This year, starting in September, I or another Organic Torah teacher will write a monthly translation, summary and commentary on a short section of spiritual Torah. Most often it will be from the book Derekh HaMelekh, by Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira (The Piazetzner Rebbe) (1889 – 1943). This first one is for everyone but starting in September, these translations will be offered to Organic Torah members. We’ll also have periodic members’ webinars, an online discussion forum, members’ discounts on Organic Torah classes and workshops, and more. So, please join us and become part of this growing community!
Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira (The Piazetzner Rebbe) Sefer Derekh HaMelekh – Shabbat Hazon תרצ”ו (1936)
INTRODUCTION TO THIS DRASH:
This commentary or drash (creative interpretation) starts with the famous statement from Isaiah’s prophecy: ציון במשפט תפדה ושביה בצדקה “Zion will be redeemed with judgement and her returning ones with righteousness” (Isaiah 1:27). As is often the case, the Rebbe asks some questions about this opening phrase, then goes on a roundabout journey into things that seem unrelated to it, and then only in the end of the drash, comes back to tie it all back together. This particular drash can be divided into two parts: in the first part he discusses the mutual relationship of people and God: When we believe in God, God believes in us. In the second half he talks about how one can strengthen one’s belief/faith/faithfulness (the Hebrew is אמונה emunah, which has all those meanings.) I will briefly summarize some of the main points of the first half and then offer my translation of the last three paragraphs.
Rav Kalonymus describes how our emunah (faith/faithfulness/belief) pulls God’s belief in us into this world. When we prove ourselves to be the kind of people that are faithful, there is a response from above which then helps us. We’ve all had experiences in which we feel strongly committed to a certain way of being or goal, and “the universe” tends to help us in that area.
For example, he notes that the yetzer ha’ra, the evil inclination, is so difficult to battle because it just keeps coming back. You can defeat it once, twice, a hundred times, but it keeps on finding ways to attack you. So, you need to have God’s help to strengthen yourself. We all have the experience of being ok, and free from the temptation in some areas. From his social world he gives the examples of keeping Shabbat or eating kosher or avoiding Hametz on Pesach. For his Hasidic community, even an average person wouldn’t even be tempted not to follow these practices. Whereas people in other communities would find these things difficult and their yetzer ha’ra would tempt them all the time. So, in his community the evil inclination had been defeated in these areas. God found the people faithful and trustworthy and strengthened them, at least in those areas.
Then he goes on to examine how one gets to having a strong practice, and how one comes to have emunah. His basic equation is: you can’t really have emunah if you don’t actually practice with faithfulness. And you can’t really have that holy level of practice without emunah. If you see that your practice is wobbling; you sometimes are there, and sometimes not; sometimes you do your practice and sometimes not, that is a sign that your emunah is weak.
The Rebbe now turns to examine emunah itself, and the example of how you can have one person who experiences a miracle or it happens that God saves her, then she can also believe even when God isn’t saving her. But, he says, complete faith is where even when she doesn’t see any miracles and God doesn’t save her, she still believes, and even more, even when things are going very badly for her she still believes.
What follows is my translation of the rest of his drash on Shabbat Hazon:
But, just as it isn’t possible for a person to be wise in just one area, but rather one needs to have wisdom as a state of being and then, in addition, you could also be extra wise in one area. And, similarly, it’s not possible to have a good temperament in just one situation, but rather, one needs to have a good temperament in all matters. So also, it is not possible to arouse faith within one’s self if, in all your other matters, you don’t at least somewhat nullify your ego. (To understand this we must ask), what causes a person’s faith to be damaged? It is because one doesn’t grasp and doesn’t understand (God’s ways), and, according to his understanding, he sees the opposite (of what he would expect from God). And there could be a person who says it in the language of a question, saying,
“Look, we see that the enemies of Israel are succeeding and the Jews are on the bottom of the pile. And even within the Jewish people, the ones who serve God are on the bottom of the pile (God forbid!) and the sinners are doing just fine. But, still, we aren’t permitted to question God’s ways at all. God is righteous in all His ways.”
The person says all this after his question pushes on his mind, even as he tries to push it away. But he knows that it is only a determination of his mind that is pushing back (against his questions), which is the opposite of his inner self which, even without his feeling it, is able to weaken his faith.
This is like water which wears away stones. Even though water is soft and couldn’t break up a stone in a moment, even still, as the water continues to flow, more and more, it wears away the stones. So, also this question, even if it isn’t a big one for him, because he knows that it’s not possible to grasp God and God’s ways, and he is bothered that this question even comes into his mind. In any case, since that question remains in his mind, again and again, it damages his faith, to his own sorrow and against his will.
It all depends on the character of ego within a person. Someone who, in other matters as well, puts themselves first: as much as he wants to sleep—he sleeps; to eat—he eats. Because his ego wants what it desires. If someone offends his honor, it feels to him as if his very life, his existence and his self, has been tread upon. It’s the same across the board with all matters that touch upon his ego.
Since his sense of self and identity are the basis of everything for this person, so it is also with one’s understandings and ideas: His understandings and ideas are the foundation for him. And as much as he’d like to push off his questions, which come up according to his understandings, still, even without his knowing it, his faith is damaged.
The opposite is true with someone who in all matters subjugates and nullifies her ego, so also in this matter: she nullifies her own understandings, and her faith in God remains strong without anything impeding it. So, those who are distressed about their impaired faith, will know that they must repair their personality traits.
“He believed in God and it was considered for him tzedakah” (Genesis 15:6 – referring to Abraham). As it says in the holy books, this is the greatness of tzedakah (charity): to atone for sins (as it is written) “Through tzedakah you are released from your sins (Daniel 4:24). Aside from the fact that (one who gives charity) gives life to a poor person, it also releases a person from their sins because one put one’s strength and one’s self into earning the money, and now he gives it as charity and as a mitzvah, therefore it is one’s self that one is giving. This is what is means by “He believed in God and it was considered for him tzedakah.” It writes specifically “for him” because one gives of one’s self in tzedakah. Because if he hadn’t given himself over to God, he wouldn’t have been able to have faith, as we said above.
And since he believes in God, it arouses God to believe in him, and this becomes his constant connection to holiness. “Zion will be redeemed in judgement” —but there are times when even after someone has been redeemed, they backslide and return to their old ways, God forbid. That is what it means by “and her returning ones by righteousness (tzedakah)”—those that have returned and backslid into their old ways after they have been redeemed—can be saved by giving all of their self/ego over to God, and thereby cleave to God in faith and mutual connectedness.
A FEW OF MY THOUGHTS ON THIS DRASH:
- I am, as usual, blown away by how Rabbi Kalonymus’s Torah gives insight into the ideas that I’ve been working on though Organic Torah. Feedback loops, or, as the Buddhists would say, “co-arising” creation is at the center of his Torah. Our emunah (faith/faithfulness/belief) draws down God’s faith in us, which then strengthens our faith and around in a reinforcing feedback loop. Similarly, when we practice it strengthens our belief and when we believe it strengthens our practice.
- Even more central to his drash is the idea that our self-understanding as connected to a larger whole; having the larger whole be the center, not our own ego, is the basis for It is a deeply entrenched character trait: either one sees oneself as the center, and then of course, your ideas and thoughts are going to be your foundation (and your questions can weaken your faithfulness), or one sees oneself as a part of the whole, and then your own thoughts aren’t at the center. This basic shift away from the individualistic, narrow selfhood of modern Western culture that we have been brought up in, and towards an understanding our self as open and connected, as a part of a larger network of relationships, is at the center of what we are trying to understand and encourage at Organic Torah. I’m grateful to Reb Kalonymus for expressing this idea so beautifully.
- It is inspiring to see the way that he connects the giving of tzedakah to faith: The act of opening oneself up to others, giving of one’s self through tzedakah, can change our basic stance in life. You can, though this practice, shift your center of gravity, so that your self is not the center, but rather, the larger whole of which you are just a part.
- It is very moving to see how this drash foreshadows what will in fact be the Rebbe’s own process of struggle with faith during the terrible years of the Shoah in the Warsaw Ghetto. I recommend reading Nehemia Polen’s wonderful selection/translation/commentary on Reb Kalonymus’s writings during the war years, The Holy Fire. Polen’s thesis is that Reb Kalonymus needed to go through a process of letting go of his own thoughts and ideas about God, in a very similar way to that which is described here in this drash.
There is so much more that can be said about this Torah of the Piazetzner Rebbe! I invite your comments and questions! Please join Organic Torah and let’s keep the conversation going!