From Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl, Meor Einayim, Parshat Re’eh.
See, I set before you today a blessing and a curse: et the blessing if you heed the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you this day, and the curse if you do not heed the commandments of the LORD your God, but turn away from the way I command you this day, to follow other gods, which you did not know. Deuteronomy 11:26-28
What does it mean, “see,” as if pointing with a finger to something before our eyes? And why does the Torah use the word et before “blessing” but not before “curse”? (1)
Let’s first look at the verse, “See, I have set before you today life and the good and death and the bad…choose life!” Now it is known that the creation of all the worlds and everything in them was through the Torah, that is, the letters from Alef to Tav, into which the Creator contracted (2) Himself, and in the beginning He contracted His most pure emanation into Alef, and then contracted further and emanated the light of His holy bounty from letter to letter until the final stage, which was Tav, which is the place of freewill (3), as it says in the Talmud, “Tav he shall live, Tav he shall die” (4). Therefore everything, even those things farthest from the light of the Ayn Sof (5), need to draw near to that light by moving from Tav to Alef, which is called Alufo Shel Olam (6). We are the ones who must do this work, by drawing close to these worldly things and then lifting them up to their roots in the Source of all things; therefore it says, “Choose life!”, that is, choose the life-force and the goodness that is in everything — for therein is the distilled divinity — and we must not be drawn after the bad that is in everything.
Through the sin of Adam the good and the bad became intermingled in all things. Man too is a mixture of the good and the bad, the yetzer hatov being drawn after the good in other things and the yetzer hara after the bad (7). And so we see everything that is in this world according to what is inside us. If we overcome our yetzer hara and make it servant instead of master, then we see the good in all things, subsuming the bad inside the good and raising both towards their root in the Alef. But if we let our yetzer hara overcome us (God forbid), then we see the bad in all things, and the good becomes subsumed in the bad, and we cut it off from the light of the Ayn Sof (God forbid!). This is the meaning of the verse from Proverbs, nirgan mafrid aluf : a quarrelsome person separates the Aluf Shel Olam, the Alef of the world, from the Shekhinah which dwells at the farthest end, in the Tav (8). Such a person is called an idol worshiper, as the Baal Shem Tov said on our verse, but turn away from the way I command you and serve other gods — as soon as you separate from God you serve some other god, because you do not keep in mind and believe that leit atar panui minei, “there is no place empty of God,” for “His glory fills all the earth” — even the most lowly and earthly bit of creation.
In the Song of Songs it is written, “I will get up now and go about the city, through its streets and squares; I will search for the one my heart loves”: that is, God goes looking through the markets and the streets as we go about our business, to see if the one His heart loves sees the divinity bound up within the mundane things of our worldly lives, for as I have explained elsewhere, even doing business can be a way of serving God for the one with a knowing heart. [But such people are few; thus the verse continues] “So I looked for him but did not find him.” The next verse reads, “The watchmen found me as they made their rounds in the city,” that is, those engaged in Torah study and mitzvot. “Scarcely had I passed them when I found the one my heart loves” — even among these God finds very few…for most of them have turned away from God even in their studies, for it is not Torah study for its own sake [i.e., with proper love and awe of God], and “a soul without knowledge is not good.” This is as our sages taught: “If one is deserving, the Torah is like lifesaving medicine to him, but if one is not deserving, it is like poison to him” (9).
This is what they meant when they said, “The wicked are called dead even in their life,” for even when the wicked engage in life-giving things that draw one close to the Creator, such as Torah study and mitzvot, they are called dead, for they separate those things from the Life of Life, the Creator. But “the righteous are called alive even in their death,” for even while engaged in mundane things that are called “death” because they seem far from the Creator, the Life of Life, the righteous lift up those things that are at the lowest level and return them to Alufo Shel Olam, the Life of Life. (10)
This is the meaning of the verse, “See, I set before you”: in every worldly thing that you see, know that there I have set “a blessing and a curse,” that is, the good and the bad mixed within every thing; choose “et the blessing,” that is, through joining Alef and Tav by seeing the good that is in everything, subsuming the bad inside the good, and bringing both closer to Alufo Shel Olam. Then you will bring down only blessing and bounty to the world from the Ayn Sof.
This is understood by if you heed the commandments of the LORD your God, for tishme‘u, “heed,” also means to gather and join together (11), and mitzvot, “commandments,” also means cleaving and attaching (12), and Elohim, “God,” means the divine as experienced at the Tav, the end of the divine contraction, the lowest rungs, and YHVH, “the LORD,” means the infinite and ineffable divine, the Ayn Sof, the Alef (13). Thus this verse means, “cleave to the divinity in the lower rungs of this world and join it to the infinite divine above,” the blessed root of all things…
So all of this depends on whether you know or you did not know, on our knowledge and faith that “there is no place empty of God,” that wherever you look, there is God, contracted into the things of this world. If you have this knowledge, then surely you will grasp the [divine] life and the [divine] good within every mundane thing, and join them to Alufo shel Olam by uniting Alef and Tav, the et before the blessing, and thereby draw down the Creator’s bounteous blessings.
Sources: See… Deuteronomy 30:15, 18; Tav he shall live…Shabbat 55a; There is no place… Tikkunei Zohar 57:91b; His glory fills…Isaiah 6:3; I will get up…Song of Songs 3; The wicked are called…Berachot 18b, Zohar III: 135b; Saul mustered…1 Samuel 15:4
1) et, spelled alef tav, is a grammatical word that joins a verb and its direct object; if the word “blessing” requires it in the structure of the sentence, so does the word “curse.” The Meor Einayim is following a long tradition here, eg. Masechet Pesachim 22b relates how Shimon Imsoni and R. Akiva between them interpreted every et in the Torah. 2) tzimtzem, which could also be translated as withdrew or distilled; see the legend of creation according to the Arizal. 3) Since it requires a certain distancing and restraint of G!d’s overwhelming power from created beings in order to give them the opportunity to choose freely. 4) Shabbat 55a; the context is a discussion of the verse from Ezekiel 9:6, “begin with My holy ones.” Both the righteous and the wicked are inscribed with the letter Tav on their foreheads as a sign to the avenging angels, either tichyeh, “you shall live,” or tamut, “you shall die.” 5) Literally, “Without End,” G!d as pure unity, beyond human thought or categorization, that aspect of G!d to which applies Maimonides’ negative theology, ie, all we can say about it is that it is “not this” and “not that.” 6) “The Leader” or “The First of the World” 7) Yetzer Hatov andYetzer Hara: literally “the good inclination” and “the bad inclination,” a translation I kept to preserve the parallel between the good and bad in us and in everything around us, but if we translate less literally but more accurately it would be “the urge towards oneness” and “the urge toward separateness,” fitting perfectly in this teaching. 8) 16:28 ; again, Alufo Shel Olam, the transcendent aspect of G!d, and the Shekhina, the immanent aspect of G!d. 9) In Yerushalmi Hagiga 76 Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi’s envoys ask to see the “guardians of the city” and, when they are shown the city guard, they explain that these are not the guardians of the city but its destroyers; the true guardians are the scribes and the scholars, for “Unless the L!RD watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain” (Psalm 127:1); Torah lishmah, “Torah for its own sake,” ie, with no ulterior motives, is a cardinal value of the rabbis. The phrase can also be read “Torah for Her sake,” and since the Zohar states “The Holy One of Blessing and the Torah are one,” the Hasidim took Torah lishmah to mean study for no reason but to serve and draw close to G!d. Such study is “love and awe” in action; “A soul without knowledge is not good” (Proverbs 19:2) is a literal reading of the word nefesh, often translated simply as “person.” By reading it literally, as “soul”, the “knowledge” is transformed from intellectual knowledge (which is not the goal of Torah lishmah) to spiritual awareness, which is both the prerequisite and the goal of Torah lismah. The next citation is from Yoma 72b, and it is immediately preceded by some relevant teachings on Torah study, which the Meor Einayim would expect the reader to pick up on: “Any Torah scholar whose inside is not like his outside is not a Torah scholar”; “Woe unto the enemies of Torah scholars, who occupy themselves with Torah, yet lack awe of heaven”; The teaching cited here is a play on the word sam, “put,” as in “This is the Torah that Moses put before the children of Israel (Deut. 4:44), which is a homonym for the word for “drug”; thus, Torah can be a sam chayim, a “drug of life,” or a sam mavet, “drug of death,” depending on how you approach it. 10) the Meor Einayim is creatively rereading the text to mean that the life of holy things or activities is called dead in the case of the wicked, and even the low-level life hidden within worldly things and activities is called alive in the case of the righteous. 11) as in the verse vayishma’ shaul, “Saul mustered the men” 12) the root tz.v. also means join or attach 13) for this understanding of Elohim, see Yerushalmi Berachot פ’ט or this teaching by the Meor Einayim.
For a different approach that hinges on the same reading of asher tishme’u, see this teaching from the Maor VaShemesh.