A teaching of Kalonymus Kalman Halevi Epstein, Maor VaShamesh, Parshat Re’eh.
See, I set before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing, that you will heed the commandments of the LORD your God, which I command you today; and the curse, if you will 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
Why does it say asher tishme’u, that you will heed the commandments, but im lo tishme’u, if you will not heed the commandments? Shouldn’t it say “if” in both cases? What’s more, why does the verse say “which I command you today” [since the commandments were given long before]?
The true way to G!d is through dibuk chaverim, cleaving to your fellows, as it is written in Pirkei Avot (1). How so? When you travel to the zaddik of your generation (2), gathering there with all the holy flock, you are nullified and humbled before your fellows when you see how high they have reached in Torah and mitzvot and good deeds, and you come to love every one of them and want nothing more than to join them in the joy and love of the gathering. But when you sit alone at home, you start to think that you are a great Torah scholar, such a good and pious person, for you cannot see your faults, and so you go on and on in your service, always growing in your own eyes but failing to see where you truly need to grow.
It is not so when you gather together before the tzaddik, for there you see people who are truly great in Torah and mitzvot, people younger than you in years but older than you in their service to God, and elders too who nevertheless humble themselves before the [younger] zaddik, and rich and important people who have abandoned their worldly life to serve God, and poor people too who seek not wealth and an easier life but only to serve God in joy and love. When you see all these people with your newly opened eyes, even if your heart is of stone it will melt within you and break into twelve pieces, one piece for every person (3), and you will want nothing more than to join not only the group, but to join with each and every individual there. This is dibuk chaverim.
Also, when you see the zaddik you have traveled to, then you will be filled with fear and awe and trembling, and you will feel like nothing in your own eyes, and all the baseness will fall away from you, and then you will be able to acquire the intellect and wisdom to learn Torah and to serve God with fear and awe. And if you feel this way before the zaddik, a servant of flesh and blood, how much more so will you feel before the King of Kings of Kings, the Holy One of Blessing! This is as our sages taught on the verse, “Fear the LORD your God,” explaining, “this includes Torah scholars,” for through the reverence we have for Torah scholars we learn how to revere God. This is also how we should understand the teaching of the sages, “Around Moses, true fear of God was a small matter,” for after seeing Moses our Teacher and fearing him, it was easy for the children of Israel to fear God (4).
So through joining others you can come to truly serve God and to do mitzvot with wisdom and love and awe, and to long to serve God even more; but without it you can’t know the first thing about fear of God or how to serve in awe and love. What’s more, by gathering together with the holy flock and the zaddik, each one of us blesses and is blessed with everything we need and the divine bounty is poured upon us in a way that cannot happen when we are separate.
There is another benefit to joining together before the zaddik. It is known that the soul is called a candle, as it is written, “A person’s soul is a candle for God,” and our sages said, “The righteous before the Shekhinah are like a candle before a bonfire” (5). When we all gather together the holy light of our candles joins together and shines like a bonfire, and each one of us can draw down holiness and come to know how to serve our Creator in awe and love and joy, in the blazing fire that is kindled from the union of the Holy One of Blessing and the Shekhinah. For indeed every mitzvah is itself the very name of the LORD, the Ineffable Name, YHVH, for the first two letters, mem and tzadi, are equivalent to yud and heh, and the last two letters, vav and heh, are the same, and so whenever you do a mitzvah with burning fervor and cleave to the Ayn Sof, you effect a union between the Holy One of Blessing and the Shekhinah (6).
Through this we can understand our verse, See, I set before you today a blessing and a curse…the blessing asher tishme’u to the commandments of the Lord your God… Asher tishme’u means “that you gather,” as in vayishma’ shaul et ha’am, “Saul gathered the people” (7). So our verse means, gather together to the commandments of the LORD your God, the mitzvot, which are themselves the union of God’s imminence and transcendence, the Holy One of Blessing and the Shekhinah, YHVH and Elohim, the LORD and God; then the blessings will immediately begin to flow, to and from each one of you, for you yourselves are the blessing when you gather together. Which I command you today — it is not enough to join together only once but rather again today, always, so that you become something new and better. The opposite is the curse, if you will 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 — you will know nothing of how to truly do a mitzvah or study Torah in awe and love, and so it will be as if you did nothing and turned away from serving God entirely.
1) Pirkei Avot 6:6 2) Zaddik literally means “righteous person,” but for the hasidim it means their holy teacher and master, who has gone beyond simply being a good person and has learned how to manifest righteousness in all his thoughts and actions. 3) i.e. one for each of the twelve tribes, a metaphorical way of saying one for everybody (see I Kings 11:30 for the Biblical reference). 4) Pesachim 22b on Deuteronomy 6:13 tells: Shimon HaAmsoni, and some say Nechemia HaAmsoni, would expound every et (a grammatical word devoid of semantic meaning) written in the Torah, until he reached “Fear et the LORD your God,” and then he ceased [for he felt it was impossible to equate the reverence we should have for God with any other]… Then Rabbi Akiva came and expounded, ‘The et comes to include Torah scholars.’ Berachot 33b quotes Deuteronomy 10:12, And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God ask of you but to fear God? and then asks, “Is fear of Heaven such a small matter? For Moses, it was a small matter [for he had already attained it].” My understanding is that the Maor VaShemesh is reading legabei moshe, “For Moses,” literally, as “around Moses.” 5) Proverbs 20:27; Pesachim 8a; the Shekhinah is the indwelling, feminine aspect of God, God as presence rather than transcendence. 6) Jewish mysticism teaches that the letters of the alef-bet are the cosmic building blocks of creation, and through various combinations they form everything in existence. One ancient way of combining them is through mystical codes. Here the Maor VaShemesh is using the atbash code, which connects each letter with the letter at the opposite end of the alef-bet, so alef and tav are joined, bet and shin (hence the name, atbash), and so on. In this way the first two letters of mitzvah correspond to the first two letters of the Ineffable Name, and so God’s transcendence, symbolized by YHVH, which is found in potentia in the mitzvah (both the word and the act), is joined with God’s presence in our performing the holy deed with love and awe. Ayn Sof, literally “without end,” is the infinite, unified, and unknowable Source, the divine about which we can’t even speak in any meaningful way. 7) I Samuel 3:8
Hasidism came in large part as a reaction to scholasticism; the ideal of the Torah scholar, his head buried in his books, eyes turned away from his fellows, held little appeal to the Baal Shem Tov and his followers. There are several Hasidic tales of great and learned rabbis who came to the zaddik to show off their learning and left in tears after being shown that they didn’t know the first thing about serving God. The tale of how the Maggid of Mezritch, a foremost disciple of the Baal Shem Tov and an architect of the movement, came to Hasidism is one of them: the Baal Shem Tov placed the mystical book Eitz Hayyim before him, opened it to a section on angels, and told him to explain the text. The Maggid spoke at length about the intricacies and nuances of the text, about the nature and functions of the angels, until the Baal Shem Tov told him to sit down and listen. Then the Baal Shem Tov began to read, in great awe and love, and the room filled with fire and light and the Maggid trembled as he felt countless angels gathering around them. Then the Baal Shem Tov closed the book and said, “Your explanations were correct, but you have no true knowledge, because there is no soul in what you know.” The Maggid became a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov on the spot. (The first version of this story appeared in Keter Shem Tov, 1795, and the second in Shivhei haBesht, 1814.)
This “true knowledge,” this “soul” of the learning, is attained in fellowship, according to the Maor VaShamesh. While Hasidism had an amazing flexibility that made room for reclusive scholars like Moshe Chaim Efraim of Sudlikov, the daily seclusion of Rebbe Nahman’s hitbodedut, or Shalom Shakhne of Probishtch’s day long wanderings through the woods, it always required that we return to our community. The Jewish saint is not a monastic but a family man and community leader who knows we cannot serve God without each other. “Each other” is meant literally — in the words of our author, “you will want nothing more than to join not only the group, but to join with each and every individual there. This is dibuk chaverim.”
The author of this text, Kalman Kalonymus HaLevi Epstein, was the foremost disciple of Elimelech of Lizhensk. A story is told of the Lizhensker. One time, as he rode out of town on a wagon, all the hasidim came out to celebrate one last time and escort him away. The rebbe was so overcome that he got out of the wagon, told the driver to go on ahead, and instead walked behind with his hasidim. When they asked him why he did this he answered, “I was so overcome with the joy and love you showed in accompanying me, that I could not bear not to be a part of it.” When the Lizhensker died Kalman Kalonymus refused to take his master’s place, preferring instead to remain a hasid among his fellows.