Rabbi Jonathan Slater  
 Torah Study for the Soul:
Selections from No'am Elimelekh:  2 NE Noah


Peshat | Drash | Remez | Sod  


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No'am Elimelech



Noah - No'am Elimelekh Study
Noah - No'am Elimelekh Study


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, ioffering 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. b'inyan acher tzohar ta'aseh lateivah


Another interpretation of the verse "Make an opening for daylight in the ark, [and terminate it within a cubit of the top. Put the entrance to the ark in its side; make it with bottom, second, and third decks]" (Gen. 9:16)


This refers to the tzaddik who, through the word (teivah) of Torah she studies, transforms constriction (TzaRa"H) into an opening for daylight (TzoHa"R).


"Make it with bottom, second, and third decks": This symbolizes three types of people: completely righteous, completely wicked and middling. "Bottom" refers to the wicked. Rashi identified this deck as the place for disposal of dung; the wicked are engaged in activities as disgusting as dung, i.e. sin. Rashi identified the second deck for habitation (mador). This refers to the middling ones: they are engaged in the "section (mador)" of this world and its material pleasures. Nevertheless they do not commit sins. The third deck, the highest, was dedicated to human living. This symbolizes the completely righteous person, who walks always in the supernal worlds. This righteous person must repair all the rest through his holy acts, and this is why the verb "make (ta'aseh)" is associated with him, as if to say: "you, tzaddik, act and repair them".


This phrase also refers to us as individuals. In our childhood we engage in lowly and disgusting things. In our middle years we are engaged in our worldly matters. We must look out, then, to repair it all in the third period of our lives, as we come to the end of our days. Let us not be gathered up, bringing our sins along with us.

Drash Drash

In this lesson R. Elimelekh offers what a classical Hasidic teaching. He takes the instructions to Noah out of their narrative context and applies them to the lives of his contemporaries (and us). He surely sets a special standard for the Tzaddik, as the one whose words are transformative and redemptive. The Tzaddik alone "walks always in supernal worlds", which is to say he cleaves to God in his consciousness at all times, and so has the power to bring blessing to all those associated with him. But, this focus on the work of the Tzaddik, however, does not mean that these verses to not apply to every one of his students as well. There is an arc to our lives, from childhood to old age, and spiritual practice can help us to repair the mistakes of the past as we age and gain wisdom (and, if we wake up, perhaps even before!).


The identification of teivah with the spoken word is one of the Baal Shem Tov's classical teaching. It appears in Tzava'at HaRIVa"Sh, #75. He emphasizes the importance of concentrated focus on each letter of every word of Torah or prayer as a way of finding and cleaving to God:

"Make a light for the teivah (ark)". This means that the teivah (word) should shine. Every letter contains "worlds, souls and Divinity." These ascend and become bound up and united with one another, with Divinity. The letters then unite and become bound together to form a word [teivah], becoming truly unified in Divinity. Man, therefore, must include his soul in each of these aspects. All worlds will then be unified as one and ascend, and this effects immeasurably great joy and delight.

This is the meaning of "[make it with] bottom, second and third [decks]" (ibid.), [in which He is concealed]" (Zohar III 159a). With every word you must hear what you say, because it is the Shechinah [Herself], the "World of Speech," who speaks, provided that [the word] has a "light," i.e., that it emerges with brightness and to bring gratification to your Maker.


The play-on-words of Tzohar/Tzarah is characteristic of classical kabbalah, having its roots in Sefer Yetzirah. This particular pairing is found, for example, in the 14th-15th c. kabbalistic work Sefer Peliah (Sefer Hakaneh; attributed to R. Nehuniah ben haKaneh of the mishnah, but most likely the work of R. Avigdor Kara of Prague), s.v. "They asked in the heavenly academy why the Torah begins with bet etc.":

The full power of the divine name Elohim derives from each letter spelled out (e.g. aleph-lamed-peh, he-h etc.), these invisible letters equal ReTze"H (i.e. 295), signifying "love, acceptance", and its opposite is TzaRa"H, constriction. In other words: "Accept your people Israel, YHVH our God, and attend to their prayers; turn and see that their feet are straight (like angels), and so accept their prayers" so that all negative forces might turn to shine (letzaher) in the world. If not, then TzoHa"R may be transformed to TzaRa"H, allowing the oppressor who oppresses (hatzar hatzorer, cf. Num. 10:9) to arise - that is, the power of Haman and Sama'el and its forces.


As always, the preference is for the welcoming, loving aspect of the divine to shine in the world, but that is dependent on human behavior, and the risk always is present that the positive will turn negative, as they are intimately connected.


The symbolism of three decks as R. Elimelekh presents it, echoes the teaching in Rosh Hashanah 16b, where three books are open on Rosh Hashanah: one for the completely righteous, one for the completely wicked and one for the middling. The former are either given their reward or punishment immediately; the outcome for the last hangs, dependent on their behavior. It is interesting to note, however, that with regard to the quality of each deck R. Elimelekh chose to quote Rashi who identifies the middle deck as the place for habitation (mador), where the actual source in Sanhedrin 108b teaches: "'Make it with bottom, second and third decks': A Tanna taught: The bottom deck was for the dung; the middle for the animals; and the top for man". Perhaps he meant to communicate that while the middling ones are not sinning, they are not quite animals - yet their life is mere living, devoid of the truly spiritual. Indeed, hidden in this reading may be a reference to the work of the Tzaddik, who remains connected to his people, even though he walks in the divine realms always. Gen.R. 31:11 teaches that "the bottom deck was for garbage, the second for (Noah) himself and his family and the clean animals, and the third for the unclean ones". While he would not have intended to place the "unclean" animals in the divine realm, the presence of Noah with his family and the clean animals together in the middle deck would reassure his listeners that the Tzaddik is with them, even in the midst of the chaos surrounding them, always concerned with their wellbeing, with their nurturance.


The concluding teaching seems to be directed to all of us, not only the Tzaddik. All of us have the capacity to become a Tzaddik, or at least to be on the path. This is seen in another teaching in No'am Elimelekh which focuses on the three levels in the ark (s.v. o yomar uphetach hateivah betzidah tasim):

This teaches that the Tzaddik must focus her devotions on three worlds, which are symbolized by the human body. First is the head which functions as a throne and chariot [for the divine]. This is hinted at in the verse "[Above the expanse over their heads was the semblance of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and on top,] upon this semblance of a throne, there was the semblance of a human form" (Ezek. 1:26). This refers to the complete Tzaddik who is a throne and chariot, like this supernal throne. Understand. This is the significance of Rashi assigning the top deck to "humans", so that they should be a chariot and throne. "The middle deck for habitation and the bottom deck for dung": we must behave, when eating, with intention, that at the very least we remove the holy sparks from within the food, and to expel the waste. This is the significance of the "middle" deck: the middle of the body, which receives the food to remove the holy sparks from within. "The lower deck for dung": this signifies excretion.


All of us can, at least, focus our attention when eating on raising up the holy sparks in the food (instead of on our desire for the food), and thereby liberate our thoughts to become a throne and chariot for the Holy One.

Remez Remez
      1. How do your words bring light into the world? How do they bring constriction? What do you imagine it would take to make your word of Torah study or prayer "shine"?
      2. How do you see yourself: are you one of the "middling" or more like a righteous person (tzaddik)? What is the relative proportion of your attention to the delights and desires of this world and spiritual devotion? Is it sufficient simply not to sin to be considered "righteous"?
      3. Must the work to repair the mistakes of our past wait till the last stages of our lives? Do you think that it is possible for young people to wake up to their mistakes before middle-age? Why or why not, and how?
Sod Sod

The mystical tradition sees the human being as olam katan, a microcosm. The forces at play in the larger world function as well in the human psyche and spirit. The Hasidic tradition builds on this, applying the whole of the Torah, in its details and its over-arching scope, to the lives of each individual. We all are living out the narrative of Torah, and the Torah is at work in our lives. The three interpretations that R. Elimelekh brings to the three decks in the ark are all meant to be understood in this light. We are all Noah. We all live in a time of corruption, when the world's future is in doubt. We are each charged with creating the conditions for the survival of all creatures - in our inner lives, and in our efforts in the world. In a sense, we are constantly building an ark.


Gen.R. 30:7 teaches that God held back the Flood for 120 years, to give the people of that generation opportunity to do teshuvah. We might see that replicated in the concluding section of our lesson. In our early years we are fired up by the passions of youth, heedless to the consequences of our actions, inattentive to the greater satisfaction to be derived from modesty, deferral of gratification or humility. By the time we reach our middle years we are - often - too distracted by our work, our families, our engagement in community affairs to attend to any pangs of regret, to work through the perverse impact of our youth on our adulthood. If we are given many years of life and experience, we may "get the message" that a flood is coming, that the life we believe to be established and firm is about to meet cosmic forces of chaos and entropy. We could listen to the insistent inner voice calling us to change course, to wake up, to reconnect to the divine. It is never too late. Now is the time, no matter our age (remember: "do teshuvah one day before you die!"; Avot 2:10).


Not only do we live out Noah's preparation for the Flood, we are also the very ark itself. We, in our body and our daily life, are the form by which we might save ourselves from the flood of desires, the push and pull of the habits of mind and heart that toss us about. Not only must we eat mindfully, we must learn to do all things mindfully, recognizing the divine hidden in all things, effacing the solidity we attribute to our desires, fears and fancies. It is not what we want that counts, nor is it what terrifies us that matters. Those experiences pass and change. The challenge is to turn our attention to the absolute: the emptiness of physicality and thought as independent entities, the fullness available only from connection with all things, to the divine. Mindful attention helps us to attain the stability of a throne, enlivened by the freedom to shift with inevitable change like a chariot. Becoming such an ark may help us weather the vagaries of life, allowing us to survive the flood of life's passions.


"This is the outcome (toldot) of Noah's life: Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God". Ultimately, we build our inner ark so that we can save the world, as did Noah. As a tzaddik tamim, a righteous, blameless Tzaddik, his concern ultimately was to provide for all life, to preserve it and bring it forth in wholeness. If we build our inner ark and become a throne for God, our work is still not complete. Our personal perfection is not for self-satisfaction, but for the sake of others: "You, tzaddik, act and repair them". We build our inner ark to liberate our heart and mind to fully attend to the needs of others. Free of bodily desires, we have no reservations, no self-concern, and so are fully at liberty to raise others up out of the mire of confusion, to retrieve them from the chaos of mindless desire. We are all Noah, and we are all the ark. We can muddle along in the middle deck, or we can raise our eye and bask in the divine light, reaching for salvation each moment, raising divine sparks and other holy-humans with us.

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.