Torah Study for the Soul:
Selections from Netivot Shalom:  4 NS Vayera

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, 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., parashat ha'akeidah #3 (pg. 115)
[R. Shalom Noach seeks to work through the questions: why is the Akedah considered the most significant of the tests (when Abraham's life was at risk in Ur); why does Scripture say that only Abraham was tested and not Isaac; why, if Abraham is said to have undergone ten trials (Avot 5:4), is it only here that Scripture reports that "God tested Abraham" (Gen. 22:1)? He dispatches the first question by saying that giving up one's physical life - at least for tzaddikim - is simply exchanging a physical garment for a spiritual one, and so not overly trying. Regarding the second, he argues that the true nature of this test was meeting seeming contradictions in God's word without question. This did not apply to Isaac, as only to Abraham was the promise made "it is through Isaac that offspring will be continued for you" (ibid. 21:12), seemingly contradicted by the new instruction "take now your son etc." (ibid. 22:2). It is here that R. Shalom Noach finds the true nature of Abraham's trial, pointing him to a response to the third question.]
(vezeh limud miparashat hanisiyonot): This is the lesson of all of the trials: the whole of our lives are a series of trials, and the first area of testing has to do with matters of faith. From morning to evening we face trials of faith: the faith in God as Creator, who gives direction to all creation, the force behind all that ever was or will be, and oversees every detail with providential care. So, if we work and make a profit, that is according to God's will, and if we lose money, that too is according to God's will. But, an even more severe test is that we not then question God's measures (harher achar middotav) in the world. Faced with such vicissitudes, questions arise and doubts are aroused, but we are to hold ourselves with the thought: "I will continue in simplicity, knowing that all is according to supernal providence and for my good. According to my particular soul quality I must pass through these troubles". Not to doubt God's measures in these circumstances is truly the greatest trial....

(pg. 116a middle, demilvad she'avraham): We come to a new understanding of the significance of the test of the Akedah, that it alone is called a "trial"....Let alone that Abraham's quality is chesed, and ignore the fact that Isaac was his beloved unique son: if the blessed Holy One had commanded him simply to slaughter some person in the marketplace this would have been a great test for him. How much more difficult must it have been when we are speaking of "your son, your unique one, whom you love"! But, we learn from Rabbenu Nissim that rather than a command, this was a request. The blessed Holy One said to Abraham: "if you wish to bring me pleasure, raise him up as an offering - but this is not a command" - and this was the greatest trial! For Abraham, even the greatest test would be as nothing were God to command it. The essence of this trial is the absence of a command. Abraham was asked to raise his "son", his "unique one", whom he "loved", "Isaac" up as an offering, and each of these reflects a different aspect of the trial. "Your son": the greatest love in the world is a parent for their child; "unique one": Isaac represented all of Abraham's life's dreams, and his future; "love": in the literature we learn that when God said to Abraham "whom you love", he was filled with all of the love in the world in his love for Isaac; "Isaac": unique in his generation. Abraham was asked to give up all of this without it being a command, but only to bring God pleasure. This is the profound nature of the test that of it alone does Scripture say: "God tested Abraham".
We hold the principle that the Torah does not just tell stories. Every chapter and event in Scripture instruct us in the manner to follow the ways of God. The stories of the Ten Trials teach us God's ways in the trials we face in our lives. The Torah emphasizes the last test - the Akedah - to teach us that the essential test we face has to do with those matters that are merely "permitted", those that are neither commanded, and about which there is no prohibition. These activities are solely to bring God pleasure. Fear of punishment will surely keep us from trespassing a prohibition. But the real test arises when God does not command us. If we do not fulfill what is asked, we will not commit a sin; we still will be considered a mitzvah observant Jew. But, we will not bring pleasure to God....This is the greatest test we will face: God does not command us to act, but makes known that this is what God wants....when we give up our desires in this world regarding that which is permitted, solely because we know that this is what God wants and that it will bring God pleasure. The most important thing is to do so with a full heart, and not by rote or habit. When we do so - giving over our permitted desires to God - we raise ourselves us in every aspect of our lives, and attain complete perfection in our lives.
Scripture says: "YHVH will inscribe in the register of peoples (yispor bekhetov ammim) [that each was born there]" (Ps. 87:6), and the sacred books interpret "the register of peoples" to mean how numbers are written. One might inscribe any quantity of zeroes, but it will not represent any value. But, if one were to place even a single digit before them, that numeral will transform all of those zeroes into a great sum. In that manner, "God accounts the numbers of the people": if we perform even one act for God's glory, pure, without any self-concern, this will raise up all of our other deeds performed by rote and habit. Our Master of Kobrin said before he died: "If I knew that I said even one word before God fittingly, I would not worry", and we should understand it in this light.
Drash Drash
We must begin directly and honestly: there are aspects of this teaching that are completely unacceptable, and incomprehensible. In thinking about God, about God's relationship to Abraham, it is hard enough to imagine that God might command Isaac's sacrifice. But, it is revolting to think that God might hint, in passing: "If you wish to please me you might offer him up as an offering". It is repulsive to hear - today - a Jew suggest that Abraham would have considered it possible (even if difficult, trying) to go out and murder anyone at God's behest. It is impossible to receive a teaching about following God's will, heeding God's simple desire, and taking another life. If there is any passage that suggests how Jews might justify religious murder - Jewish jihadi killing - it would be this one.
Yet, it is Torah, and like all other passages of Torah we must study it, difficult though it may be. Once we have overcome our shock and revulsion, we can come to see that the point R. Shalom Noach is making does not have to do with murder or killing, but with inner awareness. He does not hold up the specifics of the Akedah to be expected by anyone else. We are not to anticipate that God will ask of us that we murder, even for God's sake, even to "raise up" another spiritually. Rather, he strives to make the point - out of the narrative of the Akedah - that our greatest trials arise in moments of ambiguity. When our choices are clear - obligatory or prohibited - we know what to do, knowing at least that our refusal to obey is "sinful". But, when there is no definitive command to guide us, we are most at sea, open to the pushes and pulls of our needs and desires, our prejudices and preferences. It is in these moments that we are most likely to fail in our lives, and not even to know it.

That it is the issue of inner intent (and perhaps not so much the aspect of "faith" as R. Shalom Noach emphasizes) becomes evident when we look at some of the sources behind our lesson. First is that which suggests that Abraham did not doubt God's measures in the world. In the original, this is not quite the point: J Ta'anit 4:2 (10b):
Halachah 4/Mishnah: For the first (additional prayer added to the Shemoneh Esreh on a fast day, whose subject is "recollection/zichronot") the reader says: "May the One Who answered Father Abraham on Mt. Moriah answer you, hearing the sound of your cries on this day. Praised are You, God, Redeemer of Israel".
Gemara: We recite this to argue that just as Isaac was redeemed, so may all Israel be redeemed. R. Bibi Abba taught in the name of R. Yochanan: Abraham said to the blessed Holy One, "Master of the Universe, it is revealed and known to You that when You said to me to raise up my son Isaac, I could have responded to You saying: 'Yesterday You said to me, "it is through Isaac that offspring will be continued for you", but now You say to "raise him up as an offering"!? But, heaven forbid that I should have done so. Instead, I subdued my inclination and fulfilled Your will. So may it be Your will, Adonai my God, that when the descendants of my son Isaac undergo some distress, and they have no one to argue in their favor, You will argue in their favor".
Abraham was quite aware, apparently, that God's new instruction contradicted God's earlier words, and apparently he did question this. Yet, he did not speak his mind or contravene the instructions, and it is only now, after Isaac was spared, that he can speak to God of his inner thoughts. Perhaps Abraham had faith that God would protect and save Isaac (fulfilling God's earlier promise). Still, it would seem that Abraham did not act without any self-concern, and perhaps even with doubt. He realized that in fulfilling God's will without question he gained "credit" (as it were), and so some power over God.
R. Shalom Noach cites Rabbenu Nissim's teaching (Drashot #6), and represents the thrust of the latter's argument, but he reshapes it for his purposes. In the original, the central issue is intention (kavvanah), which only God can know, and not faith. It may be that the outcome is similar, but it is helpful to see the original to sense the subtle differences.
This is the mistake of the masses, and this extends then to everything they do. When the masses see good and pious people engaged in matters of this world (as we do the Patriarchs, who made their livelihoods in farming and herding), they say to themselves: "I see the pious in all their piety still engaged in matters of this world, so let me do the same". Woe to those who see and do not know what they see! They see only the externals and not what is going on inside. The righteous do everything for the highest good, as it should be done, while what everyone else does is good for nothing....
The mitzvot and all other matters are the same for both the pious and the masses -  they all do the same thing. However, all that the pious do is completely an act of devotion, with pure intention. The others may also perform devotional acts, but they are not complete, because intention is key....
Now, regarding both mitzvot and transgressions intention is key. Therefore, two people can perform the same act equally, but the reward for one will be infinitely greater. One of the two will act without intention, being satisfied to say: "Even if this has no positive effect, it still will not hurt". But, the other will act with complete intention. This is suggested in the verse (Is. 10:20): "And in that day, the remnant of Israel and the escaped of the House of Jacob shall lean no more upon him that beats it, but shall lean sincerely on YHVH, the Holy One of Israel". The one who leans sincerely on God, in the end, must become fully immersed in serving God, and the further the act is from one's natural inclination reveals how much one rests on God in truth. The greatest act, the one farthest from natural inclination, is that of Abraham in binding Isaac. No punishment would have applied if he had not done so, for God had not so commanded him. Rather, God had promised "It is through Isaac that offspring will be continued for you", but then Scripture says, "Please, take your son (kach na)" which is not a form of command, but a request. God made it known that it God would appreciate it if Abraham would waive (yimchol) God's promise and instead bind his son. Now, Abraham did not reply "But You have granted me no offspring" (Gen. 15:3) but this one whom You have promised me - how should I then do so!? It would not have been accounted unworthy, and no punishment would have come to him had he done so. Nevertheless, out his love for God, he found it in his heart to bind his son to fulfill God's desire alone. This is the mystery of the Akedah.
Again, R. Shalom Noach picks up the thrust of the argument, but skews it toward faith rather than intention. True, the intention to which Rabbenu Nissim points is pleasing God, but his concern is to show how what is perceived on the surface cannot define the inner quality of the act and intention. Indeed, he concludes his passage by citing the text above from J. Ta'anit 4:2 (10b), including Abraham's apparent inner qualms about God's request.
We conclude as we began: the assumptions of both R. Shalom Noach and Rabbenu Nissim are unbearable - and unacceptable. However, having investigated them we may yet uncover useful teachings.
Remez Remez
  1. How, if at all, have you found that "faith" helps you to live in a balanced manner in the face of contradictions and inconsistencies that suggest "there is no justice and there is no Judge"?
  2. When do you feel you need to hold on to faith more: when you experience success and wellbeing, or when you face failure or frustration? Why do you think that is so?
  3. For R. Shalom Noach, Abraham is the exemplar of "simple faith". Can you imagine anyone attaining such faith in the 21st century? What are the conditions that might support it? What might impede it? What might be its benefits? Its downsides?
Sod Sod
You may recall a childhood distinction between "Hebrew school" and "regular school". The implication was that whatever happened in the former was not "regular". To be Jewish, to live a Jewish life, was to do something extraordinary, different, special. And, to a certain extent, that has always been the case. Jewish religious activities help us to sanctify ourselves, and distinguish ourselves, as a people and as people. In that, the specific activities that are identifiably "Jewish", that are not "regular", have become identified with "being Jewish": prayer, holiday observance, life-cycle observance, issues of personal status, dietary practice and the like. (While Jews have rightly claimed their commitment to social as a distinguishing feature of Jewish life, the enactment of this commitment is no different from that of gentiles.) Much of life, then, falls in the realm of the "regular", when "being Jewish" does not apply. These times may seem spiritually neutral, unaddressed by religious practice or concern.
Of course, there is much in the realm of the "regular" that actually is addressed by Jewish law and tradition. But, even then much of our daily affairs are comprised of actions that are neither obligatory nor prohibited, constituting the realm of the merely "permitted". Since this realm is not addressed directly by the "commandments", it is generally ignored. Yet it, like "regular" time, constitutes large portions of our lives. R. Shalom Noach - as most Jewish spiritual teachers - reminds us that this "neutral" realm must not be ignored; it is the dimension in which we can most profoundly make our lives holy. It is in dedicating all of our lives, even our "regular" times, to spiritual awareness and action that we become most fully awake as spiritual beings.
Mindfulness meditation helps us to become sensitive to this realm. In meditation we bring our attention to the arising and passing of all phenomena. When we seek to hold our attention steady in the breath, we become aware of the racing of our minds, the myriad thoughts and impulses that arise from moment to moment. As these seeming distractions arise, we confront a conflict: should we follow the thought or idea that seems to important, so attractive in the moment, or remain with the breath? When we experience discomfort while sitting, we are faced with the challenge: should we move to ease our sensitivity, or patiently remain with it to observe it as a passing phenomenon? When sitting with ease and calmness of spirit, we need to pay attention, lest we be lulled into thinking that we deserve this bliss, that it can be permanent, that it is what meditation is all about. And, beyond all of this, we risk viewing only time in meditation as worthy of attention, and forget that we engage in the practice to become mindful at ALL times. We are confronted in these tensions with a false dichotomy between "sacred" and "regular" time, between the regulated and the "permitted" time.
The goal of meditation is to train the mind to pay attention to what is in the moment, not to have any particular sort of experience. When we are able to perceive what is happening in the moment without prejudice, without interpretation, and without grasping or rejecting its truth, we open to insight. We realize that all experience is unsatisfying: it always changes, and it is always dependent on other phenomena for its existence. Yet, so often we engage in spiritual practice - be it Jewish tradition or mindfulness meditation - because we are looking for entertainment. We are looking for our lives to be happy, filled with positive, meaningful experience. We pay our dues for this in the "special" times (Holy Days, in meditation, on retreat), expecting that in our "regular" times we will filled with blessing, too. Yet, this does not work. Holiness experienced in holy times does not fully transfer. It must be sought and developed in the "regular" times as well. Mindfulness cannot be gained and held as a possession. It must be brought into existence in each moment.
R. Shalom Noach's focus on the realm of the permitted reminds us that there is no time or place that is outside the realm of spiritual practice, that does not demand mindful attention. We may desire to ease back into a bubble-bath, to settle in with a good book or movie, to have some "down time". Yet, even in the bath, while engrossed in our entertainment, even when doing "nothing", we are still called upon to be aware, to wake up to the fact that we are alive, that we are interconnected with all of life, and that nothing we do comes to us without implications, without obligations. While no specific mitzvah may apply in these moments, we are not disconnected from the conditions that bring suffering, independent of the acts of all others, outside of the realm of existence. We are implicated, we are obligated, we are responsible, even then. There is no "time off" from awareness. The more that we bring our attention to bear on each moment, particularly those "regular" moments outside of ritual, outside of formally defined relationships, the more we will find holiness in what is, as it is. We will recognize when we are acting to protect our own feelings, feed our egos, avoid difficult experiences. We will find willingness to devote our energies to being with what is difficult, for the sake of bringing greater ease to suffering (our own and others'). We will thus be able to turn toward whatever is true right now, even against our natural inclination, to do what is called for to benefit all beings, to become truly holy. 
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.