דע את אלהי אביך ועבדהו, כי עיקר העבודה היא רק כפי הידיעה.
The Principle of Service is based on Knowledge
In this first chapter, R. Gershon Henokh discusses the centrality of knowledge in the path of serving God. This knowledge, however, has several aspects. On the one hand, it means exoteric knowledge: the knowledge of the Torah and its commandments, which enables a person to live a committed Jewish life and worship God according to the Codes of Jewish Law. On a deeper level, R. Gershon Henokh equates knowledge with faith; for the knowledge of God’s unity provides faith in times of adversity.1In the sense that knowing that all of life’s occurances – both bad and good – comes from the single source of God’s unity and love. Finally, in keeping with hasidic tradition, knowledge – da’at – also means an inner enlightenment, a direct awareness of Divinity.2The reader should notice how the author moves seamlessly between these different approaches, apparently seeing them as part of a single type of knowledge. Thus, he refers to hasidism’s great principle: “In all your ways, know Him.” This is not merely the knowledge of how to serve God in all of life’s details – as defined by the Codes – but how to actually unite with His eternal presence, even as it manifests itself amidst the mundane aspects of reality. The goal of acquiring this knowledge reflects another important aspect of R. Gershon Henokh’s approach; that is, the descent of Divinity from the highest realms to the lowest, and the role of man and Torah study for investing the lowest levels with supernal wisdom, thus spreading the knowledge of God on earth.
אודה ה' בכל לבב, בסוד שרידים ואוהבים הצמאים לדבר ה' ואוהבי תורתו באמת ובתמים, לא למען חפור בה יעסקו בה, כאשר ילטוש איש קרדומו. ולא למען התעטר בה כלובשי אדרת שער. אך יכופו אזנם לשמוע דברי חכמים, ולבם ישיתו לדעתם:
I thank God with all my heart,3This opening is based on the verse in Tehillim (111:1). In the counsel4“Sod,” in Hebrew, means both counsel and mystery. “In the counsel of those who remain,” “b’sod hanisharim” in Hebrew, is a play on the words of Psalm 111, “b’sod yesharim,” “in the mystery of the upright of heart.” This leads us to the simple principle that the unknown becomes known through proper counsel, which is the aim of this treatise. It is also an allusion to the four major works penned by this author, collectively called Sod Yesharim, as mentioned in the introduction. As is often the case regarding the titles of Hasidic works, the numerical equivalent of the phrase, “sod yesharim,” is “Gershon Henokh.” (=630) It may be that this equation is the least significant of the mysteries contained in the pages of this book. of those who remain5“Those who remain and those who love,” refers to members of each generation who yearn for Divine truth. It is as though, at this point in the opening of the work, the author is inviting the souls of the great Torah masters of the past; for he is entering into a battle of the spirit, and not going alone. His polemic is not only armed and positioned with a regiment of prophetic spirits, but with the prophets themselves and the One who speaks to them. All God fearing men who enter into a dialogue with the soul and the “penimiyut,” or internal aspect of the Torah are a part of the counsel, and all who revere the message and morals of prophets and kabbalists and are worthy of the mystery. and those who love, 6cf. Megilla 6b, “אוהבי שרידים יושבי רקת”. According to Rashi, “lovers of Israel.” Those who thirst for God’s word, Those love His Torah with truth and wholeness. They do not learn the Torah as a woodsman sharpens his axe, in order to earn a living.7See Pirkei Avot, 4:5, Nedarim 62a, where the Sages speak sharply against those who use the Torah in order to gain honor or riches. Nor do they adorn themselves in it like a fur coat.8כאדרת שער, cf. Bereshit 25:25, “And the first came out all red, like a hairy garment.” Esav, the hunter, the man of the field, would put on the act of righteous to win his father, Yitzhak’s favor. Those who, “adorn themselves in the Torah as one wears a fancy coat,” were religious men whose saintliness was more an expression of self-aggrandizment than inner dedication. The author was known as a bold fighter, and not afraid to compare many of the self-styled scholars and holy men of his generation to Eisav. Yet they bend their ears to hear the words of the sages. Their hearts yearn to know the truth.
אף נושאים חרפה עליה וכלמתה תכסה פניהם. כל חורפיה גם אותם יחרפו ובוזיה אותם יבוזו. כל היום כלמה נגדנו, מקול מחרף ומגדף אויב ומתנקם, וכל זאת באתנו ולא שכחנוה, ולא נשקר בברית ה' אלהינו עמנו היא התורה אשר שם בריתו בינו ובינינו:
They are shamed and disgraced due to [their love of Torah]. Yet, those who shame them will be put to shame, and those who scorn them shall be scorned! And as for us, we are shamed daily, by the voice of the reviler and the insulter, the enemy and the vengeful.9It is not clear whom R. Gershon Henokh is refering to here. Who were his revilers? It should be noted that R. Gershon Henokh was imprisoned for twelve days by the Russian government, perhaps for what they considered insedious activities. However, even the leaders of contemporary Izhbitzer Hasidism do not know the true reason for his imprisonment. Yet, regardless of all we suffer from them, we have not forgotten the Torah, for it is the covenant that God has forged with us.
ועם כי קנאתה אכלתנו וחרפת חורפיה נפלה עלינו, ילעגו עלינו באמרם מה יתן לכם ומה יוסיף הגות בתורה, הכי תוסיפו אם תגרעו בה הלא תורת ה' תמימה:
Even though their envy of the Torah has consumed us, and the humiliation of those who blaspheme her have fallen upon us, and they mock us, by saying, “What will you gain, and what will your study of the Torah add for you? You will gain more if you reduce your efforts, for is not God’s Torah already perfect?”
כל אלה נחתו בנו, לא רק מאובינו שונאינו ומנדינו, אך אף מאחינו בעלי גמרא גמור זמרתא. גם המה בעוכרינו, באמרם, מה לכם להביט ולחפור בעומק, הלא די דברים ככתבן וכהוייתן, ולמה לנו להגות ולהבין תעלומה:
All of these descend upon us, and not only from our enemies. We are insulted even by our brothers, masters of the Talmud.10Perhaps this refers to the Gerer Hasidim, from whom he suffered attacks (as mentioned in the introduction), and whom were known as outstanding Torah scholars. Even if his words do not refer to that specific group, from the context, we can discern that they are individuals who rejected the study of sod, who studied Torah in an abstract way (an approach he rejects much later in the introduction), who failed to bring their learning down to the level of observance, and who clearly had a personal vendetta against him. They too sully our name, saying, “What business do you have digging to the depths of the Torah? The plain meaning is enough! Why should we contemplate and seek to understand that which is hidden?”11There have been many opponents throughout Jewish History to the way of Kabbalah and the Hasidic movement, established by Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov. The Gemara recounts incidents of great and holy mystics who damaged their souls in their quest for God’s mysteries (see Talmud, Chagiga, 14b). Among those closest in time to R. Gershon Henokh generation was Sabbatai Tsvi, who was initially accepted by his generation as the Messiah (as to what extent, see Sholem’s biography entitled Sabbatai Tsvi ); yet whose converstion to Islam caused great anguish among the Jewish World. Aside from his already unstable psyche, his use and misuse of Kabbalah was undoubtably a significant influence on his failure. It was the debacle caused by this incident that led the Ashkenazic Rabbis who lived just after that time to impose greater limitations on the study of Kabbalah, such as restricting it to those forty years of age and older. (See Moshe Idel, …” Find source in Shulchan Aruch) Later, in Chapter 30, R. Gershon Henokh argues that such restrictions no longer apply. The author regarded this reactionary movement against Kabbalah – expressed not only by secular enlightenment rationalists, but also from the Lithuanian yeshiva world of his day – as a self-inflicted wound to the Jewish soul, based on a misunderstanding of Kabbalah’s real meaning. (See Maggid, Hasidism on the Margin, ch. 2) In contemplating the claim of “those who sully our name,” it is fair to say that not all opponents of Kabbalah studies denied outright the deeper meanings of the Torah; it is just that they felt that most people are not worthy of its sublime, and potentially dangerous, knowledge. [I’m pretty sure this is the claim of Alan Nadler, The Faith of the Mithnagdim: Rabbinic Responses to Hasidic Rapture (Johns Hopkins Jewish Studies) if you want to quote an academic source) Later, the author himself will agree that not everyone can penetrate to the Torah’s depth. Yet, in that he sees the entire thrust of Jewish history as the bringing down of supernal knowledge to the lowest level, he sets this as the goal of all true Torah scholars – a goal that was eminently achieved by his grandfather, Rav Mordechai Yosef, founder of the Izhbitzer hasidic dynasty, and the latter’s successors.
ולא ישימו לב לאזהרת התורה (דברים ד) וידעת היום והשבת אל לבבך כי ה' הוא האלהים בשמים ממעל ועל הארץ מתחת אין עוד ושמרת את חוקיו וגו':
They pay no attention to that which the Torah admonishes us (Devarim, 4:39), “You shall know this day and take unto your heart that Hashem is Elo-him,12This famous verse expresses the deepest mystery of life, and is among the central tenets of the Hasidic movement. Although this verse was taught by Moshe on the very last day of his physical life, to the Hasidic master, the words are eternally relevant: “know this day.” This knowledge is not merely of the fact of revelation, but the very ongoing act of revelation. Thus, the knowledge is not merely intellectual, but mystical. It is the awareness that the Transcendant God is also immanent, and that the All-Powerful has the capability to reveal something of Himself through the vessels of finite creation. For R. Gershon Henokh, this verse is also the source of faith, which, to the Hasidic masters, was a trans-cognitive faculty that enabled one to breech the opposites of God and reality, infinity and finitude. As R. Gershon Henokh will explain below, faith is the realization God’s mercy and compassion, represented by the ineffable name YHVH is itself E-lohim, representing God’s judgment. God’s Judgment is God’s Mercy. Faith in God’s Goodness in the midst of adversity is the sign of a truly believing person. For God to ask man to know that Hashem is E-lohim requires man to know that there is a spiritual wisdom beneath or beyond the surface of the hard facts of life. This depth of belief opens up the ability to know mysteries of God and the Torah. The notion that God’s judgment is God’s mercy is termed in the Zohar as, “the mystery of faith,” as will be more fully discussed in chapters seven and eight. in the heavens above and on the earth below, there is no other. And you shall guard his statutes …”13In other words, knowledge of God’s unity, in heaven and earth, in good and bad, leads one to guard His statutes.
וכן הזהירנו (דברים לב) ויאמר אליהם שימו לבבכם לכל הדברים אשר אנכי מעיד בכם היום אשר תצום את בניכם לשמר לעשות את כל דברי התורה הזאת,. כי לא דבר ריק הוא מכם כי הוא חייכם ובדבר הזה תאריכו ימים וגו':
So too, are we cautioned (Devarim, 32:47), “And he said to them, take to your hearts all that I testify to you today, that you shall command your children to guard all the words of this Torah in order to do them. It is not an empty thing for you, for it is your life.14The verse tells us that the Torah is not an empty thing. To R. Gershon Henokh, studying the simple meaning of the Torah, without also delving into its esoteric dimension, makes the Torah “an empty thing” – a body without a soul. It is interesting to note a comment of Rabbi Elyahu, the Gaon of Vilna, on Proverbs (2:9): “When one understands the secret clearly, he will understand everything clearly – including the simple meaning, the hint, and the allegory. Yet all the while he does not know the secret, he can not yet understand even the simple meaning with total clarity.” R. Gershon Henokh would clearly concur with this opinion. And in this you may increase your days …”
וכן אמר דוד המלך ע"ה לשלמה המלך ע"ה (דברי הימים א כח) ואתה שלמה בני דע את אלהי אביך ועבדהו בלב שלם ובנפש חפצה כי כל לבבות דורש ה' וכל יצר מחשבות מבין אם תדרשנו ימצא לך:
This is as David HaMelech said to his son, Shlomo HaMelech (Divrei HaYamim 1, 28:9), “And you, Shlomo my son, know the God of your fathers and serve him with a whole heart and a willing soul. For all hearts seek God, and all intellects understand (this principle). If you seek Him, you shall find.”15The Reshit Chochmah, the classic work of Kabbalistic piety by Elijah DeVidas, a student of the Arizal, uses this same verse – “Know the God of your father and serve him” – to explain the prerequisite of attaining knowledge for divine service. The Dor Yesharim, the official family history of the Isbitza-Radzin dynasty, records that Rabbi Gershon Hanokh Lainer always kept a copy of the Reshit Chochmah on his bedside table, and his grandson, the author of the family history, writes that his grandfather would learn the Reshit Chochmah by candlelight when he would wake in the middle of the night.
כי עיקר העבודה הוא רק כפי הידיעה כי תפלה נקראת עבודה שבלב, כדאיתא בגמרא (תענית ב.) ולעבדו בכל לבבכם (דברים יא) איזו היא עבודה שהיא בלב הוי אומר זו תפלה. כי עבודה היא ביראה ואהבה כדאיתא בזוה"ק (שלח קסה.) חד בחדוה וכו' לקיימא עבדו את ה' בשמחה וחד ביראה וכו' לקיימא עבדו את ה' ביראה. ואיך יעבוד ויירא ויאהב את אשר לא ידע, כדאיתא בהקדמת תקוני הזהר (דף ה) דרגא עשיראה ביראת ה' אית יראה ואית יראה לאו כל אפיא שוין אית יראה דדחיל בר נש לקב"ה בגין דלא ילקה ליה ברצועה וכו' אוקמוה עלה אין בור ירא חטא בתר דלית ביה יראת ה'. מאן דאיהו דחיל מגו אורייתא דאיהו תפארת דמיניה נפקת וכו' בגין דאיהי יראה דנפקת מגו תורה דאיהו עמודא דאמצעיתא דאיהו הוי"ה דבגיניה אוקמוהו מארי מתני' גדולה תורה שמביאה לאדם לידי מעשה, דאי בר נש לא ידע אורייתא ואגרא דפקודיא דילה וענשין דילה למאן דעבר על פקודיא ומאן הוא דברא אורייתא ומאן הוא דיהיב לה לישראל איך דחיל ליה ונטיר פקודוי, ובגין דא אמר דוד לשלמה בנו דע את אלהי אביך ועבדהו דאי בר נש לא אשתמודע ההוא דיהיב ליה אורייתא ומני ליה לנטרא לה איך דחיל מניה ועבוד פקודוי:
Indeed, the essense of serving G-d depends upon the level of one’s knowledge.16Knowledge precedes all other accomplishments. According to R. Gershon Henokh, service, love, and fear only exist when one “knows.” Prayer is called “the service of the heart,” as the Gemara (Ta’anit 2a) asks on the verse (Devarim, 11:13), “If you heed My mitzvot … to serve Him with all your heart.” “What is considered the service of the heart? This is prayer.” For in order to serve God, one needs two qualities – the love of God and the fear of God,17“יראת השם” (yirat Hashem), translates as the “fear of God.” It can similarly be understood as awe, reverence, or awareness of God’s presence, which to varying degrees, affects one’s behavior and concern for the proper adherence to God’s laws. as it states in the Zohar (Shlach, 165a), “One who serves God with joy fulfills the verse (Tehillim, 100:2), ‘Serve God with joy,’ and one who serves God with fear fulfills the verse (ibid, 2:11), ‘Serve God with fear.’” Clearly it is impossible for a person to serve, fear, and love something that he does not know.18The author argues that one needs knowledge in order to begin to serve God. It is clear from the above mentioned teaching in the Talmud that prayer is one of the main forms of the service of God – “service of the heart.” Prayer obviously requires belief. A person cannot pray full-heartedly unless he believes that God is listening to him. But the author is saying more. Even an animal will obey its master only if it has some fear of punishment for disobedience, or show dedication in its actions if it feels love for his master. How much more so, a human being. The deeper man’s fear and love is for God, so does he strengthen his dedication to fulfilling God’s will. Do develop these feelings, he needs to put his mind and heart on the nature of God and the intimite role God plays in his life at all moments. All the good man receives, whether it is health, children, knowledge, honor, wealth, or wellbeing, is bestowed upon him by God. And all suffering – no matter how small – can be considered some form of Divine chastisement. The more man strives to know God in all of his walks of life, the more God will respond in kind and reveal Himself on a deeper level. We find in the introduction to the Tikunei Zohar (5b): The tenth level19The Zohar describes two levels of fear of God: a lower and a higher, depending upon their correspondances in the sefirotic tree. That is, classic Kabbalah views reality in terms of a gradual ten-step descent from the infinite Godhead to the physical world. Each step, or sefirah, dims and colors the Divine Light, until it can be perceived in our world. These ten stages are further divided into four worlds, known as Atzilut (Emanation), Beriyah (Creation), Yetzirah (Formation) and Asiyah (Action). Furthermore, these correspond to the Tetragrammaton – the four letter Name of God – .י – ה – ו – ה The “tenth level” discussed here is the sefirah of Malkhut (Sovereignity). Being the lowest and furthest step from the Godhead, it is also the sefirah of greatest concealment and constriction. On this level – as it corresponds to the human psyche – fear is the product of a lack of true knowledge, and means simply “fear of punishment” for transgressing Divine law. Such an attitude reflects a distance from God, and a relationship to Torah’s laws as external, imposing commandments. in the fear of God is as follows. There is fear, and there is fear. Not all expressions of fear are the same. One person’s fear of God may be largely motivated by the fear of Divine punishment. Of this it is taught (Pirkei Avot 2:5), “An unlearned person cannot fear sin.”20In other words, a person ignorant of the Torah does not have the basic information to know what to fear. A higher level of fears derives from the Torah itself, which is Tiferet,21Tiferet (Beauty) is the sefirah of harmony and balance. In the center of the Sefirotic tree, it connects all points on the map: above and below, right and left. Kabbalistically, Tiferet corresponds to the Torah, which also connects and harmonizes all levels – man and God, man and his fellow, man and himself. Knowledge of Torah brings one into connection with the sefirah of Tiferet, which results in a higher type of fear: not the fear of punishment, but an awe and recognition of God’s glory, which automatically causes a person to cling to and fulfill the commandments. called the “middle column,”22The ten Sefirot are organized in three columns, right, left, and middle. The middle column joins the right and the left together. It is closely related to Tiferet (see previous note.) which is the name Havay’ah (the Tetragramaton,י-ה-ו-ה). Because of this, the authors of the Mishnah taught, “Great is the Torah in that it brings a person to action.”23The Torah is the middle column, whose action essentially joins all of the ten Sefirot together and enables communication between them, and hence, generates action. In the same way, true fear of God is the first impetus for all Divine service. If a person does not know the Torah, or the reward for keeping its commandments and the punishment for transgressing its commandments, nor is he aware of the One who created the Torah and gives it to Israel, how can he fear God and guard His commandments? For this reason David said to his son Shlomo, “Know the God of your fathers and serve him.” For if one does not know the one who gave him the Torah and commanded him to guard it, how then can he fear Him and fulfill its commandments?
ובמדרש שוחר טוב (קיט) במה יזכה נער את ארחו לשמור כדברך, אמר שלמה (משלי ג) בכל דרכיך דעהו, אם ידעת להקב"ה בכל דבר ודבר הוא יישר ארחותיך וכן אמר (תהלים טז) תודיעני ארח חיים. וכן משה אמר להקב"ה (שמות לג) ועתה אם נא מצאתי חן בעיניך הודיעני נא את דרכך. וכתיב (תהלים כה) הדריכני באמתך ולמדני כי אתה וגו'. וכן הוא אומר (תהילים פ״ו:י״א) הורני ה' דרכך וגו' וכתיב (ירמיה ו) כה אמר ה' עמדו על דרכים וראו ושאלו לנתיבות עולם אי זה דרך הטוב ולכו בה. ראו באיזה דרך הלך אברהם ובאיזה דרך הלך נמרוד ואיזה מהן הצליח וכו'. וכן היה דוד אומר לשלמה בנו ואתה שלמה בני דע את אלהי אביך ועבדהו וגו':
Similarly, we find in the Midrash Sochar Tov: “How may a young man make his path pure? By serving according to Your word” (Tehillim 119), Shlomo said, “In all your ways know Him.” If you know and are conscious of God in all that you do, He will straighten the paths before you. Thus, it is said (Tehillim, 16), “Make the path of life known to me.” So too, Moshe said to God (Shemot, 33), “Now, if I have found favor in your sight, let me know Your ways.” And also (Tehillim, 25), “Lead me in Your truth, and teach me, for You are the God of my salvation.” And (Tehillim, 86), “God, teach me Your way.” And it is written (Yermiyahu, 6), “Stand on the roads and see, and ask about the ways of the world, and see which is the good way. Then walk in it, and find rest for your soul.” Look at the path that Avraham took, and look at the path that Nimrod took, and see who succeeded. So too did David say, “And you, Shlomo my son, know the God of your fathers, and serve him.”
ובזהר חדש שיר השירים (דף עז.) כל מאן דאזיל לההוא עלמא בלא ידיעה אפי' אית ביה עובדין טבין סגיאין מפקין ליה מכל תרעין דההוא עלמא. ובזה"ק (תרומה קסא:) דכל מאן דהוי בהאי עלמא ולא אשתדל למנדע ליה טב ליה דלא יתברי בג"כ אתחזי קמי מלכא קדישא למנדע בהאי עלמא ולאשתדל ביה בקב"ה ברזא דמהימנותא הה"ד (דברים ד) אתה הראית לדעת וכו' דהא בגין דא אייתי ליה קוב"ה לבר נש בהאי עלמא. לדעת כי ה' הוא האלהים דא איהו כללא דכל רזא דמהימנותא בכל אורייתא:
The following passages of the Zohar express the central principle that knowledge is the prerequisite to any true Divine service. Everyone who goes to the next world without knowledge will be thrown out of each and every gate of that world, even though he has many good actions to his credit. (Zohar Chadash, Shir HaShirim, 77a) If a person is in this world, and does not strive to know Him, it would have been better had he never been created. For this reason, be seen before the Holy King, in order to know Him in this world. Strive to serve God in the mystery of faith, as it is written (Devarim 4), “You have been shown in order to know that Hashem is Elo-him, there is none besides Him.” God brought man into this world precisely in order to know that God is Elo-him. This is the principle of every secret of faith in the entire Torah.24Notice how this passage of the Zohar equates knowledge with faith – two concepts usually considered to be opposites. To R. Gershon Henokh, however, true knowledge means the realization that the compassionate and loving God, referred to by the name Hashem (Y-H-V-H) and the God that brings upon human beings trials and adversity (E-lohim), are really one, and that even life’s afflictions are an expression of God’s love and compassion. He will return to this theme later, in chapters six and seven. On a related note, the Mei HaShiloach explains that human beings suffer, due to a lack of knowledge. That is to say, if a person truly understood the meaning behind the fulfillment of the commandments, then there would be no suffering whatsoever in the service of God. (Terumah, 161b)