Rabbi Jonathan Slater
 Torah Study for the Soul:
Selections from Birkat Avraham:  1 BA Bereshit


Please note:  For the first five weeks we will send everyone both Jonathan and Yael's Torah Study as a sample (i.e. 2 emails each Friday). After that you will need to be registered to continue receiving the texts.  If you would prefer not to receive the first five weeks, please email sadie@jewishspirituality.org

and let her know.  Thank you. 


Peshat | Drash | Remez | Sod  




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Birkat Avraham


1 BA bereshit
1 BA bereshit
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5773: Birkat Avraham
Cost for the year:  $240

Welcome to the Torah Study for Your Soul, contemplative study of Hasidic texts. This week we begin our study of the late-classical Hasidic text Birkat Avraham, by Rabbi Avraham Weinberg (the third) of Slonim. 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, interpreting the prayer offered by R. Avraham, and offering a new one in the mode of mindfulness practice.


You may wish to purchase a copy of Birkat Avraham (two volumes) to accompany your study. The book is still under copyright, and it is right and proper for you to purchase it. You can find it here:

  • MySefer (currently lists 2 copies left)
  • SeforimCenter (currently says unavailable)
  • 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 have heard the this book may be out of print at this time, and if we find that it is impossible to acquire a copy for study, we may provide other means to access the original Hebrew text.


I look forward to studying with you this year, engaging with R. Avraham 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 va'ani tephilati lekha H' eit ratzon (#1, pg. 17)


"As for me, may my prayer come to You, O YHVH, at a favorable moment; O God, in Your abundant love, answer me with Your sure deliverance" (Ps. 69:14).


"This is the story of the heaven and the earth (hashamayim veha'aretz) when they were created, on the day when YHVH God made earth and heaven (eretz veshamayim)" (Gen. 2:4). In all of Scripture there are only two instances where we have this phrase "earth and heaven": here ("on the day when YHVH God made earth and heaven"), and Ps. 148:13, "[Let them praise YHVH's name, for His name, alone, is sublime;] His splendor is over earth and heaven".


We can identify the spiritual teaching here in light of the Tikkunei Zohar (cf. Tikkun 28, 72b): "Bereshit: B' reishit - there are two beginnings". That is, there are two starting points in our divine service. There is the beginning that arises out of expanded consciousness, when one sets out serving God when all is bright, with heart and mind open. This is the aspect of "the heaven and the earth (hashamayim veha'aretz)": we begin at the stage of "heaven", expanded consciousness, and from its power we are able to hold firm even in our "earthiness". But, there is also the beginning in contracted consciousness, when we set out in darkness and we have no heart. The difficult work of that time is of the order "earth and heaven (eretz veshamayim)": we set out in our devotions "in the dirt", in our "earthiness", because God's glory is obscured, hidden - and it is only later that we merit the revelation of the quality of "heaven".


This is implied as well in the verse "God made the two great lights, the greater light to dominate the day and the lesser light to dominate the night, [and the stars]" (Gen. 1:16). "The greater light" is that service grounded in expanded consciousness, bright as "day"; "the lesser light" is devotion undertaken in darkness, the quality of "night". Now, one is actually not less than the other, for the Torah is clear in identifying them as "the two great lights". Indeed, if one sets out with the quality of "the greater light" when all is open before one, one's devotions are only effective for him, and only according to the measure of his service. But, if one begins serving God from the state of "the lesser light", when all is closed before one, and it feels as if one cannot succeed in moving forward - she then merits all blessings, and they flow to all others because of her devotion. This is implied in the second verse referenced above: "His splendor is over earth and heaven, He has exalted the horn of His people [for the glory of all His faithful ones, Israel, the people close to Him. Hallelujah]" (Ps. 148:13-14): if we serve God from the quality of "earth and heaven" - beginning in contracted consciousness, God hidden from us, in the sense of "earth", and only eventually attaining expanded consciousness and revelation in the sense of "heaven" - then "He will raise up the horn of his people, and praise for all His faithful ones", extending the flow of blessing to God's people, bringing His faithful ones praise.


This is the sense of our verse: "As for me, may my prayer come to You, O YHVH, at a favorable moment" - if our devotions are energized by HVYH, the feeling of intimacy with God and "the greater light", then this is indeed "a favorable moment". But, if our experience of "God" is elohim, if we begin our service when God seems hidden and before we merit any intimate revelation - then, "in Your abundant love, answer me with Your sure deliverance", may our service extend true deliverance to all, in the sense that You "raise up the horn of Your people, and praise for all Your faithful ones".
Drash Drash

In this lesson we are introduced to a recurring theme in R. Avraham's teaching: the dynamic tension between times of expansiveness and of contraction. These are represented in the names of God, YHVH and Elohim, which are also associated with love and fear, lovingkindness and limiting rigor. Both of these names appear in our verse from Ps. 69, and it is as if R. Avraham senses (with great pain) the movement from expansiveness in the opening strophe to the contraction in the second. Yet, he also recognizes that Elohim appears in the second strophe accompanied by God's great love, the quality of YHVH. Discovering God's loving presence even in the midst of limitation and negativity - learning the truth of God's loving presence which never ceases, even in the midst of suffering - leads to liberation, to salvation.


In this lesson R. Avraham sets these two dimensions up in a different way, echoing teachings from the Zohar. That is, while God lovingly pours out  blessing - life and wellbeing - to the world without anything required of us, God derives great pleasure, and the flow of blessing is amplified, when we seek to arouse God's love through our devotions ("arousal from below inspires arousal above"). Yes, serving God from the state of expanded consciousness is wonderful, but it brings blessing only to us. On the other hand, we accomplish more and extend blessing to others when we are able to serve God even from a state of constriction, of darkness. Both are great forms of devotion, but the latter is even greater.


We should note, as well, the directional aspects of this spirituality. "Heaven" is the symbol of the spiritual, the expansive; "earth" is the symbol of the physical, of darkness, of contraction. We will bump into this over and over as we work through this sefer, and it will be a welcome challenge to translate them into more "horizontal" dimensions that may not be quite so "binary" and oppositional.


Implicit in this lesson, but surely later to be explicitly stated, is that "earthiness" signifies the experience of being on the ground, mired in the morass of materiality, bound by bodily attractions and desires. In the Slonim tradition, this is often perceived as the distraction of sexual thoughts or desires, but it can also signify the wearying distractions of daily life, of making a living. These are dimensions of spiritual darkness, but they need not remain so. It is through our dedicated devotions in this dimension that we merit discovering light even there.

Remez Remez
Sod Sod

R. Avraham's prayer:

No matter what, I pray to You. There are times when my heart is open, my mind filled with light - what a moment of favor, Your favor. My prayer flows freely, I am blessed. But, there are times of darkness, of suffering, aware of my baseness and how far away You seem to be. Still, I pray. May I know in those moments how great Your love is, and may that truth be an answer to my prayer. Then, in my salvation all will be blessed, as well.


The goal of spiritual practice is not to make life beautiful, but to make it possible for us to remain open, aware, balanced, generous and happy even in the midst of difficult times. We are often distracted by pleasant spiritual experiences, seduced into thinking that having them is the point of practice. Instead, it is to develop wisdom. In R. Avraham's terms, this wisdom is that God's great love is present even in the midst of difficulty, constriction and suffering. In mindfulness terms, this wisdom is the awareness of impermanence, interdependence and emptiness. Connecting directly with the truth of these experiences helps us keep our hearts balanced and open. They are a source of "salvation", in the sense of transforming suffering from existential to experiential pain, and the release of the heart and mind from self-concern and the doubly-punishing feelings of shame and blame.


When we know the truth of impermanence, we are liberated from the fear that our suffering will be interminable, and the anxiety of holding fast to our possessions and the things that feed our sense of "self". We can observe the coming and going of each moment with equanimity and curiosity, meeting each arising with an open heart. When we know the truth of interdependence, we realize that what is happening to us is not only about us, is not happening specifically to us. It is what is happening, and it is unfolding within the context of conditions shaped by actors and forces beyond our ken. It is not our fault. But, we also realize that we are intimately woven into that web of interactions and conditions. Our actions affect others in ways that we may not comprehend. We are both liberated and obligated in the same moment. We are both central to all that occurs, and a consequence of all that arises. Ultimately, my "self" dissolves into the totality of existence, empty of separate significance. I matter because I am a manifestation of God's great love, part of the tapestry of interdependent, impermanent existence whose only reality is the in the totality of God, the oneness of all existence.


My prayer:

May I dedicate time in practice to sensitizing my soul to the flow of God's great love, to know it even when it seems hidden. In practice, may I attune my heart to the truth of impermanence, interdependence and emptiness. May I thus be freed from the limiting concerns of my smaller-self. As I am released from the constraints of my small-self, may others find blessing in God's love which will flow more easily, more effectively through me for the benefit of all beings. 
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 Birkat Avraham, the teachings of R. Avraham Weinberg of Slonim, as teacher and companion in deepening our spiritual lives. 

Be well.