In Your light will we see light. Psalm 36, also from the introductory morning prayers.
Our holy sages wrote that before his death Moses besought G!d, saying, “Master of the World! I ask only one thing of You: that you split the gates of the heavens and the deeps so that everyone sees that there is nothing but You” (1). When the light of true knowledge rests on you, your eyes are opened in the sense of the verse “You have been shown to know that Hashem is G!d and there is nothing else”; you see the glory of G!d that fills all the worlds, that is at once within and around all existence; you feel in all Creation the splendor and the luminescence of the Blessed One; your heart begins to open in the love of G!d, and your lusts for the things of this world pass away as nothing before Him. How could a person ever invest himself in worldly lusts, unless his soul has dimmed and his mind has darkened, so that his view shrinks in his confusion…
The Ra’avad (2) wrote in his book Ba’alei Hanefesh, “The most important thing of all is that you know your Maker, that you are familiar with your Creator, and even if G!d is hidden from our eyes, G!d is found in our hearts and revealed in our thoughts…open your ears and your eyes and you will see the presence of G!d standing right in front of you.” The Baal Shem Tov has also given us the example of a man who holds his hand before his eyes and claims he can’t see anything — as soon as he lowers his hand, the whole world is revealed! Being caught up in materiality, we block the divine light from our own eyes. Being obsessed with ourselves, we narrow our own vision and dwell in katnut hamochin, “small-mindedness”; but when we look beyond ourselves gates of light open before us so that we may see the world in the light of G!d; our vision opens to take in the greatness of the Creator and in this limitless vision we experience the holy light of Torah and mitzvot. It is as if we sat inside our houses, unable to see anything but ourselves and our own desires and our own four walls, and then we went outside and suddenly we feel dwarfed before the open expanses and endless horizon. In this new vision our own selves shrink and our material desires disappear, and we merit to see a world that is only light.
So Solomon ibn Gabirol (3) wrote in his poem “Crown of Kingship,” “You are the light of the world, and the eyes of every soul that merits it will see You.” Such a soul will see the Creator in all of creation, as Scripture tells us: “the heavens declare the glory of G!d, and the skies proclaim the work of His hands,” “You alone are the L!rd. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you” (4). All of creation will show you how G!d gives life to everything and causes it to be in every moment, and all of creation tells you that G!d is one and G!d’s name is one, and there is nothing but G!d. You will see G!d’s presence with your own eyes, and with your own ears you hear G!d’s call, with your own heart understand it as it comes to you from everything that is and happens in this world, and “all your bones will say, ‘Who is like you, G!d?’,” and in you will be fulfilled the teaching of our holy rabbis, “Every time that the Jews see the Holy One of Blessing, they are made into saints. They saw G!d at the sea and were made pious, and they sang the Song of the Sea; they saw G!d at Mount Sinai and they were made upright; they saw G!d at the Tent of Meeting and they were made righteous…” (5).
The Holy One of Blessing gave us the Torah and mitzvot to light up our minds and our hearts, as it is written, “For a mitzvah is a candle and Torah is a light” (6). For Torah is divine light made manifest, lighting up the depths of our souls (7), bringing us into clarity of thought and openness of mind — this is what it really means to have achieved Torah knowledge. The prophet Isaiah said, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light,” and our holy rabbis teach us that this is the original light from the first day of creation, which the Holy One of Blessing hid away for those who toil in Torah to find; the Baal Shem Tov asked, “Where do they find it?” and answered, “In Torah itself” (8).
Shabbat, too, can give us this luminous knowledge of G!d, as the Torah says, “You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between Me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the L!rd, who makes you holy” (9). Our sages speak of raza deshabbat, “the secret of Shabbat,” and the numerical value of raz, “secret,” is the same as that of or, “light,” and this light is indeed the secret of Shabbat. Even if someone keeps Shabbat down to its smallest particulars, if he does not feel the light of Shabbat lighting up his soul, then the essence is lost on him. Sefer Hasidim quotes the verse, “And G!d blessed Shabbat,” and points out that the Torah does not say with what; it then answers that G!d’s blessing of Shabbat was the opposite of Job’s curse of the day when he said, “Let the darkness and utter gloom claim that day for its own. Let a black cloud overshadow it, and let the darkness terrify it” (10); so we see that G!d’s blessing was one of light.
The place where you live can also bring you this light, and nowhere is this such the case as in the Land of Israel, as our sages said, “The air of the Land of Israel makes one wise,” and as the poet Judah Halevi wrote, “The air of your land is the very life of the soul,” and “I would pour out my life in the very place where once the spirit of G!d was poured out upon your chosen ones.” In his book Hakuzari Halevi also compares the land to a fertile hill given to growing choice grapes for fine wine, made all the more fertile by the acts of those working the land, that is, acting righteously there. Lastly, our holy rabbis said, “If you wish to see the presence of G!d in this world, study Torah in the Land of Israel.” (11)
In this way we can understand the story of the holy rabbi Menahem Mendel, one of the foremost disciples of the Baal Shem Tov, who went up to the Holy Land. After arriving he wrote three letters to a friend and fellow servant of G!d. In the first letter, written immediately upon his arrival, he told his friend that all of his spiritual advancements had been taken from him and that he dwelt in a great darkness. In the second letter he wrote that he had already become a better servant of G!d, but that he still could not reach the same spiritual heights as he had before coming. In his last letter he told of how good it was for him in the Land of Israel and that he had reached new heights and, what’s more, that it had been revealed to him that even when he felt that he had fallen and dwelt in darkness, he had already been on a higher level than he had ever reached before coming to the Holy Land.
And even if you do not merit to live in the Land of Israel, the desire to do so can accomplish the same thing, if you desire it deeply enough, as the sages say on the verse from Psalms, “of Zion it will be said, ‘This one and that one were born in her, and the Most High himself will establish her'” — “one” was born in Israel, and “one” only longed to see Israel, but both are counted as her children, and so G!d will bring the second one into the Land. (12)
1) Devarim Rabbah 11 2) Rabbi Avraham ben David, 1125-1198, a giant Talmudist, thinker, and precursor to the explosion in Kabbalistic learning that would come out of Provence and Spain in the following centuries. His son was Isaac the Blind, a famous pre-Zoharic mystic. 3) Spanish poet and philosopher, c. 1021-1058 4) Psalm 19; Nehemiah 9:6 5) Psalm 35:10; Shocher Tov 149 6) Proverbs 6 7) The Nesivos Shalom actually refers to nefesh, ruach, v’neshamah, the middle three levels of soul in a person. Jewish tradition teaches that every created thing has a soul. Inanimate things have only the lowest level, chiyut. As we move up the chain of creation things gain higher levels of soul. The highest is pure divinity, and the three in between, to which the Nesivos Shalom refers here, are the three we normally think of as our soul, in the sense of that which gives us life, meaning, and our own particular character. 8) Isaiah 9:2; Midrash Tanhuma 58 9) 10) Sefer Hasidim 261 on Genesis 2:3 and Job 3:5; Sefer Hasidim is the collected teachings of three generations of Hasidei Ashkenaz, “the pietists of Germany,” a group of Jews from the 12th and 13th centuries who devoted themselves to going beyond the letter of the law and sought the deepest connection to G!d. 11) Bava Batra 158b; “Ode to Zion”; Article B, p. 88; Shocher Tov 105 12) Psalms 87:5; Ketubot 75a
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