Todd Berman

God in Search of Man – The Meor Eynaim on VaYeshev

Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twersky, the creator of the Chernobyl dynasty of Chassidim and author of Meor Eynaim, offers a fascinating discussion of the simple phrase “Israel loves Joseph.” (Bereishit 37: 3) At first blush, this historical-psychological insight presents to the reader a peek into the mind of a father’s love for his son. Yet Meor Eynaim is unsatisfied with this approach. “We know that the Torah is eternal, [relevant] to every person and every period.” For Meor Eynaim, the Torah must speak not only about the Jewish patriarchs and their children but to everyone today as well. He proclaims that “the Torah predates the world.” This notion of a primordial Torah of which our text and stories are only a surface representation dates back to at least Nahmanides’ commentary to the Pentateuch and, in the interpretation of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, to Rabbi Akiba. According to these thinkers, the stories in Genesis are an eternal prefiguration or paradigm, as it were, applicable in new iterations every generation. The “true” Torah is the Divine mind enclothed in stories and presented as black ink on white parchment. But just as we only see the tip of an iceberg but know its whole body lies below the water’s surface, so too the text we call the five books of Moses reflects the deepest thoughts of God, which constitute the fabric of all we think of as real.

Here the rebbe discusses fundamental components of Hassidic theology. Why did God create the world? The absolute perfect being who lacks for nothing did not need creation. According to rabbinic tradition, God created the world “for the sake of [the people of] Israel and for the sake of the Torah.” (Bereishit Rabba 1:1). This derasha interprets the letter “bet” in “Bereishit” not as part of the word but as the preposition “for” or “with.” God is defined as entirely “good,” and the nature of “the good” is to do good for others, so “bet” means “for,” and “reshit” is used in other places in the Bible to mean Israel. In other words, God created the world to do acts of kindness for Israel. The psalmist proclaims in chapter 145, read multiple times daily in the traditional liturgy, “God [does] good for all, and does mercy to all His creations.” (145:9). God created the world for the sake of His creations. The goal of creation is so that the creations can gain pleasure because of their relationship to the Divine. We create this relationship and enjoy the connection to God by performing His will. The rabbis proclaim that one should not perform mitzvot with the intention of gaining reward. (Avot 1:3) Menachem Nachum understands this recommendation to refer to future compensation. One should complete God’s will not to receive future redemption but to connect to God in the here and now.

Connecting to God by doing His will raises a theological conundrum. How did the Infinite Divine Self create a finite reality? Once created, how does one bridge the two realms? Based on Isaac Luria’s writings, the answer lies in the primordial Torah’s role. God utilized the Torah to condense the infinitude into what we know as finite reality, the tip of the iceberg called our world. The interpretation that the Torah bridges finitude and infinitude relies upon the rabbinic comment mentioned above that “with” or “for” the Torah. So God created the world to do good for Israel, and the tool for the creation and the method to bridge the realms is “with the Torah.”

By performing mitzvot, we enjoy connecting to the Divine by becoming a vehicle for God’s glory. But here is a sleight of hand. God does not need humankind; however, God does need humanity to act as a vehicle to receive the Divine Good. So in a way, God does need humankind. He compares this to a parent and child. The parent reaches out and gives something to the child. The child gives pleasure to the parent by enjoying the parental gifts and kindness. We please God by doing the Divine will, which provides us with the joy of receiving Divine grace. This circularity was not missed by thinkers such as Heschel, who declared that all of the Jewish tradition reflects this symbiotic relationship – what he calls “God in Search of Man.”

Now Rabbi Menachem Nachum makes a further move essential to Hassidic thought. Like other commentators, he asks why the Torah begins with stories of creation and the patriarchs, not with the first halakhot. In a complex series of interpretations, he claims that everyday speech and actions, when done for the sake of God, can work like the mitzvot. That is why Torah presents the activities and stories of the patriarchs. The patriarchs are archetypes of the Tzadik, or righteous people in every generation. Even the righteous cannot engage in learning Torah and performance of mitzvot constantly. However, one can refocus even mundane activities for the glory of God. One bridges the gap by intending one’s everyday speech and actions for God’s sake. Like one should perform mitzvot to connect to God, one can reorient all activities for the sake of heaven.

Summing up his discourse, Meor Eynaim suggests a radical interpretation. “Israel loves Joseph” can now be understood. The Zohar refers to God as “Israel Saba” or “Grandfather Israel.” So God is Israel, and he loves Joseph. In kabbalistic literature, Joseph is referred to as “Tzadik” or “righteous one” and is connected with the sixth of the mystical sephirot called “Yesod.” The kabbalah refers to Joseph as righteous because of his restraint of committing sexual impropriety with Potiphar’s wife. Joseph, the biblical character, becomes a stand-in for all righteous ones. Therefore, the verse means “God loves the righteous” in every generation. They are the receptacle and vehicle for Divine Grace in the world and cause joy in the Divine realm by acting as a conduit for Divine glory. The activities of the righteous raise all people to come closer to God.

Rabbi Menachem Nachum gives us a picture of Hassidic theology by redefining the verse “Israel loves Joseph” to “God loves the righteous.” All actions of the righteous, when oriented towards the Divine glory, bridge the gap between our finite existence and the infinite Divine realm. God created humankind to do kindness to God’s creatures who, by accepting the kindness and attaching themselves to God in a manner, cause holy joy in the Divine realm. Our task is to intend all our actions to develop a connection to God and become a garment for Divine glory – a coat of many colors – for God 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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