Rabbi Jonathan Slater  
 Torah Study for the Soul:
Selections from No'am Elimelekh:  4 NE Vayera


Peshat | Drash | Remez | Sod  

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No'am Elimelech


Week 4  Vayera - No'am Elimelekh
Week 4 Vayera - No'am Elimelekh



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. vayomer shov ashuv eilekha k'eit etc. vesarah shoma'at petach ha'ohel vatitzchak sarah bekirbah leimor acharei valoti etc. vatekhachesh sarah etc.


"Then one said, 'I will return to you next year, [and your wife Sarah shall have a son!'] Sarah was listening at the entrance of the tent, [and he was behind it. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years; Sarah had stopped having the periods of women.] And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, 'Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment-[and my husband is so old?' Then YHVH said to Abraham, 'Why did Sarah laugh, saying, "Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?" Is anything too wondrous for YHVH? I will return to you at the same season next year, and Sarah shall have a son.'] Sarah lied, [saying, 'I did not laugh,' for she was frightened. But He replied, 'You did laugh.'] (Gen. 18:10-16)


The questions this passage raises are known: How could one conceive that Mother Sarah would laugh at God's word (as if it could be!)? Further, how could one even consider that Sarah would lie to God? All of this has to do with the fact that we must pay constant attention to all of our deeds, even movements - without cease! When we develop such sustained attention to our experience, we will witness - even if we are a complete tzaddik - that occasionally some untoward thought will pass through our minds. Like a bird in flight, just for a moment, this thought passes through a tzaddik's mind - but she pushes it away, to distance this thought which she does not want.


Just the same, this circumstance is not good. Now if you wish to see if I am correct, then you would do well to bring sustained, concentrated attention to your movements - and you'll see that I am right. But, someone who does not pay attention to observing their movements and thoughts will have no awareness of these sorts of thoughts. It will appear to them as if there had been no thought passing through at all.


This is our situation: "Sarah was listening" - she was affirming the truth of the words the angel was sent to deliver; "at the entrance of the tent" - she was listening at the level of "the opening of the supernal tent": when one really listens to God's voice, one makes for oneself an opening to the supernal tent through which to enter the Garden of Eden. This was Mother Sarah's righteousness: that she surely affirmed those words. But, humans are created with physical bodies; and besides, it is impossible that there never arise some flutter of untoward thought which passes through the mind, as above, due to relationships that are "back-to-back". From the "back-side" (the dominion of the sitra achra), thoughts that are not so good arise. This is reflected in the phrase "he was behind it": even though Sarah was righteous in her faith in the truth of the announcement, she nevertheless experienced a slightly "backward" thought. That is, the thought "my husband is so old" blossomed and passed through her mind, and even though she paid it no mind and pushed it away without any attachment to it, it was still not so good.


This helps us to understand the sequel: "Sarah laughed to herself" - this does not signify derisive laughter (heaven forbid), but joy. This is as Rashi said when Abraham "fell on his face and laughed" (Gen. 17:17): he rejoiced that such a miracle as "a child will be born to a man one hundred years old" (ibid.). A similar interpretation can be applied here. Sarah delighted herself in the great miracle that would be done for her, that "even now that I am withered, I am to have enjoyment" (ibid. 18:12) - and she surely knew that it was true that she would bear a son. It is only that the thought "my husband is so old" crossed her mind; yet she repulsed it, as do all tzaddikim, and she figured that it was no sin since she did not give attention to this thought.


But, "Then YHVH said to Abraham, 'Why did Sarah laugh, saying, "Shall I in truth bear a child"'" (ibid. vs. 13): even though she affirmed the truth that she would give birth, this passing thought was nevertheless considered derisive laughter. She did not deem this thought to be even the subtlest quiver of transgression or sin, since she paid it no attention and pushed the thought away. That is why "Sarah disavowed her act, saying 'I did not laugh'" (ibid. vs. 15) - she excused herself saying "I did not laugh", "for she was frightened". She observed that she was afraid of this thought, and paid it no mind and rejected it, and considered that it was no sin, and would not be considered derisive laughter. "But He replied, 'You did laugh'" (ibid. vs. 16): "it is not as you think, that this is not considered a sin. Rather, this thought is considered laughter, as it is not good for a tzaddik to have such thoughts". Rather, a tzaddik must practice to the point of purifying and cleansing his thought to great clarity and purity, without any dross at all.
Drash Drash

What a wonderful opportunity to "front" one of the Matriarchs in a Hasidic lesson. Sarah stands in for the Tzaddik, and it is her experience that R. Elimelekh uses to instruct aspiring tzaddikim as to the true nature of devekut (and mindfulness). It is unusual, as well, that Sarah is depicted here in a positive light, as her laughter seems indistinguishable from Abraham's behavior in the previous chapter. Yet, the Torah depicts her harshly, implying that she did not behave properly through the use of a critical term, vatekhachesh, captured in the JPS translation as "she lied". The verb appears about 26 times in Scripture, five alone in the book of Hosea, where faithlessness is a strong theme. Indeed, Rashi finds Sarah's behavior worthy of condemnation in his comment on Gen. 17:17 (Abraham threw himself on his face and laughed, as he said to himself, "Can a child be born to a man a hundred years old, or can Sarah bear a child at ninety?"):

"Abraham threw himself on his face and laughed" (Gen. 17:17): Onkelos translated "laughed" here as a form of joy (simcha//chadi), but Sarah's laughter was translated as "provocative or derisive laughter (mechokh; cf. Gen. 21:9, 26:8 where the Targums employ this root to translate tz-ch-k)". From this we learn that Abraham had faith and rejoiced, while Sarah did not have faith and ridiculed. This is why the blessed Holy One was demanding of Sarah, but not of Abraham.

"Shall one who is 100 years old bear a child": there are forms of wonderment that are ongoing, such as (I Sam. 2:27) "Did I not reveal myself (hanigloh nigleiti) to your father's house" or (II Sam. 15:27) "The king said to Tzadok the priest, 'Do you not understand (haro'eh atah)?'". So, too, this surprise is ongoing. This is what Abraham said in his heart: "Has such a loving act been done for any other such as the blessed Holy One does for me?"


Here Abraham's laughter emerges from faith and joy; Sarah's from confusion and doubt. This is hardly R. Elimelekh's view. We find support for his approach in the Or Hachayyim on Gen. 18:15:

"Sarah lied, saying etc.": What is the significance here of the word "saying (leimor)", or of Scripture reporting "she was frightened"? It is to teach the righteousness of our Mother Sarah, the tzaddeket, who did not say out loud "I did not laugh", for she surely would not say an untruth. Rather, she said something from which it could be deduced that her intention was to say that she had not laughed. That is why Scripture does not say "And she said (vatomer) 'I did not laugh'". In response to the one who might ask "How would she dare to contradict God's words", Scripture reports "she was frightened". You must understand the situation as similar to this: a faithful servant may fear his master yet make a mistake and do something inappropriate, in response to which his master may rebuke him for what he did. When his fear grows to exaggerated proportions because he trespassed his master's will, it overwhelms his capacity to confess what he did, but he denies it instead. This denial itself then testifies to the truth of the matter, yet his overwhelming fear prevents him from testifying to his insolence. This is what Scripture tells us when it reports "she was frightened". Abraham then said to her "No, you did laugh", which we can understand in this way: "It would have been more proper for you to admit that you laughed, for God desires that we confess our mistakes explicitly, out loud". And, we have all been reproved in the same manner by our Prophet, who informed us what is desirable: "[He who covers up his faults will not succeed;] He who confesses and gives them up will find mercy" (Prov. 28:13).


The Or Hachayyim (R. Chayyim ibn Attar, early 18th c., Morocco and Jerusalem) feels into the situation in which Sarah found herself. She did not laugh derisively, nor did she doubt God's word, but delight, joy and wonder bubbled up and passed through her. When confronted by Abraham, however, she recognized that her response might have been, indeed was inappropriate, if still unwilled and beyond her control. Unable to admit to her mistake, out of fear, she acts in a way that suggests her acknowledgment. This is similar to our teaching, where a thought flies through the mind like a bird, unwilled and beyond control - but for which God still holds us (or at least a tzaddik) accountable.


The association of the "opening of the tent" to the supernal tent can be found in Zohar I 103a, where it is understood to refer to Shekhinah, the "opening" from this realm to the supernal realms. For R. Elimelekh, it appears, the practice of listening for God's voice in the world, recognizing God's indwelling in all existence and the potential for anything or anyone to manifest a communication from the divine, opens the way to supernal ascent, and ultimately devekut.


A pedagogic note: R. Elimelekh unselfconsciously reports Rashi's comment as if it reflected positively on both Abraham and Sarah when, as we have seen, it surely does not. A subtle reading shows that R. Elimelekh focuses on the positive assessment of Abraham's joy and then applies it to Sarah, despite the fact that it contradicts Rashi's true intent. It is always worthwhile to check the sources cited in our lesson, as how they are used frequently deepens our understanding of the teaching itself.
Remez Remez
  1. What helps you to become aware of your thoughts? What distracts you? When do you sense the presence of unbidden thoughts to be "not good"? When, why, how?
  2. What do you make of the image of thoughts arising from a state of "face-to-face" or from the "back-side"? Can you recognize this experience in your life? When, how?
  3. When and how are you in control of your emotional responses to events? Can you control your laughter at what you might consider surprising or absurd events? Or expressions of fear or disapproval at instances of suffering or injustice? When, how, why?
Sod Sod

This lesson surely sounds like a mindfulness meditation instruction! Indeed, R. Elimelekh interrupts his interpretation of the biblical passage to invite his students to practice - to observe their own experience to come to know the validity of his point. Let us do so as well, interpreting a few elements in light of mindfulness meditation. In the end we will see that R. Elimelekh teaches a refined, precise understanding of what it means to pay attention.


R. Elimelekh instructs us to bring sustained, concentrated attention to our "movements". By this, I believe he means our embodied experience, from moment to moment. Hasidic teachers from the Baal Shem Tov onward taught that when one practices devekut one perceives how God is present in all things, even our selves, and that ultimately even our bodily movements are initiated and carried out by that divine presence. But, "movements" could equally apply to the stream of thought running through the mind (and indeed, the divine, or divine sparks, are present in thought as well). Thus, in this instruction we are directed to concentrate our attention on our thoughts and bodies. This focused attention may steady our attention, may even still the flow of thought and all voluntary movement in the body. Yet, as R. Elimelekh claims, we quickly learn how many thoughts arise unbidden in the mind, and how many subtle, uncontrollable movements run through our body.


In mindfulness meditation, the instruction in concentration practice is to let go of these thoughts, to resist attachment to them, to avoid having our attention claimed by them. This seems to be what R. Elimelekh describes as well. His process is to pay the thought no mind, to avoid attachment to it - and to push it away. This last element differs from mindfulness meditation, which instead teaches that we allow the thoughts to pass away on their own; to let go, without attachment, and bring the attention back to the point of focus. Sarah does not do so. She actively pushes the thoughts away, and denies them any significance. Yet, it is precisely this aspect of the practice, as experienced by Sarah, that is the core of R. Elimelekh's teaching and the nature of her "failure".


Sarah thought that her laughter, a passing thought which she rejected and pushed away, was insignificant. She figured that thoughts arise and pass away all the time, and that this one was no different. It took flight unbidden, and she allowed it to fly away, without interest or regret. But, in fact, she pushed it away. This last act is what ultimately tripped her up. When we sit to practice concentration, our intention is to hold our attention steady in the breath or some other neutral object; to allow thoughts that might arise to pass away so that we can hold our attention steady in the object of focus. Our attitude toward those thoughts (or movements of mind or body) should be neutral, unconcerned, without judgment. To respond to the appearance of thoughts with anything other than gracious welcome and non-attachment is actually to invest interest and energy in their arising. We may think that we are letting the thoughts go, but whatever emotional or psychic reaction we have to them - "Who asked you to come?" "I don't want to think you" "That's interesting but I'm not supposed to think you" "Stop thinking!" or the like - is to turn our attention away from the point of focus to the passing phenomenon. We may be sitting, and we may eventually (if even only after a moment) return our attention to the point of focus, and we may think that we are meditating. But, we will have been distracted for those moments or minutes we are engaged with, "pushing away", the stray thought. We will not, truly, have been meditating.


I believe this is what R. Elimelekh wishes to teach through this incident with Sarah. She was practicing concentration, devekut, as do all tzaddikim. She was actually pretty good at it. But, she failed to recognize the subtle flicker of thought and her reaction to it for what they are: pulses of energy from the "back-side". This is not to say that she should allow herself to be distracted, nor that she should let go of her concentration. Rather, their appearance needed to be acknowledged, and not "pushed away". Something prompted the thought to arise, and perhaps that needed recognition. Or, the thought may have been random, but its content and valence was significant. In either event, pushing the thought away was an act of denial, a failure to accept and note the truth: I laughed.


The denial of the passing presence of that phenomenon is what tripped Sarah up, and it can trip us up as well. We are not to be in contention with the thoughts that arise, nor with the fact that they do pop up. Noting their presence without attachment, and without self-judgment, frees us to place our attention where we wish. The practice of noticing the thought, grieving its presence (or noting whatever reaction we may have), bringing compassion to the suffering of that moment and returning the attention to the breath is a purification process. Over time there is less friction with the thoughts that arise, and less personal attachment to them. In time, we may develop a steady, open awareness that is undisturbed by the passing of thoughts - as there will be no disruption of our awareness, like the Tzaddik. In the meantime, may we tell the truth, with compassion, and not get caught like Sarah.

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.