A teaching of Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezeritch, from Or Torah, Parshat Behukotai
אִם בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ וְאֶת מִצְוֹתַי תִּשְׁמְרוּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם וְנָתַתִּי גִשְׁמֵיכֶם בְּעִתָּם If you walk in My laws and keep my mitzvot and do them, then I will give your rain, geshem, in their time. (1) Leviticus 26:3-4
This can be understood literally, as in the tale of Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa (2). Once when he was walking on the road it began to rain, and he said, “Master of the World, all the world is at ease, but Hanina is in distress,” and the rain ceased. So we find that for the sake of this righteous man rain ceased — but if we walk in G!d’s laws then we will all be righteous, and then the prayer of one person will have no power against the rest, and the rain will come in its time.
I have heard it asked why Hanina ben Dosa made a point to say “all the world is at ease, but…”, when he could have just said “Hanina is in distress.” And worse — it seems that he was more concerned to end his own distress than to preserve the ease of the world. We can understand this according to the saying of the sages, “Every day a heavenly voice goes forth and says, ‘The whole world is sustained for the sake of Hanina My son, and Hanina My son is satisfied with a handful of carob seeds from one sabbath eve to the next.'” (3). So we find that Hanina ben Dosa was the channel through which G!d’s bounty poured out onto the whole world; this is the meaning of bishvil — not only “for the sake of,” but “through the channel of” Hanina. This is why he said “All the world is at ease,” for the ease came to them through him, and he said to himself, “How can it come in full measure if I am in distress? Perhaps the rain will not be for blessing and the benefit of the world, because of my distress.”
But was he not used to distress, subsisting on a handful of carob beans? No. It is not that he could not find more to eat, but rather he was happy with that little bit. For the righteous take little for themselves and do not suffer at all for it. But here he was in true distress, for he could not bring the full bounty into the world, and he was pained at the suffering of the world. This was the intent of his prayer — that the rains stop until he arrive home, and once home he would be at ease to pray that the rains fall as they should.
This is the secret of the verse, I will give your geshem in their times. Why geshem, and not the usual word for rain, matar? And what is their times? This can be explained by the hint given in the Mishna, chomer bakodesh mibaterumah, shematbilin keilim b’toch keilim…(4). For it is known that the essence of serving the Creator is devekut (cleaving) and hitlahavut (fervor). By praying and studying Torah in fear and love one can cleave to God, for your breath cleaves to the heavenly breath, and your voice to the heavenly voice, and your speech to the heavenly speech, and likewise your thought, as it is written of Moses, “The Shekhinah spoke from his throat” (5). For through his great holiness and cleaving to God he was joined to his heavenly root (6), and it was as if the Holy One of Blessing spoke Moses’ words. So he was able to purify his material self and become a “man of God,” as it is written, “Remove your sandals,” which are his material self (7).
And this may be what the Mishna is hinting at: if you wish to purify yourself so that you are in the holiness of above — which is celestial thought — then you need terumah, lifting up — that is, you must always lift up your eyes and your heart, and purify your thoughts and ideas in thoughts of God, in complete cleaving and fervor. For it is known that where a person’s thoughts are, that’s where he is, too. So if you practice and strive always to keep your thoughts on God, then surely you will rise up through the realm of thought to your heavenly root, and then even your material self will be purified in holiness above. So chomer bakodesh mibaterumah — materiality comes to be in holiness from being lifted up (8).
Now it is known that the letters are called “vessels,” and the vowels are the life and the soul of the vessels (9). Whatever you think, it is in the form of words and therefore letters. And if some inappropriate thought should come to you while praying or studying, it is not coincidence, for there is a time to every desire, as in the verse, “When each girl’s turn came to go to the King” (10) — for the sparks of holiness found deep within every material thing are called “girls” (11), and they wish to cleave to their root, and even now, as you pray or study, their time has come to rise up in holiness. So now you must rouse yourself greatly, for it is not for nothing that the thought has come, but only to rise up, “and if not now when?” (12), and it may never have another time but this one, for it has been drawn by the subject of your thought, whether in prayer or study or saying a blessing.
And this is the meaning of the next part of the Mishna, “we immerse vessels within vessels for the sake of terumah,” for we immerse the impure vessels of the letters of the inappropriate thought in the pure vessels of the letters of the holy thoughts, and thereby purify and sanctify them.
This is how we are to understand our verse, If you walk in My laws. The sages understand this to mean engaging in Torah study (13), that is, not standing in one place but always “walking” forward from level to level in cleaving and fervor, until you reach the highest level and all your thoughts cleave to the upper worlds, like the four who entered the orchard (14), from the greatness of your cleaving through pure and holy thoughts. Then, I will give you your geshem in their time, that is, even your materiality will be purified, because the holy sparks [from the inappropriate thoughts] will rise at just the moment when they are able to cleave to their root. Then, these thoughts will not come to you as before, that is, because your mind dwelled on material things, but will come to you as an opportunity for sanctification.
We can say that this applies even to the doing of mitzvot, for one who performs a mitzvah and knows its reason and its source, and does it in great fervor and desire is very different from one who does it simply because it has been ordained by the Creator. This is the meaning of If you keep My laws (hukim), for the word hukim specifically means laws that do not seem to have a reason. Even if you do not understand the reason for the commandment, always do it in cleaving and fervor, and it goes without saying that you will perform the mitzvot for which you understand the reason with cleaving and fervor. Then I will give your geshem…
Imagine a king and his servants. The servants do the commands of the king even though they do not understand them and their purpose, and they are not allowed to ask why. Not so the king’s son. The son, too, does the command of the king out of his great love for his father, even if he does not understand their purpose; but he is allowed to ask what their purpose is — what’s more, the king wants him to ask and to understand the root and purpose of everything, and to bring his own suggestions to the king for how to run the kingdom. The king desires the questions and is happy to answer them, revealing his wisdom, for the son too will rule like the king, and he must grow wise in kingly wisdom. So the son is allowed to seek what he needs in every storehouse and treasure room of the king (15). Then the son will come to love his father even more, and will not hesitate to do every one of his commands, whether he understands it or not, for he does them out of love.
So this verse teaches us both love and awe. We must do those commands we understand in love for God, and be in such awe of God that we do even those commands we do not understand. For love and awe are good when joined as one, and then I will give your geshem, as I have explained.
1) geshem, in the plain sense of the verse, means rains, but it is based on the root for materiality, and that is how the Maggid is reading it. 2) Ta’anit 24b 3) Berachot 17b 4) Hagiga 20b: The phrase, “The stringency of kodesh over terumah,” is the opening of a discussion on different forms of sanctity and how to purify sacred objects that have become impure, and continues “…is that we may immerse vessels within [other] vessels for terumah but not for kodesh. The Maggid is reading chomer, “stringency,” as “materiality,” and so turns a very technical discussion about purifying objects into a homiletic about purifying your thoughts. He will explain his reading later in the teaching. 5) Zohar, Pinhas, 219a in Raiya Mehemna and Zohar II:232a 6) Everything has its root in G0d — indeed, we are all extensions of God — and so spiritual growth is often called “returning to the root.” 7) Deuteronomy 33:1, Joshua 14:6, Psalms 90:1, 1 Chronicles 23:14, 2 Chronicles 30:16, Ezra 3:2; Exodus 3:5 8) That is: materiality (chomer) [comes to be] in holiness (bakodesh) from being lifted up (mibeterumah) 9) Since the vowels (which are usually not written) tell the reader how to pronounce the letters. 10) Esther 2:2 11) Na’arah, “girl,” can also mean that which “enlivens,” as the sparks of divinity in the world enliven it; also, these sparks are part of the Shekhinah, the feminine, immanent aspect of God, Who is compared to a maiden held captive. 12) Pirkei Avot 1:14 13) Vayikra Rabbah 1 14) A story in Hagigah 14b of four rabbis who “entered the orchard,” that is, the heavens, in mystical flight. It is striking that the Maggid cites that story, for only one of those rabbis (Rabbi Akiva) comes back whole — one dies, one goes mad, and one becomes a heretic. The main point of the story seems to be the dangers inherent in mystical aspirations, while here the Maggid is holding it up as the ideal — a sign of how “normal” mystical experience seemed to the Maggid. 15) In the Zohar, “entering the treasures of the Master” is parlance for mystical contemplation and exploration of the divine. (see Zohar Hadash 105a)
First, a note on the text itself, and then I’ll try to tackle one of the themes in it.
The middle half of this teaching is included in Keter Shem Tov and Sefer Baal Shem Tov as a teaching of the Besht, not the Maggid. This is probably because it was first collected in Likutim Amarim in 1792, a chapbook collection of teachings by the Baal Shem Tov, the Maggid of Mezeritch, and , with little effort made to differentiate between them (while it may surprise us now, this was not unusual in early Hasidism, when the books were not seen as particularly important, being but pale imitations of the oral teachings given by the masters on Shabbat — a self-awareness we should keep in mind when learning these texts). While the complete teaching as we have it is almost certainly the Maggid’s, it does include several trademark teachings of the Baal Shem Tov (another likely reason for the false attribution): using the story of Hanina ben Dosa as a prooftext for the role of the tzaddik as the shvil/ channel of blessing, reading the Mishna on purifying pots as a teaching on purifying the self, applying the verse about the “girls” waiting to see the king to the holy sparks in need of uplift, and the saying “Wherever your thoughts are, you are too,” were all favorites of the Besht. The Maggid only met the Besht twice, for a matter of months, so we shouldn’t think of him as the Besht’s disciple the way that the Kedushas Levi, Or haMeir, and Noam Elimelech were the Maggid’s disciples. Instead, the Baal Shem Tov was more of an inspiration to the Maggid, who then went on and founded, with his closest disciples, what we think of as the Hasidic movement.
Now, for what I think is the most striking part of this teaching: the last section on the mitzvot. Calling those who serve out of awe “servants” and those who serve out of love “children” is an ancient division, but what’s new here (as far as I know) is the Maggid’s contention that “the king” wants “his son” to ask the reasons for the commandments, since the son must share in the royal wisdom (here’s the kicker) because he too will rule in the king’s place. This is not just a throwaway line to complete the anthropomorphic metaphor. The Maggid really saw the righteous person as being God’s regent in the world, and his will was done as easily as Hanina’s request for the rain to stop was answered. What’s more, the Maggid wants all of us to be at that level, so that the tzaddik is not alone in his righteousness. How do we do this? We only merit “ruling” with G!d when we make our will one with God’s. Notice how Hanina ben Dosa, with all the power in the world, didn’t ask for a convertible, but was content with a handful of carob seeds from one shabbat to the next.
The big question I want to ask is this: if we don’t share the Maggid’s conviction that all of the Torah’s commands are God’s will, how do we show our awe of God and our willingness to nullify our own will in the divine will? If our awe and love of the Creator don’t extend to the particulars of the Torah, what will take their place? Can we imagine the Maggid of Mezeritch today, sharing with many of us the belief that the Torah is in large part a human creation? If so, what would he say? Maybe there is something here, in his contention that the righteous rule with God, that can also help us in understanding Torah as a joint divine-human effort, and go from there.