Parashat Bereshit 5777
Rabbi Meir Sendor
The hakafot for Shemini Atzeret-Simchat Torah at the colorful Beit HaKnesset Abuhav are especially lively. It’s an Eidot ha-Mizrach congregation, one of the most dynamic in Tzfat, presided over by the warm, charismatic Chief Rabbi of Tzfat, Rav Shmuel Eliyahu. During the seventh hakafah Rav Shmuel suddenly signaled to everyone to quiet down for a moment and he explained that it is a “minhag Tzfat” that during the last hakafah everyone places their hands on the heads of the persons next to them, whoever they are, and everyone gives each other a blessing. So everyone in the packed Beit HaKnesset placed their hands on the heads of those next to them, men to men and women to women, a delightfully chaotic network of intersecting arms, and recited a blessing together: “He Who blessed our ancestors Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah, may He bless you and this entire congregation for a year of happiness, health and good livelihood and bestow blessing and success upon the work of your hands, together with all the People of Yisrael.” It was a sweet and moving moment.
This custom of Tzfat highlights the mystery of blessing. In the Creation account of this week’s parashah, Ha-Shem brings forth the creatures of the sea and sky and blesses them with continuing fruitfulness, and creates human beings and blesses us with fruitfulness and authority over the animal world. R. Hayyim of Volozhin in his Nefesh ha-Hayyim explains that a berakhah expresses the wish for “addition and multiplication” of the good qualities of the one being blessed. He notes that the unit of prayer is also the berakhah, a grateful acknowledgment that Ha-Shem is the source of all blessings, and a request that these blessings should continue to be poured forth (2:2). But when we bless another person by calling on Ha-Shem to bless them, is this anything more than wishing someone well, thinking lovely thoughts about them? How does a thought in my head, or words from my mouth, impact another person?
In the Gemara Yerushalmi Nedarim 9:4 it says:
תלמוד ירושלמי (וילנא) מסכת נדרים פרק ט
ואהבת לרעך כמוך. רבי עקיבה אומר זהו כלל גדול בתורה. בן עזאי אומר [בראשית ה א] זה ספר תולדות אדם זה כלל גדול מזה.
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Lev 19:18).” Rabbi Akiva says “this is a great rule of the Torah.” Ben Azzai says “’This is the book of the generations of man (Gen. 5:1)’ is a rule that is greater than that.” Rabbi Akiva sees the obligation to treat your neighbor like you would treat yourself as an effort of imagination, to overcome natural self-regard and love the other, separate from yourself, as if they were you. According to R. David Frenkel in his commentary Korban Eidah, Ben Azzai takes this further, citing the verse from this week’s parashah that says that we all come from one common source. Our obligation to love the other person and treat them well comes not from merely pretending they are us, but from recognizing that they really are us. We all extend from a common source.
According to R. Moshe Cordovero in Tomer Devorah, his book of kabbalistic ethics, all human beings share one consciousness together. “Every person with his friend… is one blood relative together, because all souls are comprised together, and in each is a portion of each (p. 4).” It’s not just that we recognize consciousness in other human beings, and all other sentient beings. We share one common consciousness together. This is the ground for the possibility of empathy, that most precious of moral sensibilities. And this how we can sit together and talk, or share emails and blogs and pretend we actually understand each other!
Maimonides, in his Guide of the Perplexed (3:52) takes this even further. He says: “just as we apprehend Him by the light of consciousness that He causes to flow to us, as it says “in Your light do we see light (Ps. 36:10),” so too, by that very light itself does He behold us, and by virtue of this He is continually with us, beholding and seeing.” This is the punchline of the entire Guide. We share consciousness with each other and we all share consciousness with God Himself, one continuum of consciousness.
So when we turn to each other on Simchat Torah, and at any time, and bless each other to be blessed by Ha-Shem, this is not just a lovely but ineffectual wish going nowhere, locked our solipsistic, isolated minds. It is a powerful will for good that we share with each other and with God all at once, in our common network of consciousness, a network we are all plugged into, and can access together at all times. Even right now!