By Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer, Torah Columnist
Torah Portion: Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17)
Menachem Mendel (1787-1859) received a thorough Torah education at an early age, mastered the entire Talmud when he was 13, and then he began to study hasidut and later become the Reb of Kotzk, or the Kotzker Reb. Thousands of students flocked to study with him, mainly because he had a passion for truth, which he believed would bring us closer to G-d. This sense of spirituality not only impressed and inspired students to take up texts with him, but he also inspired thousands of students to study the esoteric meaning of our Torah, G-d’s greatest gift to the world. I can’t deny a bit of envy here. If I get ten students wishing to study Kabbalistic texts with me, I am overjoyed. And here is a man who, in his struggle to find the spiritual meaning of each Torah verse, he receives hundreds and hundreds, even thousands, of new students.
Among the most interesting texts the Kotzker Reb wrote is a book called Ohel Torah. And in his amazing study to this book, he begins by analyzing the opening verse of the Torah portion of this week, Re’eh. “Re’eh anochi notein liphnei chem…. See, today I place before you (blessing and curse).” (Deuteronomy 11:26) The Kotzker Reb writes in his opening teachings of this verse: “Interpreters have struggled hard to note that this verse begins by talking to an individual (in the singular,“See, Re’eh”) and then concludes in the plural (“Before you, liphnei chem.”). But in all of their words, I still do not hear anything new. After all, was the Torah not given equally to every Jew (and so plural)? But, insight into and reflection on the Torah is only according to the spiritual state of each and every individual alone. Thus, for each individual Jew, the word “See” has a different significance, according to his spiritual state.”
A person can only know his spiritual state when he discovers the divinity within his “self.” We begin to know ourselves when our soul can look into itself and draw from itself. When we have a sense of self awareness, we recognize G-d within us. Because, as the Kotzker Reb teaches again and again, G-d is not separate from us, but He is in every part of us. We and G-d are one.
In order to develop spiritually, we need to work from our current spiritual state. That’s why we regularly practice meditative techniques in our synagogue and at the Hebrew Seminary. On the second and fourth Saturdays of the month, we have special Kabbalistic Meditation services here at Congregation Bene Shalom, where we meditate and listen for the voice of G-d. And this fall, at Hebrew Seminary, I will be teaching a Hebrew Commentaries class, with special Kabbalistic commentaries to the Torah. When we take a Biblical verse and study it, not only academically, but also spiritually, we find G-d in the text. And we recognize that it is G-d who writes these spiritual truths for us.
In this first verse, He articulates that even though the Torah was given to all of us, when we study the verses spiritually, using Lurianic meditative techniques, each one of us receives an interpretation that is unique to his or her commitment to the text. Sometimes when studying a Biblical text, we even have to embrace the Holy Spirit –this takes place through a meditative state of dreaming, as the ancient prophet studied and practiced. We learn this in the first book of Samuel. When we study texts in this unique manner, not only embracing academic approaches to learning texts, but also embracing mystical approaches, we become more aware of our “self.” This allows us to understand and know our own state of spirituality, which gives us unique understanding to the verse we are learning.
The Kotzker Reb attracted many students because he showed learning Biblical texts can be exciting, to the extent that we can find G-d in every verse. And when we do this , in our class rooms, in our synagogue or seminary, we see that this Hasidic master can teach us contemporaries and moderns so much more wisdom. In his Ohel Torah, this wonderful teacher directs us to figure out exactly our current spiritual state so that we might “see” clearly what it is that G-d has placed before us, uniquely, as Torah. And what makes this wonderful man’s teachings so exciting is that the word “see” applies to each of us differently. He challenges us not only to know our own spiritual states, which inspires us to understand how we see the world today, right now, at this moment. And he really directs us to “see” what is before us. And he does this so profoundly by simply using the difference between the singular and the plural in a simple, yet very profound, verse.
Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer is senior rabbi of Congregation Bene Shalom, Skokie, and president and professor of Jewish Mysticism at Hebrew Seminary, Skokie.