Rabbi Jonathan Slater  
 Torah Study for the Soul:
Selections from Birkat Avraham:  3 BA Lekh Lekha


Peshat | Drash | Remez | Sod  


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Birkat Avraham


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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:

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. ve-e'esekha legoy gadol ve'avarekhekha ve'agadelah shemekha veheyeh berakhah


"I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing" (Gen. 12:2). The midrash (Gen.R. 39:11) teaches, regarding the last phrase:

R. Yudan said: "I will establish a blessing for you in the Shemoneh Esreh, but you do not know if My blessing goes first or yours". [God promised Abraham that he will become a blessing in the Amidah] R. Achvey said in the name of R. Ze'ira: "Yours goes before Mine. When one has recited magen Avraham one then recites mechayyeh hametim".


This means that there are two devotional paths: one is to draw Jews' hearts nearer to their Heavenly Parent through teshuvah, and in this manner will blessings of lovingkindness be drawn out to them; the other is to draw down the lovingkindness, and thereby they will surely draw close to God and do teshuvah. This is reflected in our midrash. "You do not know if My blessing goes first" - according to the first path above, to turn the people first in teshuvah, bringing them near to God such that lovingkindness flows to them automatically - "or if yours is first" - to draw down lovingkindness, providing the people with their needs out of which they will then turn in teshuvah. The midrash concludes: "When one has recited magen Avraham one then recites mechayyeh hametim" we conclude that Abraham's way takes precedence. The blessing "You revive the dead" is really about teshuvah: the wicked even in their lifetimes are considered dead (cf. Berachot 18b), but when they return in teshuvah they rise up again, revived from death. But, before that we recite "Shield of Abraham", which includes the phrases "You enact great love (gomel chasadim tovim)", "You remember the loving acts of the Patriarchs (vezokher chasdei avot)", "You will bring a redeemer to their descendant (umeivi go'el livnei veneihem)". This demonstrates that first we must draw out lovingkindness, and provide for peoples' needs; only then can there be a revival of the dead, for they will of themselves wake up to return in teshuvah.


We see the same pattern after the Golden Calf, when in anger God said to Moses "Now, let Me be [that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make of you a great nation]" (Ex. 32:10). In this manner God hinted to Moses that it was up to him to pray for the Israelites that their sin be forgiven. Moses said to God "Oh, let me behold Your Presence (kevodekha)" (ibid. 33:18): what constitutes God's honor (kavod)? Is it the first path, or the second? God responded to him: "I will show-favor to whom I show-favor, and I will show-mercy to whom I show-mercy" (ibid. vs. 19) - even though they may not be deserving or worthy (cf. Berachot 7a). Thus, the path is to draw out lovingkindness, favor and mercy on Israel, even though they may not deserve it, and perforce they will do teshuvah.


In general, this was the point of Creation, as the Zohar teaches (III 69b): before the creation of humans, Torah said before the blessed Holy One that the humans would in the future anger God. But, the blessed Holy One said to her "Is it for nothing that I am called 'a loving, compassionate patient God' (cf. Ex. 34:6)?" Thus we see that the purpose of Creation is to do good for all creatures, even though they may not be deserving, or worthy.


This is how we can read the verse "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). The first intention of a prayer-leader who prays for the community must be to draw out God's true desire and will, to extend lovingkindness and provide for the needs of people. This is "my prayer to You, God: may this be a moment in which You express Your favor", for this is, after all, the purpose of Creation. "O God, in Your abundant love": when the aspect of judgment and limitation has been "sweetened" and lessened, and great love has flowed, then we can pray "answer me with Your true salvation": that in equal measure to the physical deliverance, may I experience salvation in the dimension of spiritual truth.
Drash Drash

This is classical Hasidic spirituality: it is more likely that people will be able to truly engage in teshuvah if their physical and material needs are first met, and they experience God's love directly. The way of the mochiach, the rebuking preacher, only causes guilt and depression and often impedes teshuvah and transformation. The way of Hasidism is chesed: to treat people with chesed, to live and demonstrate God's chesed, and so make it possible for people to find room in their lives and hearts to try to be better, to turn their lives around.


The teaching from the midrash demonstrates how Abraham became a blessing: one was composed for him in the Amidah, concluding specifically and solely with his name. Of course, it is odd to say, then, that God's Name is not present in the blessing, or that in this manner Abraham takes precedence over God in the second blessing of the Amidah. But, that makes the R. Yudan's claim even more powerful: Abraham - and his quality of chesed - precedes the revival of the dead, which represents teshuvah. It is interesting to see the larger context of the teaching from Berachot 18a/b, then, to see the nexus of the actual dead with the wicked who even in their lifetimes are called "dead".

R. Hiyya and R. Yonatan were once walking about in a cemetery, and the blue fringe of R. Yonatan was trailing on the ground. R. Hiyya said to him: "Lift it up, so that they should not say: 'Tomorrow they are coming to us yet now they are insulting us!'" He said to him: "Do they know so much? Is it not written, 'But the dead know nothing?' (Eccl. 9:5)" He said to him: "If you have read once, you have not repeated; if you have repeated, you have not gone over a third time; if you have gone over a third time, you have not had it explained to you: 'For the living know that they will die' (ibid.): these are the righteous who in their death are called living as it says, 'Benaiah the son of Yehoyada, from Kabze'el, was the son of a brave warrior (ketiv: ben ish chai; keri: ben ish chayil) who had done mighty deeds. He smote the two altars of Moab; he went down and also slew a lion in the midst of a pit in the time of snow' (II Sam. 23:20). 'The son of a living man (ben ish chai)': are all other people then the sons of dead men? Rather 'the son of a living man' means that even in his death he was called living... 'But the dead know nothing': These are the wicked who in their lifetime are called dead, as it says, 'And you, O wicked prince of Israel, are slain (chalal)' (Ezek. 21:30); or if you prefer, I can derive it from here: 'A person shall be put to death (yumat hamet; lit. "the dead shall be made dead") only on the testimony of two or three witnesses' (Deut. 17:6). But, he is still alive! What it means is: he is already counted as dead".


Not all people who are living can claim to be alive: awake, connected to the truth, devoted to living fully in the face of the divine. It is possible to be dead even in the midst of life. So, we see how the midrash sets of the quality of chesed before teshuvah, establishing the priority of the former over the latter.


As R. Avraham reads the Zohar, this order holds true for Creation as well. The Zohar teaching is based on a baraita in Pesachim 54a:

It was taught: Seven things were created before the world was created, and these are they: The Torah, repentance (teshuvah), the Garden of Eden, Gehenna, the Throne of Glory, the Temple, and the name of the Messiah... Repentance, as Scripture says: "Before the mountains came into being" Ps. 90:2) but then it says, "You return man to dust; yet You said, 'Return you mortals!'" (ibid. vs.3).


The verses from Ps. 90 suggest a sequence of events: before God brought the earth into being God established God's will, desire and intention that people have the capacity and the opportunity to "return". Now, we might think that this means that teshuvah must come before God's blessing can flow. This is inverted by the teaching of Zohar III 69b (which echoes Gen.R. 8:5):

R. Yehudah opened the verse: "A Song of Ascents. From the depths I call to You, YHVH" (Ps. 130:1). We have taught: when the blessed Holy One created the world He desired to create a human being, and sought advice in the Torah. She said to God: "Do you really wish to create this human being? In the future he will sin before You; in the future he will make You angry. If you do for him according his deeds the world will not survive before You, much less this human being". God said to her: "Is it for nothing that I am called 'a compassionate and merciful God, slow to anger'?" And so, before the blessed Holy One created the world, He created teshuvah. God said to her, to Teshuvah: "I wish to create human beings in the world, but it is on condition that when they return to you from their sins that you will be prepared to forgive their sins and provide atonement for them". And, so, in every moment Teshuvah is prepared to receive human beings, and when they return from their sins, Teshuvah returns to the blessed Holy One and He provides atonement for everything. Judgments are covered over and all are made fragrant, and the human being is cleansed of his sins.


Here the priority of God's love and mercy are posited. They must be present constantly so that people will return in teshuvah, so that they can be cleansed and transformed. They need not do so first, but do so because of God's love, expressed through satisfying basic material needs.
Remez Remez
  1. Based on this teaching, we might understand the conclusion of the first berakhah of the Amidah - magen Avraham, Shield of Abraham - in the following manner: "more than God is a shield for Abraham, Abraham's quality of love is a shield for us". Can you pray this blessing with this intent? What might it feel like to pray it with the expectation or hope of feeling God's love through it? Try it - reflect.
  2. How do you respond to the praise, gift or attention you receive when you do not feel worthy or deserving? When, how, why? Would knowing that God offers you love and compassion even if you are not worthy or deserving open or close your heart? Why? What do you believe you need to do to be worthy of God's love?
  3. What conditions have you found to be conducive to an open heart, to a clear mind, to your ability to sustain your attention to service or devotion? What conditions impede this? What have you found you can do to nurture the former and limit the latter?
Sod Sod


R. Avraham's prayer:

When I pray, I realize that it is not about me. My deepest desire is for the life, health and wellbeing of all others. That is Your desire as well - make it come to be. May my prayer help bring that into being. When those needs have been met, God, then let us also remember to pray: that our hearts open, that our minds be clear, that our spirits be balanced even as we realize how much work there is yet to do to participate in the perfection of Your world.


I am struck by these elements of R. Avraham's teaching:

  • The revival of the dead takes place in this world, in this lifetime. "The wicked, even in their lifetimes, are called 'dead'", and when they do teshuvah they are brought back to life. If this is true for the wicked it must be true, as well, for us in some way. We, too, may suffer being "dead" even while we live, yet it is possible to be brought back to life.
  • God created the world for our good and wellbeing. The conditions for our happiness are present. We need not hold an adversarial relationship with the world: it is not out to get us; it is not "holding out" on us.
  • Realizing the last point - that the world is not out to get us and it is not holding out on us - contributes to the revival of the dead in this world. Letting go of fear of insufficiency, letting go of anxiety over not having enough, releases us to recognize what do already have. The constricted mind and heart open and sense goodness and wellbeing. We are liberated to move in a different direction, to do teshuvah.
  • Life itself comes to us each moment as a gift of lovingkindness, favor and mercy. Pain may cloud this perception, leading us to doubt life's goodness. It should not lead us to be ungrateful. Realizing that we are blessed with goodness each moment undeservedly might be painful, tightening the heart in resentment of indebtedness. Let it instead be the inspiration to transform our lives so that we truly become worthy.
  • Cultivating the qualities of gratitude, satisfaction, trust and joy helps us to turn toward the needs of others. We can devote our energies to attending to their needs, to easing their constricted hearts.


We do want to be careful about what we mean by the world being "good". It is so, because it exists as the dimension in which all beings can strive for greater consciousness. Were there no world, there could be no consciousness. But, because we are embodied beings, and because we have a somewhat evolved consciousness, we are aware of inequity, cruelty, injustice, violence, mendacity etc. The world does not always feel morally "good". In terms of mindfulness, and our lesson, that is constricted consciousness. All of those dimensions of human behavior exist, but they do not make the world "not good". They are both the result and the cause of suffering, which prevents seeing clearly. While rules and regulations, laws and structures are important ways to limit wickedness, only consciousness taken to heart can bring about change.


That is what R. Avraham - and mindfulness practice - offers us: create the conditions to change perception, and change of consciousness is possible. To meet any moment, any event, any occurrence in the world with the response of "this is how it is" relieves suffering in our hearts. All that might have seemed "wrong" or insufficient we understand to be an overlay of our preference for what "should be", and a source of suffering. Letting go brings ease of spirit. It also releases energy. We are liberated in that moment to recognize the suffering of others - not as "wrong" but as suffering - and to know that our deepest desire is to share our ease of heart with others. Our happiness can co-exist with the suffering of others, so long as we also devote our selves to easing that suffering.


My prayer:

May I know Your love, God, always. When I am flush, and when I am broke; when I feel satisfied and when I feel needy. May I always sense Your goodness in me, in others, in the world. Then, perhaps, it will be easier for me to know how I prevent others from receiving Your blessings, to recognize how I consume the livelihood of others - and I will be able to do teshuvah, change my life. Then I will be free to take care of others' needs without feeling deprived myself. O, in knowing this deep truth, may I be saved, may I live with joy, love, compassion and equanimity. May I truly know your love.
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.