Friday, July 10, 2009

Parashat Pinchas -- to be continued...

Ishbitz / Modi'n was in Toronto this week. The blog will return next week. Shabbat shalom to all!!!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Parashat Balak -- There is no sorcery in Jacob

translation by Elli Sacks

This week we continue where we left off last. In Parashat Chukat, the Mei Ha-Shiloah explained that during "a time to act for the LORD", one must set aside the rules of Divrei Torah and listen for the voice of Hashem in order that we can fulfill His Will.

In Parashat Balak, the Ishbitzer explains that there are two typologies in Israel, one of the individual whose heart is drawn after the Will of Hashem and must constantly attune his ear to the voice of the Eternal, and one who lives in doubt and must exercise caution and self-examination in order to ascertain the correct course of action.

Without further adieu, the text:

"There is no sorcery in Jacob, no divination in Israel. It will now be said of Jacob and of Israel, 'See what God has done!'" (Numbers 23:23)

"Sorcery" (nachash) refers to stubborn insistence (hitakshut) upon a matter, without allowing the thought to rest from one's mind, while "divination" (kesem) is the opposite, such as a person who is plagued by doubts whether to act or not to act. Such a person tries to divine the outcome, testing and then seeing whether things proceed in an orderly fashion. If they do so, he will act, and if not, he will not. And that is the meaning of divination, i.e. seeing signs of the future through the prism of one's own personal behavior.

Both sorcery and divination are prohibited when they are not performed at the proper time. For example, if a person knew with perfect clarity the Will of Hashem, then it would be forbidden for him to procrastinate or to turn his mind from the matter, as he would if he were acting on his own accord. He must arouse himself like a lion to do God's will, and must act with force.

But when a person is doubtful about the proper course of action, he is forbidden from acting forcefully. Rather he must look inward and see how he would personally resolve the matter according to his own behavior, without the benefit of certain knowledge.

Regarding this, it is written in the Talmud (Hullin 95b): "Rav used to look for an omen from the ferry" i.e. if the boat were heading towards him without him summoning it, Rav understood that Hashem desired his voyage, but without this omen he would not travel upon the ferry.

Thus the verse says "sorcery in Jacob", for Jacob is the name utilized for someone who is not totally whole, whose heart is not yet drawn after the Will of Hashem. And so we have found that when the Prophet speaks of the people's small-mindedness, he refers to the them as "Jacob", as in Amos (7:2): "How can Jacob stand on his own? He is so small."

Therefore, the verse says that "there is no sorcery in Jacob." When the soul of a Jew is in doubt regarding a matter, he should not proceed forward with stubborn insistence, rather he should take steps to remove from himself all ego, biases and personal self-interest (negi'ah). Then he will be privileged to see how Hashem is currently managing the world, and he will know how to act accordingly.

"And no divination in Israel." i.e. when a person whose heart is completely drawn after the Will of Hashem has a sudden idea appear in his thoughts, it is none other than the Will of Hashem that is influencing him. He must not ignore it, but must act upon it forcefully for if he does not, he is violating (heaven forfend) the Will of Hashem.

And that is how Bilaam praised the nation of Israel, that each individual knew his own character [and knew his own worth.]


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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Parashat Chukat: They Encamped at Obot

by Elli Sacks

In this week's post, we continue on a theme that was introduced two weeks ago in Parashat Korach. There we learned the necessity of looking beyond the physical surface of things to seeing into their inner essence. According to the Ishbitzer Rebbe, every created physical object in this world has a deeper core meaning that is partially reflected, but also partially obscured by its physical appearance. Not only does the list of physical things include the Land of Israel and human beings, it also includes Torah!

But this leads to a halakhic conundrum. For, if the words of the Torah are merely it's "garments", and the true essence of the Torah is hidden deep within, then we may be missing out on fulfilling the essential Torah by fastidiously clinging to its revealed physical words. Here in parashat Chukat, the Ishbitzer expands on this theme, describing when we must remain firmly within the bounds of Torah and when we must go beyond them in order to fulfill the Will of Hashem.

Without further adieu, here is the text: Mei ha-Shiloah (Chukat; 1995 ed. B’nai Berak, Vol. I, pp. 159-160.):

"And the Children of Israel sojourned and encamped at Obot." Obot (whose root is a.b.) refers to the rules and principles of Torah and Mitzvot, as in the expression "av (a.b.) be-chokhmah" (a generating principle in wisdom). Regarding this, it is written in the Talmud (Berachot 54a): "'It is time to act for the LORD, for they have violated Your Torah' (Psalms 119:126). Rabbi Natan reinterpreted the verse, saying "Violate the Torah, because it is time to act for the LORD."

The Mei ha-Shiloah wastes no time in jumping into the heart of the matter. He quotes the well-known Talmudic dictum of R. Natan, that when circumstance necessitates, we must violate the Torah in order to fulfill Hashem's Will. But how do we know when is such a time? How do we know when we are permitted to violate or even obligated to violate? Can we trust our own judgment in such matters? These are the questions that will be addressed in this teaching.

And here is the meaning of the matter: The words of the Talmud refer to a time when it is evidently clear to the individual that now is the time to act for the LORD, for example when Elijah the Prophet [challenged the priests of Ba'al] on Mount Carmel.

In the example cited here (I Kings, Chapter 18), the prophet Elijah acts of his own volition without the commandment of God. In challenging the Priests of Baal to a "sacrificial duel", he is encouraging them and the people to engage in idol worship, one of the three gravest sins of the Torah, on the same level as murder and adultery. But his purpose is to demonstrate the truth of Hashem's dominion and the folly of Ba'al worship. He violates the law, in order to prove the divinity of the law.

At such a time, it is necessary to violate the rules of Divrei Torah, and instead to act in accordance with the Divine wisdom (binah) that The Holy One imparts upon the individual. R. Natan is saying that at a time when that Divine wisdom is not absolutely clear to the individual, then he is obligated to conduct himself in accordance with the rules of Divrei Torah and Mitzvot, without deviating from the borders of halakhah.

The Ishbitzer frames the problem as one of "rules vs. specifics." The halakhah can only give us the rules to follow. It cannot contextualize those rules into every given circumstance. But to understand what Hashem REALLY wants from us in any given circumstance, we have to be graced with binah, or Divine wisdom. At a time when we are not graced with clear binah, we must rely upon the boundaries imposed upon us by halakhah.

But R. Natan is also saying that when a person's heart is drawn after the Will of Hashem, and when he removes from himself all negi'ot, then Hashem may call upon him to act in a way that seems to him (heaven forfend) to overstep the fence surrounding the rules of Divrei Torah. In such a case, it is certain that he will not be led into iniquity (heaven forfend), and he will surely know that this was a "time to act for the LORD."

According to the Ishbitzer, by shedding our negi'ot - all the trappings of personal self-interest and ego (and by walking in simplicity and humility, which he mentions in other teachings of the Mei ha-Shiloah) we can attune ourselves to the voice of God that calls upon each of us to fulfill His will. When we do so, we might find that Hashem calls upon us to act in a way that SEEMS to violate halakhah. In such a case, we should not be afraid we are sinning, because that case is exactly what R. Natan meant when he declared "it is a time to act for the LORD."

The Israelites sometimes encamped at Obot. However, for as long as Aharon the High Priest lived they would conduct themselves according to the Divine wisdom in their hearts which was manifestly clear to them, and they would go after their understanding of the Clouds of Glory (ananei ha-kavod). But when the Clouds of Glory dissipated, they began to conduct themselves in accordance with the rules of Divre Torah, as in our own period when the Temple is destroyed and Hashem has no more home on earth than the 4 cubits of halakhah (Berachot 8a).

The Ishbitzer further expounds upon this theme, utilizing the sojourns and the encampments of the Israelites enumerated in Numbers Chapter 21 as the springboard for his exegesis. At the very end of Chapter 20, Aharon the High Priest is laid to rest at Mount Hor. Aharon's death signifies the end of the period when the Clouds of Glory showed the Israelites when and where to journey and when to pitch camp. The clouds are representative of the period when the Israelites were graced with clear binah and could constantly ascertain Hashem's Will without the necessity of halakhic rules. Aharon's death changed all that.

And so [in Obot], they began acting according to rules, because Obot refers to rules and principles as we explained previously on the verse "Thou shall not make for yourselves molten gods."

We will examine this amazing teaching, iy"H, on Parashat Ki Tissa.

However, the Israelites fully understood that such conduct, acting only according to rules, could not purify their hearts and prevent them from sinning against the Will of Hashem.

We have seen in previous teachings of the Mei ha-Shiloah, that the person who strives to purify his/her heart and attune his/her ear to the Will of Hashem is on a higher spiritual level than the one who constantly looks for answers in the Shulhan Arukh.

Thus it is written (Numbers 21:1) "and Israel came by the way of Atarim", meaning they were perplexed because, according to the principles of Torah, it was not yet the correct time for them to enter the borders of Esav. (Regarding this, see the verse (Genesis 33:14) where Jacob addresses Esav: "So let my lord go on ahead of his servant... until I come to my lord in Seir.") Whereas the Canaanite [in Atarim] was Amalek, according to Rashi.

The Torah makes a point of stating that the Israelites had to travel around the borders of Edom and not to enter into that land which had been given as an inheritance to the descendants of Esav. Regarding the verse in Genesis 33:14, the midrash states (Gen. Rabbah 78:14): "So when will Jacob go to Seir [i.e. Edom]? In the days of the Messiah, as it is said (Obadiah 1:21): “And saviors shall ascend Mt. Zion to judge the mountain of Esav.”

If I'm not mistaken, the Mei ha-Shiloah is saying here that the Israelites (mistakenly) believed that Atarim was part of the Land of Edom, where the rules forbade them to go, and thus they were greatly perplexed. In actuality, Atarim was inhabited by Amalakites.

And it seemed to them that Hashem had called upon them to act in violation of the rules. But they took counsel and made pains to eliminate all their negi'ot, and then the specifics of Divrei Torah became evident, because it was a "time to act for the LORD."

Because they were able to eliminate their own self-interest, they were privileged to hear the voice of Hashem. The rules no longer applied, as Israel was able to ascertain what Hashem specifically wanted from them in this particular situation.
And of this it is written, (Numbers 21:11) "and they encamped at 'Iyyei ha-'Abbarim," i.e. they looked inward and clarified themselves to ensure that they were not involved in the two prohibitions: "Thou shall not murder" and "Thou shall not commit adultery" -- for these two prohibitions are the foundation and the root of the entire Torah. Therefore, if a person is counseled that something will happen to him that appears to violate Divrei Torah, he must first clarify himself regarding these two prohibitions. 'Iyyei ha-'Abbarim hints at this, for 'Iyyei is from the word ya'im, meaning "to remove from one's self," and 'Abbarim is from the word 'avar, meaning "violation." They purified themselves from both these aspects of 'Iyyei ha-'Abbarim.

There is much wordplay going on in this segment, but the key to understanding the meaning of this teaching is in the verb beireru, meaning "they clarified" or "they elucidated." The same exact letters also form the word boreru, meaning "they sifted." We will see in the next segment how the two meanings become conflated in the same word.

And the Nation of Israel gained much physical power in this clarification. Of this it is written (Numbers 21:12) "and they encamped in the Valley of Zered," (literally, the "Valley of Sifting".) That is to say, that Hashem gave them physical power, because Zered ("sifting") refers to physical might. As it is written in the Talmud (Yoma 47a) "ve-Zered ima 'alah le-gag" "that which was sifted (Zered) became the greatest of all." When the Children of Israel sifted (boreru) themselves and removed all self-interest from their conquests and clarified (beireru) themselves, then they merited that Hashem would listen to their voice.


I leave it to the reader to ponder whether this is a radical anti-halakhic teaching, or an extremely conservative reading of R. Natan's dictum.

Have you ever encountered a "time to act for the LORD" in your own life? If so, how does this inform your reading of this Mei ha-Shiloach?

Shabbat shalom,


Check out Ishbitz / Modi'in posts and other great divrei Torah at Torah Place

Monday, June 15, 2009

Introduction to the Mei Ha-Shiloah

The following introduction was posted on June 20, 2006, by Betzalel Philip Edwards who has written an outstanding translation of the Mei HaShiloach available on Amazon.

(the Waters of the Shiloah),
a commentry on the Torah by R. Mordechai Yosef of Isbitza.

by Betzalel Philip Edwards

Here is one version of the story.[1] Reb Tsadok haCohen of Lublin was travelling to various Rabbis in Poland to sign a “heter mea rabbanim,” the consent of a hundred Rabbis in order to divorce his wife. At that time Reb Tsadok, famous as a genius, was one of the most illustrious members of the, “mitnagdim,” the opponents of Hasidism who favored cerebral study to ecstatic devotion as the true form of divine service. Eventually he reached the house of the, “Mei Hashiloach,” Reb Mordechai Yosef in the town of Isbitza.[2] “The Rebbe’s class would begin at midnight by wrestling with revealed matters in a passage of the Talmud. By the morning light the discourse reached the secret of the furnace which powers the universe. In their discussion they arrived at the fundamental point: How does one arrive at the knowledge of the will of G-d through the actions of man, and at the revelation of G-d’s presence through the study of the Torah and the fulfillment of its commandments?”

Reb Tsadok stayed to discuss the lesson with the Rebbe of Isbitza after the class. “The Mei Hashiloach suddenly broke off the discussion of the lesson, turned to Reb Tsadok and said: ‘Here we are, involved in the study of this passage of Talmud according to our own minds and wills, as if the very law that we are discussing is our own wisdom. At the same time we are saying from our own understanding that the Torah is the blessed G-d’s, and hidden within it is His very will, may he be blessed, in a way that through the process of Torah study we may merit to know the will of the blessed G-d at every moment, at every second. Together with this we may then feel the presence of the Shechina which rests everywhere. Our sole objective is to ask: What in our study this evening has shown us the will of the Holy One, blessed be He, and what of it can proclaim the glory of heaven to the world? What of it can we use to fulfill our obligation to sanctify and love the Name of G-d in the world?’ In hearing the words from the mouth of the Mei Hashiloach, dread descended on Reb Tsadok’s heart, and he began to tremble in his entire being. He asked the Rebbe:

‘How can we understand the will of the Creator?’

‘By means of the study of Torah!’ answered the Mei Hashiloach. He continued, ‘A man who studies Torah must feel as if his feet are standing at the foot of Mount Sinai and he is hearing the Torah from the very mouth of the All Powerful. Then he knows that it is His blessed will.’

Reb Tsadok stood for a while, immersed in his thoughts. Days later, he would say of this conversation, ‘I felt as if he had placed burning coals on my heart.’ ”

As a result of this meeting, Reb Tsadok then became one of the principle students and Hasidim of the Rebbe of Isbitza and his way, so remaining for the rest of his life.

“Many years later, it is told that in Reb Tsadok’s old age, the famous genius Rabbi Yosef Rojin, the ‘Illui’ of Rogatchoff, visited the house of Reb Tsadok in order to engage the Cohen in, ‘pilpul,’ heated discourse in the law. Reb Tsadok said, ‘Your honor would like to know if I am a scholar. How will G-d be glorified in any way from this? This is not the reason why the sages of the great assembly instituted the blessing, “Blessed is G-d who grants man wisdom.” In my youth, I too was involved in such, “pilpul,” over the law, but I arrived at the understanding that the only way to achieve knowledge of the Torah is through the gates of Hasidism which the holy Baal Shem Tov had opened for us.”[3]

Who was Reb Mordechai Yosef of Isbitza, and how did he arrive at the revolutionary conception of the Torah found in his teachings? He was born in the town of Tomashov in Poland in 1800 (5560) to a rabbinic family. The introduction to the, “Beit Yaakov,” the teachings of his son, traces the families lineage, each generation a leader of his community, back to Reb Moshe Issralis, the, “Ramo,” and thus further to Rabbi Shlomo Yitchaki, Rash”i, the leading Medieval Torah commentator. Rashi then connects his lineage back to David haMelech. But as always, the fame of his family is not important. We are concerned with who he was. He grew up together with Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgenstern, later to become, “the Kotsker Rebbe.” The two were childhood friends and together were students and Hasidim of Reb Simcha Bunem of Pshiske. It was from the Rebbe of Pshiske, the famous disciple of Yaakov Yitschak Horowitz, the, “Seer of Lublin,” that the two received from the wellsprings of the teachings of Rabbi Israel, the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement.

In the introduction of the second volume of the Mei Hashiloach, it is told that when the young Reb Mordechai Yosef first met his teacher, Reb Simcha Bunem, the teacher said to him, almost joking, “come, let us see who is taller.” He motioned that they should compare height by standing back to back. This was peculiar, because where Mordechai Yosef was quite small in physique, Reb Simcha Bunem was of a large, strapping form. The Pshisker then said to him, “Now I am taller than you. But you are still young, and in the days to come you shall grow.” It was the Rebbe of Pshiske who gave Mordechai Yosef the name, “the Mei Hashiloach,” the, “waters from the spring of Shiloach.” This is the underground spring which flows from under the temple Mount in Jerusalem and through the ancient city of David, now called Silwan. This was the place where the kings of the House of David were anointed. The meaning is akin to, “still waters run deep,” which is the sense Simcha Bunem received from the quiet intensity of his young student. The Pshisker said, “he is like the waters of the Shiloach which flow slowly and search out the deepest depths.”[4]This is reminiscent of the verse in Kohelet, “It is deep, exceedingly deep, and who can fathom it?”

When the Pshisker left this world, Reb Menachem Mendel became his successor, moving the center of operations to the town of Kotsk. Here in Kotsk, Mordechai Yosef, already his friend and study partner, became his disciple. There is much to say of this period, but it will not be said here. After some time the Kotsker closed himself in his room adjacent to the house of study, and there remained for the next twenty years until his death. When he would occasionally appear in his doorway, it was as the revelation of a Holy Seraph of G-d. In short, Mordechai Yosef objected to the Kotsker’s self-imposed confinement, and left for the town of Isbitza, taking ninety percent of the Kotsker Hasidim along with him. How many Jews were remained in Kotsk? A minyan (ten). He then sent a message back to Menachem Mendel, saying, “I promise to pay you back with children and grandchildren until the coming of the Messiah.”[5] Of this whole period, you will hear different versions depending on whether if comes from Kotsk family history, or Isbitza family history. The version of Isbitza follows in the next section, the introduction from the, “Dor Yesharim.” As a young student in Pshiske, it is told that he basically lived in the house of study, even sleeping there. He would return to visit his family for holidays.

As mentioned below in the, “Dor Yesharim,” the Mei Hashiloach never wrote down his insights into the Torah. Even his students refrained from writing, but would rather commit his words to memory and later discuss the meaning of the Rebbe’s teaching. This was also the case with the Baal Shem Tov. A story is told of the Baal Shem Tov seeing one of his students writing down his words of Torah. He looked at the writings and said, “not a word of what I have said have you written.” The introduction to the second volume of the Mei Hashiloach describes how the book was written. “Indeed a number of years after he was taken from us, a number of the students of the Mei Hashiloach took it upon themselves to collect that which they remembered from the teachings and commit them to writing. Then future generations will also benefit from the light of his holy teachings. They pleaded with the son of the Mei Hashiloach to help them in this endeavor, and he entrusted the task to his own son, Reb Gershon Chanoch Hainech (the first Radziner Rebbe.)” That the words of the Isbitser Rebbe were written from memory during the twenty years following his death accounts for their terse, distilled character. This is not a work of literary merit, it is purely concerned with content. One must bear in mind that the writer of Mei Hashiloach felt as if he was writing what he remembered from the time he stood at Mount Sinai. Furthermore, the lessons were delivered in Yiddish, the Hebrew of the Bible and the Aramaic of the Talmud and Zohar. Thus all that was Yiddish was then translated into Hebrew. Reb Gershon Chanoch published the first edition, an unedited of parts of the first volume, in the year 5620 (1860), four years after the Isbitzer left the world. It is told that the first printing of the Mei Hashiloach was done in a Gentile press and without any approbations from famous Rabbis of the generation, quite unusual for books of Hasidic discourse to this day. The second volume of the Mei Hashiloach was put in writing and printed by Reb Gershon Chanoch’s brother, Reb Mordechai Yosef Elazar.

Who studies this work? I once met with Reb Yaakov Lainer in Boro Park, Brooklyn, The son of the late Radziner Rebbe and a direct descendant of the Mei Hashiloah. He is the current publisher of Isbitza books in America. He told me that thirty years ago, his father, of blessed memory, would sell some twenty copies of the Mei Hashiloach each year. It was like a dinosaur. He told me that it that at that time it was only really studied by Jews who came from certain towns in Poland. Then in the late sixties, Reb Shlomo Carlebach, may his memory be blessed, began his work of traveling seven continents to light Jewish hearts with the fire of Hasidism. In his suitcase there was always a copy of the Mei Hashiloach. You could say that wherever he went, he took with him the light and profundity of the Isbitzer Rebbe, giving it to thirsty souls. I once heard him say, “you can not understand the Chumash (five books of Moses) without the Mei Hashiloach.” In my conversation with Reb Lainer, he gave Shlomo Carlebach the credit for popularizing the Mei Hashiloach in our generation. In the six years I spent with Shlomo Carlebach, not a learning, not a Shabbos went by without some light from the Isbitzer. Today it is found in every Hebrew bookstore, and is taught in every Yeshiva of new young spirit seekers seeking inspiration from the Hasidic masters. I used to spend much time in the shadow of Reb Yitschak Asher Twersky, of blessed memory, the Talner Rebbe of Boston. He is known as the pre-eminent scholar of Maimonides in this century. Sitting before him I always felt as if I was sitting before the Rambam. During one of his Drashot at the third meal of Shabbat, Parshat Beshalach in 1997, he quoted a teaching from the Mei Hashiloach on, “Who is like You among the powers, Hashem.” He then said that he wanted to find time to teach a regular shiur (lesson) devoted to the Mei Hashiloach. But sadly, he was summoned to the world of Truth before he could realize this desire. I remember Rabbi Shlomo Riskin in Efrat, Israel, during his drash for Shabbat haGadol, the week before Passover, mentioning before seven hundred people a teaching from the Mei Hashiloch. Also in Efrat, I happened to walk into a class with Rabbi Chaim Brovender with a copy of the Mei Hashiloach under my arm. He noticed it, and said, “Be careful. If you learn enough of this you may burn up!” I mention these examples just to show how widespread the prevalence of the Mei Hashiloach has become for those receptive to the teachings of Hasidism, whereas fifty years ago the name, “Mei Hashiloach,” would have gone unnoticed.

I beg forgiveness for doing something as brazen as trying to summarize the main principle of the Mei Hashiloach in a few sentences. First and foremost, everything is in the hands of Heaven. Everything that we receive in our lives, we are receiving directly from the blessed G-d. It is then the work of man in the world to develop a mind that is conscious of this reality. On top of a general unwavering dedication to the Torah and its laws, man must specifically work, through the study of the Torah and Avodat Hashem, the service of G-d, to know what G-d wants of him specifically in his life. He must also then know that G-d’s will could change at any time, and must constantly look to G-d to illuminate into him what He wants of man at any particular moment. This also necessitates that he not assume that what G-d wants from him is the same as that which he wants from another. Even if he sees another transgressing the Torah, he may not assume that the other is rebelling against G-d’s will, for he has no way of knowing the private relationship between the other and G-d. Thus, through personal refinement in according to his illumination of the will of G-d, he develops the consciousness of the presence and intentions of G-d. In this way, redemption is really just a change of consciousness. Then his conduct based on this new redemptive consciousness serves to glorify and sanctify the Name of G-d in the world. Now we must look in the text to find examples of these ideas.

It is written in the Gemara (Berachot, 33b), “all is in the hands of Heaven, except the fear of Heaven.” Rashi comments, “everything comes to man from G-d, the length of his life, whether he is poor or rich, whether he is simple or wise. However, whether he is good or wicked does not come from heaven, this is a choice delivered into the hands of man, where two ways are placed before him, and he shall choose the fear of G-d.” However, as the Mei Hashiloach writes in Parshat Vayeira, under, “and Sarah denied it,” that this only applies to the limits of the understanding of man’s intellect. It is in fact necessary for man to believe that he chooses to serve G-d so he has the desire to perform, and then the service can be called the work of his hands. However, in reality, he is, “taking from the treasure house of the King and giving back to the Kings,” in the saying of the Zohar (Shmini, 38a). So if all that man does is a result of the constant Providence of G-d, then even the sins of Israel are part of G-d’s greater plan. Needless to say that this is in the large view, and can not be taken before the action as a license to act recklessly. The Gemara (Avoda Zara, 4b) claims that Israel sinned in making a golden calf only to encourage the proper repentance of later generations. Though they went ahead and made the idol, they made atonement and their repentance was accepted. As a result, the tribes were given the mitsvah of giving the half-shekel. If the result of their sin was the performance of their mitsvah, which is meritorious in G-d’s view, certainly G-d takes pleasure when every Jew returns to His law. And if even the sin is transformed into merit, how much more pleasing is it when Israel performs acts that from the outset are meritorious! Thus the Mei Hashiloach repeats several times the words of the Gemara (Gittin, 53a), “one can not uphold the Torah unless he has failed in it.” After the fact, the failure only serves to deepen ones appreciation of the essence of the commandment.

There is a level beyond man’s choice, and this is clearly expressed concerning the verse, “in the plain over against Suf.” (Devarim, 1:1) There it is written, “Why were the sins of Israel discreetly mentioned through the names of the places where the sins occurred rather that by the mention of the time when they occurred? This is in order that man does not think that the sins were done according to their power of choice, and that they had the choice to remove themselves from the sin. The matter of place hints at this, for it was not possible for them to guard themselves from the sin and move to a different place.”

So too, we find the entire Davidic line, the very Messiah, as a result of the incest of Lot and his daughters. Also with Yehuda and Tamar, when he admits and says, “she is more righteous than I (mimeni),” the Gemara (Sotah 10b) says, “here G-d was saying, ‘the whole incident came forth from Me (memeni}.’ ” In Parshat Vayeishev, under, “and Er,” the Mei Hashiloach writes, “For the Holy One, blessed be He, conducts all the structures of the kingdom of the House of David, according to structures such as these, even though at the time of the action it seemed like a sin … The secret of the House of David is greatly concealed, even from the prophets.”
So truly, all that we are receiving in this world is coming from the blessed G-d. On the verse, “Mercy and Truth will not abandon you,” (Mishlei, 3:3) the Mei Hashiloach comments, “The verse is not formulated, ‘do not abandon Mercy and Truth,’ for truly the effluence of the blessed G-d descends constantly without interruption. Only man, from his side, needs to refine his heart and stand ready to receive, and not turn his back on this effluence, G-d forbid. But in His goodness the blessed G-d constantly effuses His effluence, and the man who longs for His Mercies shall not forsake them.”

Now it is up to man to develop a mind which constantly looking to the will of G-d to guide his actions. (Though this very effort must a direct effect of G-d’s influence in the world.) This can be seen in all of the actions of Yaakov Avinu, but particularly when he went to bless the sons of Yosef. Yaakov said, “Elo-him who guided me all my life until this day.” The Rebbe of Isbitza explains, “for every action I do, no matter how small, I need the blessed G-d to illuminate His will into me. I even need it with this action (blessing Menashe and Efriam), where I saw how it is His will to change it (to bless the younger before the older), nevertheless I need to see even the second time how it is His blessed will. Truly in this matter Yaakov was the greatest of the Patriarchs, for to have the blessed G-d constantly lead ones actions is a great level. This was the prayer of King David (Tehillim, 23:1), “G-d is my shepherd, I will lack nothing,” meaning that the Providence of the blessed G-d will not be lacking from me, for He will always guide me, and I will be ever aware that the blessed G-d is guiding me.”

Two characters are presented in the Mei Hashiloach. One is typified by Yosef, or Efriam, and this type always looks to the judgment of the Torah in every matter. So too does this type feel a sense of holy rage when confronted with transgression of the Torah, as with Pinchas, who descended from Efriam. The other type is Yehuda, who constantly looks to the blessed G-d to tell him how to act. This appears in Parshat Vayeishev:

This is as it is said (Yesahya, 11:13), “Efriam shall not be jealous of Yehuda, and Yehuda shall not distress Efriam.” These two tribes were always opposing each other, for the force of life which the blessed G-d gave to Efriam (from Yosef) was of the nature that it always looked to every action regarding its judgement and law, without moving from it. Therefore, when the writings warn Israel against sinning, then the aim of the Torah will be to say (Amos, 5:6), “lest the house of Yosef should prevail like fire,” meaning that they should concern themselves that there should be no opponents to their actions. The root of life for Yehuda, however, is to look to the blessed G-d regarding the course of every action. Even though he sees where the judgment leans, still he looks to the blessed G-d in order to see the depth of the truth of the matter.

So it is with all matters, and this is the root of life for Yehuda, to look to G-d in everything and not to act simply in a way that is accepted or habitual. Even though yesterday he acted in such a way, yet anyhow, today he does not want to rely on his former response, only that the blessed G-d should illuminate His will into him anew. This matter sometimes necessitates even doing something against the law, for, “it is a time to do for G-d, the Torah has been suspended.” (Tehillim 119:126)

So upon understanding this, one must be flexible with the will of G-d, for the vessel only illuminates from that which is shined into it. For the Mei Hashiloach, this is the essence of the commandment concerning the scriptural commandment of temporary vows, as explained in Parshat Mattot:

It occurred (with all of the prophets other than Moshe) in their prophetic spirit that whichever particular word of prophecy they were speaking was enduring for all eternity. Yet truly, there existed changes according to the quality of each generation. On this, “Moshe Rabeynu’s level of prophecy was superior to them all, prophesizing with ‘this is the word.’ ” This means that he understood the prophecy according to its time and place, understanding that a prophecy is only relevant for a particular time, and later G-d may desire something else … Therefore it is said, “this is the word,” for one must understand that the particular action is only temporarily forbidden to him, and that the blessed G-d can give him the power to receive all the good of the world without being disconnected from the service if the Divine.

Then, if G-d’s plans require different processes and limitations for each individual, then this changes the way on will view another’s way of acting in the world. “The blessed G-d allotted to each one goodness and life, and one is not similar to his fellow.” (Parshat Bamidbar) In Parshat Va’etchanan:

As for the meaning behind the commandments, each one feels the unique meaning of a commandment that another does not feel, nor does he have the understanding of his fellow. We find an example of this in the Gemara (Pesachim, 53b), “even though one says to light, and another says not to light, they both had the same intention.”[6]For at first it seemed as if one disagreed with the other, yet truly there was no disagreement for they both intended the same thing. Thus one does not call to question the attributes of his fellow, for he understands that his fellow can only keep the mitsvah in his own way, and not in his way. Therefore it says (in verse 19), “to cast out all your enemies from before you,” which is referring to those involved in fierce disagreements in Israel. Yet the meaning is not that they should be destroyed, G-d forbid, but rather to cast out their kind of service from before you, so as not to disturb you from your own service.

Furthermore, the Isbitser re-evaluates the entire matter of the commandment to rebuke ones neighbor in his interpretation of the verse, “you shall surely rebuke,” in Parshat Behar:

Even thought the blessed G-d commanded man to reprove his neighbor and to try to distance him from all evil as much as is possible, this is only possible in a place where he knows he can help him by bringing him to the good, or through prayer which will arouse compassion upon him to return him to the path of ethical behavior. However, if he can not remove him from his errors, then he must judge him meritoriously, and not accuse him. Thus one can not judge his neighbor as guilty, for perhaps his neighbor’s yetser hara (inclination to evil) is greater than his own. Or, perhaps what he sees as an error or sin is actually permitted to his neighbor, for there are many things that are forbidden to one but permitted to another.

Once one has gone through this process of personal refinement, and refining the way he sees the world, he is capable of experiencing redemption. This is because the nature of exile is really the exile of man’s consciousness, when he can not see the presence of G-d in his life. But if he can remove the veil and see how, “all really is in the hands of heaven,” then no matter what transpires it is all part of the direct involvement of G-d in order to bring about redemption, where the knowledge of G-d is sensed with utmost clarity. The classic example of this is found in Parshat Vayigash, where a simple change of consciousness in a second can bring Yehuda from believing that he is facing a life of incarceration by a foreign king to standing before his lost brother who will save his entire family from famine and be reunited with his father:

For all these verses (at the beginning of the Parsha) are a claim against the blessed G-d, with Yehuda supposing all the while that he was standing before and arguing with a gentile king. Then when the blessed G-d sent them the salvation, then they saw that even in retrospect they were never in danger, for truly they were arguing with their brother. Thus it will be in the future, when the blessed G-d will save us and redeem us, then G-d will show us that we were never in exile, and that a foreign nation never ruled over us, only G-d alone. This is the meaning of the verse (Tehillim, 37:10), “and a little more, and there is no evil one, and you considered his place, and there is nothing there,” meaning that very soon evil will be banished. “And you considered,” meaning the understanding of the heart, for if you want to understand its place, “there is nothing there,” meaning that in it there was no power of governance over you.

In this way, redemption is just a change of consciousness. To do this is a difficult path, requiring constant re-evaluation of how G-d’s will illuminates into each one of us. No matter what I think I understand, I have to go back and look again, for every letter in the Torah is infinite, and, as the Mei Hashiloach tells us, there is a depth far deeper in the words of Torah than the human consciousness can conceive.

Betsalel Philip Edwards, Old City, Jerusalem, 5760 – 2000

[1] This story is taken from, “b’heichal Isbitza – Lublin,” “In the chamber of Isbitza – Lublin,” by S.Z Shragai. Page 8.
[2] In the tradition of Torah scholars, Reb Mordechai Yosef is called in the name of his book, as the, “Mei Hashiloach.”
[3] Shragai, Page 9.
[4] Introduction to Vol. 2 of the Mei Hashiloach. This phrase appears but once all of scripture, Yeshaya {Isaiah} 8:6, "for as much as the the people refuse the waters of Shiloah that flow slowly, and rejoice in R'tsin and the son of Remaliyahu."
[5] I heard this from the mouth of Reb Shlomo Carlebach, Zts’l.
[6] This is discussing whether or not to leave a candle lit on the eve of Yom Kippur. One say that if there is light his is less likely to engage in intimate relations, and another says if it is dark and he does not see his wife, then he will be less likely to succumb. Both opinions are in order to distance one from sin.


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Hitzei Yehonatan on Mei ha-Shiloah - Parashat Korach

Once again, thanks to R. Yehonatan Chipman and his outstanding blog Hitzei Yehonatan...

Korah and Determinism

by R. Yehonatan Chipman

As we did last week, we shall once again present a Torah from the Izhbitzer Rebbe, who was fascinated with the more paradoxical sides of Torah (for more on the Izhbitzer and his milieu, see HY IV: Mishpatim). And what more suitable Torah portion than that of Korah, the arch-rebel against Moses’ authority and, some say, supreme religious individualist and iconoclast? Mei Shiloah(Korah; Vol. I, p. 154)

“And Korah took…” [Num 16:1]. It says in the midrash [Numbers Rabbah 18.2]: “Why is the chapter of Korah adjacent to that of tzitzit? Because Korah took a tallit that was entirely blue and asked, “Is it exempt or is it required [to have tzitzit]?” The matter here, is that the color blue (tekhelet) signifies fear, and orah argued that the fear of God, may He be blessed, is understood by him with great clarity, and he understands that all is in the hand of Heaven, even fear of God. Hence how can a person come and do anything that is against God’s will, since [human] will and acts are all from Him, may He be blessed? How then can he do anything against His will?

A central concept of Mei Shiloah is that human free will is illusory, and that everything that happens is ultimately predestined. Hence, carried to its logical conclusion, the idea of a person consciously acting out of “fear of God” is logically impossible: whether or not a person will be God-fearing is itself in God’s hands. This, in a nutshell, was Korah’s argument: the blue thread, which symbolizes and is intended to remind people of “fear of God,” is superfluous. Here, the Izhbitzer carries the notion of quietism, found in early Hasidism, to its extreme conclusion.

And for this reason he argued that it is exempt from tzitzit, because tzitzit allude to fear. And in truth, God’s will in this world [potentially?] visible to human eyes. And this is what is stated in the Talmud [Hagiggah 13b], that Ezekiel prayed concerning the face of the ox, and it was turned into a cherub. For the ox alludes to greatly clarified wisdom; for in depth all is in the hands of Heaven, and man’s [free] choice is no thicker than a garlic skin, and is only according to his own perception. For God has hidden His way from human beings, because He seeks man’s service, and if all were revealed to him there could not blossom any service from it.

The aggadic passage alluded to here (which, incidentally, is from that chapter of the Talmud which deals most extensively with esoteric wisdom) tries to resolve a contradiction between the description of the “four faces” of the Divine chariot: in Ezek 1:10 these are described as having the faces of “a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle”; while in Ezek 10:14 they bear the faces of “a cherub, a man, a lion, and an eagle.” The transition from ox to cherub is explained as a result of Ezekiel praying for mercy for him (that is, to turn it into a figure who would intercede to bring mercy upon Israel—thus Rashi). The ox is assumed to symbolize Judgment, perhaps because of his enormous brute strength. In any event, this is interpreted by the Izhbitzer as equivalent to “clarified wisdom”: that is, knowledge of the inner workings of the Divine economy, of the lawfulness and fixity of the cosmic order and of God’s dealings with human beings, leaving no room for transformation, for free will, for teshuvah, or for appeals to love and intimacy between man and God.

In general, the Izhbitzer’s answer to Korah is peculiar: though there is predestination, it is hidden from humankind, and people think that they have free will, so that they can serve God with a feeling of genuine choice. (But if this choice is ultimately unreal, how can God take pleasure from such predetermined “service”? There seems something a bit illogical in this position.) This view, we might add, is a minority one in Jewish thought. For example, in a famous passage about how God could have hardened Pharaoh’s heart, Maimonides struggles to reconcile the principle of Divine omniscience with human free will (Hilkhot Teshuvah 5.5). The notion of predestination seems particularly at odds with a movement like Hasidism, which so much emphasizes man’s inner life and the cultivation of religious emotion and kavannah, service of the heart and not just of the limbs. If it all depends upon God’s arbitrary will, why bother? Moreover, Mei Shiloah here opens a very controversial door, more explicit in some other of his teachings, for providing justification for transgressions. “A person who removes himself from the Evil Urge, and guards himself from sin with all his strength, until he cannot guard himself more than this: when his lust then overcomes him and he performs an act, he may know for certain that this is God’s will” (!!; Pinhas, p. 165). This seems to me an extraordinarily dangerous doctrine. And, some cynics might add, perhaps it is passages such as these that are one of the more problematical and less pure sources for his popularity in this, our anarchistic and undisciplined age.

So why, nevertheless, did the Izhbitzer adopt such positions? After all, we must remember that he was a very pious Jew; it was he, and not the Hiddushei ha-Rim, who abruptly left his beloved rebbe, fleeing as if from fire, after that strange Shabbat when the Kotzker performed a shocking, possibly non-halakhic act. My own reading is that the central axis in the Izhbitzer’s thought is simple, total faith in God. For him, the faith that everything comes from God, and that we are like passive tools in His hands, somehow strengthens faith in God’s greatness, in our dependence upon Him, etc.

And it was concerning this that Ezekiel prayed. And it [the ox] was changed to a cherub, so that the way of God should be hidden, and that it seem to human beings that they have free will. And through this the service [of God] enters into their hearts. And this is the meaning of “the cherub is the small face.” The Talmud’s explanation as to how Ezek 10:14 can include both a cherub and human being alongside one another is that one is “the great face” and “the cherub is the small face.” But the “small face,” in Kabbalistic thought, is also Ze’ir anpin, that Divine configuration which epitomizes “mercy of mercies.”

One Shabbat Korah some years ago, I happened to daven at a rather anti-establishment, bohemian sort of minyan. The rabbi–teacher–preacher began his talk on that occasion with the words: “Korah, you are our brother!” He went on to state that the Hozeh of Lublin —a focal figure in early 19th century Hasidism, who bridged between the tradition of the Maggid and the emergent school of Pshyshcha-Kotzk—used to refer to him as der Zeidey Koirakh, “Grandfather Korah.” He added that anyone with commonsense refrained from taking sides in the great controversy between Moses and Korah; it was only after the Divine verdict was issued, in the dramatic form of the earth swallowing Korah, that it became clear that Moses’ position was correct. What is the meaning of this underground tradition that turns everything most of us have ever learned about Korah upside down? Is there in fact ground for a sympathetic, even positive reading of Korah?

A number of the best-known, almost canonical midrashim (Num. Rab. 18.3) about Korah show him challenging several basic halakhic institutions. Thus, he ridicules the mitzvah of tzitzit, in which one thread suffices to make an entire garment kosher, parading before Moses with 300 followers, all dressed in pure blue robes. He similarly ridicules the mezuzah, the small container with two brief parshiyot from the Torah that is a sine-qua-non upon the door of every Jewish home, by asking whether a house “full of books” still needs a mezuzah. Yet a third midrash relates the story of an unfortunate widow whose meager financial resources are depleted by Moses’ relentless demands: first by the ordinances requiring tithes from field crops and fruits, then by the first-born of the flocks, the first sheering of the sheep, etc., etc. Several contemporary Rabbinic scholars have suggested that these midrashim may have served as an outlet for the Sages’ own doubts and qualms about certain aspects of the legalistic, formalistic mind-frame of the halakhah—safely projected onto Korah, the arch-heretic of early Biblical history.

In seeking an answer to these questions, I turned to the arch-master of paradox in the proto–modern period—the Hasidic teacher R. Mordecai of Izhbitz, author of Mei ha-Shiloah. The Izhbitzer has two interesting things to say about Korah: First, that Korah debunked tzitzit because they symbolize yirat shamayim, whereas Korah held that, in a certain sense, yirat shamyim is immanent in every Jew. That is, a person cannot help but do the will of God, because everything that a person does in life ultimately comes from God—even his own personal will. What Korah overlooked, says the Ishbitzer, is that we are nevertheless given free will, even if no more than the “size of a garlic peel,” because God desires that man serve him with at least the illusion of free will.

At first blush, this doctrine seems perilously close to determinism, emptying of meaning the dictum of Hazal, “Everything is in the hands of Heaven except for the fear of Heaven” (Berakhot 33b). But one expert on Izhbitzer Hasidism explained to me that this does not mean that man has no freedom but that, on the contrary, he has radical freedom: so much so, that at times the “religiously correct” choice is to be found, not through a conventional halakhic-legalist approach, but by seeking “the will of God.” And indeed, when confronting the truly significant choices in life, the crossroads, the major ethical nexuses, the halakhah is inadequate to show the way a person must walk. At times, God may show him the path: if a person looks deep within his own soul, with absolute honesty and integrity, striving to eliminate any ulterior motives or self-interest, he may merit to hear the voice of God.

Second: Korah was a radical democrat. His basic charge against Moses was that “the entire congregation is holy, and God is in their midst; why then do you lift yourselves up above the congregation of the Lord” (Num 16:3). Korah is portrayed by Mei ha-Shiloah as anticipating that great day, portrayed inter alia in the aggadah at the very end of Ta’anit, in which the righteous will dance in a circle, each one pointing with his finger at the Holy One blessed be He, who stands in the center of the circle, saying: “This is the Lord for whom we have waited and who will save us; this is the Lord for whom we have waited, we will rejoice and be glad in His salvation!” (Isa 25:9). Korah’s error, according to the Izhbitzer, was not in assuming radical equality among all people, but in seeing it as something imminent in his own day rather than as an event that would have to wait for the End of Days.

These two issues—determinism vs. free will, and egalitarianism vs. hierarchy— are central issues in the modern world. Many scientists, in studying the functioning of the brain, will argue that most of our rejections and behavior patterns are “hard-wired” into our physical nature, and that our conscious control and choice regarding our response to various situations is far less than we would like to believe.

One concrete example: the controversy regarding homosexuality, viz. same-sex marriage and ordination of homosexuals as rabbis, which recently rocked Conservative Judaism both here and in the United States, is closely related to the widely-accepted assumption that homosexual orientation is in some sense predetermined, involuntary, and thus not subject to free will in any meaningful sense. Yet in the hundreds of pages of discussion by the best minds of the Conservative movement (at least those major positions that I have read), the issue of free-will vs. determinism is barely mentioned, even though shogeg karuv la-anus, the exemption from liability of one who acts through error tantamount to external compulsion, might have served as a more plausible basis for a permissive position, rather than the dubious heter by Dorff et al. for non-penetrative erotic acts, based on a rather cavalier disregard of Rabbinic and, per Rambam, even Torah prohibitions (but more on that another time). It seems to me that the issue of how to deal with people who seem to be forced by their genetic makeup to behave in ways forbidden by the Torah is a basic one, with far-reaching theological implications, deserving of serious discussion.

The second issue raised by the Izhbitzer, invoked by the image of all Israel dancing in a circle, is that of democracy, of the innate equality of all human beings. There is hardly need to elaborate upon the fact that this is a basic element of the contemporary cultural mood or mentalit√©; the post-modern reluctance to make any unequivocal moral, aesthetic, spiritual or other value judgments may be traced to the feeling that “Who am I to say that my opinion is truer than that of anyone else?” This is diametrically opposed to the traditional view of Judaism, which accepts the obvious differences between human beings in terms of intelligence, learning, talents and abilities of various sorts, and even moral sensibility. Moses is seen as the true teacher and prophet, the exclusive conduit for conveying the divine Torah to Israel, and as the paradigm for the authority of Sages in later generations. And yet, as the Izhbitzer observes, in the End of Days all will be equal in their direct experiencing of the immanent God. Korah’s “only” error was in “jumping the gun.”

I will conclude, very briefly, with a comment on the haftarah. What is implied by the choice of this particular reading (1 Sam 11:14-12:22)? On the face of it, it seems diametrically opposed to the message of the Korah story. Rather than the “populist” tendencies of Korah, here the people had practically begged Samuel to appoint a king, a centralized, authoritarian leader, “like all the other nations” (8:5)—to which Samuel is adamantly opposed, reminding them here that “the Lord your God [alone!] is your king” (12:12). Perhaps this haftarah was chosen for precisely that reason: that they must not give up on the messianic, utopian vision in which all stand directly before God as king; that the ideal of an egalitarian society, expressed davka through the mouth of Korah , is not a bad thing per se.


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Parashat Korach - The Entire Congregation is Holy

by Elli Sacks
A chassidic text study

Korach's Radical Egalitarian Values

There has been a tremendous renewed interest in the Mei ha-Shiloah over the past few decades, both in yeshivish and non-yeshivish settings, and this upsurge in popularity is undoubtedly due to Shlomo Carlebach's role in disseminating the teachings of the Ishbitzer Rebbe to vast and varied audiences around the world. According to Betzalel Philip Edwards author of Living Waters, a fascinating translation of the Mei ha-Shiloah published by Jason Aronson, whenever Reb Shlomo was traveling "in his suitcase there was always a copy of the Mei Hashiloach. You could say that wherever he went, he took with him the light and profundity of the Isbitzer Rebbe, giving it to thirsty souls. I once heard him say, “you can not understand the Chumash (five books of Moses) without the Mei Hashiloach.”

However, mention the Mei ha-Shiloah in more academic circles and you will invariably get raised eyebrows for an altogether different reason -- the identification of the work with the doctrine of determinism. Though others before the Ishbitzer have proposed similar ideas, the Mei ha-Shiloah is often cited as the principle Jewish work advancing the idea that free will is illusory and that every action on this earth, even terrible sin, is the fulfillment of the Will of God. To quote Hitzei Yehonatan (see link below): "At first blush, this doctrine seems perilously close to determinism, emptying of meaning the dictum of Hazal, “Everything is in the hands of Heaven except for the fear of Heaven” (Berakhot 33b). " For the Ishbitzer, even the choice of whether to fear Heaven or not is also an illusion, and one that is intentionally imposed upon us by God.

It is specifically here in Parashat Korach that the Mei Ha-Shiloah most fully develops his thoughts on free will and determinism. Others with far more knowledge and expertise than myself have devoted considerable time and energy to analyzing these particular teachings (you can read two takes on the subject at the following links: Chapter 5 in Prof. Alan Brill's "Thinking God: The Mysticism of Rabbi Zadok of Lublin and R. Jonathan Chipman's post on Korah in Hitzei Yehonatan), so I feel no obligation to address the topic myself. However, I do want to point out that those looking for scriptural support for a deterministic view of the world can find it readily in the Torah in the book of Genesis. There, Joseph makes a strong case for determinism in his dramatic speech to his brothers when he finally reveals his true identity to them (Genesis 45:4-8):

"Now do not be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for it was God who sent me before you to preserve life. The famine has been in the land these two years, and there are still five years remaining in which there will be neither plowing nor harvesting. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to keep you alive by a great deliverance. Now, therefore, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh and lord of all his household and ruler over all the land of Egypt."

Free Will vs. Determinism: discuss amongst yourselves...


So, having sidestepped the philosophical question, I would like to examine a different teaching from the Mei Ha-Shiloah that speaks of Korach's democratic aspirations, an egalitarian vision of the End of Days (taken from the end of Masekeht Ta'anit) where all the righteous stand equally close before the Holy One Blessed Be He... Perhaps it is the vitality of this vision that prompted R. Zadok Ha-Cohen of Lublin, author of the Pri Tzadik, to refer to Korach in affectionately glowing terms as "Our Holy Grandfather." Without further adieu, the text... Mei ha-Shiloah (Korah; 1995 ed. B’nai Berak, Vol. I, p. 155.):

“The entire congregation is holy, and God is in their midst; why then do you lift yourselves up above the congregation of the Lord.” (Num 16:3). Here Korach makes the claim that there is no hierarchy in Israel where one individual ought to be set higher than his fellow man, for God is in the midst of the entire congregation. That is to say that Hashem dwells within everyone equally, as it is written in the midrash (Talmud Bavli, Ta'anit, 31a) "In the future, the Holy One Blessed Be He will make a dance for all the righteous." "Dance" refers to a circle, in which no one is closer [to the center] than his fellow man. And Korach claimed that this vision was already realized at the time!?!

Commentary: -- Two weeks ago, in Parashat Be-ha'alotekha, we read about the story of Eldad and Meidad. As you will recall (Numbers: Chapter 11) the 70 elders of Israel had traveled from the Israelite camp to the Tent of Meeting where the Spirit of the LORD descended upon them, endowing them with the power of prophecy. At the same time, the Spirit of the LORD descended upon two additional men -- Eldad and Meidad -- who had remained within the Israelite encampment, and who also began to speak the word of God. Moshe's second-in-command, Yehoshua Bin Nun, feared that this "extra-territorial" prophesying represented a threat to the hierarchical power structure within Israelite society and asked Moshe to forbid them from doing so. But Moshe's reaction towards Eldad and Meidad is not only not hostile, it seems downright giddy. "Would that all of Hashem's people were prophets, and that Hashem had put His Spirit upon them!"

Does not the voice of Moshe in Be-ha'alotekha sound similar to Korach's voice in our parasha? Perhaps Moshe was echoing a sentiment that was popular in the Israelite camp. After all, hadn't the entire congregation achieved the level of prophecy at Sinai, when God spoke directly to each and every person present? If only the Children of Israel could have maintained that level of intimacy, that level of connection, there would have been no need for priests or elders or for political leadership. Moshe could have retired to the quiet of the Beit Midrash, learning Torah all day instead of constantly dealing with the enfuriating complaints of the maddening crowd.

So why is it that Moses was so offended by Korach's challenge? Why wasn't he wooed by the vision Korach proffered from the conclusion to Masekhet Ta'anit:
"Ulla Biraah said in the name of Rabbi Elazar: In the future the Holy One, Blessed be He, will make a dance of all the righteous people, and he will sit among them, in the middle of the circle, in the Garden of Eden; and each and every one will point with his finger toward Him, as it says: He shall say on that day, "Behold! This is our God; we hoped to Him and He saved us; this is Hashem to Whom we hoped; let us exult and be glad in His salvation."

The answer according to the Ishbitzer is that Korach was essentially correct in his claim, but, as so often is the case in life, his problem was one of timing. Korach expresses the true egalitarian ideal that will be realized in the End of Days when the righteous will dance around the Holy One in a circle, and everyone will commune in equal proximity to Hashem who will then truly be "in their midst." Nevertheless, it was patently clear to Moshe that this was NOT that time and that no matter the legitimacy of his ideals, Korach was jumping the gun. Furthermore, there was a fatal inconsistency in Korach's argument which the Ishbitzer points out in expounding upon a verse from Proverbs...

But regarding Korach's claim, King Solomon said (Proverbs 20:26) "The wise King scatters ('mezareh') the wicked, and turns the wheel ('ofen') over them."

The Mei ha-Shiloah now plays with the verse, reinterpreting the words "mezareh" and "ofen", changing their contextual meaning in order to point out the fault in Korach's claim...

That is to say, God had already placed the wreath ('zer') and the crown (of the Levites) upon them, and thus had already elevated their status. And in regards to this, Hashem "turns their own character traits ('ofen') against them. " God asked them, "Why is it that when I granted you this lofty status you didn't complain immediately, saying 'There is no hierarchy in Israel and no individual should be set higher than his fellow man.'?"

In this ironic twist, the King of Kings is ready to concede to Korach on the content of his argument, but not on the timing of it. And it is Korach's own defining character trait, his ambition, that is his ultimate undoing. The fact that Korach hadn't complained when Hashem originally elevated the Levites over the rest of the congregation (after the sin of the Golden Calf) undermines his claim that the ultimate vision had already been realized. And so, Korach's charge is refuted and rejected.


We have now reached the end of this teaching and discerned its plain meaning, but as is so often the case with the Mei ha-Shiloah, this is not where the learning ends... this is where it begins. We are left to consider the tension between the teleological vision of a more equal Judaism and the hierarchical constructs that define Judaism today. Is there a way that our egalitarian aspirations can help inform our religious practice? Is there a way possible to bridge the two without, as in the case of Korach, jumping the gun? Can this teaching help us in our Avodat Hashem and in developing our own spiritual lives?

One last question before we leave off. Regarding the verse from Proverbs 20:26 brought above -- an obscure verse that is rarely quoted in rabbinic literature -- why did the Ishbitzer choose to hang his discourse on Korach specifically on this unremarkable verse?

The answer is to be found in Numbers, Chapter 17 which is the conclusion of the Korach episode: "And the LORD spoke to Moshe, saying: 'Speak to Elazar the son of Aharon the Kohen, and have him lift up the fire-pans from the inferno, while you
scatter ('z'reh') the fire yonder. For they were sanctified, the fire-pans of these sinners [who paid] with their lives, and make them into hammered sheets to overlay the altar, for they were offered before the LORD and became holy."

The linguistic connection between Proverbs 20:26 and Numbers 17:2 becomes suddenly apparent -- both verses make prominent use of the uncommon verb z.r.h. -- to scatter. But now we see how the Ishbitzer's reading of the second verse informs his reading of the first. The wise King of Proverb scatters the fire of Korach not for its wickedness, but precisely because it has become sanctified. That fire, scattered upon the earth, will smolder until the End of Days, when it will once again blaze as bright as the vision Korach has offered us. A vision that is ultimately and utterly holy.

Shabbat shalom,


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