If you Really Want Unity, Stop Sleeping!

Yisro 5774-An installment in the series of adaptations
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK
By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

… and Israel camped there opposite the mountain

-Shemos 19:2

 וַיִחַן[the singular form, the pasuk does not say that the Israelites camped there. This indicates that they camped there] “as one man with one heart”, but all the other encampments were [on bad terms] with complaints and strife. — [from Mechilta]

-Rashi ibid

I am HaShem your Elokim who brought you out of Mitzrayim, from the place of slavery.

-Shemos 20:2

Sleep is one 60th of death.

-B’rachos 57B

Many meforshim commentaries address this question: why is HaShem’s calling card in the 10 commandments so provincial?  Why does He introduce Himself as “the One who brought you out of Egypt” rather than as “the One Who created the cosmos”?

Conventional wisdom views sleep as, at worst, a benign activity.  When sleeping we recharge our batteries, no more and no less. But the Izhbitzer school takes a much less sanguine approach to slumber than we do.

The Bais Yaakov, the second Izhbitzer, explains that that when one is asleep there is a kind of disintegration and dissolution at work.  It is only the wakeful, conscious mind that integrates a human being into an organic whole.  Under the sovereign direction of the mind and soul all of the body’s organs, limbs and digits work towards the attainment of the common goals that are mutually beneficial to the person as a whole.

Asleep and in a horizontal position the human head is on the same plane and level as all the other limbs and organs of his body.  This is true both literally and metaphorically.  The position of the recumbent sleeper is that of the proverbial level playing field.  It is an egalitarian posture in which no one member of the body has any pre-eminence or dominance over any other.

Then, the soul begins to stir the body into wakefulness and the human being transitions from a horizontal position to a vertical one.  The life-giving soul stands the person up and, by doing so, establishes a hierarchy (a shiur komah) in which the feet scrape the floor and the head, containing the mind and soul, is at the very top of the pecking order.

Our sages teach us that we don’t wake up merely because, when our batteries are fully recharged, so to speak, we are “done” sleeping. Instead it is because our souls, mostly absent during slumber, have been restored to our bodies.  This concept underpins the first words we utter upon waking “I admit to You, O living and eternal King that You have compassionately returned my soul within me, Your trustworthiness is abundant” and the morning blessing that is part of our daily liturgy that begins with the phrase “my L-rd, the soul that You put into me is pure etc.” It is only when we are awake and vertical that our diverse limbs, organs and faculties become truly incorporated into a united whole.

In stark contrast; death does not merely render the body inert and motionless. Death initiates the dissolution of the human being.  In death, anatomical connections begin loosening and the body breaks apart. The teaching of our sages can now be understood to mean that the disintegration of sleep is 1/60 of the decomposition, and utter disintegration, of death.

The unity that K’lal Yisrael   the Jewish People, achieved prior to the Revelation at Sinai was more than preparatory, it was anticipatory. As HaShem’s Shechinah Divine Indwelling, began shining forth from Sinai, it was the macro-soul beginning to enter the slumbering body of K’lal Yisrael that blended the various tribes and the conflicting interest groups of Israel into an integrated organism “as one man with one heart.” A plural, multiplicity of “Israelites” fused together to become “Israel” in the singular.

Rav Gershon Henoch, the Radzyner Rebbe spells out his father’s Torah more explicitly:

The aseres hadibros are most commonly translated as the 10 commandments.  However this translation is both literally and factually inaccurate.  The translation is erroneous on a literal level, because dibros, a plural form of dibur, translates as “sayings” or “pronouncements.”  Factually imprecise, because only the last nine dibros are expressed as  mitzvos-commands, the first one is not.  The opening of the Decalogue is a statement of fact, a presentation of credentials, as it were.

On the macrocosmic level the head and soul of the cosmos is HaShem Himself.  The Radzyner explains that it was K’lal Yisrael ‘s clear, expanded consciousness of HaShem’s Oneness and Omnipresence, that nothing and no one but He truly exists – ein od m’Lvado, that exerted an irresistible tug on them to follow the Head, the Mind and the Soul and, as such, to coalesce and form an organic whole.  With this clarity of G-d consciousness a command to believe in G-d was not only unnecessary, it was inconceivable.  It would have been as if a person’s two legs began walking in opposite directions or if his respiratory system began hyperventilating without any physical exertion and the mind would suddenly need to verbalize a command saying “hey YOU pay attention, I’m in charge here!

This explains why the first of the aseres hadibros ends with the limited “the One who took you out of Egypt” rather than with the universal “the One Who created the cosmos.” For if HaShem is the Omnipresent Soul that animates everything and all, what is it that is unique about K’lal Yisrael in particular?  The answer to this question is contained in the exodus experience.  The letters that spell the word Egypt, Mitzrayim, also spell the word constraints, metzarim.

When HaShem brought K’lal Yisrael out of Egypt He was also unshackling them of all the narrow-minded constraints that conceal and camouflage His control and management of the cosmos.  The balance of humanity was never liberated from these.  HaShem’s control and management of the cosmos is beyond their comprehension.  When “introducing” Himself to, and into, K’lal Yisrael HaShem informs them that it is only because I brought you, in particular, out of Mitzrayim /metzarim that you were uniquely capable of integrating and uniting to sense my Divinity, the Mind and Soul that directs and animates all.

There is a minhag Yisrael kedoshim   Jewish custom, of staying awake throughout the first night of Shavuos.  The Magen Avraham494 bases this minhag on the midrash that says that the Jews “overslept” the Revelation at Sinai and that kivyachol  so to speak, HaShem had to awaken them. We stay awake in order to be metaken  put right, the negativity generated by those who overslept.

I would add that the Izhbitzer insight adds richness and complexity to this custom. Oversleeping the Revelation was much worse than a breach of etiquette or an extremely poorly timed  slothful self-indulgence. It was antithetical to the entire experience and to the first of the dibros in particular. At the foot of Mount Sinai, organic unity for K’lal Yisrael was both the prerequisite for, and the direct response to, HaShems Revelation. The souls (re HaShems) return to the body (re K’lal Yisrael ) requires one that is awake, alert and able to coalesce and integrate, not one that is disintegrated through death-like slumber.

~adapted from Bais Yaakov Yisro 40 (pp113B, 114A)
Sefer Hazmanim , First Day Shavuos 5643 D”H Vayeechan page 61

If You Can’t Stand the Light, Get Out of the Vision

Bo5774-An installment in the series
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK
By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

And Moshe said [to Pharaoh] “HaShem said as follows: ‘About midnight I will go out into the midst of Egypt; and every firstborn in Egypt will die …’ “

-Shemos 11:4,5

The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are staying; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you and there won’t be any lethal plague in your midst when I strike the land of Egypt.  

-Shemos 12:13

G-d will then move across to afflict Egypt. When He sees the blood over the door and on the two doorposts G-d will pass over that door and not allow the force of destruction to enter your homes to strike.

-Shemos 12:23

There was a pronounced difference between the Jews and the Egyptians during all the plagues prior to “the striking of the firstborn”. The Jews were invulnerable to the destructive effects of the plagues.   During the first plague, if a Jew and an Egyptian would drink from the same vessel, the Jew would swallow sweet fresh water while the Egyptian would gag on blood.  The ninth plague caused a palpable; immobilizing darkness to lie upon the land but the children of Israel had abundant light in all of their dwellings.  The same applied to plagues two through eight. Moreover, it was G-d Himself who produced these disparities.  No heroic measures were required on the part of the Jews.

These differences were so pronounced, foretold and deliberate that the Izhbitzer School interprets them to be part of the exodus process itself. HaShem sought to take one nation out of the midst / “the innards” of another nation.  Debunking the alleged equality between Israel and Egypt was part and parcel of the process. Yetzias Mitzrayim-the exodus from Egypt, was about more than liberating a group of Egyptian slaves; it was the birth of a nation and the creation of a new man.  Thus understood, the sequence of the plagues was not just a war of attrition to break the will of the Egyptians. The disparities that existed between the Jews and the Egyptians during the plagues gradually advanced the nation of Israel “through the birth canal” as it were, towards the ultimate goal of a new, distinct identity and absolute individuation.

In light of this Rav Tazdok, the Lubliner Kohen, asks several pointed questions:

1. The Egyptians had “earned” the striking of the firstborn as the wages of the sin of their continued refusal to release the children of Israel. But the Jews had done nothing to delay their own release. So why did they warrant the striking of the firstborn?
2. During the final plague, why were the protective measures of daubing the blood of the Passover sacrifice on the lintel and the doorposts and not leaving their homes all night necessary when no such measures had been needed during the first nine plagues?
3. As HaShem moved across Egypt to strike the firstborn Himself the rule of “once the destroying angel is given a license to act he does not distinguish between the wicked and the righteous”(Bava Kama 60A) should not apply. Then what did the Jews have to fear?
4.  How, in fact, did HaShem dispense kivyachol-as it were, with the services of the destroying angel when our theology teaches that “no evil (i.e. punishment or suffering) emanates out of the mouth of the Most High” (Eichah 3:38)

Before presenting his answer the Lubliner Kohen introduces a novel understanding of a particular type of death.

Imagine a simple, standard-issue garden hose being attached to a fire hydrant to extinguish a fire.  After just a few moments the hose would crack and burst.  Garden hoses are not engineered to withstand that level of water pressure per square inch.  This serves as an allegory for the human soul’s interface with G-d’s Infinite Light.  An overload of Divine Light accrues to “the breaking of the vessels.” This is the meaning of the pasuk “And He said: ‘You cannot see My face, for man shall not see Me and live.’ “(Shemos 33:20) to which Chazal appended this significant addendum: “But at the moment of death, man shall see [HaShem]” (Sifri B’Ha’aloschah 103).

The Tenach and the Talmud are replete with examples of those who reached for medregos– levels that exceeded the grasp of their own actual madregah and who perished from an inability to endure the intensity of the Divine Light:

Four great Tannaim entered the Parde”s. One of them, ben Azai, tragically “glimpsed and died” shattered by the intensity of the G-d knowledge he’d grasped there. (Chagigah 14B). This was the cause of death of Ahron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, as well. Those baalei teshuvah-masters of repentance, who fast-track their teshuvah-turning and reacquire perfection proverbially בשעתא חדא וברגעא חדא -“in one hour–one moment” also part with their souls in this manner. This was the cause of death for the exemplary baal teshuvah “Rabi” Elazar ben Durdai. (Avodah Zarah 17A).

This was precisely the dynamic at work during the final plague; the striking of the firstborn. HaShem Himself, (or as our sages put it בכבודו ובעצמו) kivyachol “emerged” and “moved across” Egypt. This was an unprecedented gilui Shechinah-Divine revelation. The Egyptians, engrossed as they were in idolatry and licentiousness lacked the necessary “vessels” to contain this tsunami of light.  In fact, the grossness of rank-and-file Egyptians’ impurity actually left them with no capacity to sense the light of holiness at all.

But before Matan Torah– the giving of the Torah, sacrifices were offered by firstborns. The firstborn of every nation possessed some modicum of sensitivity to holiness. Still, their capacity for absorbing holiness was minimal and constrained. The gilui Shechinah at midnight of the exodus came into the souls of the non-Jewish firstborn with all of the force of fire hydrant-pressurized water entering a garden hose. Unsurprisingly, they were instantly shattered.  Their deaths were not punishments in the conventional sense.  On the contrary, nothing became their depraved and debauched lives so much as leaving it through this one glorious moment of G-d-perception. No evil had emanated from the Most High.

As for the Jews; eventually they would develop “vessels” broad and sturdy enough to absorb the light of gilui Shechinah.  The Torah, when describing the revelation at Sinai, attests to this after the fact: “has any nation ever heard the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have, and lived?” (Devarim 4:33) Yet, at midnight of the exodus this potential was underdeveloped.  For the Jews to have ventured outdoors then would have been a reckless exercise in “reach” that exceeded “grasp”.  As was the case with Rabi Elazar ben Durdai, such a meteoric ascent, in which lofty madregos are gained “in one hour–one moment” would have cost them their lives.

Paradoxically, it is the Jewish capacity for mesirus nefesh-giving up their lives for HaShems sake, which transforms their souls into vessels broad and sturdy enough to absorb the light of gilui Shechinah.  This was manifested just prior to Matan Torah, when they agreed to take the Torah, no questions asked.  All the other nations lacked this capacity.  When the other nations were offered the Torah they would ask “what is written within the Torah?” and when they discovered something in the Torah that rubbed against their grains; that disagreed with their constitutions, they rejected the Torah and its Author.

The blood of the Passover sacrifices that the Jews daubed on their doorposts served as a sign of the Jewish potential for mesirus nefesh.  On the night of the exodus the Jews were passing and skipping over the gradual, slow-and-steady approach to attaining madregos.  Even so, behind these doors signed with mesirus nefesh they were protected from the shattering and soul-taking effects of HaShem’s awe-inspiring, devastating Infinite Light.  As they could not stand the light they stayed out of the vision.

Adapted from Resisei Laylah 58 pp 172174
See also Mei Hashiloach II Bo D”H Vayomer (the first such D”H)


Blinded by the Light

Toldos 5774-An installment in the series

From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School

For series introduction CLICK

By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

Yitzchak had grown old and his eyes grew dim, so that he could not see.  He summoned Esav his older son.

-Bereshis 27:1

“so that he could not see” alternatively;  “(his eyes grew dim ) on account of seeing”.  When Avraham bound him upon the altar, Yitzchak gazed at the Shechinah-Divine Indwelling…at that time G-d decreed that his eyes be dimmed.

-Midrash Bereshis Rabbah  65:5

 HaShem appeared to [Yitzchak] and said: “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land which I shall assign for you.

Remain an immigrant in this land, and I will be with you, and bless you…

-Bereshis 26:2-3

“Do not go down to Egypt.” You are [as] a perfect burnt offering, and being outside the Holy Land is not fitting for you.

-Rashi Ibid

 [Moshe]…Climb to the top of the cliff, and gaze westward, northward, southward and eastward. See it [the Land of Israel/ Cana’an] with your eyes [only]; since you will not cross the Jordan.

-Devarim 3:27

“See it with your eyes”: You requested of Me “Let me… see the good land” (Pasuk 25). I am showing you all of it, as it says: “And HaShem showed him all the Land” (Devarim 34:1).

-Rashi Ibid

And Moshe was a hundred and twenty years old when he died: but his eyes had not dimmed, nor had his natural powers faded away.

-Devarim 34:7

The Izhbitzer observed that Moshe and Yitzchak were polar opposites. While Yitzchak was forbidden to ever leave the Land of Israel he was, ultimately, unable to see it.  Whereas Moshe was denied permission to set foot in the Land of Israel but was allowed to look at the Land in its entirety!

His son, the second Izhbitzer adds an enigmatic wrinkle to his father’s thought-provoking observation: Moshe Rabenu is the Talmid Chacham-Torah scholar par excellence of the Jewish People. Talmidei Chachamim are, by definition, beings driven by keen perception and intellectual clarity. They channel the Divine will through precise, acute consciousness.

In contradistinction Yitzchak was, to use the contemporary parlance, “unconscious”.  Even when completely oblivious to his surroundings and what he was actually doing he channeled the Divine will.  Without consciously intending to do so he blessed Yaakov and this was, unknowingly, dare we say-blindly, consistent with HaShems will.

Imagine two archers both hitting one bulls eye after another. One was endowed with 20/10 vision and peerless hand-to-eye coordination while the other was myopic and all thumbs, but every arrow in his quiver had been fitted with a GPS  device guiding it to its target, his arrows were mini “smart bombs”. Yitzchak was like the latter archer. HaShem had granted him the ability to see without seeing, to know without knowing.

While not contrasting Moshe and Yitzchak, Rav Tzadok, the Lubliner Kohen, offers a deeper understanding of Yitzchaks blindness stemming from his binding upon the altar.

The problem with gazing at the Divine Indwelling is that it is fatal. “HaShem said: ‘You cannot have a vision of My Presence, for no man can have a vision of My Presence and live.’”(Shemos 33:20).  This begs the question; we know that the Akedah-the Binding of Yitzchak, was a near-death experience. But if Yitzchak beheld the Divine Indwelling at the Akedah why did it not result in his actual death?

A darkness exists that can become more visible than light “He made darkness His hiding-place, His Sukkah surrounding Him; the darkness of waters, the thick clouds of the heavens” (Tehilim 18:12). The blind can “see” as well in a pitch-black room as in a brilliantly illuminated one. This may be among the meanings of teaching of our Sages OBM that “one who is blind is considered dead” It is the tzimtzum of Yitzchak, his powerful personal restraint/constraint and self-abnegation, his trait of יראה –Awe of HaShem that allowed him a ראיה-a vision, of the invisible. (The two terms, יראה and ראיה, in Lashon Kodesh-Biblical Hebrew, are word jumbles of one another.) Yitzchak’s eventual blindness of the material world was a direct result of his visual perception of the spiritual world. To enter and perceive that supernal World is to cross the threshold of the surrounding darkness.

This metamorphosis of Yitzchak’s vision not only allowed him to see HaShem but to see kiv’yachol as Hashem does. “for it is not as men see: for a  man gazes at the outward appearance, but HaShem sees into the heart.’” (Shmuel I 16:7).  Although he saw into Esavs heart and understood his hypocrisy he still summoned Esav and intended to bless him, and not his younger brother. He knew that Esavs pretense of piety was the homage his vice was paying to virtue and imagined that the blessings could redeem Esav, while Yaakov did not need them.  Yet through his unconsciousness and blindness to the material world he marched in lockstep with the Divine will.

Adapted from Mei HaShiloach I Toldos D”H Vehee

Bais Yaakov Toldos Inyan 35 (pp 223224)

Yisrael Kedoshim page 86 D”H  V’Noda & V’heenei


What mourning taught me

My father A”H passed away in early June. It wasn’t sudden-sudden, but it was sudden enough. He wasn’t young, but he was certainly not old enough. We loved him and we let him know it, and that we were going to be okay, and he shouldn’t worry about us as he approached his end . . . but that probably wasn’t enough either, for he cared and worried about us so much. Yes, it was tough. It is tough. I miss him so much. I wrote a little bit about this, for a general audience, here, but it’s a sliver of the crust of the matter.

I’m not posting this to eulogize my father here, or even to write at length about how he, who was not religious, and never became religious, did so much good in raising his children as Jews that he has left behind so many frum descendants K”EH. Part of the reason for that is that it is too painful, though I do think it would be a good topic down the road here. So many of our parents need to know how it is that, contrary to how some of them feel, frequently BT’s are not rejecting their values: Many of us have made the choice we did because we were acting on those values in ways they did not have the opportunity to do, given their time, place and situations.

For now, though, I wanted to share a few thoughts about something really kind of neat — yeah — that I learned over the course of shloshim — the thirty day period of intense mourning following a close relative’s passing. Mainly, it’s this: The Torah is amazing.


The Torah is amazing in many ways, but if chas v’sholom [Heaven forfend] it gave us nothing but instruction in how to mourn (which are by and large rabbinical enactments), it would still be phenomenally brilliant.

Here are some of the things I didn’t know that I know now, because of how Chazal [the Sages] arranged the Jewish way in mourning:

  • People who extend themselves to comfort a mourner by traveling long distances or taking time off from work or otherwise inconveniencing themselves to attend the funeral or to make a shiva call are seen by the mourners as having expressed a statement of love and caring that is so exquisite, so precious, that … I can’t really describe it. But it is very, very great.
  • Observing shiva in as close to the halachically prescribed way as possible, under the circumstances, does not make the hurt go away, but it is a phenomenally powerful tool that actually “makes” mourners focus, not on “cheering up” or distraction from their pain, but on a full, complete and evolving appreciation of the person they loved and lost.
  • Shiva is utterly exhausting. And there will be repetition. But the “story” we each told on the last day of shiva, while entirely consistent with what we said in the hespedim [eulogies] and on the early days afterward, was so much richer, deeper and logical than when it started. It was stunning to me to be part of, and yet to observe, this process as we listened to each other and embroidered each others’ respective narrative threads into our own thematic focuses. We came to understand, in a week’s time, so much we didn’t know that we knew about who our father was, why his life mattered so much and how his death teaches so much. We came to understand our responsibility as his survivors.
  • The way in which our community coalesces across “political” religious lines and springs into action to support a mourner’s needs during this period is a wondrous and Godly sociological phenomenon. For BT’s, who feel so “left out” so often while others in our communities enjoy the support of large extended families and lifetimes networks developed through school and other experiences we don’t have, this experience can be very uplifting indeed.
  • The main thing I kept wanting to say — and, being me, I finally did say it — was that, “This is so amazing… it would just be so perfect if Dad could be here with us to experience it.”

    And yes, we truly believe he was. And he is.

    Thank you.

    Taharah, Teshuva and Understanding the Soul

    Since we had one article about the issues surrounding death and the BT this morning, we thought it might be a good opportunity to point to this great article at Aish titled: Taharah A Personal Look at the Jewish Way of Death and Burial.

    The writer discusses how an opportunity to participate in Taharahs early in her teshuva process gave her a deeper understanding of the soul in this world and the next. Here is an excerpt:

    My conception of the neshamah, the soul changed radically after my first taharah, when I actually sensed the existence of the soul independent of the body. I observed how the body houses the soul but is in no way identical with the soul. At the taharah, I witnessed with my own eyes how the soul had departed, leaving the body an empty shell.

    Death and the BT

    by Akiva of The Mystical Paths Blog

    Often family events are a challenge for the BT. Whether dealing with the religious ramifications of attending family holiday events, which may involve non-kosher food, non-kosher attitudes or approaches, or dealing with the additional complications of family visits with less or non-observant family, it’s challenging. In many ways, this is one of the top challenges of becoming religiously observant. This especially true in the U.S., where there is no respect for religion anymore. I mean honestly, do you think it would be easier to arrive home and announce this is my same-sex-boyfriend Joseph or this is my Rabbi Yoseph?

    But back on topic, though this is the month of Adar when we increase joy, joyful events don’t always occur (though how we deal with them is up to us).

    While those family challenges are very difficult for the good events and the gathering events, what happens when the other end of events come?
    Read more Death and the BT