Todd Berman

Exodus of the heart

“Then came Rabbi Israel Baal Shem, in the eighteenth century, and brought heaven down to earth.” This assertion is how theologian and scholar Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose 50th Yahrzeit we commemorate this week, described the advent of Hassidut. A student of the Baal Shem Tov, also known as the Besht, Rabbi Menachem Nahum of Chernobyl interprets the beginning of Exodus in a Beshtian light.

Exodus opens by informing us that “and these are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt, with Jacob, every man came with his household.” (Exodus 1:1) Explains Rabbi Menachem Nahum in his Meor Einayim, “it is well known…that the holy creatures dashed to and fro” (Ezekiel 1:14) [this prophecy means] everyone needs to descend from their personal spiritual level. The goal is to raise the souls of those who have fallen. For instance, when a person stands on a roof and a precious gem is lying on the ground. The person cannot raise the jewel unless he descends to where it is. Then, upon going down, he can bring it up. The righteous are called the messengers of the ‘maiden’ for they are the servants of the Shekhinah, the Divine presence, and need to go from place to place, even to the [spiritually] lowest places in the world. So the rabbis called the priests ‘messengers of the Divine’ for a priest is a servant of God. So God called the Jewish people at Sinai to be ‘a nation of priests’…this means that a person…needs to help those in spiritual need [to reach God.].”

Rabbi Menachem Nahum begins with several fundamental assumptions of Hassidut. Every person is like a precious jewel in the eyes of God. All are of infinite worth and worthy of God and humanity’s love. No one is beyond reach. The Jewish people were sent into this world to connect to God. Furthermore, we must help others along the way. This obligation may require sacrificing some of our spiritual development for something greater.

While generally, leaving the land of Israel for Egypt is seen by rabbinic tradition as trading a land of spiritual heights for the fleshpots, we can take this idea beyond the spiritual realm and even into the physical. In his seminal work, Tradition and Crisis, the historian Jacob Katz writes that, unlike Christians, Jews never saw financial success as indicative of Divine grace. The prophet Haggai declares, ‘Mine is the silver and Mine is the gold’ (2:8). Our financial success can be a tool to help others. If we see each person as a jewel to be raised from the ground, we need to recognize that sometimes people need both physical and spiritual aid. We can fulfill this task by teaching Torah to those who thirst for spiritual knowledge but didn’t receive such education, being a shoulder to rely on, or helping in a soup kitchen or other chessed program. We can be the tool for someone else’s redemption.

The dual aspects of redemption, spiritual and physical, match the entire book of Exodus. Ramban, in his introduction, suggests that the Jewish people’s salvation was two-fold. He proposes that leaving Egypt was insufficient. When the Jews arrived at Mt. Sinai and built the tabernacle, they returned to the spiritual level of the patriarchal connection to the Divine presence. At this point, as they moved towards their homeland, both spiritual and physical redemption would be complete. The two parts of the book of Exodus and the Passover Haggada also reflect these two themes – physical and spiritual redemption.

What was radical in Meor Einayim’s presentation was typical of Hassidut—reorienting the focus to the human being. We are the vessels to bring forth the holy redemption of the Jewish people and each person. We are God’s messengers to help others in the world.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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