God’s Tailors

Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl, Meor Einayim, on Vayeshev

Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was a child of his old age. He made him a coat of many colors. Genesis 37:3

It is known that the Torah is eternal and applies to every person in every time, and existed before the universe, but it is garbed in the stories of [human] deeds of the time. For example, in the time of the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Torah was dressed in the stories of their deeds. What’s more, this must apply in every time. So it is called Torah, as in moreh derekh, that which “shows the way.” If so, one must understand how it shows the way in this verse.
Indeed, the saying of our rabbis is well known, that “God created the heavens and the earth” for the sake of Torah and Israel (1), and the meaning here is that God’s intention in creating the worlds was to do good to His creations. He did not need to create the world for Himself, for God is not like a human being with various needs, for need implies lack, and God lacks nothing, being whole in every way. Rather, it is the nature of the good to do good, and “God is good to all” (2), so God created the worlds so that His creations could benefit from His goodness, and the highest good is the joy Israel gains from doing God’s mitzvot, and thereby from G!d Himself (3). In this God also gains joy, as written in the Holy Zohar, “Israel provides for their Father in Heaven, as a father delights in his son.”
So is illuminated the intent of the Mishnah, “Do not be as servants who serve their master in order to receive a reward; rather be as servants who serve their master not in order to receive a reward” (4)…for the key is to take joy in the doing of the mitzvah itself, a spiritual joy that is a distillation (5) of the World to Come…that is, the service should not be for any other reward, and one should not look for a future payment, but rather in the moment of doing the mitzvah you arouse the spiritual joy from above…delighting in Hashem.
And this is the meaning of “God created for the sake of Torah and Israel.” For how could Hashem, who is infinite, create the finite world, except through the Torah, as it is written, “You have garbed Yourself in glory and splendor” (6)? He thereby concentrated His presence so that He could be in the finite world, and the purpose of the creation was for the sake of Israel that walks in God’s Torah and receives the complete good. But God could have begun the Torah with the mitzvot — why did He garb Himself in stories of [human] deeds?
The answer lies in the mitzvah to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. As it says in the Hagaddah, “whoever extends his telling is to be praised.” And this in turn is to be understood in light of the saying of the sages, “Even mundane conversation of Torah scholars is to be studied” (7). Truly, it is impossible to always be studying Torah and at times one must speak of worldly things. But “the righteous walk in [the paths of the Lord]” (8), even when speaking of worldly things, for even then they cleave to God. So their words are Torah worthy of study, for with them they lift up souls just as in Torah study, for there are souls that lack the strength to join themselves to Torah and are lifted up instead by such common talk, and this is the meaning of “The Exodus from Egypt”… That is why it is a mitzvah to speak always of the Exodus from Egypt, for not only at Pesah but in every moment our words should be of this Exodus.
And this is the meaning of “Israel loved Joseph,” for as the Holy Zohar says, God is called “Grandfather Israel,” and Joseph is called tzaddik because he always adds (9) to the awe of heaven, lifting the lower realms up to God. “For he was a son of his old age” the Targum Onkelos (10) translates as “he was a wise son,” that is, he raised up all the souls and purified them in his wisdom. “And he made him a splendid coat” — the tzaddik makes for God clothes in which to dress Himself, as hinted at in the words for “splendid coat,” ketonet passim, the letters of which spell peh sach yetziat mitzrayim, “a mouth that speaks of the Exodus from Egypt” (11). Understand this.

1) Bereishit Rabbah 1:1; this interpretation hinges on the word bereishit, which is usually translated “In the beginning” but could also be read “With reishit,” which is understood as referring to Torah, since it is called reishit darko: “the Lord created me at the beginning of His course, as the first of His works of old” (Prov. 8: 22). (This is the main textual source for the belief in the preexistence of the Torah.) Bereishit could also be translated “For reishit,” so that Torah becomes the purpose of creation. Since Israel is also called reishit, as in “Israel was holy to the L!rd, the first fruits/reishit of His harvest” (Jeremiah 2:3), Israel can also be understood as the purpose of creation, in that they are the ones who will observe the Torah. The Meor Einayim includes all of these understandings in his teaching.   2) Psalms 145:9   3) Isaiah 58:14 The verse speaks of “delighting in the Lord” as a result of keeping Shabbat. The Talmud calls Shabbat me’ein olam haba, “a portion of the World to Come,” exactly the same phrase the Meor Einayim uses in this teaching to refer to the joy of performing any mitzvah for its own sake.   4) Avot 1:3   5) The Hebrew, me’ein, is a wonderfully nuanced word, containing within it multiple relevant meanings: the spiritual joy is, hyperliterally, “from the spring” of the World to Come; colloquially, the joy is “a portion” of the World to Come, an “abridgment” of it, or even “instead of” the World to Come (!). I chose the word “distillation” not because it is a literal translation of me’ein but because I hoped it would capture all these meanings.   6) Psalms 104:1   7) Sukkah 21b   8 ) Hosea 14:10 — “the paths of the L!rd are smooth; the righteous walk in them.”   9) Joseph, or Yosef, means “he adds”; see Gen. 30:24.   10) Targum Onkelos: the authoritative Aramaic translation of the Chumash; since its composition (2nd c. according to the Talmud, 4th-5th c. according to scholars) it has been recognized as the primary way to understand the Torah, and all Torah commentators take its interpretations into account.   11) The Meor Einayim is using a system of interpreting Torah called rashei tevot, or “first letters,” in which words are read as acronyms. Ketonet passim is the Hebrew for “splendid coat” or “coat of many colors.”


Jeff says…
This teaching of the Meor Einayim is a perfect example of the relevance and power of Hasidism for modern Jews who are unable to accept all the truth claims of Orthodoxy but are unwilling to cut ties to the premodern (and often prerational) tradition.
First, the broad definition of Torah offered here. It is not primarily a specific and finite set of words given at one moment in history (even if it had been created previously, as in the midrash) — rather it is an infinite and totally spiritual entity that (much like G!d) is “garbed” in finite words –and deeds! — not only once, but continually. Torah still garbs itself in our own words and deeds (hence the Maggid of Mezeritch’s urging, “Don’t just read Torah, be Torah!”). The book is not closed.
Second, the deanthropomorphization of G!d. G!d is not like a person, who lacks things, but is “whole in all the ways of wholeness” — including knowledge, which is why G!d doesn’t decide to do something, but rather does it out of His nature. (For me, and for many I’ve learned with, this makes the problem of a good G!d in a world filled with bad easier to understand; for example, G!d’s being omnipotent doesn’t mean that He is a puppet master standing outside of the universe who could, if He chose, zap the bad guys or save the good guys; rather, all power (for good or bad) that is in the universe has its source in G!d. This removes the question of why G!d doesn’t do this or that to run the world more along our expectations. Obviously this is a bigger issue that deserves — and will get! — its own posts.)
Third, the emphasis on bringing Heaven “down to earth.” The tension between which world to focus on — this one or the next — goes far back in Judaism. (In Pirkei Avot, an early collection of rabbinic teachings, we hear the debate happening: Ben Azzai taught, “the reward for a mitzvah is another mitzvah and the penalty for an aveirah is another aveirah” (4:2), while Rabbi Yaakov taught, “This world is like a foyer which leads to the World to Come. Prepare yourself in the foyer, that you may be worthy to enter the main hall” (4:21).) There was a time when Rabbi Yaakov’s view prevailed, but in modern times, at least for most Jews, Ben Azzai’s has won out to such an extent that many modern Jews don’t even realize Judaism teaches belief in an afterlife. The Meor Einayim, while affirming the existence of the World to Come, brings the reality of that world into this one, through every act we do for the sake of heaven, and directs our attention to the here and now. Thus, in the way of the mystical tradition from which he draws, Olam HaBa is transformed from “The World to Come” in some future time to “The World That Is Coming,” always, if we bring it.
Fourth, the stunning twist on the coat of many colors — it’s true, the Torah doesn’t say who’s making it for whom, but it took the Meor Einayim coming along after about three thousand years to actually read it as Joseph making the coat for G!d. If the Meor Einayim can reread Torah in this way to speak truth to his generation, we can feel empowered to reread Torah — including Hasidic Torah — to speak to ours. Granted, we are no Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl, but does that mean Torah is closed to us?
Finally, I find this teaching speaks to the overall condition of modern non-Orthodox Jewish life, specifically that we live in a secular world, and even our Jewish world does not assume the traditional values that were taken for granted by so many writers of the past. According to the Meor Einayim, that does not mean that we have to give up our mission of “raising the sparks” and returning all parts of our lives and the world to G!d through a life of holiness. The most mundane conversation, he urges us, can and must be an exodus and a redemption.

This entry was posted in Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl/Meor Einayim, Parsha, Vayeishev. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to God’s Tailors

  1. True words, some truthful words dude. Made my day.

  2. Pingback: G!d’s Body « Hasidism for the Rest of Us

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