D’var torah given by Rabbi Josh at B’nai Israel Jewish Center, 12/10/16
For this teaching, I would like to draw on the psychological-spiritual wisdom of Hasidism, particularly the teaching of the Chernobler rebbe, Menachem Nahum Twersky. Also known as the Me’or Eynaim (the title of his most famous text from which I am drawing—it means the spiritual Light of the Eyes), he lived in Ukraine from 1730-1797. As one of the numerous extraordinary students of the Maggid of Mezeritch, he was part of the third generation of Hasidism. I first became aware of this text from my longtime teacher, Rabbi Miles Krassen.
In a general sense, the Hasidic approach to torah is to read the text as a vast spiritual landscape, filled with psychological insight that has great relevance for our own struggles to grow and to walk the spiritual path. It’s not about the text’s literal meaning.
We begin with the first verse of our torah portion: Jacob left Be’er Sheva and went toward Haran. (Genesis 28:10)
Jacob leaves the Land of Israel with the blessing of his father Isaac, having wrested Isaac’s blessing from Esau, and is now charged with finding a wife in his ancestral land of Haran. The Me’or Eynaim sees Haran as not just any old place, but a place of darkness, or great challenge. Through a typical rabbinic play on words, he reads Jacob’s destination “Haran” as hinting at “ḥaron af haMakom,” which means Divine anger. The word play is based around Haran/haron.
How does the Me’or Eynaim understand this place of “Divine anger?” It is a place of klipot, shells which conceal the Divine light. It is exemplified by the figure of Jacob’s uncle Lavan, with whom Jacob will spend the next twenty years living. Let’s unpack this a little. Klipot (literally “shells”) are an important concept in Kabbalah. In the Kabbalistic cosmology of the seminal thinker Isaac Luria, the klipot are the places that obscure the Divine light, where the Divine sparks became trapped following the breaking of the vessels that accompanied the creation of the world.
Rather than “shells” I would translate klipot as “obscurations,” so a place of klipot would be a place where Divine light seems to be very “thin,” like oxygen at high altitude. In our experience, this might be a place where kindness is completely lacking, or where there is great tension and ill feeling. This place is exemplified by Lavan because generally in the rabbinic imagination, Lavan is understood as the exact opposite of his name (which means “white”). He is seen as a person for whom deceit is the core of his nature.
Before we go further, it is important to note this radical and liberating idea here about “Divine anger.” By his creative interpretive move of reading the place name “Haran” as hinting at ḥaron af haMakom, the Me’or Eynaim helps us to shift the problematic, limited and vindictive images of the “angry God of the Bible.” His reading allows us to now understand a place of Divine anger as a place where Divine light and compassion are merely obscured, and require our active efforts to ferret them out and reveal them.
And in fact, that is how the Me’or Eynaim understands Jacob during his twenty year sojourn with Lavan. He sees Jacob as trying to sift out the wisdom (torah) that is hidden in the place of Lavan’s great darkness. The idea is that usually when we find ourselves in a place of "Divine anger," such as a situation of great negativity, we end up becoming completely identified with an aversion response (i.e. “I just have to get out of here, get away from this person, this situation,” etc.). The suggestion is, following Jacob, to see if there is any torah, any Divine sparks that we can sift out from the situation, which is called berur (sifting) in the spiritual language of Hasidism.
How do we do this? It's not a simple question. But the Me'or Eynaim does give us one clue: softening the heart. Later in our parsha, when Jacob arrives in Haran, one of the first things he does is that he meets his future wife Rachel and he rolls a heavy stone off of the opening of a nearby well. (Gen. 29:10)
The Me’or Eynaim reads Jacob’s rolling away of the stone covering the well as a removal of that which is obscuring the living waters below, i.e. torah (which is also called mayim chayim). The Me’or Eynaim brings a beautiful verse from Ezekiel (36:26) into the conversation: “I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh.” Read together with this verse from Ezekiel, Jacob’s act of rolling away the stone from the well becomes an act of softening, of transforming a heart of stone into a heart of flesh, an act that will aid him in his difficult years ahead with Lavan.
Note that the Me’or Eynaim does not say that when going into a dark situation where we feel God’s presence to be absent, that we should steel ourselves or toughen ourselves up. He says precisely the opposite: going into those situations where the Divine presence is most obscured, we are to soften our hearts.
A soft heart is of course an open heart, and an open heart has a greater chance of perceiving the hidden and obscured sparks of holiness and wisdom that may be present in a given situation. An open, softened heart can see through the seeming limitations that present themselves to the eye.
With this kind of perspective, holding this kind of aspiration, we stand a much better chance at seeing the obstacles and challenges we face in our lives as important opportunities for growth along the spiritual path.
In the truest sense, everything is fundamentally workable, everything we encounter is part of the path.