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Rabbi Nachman and this Shabbat's Torah Portion

January 29, 2016

Every week, Jody Hirsh, the JCC's Judaic Education Director, provides a Judaic message that is featured at the top of the JCC's weekly email newsletter. Below is the Shabbat message for Friday, January 29, 2016.

Rabbi Nachman and this Shabbat’s Torah Portion

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772 – 1810), one of the great Hassidic masters, had a particular interest in a recent Torah Portion, Parashat Bo. This week’s portion continues the story of the ten plagues. We are told:  “And the Lord said unto Moses, ‘Come to Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, that I might show these my signs in the midst of them; and that thou mayest tell in the ears of thy son, and of thy son’s son, what I have wrought upon Egypt, and My signs which I have done among them; that ye may know that I am the Lord.’” Then there are the three final plagues: locusts, darkness, and the death of the first born. Each time, we are told that “the Lord hardens Pharaoh’s heart,” and Pharaoh decides not to allow the Israelites to go. Until the last blow, the slaying of the first born, including Pharaoh’s own son, brings about the Israelites’ freedom. Finally, Pharaoh lets the people go. And even then, the Lord hardens Pharaoh’s heart again, and Pharaoh sends his armies to annihilate them. Never-the-less, God punishes Pharaoh and his troops, and all the people of Egypt.

Whoa! Did we hear that right? God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, and then punishes him and all his people because Pharaoh’s heart was hard, and he didn’t release the Israelites. What kind of Justice is that? What kind of merciful God forces Pharaoh to sin, and then punishes him for that sin? This very illogical fact made the portion, in the opinion of Reb Nachman, the MOST difficult to understand of all the portions of the Torah.  It seemed to him that it was the key to both cosmic and personal unfairness in the world. It was a suffering and an evil that wasn’t necessarily deserved, since God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. And for Nachman, it has echoes of the world: why is there injustice in the world? Why do the innocent often suffer? Why do the evil often flourish? This idea of unavoidable evil resonates even in Nachman’s own life. He was a Tzaddik (a righteous person), in fact he considered himself the Tzaddik HaDor, the most righteous person of his generation, and yet he suffered from deep, dark, debilitating depressions. How was that fair? How was that just?

Nachman’s commentary on the story is, in essence, his wrestling with this seeming injustice. In his opinion, God is all good, and therefore such injustice (both cosmic and personal) is impossible. Nachman finds the root of this injustice is, in fact, an exploration of evil in the world. Nachman relates the existence of evil to the mystical Kabbalistic notion of the creation of the world known as “tzimtzum,” contraction. According to this narrative, before the creation of the world, God filled up every cubic inch of the universe. Nothing existed but God. Therefore, in order to create the world, God had to create a vacuum... a void... in the midst of God’s own presence – a kind of empty bubble – in which to create the world. This dark void, then, is by definition a space that is so empty that nothing exists within it – not even God. In this Kabbalistic scheme, then, the world is in the center of the void and is full of God. At the edge of the void too, God exists in all God’s power and glory: this aspect of God is called the Ein Sof, the endless. The Ein Sof, then, extends throughout all time and space. Since that void exists between the world as we know it, and the Ein Sof, that is the place where evil can exist because it is devoid of God. It is, in fact a necessary evil, then, because without that void, God couldn’t have created the world. There would have been no room.

Furthermore, since Nachman thought of himself as the most righteous of his generation, he was able to meditate about the nature of God and truly understand God. However, at some point, his consciousness had to leap from the consciousness of God in the world, to the consciousness of God as the infinite Ein Sof. Because of that, Nachman’s consciousness had to leap through the void. Because of that he experienced the total bleak, dark void. A place without good. A place without God. It was that experience that created the dark depressions of which Nachman was a victim. Believe it or not, my explanation of Nachman’s view of this episode is actually VERY simplified, but it is fascinating. All of Nachman’s profound meditation and deep thought was sparked by the basic theological question posed by our Torah Portion for the week.

Shabbat Shalom

***Note: A more detailed description of Nachman’s interpretation of Parashat Bo can be found in Arthur Green’s biography of Nachman: Tormented Master.

A graphic version of the world of God’s present surround by the dark void between the world and the Ein Sof – the infinite God.

Rabbi Nachman’s grave in the Ukraine.