Parashat Yitro 5780
by Meir Sendor
The pace of life is different in Israel. It’s not just about fast or slow, frenetic or relaxed. It’s a sense of flow, a kind of synchronicity. It’s especially true in Tzfat, where a certain person can pop into mind and the next moment you turn a corner and there they are. This is not to say that there aren’t times of frustration when almost nothing seems to go right. But even such times turn out to teach meaningful lessons that wake us up and shake us out of complacency. And this synchronicity lies at the heart of Torah consciousness.
One of the halakhic principles built into the liturgy is the requirement to “connect redemption to prayer.” Formally, it’s done by placing the blessing praising HaShem as “He who redeemed Israel,” with its commemoration of the redemption from Egypt, right before the Amidah, as the prelude to the most essential prayer. In the Gemara Berakhot the Rabbis expound on the importance of this principle, including:
תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף ט עמוד ב
העיד רבי יוסי בן אליקים משום קהלא קדישא דבירושלים: כל הסומך גאולה לתפלה – אינו נזוק כל היום כולו.
Rabbi Yosi ben Elyakim testified in the name of the holy congregation of Jerusalem: whoever connects redemption to prayer will not be harmed all that day.
Rabbi Zeira, however, objects to this claim and says “Really? I connected, and I was harmed,” and describes a certain incident that happened to him as an example. But when Rabbi Yosi probes the incident further with Rabbi Zeira, he shows him that he wasn’t really harmed, and what he thought was a setback actually turned out to be a meaningful learning experience. That’s the value of connecting redemption to prayer: not that everything will necessarily go smoothly, but everything will go meaningfully. The discussion concludes with Rabbi Ila’a asking a favor of Ulla, who was travelling from Israel to Babylonia:
אמר ליה רבי אלעא לעולא: כי עיילת להתם שאיל בשלמא דרב ברונא אחי במעמד כל החבורה, דאדם גדול הוא ושמח במצות: זימנא חדא סמך גאולה לתפלה ולא פסיק חוכא מפומיה כוליה יומא.
When you get there, please give my regards publicly to Rav Beruna my brother, for he is a great man and rejoices in mitzvot. One day he connected redemption to prayer, and laughter did not cease from his lips all that day.
Tosafot challenges this account of Rav Beruna noting that the connecting of redemption to prayer is built into the liturgy, so all of us who pray using the Siddur do it as well – so why is Rav Beruna singled out?
Rav Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin explains that it’s not just that Rav Beruna said the words, but that he attained “a great experience of enlightenment in his heart,” an illumination of mind, an understanding of the cosmic significance of this principle. Understanding the meaning of the divine process of redemption, he realized in the here-and-now the ultimate redemption promised for the messianic era, and as he stood in prayer he recognized
שהוא עומד לפני המלך והתפילה ממדת מלכות וכמו שנאמר אדני שפתי תפתח וגו’. ואז כשיזכה לבחינת הדעת אתער נהירו דביה כדין איקרי פה ה’ וכמו שאמרנו מהזוה”ק ואז תהיה שכינה מדברת מתוך גרונו דברי התפילה וכמו שאמרנו כמה פעמים מרבי ר’ אלימלך זצוק”ל שזה ענין שהקב”ה מתפלל היינו בתוך פיפיות ישראל.
That he was standing before the King and that prayer is a dimension of kingship, as it says “Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare Your praise.” Then, when he attained the quality of aware mind, the light within him was aroused and he became the mouthpiece of HaShem, as the Zohar says, that the divine Presence speaks from his throat the words of prayer, as we have said several times in the name of Rabbi Elimelekh [of Liszensk], of blessed memory, that the Holy One, blessed be He, prays through the mouths of Israel.
Pri Tzaddik, Shemot, Rosh Hodesh Adar
What is it about realizing the meaning of the divine process of redemption that can awaken us to this higher awareness?
This week’s parashah features the revelation at Sinai, including the Ten Commandments, the first of which is to acknowledge:
שמות פרק כ פסוק ב
אנכי יקוק אלהיך אשר הוצאתיך מארץ מצרים מבית עבדים …
I am HaShem your God, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery…
Here, too, God identifies Himself through the process of redemption. Nachmanides explains:
רמב”ן שמות פרק כ פסוק ב
ואמר אשר הוצאתיך מארץ מצרים, כי הוצאתם משם תורה על המציאות ועל החפץ, כי בידיעה ובהשגחה ממנו יצאנו משם, וגם תורה על החדוש, כי עם קדמות העולם לא ישתנה דבר מטבעו, ותורה על היכולת, והיכולת תורה על הייחוד, כמו שאמר (לעיל ט יד) בעבור תדע כי אין כמוני בכל הארץ. וזה טעם אשר הוצאתיך, כי הם היודעים ועדים בכל אלה:
He says “…Who brought you out of the land of Egypt,” because His bringing them out from there teaches His reality and Will, for it was by His knowledge and providential care that we came out from there, and it also teaches about the possibility of creative renewal… and about His power, and His power teaches about His singularity, as it says “that you should know that there is none like Me in all the Earth.” This is the reason for mentioning “Who brought you out…,” for they are the ones who know and are witness to all this.
The Ten Commandments begin with reference to redemption to indicate that the mitzvah to know God includes awareness of how intimately God knows us and cares for us, and, because of this, change is possible, redemption is possible, renewal is possible, all good is possible. And this is the key to all the rest of the Mitzvot, and what it means to do a Mitzvah.
In Mishnah Avot (2:4) Rabban Gamliel, son of Rabbi Yehudah haNasi, says: “make His Will like your will, so that He will make your will like His Will.” We don’t usually think of Pirkei Avot as a mystical text, but this epigram of Rabban Gamliel clues us in to the mystery of the Mitzvot. A thirteenth century text known as Sha’ar haKavanah – the Gate of Intention, probably from a member of the Iyyun Circle of kabbalists, on a profound meditation technique for directing focused intent in prayer and action, includes an exposition of Rabban Gamliel’s saying. The author enjoins a person to reach a level of awareness in doing mitzvot, or any meaningful action:
Such that the Will of the Supernal enclothes Itself in his will, and not just that his will enclothe itself in the Supernal Will. For the supernal flow of abundance (shefa) does not descend unless a person is careful in drawing close to the Supernal Will, such that the Supernal Will enclothes Itself in the will of one’s desire, through the unification of the Supernal Will and the lower will, through equivalence in adherence of unity – then the abundance of will be drawn to perfection. But the perfection of the lower will is not when it draws close for its own need, but rather when it draws close and enclothes itself in desire and will to reveal the equivalence that is hidden in concealed hiddenness. When one draws close in this way, then the Supernal Will draws close to him, and adds vigor to his power, and desire to his idea, to complete and perfect every thing, even the will of his soul, in which the Supernal Will has no portion.
This passage lays out a profound vision of the life of mitzvot that dynamically unifies and transcends the usual ethical categories of heteronomy or autonomy. Authentic Torah life is not that we submit our will to perform virtuous ritual or moral actions extraneous to us. In doing a mitzvah, and any and every meaningful action we do on our human plane of existence, we are encouraged to reach a state of awareness that we are actually being divinely empowered to manifest God’s Will directly in reality. This awareness requires that we attune ourselves to discovering and enacting God’s Will through a process of “equivalence (hashva’ah),” we might call it synchronization. Through learning Torah, through awakened consciousness and conscience and through spiritual self-discipline, we work to elevate ourselves beyond our own little needs to a coming-together of our will and God’s Will. In this way we reveal what the author calls “the equivalence that is hidden in concealed hiddenness,” that is, the mysterious reality that all we are and all we do is empowered by HaShem such that we are HaShem’s agents on this plane of existence. This state of awareness through doing mitzvot is the correlate of Rabbi Tzadok’s description of the divine Presence speaking through us in prayer, itself a mitzvah.
It may be something like this synchronization that lies at the heart of the flow of life in Israel – an attunement between people that is driven, at the core, by attunement to HaShem Himself, Who redeems us and saves us, even from ourselves, at all times.