A long and difficult teaching from Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl, Meor Einayim, Parshat Devarim, that’s totally worth the effort. I’ve slightly condensed and restructured it with headings for clarity, so if you’re reading along with the original (posted below) it will differ a bit.
Knowledge in Exile
The midrash imagines the Israelites saying to Moses, “Yesterday you said ‘I am not a man of words,’ and now you speak all these words?” Rabbi Yitzhak said, “If you have trouble speaking like Moses, then study Torah and you will be healed, just as Moses studied Torah in the wilderness.” (1)
The secret of the Exodus from Egypt is that da’at — knowledge, awareness, consciousness — was in exile (2). The da’at of the Israelites was restricted, for they did not really know what it means to worship God in joy and understanding. This is the knowledge of God of which King David spoke when he said, “Know the God of your father,” and it is not simply intellectual knowledge but intimate knowing, a joyous union, as when “Adam knew his wife” (3). In the exile in Egypt the Israelites had not achieved this intimate knowledge; this is hinted at in the Hebrew name for Egypt, Mitzrayim, which can also be read mitzar yam, “the restricted sea” (4). This is the Sea of Wisdom, the supernal source of knowledge of God [and it is also God Herself, the Shekhinah, for there is no knowledge of God outside of God (5).] So when the Children of Israel went out from Mitzrayim/mitzar yam, their consciousness expanded and their knowledge of God grew. This is the meaning of the verse, “God saw the people of Israel, veyada Elohim” — [not “and God knew,” as it is usually understood, but] “And the people knew God” (6). Likewise when God recounts the story of the Exodus to the prophet Ezekiel: “Then I passed by and saw you kicking about in your blood, and as you lay there in your blood I said to you, ‘Live!’ I made you grow like a plant of the field. You grew up and developed and became the most beautiful of jewels” — that is, our knowledge of God grew and developed so that we understood how to serve the Creator in purity, joy, and clarity of mind (7). That is why the sages said “A handmaid saw more at the Parting of the Sea than Ezekiel saw in his visions” (8). Since they had gained a broader awareness of God — what we call “big mind,” as opposed to normal consciousness or “small mind” — their service was in joy.
Knowledge Joins Awe and Joy
Psalm 100 says, “Serve God with joy!” but Psalm 2 says, “Serve God with awe!” (9). The truth of the matter is to do both, as our sages explained, for Psalm 2 continues, “…and rejoice with trembling!” So, they said, “Where there is joy, there is trembling” (10).
Let’s try to understand this. Psalm 118 says, “This is the gate to God, the righteous enter it,” and the Zohar calls that gate yirah, Awe and Fear of God, as Psalm 111 says, “The beginning of wisdom is awe of God” (11). So Awe of God must be the starting point of all divine service. Then, if we have the intimate knowledge that is called da’at, we learn to serve with joy, and this in turn brings down immense joy from the world of Joy above. Then through our service we bind together Awe and Joy, uniting them in ourselves, and we lift them up to the worlds above, which in turn brings unity to those worlds. So through our own unity we effect true and complete unity in the cosmos.
Let’s try to understand how knowledge of God can draw you up to the world of Joy through the prophecy of Isaiah, “Then you will take delight in the Lord, And I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; And I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (12). Whenever you say words of Torah or prayer, once you have entered the gate of Yirah and accepted upon yourself the proper awe of God, then you must realize that it is “the mouth of the Lord” that speaks all the words you are saying, for an aspect of God lives within each of us, and it is by the power of God within you that you are able to speak at all. This is why we say Adonai sfatai tiftach, “Lord, open my mouth,” before we pray, for the world of divine speech has been distilled and placed inside our own mouths. Once you understand this and believe it with complete faith, then immediately a tremendous spiritual joy will come over you, and your mind will be opened further to more and more joy. So, through knowledge of God, the Awe and Fear that you accepted upon yourself is united with Joy in the worlds above.
Sweetening the Judgments at their Roots
This union “sweetens all the judgments” (13), for the judgments are found in restriction and small-mindedness, for example the exile in Egypt which came about through the mitzar yam and small-mindedness of the Israelites, and the judgments were overcome and the Exodus came about through expanding their awareness. So it is in every person and every era; this is what our sages meant when they said, “In every generation you must feel as if you yourself went out from Egypt” (14).
To effect your own Exodus from your own personal judgments, you must stop living in the “small mind” and accept upon yourself Awe of God, for Awe of God is the gate through which the judgments pass. But through broadening your mind and understanding that God’s own self speaks through you, then you come to the world of Joy, and this world is also called the world of Freedom, and also the world of Understanding. This is the world from which the judgments come. But when you bind your Awe to the world of Joy, as we discussed above, then you return the judgments to their source and “sweeten” them there — for their source is truly the only place in which they can be sweetened. This is the meaning of “Where there is joy, there is trembling” — you must lift your trembling, that is, your Awe and your Fear of God, to the place of Joy, to where there is no judgment. For, even though that world is the source of judgment, no judgments exist inside it [only below it], for it is the world of Mercy and Happiness, and in such a place no judgments exist.
Thus, based on the verse “the righteous rules the fear of God,” the sages imagine God asking, “Who rules over me? The righteous one, for I make a decree and he annuls it” (15). How can a person rule over God? Because in truth it is all done by the Creator. The wicked, whose knowledge has not yet gone out from exile, pull the world down into small-mindedness and create a world of judgments, for their service is not in joy and big-mindedness (16). But the righteous person binds himself to the world and unites himself with all creatures…and raises all the lower worlds to the divine worlds above, and this is all done in complete faith in the knowledge that it is God acting through him, “for the mouth of the Lord has spoken,” that is, the divinity within him speaks the words and lifts the worlds of Speech and Awe. This is the meaning of “Who rules over me [literally “in me”]? The righteous,” for the righteous person is in God and God is in the righteous person, and so that person can even annul the harsh judgments of God, so long as he binds himself to the Creator and does not separate from God. Understand this.
1) Midrash Tanhuma Devarim 2; when God gives Moses his mission to return to Egypt and confront Pharaoh, he replies, “I am not a man of words…I am slow of speech and tongue” (Exodus 4:10) 2) Pri Etz Chayim, Shaar Chag Hamatzot 1 3) Chronicles I 28:9, Genesis 4:25 4) מצרים is split into מצר ים. The English only approximates the Hebrew wordplay. 5) While in the actual text only the Sea of Wisdom is written, it goes without saying that Yam, the Sea, refers to the Shekhina, the indwelling, immanent aspect of God, since Yam is in fact one of Her many names. (See the link below for more teachings on this theme.) Intimate knowledge of G!d necessarily means God, for God is not some separate and discrete object which can be “known” intellectually, like a table or a fact; rather, as Isaac the Blind, a medieval Jewish mystic, said, “There is no knowing; there is only suckling.” 6) This verse comes in the context of God’s “seeing” the Israelites suffering in Egypt. The literal translation is strange and difficult to imagine for several reasons: first, that the incorporeal God “saw” the Israelites, and only now did so; second, that the Torah doesn’t tell us what God “knew”; and third, the idea of the omniscient God gaining knowledge in the sense of “learning something” is hard to comprehend. So the Meor Einayim understands the whole verse in the sense of this “intimate knowledge” — God “saw” the Israelites and the Israelites reciprocated by “knowing” God. 7) Ezekiel 16:7 8) Mekhilta Beshalach 15:3 9) 100:2 and 2:11 10) Berachot 30b 11) Psalms 118:20; Zohar I:7b, Psalms 111:10; If you are familiar with the sefirot, you will see the discussion following the sefirot from Da’at to Binah to Chochmah. 12) Isaiah 58:14 113) “Sweetening the judgments” is a really deep and fundamental concept in Jewish mysticism, which I tremble at trying to explain. The relevant aspect for this teaching, as I understand it, is that, if God is truly good, and if everything comes from God, then everything that happens is also good. While this may be logical, it doesn’t jive with our experience. The mystical answer (here) is that God bestows goodness upon us all the time, like the sun shining, but we are not always capable or willing to receive it, so we often live in the shadows; thus the pure good that emanates from God has to take on some different form called “judgments” or, in another metaphor, become “garbed” as something bad that happens to us (think of a toddler getting a shot — he can’t imagine how it could be good for him, but the parent knows and holds the child down while the doctor administers the medicine). This transformation happens in the world of Binah, “Understanding,” also called the world of Joy, Freedom, Mercy, and Happiness, and known as the “Divine Mother” who holds her child down for the shot, perhaps hurting more than the child while she does so but doing so nevertheless. In this world, there is no distinction between good and evil — it is a false dichotomy that does not and cannot exist that close to the pure unity of God — but below that world, where we live, there is such a distinction. Thus the work that the Meor Einayim is talking about here is getting ourselves back to that place so close to God and divine unity that those distinctions fall away. Then, not only has our awareness of events changed, but we (or at least the tzaddik) can actually change events. 14) Pesachim 116b 15) 2 Samuel 23:3; Moed Katan 16b; The verse in context reads, “He who rules men with righteousness, he who rules [in] awe of God,” but the language is strange and begs a different reading, which the sages give it, breaking up the lines and reading it as “the righteous rules [in/over] Awe of God.” 16) Notice that the Meor Einayim speaks of the wicked serving God, only without joy. This could be read as equating any service that is not in joy with service of the wicked, or it could be read as elevating even the acts of the wicked to divine service, only they are unaware that they serve God and so take no joy in it.