In this cycle through the Torah we will be taking a mystical journey. Our guide will be Rabbi Larry Tabick’s book, The Aura of Torah, published in 2014 by the Jewish Publication Society and the University of Nebraska.
Rabbi Tabick, a Reform rabbi in London, England, has translated a wide range of mystical sources from the 12th to 19th century, organized by the parshah of the week. The text is not scholarly but reflects the study guides of a congregational rabbi using Torah study to communicate key ideas in Jewish mysticism. He does not attempt to systematically describe the varieties of Jewish mysticism and their historical development. Instead he shows through excerpts of source texts illustrations of particular themes in the mystical understanding of Torah. These themes include the fundamental unity and presence of God in all of life, the means of experiencing that unity and presence, the moral order embedded in reality, and the paradox of language as both a vehicle and obstacle to expressing a connection to God.
While Rabbi Tabick has attempted to be inclusive of non-hasidic mystical thought, the relative availability of published hasidic writings from the nineteenth century is reflected in the source texts.
I will include excerpts from the source texts, but I recommend purchasing Rabbi Tabick’s book, which includes considerable contextual and explanatory information.
Personally, I’m more comfortable with mussar than kabbalistic and hasidic thought. Mussar is concrete, while kabbalistic texts can be abstract and use a dense technical language. Rabbi Tabick is a good guide and steers us carefully when near technical terms. Part of our Torah study is to explore areas that stretch our understanding and comfort. That will happen during this cycle.
This is the blessing with which Moses, the man of God, bade the Israelites farewell before he died.
“For” said he, “if not now, when?”
Hayim of Kosov (early 19th century)
Rashi explains, “[He] was near death, so ‘if not now, when.'” It seems to me that Rashi’s intention here [was to say] that this was the source of the blessing that our teacher Moses bestowed: that each individual should remember each moment as [belonging] to the service of God, for no moment or how will ever recur. Hence “if not now, when?”
Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses — whom the Eternal singled out, face to face … and for all the great might and awesome power that Moses displayed before all Israel.
On Simchat Torah we go from this last verse to the beginning of the Torah. Our next source links the beginning with this ending text.
Moshe Hayyim Efraim of Sudylkov (18th century, grandson of the Rabbi Israel, the Baal Shem Tov)
One might say that by joining the end of the Torah, Israel with the beginning, Breishit [we could learn] how everyone should begin to study the Torah. It follows along the lines of “If there is no awe, there is no wisdom.” Look here, Israel, contains the letters of Yirah [awe] [and] SHaL where SHaL indicates SHaLem [perfect], as in Jerusalem. That is, when you have perfect awe, that is, internal awe, then you will become a vessel for the aspect of Hochmah [Wisdom], and with it, you will enter the aspect of B’reishit, that is, Hochmah, which means the entire Torah. Thus, we begin the Torah with Breishit. And the enlightened will understand.
And here we have the first touch of technical kabbalistic terminology. Hochmah is one of the sefiriot — aspects of God. It often has the sense of inspiration in thought. How is awe of God essential to an inspired reading of the Torah?
When God began to create heaven and earth ..
Rabbi Leibl Eger, (mid-19th century, student of the Kotzker rebbe)
When R. Eger returned from Kotzk, his father, R. Shlomo, asked him: What did you learn?
He replied, I learned three things:
- That a human being is a human being and an angel is an angel.
- That if one wishes, a human being can become more than an angel.
- “In the beginning, God created” — the Holy One created only in the beginning, and the rest God left to human beings.
Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, for God took him.
In Jewish mystical thought this verse has led to speculative fiction on Enoch’s life. In some tellings, he is transformed into the angel Metatron, who is a kind of super-angel.
Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polonnoye (18th century, student of the Baal Shem Tov)
Our rabbis say that Enoch was a shoemaker, and that with each and every stitch he would unify the Holy One, blessed be He and His Shechinah … I heard in the name of my teacher the explanation of the verse: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do with all your strength, for there is no work or thought or knowledge in the nether-world [to which you are going]” [Kohelet 9-10]. For, the subject of Metatron, how he united the Holy One, blessed be He, and His Shechinah with every stitch, etc, [symbolized by the four-letter name] while action is [symbolized by the divine name] Adonai. When you join together action and thought, as you perform an action, it is called the union of the Holy One, blessed be He, and His Shechinah. Hence [the text] says: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do with all your strength” — that is to say, thought is [identical with] wisdom (Hochmah}, the power of what” (KoaCH MaH). So, do the action with all your strength, that is, your thought, by joining together the two things, which [represent] the Holy One, blessed be He, and His Shechinah.
Rabbi Yaakov Yosef is describing a meditation technique in coded language.