Torah Study for the Soul:
Selections from Netivot Shalom:  3 NS Lekh Lekha

Peshat | Drash | Remez | Sod

Netivot Shalom


Welcome to the Torah Study for Your Soul, contemplative study of Hasidic texts. This week we continue our study of the contemporary Hasidic text Netivot Shalom, by the Slonimer rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky z"l. We are happy to provide this to you as an introduction to the Institute for Jewish Spirituality Ongoing Text Study Program. You will receive it free through the first five weeks of the Torah reading cycle, after which it will be sent only to those who have subscribed to the program.

To subscribe to Torah Study for Your Soul, paying by credit card or check, please visit our website here. If you have questions about this study program, please contact me at jonathan@ijs-online.org or 914-772-0394.

Each week, the text can be read in this email, or it can also be accessed as a clean Word document by clicking the link at the top of the page. I will present the lessons using the classical PaRDe"S structure in this manner: Peshat will be the translation of the text; Drash will be a commentary, unpacking the core elements of the lesson; Remez will be a series of reflection questions for discussion or personal inquiry; Sod will be additional commentary, expanding on key concepts, and offering suggestions for personal practice and application.
I have prepared an introduction to Netivot Shalom, giving the background of the text and a bit of the history of the Slonim lineage. You can access it here.

You may wish to purchase a copy of Netivot Shalom on the Torah to accompany your study, as we are unable to provide the Hebrew text here (due to copyright protections). You might also wish to purchase the two volumes on the Mo'adim and Middot as well. Here are some links to online sellers where you can purchase book.

I have also had positive experiences purchasing books from Biegeleisen Books in Brooklyn. Their phone number is (718) 436-1165, and you can purchase the books with a credit card.

I look forward to studying with you this year, engaging with R. Shalom Noach as teacher and companion in deepening our spiritual lives. Be well.


Peshat peshat
s.v., bekhah chotmin (pg. 78)

R. Shalom Noach begins his lesson quoting this passage (Pesachim 117b):
R. Shimon b. Lakish said: "I will make you a great nation" (Gen. 12:2): that means that we say, "the God of Abraham" (at the opening of the first blessing of the Amidah); "and I will bless you" (ibid.): this is, "the God of Isaac"; "I will make your name great" (ibid.), this is, "the God of Jacob". You might think that we conclude the blessing with reference to all of them. Scripture concludes: "and be you shall be a blessing": with you (Abraham) do we conclude, but not them. From this he raises the question as to why Abraham is singled out over the other Patriarchs, that the blessing concludes with him, and how it is that "and you shall be a blessing" relates to Abraham in particular. He continues, citing the teaching (Gen.R. 12:9):
"[This is the story of the heaven and earth] when they were created (BeHiBaR'AM)": R. Yehoshua b. Karhah said: BeHiBaR'AM is identical in lettering of BeABRaHaM (through Abraham): i.e. for the sake of Abraham.
Finally, he brings the following midrash (Gen.R. 39:11), which distinguishes Abraham and his personage ever further:
R. Levi said: No man ever priced a cow belonging to Abraham [in order to buy it] without becoming blessed, nor did a man ever price a cow [to sell] to him without his becoming blessed. Abraham used to pray for barren women, and they were remembered [i.e. they conceived]; and on behalf of the sick, and they were healed. R. Huna said: It was not necessary for Abraham to go to the sick person, for when the sick person merely saw him he was relieved. R. Hanina said: Even ships travelling the sea were saved for Abraham's sake.
Text (vyl"b: veyesh litein bei'ur): The blessing given to Abraham actually signifies the quality of Abraham, chesed (love), which is the foundation of the world: "For I said, 'The world shall be built on love (olam chesed yibbaneh)'" (Ps. 89:3); and "Your love, O YHVH, fills the land" (Ps. 119: 64)....With reference to the former verse, the brother of the MaHaRa"L in his book Sefer Hachayyim teaches that the Holy One could have created the world founded on the quality of fear or any of the other middot, but since the Holy One is the source of goodness, and it is that nature of the Good to do good, God founded creation on the quality of chesed and love....
This applies both to the physical and the spiritual realms....The goal of divine service is to fulfill "you shall love YHVH your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might", and to come to love God as the highest degree of serving God. Similarly, the quality of chesed is the foundation for cleaving to God, the goal of Torah study and fulfilling the mitzvot. The Sages taught (Sifre, Ekev 13):
"To walk in His ways and to cleave to Him" (Deut. 11:22): this means to cleave to God's qualities. Just as God is called "Compassionate", so you be compassionate; just as God is "Merciful", so you be merciful; just as God is "Slow to Anger", you be slow to anger.
From this we see that cleaving to God's qualities is through the quality of chesed. Similarly, "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev. 19:18) is a foundational principle of the Torah, and it is connected to the quality of chesed....This is the significance of the verse: "This is the story of the heaven and earth when they were created": the emergence of the heavens and earth is due to the merit of Abraham, the quality of chesed. The "story of the heavens" refers to all spiritual matters, issues of divine service; "the earth" refers to earthy things. All of these matters exist due to the quality of chesed, which is the root of creation and its existence.
In this light we sense the depth in the teaching of our master (R. Moshe) of Kobrin: any day in which we do not perform some act of chesed is a day in which we have not really lived....Our lives - both spiritual and material - are dependent on the extension of God's love to us, and that, in turn, is effectuated through our acts of chesed....Any day that we do not perform some act of chesed we fail to prepare a vessel into which God's chesed can flow to us....
(uvazeh yitba'er): Now we can understand how the conclusion of the verse "and you shall be a blessing" refers particularly to Abraham....The epitome of the quality of chesed is to actually become a blessing. Abraham did not merely engage in acts of chesed, his whole existence and being were love and compassion. In this way he became a source of blessing, such that all who looked at or touched him were blessed. Further, pay close attention to the language of the Sifre: "Just as God is compassionate/merciful so you be compassionate/merciful" - do not only perform acts of compassion and mercy, but transform your whole being into the essence of compassion and mercy.... Now, there are people whose quality of chesed is dependent on the opportunity to do good for someone else, and when there is no such occasion they have no connection to chesed. But, someone whose whole being is chesed is always compassionate and merciful in potential; even if she is not able to help another person, she still feels the other's heart, living in connection to both his joy and pain. This is the significance of the phrase "and you shall be a blessing": become chesed completely, in your essence, not only through enacting it, but let your whole being be chesed....
(vehamashma'ut): The true significance of the quality chesed at Abraham's level is that we devote ourselves completely to serving the other, because that is God's true desire, and not due to any other motivations. This quality of chesed is beyond the natural. The natural quality of chesed that God created is when we act seeking honor, or because something stirs compassion in us. But true the chesed of Abraham is to act solely because God's wants it of us. This love is the foundation from which the world can truly be built.
Drash Drash
In this lesson we witness two aspects of the Slonim tradition: its roots deep in Hasidism, and its inclination toward the Mussar tradition. The former is reflected in the rich, expansive and passionate devotion to love as the ground of all life. R. Miles Krassen has characterized Hasidism as the Jewish "science of love". In our lesson we have an attempt to lay out love as the defining element of Jewish life. The imperative to love is grounded in the two imperatives to love God and to love the other, and one cannot be fulfilled without the other. Spiritual life devoid of concern for the other is truly empty and vapid; interpersonal and social interactions that are not grounded in love of God are unsustainable and ultimately self-serving (and not love).
The inclination toward Mussar is seen in the emphasis on love as a spiritual and personal quality, and the recognition that one needs to work on developing these qualities in one's life. Further, R. Shalom Noach grounds the work of love in the world of the yeshivah. Inter alia (in the paragraph beginning od y"l: od yesh leva'er) he cites Avot 1:2, and associates each of the Patriarchs with one of the pillars on which the world is based: Jacob with Torah, Isaac with divine service and Abraham with acts of chesed. In this, the order of the Patriarchs is reversed relative to Gen. 12:2, yet in that verse Abraham and his quality of chesed comes first. This, R. Shalom Noach argues, indicates that Torah and avodah flow from the ground of chesed. Citing R. Hayyim Vital he teaches: "The good qualities - the first of which is chesed/ love - are the chariot for embracing Torah". Yet, he also notes that our verse concludes with reference to Abraham once again ("with you do we conclude"; "and you shall be a blessing"), which suggests that the ultimate expression of love can only emerge from "purifying ourselves through Torah study and prayer. If, on the one hand, the root of Torah and divine service is in chesed, to attain to that exalted quality of being a blessing is only possible through Torah study and prayer, on the other."
R. Ira Stone is a contemporary teacher and proponent of Mussar, and articulates its key emphasis as "concern for the Other", similar in intention to the theological thought of Emmanel Levinas. We hear that clearly in our lesson: "The true significance of the quality chesed at Abraham's level is that we devote ourselves completely (moser atamo legamrei) to serving the other". This echoes Stone's teaching: our existence as a self, our consciousness of self, comes into being in response to the other. It is the demand for witness, for acknowledgement and for help from the other that brings us into our fullest expression as individuals. In a religious sense, this emerges from the conclusion of the sentence cited previously: we serve the other "because that is God's true desire, and not due to any other motivations". God is that which represents the deepest ground of the "Other". We serve others for that sake - and not to serve ourselves. 
Remez Remez
  1. In your experience of reciting the Amidah, how have you understood the reason that we conclude "only" with Abraham? Has that changed in any way through the inclusion of Sarah in the blessing? What would it mean to you for the blessing to mean that God is the "shield for the quality of Love"?
  2. How do you understand the teaching that love is the "chariot for embracing Torah"? Why might it be that only through love that Torah can full flow into us? Why might it be that Torah study and spiritual practice are necessary to fully develop the quality of love?
  3. Is it your experience that "a day in which we do not perform some act of chesed is a day in which we have not really lived"? When, how, why?
Sod Sod
R. Shalom Noach sets a high bar: to transform ourselves in our essence to love. He is clear that what is required is "herculean", in the sense that it has been accomplished only by our "mythical" heroes, and so may not be attainable. Yet, the obligation to try still rests on us. To do so we are to engage in the spiritual work of loving God and the ethical work of loving our neighbor. We work on the first with everything we have: heart, soul, wealth. In any moment, we can consider: am I seeking my comfort, my desires, my sensibilities over serving God? Each choice against our "natural" inclination could be considered mesirut nephesh, truly giving of our self for God. Similarly, in any moment we can ask: am I seeking my comfort, my desires, my sensibilities over serving the other, my fellow? Each choice we make against our selfish, self-centered, self-oriented inclination for the sake of the other could be another form of mesirut nephesh. This is the route that R. Shalom Noach suggests Abraham took to become the paragon of chesed.
This highest level of chesed one attains through becoming an agent of love in one's very being. It is not a matter of choosing to act with love, nor is it a matter of loving out of choice or character or inclination. Rather, it is living in such a manner that one's heart is open to all with love. R. Shalom Noach does not suggest that Abraham discriminated in his practice of chesed. Every "other" demands and deserves love. When R. Shalom Noach teaches that the highest form of love is to love "because that is God's true desire, and not due to any other motivations", he warns us that our native prejudices and preferences often limit our willingness and capacity to express love. We withhold it from those we do not favor, while showering it on those we do. When love is extended with limits, where it is received dies a little, and the heart that is limited in this manner does as well. That is not true love. It cannot serve as the foundation of creation. If our hearts are to be loving, they must be able to love all. As Sylvia Boorstein teaches: it may be true that there are some people that we must put out of our lives (for our health and wellbeing, or for theirs), but we must not put anyone out of our hearts.
We can practice inclining our hearts to love in this manner. We start by considering the nature of God's middot. They are the modes through which we experience God's presence in the world. For the world to exist through those qualities, they must be universal. Indeed, in the Hasidic mind, God's blessed out-pouring (shefa) is impersonal, unconditional. It flows to one and all without cease. It is how the world exists at all. God's love is that way: unconditional, universal, impersonal. We have all experienced that love, at one time or another, from some one or another: a beloved mentor or teacher, a grandparent or neighbor, parent or friend. We have basked in the sparkling eye that beheld us with love, extending that love to us just because we are - beloved. That is God's love shining through. It is always available. It can never be stopped. We may block it, but we cannot prevent it from reaching its goal: the perfection of creation.
Moreover, this love comes to us as God's love, not as the love of the particular one looking at us. And, when we express that love it is not ours that we are giving. We do not generate it, and it is not dependent on our preferences or prejudices. The middah of love cannot be possessed, only transmitted. When we open to this love in our lives, we are then also able to make it manifest for others, not by "doing" chesed, but by being it.
Our practice: to spend time each day, from moment to moment, allowing that love to reach us, and allowing it to pass through to all of God's creation. We start with our selves. We practice wishing that we, ourselves, might feel loved, safe, happy, strong, at ease. We bump up against all the reasons we have internalized that tell us that we are not deserving of such love, that who we are somehow prevents us from being lovable. And then, we open our hearts once again to allow God's love to shine upon us, and we learn that we are, indeed, loved. When we sense ourselves grounded in this love, we can then turn our hearts towards others: our benefactors (those whose love for us we know, and to whom we can easily reciprocate love); neutral people (those whose existence we know or acknowledge but with whom we have no real relationship, our interactions carry no charge); difficult people (those with whom we sense some contention, with whom we have been in conflict); all beings. This is, perhaps, a life's work. But there is no more important work to do. It is what frees us to act in the face of fear and doubt. It is what moves us to act for others when no one else will. It frees our hearts to embrace the whole world, and the whole of our lives. In the end, we will be all love, not to be seen as loving, not because it is honorable or desirable, but because we cannot be other. We will be love, because God is love.
Thank you Rabbi Jonathan Slater

Thank you for taking time out of your day
to be with us again this week.  I look forward to studying with you this year as we engage with Netivot Shalom, the teachings of R. Shalom Noach Berezovsky z"l, the Slonimer rebbe, as teacher and companion in deepening our spiritual lives.

Be well.