Parashat Tazria-Metzora 5777
This week we had a bunch of bureaucratic errands to get done. Israeli government agencies have earned a certain Kafka-esque reputation, but frankly, in our experience, especially in Tzfat, the people we have met are warm and friendly, thoughtfully and cheerfully guiding us through the rules and regulations, and helping us along.
Back in 1777, it wasn’t this way.
Rosh Hodesh Iyyar is the Yahrzeit of Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, Zekher Tzaddik LiVrakhah. For me, he is a guiding light. In Sharon, for several years on Shabbat afternoons, we learned his great Torah commentary Pri ha-Aretz, The Fruit of the Land. It’s a collection of the divrei Torah he said on Shabbat after he made Aliyah in 1777 and settled in Tiveria. They are true examples of Torat Eretz Yisrael, and you can feel the energy. They read like a rant, words and phrases tumbling out wildly, allusions woven from all over Tanach, Talmud, Midrash, Kabbalah and rabbinic thought, improvising, free associating with breath-taking speed and originality. Bebop Torah. His insights are full of surprises that turn your world upside down and right-side up again.
He was a communal trail blazer, too. At the height of his career he chose to immigrate to Israel with three hundred followers, but it was an arduous Aliyah. They found the Land of Israel of that time to be in desperate straits economically, but also morally and spiritually. Attempting to settle in Tzfat, they were harassed by the Turkish authorities as well as by the local Jewish community. Some of the controversy between Hassidim and Mitnagdim that was roiling the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe followed them to Israel, but as he notes in his letters, the problems went deeper than that. In Tiveria, though, they found a warm welcome and settled there, eking out barely adequate livelihoods but establishing an infrastructure, economic and spiritual, that contributed to facilitating the Aliyah movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Shul they built still stands.
At the kever, the burial site of Rebbe Menachem Mendel near the shore of the Kinneret, you sense great joy. But it’s a hard-won joy. His letters express gut-wrenching struggle, but also offer encouragement and insightful guidance to his contemporaries and to us. His foremost goal was to bring the hearts of all Jews together. In a letter from 1784 he writes:
Read the verse “and now do not be mockers, lest your restraints be strengthened (Is. 28:22),” Heaven forbid. This means do not mock people who have abandoned Torah… It is obvious and clear to me and clear in my mind that this is a cause of decline and lowliness. The Rabbis have said “one way or another, they are called ‘children [of God].’” [Someone who mocks the non-religious] separates himself from the collective… and from all the divine energies of the totality of Israel he will have no portion. And this is the meaning of the verse “in the midst of my people I sit (2 Kings 4:14),” as the holy Zohar explains it (2:33b). One who heeds this will receive delight and abundance of blessing, material and spiritual, from the Assembly of Israel and will ascend higher and higher (p. 157).
In his commentary on this week’s Torah portion, dealing with those suffering from the illness of tzara’at, a psychosomatic skin disease of the biblical period, he warns that we should be careful with our words about others. The disease of tzara’at was understood by the Rabbis to be a consequence of speaking ill of others, any and all others. Someone who behaves this way tries to create division between people. As a punishment that is also a healing and moral repair, the person stricken with tzara’at is obliged to sit outside the camp of Israel and to warn people to avoid him, but also to pray for him, so long as he has the disease (Erkhin 17b, Moed Katan 5a). When his moral and physical healing is complete, he is welcomed back into the community. Rebbe Menachem Mendel puts great emphasis on the power of words: they can divide people when misused, but can be a great force to “unify the upper and lower worlds” and bring hearts together. Words of prayer and words of thoughtful conversation are spiritual guides.
His inclusive vision of the Jewish people is of a piece with his inclusive vision of life. Following the emphasis the Ba’al Shem Tov placed on the verse from Proverbs “in all your ways know Him (3:6),” he says:
In all material things, there is spiritual life… And this is called raising up the divine Presence from the dust, which is to strip away the modes of materiality, which is dust, and elevate them to the place of divine Will… Similarly, when one goes to engage in business or other material matters, certainly they are matters of the holy divine Presence which is hidden in them, and one should recognize that in all things there is Torah and the cautionary instructions of the Sages (1784, p. 154).
His advice is to identify and then clarify the divine qualities, the Sefirot, such as love, reverence and harmony, that are enclothed in every situation, to bring out the divine purpose of our interaction.
This bears some similarity to the kabbalistic approach to the mitzvah of Sefirat HaOmer we are engaged in at this season, between Pesach and Shavuot. The kabbalists assigned to each of the weeks and days of the Omer period a different combination of the revelation of divine qualities, the Sefirot, that we are to emulate, in fulfillment of the general mitzvah to imitate God while fulfilling the mitzvah of counting the Omer. Each week is dedicated to one of seven categorical divine qualities: love, judgment, radiant harmony, inspiration, spiritual discipline, creativity and effective action, in that order. Each day within a week is dedicated to the same order of qualities, such that every day features a combination of both its overall weekly Sefirah and its specific daily Sefirah. These qualities become themes revealing the divine Will that we can use to reflect and guide us in our encounters through the day. So, for instance, the day of the Yahrzeit of Rebbe Menachem Mendel is the fitting combination of Gevurah (Power of Judgment) within Tiferet (Radiant Harmony). As a contemplative exercise, on that day we look for opportunities to actualize a harmonious approach to judgment that gives all beings their due in a balanced way. And so on for the other days of the Omer period. A list of the Sefirot of the day can be found in most Siddurim. As we count the days of the Omer, this kabbalistic approach helps make every day count as an opportunity for spiritual advancement, and helps attune us to seeking the divine Will in our encounters every day throughout the year, as Rebbe Menachem Mendel suggests.
If Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk were to make Aliyah today, he’d find a warm welcome for sure, especially here in Tzfat. This town still has its struggles, social and economic, but it has a warm-hearted spirit. Each day’s challenge is to move yourself forward in some constructive way. We meet people not to use them, but to help each other to find our ways forward. We’re learning our lesson. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the eternally ascending spirit of Rebbe Menachem Mendel ben Moshe, Zekher Tzaddik LiVrakhah, continues to guide us.