Torah Study for the Soul:
Selections from Netivot Shalom:  5 NS Chayye Sarah

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. This is the last week that you will receive this mailing gratis. Please do use the links below to subscribe to the program so that you will receive all of the rest of the teachings through the year.

To subscribe to Torah Study for Your Soul, 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. matai yagi'u ma'asai lema'asei avotai (pg. 150)
"Each and every Jew must say: When will my deeds reach those of my ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?" (Tanna devei Eliyahu 25)
(vap"z: v'al pi zeh yesh leva'er): This teaching prompts the question: How could anyone think that they could attain to the deeds of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? The sages softened this slightly, suggesting that "reach (yagi'u)" actually means "connect with (negi'a)": we hope to have some small relationship to the deeds of the Patriarchs. Still, even this is very difficult to attain. Nevertheless, the Torah records all of the stories of the Patriarch as instruction, and this itself give us the power to attain to their deeds. Like other aspects in the Torah that seem beyond human attainment (such as "love YHVH your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might"), the fact that the Torah commands them signifies that power is also given to us from Heaven to accomplish them....
(vehaderekh lehagi'a lekakh): The means to attain this is that we "must say: etc." The obligation to "say" signifies setting an intention. When we have faith that it is in our power to attain to the deeds of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, then we also have the aspiration for our deeds to connect with theirs, and we will not cease in our efforts. Think of it this way: someone who has acquired little and whose only ambition is dry bread and a drop of water each day, realizes that to attain it does not require much effort, and so does not apply himself - and so attains nothing. But, someone with great ambitions, who desires great wealth, knows that she must work hard and apply herself to attain it. She does not rest, working instead with all her powers. This is what it means that "every Jew must say etc.": we must have great aspirations, and we must work hard and put effort into attaining them.
Further, let us clarify how our "deeds" can reach those of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The term "deeds (ma'asai)" signifies simple acts, those activities of daily life that do not fall in the categories of obligations or prohibitions. Consider: "You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt ... or of the land of Canaan" (Lev. 18:3) warns us not to copy their practices. What is the import of this verse, when those specific prohibitions are detailed in the rest of the chapter? Understand it as a commandment regarding "permitted" activities: those permitted activities that we do engage in, we are not to conduct in the manner of Egyptians or Canaanites. Thus, we find that the narratives of the deeds of the Patriarchs, in all their details (like "Abraham traveled" etc.; Gen. 12:9) became Torah. This is why it is taught that we must each ask when our deeds will reach those of the Patriarchs: when will our "deeds", our everyday actions in the realm of the "permitted" reach the state that they, too, might become part of the Torah? This teaches us that even our simplest act can align with the divine will....
(uve'ophan kelali): We can interpret further according to a teaching of the AR"I brought in Yesod Ha'avodah (4:1:2): from the moment we are created each one of us has a unique role and purpose in repairing the world, a unique mission given to us from Heaven. No one can fulfill the mission of the other, to repair that which is required of another. Thus, even the least person has a unique mission that no one else is able to complete. Happy are they who, while in this world, discern their earthly mission and fulfill it properly....Thus, even the lowliest person, whose role is small and simple must see to completing their mission completely. This is what it means that "Each and every Jew must say: When will my deeds reach those of my ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?" Even though the mission of the Patriarchs was exalted and spiritually advanced (for they began the world of rectification, and the whole of existence is dependent on them), still the lowliest person has a mission, and he too must complete it. Just as the Patriarchs fulfilled their exalted and holy mission, so even the lowliest person must complete her mission, which only she can do.
The principle that emerges from this teaching was expressed by our Master of Kobrin: the worst thing is when a Jew feels that "by him all is right, just how it is". The problem is when we become so accustomed to the course of our lives that we make peace with how things are. At least regarding sins we feel some regret and movement toward teshuvah. But, when we make peace with our situation we can never turn from it; we get used to our situation and have no aspiration to change, to raise ourselves out of the routine of our lives. We must have an aspiration: "When will my deeds reach those of my ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?" No matter how we understand this obligation, we must sustain this aspiration. An aspect of serving God is to aspire to attain the highest spiritual level we can: according to our abilities and status, we must seek to reach the deeds of our ancestors.
Drash Drash
This lesson again captures some of R. Shalom Noach's central themes: the realm of the "permitted" as the primary arena for spiritual work; the importance of concrete actions as manifestations of inner intention; the role of faith in sustaining everyone in their own particular and unique path; the unending demand of spiritual practice.

The teaching from Tanna devei Eliyahu appears regularly in Hasidic literature. In its original context, it opens a long discourse on the need for the individual to remain connected to the community, to participate in their suffering, and to see his or her actions as affecting the whole. This is grounded in the fact that God speaks to the beloved people of Israel in both the plural and singular. They are as beloved as the Patriarchs, who acquired their sacred standing through Torah study and performance of good deeds. Here is the original teaching:
"YHVH spoke all of these words, saying: 'I am YHVH your God' etc." (Ex. 20:1-2). Blessed be the Omnipresent, Who chose Israel from among all of God's creations, taking complete possession of them, calling them "My children" and "My servants". Sometimes God speaks with them as one would speak to a multitude, and sometimes as with an individual. Why? Because of the love with which God loves them, and the joy that God takes in them. Therefore, I say: Each and every Jew must say: When will my deeds reach those of my ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? For they only acquired their lives in this world, the world-to-come and the time of the Messiah through their good deeds and study of Torah.
Here is an earlier take on this teaching, from R. Ze'ev Wolf of Zhitomir (d. 1798 or 1800, disciple of the Maggid of Mezritch; Or Hame'ir, Vayera):
"YHVH appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground" (Gen. 18:1-2).
The Zohar (I 98a) teaches that these three men were Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Now, the holy Torah must apply to each person in every situation, for it is eternal. And, the truth is that the blessed Creator is in every person, even the most wicked, even the greatest sinner. The proof is that to every wicked person come stirrings of teshuvah each day. This is God appearing to him. When he follows this sense, raising his awareness, he then comes to say "When will my deeds reach those of my ancestors?" The Patriarchs are the chariot. Now, the horse is secondary to the rider, and the horseman is not subservient to the horse. The horse is not permitted to go wherever it wishes, leading the rider through rivers or filthy places. Rather, the horse goes where the rider wishes. When we become a chariot for God, we then only go where God wishes, doing only God's will, and not that of the yetzer hara.
This is how to understand our passage. "YHVH appeared to him": this applies to every Jew to whom God appears, even the most wicked in the stirrings of teshuvah that arise in them. "He was sitting at the entrance of the tent": in this way God opens possibilities for us, "as the day grew hot": when we grow in enthusiasm to do teshuvah. "Looking up": when we raise our awareness, "he saw three men", Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, i.e. the quality of the Patriarchs who were the chariot for God. "As soon as he saw them, he ran to greet them": saying "when will my deeds reach those of my ancestors?" to attain that degree that I can serve as a chariot for God, going only where God wishes. "From the opening of the tent": from that very opening that God opened for us.
The following is a teaching from Przysucha that deepens our understanding of what it means to "reach (noge'a)" the deeds of the Patriarchs (Siach Sarfei Kodesh, Avot 6):
R. Simchah Bunim would say: we must know that we are children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but only if we follow their ways, and do as they did. This is like a drop of water. When it is connected to other drops, then it can be called a "sea", and if not, then it is not "sea". Similarly, we would not be children of the Patriarchs. R. Isaac Meir of Gur would say in the name of R. Simchah Bunim: everyone must say "When will my deeds reach those of my ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?" Who would be so foolish and arrogant as to say that their deeds could reach the level of the Patriarchs? Rather, the meaning is "touching", in the sense of connection (hitchabrut).
I was not able to find a direct source in the writings of the AR"I that matches the teaching of R. Avraham of Slonim (Yesod Ha'avodah), but the following can be seen as an implicit grounding for such a teaching. Indeed, it appears that the Hasidic movement in general took this primary lesson and expanded it to state that each Jew has a unique mission in this world that no one else can fulfill. This quotation is from Sha'ar Ruach Hakodesh, 38b:
This is the mystery of the verse (Eccl. 1:4), "One generation goes, another generation comes": there is no generation made up of fewer than 600,00 souls, and the generation that goes is then replaced by the one that comes....So, there are many more than 600,000 interpretations of the Written Torah, on each and every verse. Further, there are four modes of interpreting the Torah, represented by PaRDeS: Peshat, Remez, Drash, Sod. Each of these four modes has at least 600,000 interpretations. Thus, each soul of the 600,000 souls of Israel has its own unique pathway in Torah, each according to the root of its soul's existence connected to the Torah. Thus, each Jew is able to bring new interpretations in Torah according to his or her portion, in a manner that no other is able to interpret.
Remez Remez
  1. Have you ever aspired to be like Abraham, Isaac or Jacob (or Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel or Leah)? When, how? When we read the Genesis narratives personally, taking lessons for our lives (positive or negative), are we then seeking to "reach" these ancestors? How? How not?
  2. Have you ever imagined that your life could attain the status of Torah? What is the quality of mind, heart or action that would qualify as "Torah"? How might you attain that state?
  3. Have you been able to identify your "mission" in life? Do you think you have one? When does it seem so, and when not? What would it mean to you to realize your mission?
Sod Sod
 In its own way, this lesson can be read as a mindfulness instruction. It begins with setting an intention. For us to accomplish anything, we have to have a sense of purpose, a direction. In our daily lives, we may have many purposes to our activities: we have to get up and get to work; we have to complete our check-list of things to do; we have to pick up the kids, the dry-cleaning, dinner; we have to read our email, watch TV, read a book. In all of this, though, there may be no overarching direction, no clear intention as to why we are doing what we are doing. We must always ask of our activities: to what end? When once we set out to develop our spiritual lives, we ask that question of all we do. Why do we work? What is it that we wish to accomplish through our daily tasks? What is the quality of relationship we wish to have with our partners, our children, the people with whom we interact when doing our daily chores? What are we seeking to become?
There may be no one answer, but a suggestion: we are seeking to become awake. We hope to connect with our daily affairs not by running through them, but by inhabiting them. We wish to experience each moment fully, not as a job, not as a chore, but as that which we are doing right now - precluding everything else we might do otherwise, and so therefore absolutely the most important thing we can do. The narratives of the Patriarchs are not a complete history; they do not present the daily journals of our ancestors' activities. They report, instead, how they engaged in moments in their lives. Because the stories report discrete events, we experience them as the intentional, conscious, mindful actions of people in the midst of the course of their lives. There is nothing random here, and nothing unconscious.
This is the product of intention. We set ourselves to wake up from moment to moment. We must have faith that it is possible. We learn from others - the Patriarchs, teachers, mentors, models - that it is possible, at least for them. But, if it is possible for them, we intuit that it is so for us as well. This is faith. On the basis of that faith we set out in our lives, bringing spiritual awareness to everything we do. Even the most mundane things - brushing our teeth, cooking dinner, sitting in traffic - can be moments of waking up. But, life is difficult, work is draining; there are impediments all around. So, over and over we check in with our intention; we connect to the root of our faith; and we bring our full energies to bear to enact our aspiration. Our intention cannot be attained without effort. There is no moment in which effort is not required to enact our intention. That is why we have to ask ourselves, over and over: how can my deeds become like those of the Patriarchs - awake, intentional, connected to God? That is why, even as we recognize this moment as true, just as it is, we need not be satisfied for that to be the character of every successive moment. We can always live more deeply into our intention.
The intention to wake up is not for our sake alone. It is for the good of all around us. The more we wake up, the more fully we can live out our lives. We can become more effective in our work; more loving in our relationship; more able to face the suffering in the world and to respond. Particularly with regard to the last item, we will also come to realize that there is no one but we, each one of us, individually, who can bring about the succor needed to end suffering. We each have a unique capacity to change ourselves, and so then also change the world. But, we do not do this alone. As we engage in our spiritual practice, seeking to wake up, we are joined by all others who share in the path of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. These ancestors set a path for us, making it possible for us to do our part, to fulfill our mission in life. No matter who we are, no matter when it may be, when we wake up we can transform the world.
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.