find in numerous places throughout Tanakh that when God is pleased with an action on our part, it is described as “a fragrance that is pleasing to God” (see Genesis 8:21; Exodus 29:18, 29:41; et al.). According to the Sages, this is God’s way of saying, “I am pleased when I command that something be done and My command is fulfilled” (see Rashi on Exodus 29:18, Leviticus 1:9, Numbers 28:8; Siftey Chakhamim on Exodus 29:18, ot tet; Ramban on Leviticus 1:9; Yalkut Shimoni 1:746 on Numbers 15; ibid., 1:755 on Numbers 18; ibid., 1:781 on Numbers 28; Sifri, Shelach, 1; Sifri, Korach, 3; Sifri, Pinchas, 12). At the same time God has no true need of any service, and utterly transcends His creation.
[ii] See Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 231.
[iii] This passage is basically a summary of Likutey Moharan I, 179.
[iv] Zohar Chadash, Ruth 97b states: “A person’s fast may have many aspects, but the Holy One takes from them all only the will of the heart.” See also Zohar (Raya Mehemna) III, 101a.
[v] Reb Noson refers to the forty-day period after the Giving of the Torah, when Moses ascended to Heaven to receive the First Tablets while the Jewish people awaited his return.
[vi] This insight appears in several early Chassidic texts; e.g., Degel Machaneh Ephraim, Behar, s.v. ode yirmuz; ibid., Bechukotai, s.v. u-vi-Yaakov ketiv; Kedushat Levi, Purim: Kedushah II, s.v. nimtza ha-otiyot, et al.
[vii] Rashi on Numbers 13:27; Sotah 35a; Zohar I, 2b.
[viii] Zohar II, 258a; Rabbi Chaim Vital, Sha’ar HaGilgulim, Hakdamah 5, s.v. inyan matmiya; Etz Chaim 39:1; Mevo She’arim 2:3:8 (end).
[ix] In anything that is truly one, the concept of strife does not apply. Even where there are many parts, if they operate together in unison there is no conflict. Indeed, the only reason a person feels conflicted within himself is because the elements of his personality are not at one with each other; he is not a single unity (Likutey Moharan I, 136, note 6).
[x] Zohar (Raya Mehemna) III, 225a.
[xii] Rav Huna said in the name of Rav Ami, “Why is God called HaMakom (‘The Place’)? It is because He is the Place of the World, as opposed to the world being His place. This is clear from what God said to Moses on Mount Sinai, ‘Behold, the place is with Me’ (Exodus 33:21). Truly, the Holy One is the Place of the World, but the world is not His place!” (Bereshit Rabbah 68:9; see Shemot Rabbah 45:6; Pesikta Rabbati 21, 104b; Yalkut Shimoni 2:841; Midrash Tehilim 90; Rashi on Exodus 33:21; Nefesh HaChaim 3:1-3).

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