Get It While the Gettin’s Good…or Not

“Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife,”               by Marc Chagall

Two related teachings from Uziel Meizlish, Tiferes Uziel, Parshat Vayeishev.

וַתִּתְפְּשֵׂהוּ בְּבִגְדוֹ לֵאמֹר שִׁכְבָה עִמִּי וַיַּעֲזֹב בִּגְדוֹ בְּיָדָהּ וַיָּנָס וַיֵּצֵא הַחוּצָה   So she grabbed him by his garment, saying, “Lie with me!” But he left his garment in her hand and fled and went outside. Genesis 39:12

Mitzvot are called the “garments” of the soul (1). The evil inclination is always grabbing at them, because it too wants to take some enjoyment in the mitzvah, for when a person does a mitzvah with some ulterior motive then [in addition to the spiritual core] there is also an “outer part” [and it is this which the evil urge takes for itself]. This is the meaning of “Lie with me!” — “Let’s join together in doing this mitzvah so that I too can enjoy it!” What does the righteous person do? He left his garment in her hand; after he saw that he could not do the mitzvah without ulterior motives and so be saved from the “outer part,” he left off doing it entirely, in the sense of “It is better to sit and do nothing” (2), for it is better not to do it at all than to do it with an ulterior motive. [So he says to the evil urge] “Neither you nor I will have it,” for he does not want even the holy part of the mitzvah, for it is mixed up with the bad part. Instead he fled and went outside, for it is better for him to do something entirely “outer” than to mix good and bad.


From Tiferes Uziel on Shir HaShirim

Sometimes we fall from our high spiritual levels, and we have to strengthen ourselves from the lower levels we have fallen to. I heard a parable on this. Imagine a king who has a room full of coins of gold, silver, and copper. He invites his servants to go into the room and take as a gift whatever coins they can carry out. The room is dark, however, and the servants cannot tell what kind of coins they are taking. Most of them did not bother trying to tell which coins were gold, which silver, and which copper, for they reasoned that in such a big pile surely some of them would be gold. One servant, however, wished to fetch candles the better to see by, and went to do so. By the time he returned there were no coins of any kind left.

Some people want to serve God only with the right motivation and with great joy, as is proper. Others do not pay such attention to this and simply serve God, whether with proper intent and joy or not. This is the right way, for our lives are short and if we are always chasing after tremendous enthusiasm before we do a mitzvah, we may end up like the servant holding his candle with no treasure to find, and soon our candle will be out.

This is how I interpret the verse “Meditate on [the Torah] day and night” — when we are on a high spiritual level it is called “day,” and when  we are on a low level it is called “night,” and so the verse enjoins us to act no matter what level we are on, whether we are like the day, burning and clear, or like the night when nothing is clear at all (3).

This is also how Rabbi Natan understands the verse, “It is a time to act for the LORD; they have annulled Your teachings” (4). If we wait for the right time to serve God, then we will end up annulling God’s Torah. The Holy One of Blessing is above time, and we must cleave to God always — sometimes in true and proper awe and sometimes only with what we can manage.


1) In the sense that they give our spirituality a material “vessel.” The spirituality is the higher part, but without the lower counterpart it could not manifest in this world.   2) “It is better to sit and do nothing” is a rabbinic phrase expressing the idea that sometimes it is better not to do a mitzvah (for various reasons, such as that it would embarrass another).   3) Joshua 1:8   4) Psalms 119:126

Jeff says…

In the teaching on Joseph we clearly see Hasidism’s focus on the spiritual core of divine service, even to the extent of foregoing the physical act in order to avoid sullying that core.  Ulterior motives especially spell death for spiritual growth and are to be avoided at any cost — even the cost of a mitzvah, as we see here. This idea is rooted in the Hasidic understanding of our divine task in this world, going back to the 16th century teachings of the Arizal: when the world was created, there was a rupture in the “vessels” God had made to hold the divine effulgence, and the divine light and the outer husks were mixed together. When Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, this same mixing happened again. So our world is fundamentally broken, out of place, like a puzzle taken apart. Our job is to put it back together by sorting the good from the bad. This is the hidden meaning of the mitzvot: when we do a positive mitzvah it separates out the hidden divinity in the object, act, and/or person and restores it to its proper divine place; likewise when we uphold a negative mitzvah and don’t do something wrong, it redeems the divine sparks in that thing we have avoided. The purer our intentions in serving God, the more sorting we do. Thus, if the mitzvah is itself a mix of good and bad, it is counterproductive, and the Tiferes Uziel teaches we shouldn’t do it at all.

At least in the first teaching.

In the second we get the exact opposite advice, and doing a mitzvah — of any kind, in any spiritual state — is compared to a royal grab bag. Something good is sure to come out of it. Following the advice of the first teaching can lead us to “annulling God’s Torah.”

So what do we do with these two contradictory teachings?

One way would be to see them as addressed to different audiences. Remember that Hasidic teachings were given first orally to a specific group, usually at a Shabbat gathering, and only later (sometimes years later) were written down and printed for a general audience. There’s a clue to this in the first teaching, where the Tiferes Uziel asks “What does the righteous person do?” When he says “righteous person,” tzaddik, it of course has a specific resonance to his Hasidic audience: not the better people among us, but the saints, the rebbes, the hidden holy men. In that case, this teaching would be addressed to the select few who lived most of their lives in pure devotion to God, pure of selfish urges and ulterior motives, while the second could be addressed to the rest of us. This idea is supported by the fact that Joseph is the model for this way, and in Hasidic discourse (as in Kabbalistic discourse before it) Joseph is considered the Tzaddik.

There is a problem with this solution though. In Tiferes Uziel the tzaddik is often defined as someone who has purified himself not of most of his selfish urges but of all of them, or at least has learned how to separate them from his actions, acting instead from a higher, purer place. In that case, this teaching is useless to a tzaddik. Maybe more importantly, it’s clear from a thorough reading of the whole book that Meizlish’s commentary on Shir haShirim was actually for the most elite among his audience!

Another possibility is that these two teachings were delivered some time, probably years, apart, and in the time between the Tiferes Uziel changed his mind. Perhaps at first he taught a striving for a perfectly pure service; perhaps he spent his time only among kindred-spirits, and this goal seemed attainable. Later, after years of ministering to regular people and seeing their spiritual struggles, he realized that he was asking too much. Perhaps the difference came not from changes in his own life but from changes in Hasidism; perhaps the early hasidim were like him inspired to remove all ulterior motives from the service and to settle for nothing less. Such inspiration led many hasidim to dispense with Jewish law in their pursuit of the ultimate spiritual level, most notably by taking so long to get ready to pray that they missed the times for prayer entirely. In this case, the Tiferes Uziel would be a precursor to later Hasidic leaders who reined in what they saw as spiritual excess and restored prayer to its proper time and emphasized returning to the strictures of the law.

Any other ideas are (as always) welcome!

This entry was posted in Divine Service, Hasidic Masters, Parsha, Uziel Meizlish/ Tiferes Uziel, Vayeishev and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Get It While the Gettin’s Good…or Not

  1. leanna says:

    I like the use of the parable in helping understand one of the readings. I also really appreciate you breaking down where these two divergent teachings came from, or may have come from. Personally, the latter resonates with me. Fake it ’til you make it, and practice make perfect both seem like apt expressions for getting to the divine..

  2. Pingback: Over and Under | Hasidism for the Rest of Us

  3. Pingback: Over and Under | These and Those

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