Is powerlessness a blessing or a curse? I’m guessing you said the latter and could rattle off a dozen examples of people or groups who suffer from powerlessness. Who could possibly deem powerlessness a positive? The answer is not the empty set. The S’fat Emet, R. Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger (1847–1905), saw Jewish powerlessness as tangible proof of Israel’s closeness to God. But let’s back up a few steps to explain how he got there. We will then explore what he means and how that relates to our lives.
There is a wonderful tradition of studying Pirkei Avot during the Omer, the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot. Shavuot is just days away, so let’s begin with the opening words of Pirkei Avot 6:1, which is where the S’fat Emet begins his explanation.
רבי מאיר אומר כל העוסק בתורה לשמה זוכה לדברים הרבה.
R. Meir taught: Whoever studies Torah for its own sake merits many things.
The concept of Torah lishmah — studying Torah purely for the sake of learning — is a pillar of the rabbinic tradition. R. Tzaddok warns in chapter 4 of Pirkei Avot:
אל תעשם עטרה להתגדל בהם, ולא קרדם לחפור בהם. וכך היה הלל אומר, ודאשתמש בתגא, חלף. הא למדת, כל הנהנה מדברי תורה, נוטל חייו מן העולם
Do not make Torah a crown for self-aggrandizement nor a spade to dig with (i.e., a means of livelihood), for this is precisely what Hillel warned against: “A person who uses Torah for personal gain perishes.” (Pirkei Avot 4:7)
The S’fat Emet, in his commentary on this week’s parashah, B’midbar, beginning with R. Meir’s famous adage, tells us that the obvious meaning of “for its own sake” means “in order to do it.” Torah (“teaching”) instructs us concerning what we are to do. In his view, Torah study is about obedience to the divine will, which the S’fat Emet readily admits is challenging: “The real effort in Torah is to negate your own mind and opinion in order to understand the will of God and the opinion of Torah.” The key to succeeding in this effort is found in the word midbar (“wilderness”) itself, which he derives from a root meaning “lead” or “rule,” and guides us to understanding the meaning of the Israelites’ journey through the Wilderness:
The midbar is one who submits to that rule, the person who negates his own self, realizing that he has no power to act without the life-flow of God… The nations of the world also revere the Lord as “God of gods.” But Israel are like a midbar; they have no power or leadership at all on their own.
Our Torah portion, which like the book containing it, is named B’midbar (Numbers), recounts the wandering of the Israelites through the Wilderness for four decades from the time they left slavery in Egypt until they reached the borders of Eretz Yisrael. During that period, Israel coalesced into a nation, received the Torah (Shavuot, beginning this coming Saturday night, recalls and celebrates the Giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai), and had their first encounters as a nation with those who tried to annihilate them, most memorably Amalek. The stories told in the Book of Numbers have a common theme: Israel’s powerlessness. The S’fat Emet, living in Poland in the 19th century, is keenly aware of Jewish powerlessness and its devastating consequences. Poland was under the control of Russia. Pogroms broke out in Russian in 1881; a riot in Warsaw that year resulted in numerous deaths. The Russian czar, Alexander III, blamed the Jews for the rioting. It was clear to everyone that things would get far worse before they got better.
The S’fat Emet’s commentary addresses the pain and anguish of powerless by recasting it as a spiritual strength: only those who are utterly powerless can grasp the ultimate truth of God and the universe; only those completely lacking worldly power can possess the spiritual strength of closeness with God. (If this sounds like an apologetic for Jewish political powerlessness, it probably is.)
Thus we are told [in the siddur] that fear of heaven applies “in the open and in secret.” “In the open” means to know that God oversees all things; this brings you to a state of awe. But “in secret” means that the fear of God attaches itself to a person’s very life-force so that he can do nothing, not even make a simple movement, without remembering that it takes place through the power of God and that he himself is as but an axe in the hand of the one who chops with it.
Such is the study of Torah: to negate yourself before the way that Torah leads you, so that every deed be only to fulfill God’s will and desire. Since it was by Torah that God created the world, you can cleave to God in every deed you do through the power of Torah. You do that by self-negation, by submitting in every act to the inner life-force, which is the life of God, by means of the letters of Torah that lie within the deed. (S’fat Emet 4:2)
Before we dismiss the S’fat Emet’s words as a paean to powerlessness and victimhood, and therefore morally questionable, at best, we do well to understand the theological context for his comments. For the S’fat Emet, God is the sum total of the universe, the life-force that makes all existence possible; everything and everyone is part of God. This is pantheism, the hallmark of mystical theology, and the S’fat Emet, a hasidic rebbe, was a Kabbalist at heart. Hence negating oneself is not an act of ascetic self-punishment, but rather a mystical act of personal tzimtzum (“contraction”) of the ego. When I focus on myself, it’s like taking a selfie: I see very little beyond myself. But when I move myself out of the way, I can see the entire universe: I perceive God on the wide screen. The life-force that gives me existence, that moves through me and animates me, is also the fuel that powers me. Therefore, the more I engage in bittul yesh (self-negation, moving myself out of the way), the more I come to see and understand. There is a curious irony here: It is through realizing my ultimate powerlessness that I am empowered.
The S’fat Emet then brings us back to the mishnah from Pirkei Avot, with which he began, and ties the ends of his commentary into a neat bow. Torah study is a vehicle for moving ourselves out of the center of the picture so that God can fill the entire frame. Observing mitzvot both attunes us to the reality that God encompasses the universe, and reflects this understanding of God.
I find the S’fat Emet’s view challenging on both an intellectual and personal level. If the goal is complete submission to God’s will, we must return to a sticky question the arises again and again: How do we know God’s will? To say that it’s in the Torah (and Talmud) is not a sufficiently intellectual response because texts do not have absolute, unequivocal, objective, literal meaning. Quite to the contrary: texts must be interpreted. For example, Torah states:
Torah says, Hear, O Israel! Adonai is your God, Adonai alone. You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead, inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates (Deuteronomy 6:4–9).
In poetic language, these verses teach us that taking Torah to heart means that it guides our lives everywhere we find ourselves (“when you stay at home and when you are away”) and at all times (“when you lie down and when you get up”). What is more, Torah should inform our behavior in the world (“hand” is a metaphor for human action in the world) and our thinking (“forehead”)—that is, everything about how we live our lives. It further tells us that Torah should be the guidepost in the two foci of our lives: in our personal lives at home among those with whom we are most intimate (“the doorposts of your house”), and in our public lives outside our homes (when we go through “the gates”). The Rabbis, wishing to hold aloft these wonderful and enormously important verses, interpreted them rather concretely (some would say: literally). They determined that these precise words should be recited “when you lie down” (bedtime) and “when you get up” (in the morning). They created tefillin and mezuzah to fulfill a literal reading of the verses. But none of this is inherent implicitly in the text—it arises from the Rabbis’ interpretation.
For the S’fat Emet, submitting to God’s will is arguably less complicated because his understanding of what constitutes halakhah is more concrete. For me, it’s far more nuanced because halakhah is a process of seeking a Jewish answer to a question, not a body of laws carved in stone.
In the interpretation of Torah there is great power. Not political power necessarily (though there are sadly far too many in the Jewish world who exploit Torah for precisely that end, particularly in Israel) but spiritual and emotional power to uplift, inspire, and heal. That is precisely why the rest of R. Meir’s teaching from Pirkei Avot 6:1, although not mentioned in the S’fat Emet’s commentary, is so important. Here it is in its entirety—a wonderful reminder as we prepare for Shavuot:
רבי מאיר אומר כל העוסק בתורה לשמה, זוכה לדברים הרבה. ולא עוד אלא שכל העולם כלו כדאי הוא לו. נקרא רע, אהוב, אוהב את המקום, אוהב את הבריות, משמח את המקום, משמח את הבריות, ומלבשתו ענוה ויראה, ומכשרתו להיות צדיק חסיד ישר ונאמן, ומרחקתו מן החטא, ומקרבתו לידי זכות, ונהנין ממנו עצה ותושיה בינה וגבורה. שנאמר (משלי ח) לי עצה ותושיה אני בינה לי גבורה, ונותנת לו מלכות וממשלה וחקור דין, ומגלין לו רזי תורה, ונעשה כמעין המתגבר וכנהר שאינו פוסק, והוי צנוע וארך רוח, ומוחל על עלבונו, ומגדלתו ומרוממתו על כל המעשים.
Whoever studies Torah for its own sake merits many things. Moreover, it was worth creating the world for their sake alone. They are called Beloved friends, Lovers of God, Lovers of humanity, a Joy to God, a Joy to humanity. Torah clothes them with humility and reverence; it equips them to be righteous, saintly, upright, and faithful. It keeps them far from sin and draws them near to virtue. People benefit from their counsel and skill, their understanding and strength, as it is written, Counsel and skill are Mine; I am understanding; strength is Mine (Proverbs 8:14).
R. Meir reminds us that the result of Torah lishmah, Torah studied purely for learning, is easy to spot: it cultivates a righteous mensch who loves God and other people, and is, in turn, beloved by them. Torah lishmah does not create self-proclaimed geniuses, but rather humble souls. Torah lishmah helps us develop the middot (attributes) of goodness and the behaviors that make the world a better place to live. Torah lishmah makes us strong and powerful in the ways that ultimately matter most.
Albert Einstein said, “Never regard study as a duty but as an enviable opportunity to learn to know the liberating influence of beauty in the realm of the spirit for your own personal joy and to the profit of the community to which your later works belong."
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman