And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you? Only this: to revere the Lord your God, to walk only in His paths, to love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and soul, keeping the Lord’s commandments and laws, which I enjoin upon you today, for your good. (Devarim 10:12-13)
Six hundred and thirteen precepts
an elaborate system of laws
And now, O Israel, what does your God ask
Only this: to walk in His ways.
To love Him and serve Him.
with your singular heart and soul,
can take your matchless vessel
and fill it
with His light.
In the book Speaking Torah – Spiritual Teachings from Around the Maggid’s Table (Vol 2) by Rabbi Arthur Green et al*, a commentary is brought on the above verses by the Noam Elimelech – Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk**, who teaches that God created the world to benefit His creatures. But, he says, this wellspring of good needs a vessel to contain it. He brings an analogy: you want to give a gift of wine or honey to your friend, but have no suitably ornate container in which to put it. You could borrow a beautiful silver vessel from the friend and return it filled with the wine or honey. “In the same way, every person is a vessel, a container. The means by which you prepare and fix your vessel so that it can contain the flow of goodness from God are the fear and love of God, following God’s commandments and pathways. Through this you become a beautiful and appropriate vessel that God can borrow from you and return full of good.”
On the phrase, “And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you?” the word for “ask – sho’el“, also means “borrow” so the Noam Elimelech reads this as asking under what conditions will God borrow the vessel (that is, you) in order to fill it with His goodness and blessing, and he answers that if you serve God as the verse describes – to fear and love Him and follow His ways, then you become a fitting vessel.
Rabbi Green sees this as another call for Divine-human partnership. He says, “God’s deepest wish, to bring good and blessing to all creation, can only be fulfilled if you, the human, prepare your own vessel – your self as such a vessel – to contain that blessing.”
In a commentary on Parashat Ekev, http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/commentary/eikev/5758/how-judaism-iphone, Rabbi Marc Wolf mentions a concept called “simplexity” which is an emerging concept that he says “recognizes that seemingly complex systems can be understood rather simply, and that what we may see as simple may have complex aspects. Simplexity asserts that there are many points when “simplicity and complexity may masquerade as each other.” He continues, “Thus, to understand something that seems complex, we should look beyond that complexity. I can think of no greater mandate for Jewish life. For a religion sometimes mired in law and ritual, Simplexity would urge us to uncover its simplicity.”
He says that this is hinted at in the above verses, and he wonders how such a simple mandate evolved into such a complex religion. He suggests an answer, “We are an inquisitive people. We strive to understand the meaning behind words. We cannot simply read a text that instructs us to walk in God’s paths — we seek to define what it means to walk in God’s paths…” And he notes that because the commentators are well aware that reverence and love cannot be commanded (the Etz Hayim commentary of the JTS cites the dictum from the Talmud, “Everything is in the power of heaven except whether a person will choose to revere God” (Berachot 33b)), they have focused on the plethora of commandments that Judaism has developed as the basic meaning of this verse. However Rabbi Wolf cites the Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezovsky***, who he says, restores the concept of simplicity to the verse. In his commentary, the Netivot Shalom, the Slonimer Rebbe notes that the commandment is written in the singular form, “Ma Hashem Elohecha shoel me-imach – what does the Lord God ask of you?” addressing each individual. The Slonimer draws on the words of Rabbi Isaac Luria, the famous kabbalist and says, “Every hour, every moment, is distinct from the next since the beginning of time. Likewise, every person is unique from any other, and one is unable to accomplish what another can”… This is fundamental to understanding each individual’s obligation in the world — that each individual should have total clarity of what God demands of him/her. That is the force of the singular me-imach (of you).”
Rabbi Wolf adds, “The Slonimer continues to state that we achieve this clarity by recognizing what drives us; what motivates us and inspires us is what defines our true path and obligation to God. With this reading, we begin to understand why the verse ends in the particular, “for your good.”
He suggests that the traditional rabbinic interpretation of what God seeks from us came to encompass the entire legal and ritual system of Judaism, transformed a seemingly simple dictate “only this…” into something vastly more complex, while the Slonimer’s reading restores simplicity by “recognizing that religion must speak to the individual — and through this personalization, it begins to become clear what God demands of us, and how we accomplish that. Both look at the same verse and see either its simplicity or complexity. Our challenge is to balance simplicity/complexity.”
*Speaking Torah – Spiritual Teachings from Around the Maggid’s Table by Rabbi Arthur Green with Ebn Leader, Ariel Evan Mayse and Or N. Rose
**Rabbi Elimelech Weisblum of Lizhensk (1717 – 1787) was one of the eminent founding Rebbes of the Chasidic movement. He was a prominent student of the Maggid of Mezeritch, and was brought under his tutelage by his illustrious brother the famous Tzadik and Rebbe Meshulam Zushya of Anipoli. Both brothers are central figures in Chasidic tradition and Reb Zushya is especially beloved for his sincerity and fervour. The two offered a contrast in the model of the Chasidic Rebbe, with Elimelech the ascetic scholar, and Zushya giving the impression of the charismatic “saintly simpleton”, although he too was well versed in Chasidic philosophy. The two brothers travelled together in mystical exile of repentance to atone on behalf of the whole Jewish people and the exile of the Shechinah (Divine Presence). Famous Chasidic tales are told of their encounters.
After the death of the Maggid of Mezeritch, the Chasidic movement avoided one centralised leader, as had characterised it under the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid. Instead the great leadership of students of the Maggid dispersed across Eastern Europe, from Poland to Russia, taking with them their different interpretations of Chasidic worship. Nonetheless, in this third generation, Rabbi Elimelech was considered by most of the Maggid’s students and followers as his successor. He began the dissemination of Chasidism in Poland, which subsequently increased to a much greater extent under his foremost disciple, the Chozeh of Lublin.
Rabbi Elimelech is most commonly known by the name of his popular book Noam Elimelech, a commentary on the Torah. This book is one of the principal works of Chasidism.
***Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky (1911 – 2000) served as the Slonimer Rebbe from 1981 until his death. He is widely known for his teachings which he published as a series of books entitled Netivot Shalom. He was a prolific writer. Through his writings he was among the most influential of contemporary Chasidic rebbes, among Chasidim and non-Chasidim alike.
He was born in Baranovitsh (today in Belarus). His father was head of the local Jewish community and his mother was a great niece of the first Slonimer Rebbe, who was known by the title of his work Yesod Ho’Avoda. In 1933 he married a daughter of a future Slonimer Rebbe (the Birkat Avraham). He studied in the Slonimer yeshiva in Baranovitsh and at around the age of 19 he was appointed by the then-Slonimer Rebbe to commit to memory and subsequently write up the discourses which he (the Rebbe) delivered every Shabbat. These notes were subsequently published under the name Beit Avraham.
In 1940, Rabbi Berezovsky was appointed Rosh Yeshiva of Achei Temimim, the Lubavitcher yeshiva in Tel Aviv. In 1941 he opened the Slonimer yeshiva in Jerusalem with just five students. On Friday nights he would sit with his students for hours on end, teaching them the traditional Slonimer melodies.
The Slonim Chasidic dynasty was virtually wiped out in the Holocaust; the yeshiva in Jerusalem served as the focus for its revival. As part of his effort to rejuvenate Slonimer Chasidut, Rabbi Berezovsky was responsible for collecting the oral traditions ascribed to previous Slonimer rebbes (who did not commit their teachings to writing) in works such as Divrei Shmuel and Torat Avot.
In 1954, Rabbi Berezovsky’s father-in-law agreed to assume the mantle of the Rebbe. Rabbi Berezovsky wrote up his discourses, too; they were subsequently published as Birkat Avraham.
He also authored many volumes of his own teachings, including his magnum opus, the seven-volume Netivot Shalom as well as numerous smaller works on educational issues, marital harmony and other issues.
He succeeded his father-in-law as Slonimer Rebbe following the latter’s death in 1981, serving in that capacity for almost twenty years, and was succeeded by his son, Rabbi Shmuel Berezovsky.