Rabbi Jonathan Slater  
 Torah Study for the Soul:
Selections from No'am Elimelekh:  1 NE Bereshit


Peshat | Drash | Remez | Sod  


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No'am Elimelech


No'am Elimelekh - Bereshit
No'am Elimelekh - Bereshit


Join rabbis, cantors and leaders across the country and across denominations in -
5772: No'am Elimelekh
Cost for the year:  $235

Welcome to the Torah Study for Your Soul, contemplative study of Hasidic texts. This week we begin our study of the classical Hasidic text No'am Elimelekh, by Rabbi Elimelekh of Lyzhansk. 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.


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 No'am Elimelekh, offering some background to the place of R. Elimelekh in the history of hasidism, the major themes of the book and some of the issues we will investigate as we study together. You can access it here.


You may wish to purchase a copy of No'am Elimelekh to accompany your study, but we will also be providing a pdf of the weekly text to accompany your study. 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. Elimelekh (sometime known as Reb Meilakh) as teacher and companion in deepening our spiritual lives. Be well.




If you questions about this study program, please contact me at jonathan@jewishspirituality.org  or 914-478-7326. 




s.v. bara elohim et hashamayim ve-et ha'aretz etc.


"[In the beginning,] God created the heaven and the earth" (Gen.1:1)


This will become clear in light of the following. First we will interpret the verse: "For YHVHis righteous (tzaddik); He loves righteous deeds (tzedakot ahev); [the upright shall behold His face]" (Ps. 11:7). We see how it is with people: that which they already possess is not dear to them, but they yearn always for that which is outside their grasp. But, the blessed Creator is not so. "YHVH is righteous in all His ways" (Ps. 145:17; i.e. complete) and provides gracious gifts to all flesh, yet nevertheless God desires and yearns for our "righteous deeds". Even if we are fully justified in our lives, what does God gain from this? It is only so that God will be able to do good for us in the end. This is the meaning of our verse: "For YHVHis righteous (tzaddik); He loves righteous deeds (tzedakot ahev)": even though God is complete (tzaddik) in God's self, lacking nothing in divine qualities, nevertheless "He loves righteous deeds (tzedakot ahev)". This is great praise for the blessed Creator who receives great delight (from our righteous deeds) even though God does not need us.


Alternatively, understand it thus: "For YHVHis righteous (tzaddik); He loves righteous deeds (tzedakot ahev); [the upright shall behold His face]". The blessed Creator is complete and undifferentiated in divine qualities. From God's perspective all of the middot (sephirot) are unified as one. But, we are all different, having various qualities, and we each serve God according to our quality. This is the sense of our verse: "For YHVHis righteous (tzaddik)": even though the blessed Creator is unique in His righteousness, and all existence is one unified whole from God's perspective, nevertheless "He loves righteous deeds (tzedakot ahev)". That is, God loves all sorts of righteous deeds, and God receives them from us even though each of us offers it from our different quality. There are those whose intention is solely for the sake of Heaven, and there are those whose intention is for their own good. Nevertheless, God accepts even from them as "that which is not for its own sake will eventually come to be done for its own sake" (cf. Pesachim 50b). This is the significance of "He loves righteous deeds": it is in the plural (tzedakot) - God loves every different sort of righteous deed we offer.


Thus: "In the beginning, [God created] the heaven and the earth": the one who serves God for the sake of Heaven has the quality of "heaven", while the one who serves God not for the sake of Heaven is the quality of "earth". All this God created, and God's will and desire is in it all. This is implied in the sequel: "the earth was unformed and void, [with darkness over the surface of the deep and the spirit of God hovered over the water]" (Gen. 1:2). Even though serving not for the sake of Heaven is of a low status, nevertheless God has desire for this one who serves in this manner as well. The reason is "the spirit of God hovered over the water", which is to say, the spirit of the Messiah, as the midrash teaches (Gen.R. 2:4). This means, when the Messiah comes, all will be made right.
Drash Drash


Why did God create the world? And, why was it created as we know it? These are some of the fundamental questions raised and answered by religious traditions, and that also moved the early Hasidic masters. Indeed, these questions stand behind our lesson. The first of the questions finds an answer in the first paragraph. God created the world so that there could be beings who would do tzedakot. Just as God is righteous, God delights in the performance of righteousness. It is not that God is incomplete in any way (heaven forbid), but that God desires an "other" to love, and who will respond in love (to God and to others). The second question, which is perhaps even more difficult to ask, is addressed through the phrase "the heaven and the earth". That is, there is room in the world for those who are conscious of God's goodness and compassion, and who then serve God with a willing, grateful heart, as well as for those who are not so aware, and act out of self-interest. A world, to exist, would need both "heaven" and "earth". Finally, the conditions necessary for the creation of such a world include the existence of "the name of the Messiah" and the capacity for teshuvah (cf. Gen.R. 1:4). This, R. Elimelekh points to when he refers to the spirit of the Messiah hovering over the waters. All will be made right, all people will serve God without self-interest and attain the quality of "heaven"; the non-duality of existence, the complete unity of all things in God's absolute oneness will be known, and so the Messiah will arrive.


We hear echoes of this dynamic on the cosmic level in the following passage from the Zohar (III 15a):

Rabbi Shimon went into his house and taught: "For YHVH is righteous; He loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold His face" (Ps.11:7). What is the reason that, "YHVH is righteous, He loves (to do) righteous deeds"? It is because, "the upright behold His face (faneymo)." What is the sense of faneymo? These are the "upper faces" to whom all people turn, seeking to request compassion from them regarding all their needs.

Rabbi Eleazar, his son, said: If that is the case, then the grammar of this verse doesn't make sense - either it should have said, "he shall see His face (yashar yechezeh faneymo)" or "they shall see (yesharim yechezu)"! What is the meaning of yashar yechezu?

His father answered: this is a high secret, for they are the ancient days of the Holy Ancient One, the most recondite of all, as well as the ancient days of the Younger Face, [the Ancient One and the Younger Face each] are indeed called faneymo, for they see directly what needs to be seen. For it is taught: when the blessed Holy One observes the world and sees that the ways of the people below are proper, the Ancient One appears in the Younger Face, and this face looks face-to-face at the most recondite, and all things are blessed. Why are they blessed? Because these two are looking at each other in a direct manner, turning neither to the right nor the left, as it says, "they see the faces directly (yashar yechezu faneymo)." They bless each other, and they water one another until all the worlds receive blessing, and all the worlds are unified. At that moment they can say, "YHVH is One and His Name is One" (Zech.14:9).

But, when sinners are prevalent, the Holy Ancient One is hidden, and they do not see each other face-to-face. Then judgment is aroused in the world, and the thrones are cast down, the Ancient One is hidden, and not revealed... then, too, the sinners transform compassion to judgment... and the lower worlds are deficient (alt.: bound up) and are not complete, and strife is aroused in them all.

But, when people fix their deeds below, the judgments are undone and pass away, and compassion is aroused to prevail over the (evil?) negative that had been aroused from the harsh judgment. When compassion is aroused, joy and consolation appear, prevailing over the evil... When the judgments are repaired and compassion prevails, each and every crown returns to its place, and all are blessed as one.


The world is most blessed, in this reading, when people behave properly. Their behavior causes the deepest aspect of God to gaze directly and reciprocally into the face of the blessed Holy One. This allows for an unimpeded flow of love and blessing. In R. Elimelelkh's reading, the faces looking back-and-forth, and the source of blessing are God's and those of the righteous in this world.


The reciprocal nature of our relationship with God and its impact on the wellbeing of the earth is heard in this midrash (Midrash Zuta, Song 1):

"Behold you are fair, my beloved" (Song 1:15) - "fair" in giving tzedakah and performing gemillut chasadim. "My beloved" for you walk in My ways, and so are my friends and companions. The Omnipresent is "compassionate and merciful", a God "slow to anger and most loving", forbearing with all beings, performing gemillut chasadim and giving tzedakah to all inhabitants of the world, as Scripture says, "YHVH is righteous, He loves righteous deeds" (Ps. 11:7). Scripture does not here say tzedakah, but many tzedakot. God feeds and gives drink to the hungry and thirsty, clothes the naked, redeems the captive, marries off orphans and performs other deeds of lovingkindness - so you should be like the blessed Holy One to give tzadakah and peform gemillut chasadim. Yet, I still do not know the reward for those who give tzedakah. Our verse teaches "the upright shall behold His face (yashar yechezu faneymo)". Yashar refers to the blessed Holy One, as Scripture says, God is "A faithful God, never false, righteous (tzaddik) and upright (yashar) is He" (Deut. 32:4).


The reward for acting as does the blessed Holy One is that we will gaze directly upon God's face.

Remez Remez
      1. What do you make of God's need, desire for us and our righteousness? Is God incomplete for delighting in our actions? Are we playthings, or do our actions really matter - even on the divine level? How?
      2. What is your response to knowing that God is open to, even wants, the variety of ways that we serve God, the different middot through which we engage in the world? Is it pleasing, liberating? Frustrating, confusing? When, how, why?
      3. What message do you take from the Zohar about the felicitous flow of blessing depending on our deeds, our proper behavior, which facilitate aspects of the divine to see each other "face-to-face"? In what manner might our "proper behavior" manifest such an orientation?
Sod Sod

Although it is not a central concern of this lesson, lurking in the background is R. Elimelekh's interest in the qualities and capacities of the Tzaddik. The focus is on God's attitude toward God's creatures, human beings (and for R. Elimelekh, specifically Jews), yet we can also hear the lesson as instruction for a Tzaddik. Through spiritual practice, we need to confront the truth he articulates at the start: people tend to lose interest in that which they have, yearning instead for that which they do not. This is true for a variety of reasons, including how our brains function. That is, what is familiar recedes from the focus of our attention. We are attracted to what is new, to what changes in our field of vision or awareness. Yet, interest in that which is new is not the same as coveting; it need not generate acquisitiveness. Feelings of acquisitiveness- or more generally, desire - are an overlay, and a source of suffering. Desire arises from a feeling of insufficiency and incompleteness. We sense it not only as objective lack, but as an implication of our personal deficiency. We neither possess what we believe we need, nor are we sufficient in our beings. Should our desire go unfulfilled then we, as individuals, risk further loss, being ignored, disappearance, annihilation. That root fear drives us to pursue all that we perceive we need. And that pursuit is never-ending.


We will always be unhappy until we are able to feel complete in ourselves regardless of the circumstance. Of course, there are situations that must not be tolerated, where pursuit of change is necessary for health and wellbeing, for justice and equity. Yet, most of the time we do not face such circumstances. It is in the course of our daily life that we meet the constant arising of the desire for things to be different. It is there that we must develop two inner qualities: equanimity and joy in the happiness of others. These qualities are attributed to God in our lesson. God's equanimity - beyond need, beyond interest in anything other than what is - R. Elimelekh attributes to God being tzaddik in all of God's ways. We are to emulate God, then. Noticing the arising of desire - for something new, for something different, for that which will satisfy our sense of lack or deficiency - we can pause, and inquire: what is this feeling? From where did it arise? To what is it attached, where does it sit in my body, in my heart, in my mind? What would happen if I do not satisfy this desire in this moment? Or in the next, or the next? As we work on this inner quality, we find that we become more balanced, less likely to be upended by new experiences, by challenging circumstances. We see what is true more easily, and respond with greater wisdom. It is in this manner that equanimity can serve as the foundation of righteousness, allowing us to make the connection between God being tzaddik, in the sense of complete and without need, and God being tzaddik and desiring that we perform tzedakot - not only toward God, but more especially toward each other.


Further, because God is tzaddik, God is also loving, chasid, in all ways. This, too, is an aspect of the Tzaddik: to be concerned for the wellbeing of all people, to love all people - even if rebuke or reproof is necessary. This is seen in the second element of our lesson, where God is tolerant, accepting of the diversity among people. We all have different qualities, middot, and therefore we all act and respond differently to our lives and to God. Although God is complete, containing in one, unified wholeness all possible diversity, God does not demand that of us. God even allows for ignorance, self-interest, apathy. So, too, can we. The means to move people toward greater wisdom, greater generosity and greater empathy is to welcome them as they are - even if unsavory. Holding our hearts open to accept all others as they are allows us to truly connect with them, to understand and respond wholeheartedly to them. In this manner we dissolve the dualism of us versus them, to discover our shared interests and aspirations. This facilitates resolution of conflict, even when difference remains. The ultimate end to duality and the conflicts and suffering it causes is in God's hand, with the arrival of the Messiah. In the meantime, we can seek to nurture our own inner Tzaddik, with a balanced, loving heart, kept honest, connected and open through our constant attention to teshuvah, our own transformation toward the good.

Thank you

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 No'am Elimelekh, the teachings of R. Elimelekh of Lyzhansk, as teacher and companion in deepening our spiritual lives. 

Be well.