A teaching by Moshe Chaim Efraim, from Degel Mahane Efraim, Parshat Shemot.
And so it was, because the midwives feared G!d, that He made them houses. וַיְהִי כִּי יָרְאוּ הַמְיַלְּדֹת אֶת הָאֱ־לֹהִים וַיַּעַשׂ לָהֶם בָּתִּים Genesis 1:21
Something is being hinted at here. Yirah, fear or awe (1), is that which puts boundaries to wisdom. For example, with wisdom alone and no yirah one can still do all kinds of evil, and even, G!d forbid, the wisdom can be used for the evil; but through yirah a boundary can be made for wisdom, so that one not apply his wisdom to unholy matters but only to Torah and divine service, and in this way yirah becomes a vessel for wisdom, so that it doesn’t spread out too much. And so it is in all the worlds (2), for “with wisdom You have made everything,” and [at their creation] the worlds wished to expand more and more until the Holy One of Blessing rebuked them (3), and this is the nature of yirah, to contract and limit (4). And this is the meaning of the saying of the sages, “Everyone who has yirat shamayim, his words are nishma’im“; [not “heard,” as the plain sense of the verse, but] “gathered together,” as in “And Shaul yishama/gathered together the people” (5). So, through the yirah that one has, one’s words are collected and gathered together, measured and weighed and bounded in the vessel that has been made. Therefore yirah is called a “house,” in that it is a vessel that concentrates things within its bounds.
So this is how we should understand the verse: because the midwives had yirah, G!d made them vessels for their wisdom. Understand this.
1) Yirah can mean “fear” or “awe,” and inspires this teaching because of its use in our verse, “the midwives feared…” Yirah, or its full name, yirat shamayim, “Fear of Heaven,” is a fundamental way of relating to G!d, balanced by Ahavah, Love. In Kabbalah they are also associated with the sfirot Hesed, “Lovingkindness,” and Gevura, “Might.” Ahavah/Hesed is free-flowing generosity without limits, while Yirah/Gevurah is strict discipline. Ideally, they are combined so that one’s generosity is directed in the most effective way. In the sefirotic Tree of Life, Chochmah,” Wisdom,” is on the same side as Hesed. The Degel seems to be teaching that Wisdom must be balanced by its complement on the other side. 2) The Degel is alluding to the mystical concept of the “Four Worlds,” which were four stages of development in the world’s creation and continue to act as levels of being that bridge the gap between the infinite G!d and the finite world. The four worlds, from “top” to “bottom,” are Atzilut, “Emanation,” Beriyah, “Creation,” Yetzirah, “Formation,” and Assiyah, “Action”; as G!d’s creative power flows down the Tree of Life from sefira to sefira and from world to world, it grows ever more concrete, finally resulting in the material world. As usual in Hasidism, the cosmic model is also applied to the human being, so that the same process happens in our psyche.
3) “with wisdom You have made everything”/bechochmah kulam asita: the phrase is from the Yotzer Or, one of the blessings around the morning Shema. The Degel is reading it as “with the sefira of Chochmah/Wisdom You have made everything,” alluding to G!d’s use of the penultimate sefira in Creation. “He rebuked them” is a reference to the well-known midrashic teaching that G!d is called El Shaddai because He said dai/”Enough!” to the primordial waters, which had threatened to overrun the world (Bereishit Rabbah 17, Masechet Hagigah 12a). 4) The Degel uses the specific term tzimztum, which can mean contraction, concentration, or withdrawal, which, according to the Arizal, is how the infinite G!d made room for the finite world: first by withdrawing some of the divine “light” to make a void, and then concentrating that divine light into a single beam that descended into the void, passing through the many, even infinite, levels of “veiling” (the Four Worlds, the Ten Sefirot), until the light had been transformed into the material world. 5) The first citation is from Masechet Berachot 6b; the second from I Samuel 15:4 and is a reference to Saul’s mustering of the troops, upon Shmuel’s command, to go battle Amalek. The passage is thick with the root שמע sh.m.’a.
The balance between Yirah and Ahavah is a tricky one and it seems that Jews (and Judaism) have been trying to find the right balance since day one. This is reflected in the tradition that Avraham served out of Ahavah and Yitzhak out of Yirah, and it was only the last of the Patriarchs, Yaakov, who managed to combine them properly. One of the revolutions of Hasidism was the pendulum swing away from Yirah, which seems to have overwhelmed Judaism for centuries, and towards Ahavah. After all, the Baal Shem Tov said, “I came to teach three things: love of G!d, love of Torah, and love of one another.” This teaching, however, shows that Hasidism was not the free-for-all love-fest that it is sometimes portrayed to be; discipline still had its place.
The discipline the Degel speaks of here I would call discipline of information, and I would also argue that there has never been a greater need for it than now, in our information-saturated world. The Degel wants us to limit our info-intake to Torah and service of G!d. Traditionally, this meant (and still means, in some communities) learning only traditional Jewish texts, to the near-exclusion of literature, history, science, and current events, and engaging only in activities explicitly sanctioned by tradition. I don’t think any of us can do that, nor do I think we have to: no lesser representative of Hasidism than the Lubavitcher Rebbe studied at the Sorbonne, and Abraham Joshua Heschel left home specifically to study at secular universities and write poetry and, while he may have been rejected by contemporary hasidim, I think he is the single best example of Hasidism for moderns, which is what this blog is about.
So, how are we to understand the Degel’s advice to dedicate our wisdom only to Torah and divine service? I think some help lies in the texts he chose to cite in his teaching. First, there is the overwhelming theme of creation: the original verse speaks of midwives; the excerpt from the prayer service, the midrashic reference, and the allusion to the Arizal’s creation myth all evoke G!d’s creation of the world, and the parallel power of humans to create. Further, the Talmudic citation comes from a list of sayings by Rabbi Chelbo in the name of Rav Huna, which deal with prayer offerings, marriage, the giving of the Torah, and the creation of the world for the sake of the G!d-fearing person. When you add the verse from the book of Samuel, which is a call to arms against Amalek, the embodiment of evil qua evil, then you have the total package of “Torah and divine service” in the broad sense. So where do we set the borders of our “house of wisdom”? I would suggest any information that brings us close to G!d, that fights evil, that aids us in being G!d’s partners in creating the world as it should be, is “Torah and divine service,” and is let in. Everything else is left outside. To me, this seems like the true meaning of Yirah — not that we are afraid of anything outside of Torah, but rather so in awe of G!d (wherever we may find Him) that we want to know only those things that bring us closer.