VaEh’yeh Etzlo Amon
An adaptation of the Maamar found in Likutei Torah
THERE IS a passage in the book of Proverbs in which the Torah itself is the speaker, and anthropomorphically describes itself as having pre-existed the entire created universe. After such statements as “When [G-d] established the heavens, I was there; when He drew a circle over the surface of the deep,” the Torah goes on to say, (Proverbs 8:30-31), “I was with Him as a nursling, and I was His delight every day, playing before Him at all times; playing with the world, His earth, and my delights were with the sons of man.” These statements are not merely poetic; they contain profound mystical references to the essential quality of the Torah, the bestowal of which upon the Jewish people we celebrate on the holiday of Shavuos.
The Torah’s being described as a “nursling” (amon in Hebrew) is reminiscent of Moshe’s (Moses’) statement to G-d in Numbers 11:12-13. There, Moshe has just been told by G-d that the Jews would miraculously be supplied with meat in the desert, and Moshe “complains,” as it were, that he is not equipped to be the instrument of that event. “[Who am I,] Moshe says to G-d, that You should say to me, ‘Carry it [the Jewish nation] in your bosom as a nursing person [omen] carries a suckling child’ ... from where am I [to get] meat?”
As explained elsewhere (see, for example, the adaptation of the discourse L’havin Inyan Lechem Mishna on the Torah portion B’shalach; also that of the discourse B’Etzem Hayom Hazeh Yatzu Kol Tzivos Hashem Me’eretz Mitzrayim on the Torah portion Bo), Moshe’s soul derived from an extremely sublime spiritual level. His soul was so exalted that Moshe – who had just spent 40 days and nights atop Mount Sinai in such a rarified state of holiness that he was sustained entirely by spirituality and had no need of physical food – felt he could not relate to such a mundane thing as meat. He was at a loss to understand how he could provide it to the ordinary people. (Similarly, Moshe had told G-d that he was unfit to deliver G-d’s message of deliverance to the Jews in Egypt because he suffered from a speech impediment. Chassidic philosophy explains that Moshe’s concern was that his own lofty soul would be unable to bridge the gap with the ordinary Jews, so that G-d’s message would not be successfully transmitted. G-d’s response was that He would assist Moshe in “getting the message across,” i.e., Moshe should do his part in speaking to the Jews, and G-d would see to it that the spiritual “gap” was bridged.) Thus, instead of ordinary, physical nourishment, Moshe is associated with the Manna which miraculously descended from heaven in his merit (see Ta’anis 9a; Zohar III 156a). This was spiritual nourishment and something that Moshe could relate to.
One observation must be made before we can appreciate the significance of all the above. Since nothing in the Torah is accidental or casual, its metaphors are not merely figures of speech, but deliberately used to reflect an essential correspondence between the metaphor and its object. In this case, the references to nursing an infant likewise signify something deeper than simple literary imagery. A newborn infant is not fully developed; a baby has a lot of growing up yet to do. At first, a child is almost exclusively a creature of emotion, feeling pleasure, fear, and similar things but unable to think about or understand what it experiences. Even its emotions need time to blossom and develop all the nuance of which they are capable. (A child does not experience “bittersweet” or poignant feelings, for example – just wild joy or raging anger.)
While it is true that in modern times, many infants are not nursed at all, this natural practice symbolizes a certain spiritual growth. As actual milk promotes growth of a child’s limbs, so does nursing represent and engender the spiritual development and growth of the soul’s emotional attributes. Over the period of nursing, the infant’s emotions mature and develop. However, it is not until significantly later that the child’s intellect emerges, which is why a newborn, although able to produce sound (and sometimes plenty of that!) is not capable of intelligent speech. This later stage of development is mystically associated with the child’s weaning and introduction to solid food, specifically bread, as the Talmud (B’rachos 40a) teaches (in support of the proposition that the Tree of Knowledge, which introduced an intellectual awareness to Adam and Eve, was actually wheat), “A child does not know to call ‘Father!’ or ‘Mother!’ until it has tasted the taste of grain.”
All the above can be brought to bear upon our topic. Kabbalistically, the three major Jewish holidays of Passover, Shavuos and Succos all have a role to play in the creation of Jewish souls. On the seventh day of Passover, new souls are “born,” as it were, in the sense that they emerge from the lofty spiritual realm of Atzilus, which is inseparable from G-d Himself, into the relatively “lower” realm of B’riah, where they are considered separate entities. However, these “newborn” souls are not yet fully developed. As explained elsewhere, a Jewish soul possesses ten spiritual attributes, seven of which parallel the emotional attributes of a person and three of which, intellectual attributes. The newborn soul, like a newborn infant, still needs time before its emotional faculties are fully grown; this applies particularly to the so-called “animal soul” which is the source of a person’s natural inclinations. These too, and not only one’s spiritual tendencies, need to be developed into vehicles for the service of G-d. Each of the seven emotional attributes, when “mature,” is a composite of all seven (making 49 emotional components of the soul in all), and for these “nuances” to come out, the soul must undergo a period of spiritual “nursing.” This refers to the 44 days of the Omer period between the seventh day of Passover and the holiday of Shavuos.
(For the Omer period, the time in which the Jews count the days from the Exodus from Egypt until the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, begins on the second night of Passover and contains 49 days in total. These correspond to the 49 emotional attributes of the soul. However, the first five days of s’firah (i.e., the first five days of the count), from the second until the seventh day of Passover, represent the mystical five attributes of kindness (the five chassadim: the first five emotional attributes within the compound attribute of chessed, or kindness, itself) which engender the growth of the rest of the attributes. These first five are identified with the realm of Atzilus, leaving only 44 which develop after “birth.”)
The mitzvah of counting the Omer, then, serves the mystical function of “nursing” the Jewish souls, developing their core emotional attributes to maturity. However, nursing is not an end in itself; it leads to weaning and the ability to assimilate solid food. This is symbolized by bread, and, just as “the taste of grain” introduces a new level of intellectual capacity to a toddler, it is the spiritual “bread” which the souls receive after nursing that brings out their intellectual attributes. This “bread” is the Torah itself, which is called “food” (mazon) for the soul (see Chagigah 14a; Bereishis Rabba 43:7), and about which it is written (Proverbs 9:5), “Come, eat of My bread.”
The holiday of Shavuos, when the Torah was given to the Jews, thus mystically corresponds to the “weaning” of the newborn souls. That is why, on Shavuos, we are commanded to offer up a sacrifice consisting chiefly of two loaves of bread (Leviticus 23:17): one representing the Written Torah (the Bible) and the other representing the Oral Torah (the entire corpus of Jewish knowledge, including the Mishna and Talmud, which reveals the latent meaning of the Biblical verses).
(This level is granted to us by G-d in response to the Jews’ having nullified themselves in deference to Him during reflection on the Shema prayer, which is why the verse says that the two loaves are to be brought “from your dwellings” (mimoshvoseichem) – a word that can also mean, “from your sitting” – since the Shema is properly recited while sitting.)
(The holiday of Sh’mini Atzeres, at the conclusion of the Succos period, is the mystical “conception” of the souls.)
“Nursing,” as a concept, can be understood in its own right, or in the sense that it is a preparatory stage leading to eventual weaning onto bread. Moshe, in his humility, felt inadequate to this latter task of introducing the Jewish people to the “solid food” of the Torah, which is what he meant by the protest, “[Who am I] that You should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a nursing person carries a suckling child’ ... from where am I [to get] meat?”
Now, it must be understood that G-d Himself is absolutely transcendent and unknowable. Any relation to Him that we have is a gift from G-d, which He bestowed upon us through the vehicle of the Torah: by “compressing,” as it were, Himself into the Torah, we are enabled to grasp G-d Himself through our grasp of the Torah. The Torah itself is the vessel, the conduit, which contains and transmits this G-dliness to us. This is why, although Moshe modestly felt he was unable to bring G-dliness all the way down to our level – he felt unable to “nurse” the Jews up to the point of readiness for “bread” – the Torah itself does describe itself as performing this function, as it says “I was with Him as a nursling.”
That verse goes on to say, “I was His delight every day.” This refers to the joy and pleasure which come only after intellectual comprehension; not only is the Torah a “nursling” which brings out the intellectual level of the Jewish soul, it continues on to reveal the even deeper aspect of delight, or pleasure.
To understand what is meant by this, we must first consider why King David was punished for praising the Torah as “songs.” David wrote (Psalms 119:54), “Your statutes have been my songs,” and our sages teach (see Bamidbar Rabba 4:20; Tanchuma; and Sota 35a) that G-d rebuked him for this, saying, “David! Do you call them [mere] songs?” As punishment, David forgot an elementary Torah teaching: it is explicitly stated in the Torah that the Holy Ark was to be carried on the shoulders of the Levites (see Numbers 7:9), but David, in transporting it, placed it on a wagon instead.
The significance of this is as follows:
As we know, G-d deliberately created humanity in His image so that, by Torah-guided contemplation of our own makeup, we can come to understand something of G-d. See, e.g., the adaptation of the discourse Vay’daber Hashem El Moshe B’Midbar Sinai on the Torah portion Bamidbar, where it is explained that just as a person’s will is superior to his or her intellect, in the sense that the will – what one desires – is not dependent upon logical considerations, but just “because” – so can we identify a spiritual level which we call the “will” (ratzon) of G-d, a level even higher than the “intellect” of G-d. There is an element of Torah that we can intellectually comprehend, such as the reasons for mitzvos like “Do not steal” and “Remember that G-d took you out of Egypt.” We are to try to unite our own intellects with G-d’s “intellect,” so to speak, by understanding G-d’s “reasons” for such commandments. However, at root, all the Torah’s mitzvos stem from a level higher than intellect can reach: the spiritual level known as the “will” of G-d. This is exemplified by that class of mitzvos which have no rational explanation at all, like “Do not wear sha’atnez (a mixture of wool and linen)” or “Purify yourselves with the ashes of a red cow.” Such mitzvos, called chukim (“statutes”) underscore that the Torah derives from G-d’s will, which transcends intellect; even those mitzvos which do have a rational justification are rooted in the Divine Will – just as a person’s reasons for things are really secondary to the underlying fact that they simply “want” the thing in question. King David was praising this transcendent quality of Torah by referring to G-d’s chukim, statutes, as “songs.”
The reason “song” was chosen as praise for the Torah is that the enjoyment one derives from song likewise stems from a level which is not subject to intellectual justification. A person finds a particular melody pleasing, not for any rational reason, but just “because.” What is more, we are all familiar with the phenomenon in which a melody lodges itself in a person’s mind and they repeat it to themselves over and over again. Although it is the same song they keep repeating, each repetition gives the person the same pleasure, and they can go on that way indefinitely. King David meant to express the uniformly sublime holiness of the Torah by this metaphor. Although there are many different mitzvos in the Torah, they all, uniformly, stem from G-d’s exalted will, and thus, even though one may perform mitzvah after different mitzvah, each time elicits the holy level of G-d’s will, like a repeating melody that gives the same pleasure time after time.
This sounds like great praise. If so, why was David punished for this characterization? The reason is that for all the sublime and inexpressible holiness implied by the comparison of mitzvos to song – i.e., by the identification of mitzvos with G-d’s “will” – that does not capture the essential quality, the true advantage, of mitzvos.
For, in truth, even the level we have been referring to as “will” is not the innermost, most essential, level of a person – or of G-d. With respect to that ultimate quality, even “will” is but a superficial manifestation. Again, we will turn to comparison with our own selves to understand what is meant.
A person’s will – i.e., want one wants – is driven by what gives one pleasure, or delight. A person may “want” chocolate ice cream, for example. Granted that that desire transcends intellectual justification – he or she wants the ice cream just “because” and not for any “reason” – it nevertheless clearly flows from the fact that chocolate ice cream gives the person pleasure. If not for this fact, the person would not want the ice cream. Thus, desire, or ratzon in Hebrew, is itself a function of pleasure, or ta’anug, and it is this – ta’anug – which symbolizes that which is closest to the very quintessential core of the person, their very “Self.”
The same, allegorically speaking, applies to the Torah. Even the statement that the Torah is the “will” of G-d does not do justice to the inexpressibly lofty spiritual essence of what the Torah really is: the container, the conduit, by which the inconceivable spiritual level compared to the “pleasure” of G-d – that which is the very closest to G-d’s Essence, G-d’s “Self” – is transmitted to us Jews.
This is hinted at by the verse (Psalms 139:5), “You have formed me back and front.” The Torah possesses, as described above, an element that may be described as the “back,” or the outer, superficial, level – i.e., that aspect which is the ratzon, “will,” of G-d. However, on an even deeper level, the Torah’s “front,” its inner aspect, corresponds to ta’anug, G-d’s “pleasure.” And this is what is meant by G-d’s statement to Moshe (Exodus 33:23), “You will see My back, but My front will not be seen.” An observer can tell that another person wants something, for this is a relatively superficial aspect that can be made manifest. But the pleasure that the person derives from the thing is felt only by that person – it is such a personal sensation that it is utterly impossible to manifest pleasure. (To be sure, the body may indicate that it is experiencing pleasure by smiling, for example, but this is not a manifestation of the pleasure itself. Only the person him- or herself actually tastes that chocolate, actually experiences its effect. No one else can have any perception of this at all.) This conveys to us some vague inkling of the awesome sublimity, the virtual identity with G-d’s very “Self,” that is meant when we speak of the spiritual level of G-d’s ta’anug.
A fundamental difference between the superficial level of ratzon and the inward level of ta’anug is seen in the fact that in Hebrew, the word for “inwardness” is the same as that for “face;” one’s physical face, in fact, may be said to express what is going on within. The opposite of the face is the back of the neck (oref in Hebrew). The oref is uniform: one stretch of featureless skin covers it all. By contrast, the face is composed of various individual, distinct parts. Similarly, the level of ratzon is uniform, like the melody mentioned above, which one can repeat again and again and derive the same pleasure from. This is the level on which the mitzvos of the Torah, too, are uniform, in that they all represent the will of G-d. On the other hand, one’s face is capable of many types of pleasure: the eyes derive pleasure from beautiful sights; the ears, from beautiful sound; the mouth from taste, and so on. Each type of pleasure is distinct and they cannot be lumped together uniformly. Similarly, on the essential level of ta’anug, each individual mitzvah of the Torah expresses another aspect of G-d’s “pleasure”: the mitzvah of tzitzis, one aspect, the mitzvah of Tefillin, a different one, and so on.
This is why, regarding when G-d gave the Torah on Mount Sinai and personally articulated the Ten Commandments to the Jews, we are taught (Shabbos 88b), “at each Commandment, their souls flew [heavenwards].” Why should this have occurred after each and every commandment? Granted that the Jews were so overwhelmed by the great revelation that they simply expired in absolute rapture for G-d, but what accounts for this happening over and over; would they not, at least to some extent, have gotten used to it as the Decalogue went on? The answer is that indeed, the revelation at Mount Sinai derived from the exalted spiritual level of ta’anug, which is expressed in many different ways. The G-dliness revealed to the Jews in each commandment was different from that revealed in every other one. Thus, each and every commandment caused the same reaction: the Jews were so overwhelmed by the new revelation of G-d’s ta’anug that they expired all over again.
We merited this great revelation because the Jews, too, had achieved such a degree of yearning for G-d Himself that their own ta’anug was implicated. Ordinarily, we speak of a level of love for G-d expressed by the verse (Psalms 73:25), “Whom do I have in the Heavens, and other than You I do not desire [anything] on earth” as an ideal. The Hebrew word for “other than You” literally means “with You”; this may be interpreted to mean that the speaker is so committed to G-d and G-d alone that he or she is saying that they do not desire anything in heaven or on earth – not even the most sublime spiritual levels – that is merely “with You,” but not You Yourself. And indeed, this does seem to be an ideal level of love for G-d.
Yet, for all that the person on this level yearns for G-d to the point that he or she is willing to lose all independent existence in order to be reabsorbed in his or her soul’s spiritual source – G-d Himself – this must still be regarded as a relatively superficial level compared to what is even deeper. For on this level, one is still a separate entity, even though willing – even eager – to give that up. But, after all, G-d is omnipresent, and even within one’s physical form, one is not really separate from Him at all. On the contrary, it is actually only from within one’s physical form that one is able to perform G-d’s mitzvos. The person who yearns to lose one’s independent existence in favor of simply “dissolving” into G-dliness may be on a very high level, but this person does not fully appreciate the advantage of existing just as they are – a part of G-d’s all-encompassing Unity in any event – and being engaged in G-d’s mitzvos, which derive from the level of ta’anug. One may, however, actually come to a state in which one literally derives pleasure from G-d’s mitzvos, a state which indicates that the person’s own inward self, one’s own “face,” is aligned with that of G-d. The Jews at Mount Sinai had achieved this, and thus merited the corresponding revelation of G-d’s inner “Self,” as it is written (Deuteronomy 5:4), “G-d spoke to you face to face at the mountain.”
The Tablets on which the Ten Commandments were engraved also expressed the idea that G-d’s innermost level, His “front,” or “face,” was being revealed. The Tablets were miraculously engraved through and through (see Exodus 32:15), so that whichever side one viewed was the front. There was, quite literally, no “back” to the Tablets of the Ten Commandments.
This in turn sheds light on why King David’s punishment was appropriate to what he had done. In praising the Torah merely as “songs,” King David referred to it as expressing the “will” of G-d – in this context considered only the outer, superficial, level. Since he failed to appreciate the inner advantage of Torah – that it derives from G-d’s ta’anug – he was made to forget that the Holy Ark, containing the Tablets of the Ten Commandments, was to be carried on the Levites’ shoulders. For, in carrying something on one’s shoulder, one’s face inevitably lines up with what is being carried. This mode of transporting the Ark was symbolic of its “face-to-face” quality. Since David forgot this, he transported the Ark by wagon instead.
That, then, is the inner significance of the Torah’s statement that “I was His delight every day”: that is, the Torah’s essential quality is that it expresses that innermost level of G-dliness referred to as ta’anug – G-d’s “delight” or “pleasure.” And this is something that can be attained by us, through dedication of our own selves to the point at which we ourselves take true pleasure, as described above, in G-d’s mitzvos (simcha shel mitzvah). This must be accomplished every single day, through the love of G-d developed during the Shema prayer, which is why the verse refers to “every day.”
The next part of the passage reads “playing before Him at all times.” This refers to the famous verses at the beginning of Ecclesiastes chapter 3, which begin (3:1), “To everything, there is a season, and a time for every thing under the heaven.” There follow a set of verses in which 24 separate “times” are enumerated, including (3:5), “… a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing.”
When one embraces someone, the first person grasps the other from behind and holds them such that the two are “locked” into a face-to-face position. This may be understood as a reference to the relationship of G-d and the Jews during the time when the Holy Temple stood: we were so “in tune” with, so aligned with, G-d that we could be said to be in a constant state of embrace. We were always face-to-face. The other condition, that of “a time to refrain from embracing,” refers to the present era of exile, in which a person is likely to (G-d forbid) be distracted by worldly pleasures and drift from the state of “embrace,” of true pleasure in G-d alone.
Yet the Torah is described as “playing” before G-d “at all times.” That is, both at times like the “time to embrace” and times like the “time to refrain from embracing,” the Torah “plays,” in the sense hinted at by the verse (Genesis 21:6), “G-d has made a joke for me.” The Hebrew name used in this verse for “G-d” is Elokim, which signifies G-d as He “conceals” Himself within nature. It is almost as if G-d were playing “hide and seek” with us, by “hiding” behind the laws of nature in such a way that people could mistakenly think (G-d forbid) that nature, and not G-d, rules the universe. This is, of course, for a specific purpose: that we should “uncover” the G-dliness within the world through Torah and mitzvos. In any event, it is the Divine name Elokim that is referred to as having made a “joke”; the joke is the very notion that G-d should be concealed, that He does not guide all of creation. What a ridiculous idea!
Our verse is telling us that at all times, the Torah is on the level associated with this “play.” Through Torah, we “see through” the joke. By performing mitzvos, even during times of exile, we bring G-dliness into the very physical substance of the world, thus removing its disguise, revealing its true nature. This leads to the ultimate revelation of the true, G-dly, nature of the universe with the coming of the Messiah, may it be immediately.
Finally, our passage concludes, “playing with the world, His earth, and my delights were with the sons of man.” The Hebrew word for “the world” is tevel, which is numerically equivalent, by the Hebrew grammatical device of Gematria, to twice the value of the word aryeh, lion. In the heavenly hosts, there are two levels associated with “lions”: that of the spiritual beings known as chayos (“animals” or “creatures”), and that of the spiritual beings called ofanim (“wheels”). The chayos are said to inhabit the realm of Yetzirah, the spiritual source of the six orders of the Mishna, which represents intellectual comprehension of G-dliness; they roar like lions out of the yearning for G-d that comes from their perceiving His greatness. On the other hand, the ofanim are creatures of the relatively lower spiritual realm of Asiyah, where they cannot comprehend G-dliness but roar like lions anyway out of their natural love for Him.
The statement that the Torah “plays with tevel” – a word which implies both levels of “lion” – means that the Torah’s “playful” quality, that which unmasks the G-dliness “hiding” in the world, applies to both the higher spiritual creatures and the lower; to those that can achieve an intellectual comprehension of G-d and those that cannot. Through Torah, all can link up with G-d’s innermost “Self,” regardless of their spiritual capacity. The same applies to “the sons of man”: there are those people who, like the chayos, are able to engage in Torah study and intellectual comprehension; these unite with G-d’s “self” through the Torah. But by the very same token, also those who, like the ofanim, are – whether from preoccupation with the necessity of earning a livelihood, lack of intellectual ability, or other valid reasons – unable to understand G-dliness, unite with G-d’s “Self” through the Torah. For the Torah is on a level which transcends such distinctions.
May we merit, on this upcoming holiday of Shavuos, to receive the Torah with joy and inwardness.
Ó 2002 Dach Holdings, Ltd. Please note that the foregoing is an informal adaptation by a private person, and that, therefore, errors are possible. Also, the Hebrew original contains much more than could possibly be presented here, and constitutes a much more direct transmission of the Alter Rebbe’s teachings. Furthermore, the adaptation may contain supplementary or explanatory material not in the original, and not marked as such in any way. Thus, for those with the ability to learn in the original, this adaptation should not be considered a substitute for the maamar. Good Yom Tov and Good Shabbos!