Rabbi Jonathan Slater  
 Torah Study for the Soul:
Selections from No'am Elimelekh:  3 NE Lekh Lekha


Peshat | Drash | Remez | Sod  


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No'am Elimelech



Lekh Lekha - No'am Elimelekh Week 3
Lekh Lekha - No'am Elimelekh Week 3


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 vaya'avor avram ba'aretz ad mekom shekhem


"Abram passed through the land as far as the site of Shechem, [as far as the terebinth of Moreh. The Canaanites were then in the land]." (Gen. 12:6)


This teaches that Abraham grew in holiness in serving God. "As far as the site of Shechem": this implies Torah. That is, he merited to acquire the whole of the Torah. Understand this by connecting "Shechem" with the phrase: "He bent his shoulder (shikhmo) to the burden" (Gen. 49:15), which Rashi suggest means "he bent his shoulder to the burden of Torah". "As far as the terebinth (alon) of Moreh": a tree (ilan) has many, many branches, but all of the branches are connected to the trunk, the inner core of the tree. In the same manner, each and every mitzvah has a root and source above in the Supernal Tree, and we must strive to discern and know the root-source of each mitzvah, and not merely by rote. This is the significance of the phrase: "As far as the terenbinth (alon) of Moreh": Abraham perceived in each and every mitzvah its root, which is the core of the Tree.


This is in line with the teaching of the Tanna (M Eruvin 4:7; 49b): "One who is walking on the way" - that is, God's way; "and he recognizes a tree" - that is, he comes to know the Tree-root of the mitzvot; "or a fence" - that is, he understands the limits that one must set even in the realm of the permitted so as not to trespass that which is prohibited; "and he said, 'may my resting place be under this tree'" - that is, he chooses to dwell [alt., ceases his inquiry] under the tree, but he does not apply his intellect to perceive the root, to perform the mitzvah at its root; "his declaration has no effect. But, if he said 'may my resting place be at its core'" - that is, he applies his intellect to know to perform the mitzvah at its root, "he has two thousand (alpayyim) [cubits]" - this tzaddik who has "two alephin", that is, he can bring about a complete unification of the alephs: that of ADN"Y and that of EHYH, as is understood by the mystics. Understand.
Drash Drash

Here we have an example of the positive attitude of Hasidic teachers toward Torah study, with the unique - and challenging - Hasidic perspective. That is, one must study Torah, as that is the means to live according to the divine will. Yet, it is not sufficient to know Torah superficially, without understanding its deeper, esoteric meaning - particularly that meaning which enlivens both knowledge and performance. Study is for the sake of connecting to the root-source, the deepest level of meaning, and so with God. R. Elimelekh focuses on the study of Torah along with performance of mitzvot. The impulse to make this connection is hidden in our verse in the place name "terebinth of Moreh". He understand "Moreh" to signify "instruction (hora'ah)", and so "Torah (and oraita, the Aramaic term for Torah)". But, the Torah that is to be studied is that which takes us back to the "Tree (alon; ilan)", ultimately the Tree of Life. The latter has its roots in heaven, and it is through this Tree, the living Torah, that true life and vitality flow to us. True study is that which leads us back by way of the branches of halakha, up through the trunk of Torah, to the roots in heaven. In addition, study is for the sake of doing: we study in this manner so that we can know and feel God's vital force in the performance of any mitzvah such that through it we connect directly, intimately, to God.


It is typical of Hasidic teaching, as well, to hint at mystical teachings or imagery in the Zohar without directly citing them. So, consider in this case, the following passage from Zohar I 79b (Pritzker edition, ed. Daniel Matt, II:16-17):

Similarly Abraham did not enter the covenant of the blessed Holy One until he entered the land (note: Land, symbolizing Shekhinah. By being circumcised, one identifies with Yesod, the divine phallus, who unites with Shekhinah.)

See what is written: Abram passed through the land of Canaan (Va-ya'avor Avram ba-aretz) (Gen. 12:6). He passed. The verse should read He went (va-yelekh). But here is an allusion to the holy name by which the world is sealed with seventy-two letters, all included in this name. Here is it written He passed (va-ya'avor), and there it is written: YHVH passed (va-ya'avor YHVH) before his face and proclaimed (Ex. 34:6).

In The Book of Rav Yeiva Sava: Here is written He passed (va-ya'avor) and there it is written I will make (all my goodness) pass (ani a'avir) (Ex. 33:19), alluding to the holiness of the land, from a fittingly supernal site (note: The holiness of Shekhinah, symbolized by the land, emanating from a higher sefirotic source).

As far as the site of Shechem, as far at the terebinth of Moreh (Gen. ibid.), from one side to the other, fittingly (note: Apparently, through all aspects of Shekhinah, or through the entire realm of the sefirot, as reflected in Shekhinah).


Here we find Abram's travels through the land signifying inward journeys of the soul or upward travels through the supernal realms, connecting to the Shekhinah, and through her, to the root of all the sefirot.


This unification is mirrored in the closing element of the teaching, where R. Elimelekh refers to connecting the alephin of ADN"Y and EHYH. The former refers to Shekhinah, as she is also Malkhut, the dimension through which God is experienced as Lord, Adonai. That is one aleph. The other is Binah, the third of the upper sefirot, the dimension of Teshuvah. It is in Binah that all returns to its primordial source, where all exists in potential. It is there that all negative forces can be sweetened, transformed, transmuted from their experienced form into some new potential alternative: eheyeh, I will become a new being the future. Connecting Shekhinah and Binah is one of the goals of mystical practice. Often this is represented in connecting the upper Heh of the divine name YHVH, which is Binah, with the lower Heh, which is Shekhinah, but here it is two alephs. This process signifies the uniting of all of the lower sefirot in the upper realm, bringing all emanated existence back to its source in the upper triad of the godhead.


To further appreciate this process, let us unpack the citation from Eruvin. Here is the mishnah:

He who was coming along the way and darkness overtook him, and who knew about a certain tree or a fence and said, "My place of residence for the Sabbath will be under it," has said nothing at all; "My place of residence for the Sabbath is at its root," he may then go from the place at which he is standing to the root, for a distance of two thousand cubits, and from the location of its root up to his house, for two thousand cubits. So he turns out to have the right to go four thousand cubits after it gets dark.


R. Elimelekh is only slightly concerned with the legal aspects of this mishnah. What may interest him is that this is an instance in which the law itself seems to undermine or contradict itself. That is, the situation of the mishnah is that someone is traveling on the eve of Shabbat, and is unable to get home before sunset. One is permitted to walk only a distance of 2000 cubits outside of one's "habitation" on Shabbat, which would seem to limit the distance this person could walk to get home in the dark. However, despite this limitation, the mishnah finds a mechanism by which he is permitted to walk twice that distance. This is accomplished by extending his thought and intention beyond his current position to a particular "tree or fence". The Talmud understands that the traveler acquires a place at the "root" from which he can take a measure for his travel home. But for R. Elimelekh this points to his mystical concern. It is insufficient, when we engage in Torah study, to make our "place of residence" merely on the surface, or to "cease" our inquiry with the "givens" of law and practice. This is, for him, a virtual definition of the biblical idiom "a commandment of men, learned by rote (mitzvat anashim melumadah)" (Is. 29:13). One must instead extend one's thought and intention to the "root" of Torah and mitzvah, to discern the deep intention of the Creator to guide one's practice. This goal inspires one, then, to behave impeccably, avoiding doing that which would not please God in each and every instance.


And, again, we are left with the ambiguous mention of the tzaddik who pushes to understand the mitzvah at its root, who is able to connect the two alphin. We are invited to see ourselves as one who might bring this about through our personal devotions. 

Remez Remez
        1. What might it mean to you to consider your Torah study a journey, one in which you "pass through the land" of the Torah, and truly enter into it, to its root? How might you accomplish this journey?
        2. When you engage in Torah study, do you sense it as a flow of energy into you, or is it your effort and expenditure of energy that brings it to life? Where does the energy to get to the "root" come from - you or the root itself, beckoning your approach? What might it feel like to experience this flow of energy? How might you do so?
        3. When you study Torah, are you seeking to know what to do as much as what not to do, the "tree" as much as the "fence"? Why or why not - and how?
Sod Sod

The Torah is often economical in its words, particularly in narrative contexts. Few details are given regarding what happens along the way. Thus, in the opening verses of our parashah we read: "They set out for the land of Canaan. They arrived in the land of Canaan. Abram passed through the land as far as the site of Shechem, as far as the terebinth of Moreh". What is the significance of the fact that Abram "passed through" the land? Rashi comments that in contrast to his previous travels, which were instrumental, to get from place to place, here he "passed through" and "entered into the land". Perhaps the dedicated travel in the land was connected to the fact that "the Canaanites were then in the land". Indeed, it is in the next verse that "YHVH appeared to Abram and said, 'I will assign this land to your offspring'". Gen.R. 39:15 reports that "up to this point they (the Canaanites) had sought some merit to claim the land", and Abram's travels were to establish the title of his descendants to the land. This is stated directly in a later midrash (Battei Midrashot I, Midrash Yelamdenu, Lekh 5:37): "'Abram passed through the land': this teaches that he circulated about and eyed the gift that the blessed Holy One had given him". But, of course, the Canaanites remained in the land for quite some time after this, even deep into the period of the Judges.


There is a parallel here to the nature of our experience and spiritual practice. The first point is that life is rarely as we expect it. Abram was told to go a land that would be given to him, yet when he arrived he found it inhabited. Even when promised that it would be given to his descendants - Isaac was a twenty-five year glimmer in God's eye - he was forced to leave the land due to famine. We might take from this that life is a journey, that we are always to be moving, that we are only passing through, that we should not rely on permanence. Yet, if that leads us to inattention, to disconnection from our experience, or a devaluing of our lives, we will betray God's gift of life and live in ignorance of the truth. On the other hand, if we ignore the truth of impermanence, the givenness of change, and believe that what is now will be what is tomorrow (or even the next minute), we will live in constant suffering, clouded in ignorance. Abram models a way of being in the world that is open to change, mobile, flexible, yet that is deeply interested in what is right now, right here. He is able to be connected to his experience without being attached to outcomes. He can accept the givenness of the role God demands of him, receive with gratitude the promises made to him, and still remain open and willing to move on to the next thing when the role and promise do not align.


We may follow in Abram's way; we may willingly place ourselves on the spiritual path. Yet, at times, we may also find ourselves in the position of the traveler in the mishnah: darkness may overtake us. We may feel that we are unable to face the changes that life presents us, that life demands of us. We may find ourselves stuck in a particular spot, unable to move, afraid of the dark, uncertain where we are or how to get home. It is precisely in that moment that the mishnah asks us: what do we know? What is familiar, what are the signs, the landmarks that we can use to find release? It is then, perhaps, that we can pay attention and peer into the root: change is constant. But the path is constantly unfolding, always inviting us to the next step, the next breath. It is in consciously taking that next breath, with awareness, that we can regain balance and presence in the face of change. We can find ourselves in the moment, recognizing that we are precisely "here", in this moment and not anywhere else. Similarly, if we find ourselves stuck and unable to move, we can peer into that root: even when we are stuck, unable to move willingly, we move willy-nilly. We are, indeed, in constant motion - in our minds, in our hearts, in our bodies. Breathing into that aspect of being stuck - the movement that lies beneath it - we might find release.


Our ability to pay close attention to this moment as if it were the only moment there is, while remaining open to and participating in change, is our salvation. This is implied in the passage from the Zohar. If we choose to walk Abram's path, to meet change with openness and welcome, then God will reciprocate by "passing" before us. In each moment of awareness - just this, just this, just this always changing, always new again - we can meet God's presence. Change is always difficult, it makes for suffering. Our willingness to meet change, to walk in its ways, makes it possible for God to make all of God's "goodness" pass before us: the willing, welcoming awareness that this is what is, that it cannot be otherwise in this moment, and we can be with it with an open heart. This is, indeed, God's goodness, and it is what gets us home to Shabbat - the Shekhinah, our embodied life in this world - and to Teshuvah - Binah, the realm of all potential, from which the next moment emerges, and it is possible that this change will be "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.