Archive for the ‘Let My People Know’ Category

“The constancy of a struggle to overcome the contradiction”

Tuesday, December 17th, 2013
The essence of spirituality cannot be localized in either the wisdom of the intellect or the simplicity of the heart, being beyond all these.

It can, however, be reached by the constancy of a struggle to overcome the contradiction. 

Indeed, the contradiction itself offers a passage from one world to another. 

As one transfers attention from the inwardness of prayer and yearning for the Divine to the outwardness of reason, study, and correct action, one becomes aware of the divine order of things, that everything has its proper place, measure, and time. 

Indeed, the Jewish scriptures are full of this contradiction–as sharply emphasizing of the most minute detail as they are sublimely aware of the highest and most all-embracing truths; as ready to question everything as to accept without question. 

The Holy One is discovered to be beyond all this.

He is immanent and flows within life, in the passage from one world to another, from one way of doing things to another, from one right measure of existence to the whole world of forms. 

Thus the possibilities of relating and responding to God are countless in number. 

There is no above or below in approaching Him, no preference between mind or feeling. 

On the contrary, in moving up and back from one such realm of experience to the other, its apparent opposite in life, one reaches a rhythm of being which is the life of holiness. 

–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
From The Thirteen Petalled Rose by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

“The excellence of a quality is determined by its proportion”

Monday, December 16th, 2013
In Hebrew good attributes are called "good measures," which suggests that the excellence of a quality is determined by its proportion, not by its being what it is in itself, but by its properly related use in particular circumstances. 

Everything that is not in the right measure, that relates out of proportion to a situation, tends to be bad.

The good is thus that which is contained within proper limits, and the bad, that which breaks out and goes beyond these limits.

And it does not matter whether this exceeding of boundaries is positive or negative, restrictive or excessive, whether refusal of affection or even generosity in love. 

And, in fact, this need for balance is true of every living organism.

Each cell in the organism has a certain form and a fixed rate of growth.

And whenever its form is distorted or its growth exceeds what it should be, the result is pathology. 

The evil in the world is just such a bursting of bounds, that which allows for the existence of parasitic and injurious factors. 

–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
From The Thirteen Petalled Rose by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

“Torah does not really limit the activities of an individual in any field of endeavor”

Sunday, December 15th, 2013

Since the Torah is the blueprint of the world, it regulates the whole and cannot be confined to any particular part. 

True, its directives are not all on the same level of practicality; nevertheless, its instructions and guidelines and modes of relating are valid for all situations in life. 
The more one becomes identified with the Torah, the more does its significance expand beyond particular circumstance. 

Rather than constituting itself an ideal for the monastic life, say, or a guide or for any other sort of separation from the reality of the world, Torah works in precisely the opposite fashion, introducing more content and meaning into the trivial details of the life of the world. 

One finds the Torah significant in every aspect of community, commerce, agriculture, and industry, in the life of feeling and love, in relations between the sexes–down to the most minute aspects of living, like buttoning one's shoes or lying down to sleep. 

What is surprising is that with the great quantity and range of its laws, what to do and what not to do, Torah still does not really limit the activities of an individual in any field of endeavor. 

That is to say, there is no field of action or thought which, in principle, the Torah repudiates. 

The Law, in general and in detail, theoretically and practically, mostly adds detail to action, qualifies modes of behavior, imposes new modes, directs the conduct of one's daily business from waking to sleeping-the supposition being that if all these actions are properly defined and prepared, then the guidance of the Law need not and does not change their essence, but adds a quality to them. 

–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
From The Thirteen Petalled Rose by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

“The secret of Creation”

Friday, December 13th, 2013
The material world is not inferior, matter in itself is not lower or worse, and in a sense the physical world may even be considered the height of Creation. 

It is the marvel of Creation for the paradoxical reason that the very existence of matter is a condition that seems to obscure the Divine, and thus could only be the result of a special intention on the part of the Infinite. 

Matter is a sort of standing wave between the manifestation of God and the hiddenness of God; it is defined by its limitations. 

To retain its separate and independent existence, infinite force has to be exerted on every particle. 

Hence, every human action that disposes matter in the direction of holiness has a qualitative significance far beyond anything like it in the world of spirituality. 

What is more, since the world of matter constitutes the focal point of all the other worlds, every movement, every slightest budge of things in the rigid realm of matter has an effect beyond any similar motion in the realm of the spirit and even in realms above the spirit. 

And thus the mitzvah, the law of the Torah which deals so much with matter–with the effort to exert influence on the physical world, to change it, to divert it toward holiness, even though matter itself seems to be so limited and restricted–is intended to release vast forces in all the worlds and to create waves of movement rising from our world to higher worlds without end. 

Which is why it may be said that a genuine holy action of any kind performed in the domain of matter, the raw material of substance, has far greater possible meaning than anything performed only in an intermediate domain of thought or emotion. 

For the Torah and the mitzvot concerned with the physical world relate to this world as though it were the secret of Creation, the essence of the fulfillment of the divine idea. 

–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
From The Thirteen Petalled Rose by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

“A witness is one upon whose testimony we can rely”

Thursday, December 12th, 2013
Most of what men "know" is not necessarily personally attained knowledge.

It is built on the testimony of others, on authorities, books, and the like. 

As in a court of law when a person has to give testimony and is asked to tell only what he, himself, has witnessed, it often turns out that he really knows very little, that most of his knowledge is supposition or hearsay or just guesswork based on fragmentary information. 

Thus, when speaking of real knowledge, it is important to recognize that it is a gradually growing thing, a combination of direct personal experience and of that which comes from critical reading and study as well as hearsay and the word of authority. 

A witness is one upon whose testimony we can rely.

He has knowledge that combines the certainty of direct experience with substantiated learning.

As an example of such witnessing, let us take a simple phenomenon in nature familiar to all, the ordinary iron magnet. 

We may be totally unable to grasp the meaning of it, and to hear about it second hand–of one thing pulling another by some mysterious unseen cord or psychic influence–may lead to odd distortion of images. 

But once the little magnet is seen for what it is, and we observe the way it attracts or repels, the mystery is resolved. 

We may not understand more, but we can bear witness that such a thing exists. 

So, too, is it maintained that Israel bears witness. 

The Jews can enter into Jerusalem below and know its many-sided beauty. 

And although no one can go to the Jerusalem above and report back on its glory, the tribes of Israel are said to be reliable witnesses, for they have knowledge from their direct experience of the lower Jerusalem.

–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz 
From "Sanctity and Restraint" in The Candle of God by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

“The need for friction and conflict”

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013
At the olive press, the hard and bitter olives are partially crushed in order to extract the oil and to sweeten the fruit. 

So, too, it is written, the body of man has to undergo a certain amount of pressure and adversity to enable the inner self to emerge. 

But where is this self? 

In the description of the menorah in scriptural texts, there are two olives, little hollow bulbs, one to the right and the other to the left of the stem, and these provide the oil for the lamps. 

The right and the left, grace and severity, the two aspects of man, struggle against each other.

They represent the need for friction and conflict as a part of the purification process. 
It represents the refinement of the self that comes from adversity, when man cries out "Have mercy on me, Thou who art all merciful."

The man who is satisfied with himself and seeks no Divine help is perhaps more comfortable, but he will, in all likelihood, be unable to comprehend the contradictory synthesis of love and fear of God. 

It is this knowledge of love and fear that humbles the heart and makes the soul a vessel for the holy oil that lights the lamp. 

–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
From "Implications of the Menorah" in The Candle of God by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

“Like a living organism”

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

There are certainly many reasons for the lasting existence of the Jewish religion. 

In a certain sense, it is one of the riddles, or permanent secrets, of the reality of things. 

As the philosopher Kant is believed to have said: 

There are two proofs of the existence of God. One is the stars in the sky; the other is the existence of the Jewish people. 

One may discern that there is a secret here, a hint of the dialectic interrelation between tradition and historic reality, because when tradition is all-embracing, beyond the influence of time and place, it becomes that in which reality is contained. 

If and when a collision does occur between tradition and unanticipated aspects of changing realities, the individual person will reach out to find in his tradition those elements of coherence and certainty that are relevant to the new situation, whether it be a material or spiritual challenge. 

And the Jew has known a great number of such challenging confrontations: exile, servitude, harsh decrees, antagonistic opposing philosophies, and oppressive circumstances. 

His return to tradition has taken many forms; it was never the mechanical restoration of a fixed structure. 

The tradition itself adjusted to the new situation. 

New responses were elicited. 

This is because the Jewish tradition is not an inert inheritance. It is like a living organism able to react and respond to a variety of changing circumstances. 

–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
From a conversation published in Parabola.

“Since the sixteenth century there has been a consensus”

Monday, December 9th, 2013
There was never a separation of any real consequence between the daily obligations and open practice of Judaism and the esoteric or mystical aspects of the tradition. 

They have always been connected. 

They are simply different aspects of the same thing. 

In the Middle Ages many scholars leaned almost entirely on the writings of Maimonides and pointed to his Thirteen Articles of Faith as the supreme theological authority. 

But even in those times there was more than one approach to theology. 

For example, we also have the more mystical approach of Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (the Ramban). 

But since there was no central authority to define a consensus of opinion, the differences—which, as intimated, were never as polarized as modern thinkers believe—were allowed to flourish. 

It is only since the sixteenth century that there has been a consensus accepted by almost every Jew. 

If there is a normative Jewish theology, it is the integration of the two (never really separate) approaches—the Kabbalah of the Ari and the Shulhan Arukh of Rabbi Joseph Caro. 

–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
From The Strife of the Spirit by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

“The common view about mysticism and Kabbalah being a different world from the Talmud is a misconception”

Sunday, December 8th, 2013
Customarily, we speak of the different ways of dealing with Torah, from the explicit to the implicit, from peshat (literal meaning) to derash (exegesis), to remez (hint), to sod (secret or esoteric truth). 

All these simply address the same words of Scripture in four different languages, all of which have the same meaning. 

One of the methods of study is to gain an understanding of the way these languages change from one form of expression to another, how they change from saying something in poetic terms to those of a story, a commandment, and a kabbalistic idea. 

Consequently, the common view about mysticism and Kabbalah being a different world from the Talmud is a misconception of the organic unity of the whole. 

The Kabbalah and the Talmud are different forms of expression, each following its own point of departure.  

–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From "Mysticism in the Jewish Tradition" in On Being Free by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

“The same single purpose of all our actions”

Friday, December 6th, 2013
All the parts of the Torah are essential. 

They are not just complementary or supportive of each other.

They also use different means, different languages, to say the same thing, whether it is Halakhah or Kabbalah, Mishnah or Zohar

For example, the prayer book has this formula for performing a mitzvah: "To unite the Holy One, blessed be He, and the Shekhinah." 

This is a kabbalistic formula. 

And it signifies that this union of Divine manifestation is the same single purpose of all our actions, no matter which of the mitzvot are involved. 

The scope of the Torah is always beyond any of its parts. 

It is always the same and it is possible to approach it, to view it, from many different angles. 

–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
From "Mysticism in the Jewish Tradition" in On Being Free by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

“It is possible to rewrite all of history”

Thursday, December 5th, 2013
The concept of repentance is a recognition of the possibility of crossing the frontier, eluding the rigid consequences, and moving to a domain beyond that of cause and effect, sin and consequences. 

The deeper the sin, the more powerful the repentance needed to correct it. 

In this world beyond, it is possible to rewrite all of history. 

The act of repentance is the rewriting of one's past life. 

He who fully repents judges his past deeds and even transforms his iniquities into virtues. 

–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
From "The Inwardness of Evil" in In the Beginning by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

“A poetess whose task was to articulate and summarize a historical experience or to arouse the nation to cope with a present or forthcoming challenge”

Wednesday, December 4th, 2013
It is said in the Bible that Miriam and Aaron were prophets in their own right: that is, their vision was not dependent on that of Moses. 

It becomes apparent, too, that Miriam was the leader-prophet of the women of Israel, while Aaron was the leader of the men. 

This is evident even after the crossing of the Red Sea, following the great song (Exodus 15) which Moses sang in honor of all Israel, and Miriam separately organized the women in response, with "timbrels and with dances" (Exodus 15:20). 

The role of a women's chorus is a common phenomenon in Middle Eastern culture and may be of even greater antiquity than the male chorus. 

As in the Song of Deborah, the singing of women, usually accompanied by timbrels and dancing, gave expression to war, battle, and miracle. 

Frequently the song was led by a solo singer, who would compose the litany as she went along. 

The singer was, therefore, first and foremost a poetess whose task was to articulate and summarize a historical experience or to arouse the nation to cope with a present or forthcoming challenge.

–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
From Biblical Images by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

“One’s faith is not nourished by the mind”

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013
God, being infinite, cannot be grasped by the mind, and whatever is grasped by the mind is certainly not God. 

What the mind can experience, however, is Wisdom, that Sefirah which is not yet given to understanding. 

And it is in Wisdom that the light of the Infinite is vested. 

There is an anecdote which, however crude, expresses an aspect of this idea. 

When the Rabbi of Kotzk was asked "to explain why God did this or that, he answered in his own blunt fashion: "A God whom any stinking human can understand is not worth worshiping." 

In other words, if reason is satisfied concerning the Divine, it has not attained anything consequential. 

Nevertheless, there is a higher, if hidden, grasping of the Divine, which is given to every person to understand, even the unlearned. 

This is expressed in a faith that is itself enlightenment. 

In Proverbs 14:15, we find: "The simple (man) believeth everything, but the prudent man understandeth." 

Faith is, thus, not a matter of simple believing but of that special quality which goes beyond the mind, which is of wisdom–that is to say, it is an experience directly connected with the Divine and not with knowing this or that about Him. 

Therefore, the fact that a person is unlearned or even lacking in intellectual capacity makes no difference. 

One's faith is not nourished by the mind but by wisdom of the soul; so that faith is available to all men, irrespective of their mental abilities. 

–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
From "On Faith and Maryrdom" in The Long Shorter Way by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

“One of the highest paradoxes”

Monday, December 2nd, 2013

The Maharal of Prague (Rabbi Judah Loew) was the first to define, in clear terms, what I consider to be one of the highest paradoxes. 

He said something like this: 

"Something that is really transcendental, which is beyond any limit, cannot be limited even to the point of being something abstract." 

There is a biblical saying that also relates to this. 

"The Lord is higher above the nations, on heaven is His glory." 

That is my translation, a very bad one. I'm sure the King James does it better.

Now the second verse is "The one who is sitting higher up, that looks down on heaven and earth." 

The interpretation of this saying is something like this: 

The nations do believe that the Lord is transcendental; He is in heaven.

We believe He is even higher up, therefore He looks down at heaven and earth. 

Even heaven, even the abstract, even what we call and understand as the infinite is really a kind of putting borders, order, and limits. 

When we say that He is even higher up, then the difference between heaven and earth disappears.

One of the basic explanations for the Jewish preoccupation with material things comes from the idea that the spiritual is not more important and nearer to the divine than the material. 

To the Ain Sof, a galaxy is not greater than, say, a virus. 

If the Lord cares for the galaxy, he cares also for what the virus will do in the next moment. 

–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
From "The Private Gate" in The Strife of the Spirit by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

“Torah is not an intellectual exercise”

Sunday, December 1st, 2013

Engagement in any part of the Torah draws unto oneself the Divine splendor. 

This brings us to the question of quantity–of observing anyone part against observing the whole, and the problem of doing a kindness as opposed to studying Torah. 

One person will maintain that he can do no more than devote himself to intellectual pursuits of Torah.

Another is busy with good deeds. 

To this the Talmud answers that for such persons, it would be better had they not been born, because any separation of a single mitzvah from the totality of Divine worship separates it from holiness and causes a cleavage in the person. 

An act of sanctity is meaningful only within a framework that is holy. 

When one is so wholly occupied with one thing that one criminally neglects another, one is losing touch with the essential, and that which occupies one becomes an intellectual game. 

There is a story told in the Jerusalem Talmud of Rabbi Avihu, who lived in Caesarea and had sent his son to study in Tiberias with the great teachers. 

Upon meeting someone from Tiberias, Rabbi Avihu asked what his son was doing. 

The other told him that the young man was occupied with deeds of kindness, especially with burying the dead. 

Rabbi Avihu said that this was indeed a great mitzvah for which few volunteered.

But when he came home, he wrote a letter to his son saying: “Are there not enough dead in Caesarea that I sent you to Tiberias?"

The point here is that when there are others who can perform a necessary task, one is free of the obligation to perform it. 

On the other hand, there is another Talmud passage that lists the priorities of mitzvot, those which can be abrogated in the urgency of another: 

Work is abrogated before Talmud Torah, Talmud Torah before burying the dead, and so forth. 

Certain mitzvot take precedence or are considered more important than others. 

The essential point is that, although every mitzvah is its own joy, the study of Torah is that special joy of direct contact, the relationship of union with the Divine. 

True, every mitzvah contains the possibility of such union with God; as it was said, when a person gives charity, he is acting as the hand of God. 

And this goes beyond the joys of contemplation and meditation. 

But Torah is a level of joy that is more open and vulnerable to the soul. 

When one is occupied with Torah, one is calling upon God, even though there is no apparent emotional involvement. 

It is more like a spontaneous exclamation, unconsidered and genuine, and a true expression of something with which a person may not even be totally identified, but which exists, nonetheless, in his essence. 

It is like crying out, "Father, father!" or like the saying, "All ye who are thirsty, come and drink!" and there is no water but Torah. 

The thirst is the thirst for God, and only Torah will quench it. 

It is like saying I do not desire a great abundance of experience, but I desire to come closer to the source, and for that I need to get to water. 

What is being expressed here is the idea that the Torah is not an intellectual exercise.

It is the word of God, and it is the way to approach Him. 

–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
From "On the Essence of Torah Study" in The Long Shorter Way by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

“The darkness is squeezed until light comes out of it”

Friday, November 29th, 2013


The negative commandments are simply injunctions against particular actions, instructions to refrain from doing. 

The positive mitzvot, which are actually considered to be on a lower level, are defined in straightforward, clear terms. 

It appears that precisely because of their superiority, the negative mitzvot cannot be so plainly defined. 

We do not have the means to understand them properly and cannot be quite so explicit. 

We can however reach them by a negative route, through a process of elimination-by knowing what is prohibited. 

This definition through negation is of course very partial and unsatisfactory. 

It offers no more than a general concept of what the situation requires.

It provides the framework without which action is either possible or impossible. 

But altogether, a positive definition is often unavailable and a negative definition is often more feasible as, for example, when trying to define a state of war or peace (peace is when there is no war and visa versa). 

And there are qualifications that are certainly positive but we do not quite know exactly what they mean, such as eternity, and the like. 

The negative definition may thus prove an advantage in many cases. 

What we are given as a negative mitzvah is a statement of boundaries within which we can or cannot act.

It does not provide anything that we can be absolutely sure of. 

Just as in the biblical phrase describing the wilderness as a land not sown (Jeremiah 2:2), what is implied is not a negative action but a statement to the effect that the land was sown with nothing. 

This follows the pattern of Creation, that in the beginning there was darkness and then light, that chaos precedes form. 

It is the concept maintaining that there has to be a compression, an abatement of infinitude, a tzimtzum, for anything to exist–that light is a contraction of darkness.
It's as though the darkness is squeezed until light comes out of it. 

Creation precedes formation. 

In our daily prayers, we say: (He who) forms light and creates darkness. 

Light is one of the formations that comes out of the dark, just as a potter shapes a particular form (light) out of the amorphous clay, which is darkness.

–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz 
From "The Way of the Soul and Torah" in The Candle of God by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

“Thankful for Thanksgiving”

Thursday, November 28th, 2013
The Almighty does not "need" our thanksgiving. 

It is we who benefit from feeling and expressing it. 

Our Jewish liturgy contains a seldom-noticed prayer, hidden within a prayer, which acknowledges this. 

The phrase appears at a high point in the service, yet it is said to oneself: "We thank You for inspiring us to thank You." 

This goes well beyond being thankful for our objective gifts. 

It is a recognition that even the ability to know that we should be grateful is a gift from God and worthy of thanks. 

–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz 
From an essay, "Thankful for Thanksgiving," Nov, 2002, by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

“Very few people can do without prayer”

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013
Belief is not a simple mental procedure for anyone, and certainly not for the genuinely religious individual. 

A certain tzadik (righteous person) used to say that the opening words of the Thirteen Articles of Faith, "I believe with complete faith," are not a declaration but a prayer, the prayer for the attainment of complete faith. 

If a person can really shake off the mountains of dust of accumulated opinions and actions, and truly examine himself inwardly, he will find there the spark of faith that was never really extinguished.

Among those who say they have never prayed at all in their lives, there are not a few who regularly speak words of prayer at all sorts of occasions, not necessarily in the synagogue or at the set times for prayer. 

There is prayer of thanksgiving for the good and the beautiful.

And prayer of supplication in an hour of distress and great need.

There are those who pronounce the words of prayer with their lips.

And those who think them in their hearts. 

Only very few people can do without prayer at all. 

–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
From "Modern Man and His Prayer" in The Strife of the Spirit by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

“God restricts His infinite light”

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013
In the process by which God creates and sustains the entire system of the worlds, God restricts His infinite light through a graduated series of limitations and concealments that are known as tzimtzumim ("contractions"). 

The result is a graduated series of worlds, or levels of reality and perception, in which each lower world is characterized by a greater concealment of Godliness. 

The term for this process is derived from the word shalshelet ("chain"), suggesting that the worlds are connected like the links of a chain. 

The interconnection of the worlds is comparable, in the individual, to the interconnection between the realms of intellect, emotion, thought, speech, and action. 

–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
In Opening the Tanya by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

“The desire for elevation”

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013
In the Tabernacle in the desert, and later in the Temple in Jerusalem, the golden lamp stand was destined, according to the biblical phrase, to "burn from evening to morning before the Lord.”(Exodus 27:20.) 

Fire and light have always symbolized the desire for elevation and a return to the supreme source that in Jewish thought is inscribed, and sometimes buried, in the world and in the individual. 

–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From The Seven Lights by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz