The World is a Mirror

Marc Chagall's The Mirror

Marc Chagall’s The Mirror

A nugget from Zeev Wolf of Zhitomir, from Or haMeir on Parshat Naso

Everywhere you happen to look and everything you happen to see, even the ugly and the coarse, you should understand that it was not for nothing that God showed you this thing.  Rather, it is because you yourself have some lack that you have not yet realized. So when you see another doing something wrong, you should learn from this what you must fix in yourself and for what you must ask forgiveness from God…

Posted in Concepts, Divine Providence, Hasidic Masters, Naso, Parsha, Zeev Wolf of Zhitomir/Or HaMeir | 3 Comments

Face to Face at Sinai

Moses Shows the Tablets of the Law, by Marc Chagall

Moses Shows the Tablets of the Law,  by Marc Chagall

Two brief teachings by R. Kalonymus Kalman HaLevi Epstein on Shavuot, excerpted from Maor vaShamesh

ויחן שם ישראל נגד ההר And Israel camped there under the mountain. Exodus 19:2

Rashi points out that ‘camped’ is in the singular, and explains they camped there ‘as one person with one heart.’

To receive the Torah, the essential thing, on which everything else depends, is that there be love and brotherhood among the children of Israel, as our sages said, ‘The entire Torah depends on the mitzvah of love your fellow as yourself.’ For when there is peace among us, the divine Presence rests among us, since the totality of our souls equals 60,000, the number of letters in the Torah, for we each have our soul’s root in one of the letters of the Torah — and this is hinted at by the very word ישראל ‘Israel,’ which stands for יש ששים רבוא אותיות לתורה, yesh shishim ribo otiot latorah, ‘there are sixty-thousand letters in the Torah.’ So, when there is peace among us and love and brotherhood and fellowship, we are fit to receive the Torah, for through our joining together is the Torah made complete, and with ease can each of us join to our root in the Torah. So, at the time of the giving of the Torah Israel ‘camped with one heart,’ thereby meriting the Torah and revelation of the Shekhinah face to face.

In the Zohar it is written that ‘the Blessed Holy One and Torah and Israel are one.’ This does not mean one as in the number, so that two should follow, rather that all is one single and simple unity, for our souls and the Torah are all emanations of God’s own essence. And I heard from my teacher Elimelech of Lizhensk on the verse, God spoke all these words to them saying, ‘I am Hashem your God,‘  that the Blessed Holy One gave all of the Torah so that we could understand Him (1)… So we find that all of the Torah is included in [the first word of the Ten Commandments] anochi, ‘I.’ 


Sources: The entire Torah depends…Shabbat 31a; God spoke…Exodus 20:1

1) To make the point clearer, the word ‘saying,’ lemor, can also be read ‘[in order] to say.’

Posted in Concepts, Hasidic Masters, Holidays/Days of Remembrance, Kalonymus Kalman HaLevi Epstein/ Maor VaShamesh, Revelation, Shavuot | 1 Comment

49 Steps


Marc Chagall’s “Wedding”

Excerpts from R. Ze’ev Wolf of Zhitomir’s teachings on Counting the Omer, from Or haMeir.

וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת מִיּוֹם הֲבִיאֲכֶם אֶת עֹמֶר הַתְּנוּפָה שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת

Count for yourselves, from the morrow of the rest day from the day you bring the omer as a wave offering, seven weeks. Leviticus 23:16

The essence of the Counting of the Omer between Pesach and Shavuot is to mend the seven attributes (1), to bring to them a holy awareness. When you have done this, making yourself into a complete image of the divine in all of your ways, in holiness and purity, then the Shekhinah, in whose image you are made, is also mended. Then we are fit to be God’s, and God to be ours, like a bride ready to enter the wedding canopy…

When your deeds are made good, then you will merit to hear in the plain talk of one person to another words of Torah and advice on how to serve God. This is truly the highest of levels, to have such a clarity as this, and you cannot achieve it unless you seek to refine yourself with all of your soul and all of your might, down to the particulars of your senses and your limbs, purifying and sanctifying them to the service of God, doing nothing, performing no single act nor making any motion, not even lifting your hand or your foot or opening your eyes or your ears, that is not in some way for the sake of the Shekhinah…

Thus God commanded usefartem lachem, “count for yourselves” — sefartem means not only count but “purify” and “clarify,” for yourselves, for your own sake and your own purification, that you may merit the enlightenment of the Torah, beyond which there is no greater delight nor joy.


1) The seven attributes are seven qualities found in both God and us, and are also identified with the seven lower sefirot. In Hebrew they are most frequently called (from top to bottom) Hesed, Gevurah, Tiferet, Netzach, Hod, Yesod, and Malkhut. In the context of character traits these might be translated (loosely) as boundless compassion, setting limits, discerning compassion, steadfastness, humility, knowing your role, and the ability to manifest all of these qualities in daily life. Each of the seven weeks of the Omer is given over to working on one of these traits, and each day within that week to developing one of these aspects of each trait (for example, maintaining compassion in the most difficult circumstances, or setting limits in a humble way). So the Counting of the Omer becomes a “49-step Program” from Freedom to Responsibility and from Degradation to Purity.

Posted in Concepts, Divine Service, Hasidic Masters, Sefirat HaOmer, Zeev Wolf of Zhitomir/Or HaMeir | 1 Comment

Leaning Ladders


Marc Chagall’s “Leah and Rachel”

Two teachings of Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, from Kedushas Levi, Parshat Shemot.

These are the names of the children of Israel…  …אלה שמות בני ישראל Exodus 1:1

Leah named Reuven so “for God has seen my affliction and now my husband will love me,” and Shimon “for God has heard that I am hated,” and Levi for “now this time my husband will be joined to me,” and so forth. Now surely we would never say that the tribes were called because of some base desire (God forbid!). Rather, the names of the tribes teach us about lifting every desire to God alone. In the names “Reuven”and “Shimon” Leah raised up all desires that are between a man and a woman to the Creator; likewise the name “Levi” teaches about raising all intimacy to the Creator. This is why the word used for the tribes is mattot, as in matteh, “leaning a ladder,” from her up to God.

We can also explain the verse this way: It seems that the matriarchs named the tribes after particular events in their lives. This is to counter the claims of the wicked who say that God is higher than high and does not watch over the world below, for the truth is that even though the blessed Holy One is higher than high, God watches over the world below, to guide everything according to the divine desire. This is why the matriarchs named the tribes as they did — to teach that nothing is done in the world below outside of the will of the blessed Holy One. This is why the word used for the tribes is mattot, as in matteh, “leaning a ladder” — God descends on the ladder to involve Himself in the world below, and we raise the world back up to God.

Sources: for God has seen…Genesis 29:32 and on; leaning a ladder…Mishnah Beitzah 1:3.

Posted in Hasidic Masters, Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev/Kedushas Levi, Parsha, Shemot | Leave a comment

Two Redemptions

Two teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, recorded by Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye in Toldos Yaakov Yosef, Shmini and Devarim, and collected in Sefer Baal Shem Tov, Parshat Shemot.

Just as the whole people of Israel was in exile in Egypt and was then redeemed from Egypt, so is there exile and redemption in each one of us. As I heard from my teacher [the Baal Shem Tov] on the verse “Come near to my soul and redeem it,” before you pray for the universal redemption you should pray for personal redemption.

There are two kinds of exile: the physical exile of Israel among the nations, and the spiritual exile of the soul amid the evil inclination. As I heard from my teacher [the Baal Shem Tov] on the verse “Come near to my soul and redeem it,” each kind of exile follows from the other, for we are pained by both.


Come near to my soul…Psalms 69:19

Posted in Baal Shem Tov/ Sefer Baal Shem Tov, Concepts, Hasidic Masters, Messiah, Parsha, Shemot, Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye/ Toldos Yaakov Yosef/Ben Porat Yosef | Leave a comment

The Creator created everything, and is everything, and is included in everything.

From Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, Kedushas Levi, Parshat Bereishit.

Marc Chagall’s painting of creation                    on the Paris Opera Ceiling

בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ            In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth… Genesis 1:1

The principle is that the Creator created everything, and is everything, and never ceases to give to the world, for in every moment the Creator gives abundantly to all His creatures and to all the worlds and to all the celestial palaces and to all the angels and to all the holy beasts (1). So we say in our morning prayers, “Who forms light and creates darkness,” and not “Who formed light and created darkness” — we speak in the present tense because in every moment God gives life to every living thing, and everything is from God, and God is one, complete, and yet included in every separate thing. So when we come to the state of Ayin, “nothingness,” and understand that we are nothing, only that the Creator gives us strength, then we name God “the One Who forms,” for even now God is forming the world. But when we have our sights fixed upon our [physical] selves and not on the Ayin,  then we are in the state of Yesh, “being,” then we call God “the One Who formed,” as if the deed is over and done. So we say [in the Asher yatzar prayer] “Who formed us in Wisdom,” for Wisdom is the state of being, Yesh (2), and so “Who formed” is more appropriate than “Who forms.” This is why in the writings of the Arizal it is said that “The Lord is King” refers to the state of Ayin, the ever-present state of nothingness, in which we are nothing but what God gives us (3).

Now Ayin governs everything above nature, and Yesh governs everything within nature. We join Yesh with Ayin through a mitzvah or Torah study, which is referred to by the verse “the living beings ran and returned” (4). About this the Zohar says that the mitzvot and the Torah are hidden and revealed — hidden in the Ayin, revealed in the Yesh — and in the deed they are joined together, Yesh in the Ayin and Ayin in the Yesh. This is why it is called a mitzvah: [the first two letters] mem and tzadi are in the atbash code yud and heh, which are Ayin, and [the last two letters] vav and heh are Yesh, and so the letters yud and heh are hidden [and the letters vav and heh are revealed], for Ayin is hidden [and Yesh is revealed] (5).

And we will clarify what is the hidden and what is the revealed that are in a mitzvah. Our performance of a mitzvah brings joy to God, and this is the hidden, for we do not see it; we only see the revealed, which is the benefit it brings us. This is the meaning of the verse, “The hidden things belong to the Lord our God, and the revealed things are for us.” And this is the meaning of In the beginning God created, that is, in the beginning God created Yesh, which is called “beginning,” for it came first from Ayin, “nothing,” which existed even before “something” (6). This is why the Targum Yerushalmi translated this verse, “With wisdom God created…” for Wisdom is the state of Yesh (7).


Sources: Who forms light and creates darkness… the Kedushas Levi is actually citing the source text from Isaiah 45:7, not the emended version from the morning prayers, which reads “Who forms light and creates everything”; Who formed us in Wisdom… from the Asher yatzar prayer recited upon leaving the bathroom, to give thanks for a functioning body; Wisdom is the state of being, Yesh from Ayin…Zohar III: 239a, Parshat Pinhas; “The Lord is King” refers to the state of Ayin; Pri Eitz Haim, Sha’ar haZemirot 3; The living beings ran and returned…Ezekiel 1:14, Zohar III:53b; mem and tzadi are in the atbash code yud and heh…Tikkunei Zohar Tikkun 29, 63a; yud and heh are Ayin…Zohar I:21a; vav and heh are Yesh…Tikkunei Zohar (in Zohar Hadash 101, column b); for Ayin is hidden…ibid.; The hidden things belong…Deuteronomy 29:28

1) That is, the four creatures of Ezekiel’s vision, which are understood in the Kabbalah to be celestial entities.   2) “Wisdom,” or Chochmah, is the primary name for the second sefirah, the first to emerge from Keter/Ayin, “Nothing.” It is the first existent thing that can be called “something.” It seems that the Kedushas Levi is contrasting the Yotzer Or prayer before the Shema, in which our focus is on God and hence is spoken in the present tense, with the Asher Yatzar prayer, in which in a sense the focus is on our own physical bodies, for which we are grateful, even down to the workings of each duct and orifice, and hence is spoken in the past tense.   3) Such as in the liturgical refrain, “The Lord is King, the Lord was King, the Lord will be King for ever and ever,” in which all three tenses appear.   4) Chayot, “the living beings,” is read as chayut, “the life force” (the letters are the same in the Hebrew). This is a classic prooftext for the liminal nature of the spiritual life, ever passing back and forth between this world and the next, the natural and the supernatural, the physical and the spiritual.   5) The atbash code is a Kabbalistic way of transmuting letters, in which mem and tzadi become yud and heh, the first two letters of the Ineffable Name (YH of YHVH). Thus the word mitzvah has hidden within its first half the first half of God’s Name, while the second half is openly identical with the second half of the Name.   6) The Kedushas Levi doesn’t cite it, but he assumes you know the famous midrash in which reishit, “beginning,” is read as Torah (see Bereishit Rabbah 1:1). This was later developed according to the concept of the sefirot.   7) Targum Yerushalmi, literally, “The Jerusalem Translation,” is an Aramaic paraphrastic translation (or, more accurately, collection of translations which all go by that name) of the Torah which integrated midrashic readings, as here, in which the reading of “beginning” as “wisdom” (i.e., Torah) is translated literally.

Jeff says…

There’s a bumper sticker out there I particularly like: “God is too big to fit into one religion.” While Levi Yitzhak was no religious relativist, he did struggle with the idea of trying to squeeze the infinite and ineffable Divine into a working religion filled with words, ideas, and prescribed actions. His language for this, which he received directly from his master Dov Ber the Maggid of Mezeritch but which of course goes all the way back to medieval Kabbalah, is that of Ayin and Yesh, which you might translate Nothingness and Being or Nothing and Something. One of Levi Yitzhak’s most central beliefs was that religion, like anything else in the world of Yesh, cannot fully express the Infinite One, the Ayin, but that it can connect us to the Infinite One, and connection is exactly what we, as finite beings living in a finite world, need. Our powerful but vague sense of God needs some kind of container — in this case, Torah and mitzvas — but at the same time we need to remember that God does not fit in any container — but at the smae time we can’t do without the container — but at the same time…

Posted in Bereishit, Concepts, Creation, Hasidic Masters, Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev/Kedushas Levi, Parsha | Leave a comment

Different Strokes

Tiberias cemetery where Menahem Mendl of Vitebsk is buried (thanks to Miriam Woelke of shearim.blogspot).

A teaching of Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk, from Pri HaAretz, Balak.

וַיַּרְא אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל שֹׁכֵן לִשְׁבָטָיו             Bilaam saw Israel dwelling by tribe. Numbers 24:2

Rashi explains that their [tent] openings were not set one against the other [but were rather staggered], and for this reason Bilaam was moved to bless them, saying, “They deserve to have the Divine Presence rest upon them.”… To understand, let’s first look at the saying of our sages, “The Divine Presence does not rest on a person unless he is wise, rich, mighty…” This is strange — many righteous people on whom the Divine Presence dwelt lacked might or riches. What’s more, it doesn’t match the teaching of Rabbi Pinhas, that “Study leads to precision, precision leads to zeal, zeal leads to cleanliness, cleanliness leads to restraint, restraint leads to purity, purity leads to holiness, holiness leads to humility, humility leads to fear of sin, fear of sin leads to saintliness, saintliness leads to the [possession of] the holy spirit.”

But this can easily be understood according to the teaching of our sages, “Who is mighty? The one who overcomes his own will. Who is rich? The one who is happy with his lot.” So “might” is in the heart and not in the hand; thus the one with “a weak and fearful heart” is relieved from going into battle…

Divine mercy is like water: it flows from a high place to a low one, descending and spreading out until it is no longer seen; but divine might holds together, and so it puts boundaries on the spreading of mercy, becoming like a vessel that at once restricts and reveals to every eye (1). So the outpouring of mercy can only be truly revealed in the restriction that comes from might, just as giving birth to a baby only happens through mighty contractions — otherwise the baby would never be born and would remain hidden. So it was at Creation: the world could only be born through God’s contraction of the divine Self (2). Thus through the ultimate in materiality and distancing from the Divine is God able to fill all worlds. Still, to most eyes God remains hidden. A person of wisdom or might, however, in whom God is known and revealed, understands that all materiality is truly a material revelation of God. So this person must return everything to the place from where it was taken, from the Ayn Sof, the Infinite, and this is done through humility (3). The more you return everything to its Source, the more you receive; but it is not so if you hold yourself apart from God.

It is written that “the man Moses was very humble.” Now true humility applies only to the truly great, who humble their greatness before that of God, the Cause of Causes and Source of All Powers; but if someone who has no greatness is humble, what of it? Likewise, your true greatness is only revealed after struggling to overcome your selfish inclinations, and the stronger your inclinations, the more your greatness is revealed; one who has only good urges can show no greatness. It is known that all Creation [that is, even the spiritual worlds] is for the sake of this material world, for even though it is physical “all the world is full of God’s glory,” and so the process of divine withdrawal and contraction was also so that God could be revealed in the lowest worlds — especially through our transformation of our lowest selves to higher selves. And the goal of the person who already possesses the finer character traits is to reveal God’s glory through humility, as explained above, which brings delight to God. Moses succeeded on both counts: he was at first a lowly person, full of bad character traits, and he overcame these traits and became the greatest person who ever lived, yet he remained the most humble of people (4). The Divine Presence surely rested upon him — that is, he embodied the Divine in this world, from the lowliest places to the heights of heaven. This is the meaning of “The Divine Presence does not rest on a person unless he is wise, rich, mighty” — unless he is a person of fine character, having overcome his selfish urges, yet humble. Now we can understand Rabbi Pinhas’ words that humility leads to possession of the holy spirit. You each must do this in your own way, according to your greatness and your humility, each overcoming your own inclinations.

We know from the Zohar that there are two kinds of Yirah: one is fear of punishment, and the other is awe of God’s greatness. Only the latter is true Yirah, yet the lesser form is still useful, for there are times when even the greatest and most righteous of us cannot overcome our urges for pure reasons, and it is only fear of punishment that saves us. This is why our sages taught, “A person should always strive to conquer his Evil Inclination with his Good Inclination…If he vanquishes it, good, but if not he should remind himself of the day of death.” So we see that everything is according to the time and the place and the strength of the urge and your ability to overcome it, and you should not try to imitate another, even a great and righteous person, because what helps him may not help you — you should not even compare your self in this moment to your past self, for everything depends on this moment, and you must start over in each moment until you feel “the terror of the LORD and His dread majesty,” truly and not only in your imagination…

This, then, is the meaning of Rashi’s interpretation of what Bilaam saw. He saw that their openings were staggered, for Yirah is called an opening and a gate — each strove to achieve Yirah, each in his own way. For this they deserved to have the Divine Presence rest upon them.


Sources: The Shekhinah does not rest… Nedarim 38a; Study leads to precision… Avodah Zarah 20b; Who is mighty?…Pirkei Avot 4:1; a weak and fearful heart… Deuteronomy 20:8; The man Moses…Deuteronomy 12:3; All the world…Isaiah 6:3; There are two kinds of Yirah…Hakdamat Zohar 11b; A person should always strive…Berachot 5a; the terror of the L!RD…Isaiah 2:10; Yirah is called an opening… Shabbat 31a-b

1) The divine attribute of Mercy, also called Rachamim, Hesed, Lovingkindness, Love, the Right Hand, and many more things, is associated with boundlessness, for example, boundless giving. The divine attribute of Might, also called Din, Judgment, the Left Hand, etc, is associated with setting boundaries.   2) God had to “contract” the infinite divine to make “room” for the finite. This is sometimes described in terms of giving birth: first God had to make a womb, then inseminate it, and then bear the newborn world through a passage of contractions.   3) By humbling ourselves we make room for God in a mirror image of the process of Creation.   4) This idea of Moses starting out as rotten and becoming the great man he was is completely contrary to the dominant theme in midrash, which is that Moses was born as a special kind of super-human, glowing at birth. This fits the Vitebsker’s characterization of the truly righteous person as someone who has done the most work in improving himself.

Posted in Balak, Concepts, Creation, Divine Service, Hasidic Masters, Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk/Pri HaAretz, Parsha, Tzaddik/ Rebbe | Leave a comment