Rabbi Jonathan Slater  
 Torah Study for the Soul:
Selections from Birkat Avraham:  2 BA Noah


Peshat | Drash | Remez | Sod  

Dear Friends:  My apologies - it looks like there was a glitch in the system last week that sent Jonathan's text out twice to some people.  It shouldn't happen again, and my apologies for any inconvenience.  Thanks and best, Sadie 

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Birkat Avraham


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5773: Birkat Avraham
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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:

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. 




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 me know.  Thank you. 

s.v. va'ani tephilati lekha H' eit ratzon (#2, pg. 24)


"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).


"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. 6:16). "Make an opening for daylight in the ark": understand this in light of the teaching of The Chozeh of Lublin (R. Yaakov Yitzhak Horowitz, 1745-1815), that before saying a word before God zol er dos derleikhten (one must make it shine). "Put the entrance to the ark in its side": in the No'am Elimelekh we learn that this signifies the opening to teshuvah. This resonates with the teaching in the Talmud (Menachot 29b): "why does the leg of the letter Heh hang down? If one does teshuvah one may enter through the opening there".


Consider this teaching: The early pious ones (chasidim rishonim) would wait one hour before the Prayer. Then they would pray, and then wait an hour after the Prayer (cf. Berachot 32b). Before praying they would wait an hour in order to bring light into the prayer, in the sense of "making an opening for the ark". After their prayer they would wait an hour in order to enter the opening to teshuvah that was opened during prayer.


This is how we can understand our verse: "As for me, may my prayer come to You, O YHVH, at a favorable moment" - before my prayer I prepare, in order to bring light into the prayer, so that it should be received with favor. "O God, in Your abundant love, answer me" - from the power of the prayer may I be aroused to enter the opening to teshuvah. And, should the need to do teshuvah arise due to the quality of judgment (heaven forbid), the quality associated with the Name Elohim, O God bring me back through Your abundant love, which you pour out to us. "Answer me with Your sure deliverance" - may this arousal remain with me always.
Drash Drash

The verse from our parashah has been a focus of Hasidic teaching from the start. We have the following from the Baal Shem Tov (Tzava'at haRIVa"Sh #75):

"Make a light for the teivah (ark) [and finish it to (the width of) an amah (cubit) on high ...]. (Genesis 6:16) This means that the teivah (word) should shine. [This will be understood by the following:]

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 [stories]" (ibid.), referring to "worlds, souls and Divinity;" [for "The Holy One, blessed is He,] has three worlds [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. This requires great faith, as the Shechinah is referred to as "true faithfulness" (Isaiah 25:1; see Zohar I:22a and III:16b). Without faith, it is, Heaven forbid, a case of "he that murmurs separates the Master [of the universe]." (Proverbs 16:28)

[The concluding phrase] "finish it to an amah (cubit) on high" means "to imah (the 'mother')."


Here we have the focus on bringing light into the word, as later taught by the Chozeh of Lublin. Our focused attention on the words of prayer (or Torah study, or even our secular speech), such that they are illuminated, brings about unification. This unification takes place in bringing each letter together to form a word (teivah), words together to form sentences and all of them connected to thought. Ultimately our thought, expressed in speech, connects with the Divine. Another dimension of unification is the connection of Shekhinah - the dimension of "speech" - with the blessed Holy One, and ultimately with "the upper mother", Binah, the dimension of thought. In the background is the unification of the whole of the divine Name: connecting the Shekhinah (lower Heh) with the blessed Holy One (Tiferet; Vav); connecting these two with the upper dimensions of Chokhmah and Binah (the upper Yod-Heh). This will resonate later.


The No'am Elimelekh is brought to bear on the significance of the door in the side of the ark (No'am Elimelekh, Noah):

"The entrance of the ark you are to set in its side": the spiritual teaching is that the tzaddik must always be engaged in doing teshuvah as we have in the Talmud: "why does the leg of the letter Heh hang down? So that one who wishes can return through it". This is the significance of "you are to set in its side": so that one can enter through that very opening, which is in the side of the Heh, which signifies teshuvah.


R. Elimelekh sees an analogy between the letter Heh and the ark: both are closed on top, and on the sides, except for a small opening. That opening is for the sake of those who do teshuvah, so that they have a means to return to the life-giving safety of the ark. We can hear him read the verse thus: "You must place an opening in the side of the Heh (betzad H')", so that there is access for the penitent. That image derives from the following teaching (Menachot 29b):

R. Yehudah the patriarch asked R. Ammi: "What is the meaning of the verse, 'Trust in YHVH for ever and ever, for in Yah YHVH you have an everlasting Rock (ki beYaH YHVH tzur olamim; alternatively we can read "through Yod-Heh YHVH formed the worlds")' (Is. 26:4)". He replied, "All who set their trust in the blessed Holy One, He is for them a refuge in this world and in the world-to-come". He said: "This was my difficulty: why does the verse say 'in YaH (beYaH)' and not just YaH?" It is as was expounded by R. Yehudah b. R. Ila'i: "These two worlds the blessed Holy One created, one with the letter Heh and the other with the letter Yod. Yet I do not know whether the world-to-come was created with the Yod and this world with the Heh or this world with the Yod and the world-to-come with the Heh. But since it is written, 'These are the generations of the heaven and of the earth when they were created (behibar'am)' (Gen. 2:4): read not behibar'am ("when they were created"), but beHeh bera'am (He created them with the Heh).  Thus we say that this world was created with the Heh and the world-to-come with the Yod".

Why was this world created with the Heh? Because it is like an exedra (closed on three sides and open on one) and whoever wishes to go astray may do so. And why does the leg hang down? That if he does teshuvah he can enter thereby. Let him re-enter by the same way as he went out! No, according to Resh Lakish's view as Resh Lakish said, "What is the meaning of the verse, 'At scoffers He scoffs, but to the lowly He shows grace' (Prov. 3:34). If one comes to purify oneself, they assist; but if one comes to defile oneself, they open for him".


R. Yehudah b. R. Ila'i connects the letter Heh with this world. The gemara then makes the connection between the form of the letter and the opening for teshuvah. This suggests the need for the existence of teshuvah if there is to be any meaningfulness to the world-to-come. There are several lessons in the midrash which use the idiom "opened for him an opening of teshuvah" (e.g. Gen.R. 21:6, 38:9, 49:6), all of which echo in our lesson. This idea of an opening through which our repentance can reach God, or by which we can reach God through teshuvah, is captured in the following midrash (Ruth R. 5:6; cf. parallel in Y Sanhedrin 51b). The context of what follows is how the wicked king Menasseh suffered, and yet was received by God in repentance:

R. Levi b. Hayyata said: They made a mule of bronze and seated him on it (or placed him in it) and kindled a fire underneath it, and he cried out, "O idol so-and-so, O idol so-and-so, save me!" And when he saw that they were of no use, he said, "I remember that my father used to read before me the verse, 'when you are in distress because all these things have befallen you, in the end, return to YHVH your God and obey Him. For YHVH your God is a compassionate God: He will not fail you nor will He let you perish; He will not forget the covenant which He made on oath with your fathers' (Deut. 4:30-31). I will cry out to Him; if He answers me, it is well; and if not, then it is all one, and all gods are the same". The ministering angels arose and closed all the windows of heaven and appealed to God: "Master of the Universe! A man who set up an idol in the very Temple - will You accept him in repentance?" He said to them: "If I do not accept him in repentance, I close the door (no'el petach) in the face of all future penitents (ba'alei teshuvah)". What did the blessed Holy One do? He dug an opening (chatirah) from under the Throne of Glory, where the angels could not reach. That is the meaning of the verse, "He prayed to Him, and He granted his prayer (vayei'ater), heard his plea" (II Chron. 33: 13) (punning on the exchange of chet in chatirah and ayin in vayei'ater).


Here we see explicitly that God digs a hole under the throne of Glory so that all prayers of teshuvah might be accepted. This hole is similar to the opening in the letter Heh, and provides access for us in our teshuvah.


Still, it is worth noting the conclusion of Resh Lakish's teaching in Menachot: "if one comes to defile oneself, they open for him". It is tempting to think that despite the intended contrast with the first half of the teaching, R. Elimelekh (and the Birkat Avraham) wish us to think that even if we choose to defile ourselves, God will still open up an opening to teshuvah for us.
Remez Remez
Sod Sod

R. Avraham's prayer:

I prepare well to pray. I want my words to shine with all that is true in my heart, so that they will be welcomed with favor. O God, in Your great love answer me! May this prayer then arouse me to enter the gates of teshuvah, to be closer to You. I know that there will be times that I experience constriction, and sense myself distant from You. Help me come closer through Your great love which is always present to us. May this response bring true salvation: an expansive mind and open heart, forever.


R. Avraham posits this as a natural sequence of spiritual movement: attention (concentration, focus, intention) brings light to our consciousness; this prompts awareness of the need to turn toward God, to realign with the truth; this leads us to prayer; this grounds the inner movement of teshuvah, of reorientation and accountability.


This corresponds to my experience. When I bring focused, balanced attention to my life, without judgment, I am able to let go of the story that I tell about who I am, how good I am, how well I've behaved, how ill served I've been by others. This is the story of my solid, separate self. It is the narrative told by the ego, seeking to reinforce its control over life, to assert power in the face of the unmanageable, the infinite. Fear drives the ego: of loss, of lack, of domination, of death. Creating the conditions in which it is possible to recognize the wiles and ways of the ego, I gain perspective, and allow myself to ease into the truth: I am not in control; I am not perfect; I don't know all that is happening; loss is ever-present.


Out of that spaciousness I can pray. I reach out to, seek inwardly for God. Held in that relationship of prayer, I can speak the truth of my life. Some of that truth relates to my failures, my mistakes, the injuries I've done to others. That is painful, constricting, to acknowledge and I am tempted to run away. Remaining in a relationship of prayer I can hold my place, remain face-to-face with the truth. Looking even more closely I can identify how I have lived out of attunement with God, asserting my power and authority over that of God's oneness, the infinite wholeness and interconnection of all being and existence. My heart breaks in contrition - but free of guilt, as I am prepared to see, speak and address the truth. I will no longer hide, but turn toward God and others to make amends, to align, attune.


When I come out of prayer, I can sit quietly, knowing that I am held in love, supported in my desire to act with integrity, to do teshuvah. I am inspired, energized and committed to act.


My prayer:

Let me bring light to my heart, opening the shell of my defenses so that my soul might shine. In the quiet of meditation and prayer, may my words be whole and wholehearted, true, unflinching. I want to be able to face you directly, God, contrite but confident in my honesty. I know that there is no other conduit for the flow of the full force of Your love, for which I yearn so deeply. As painful as it is to speak the truth, I trust Your love is there for me, and I am inspired to proceed. May my practice be such that the feeling of Your love endures, saving me from my own small self.
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.