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The Spirit of the Law
We can actually see the structure before our eyes in the way the Torah is formulated. In the structure of the five books of the torah itself. The first Book of Genesis has almost no commandments at all. The Torah starts off with stories of our Patriarchs, and it’s as if the Mitzvot’s (commandments) and the Ten Commandments and all of that is like an afterthought, but first the foundation is the stories of these spiritual giants . . . The question is why did the Torah start off the entire Book with the lives of these individuals . . . The Book of Genesis we have these righteous men and women who are living in an intimate relationship with G-d, they’re dedicated to good and they’re living out Covenant committed lives. They’re committed to the good, to justice, to mercy (33:24/58:20), to compassion, to spreading the light, but they don’t really have a religion or a law yet. It is critical for the Torah to start off with individual role models who lived without any structured religion by doing that what the Torah has done it’s made a hierarchy, it’s created a model, a direction . . . it’s like an aspiration for every believer. Had we been given the Law at the very beginning, to Divine Law, nothing could ever supersede a Divine Law. The Law would be the guiding principle and the final say (33:59/58:20) always, but that’s not what happened, we had generations of leaders both men and women that lived by the Spirit of the Law, the Torah before the Torah itself was given.
The Law, religion, is built upon the Spirit that preceded the giving of the structured Law; that’s why Genesis comes first and that’s why we now come to Exodus the Law deals with the details (34:23/58:20) with the details of each commandment separately. The stories deal with the whole of life, the totality of religious life before giving the law we’re given the meaning of the Law. So first they lived a godly life, they lived as examples, they lived how you’re meant to be in the world, what it means to live in Covenant committed to the ultimate good (G-d and His was and are the Only Good) and the ancient name of the Book (34:52/58:20) of Genesis is (Sephir Hayashar) the “Book of the Upright”, because you can live by every single Command, custom, and ritual in the Torah and just be a scoundrel of a human being. So Genesis says, listen first, “The Book of Righteousness”/“The Book of the Upright” (Sefer Hayashar) this is the way to walk in the world, so we have the Book of Genesis to teach us how to walk straight, how to be upright.
First the Torah sets in place the Spirit of the Torah/Law/Bible, the Torah sets examples of believers who live (35:17/58:20) upright, who pave the path for us to learn how to “follow” (the First Command of the Torah) So as the Torah moves on to Exodus, the Laws are given to the nation, they’re given into a context, they’re given within the story, they’re being wrapped in meaning, giving us consciously and subconsciously the Spirit, the purpose, the guiding principles of each command. We don’t just have a list of laws, but laws are also given in the context of the story, constantly the story is giving us the Spirit between the Law that keep on reminding us that the purpose of performance is to transform the performer, the purpose of observance is to physically train us towards spiritual ends (36:07/58:20).
Rabbeinu Bahya Ibn Pakuda is the author of one of the first real treaties on Jewish Law and Ethics in Spiritual Living; it was around the year 1040 of the common era, the book was called, “Duties of the Heart”, this is what he says, “The chief aim and purpose of the mitzvot (commandments) performed with our body is to arouse our attention to the mitzvot that are fulfilled with the mind and heart, for these are the pillars on which the service of G-d rests.” (Rabbeinu Bahya Ibn Pakuda, Duties of the Heart, 1040 CE); in other words, we got commandments that are (36:36/58:20) directing our actions, build Sukkah, give charity, eat kosher, but then there are commandments of the spirit, the heart, the mind, to love G-d, love your neighbor. The chief aim of all of the practical mitzvot (commandments) is ultimately to bring us to a higher awareness of the mitzvot (commandments) of the mind and the heart, meaning if you keep the letter of the Law, and your heart is hard, closed, you’ve done a good deed, but you’ve missed the purpose behind the mitzvah (commandments) itself, it’s almost like the mitzva (command) wasn’t accomplished.
The mitzvah (commandments), the best way to think about it is like this, the mitzvah (commandments) is a deed in the form of a prayer; it’s like an action that we’re giving over to G-d . . . that’s just really beautiful. A prayer without heart, it’s okay, but the purpose behind the prayer, it’s like a prayer without wings can’t really reach the heavens. And so in Proverbs, in chapter 6 verse 23, it says “For the commandment (mitzvah) is a lamp and the teaching a light, and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life.” The purpose of a lamp is not the act of lighting . . . to consume the oil and burn the wick, the real purpose is to produce light, the mitzvah (commandment) is like the lamp that’s meant to produce light (37:55/58:20), so the purpose of performing the mitzvah (commandment) is in its meaning, it's in the light that we create from it. So, the mitzvot (command) in that way are formative, our souls grow by noble deeds, our souls are illuminated by sacred acts that’s the purpose of the mitzvot.
The purpose of all the mitzvot’s are to refine men to allow our souls to be revealed. They were given to us to enable us, to discipline us, to inspire us, to connect us, but if the Law becomes petrified, becomes some ritual that just is happening now, our observance becomes mechanical, it’s like we violated and distort the Spirit of it all. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes this beautiful passage in his book, “God in Search of Men”, “Halacha (The Law) is an answer to a question, namely: What does God ask of me? But the moment that question dies in our hearts, the answer becomes meaningless,” (Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man p. 339). It’s like, when we live by the Torah, it guides our actions, but more importantly it empowers our spirit; it’s like we live in teshuva (repentance).
Now we’ve explained teshuva to be repentance, return, re-alignment, but there’s another meaning to the name teshuva (39:12/58:20), teshuva means answer; we’re living in teshuva, we’re living in an answer. The question is alive in our hearts and our life striving to answer the question, “what is God asking of us?”, my answer is the mitzvot (commandments), that’s how I want to do it; take care of the orphan, take care of the widow, be kind, spread light. What does G-d ask of me, be light (39:36/58:20) in the world; how do I share the light, hear the mitzvot (commandment), so these are the lamps to share the light. So, we could say, “well thank G-d I got a rule book; I’ll follow the rules, and I ‘ll be doing what G-d asked me to do,” but then we say, “no”, the structure of the Torah, the Spirit and the guidance of teaching Law is placed within the context of the story, so we have every letter of the Law is filled with a spirit. And in order to address that fundamental question, “how do we not lose the Spirit?”; if we lose the Spirit, we’ve lost the goal of it all . . . It makes sure every believer is aligned with what a godly life looks like, not in ritual, but in spirit, and so the goal is to show us how to live a soul-powered life (40:44/58:20), how to live by the spirit and principles and values of the Torah/Law/Bible. Now there are virtues that we can express in our lives, they’re like Divine Attributes that we can actualize.
You know there are times when we see men and women, and they’re acting in the world, and we’re like, “whoa that’s not human, that’s like super human,” that’s like . . . a person that reveals his soul (41:17/58:20), in his life, and he shines this light that’s honorable, that’s filled with dignity, and character, and nobility, you can’t deny it, it’s just godly, and we can’t always articulate it, but we admire them, and the entire purpose of the Torah is to guide us to become the people who express that godly light in the world . . . its value is in its clarity, once we know the values, the virtues we want to express, we can start molding our lives and aiming our hearts and becoming the people we were designed to be, the people we were destined to be, so when your soul is fully revealed . . . that’s it . . . you’ve actualized yourself, you’ve revealed for that moment in time, the best version of who you could be, you’ve chosen for that moment to be an agent of the divine and channel the divinity within you into the world outside you, and that’s what it is to reveal your soul . . . (43:14/58:20) love and compassion that’s what is to live by the spirit of the Torah, if you’re operating from a place of revenge, anger, hatred, resentment . . . that’s just . . . you’ve mis-stepped the basics . . . (43:27/58:20)
Abraham, the first one of the lights is “love and compassion”, then we have Isaac, “self-sacrifice, restraint, discipline, and perseverance”, then we have Jacob, representing “truth”, then Joseph, representing “equanimity (composure/level-headedness) and self-mastery” . . . then we arrive a Moses, (44:00/58:20) the first leader of the nation of Israel . . . and he represents “the virtue of courage, heroic leadership, and victory” . . . (44:05/58:20) these virtues appear . . . to us during hardship, during tyranny, during hopelessness, in fear, it’s like the context of these virtues to fully be expressed are specifically hard times, but they’re the lights in our lives when we encounter hard times . . . (44:22/58:20)
Moses represents “Netzach”. . . which is so hard to translate Hebrew into English, because Hebrew is so interconnected, like every root is connected to other words, so one word expresses multiple words . . . (44:54/58:20) so let’s look at the roots of the word “Netzach” in Hebrew . . . you can really take it apart and unveil how we got to these ideas of heroic courage in leadership and heroism . . . Lenatzeah – means to win a battle, you’re a soldier, you need to win, what does a soldier need to win in battle, he needs to be courageous, you need courage to win; the next one is Menatzeach – is like a conductor of a symphony, like in Psalms when King writes to the conductor a psalm . . . a leader . . . it’s not just a leader that says, “hey follow me because I have rank, it’s a leaders that knows how to put the different instruments in the right place, it’s a leader that people are ready to follow”; and the last . . . root word . . . of Netzach is Eternity . . . and so I want to note something really interesting here, the Greek philosopher Aristotle, when asked what’s the most important virtue a person could strive to embody in the world (46:14/58:20), his answer as a Greek man was “courage” . . . now he’s Greek and they valued war, and glory, and honor, and the body, and Hellenism (the imitation of ancient Greek culture) . . . their Olympian athletes and their war heroes, those were their national heroes, so in the Greek mindset “courage” took the prize, it was the number one virtue. Now the prophetic tradition acknowledges that courage is a virtue, it’s one of the divine virtues that need to be expressed in the world, it has to be expressed for you to really bring your best self to the world, but it’s not number one, it’s in there, but it’s not the first, but the blessing that G-d gave Joshua before he entered into the land of Israel as the new leader was . . . strength and courage, it’s like if you want to win the battle of life you, you want to conquer your demons, you want to banish evil from the land, you want to banish evil from within, it’s all the same thing, you’re going to need strength and courage.
That’s why the Book of Joshua starts with G-d speaking to Joshua and he says, “listen, Moses is gone, I am going to bless you now with his light,” in his light was the virtue and the attribute that he brought to the nation, it was courage. “Joshua” he said, “you need to be the conductor now, you need to be the leader now, and what you need as a leader I’m blessing you with heroic courage to go into the land,” but if you look at it now, it goes a little bit deeper, in this parsha (reading), this Book Exodus, I want you to just look at Moshe’s life here, from his angle that he’s representing now this amazing attribute of courage and leadership, and what it means, the first (47:52/58:20) thing you need to know about a leader, because Moses is our first national leader, he was our first hero, he stood alone. He grew up in Pharaoh’s Palace, he was an outsider when he fled Egypt to Midian, he was alone, he came back, he always lived one step removed from Israel, his tent was pitched far outside the camp, he stood before G-d alone at the burning bush, he stood alone before Pharaoh with the nation not really fully behind him. It seems like the Torah/Law/Bible is telling us to be a “Hero” you have to be ready to stand alone and we know that’s what the word “Hebrew” means . . . the description given of . . . our father Abraham to be on the other side, to be ready to be alone . . . but here is a beautiful piece (48:33/58:20) written by Rob Sullivacik, one of the greatest American Rabbis of the last generation who helped build the American Jewish Community after the devastation of the Holocaust, and in this essay he’s . . . sharing his insights into why the Torah tells us why Adam was created two different times, why are there two telling’s of the story in chapter one and chapter two, and here’s what he explains, this is all a direct quote from him:
“a lonely man is a courageous man, he’s a protester, he fears nobody; whereas social man is a compromiser a peacemaker, and a times a coward.” At first man had to be created . . . alone, for otherwise he would have lacked the courage or the heroic quality to stand up and protest. Man was created a second time in chapter two of Genesis, he fell asleep a lonely man and woke up to find Eve standing beside him. God willed man to exist in solitude to experience aloneness, Moses was both the greatest loner who pitched his tent . . . far outside the camp, and at the same time the greatest leader, father, and teacher whom the whole community hung on his every word . . . Man in order to realize himself must be alone, but at the same time must be a member of a community. The originality and creativity in man are rooted in his loneliness experience. Lonely man is free, social man is bound by many rules and ordinances, G-d willed man to be free, man is required from time to time to defy the world to place the old and obsolete with the new and relevant, only lonely man is capable of casting off the harness of bondage to society (50:28/58:20). Who was Abraham, who was Elijah, who were the prophets, people who dared to rebuke society with a new social order . . . the alone awareness is the root to heroic defiance, heroism is the central category. In practical Judaism the Torah wanted the Jew to live heroically, to rebuke, to reproach, condemn whenever society is wrong and unfair . . . the aloneness gives the Jew the heroic arrogance which makes it possible for him to be different . . .”
And that’s what it is . . . the first step in Moses’ life that he’s teaching us . . . for us to be able to develop the virtue of courage which is a divine light that needs to be expressed in our lives we have to be ready to be alone and when people start scaring us, and people start doubting us, and people start telling us not to, that’s courage . . . when . . . you need to have the power to stand alone (51:36/58:20) . . .
– excerpts from an audio teaching of a Rabbi living in Judea, on the Biblical Definition of “Torah”