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Parashat Hashavua Nitzavim 2004 / 5764 - ""It is Not in the Heavens": The True Location of Religious Experience

09.09.2004 by

Nitzavim, the first of the two portions we read this week, contains one of the most stirring yet enigmatic passages in the Torah. Moshe, continuing his valedictory address to the Jewish people, once again exhorts them, on the eve of his death, to do the right thing: "For this Mitzvah which I command you today is not beyond you, it is not far away. It is not in the heavens, for you to say: 'who will go up into the heavens to get it for us and have us hear it, that we may observe it?'. And it is not across the sea, for you to say: 'who will cross the sea and get it for us, and have us hear it, that we may observe it?'. Rather, the word is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart to observe it."

Many different explanations have been offered about the notion that the Torah and its commandments are "very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart..." I would like to share with you a Chassidic story that some of you may have heard already about this phrase. I am using the version of the story that appears in "Chassidic Stories", compiled by Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin in the 1950's.

The holy Rabbi, Reb Chanoch, the Rebbe of Alexander, of Blessed Memory, said in the name of our Holy Rabbi Reb Bunim of P'shischa, of Blessed Memory, that whoever travels for the first time to a Tzaddik (righteous, holy, Chassidic master) to be together with the Chassidim, should know the story of what happened to Reb Isaac Reb Yeklish from Krakov, who built the synagogue in Krakov which is called by his name: the synagogue of Reb Isaac Reb Yeklish.

This Reb Isaac was told in a dream, which he dreamed for many nights in a row, that he should go to Prague, and there, near the Castle of the King, under the bridge, he should dig in the earth, and there he will find a treasure and become rich. So, Reb Isaac went to Prague. When he arrived there he walked to the bridge near the King's Castle, and when he got close to the bridge he saw many soldiers standing there, all on guard, day and night. He saw that it would be completely impossible for him to start digging under the bridge to search for the treasure. Reb Isaac was very disappointed, having gone to so much trouble to travel so far, and now it seemed that he would have to return home, empty-handed. Upset and distressed, he walked all day, lost in thought, close to the bridge, trying to think of a way out his predicament. At night he returned to the inn in which he was staying, and the next day, again, he walked along the bridge, lost in thought. He did this for a few days.

Eventually, the commander of the soldiers noticed the Jew, walking, bent over, muttering to himself, day after day, and called out to him: "Jew, what are you looking for, for whom are you waiting, that you come here day after day?" Reb Isaac told him the whole story; that for a number of nights in a row he had had the same dream, telling him that a treasure awaited him here, in Prague, under this bridge, and that he had come in search of the treasure. When the officer heard these words, he laughed. "For a dream, which has no substance or truth to it, you have gone to all this trouble and traveled so far? Who would behave in such a foolish way? I myself also had a dream, in which I was told to travel to Krakov, where there is some Jew named Reb Isaac Reb Yeklish, and if I were to dig under the oven in his house I would find a great treasure. However, as you can see, it never entered my mind to believe in foolish dreams, and to travel all the way to Krakov."

When he heard the words of the officer, Reb Isaac was seized by fear and trembling, and he understood that the entire point of his coming to Prague was to hear from the officer that the treasure was, in fact, buried under his own oven, in his own home, and that he must return there and search for it. Immediately, Reb Isaac returned home, dug under his oven, and found the treasure. He became very rich, and, with his new-found wealth, built the synagogue which is called by his name.

After telling the story, the Rebbe from Alexander said in the name of Reb Bunim: whoever travels to a Tzaddik or a teacher should know that the main point of his journey is to learn from the Tzaddik that he should not be searching for the treasure at the Tzaddik's place, but, rather, in his own home. And when he returns from the Tzaddik to his home he should dig and search his soul for the treasure, and if he tries he will succeed, as it is written "the word is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart to observe it."

This remarkable story, told in a Chassidic context, functions in a subversive way, as a corrective against one of the cornerstones of Chassidic life and thought: the centrality of the Tzaddik, the Rebbe, in the spiritual life of the Chassid. The trip to Prague and the King's castle represents the normative Chassidic act of visiting and learning from the Rebbe. The officer would seem to represent the Rebbe (!), here undermining his own position by telling the Chassid that the treasure he seeks - spiritual growth and enlightenment - is to be found at home, i.e., within himself, and within his own spiritual life. The verse from our parsha - "the word is very near to you" - is understood to mean that our ultimate interaction with God is not meant to be mediated by or through another person, no matter how saintly that person may be, but is, rather, something for us to navigate on our own, internally. The function of the Rebbe is to make this clear, to send us home to find the treasure, to teach us that it is within ourselves that our true spiritual journey takes place.

It is worth noting that there are many other possible interpretations to this story. Prague and the King's Castle could stand for the attractions of foreign culture, and the story could be a lesson about loyalty to and appreciation of the values of our own Jewish heritage as opposed to the blandishments of non-Jewish society. Reb Bunim of P'shischa's understanding of the story is radical. He sees it as a reminder that the true religious experience is one which is internal, rather than external, and that, ultimately, all spiritual knowledge is self-knowledge, and must be arrived at through our own understanding, rather than by relying on the understanding given to us by others.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Shimon Felix

Our ultimate interaction with God is not meant to be mediated by or through another personRabbi Shimon

Torah Portion Summary - Nitzavim

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