By Rabbi Dr. James Jacobson-Maisels
R. Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk’s opens his reflections on Parashat Shofetim by quoting from Torah and the Talmud:
[Then the officials shall address the troops, as follows:] “Is there anyone who has built [a new house but has not dedicated it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another dedicate it. Is there anyone who has] planted a vineyard [but has never harvested it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another harvest it. Is there anyone who has] betrothed a wife, [but who has not yet married her? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another marry her.” The officials shall go on addressing the troops and say,] “Is there anyone afraid [and fainthearted? Let him go back to his home, lest the courage of his comrades flag like his”] (Deut 20:5-8).
On these verses, the Talmud offers the following commentary:
And the sages said “[The order of the phrases is ‘who has built’, ‘who has planted’, ‘who has betrothed’.] The Torah has thus taught a rule of conduct: that a man should build a house, [then plant a vineyard and then marry a wife.]” (Sotah 44a) in the order [of the verse]. And the sages said [that the afraid and fainthearted person] “is one afraid because of transgressions he has committed” (Sotah 44a)
Notice here the presence of two themes. First, the parasha addresses the sense of doing or accomplishing— that the person in question has built a house or planted a vineyard. Separately, it addresses the sense of love or connection; the finding of a life partner or the care, excitement and concern for a new house or business venture.
Based on the Talmud, the Vitebsker adds his own interpretation, saying:
“A person has no ability to speak except through the words of God [that speak through him] as the verse says ‘My Lord, open my lips [and let my mouth declare Your praise.]’ (Ps. 51:17). So too are not his love and awe God? For who is the one who loves if not the life of God which permeates his soul? And who is loved? God! And what is the love? It is hewn from the essence of divinity which permeates, connects and unifies in the lower world and is contracted into the microcosm which is the person….’
The words which a person speaks, even those addressed to God, are nothing but God. The awe and love a person experiences are themselves God. Both lover, beloved and the love itself are God. And this love connects a person to every creature, every being. It is not exclusive, it contains all.
When one sees this, then love for others truly flourishes because one sees one is no different than them. The hatred, anger, jealousy, selfishness, fear, deceit and pride is present in you as well. You are intertwined. And so when you ascend and transform you naturally affect others as well. It is all God working through us. We didn’t do any of it. And the craziness of humanity arises in us just as it arises in everyone else and thus we are brothers and sisters with every being.
That is the Vitebsker’s message and it is such an extraordinarily relevant one for our life.
You didn’t do it. And they didn’t do it. You aren’t wonderful and they aren’t evil. You aren’t evil and they aren’t wonderful. We are all just a bunch of human beings trying to do our best.
It doesn’t mean we don’t take responsibility for our actions or for how we relate to all that arises. Indeed, what distinguishes the awake from the slumbering, the righteous from the wicked, is precisely how we relate to that which arises. Do we fall into it or are we aware of it? Do we act on it because of it or are we compassionately present with it as an internal experience? That makes all the difference. But because it arises in us just as it arises in others, no one is alien to us, no one is ultimately other.
Our task then is to try to relate to our life as a gift, to see our deep connection with all others, and to attempt to bring our awareness to all that which arises. By doing so, we see the monstrosity and wonder of humanity within us, and we develop the wisdom and clarity to bring forth the wonder and give loving care to the monstrosity. Then perhaps we can start to see our words, our love, and our belovedness not as ours, but as divine gifts flowing through us. Maybe we can then start to speak not as an act of control but as a surrender to the divine voice, the voice of love, that wants to express itself through us. Maybe we can start to recognize that everything and every being that arises in this world is an aspect of divinity calling for our love and attention. Maybe we can drop our habitual need to separate and defend and instead allow our hearts to be pierced by the pain and suffering of humanity which arises both out there and in here. Maybe then we can look, build, plant and love in a way which brings unity, love and wonder and which heals the many broken hearts.
This week, when you do something, try to see that it isn’t yours. Instead, investigate what it’s like being in it, stewarding the process as a gift. What is it like to recognize that you don’t own it? When you experience hurtful actions, try to see if you can recognize, with love (not blame), how the root of that action is present also within you.
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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.