By Rabbi Dr. James Jacobson-Maisels
The Vitebsker’s interpretation of va’etchanan starts with Rashi’s reading of one of the parsha’s most famous verses:
Rashi interprets the verse “You have been shown to know [that YHVH alone is God; there is none beside Him]” (Deut 4:35) according to the Targum (the ancient Aramaic translation) which renders it ‘You have been shown,’ that at the time of the giving of the Torah [God] tore open for them the seven heavens and just as God tore open the upper regions so God tore open the lower regions and they saw that He/it is one etc.”
This tearing open, this seeing of oneness, the Vitebsker tells us, is the very meaning of revelation and the path to freedom. Yet how do we reach this revelation? How do we become free? By serving God, by dedicating ourselves to the divine, the Vitebsker tells us. Indeed, this is the very call of revelation. We become free by uprooting our habitual unhealthy responses, patterns, and actions that harm ourselves and others. By stopping focusing on ourselves.
It can sound like platitudes, but it is incredibly challenging and scary work. It is scary, because we are constantly habitually acting to serve and protect ourselves and there is a part of ourselves which feels, understandably so, genuinely concerned about our safety, future, and wellbeing if we don’t continue to do so. Yet, the Vitebsker claims, we actually remain lost to ourselves — lost in our fear, anger, vice, protectiveness and selfish desire — if we do not.
For me, the most concrete example of this has been learning how to better deal with conflict and feelings of being unfairly treated and misused. In one situation, where I was full of pain, anger and resentment, one of my teachers asked me “what would love do?” For me, this question shifted everything. It didn’t make me think I was wrong in what I had thought was the correct solution for the situation. It didn’t make me become passive or accepting. It didn’t cause me to allow myself to be walked on. Rather, it empowered me to act from a place of caring and healing, to try to bring the best result without falling into the traps of resentment and anger. It helped me be clear. It made me feel, already in that moment, liberated. It didn’t mean I ignored myself. Love was as interested in me and my concerns as it was in anyone else’s. Yet it reoriented me to ask the question of what would actually serve the good, the divine, at this moment. It was no longer about me. It was about something bigger.
It is a question I try to ask regularly in my work. As I get caught up in worrying about the success of this or that, about how much I’ll make, about how many people will come, about whether we’ll survive, I need to remind myself to stop and ask, “What would love do?” or “What will serve at this moment?” When I ask those questions, the anxiety, the stress, and the striving fall away. There is clarity about what would be best to do at this moment and how I should go about doing it. Turning myself towards service is liberating. I can feel the freedom in my body.
Our mindfulness, our contemplation, can show us this truth. Just observe. What does it feel like when you are serving yourself? What does it feel like when you are serving the divine, serving love? How do you want to feel? What makes you free? What makes you happy? It isn’t actually that complicated. It is just hard to remember in the face of the deep habitual patterns that tell us we have to be constantly serving ourselves or we won’t be okay.
It is important to distinguish this open-hearted serving of love from the neurotic self-sacrificing some of us can get caught in which is based not on open-hearted love but on fear, feelings of unworthiness, the desire to please, the desire to feel worthwhile, guilt, and other such emotions. Again, our mindfulness can guide us here. Turn towards your experience as you act or form the intention to act. Is there stress? Is there fear? Is there openness? Is there love? Do you feel free? If you don’t feel free, then there is something askew, something trapped, something closed, and our practice is just to help it straighten, open, and become free.
It is not easy to dedicate ourselves to God. We will fail over and over again. But when I can remember to do it, I know it brings me freedom, and I know (perhaps paradoxically) I want to be free. Let us ask ourselves how we can serve that which is greater in every aspect of our life and then see what that produces, what is the blessings it brings.
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This teaching is an excerpt from Rav James’ weekly teaching for “Torah Study for the Soul,” a year-long text study program offered by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. For the full teachings and to receive teachings in your inbox each week, you may still register for this program at a pro-rated cost.