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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  1. Please change G-d back to God as I wrote it. God is ""religious"". G-d is too religious.

  2. Elli, Please message me at Facebook, Betzalel Philip Edwards