About Face

Parashat Ekev 5779

Rabbi Meir Sendor

This week we were invited by dear friends to hold a Tal Orot workshop in their beautiful New England home. This was not a retreat – I never have liked that term – I prefer to call it an advance. Our hosts gathered a talented group of sixteen men and woman, some who were new to us and some who are also close friends of ours. We explored the theme “Your Neighbor as Yourself,” deepening our sensitivity to others through meditation and discussion of texts from the rabbinic, kabbalistic and hassidic tradition. In the current political climate, in which so-called identity politics promotes a vicious tribalism in which resentful groups claiming various kinds of victimhood justify ostracism and violence against other groups, we need to counter this poison and work harder at developing sensitivity toward others. While I gathered the sources and facilitated the meditations, this workshop was really a team effort, people of wisdom and life experience sharing their insights and opening up revelation after revelation for each other.

This experience gave me a new appreciation for a talmudic interpretation that had long bothered me, an interpretation of a verse in this week’s parashah. Moshe Rabbenu commands Israel:

דברים פרק יא פסוק כב

כי אם שמר תשמרון את כל המצוה הזאת אשר אנכי מצוה אתכם לעשתה לאהבה את יקוק אלהיכם ללכת בכל דרכיו ולדבקה בו:


You should surely keep this great mitzvah that I command you to do: to love HaShem your God, to walk in all His ways and to adhere to Him (Dt. 11:22).

The profound mitzvah to “adhere” to God, devekut, is understood by Nachmanides to encourage each one of us to cultivate an enlightened state of consciousness: constant awareness of God, such that we can come to experience heavenly existence in this world, which is the ultimate goal of all Torah life. As he explains it, this mitzvah is the spiritual responsibility of each one of us. His interpretation is deep and sensible, but it seems to run counter to one of the Talmudic interpretations of this mitzvah. In the Gemara Ketubot (121b), Rabbi Eleazar suggests to his teacher Rabbi Yochanan that those who are not Torah scholars are not really alive. Rabbi Yochanan objects, but Rabbi Eleazar replies that he is interpreting a verse from Isaiah:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת כתובות דף קיא עמוד ב

כי טל אורות טליך וארץ רפאים תפיל, כל המשתמש באור תורה – אור תורה מחייהו, וכל שאין משתמש באור תורה – אין אור תורה מחייהו. כיון דחזייה דקמצטער, א”ל: רבי, מצאתי להן תקנה מן התורה, ואתם הדבקים בה’ אלהיכם חיים כולכם היום – וכי אפשר לדבוקי בשכינה? והכתיב: כי ה’ אלהיך אש אוכלה! אלא, כל המשיא בתו לתלמיד חכם, והעושה פרקמטיא לתלמידי חכמים, והמהנה תלמידי חכמים מנכסיו, מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו מדבק בשכינה. כיוצא בדבר אתה אומר: לאהבה את ה’ אלהיך ולדבקה בו – וכי אפשר לאדם לידבק בשכינה? אלא, כל המשיא בתו לתלמיד חכם, והעושה פרקמטיא לתלמידי חכמים, והמהנה תלמידי חכמים מנכסיו, מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו מדבק בשכינה.


“A dew of lights is Your dew, but the land of those who slacken shall fall (Is. 26).” All who use the light of Torah, the light of Torah enlivens them, but all who do not use the light of Torah, the light of Torah does not enliven them. When [Rabbi Eleazar] saw that [Rabbi Yochanan] was upset, he said “Rabbi, I have found for them a cure from the Torah: “You who adhere to HaShem your God are all alive this day (Dt. 4).” But is it possible to adhere to the divine Presence? Behold, it is written “HaShem your God is a consuming fire! (Dt. 4)” Rather, whoever marries his daughter to a student of wisdom, and does business on behalf of students of wisdom, and benefits students of wisdom from his possessions, Scripture accounts it to him as if he is adhering to the divine Presence. Similarly, you can say [for the verse] “to love HaShem your God and to adhere to Him (Dt. 11:22)…”

With all due respect, this interpretation, as it is explained by many commentators, seems like a cop-out, a consolation prize giving up on real relationship with God and making do with a vicarious connection through others. This is liable to lead to unrealistic views about rabbinic scholars, as if they have special abilities to serve as intermediaries for relationship with the divine, and to endorse laxity and abdication of responsibility for one’s own spiritual work. It seems a bit self-serving for Torah scholars to be advertising themselves as having a special connection to God to drum up financial support. And if God is considered to be like a consuming fire, are Torah scholars themselves fireproof?

But it could be that the purpose of supporting Torah scholars is not about hiring them to be intermediaries to God. Rather, it’s about providing opportunities to get close to thoughtful people and engage with them in meaningful conversation, sharing wisdom – this is how Maimonides understands this talmudic passage (Deot 6:2). The spiritual work of cultivating continual consciousness of God can be, and might best be a team effort between teacher and student, or thoughtful friends.

In our workshop we studied a responsum, a halakhic letter, of Rabbi David Ibn Abi Zimra, great jurist and kabbalist of the sixteenth century who settled in Tzfat towards the end of his life, in which he discusses how consciousness operates in the teaching and learning experience:

They also say in the books of Wisdom that when a person focuses on his teacher and gives him his heartfelt attention, his soul is tied to his soul and there rests upon him some of the efflux that is upon him, and he receives an extra soul. This is called by them “the mystery of infusion (‘ibbur) when both are living,” and this is what is spoken of when it says “your eyes shall see your teacher (Is. 30:20),” and this is “and they shall stand there with you and I will emanate some of the spirit… (Num. 11:17)” Similarly, our holy teacher [Rabbi Yehudah haNasi] exclaimed that if he had been able to see the face of his teacher [Rabbi Meir] he would have attained a higher level (Eruvin 13b). All the more is this so if the teacher also focuses intent, and “one calls unto the other,” this to transmit and that to receive. (3:472)

Rabbi David Ibn Abi Zimra uses the kabbalistic principle that consciousness is shared between people, and conscious content can transmit directly from one person to another, a telepathic infusion, to explain the deepest experience of learning together. When it comes sharing hints about transcendent experiences, I’ve found that the most effective teachers are able to convey insight not only through words, but by having a vivid vision of what they are trying to communicate and getting it across directly, mind to mind. The words seem to attune people’s attention to each other, so that an even deeper communication can occur, before and beyond words.

And this transmission is most powerful when it occurs face to face, as the Gemara says and as explained by the late great Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas:

The face is present in its refusal to be contained. In this sense it cannot be comprehended, that is, encompassed… The Other remains infinitely transcendent, infinitely foreign; his face in which his epiphany is produced and which appeals to me breaks with the world that can be common to us, whose virtualities are inscribed in our nature and developed by our existence… The idea of infinity, the infinitely-more contained in the less, is concretely produced in the form of a relation with the face. (Totality and Infinity 194-203).

It’s not just that we can share words of wisdom together that point us towards higher awareness. When we sit together and converse thoughtfully, face to face, sensitive to the presence of another person, we are experiencing what one member of our workshop named “packaged infinity.” This is what Levinas is referring to as “the infinitely more contained in the less.” There are different kinds of infinities: of number, of space, of time. But there is also an infinity of dimensions that keep opening up within a contained space, like the face of another person in which we sense their endless depth of awareness and  experience. Yes, when people commune and converse face to face in real relationship, sharing wisdom, there opens up the possibility of revelation from the Infinite in the very relationship itself. At the heart of the Tabernacle and the Temples, in the Holy of Holies, stood a model of two angels standing face to face, and from the space between them God would express revelation. As Rabbi Haninah ben Teradyon says in Avot (3:6):

משנה מסכת אבות פרק ג

רבי חנינא בן תרדיון אומר שנים שיושבין ויש ביניהם דברי תורה שכינה ביניהם שנאמר (מלאכי ג’) אז נדברו יראי ה’ איש אל רעהו ויקשב ה’ וישמע ויכתב ספר זכרון לפניו ליראי ה’ ולחושבי שמו


Two who sit and there are words of Torah between them, the divine Presence is between them, as it says “then shall those who revere God be in conversation, each with their friend, and HaShem will listen and a book of remembrance shall be written before Him for those who revere HaShem and consider His Name.

And so it was as we learned and meditated together this week, experiencing the most thoughtful hospitality, experiencing the presence of thoughtful people, appreciating each other’s endless depth and sharing our best wisdom – it did feel like the presence of God passed between us.


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