When I was a kid, I didn’t like that my first and middle name were so different, so unique. I hadn’t met anyone that had either name, Erez or Nevo. I would tell my family that I wanted to legally change from Erez to Eric, so that at least I would have one name that would be familiar to people. As I grew up, I came to love the name Erez, as it felt like the name Madonna or Prince; no one ever said or even knew my last name. It wasn’t needed, because I could never be confused with anyone else. I still felt sort of shy when it came to my middle name; to this day I have never met anyone with it. I remember telling it to my friend, the artist, Shlome Hayun, and he said, “your middle name is Nevo!?, Why isn’t that your Producer and DJ name?!” And then I realized, I should have embraced it much sooner. And it reminded me of how blessings flow all the time, but we aren’t always able to tap into them. It’s only when we find our proper spiritual alignment that we are able to see them and receive them. So much is dependent on our own perspective, which colors the reality that we find ourselves in at any given moment.
Oscar Wilde is one of my favorite writers, who I discovered when I was studying in Yeshiva in Beit Vegan in Yerushalayim, going through the aisles of used book stores in the Old City. He had the most poetic and profound yet simple ways of observing and articulating the absurdity of so many moments in society. He once said, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” It sounds overly simple; why would it even need to be said? But for most of us, being our true selves is sometimes the toughest task.
It is only by finding one’s purpose and living in alignment that we find our true happiness. As Frederick Buechner wrote about purpose and one’s calling, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Moshe Rabbeinu completely nullified himself before Hashem and reached the highest levels any human can reach. It is seen throughout this parashah from the visions of the Promised Land, the prophecies, to the fact that no one knows where Moshe is buried (because, as we learn, his body never decayed; it was completely separated from his soul, which went on high as his body immediately returned to the earth). Moshe received the Torah at Mount Sinai, but it is this week in which he ascends the mountain that I am named after, Har Nevo.
After Moshe told the people of Israel all of the mitzvot (commandments), we read how he was commanded to go up to his final resting place: “And the Lord spoke to Moses on that very day, saying. Go up this Mount Avarim [to] Mount Nevo… And die on the mountain upon which you are climbing and be gathered to your people…”1 Moshe has taken Israel from Mitzrayim (מִצְרָיִם, Egypt), out of Meitzar (מֵיצָר, a narrow constricted place), the definition of exile– spiritual narrowness and constriction. He’s brought them to the border of the Promised Land. His purpose had been fulfilled, and it’s now our task to leave our own Mitzrayim, our own constrictions and enslavements, that which holds us back from reaching our potential and ascending to our personal Promised Lands. To bring on moshiach we have to make a redemption that is prati (private/personal) before we can see the final redemption that is klali (public/communal).
Last week, I was sitting at Lorenzo’s minyan, the backyard that I go to almost every Shabbat, and as we set up for kiddush, a woman named Emily Rachel Shaaya, who I had never seen prior shared some beautiful Torah that she heard in Miami by Rabbi YY Jacobson about Moshe and the two monumental moments surrounding the two mountains that he climbed in his lifetime. The first of which people know about, namely Mount Sinai. The next mountain, which is less familiar and is mentioned in this week’s parashah, is Mt. Nevo, where Moshe was told that his dream of going into the land of Israel would not be fulfilled, that he would only be able to look from afar.
Most are perplexed by this. Moshe, the greatest leader of all time does not get to see his dream and realize his vision of going into the land of Israel. The lesson from this is that in life, we climb two mountains. The first mountain is about our own personal wants, needs, and desires. This mountain is about what society and the world tells us success is about and what it means to be great. But there inevitably always comes a time in life when we fall off this first mountain. Here there can be failure, pain, disappointment. This is about physical pursuits.
But eventually, after the first mountain, we begin to climb a second mountain. And it is the second one that is the focus, not on our own personal wishes and dreams, but rather what Hashem wants from us – spiritual pursuits. The second mountain is about aligning our will with Hashem’s. This second mountain is where Moshe ascended to the highest level, to the 50th gate. Kabbalistically, the 50th Gate of Wisdom is connected to Malkhut (Kingship), which, in the Ten Sefirot (Emanations), is the vessel that manifests the Light of Keter (Crown) (see the side graphic). God’s Infinite Light originates at a level that is beyond this world, physically inaccessible to us, but it is filtered down through the Sefirot until it reaches Malchut, out of which it shines onto us in our finite world.
In the opening of this parashah, which is the closing of the five books of the Torah, Moshe describes the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people: “The Lord came from Sinai and shone forth from (the land of) Seir to them; He appeared from Mt. Paran and came with some of the holy myriads; from His right hand He gave them a fiery Law.”2
Giving one more shout out to Rabbi YY Jacobson, quoting him word for word, in regards to this curious pairing of the words ‘fiery’ and ‘law’. Fire is completely unpredictable and chaotic, while law is meant to be the opposite. Jacobson shares:
This is the heart of Judaism: it is both “aish” and “da’at,” fire and law, combined in one. The two seem paradoxical, but they are not. On the one hand, Judaism demands a life of precise structure and order. Every mitzvah and ritual has its time, place, and specific rules. Judaism demands consistency and stability, day in and day out. It keeps us synchronized with the rhythm of time and the passage of seasons; it keeps us aligned with the transitions of light to darkness, and conversely, to the patterns of the body and the universe. Halacha, Jewish law, is all about specific structure in minute details and specifications. As the countless intricate “laws” that govern the creation of a single cell, Torah governs the life of the Jew.
Yet together with that, Torah is “fire.” It challenges us to never stop growing, to open ourselves to the mystery and infinity of life, to transcend our habits and conventions, to reinvent ourselves, and to never stop burning; to continue to explore, grow and climb the mountains of infinity.
The laws of Torah are, in essence, tools to touch transcendence and infinity. The laws are not there to limit and contain, but rather to free up and express our full potential and glory. It’s like tying down the chords of the violin so that it can produce exquisite music.
We are taught that when Moshe ascended to heaven to receive the Torah from Hashem and bring it down to all of Israel that the angels argued that man was not holy enough to be the recipient of the holy Torah. Moshe pleaded so that the angels would “allow” Hashem to give the Torah to Israel, arguing that the Torah speaks of refining the animal nature of man, so it’s meant for man who has an animal nature and evil inclination. It is essential for us to try to spiritualize reality, not for the angels that don’t have the same faults as us.3 It is exactly our faults and challenges that make us most suited for the sanctification embedded in the instructions and secrets that lie within the wisdom and truth of the Torah. Spiritualizing reality requires unification, harmony and peace, this is where truth is found, this is where blessings are revealed and this is the way we are tasked to emulate Moshe by focusing less on ourselves and our physicality, while using both our unique talents and strengths to tap into the light of the infinite, always returning and yearning to connect.
Jumping further into this parashah of Vezot Hab’rachah, which always coincides with Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah (which only outside of Israel is split into two separate days). Many question the holiday of Simchat Torah (rejoicing with the Torah) being at the end of Sukkot and along with this parashah, as opposed to when the Ten Commandments were actually given, which was on Shavuot. But we see that it is instead timed out with Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah which is the end of the festive cycle which begins with Yom Kippur, the day that we received the second tablets (40 days after the first tablets broke).
The Lubavitcher Rebbe expounding on the Rambam explains the beauty in how this all comes together in such a way at this exact time. First, one must understand in Judaism, there is a famous Gemara that teaches in the name of Rav Abahu: Makom she’baalei teshuva omdim ein tzadikim gemurim yecholim la’amod bo. “In the place where a baal teshuva (a returnee to Judaism or literally, ‘master of repentance’) stands, a completely righteous person, a tzadik, cannot stand.4
And the same applies in the difference between the first tablets that Moshe brought to Israel and then broke upon seeing the sin of the Golden Calf and the second tablets that Moshe brought down. It’s the distinction between the righteous and the repentant. The first tablets were for an Israel that was still righteous, but the second were given once Israel had sinned and repented, which brought them to a level above righteousness.
The Alter Rebbe (Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi) teaches that the virtue of tzaddikim (the righteous) is living according to the Torah, but the ba’al teshuva (the repentent) reaches a level even higher than the Torah.5 The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that the bond between us and Hashem exists even during a transgression or when we turn away from Him. And when Israel received the first tablets, we received a revelation from the Torah. But with receiving the second tablets, Israel gave revelation to the Torah. The level was higher, it was a manifestation of the union, as Abraham Joshua Hechel would emphasize, between God and Man.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov explains the following verse from our parashah that reads,
אַשְׁרֶ֨יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל מִ֣י כָמ֗וֹךָ עַ֚ם נוֹשַׁ֣ע בַּה’ מָגֵ֣ן עֶזְרֶ֔ךָ וַאֲשֶׁר־חֶ֖רֶב גַּאֲוָתֶ֑ךָ וְיִכָּחֲשׁ֤וּ אֹיְבֶ֙יךָ֙ לָ֔ךְ וְאַתָּ֖ה עַל־בָּמוֹתֵ֥ימוֹ תִדְרֹֽךְ
Fortunate are you, Israel! Who is like you, a nation delivered by God, the Shield of your help, Who is the sword of your pride. He will subjugate your enemies for you, and you will trample their altars.6
Here we see Moshe praising the Jewish people, and this parallels the verse in Exodus, where the Jewish people praise God. We have previously covered the concept expounded by the Ramban, Ramban and the Lubavitcher Rebbe about the Itaruta Diletata (Arousal from Below), wherein we try and arouse love and fear of God within ourselves, which in mystical terms is our “raising up” of “feminine waters.” And the Itaruta Dile’eyla (Arousal from Above), which is God’s response, also known as drawing down of “masculine waters.” The praise of the Jewish people by Moshe is an “arousal from below,” whereas in Exodus a praise of God is associated with an “arousal from Above”.7
King David picked up the torch from Moshe to continue our relationship with Hashem. Moshe in this parashah concludes writing, “Fortunate are you, Israel!”, and King David begins the Tehillim with “Fortunate is the man”.8 The Torah is complete when we learn it, and as we read in last week’s parashah, when we strive to write it. Moshe writes how fortunate we are when we praise Hashem, and the Torah is the tool in which we learn the ways to connect and reconnect. This being the conclusion of Moshe’s journey to bring the Torah to us, taking us out of bondage from Egypt and into salvation and the mitzvot (משה רבנו/Moshe Rabbeinu has the numerical value of 613, corresponding to the 613 mitzvot), he now can finally properly say how fortunate we are to have come to this point of entering the Promised Land. King David composed the five books of Tehillim to parallel the five books of the Torah that Moshe composed, including the opening verse, “Fortunate is the man”, in order to teach the importance of opening our prayers to Hashem with praise of him.9
Moshe had reached his purpose, that is why he separated from his body and from our physicality, and ascended to serve Hashem on high. He took us to the Promised Land, to the land named after our forefather, Yakov (Israel), so that we too could tap into our purpose, always focused on the elements that are infinite, the Torah and Hashem, the reason we are here, to bring everyone closer to oneness and truth.
The Arizal teaches that creation requires Hashem to pull himself back, which is referred to as tzimtzum (“contracting”) of His Or Ein Sof (Infinite Light), in order for finite realms to exist. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks articulates this beautifully:
Creation involves concealment. The word olam, universe, is semantically linked to the word neelam, “hidden”. To give mankind some of His own creative powers – the use of language to think, communicate, understand, imagine alternative futures and choose between them – God must do more than create homo sapiens. He must efface Himself (what the kabbalists called tzimtzum) to create space for human action. No single act more profoundly indicates the love and generosity implicit in creation. God as we encounter Him in the Torah is like a parent who knows He must hold back, let go, refrain from intervening, if his children are to become responsible and mature. But there is a limit. To efface Himself entirely would be equivalent to abandoning the world, deserting his own children. That, God may not and will not do.10
The Zohar teaches, “Woe to the [people of the] world (olam) who hide (neelam) the heart and cover the eyes, not gazing into the secrets of the Torah!”11
This past Motzie Shabbat I went to the Hollywood Bowl to see one of my favorite artists, the brilliant Brittany Howard. The command over her voice is unlike anything I have ever seen, and it’s matched by the subtle dynamics from the quietest moments to the most intense moments of almost poetic cacophony that her band played.
As she started to close her set, the band started playing in a free jazz style, influenced by punk and hip hop, but certainly also experimental and bordering on moments of dissonance. Just then Brittany came back on stage and commanded her voice in a speaking orator style, sounding almost like Rev Martin Luther King jr. as she proclaimed:
I promise to think before I speak
To be wary of who I give my energy to
Because it is needed for a greater cause
Greater than my own pride
And that cause is to spread the enlightenment
Of love, compassion, and humanity
To those who are not touched by its light
I stand to protect and focus myself
In the betterment of my fellow being
We are brothers and sisters, each and every one
I promise to love my enemy
And never become that which is not God
I dedicate my spirit in the service
Of what is good and fair and righteous
Every day I am alive
I am given opportunities to become that which I admire most of others
I am nonviolent
I am a master student and my spirit
Will never be stomped out
I am dedicated to oppose those whose will is to divide us
And who are determined to keep us in the dark ages of fear
I hear the voices of the unheard
Speak for those who cannot speak
And shelter the minds that carry a message
Of peace, love, and prosperity
I repeat, we are all brothers and sisters
I repeat, we are all brothers and sisters
I repeat, we are all brothers and sisters
We are all brothers and sisters
We are all brothers and sisters
We are all brothers and sisters, we
Wherever you have been
And wherever you will go
(Give it to love)
Just do the best you can (Give it to love)
To be kind (Give it to love)
To your fellow man (Give it to love)
Just try (Give it to love)
And do the best you can (Give it to love)
Today (Give it to love)
No matter where you’ve been (Give it to love)
But you can change (Give it to love)
If you wanna change (Give it to love)
I don’t know about you (Give it to love)
But I’m tired of this &^%& (Give it to love)
And I wanna try (Give it to love)
To do the best that I can (Give it to love)
And to have (Give it to love)
A good time (Give it to love)
(Give it to love)
Give it to love (Give it to love)
Give it to love (Give it to love, give it)
(Give it to love, give it to love)
(Give it to love)
Know what I’m sayin’?12
And that is what it is all about – the lesson is to spiritualize reality and never become that which is not God. Because it and we are needed for a greater cause, greater than our own pride and physicality, and that cause is to spread enlightenment, to those who are not touched by its light. We need to realize we are all made in the image of God and all have a piece of his infinite light in us. We are all brothers and sisters. And as Brittany says, I stand to protect and focus myself, in the betterment of my fellow being. We need to tap into the energy and the mission of Moshe, which was advocating for us at any cost and spreading the Light of Infinite – revealing the concealed truth in a hidden world, in order to bring the full redemption where all is truth, all is revealed good and peace, and blessings are fully realized.
As we say at the end of reading this book of Devarim and indeed the final chapter in the the five books of the Torah, Chazak Chazak V’nitzchazek— Be Strong, Be Strong, Let Us Be Strengthened.
Much love and Shabbat Shalom!
- Erez Safar______
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Notes & Sources
- Devarim 32:48-50
- Deuteronomy 33:2
- The Arizal, Apples from the Orchard p.1054
- Berachot 34B, Sanhedrin 99A
- Likkutei Torah, Parshas Acharei, p. 26c
- Deuteronomy 33:29
- Likutey Moharan I, 60:11
- Psalms 1:1
- Likutey Halachot III, 9. 67a
- Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Shemini (5773) – Fire: Holy and Unholy
- Zohar Vol 1, p. 28a
- “13th Century Metal” by Brittany Howard