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I don’t even recall how we initially connected, but years ago I connected with Nissim Black. At the time, he was going by the name D. Black and we did a slew of songs together. Since that time, I have seen him get bigger and bigger, brighter and brighter, and his light has reached just about everyone I know in a bunch of the different communities that I’m in.
We all have so much light within us. That’s why we feel so much light when we encounter someone that’s fully tapped into their own. And we can all feel that with Nissim– he’s has tapped in; he’s always pushing through the concealed light to reveal it to everyone around him, through his music and message. And it’s that process that draws goodness to everyone who encounters his expression. I just played a show with him in Los Angeles and one line from his song with Levi Robin really resonated with me when he sang:
when confusion takes a hold of me
then I forget who I am
but I don’t forget whose I am1
We have to always remember that Hashem is the source of everything and there is nothing but Hashem and that we each are precious to Hashem. Yitro, whom our Parashah is named after this week, was on such a high level that the Zohar says that had he not acknowledged Hashem– stating, “Now, I know, that G-d is greater than all deities”2 — the Torah would not have been given.
How do we attempt to stay tapped into faith on the highest level, to live in truth and connect ourselves to the source of all creation? “There is not a blade of grass in this world… that does not have a constellation above that strikes it and tells it to ‘Grow.’”3 But how do we stay in the space of that resonating as an absolute truth at all times? Mitzvot are born of action, but preceding all of them is the belief in Hashem as our one true God and the belief that there are no other gods.
Rambam counts faith in Hashem as the first two mitzvot, the ones that Hashem spoke directly to B’nei Yisrael. He counts belief in Hashem as the first of the 248 positive commandments and denial of Hashem’s existence as the first of the 365 negative commandments. When it says, “Moshe issued us the Torah,” we see the gematria (numerical value) of the word ‘Torah’ (תורה) is 611 and, as we know, there are 613 mitzvot. The first two were heard directly “from the lips of Hashem”, so to speak:
- I am the L‑rd your G‑d, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
- You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, nor any manner of likeness of anything that is in heaven above, that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them, nor serve them.4
Not placing other gods or making a graven image, while having full faith in Hashem, may sound simple to you by virtue of the fact that you are reading this right now and already believe this truth to be self-evident, but it is stated because of how much the opposing “realities” present themselves. Putting ourselves in spaces conducive to spirituality and keeping ourselves away from that which contradicts spiritual truth is key to a spiritual life of connection and transcendence. R. Shimshon Pincus teaches in his sefer Shabbat Kodesh: “When we think about Hashem, we are actually with Him. And when we think about something else, we simply disconnect from Hashem.”5
As a kid, I remember learning in Sefer HaChinuch about how our thoughts are inter-connected with our actions and that which we busy ourselves with is that which occupies our mind, which, depending on our environment, could be holy and nurturing, or God forbid, the opposite. The paragraph in Sefer HaChinuch read:
משרשי המצוה. כענין מה שכתבנו למעלה בענין הקרבן, כי האדם נפעל כפי מעשהו, כי מהיותו בעל חמר, אין מחשבתו נדבקת כי אם על ידי המעשה. ומזה השרש צונו ברוך הוא לעשות פעלה מיחדת לשם היום למען נתפעל מתוך כך לתת את לבנו לגדל היום וקדשתו והנסים והטובות שגמלנו האל ברוך הוא באותו הזמן.
From the roots of the commandment is like the matter that we wrote above regarding the sacrifice6 – that a man is acted upon according to his deeds. Since he is a physical being, his thought only clings through actions. And from this root, blessed be He, commanded us to do a specific action for the sake of the day, in order that we be impacted by this to put our hearts to the greatness of the day and its holiness, and [to] the miracles and the goodnesses that God, blessed be He, has bestowed upon us at that time.7
In this parashah we read how the Jewish people “saw what is (normally) heard, and heard what is (normally) seen.” And as we know, what we see has a stronger impression than what we hear, so much so that “an eye witness to an event cannot be a judge in a case about it.”8 The reason being that any counter arguments that would be presented, because of his belief in what he actually saw, would not sway him. Whereas if the person only heard, they remain open to counter arguments and could judge impartially. Sight clarifies a matter and causes it to be imprinted on the soul with greater depth and certainty than one could do with his mind. No intellectual argument can ever convince a person who has seen something else with his mind.9 This is illustrated when Moshe heard of the sin of the Golden Calf. He did not break the luchot (the Tablets of the covenant) until he actually saw it for himself. He had already heard of it, but seeing makes it real on another level.
Only physicality can be seen. Things that are less tangible, such as sounds, words, opinions, can only be heard. That is why, as physical beings, we feel stronger in regards to seeing physicality, whereas spirituality, which can only be heard or felt through understanding, seems to have a weaker hold, and doubts always challenge spirituality flirting with faithlessness.
The power of the revelation at Sinai in seeing what is normally heard is the elevation of nature and spirituality to a realm in which the spiritual became as tangible to our physicality as any physical object.
Now that we can’t see and feel what is spiritually real and only what isn’t, and only what is temporal feels tangible, it is that much more important to guard our thoughts and actions so that the truth that isn’t tangible doesn’t get lost in what is.
As is known, Yitro decided to join B’nei Yisrael based on two main events that convinced him: the Splitting of the Sea and the Battle with Amalek. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein explains that when we read “Yitro heard,” it is to emphasize the point that simply hearing of the wonders Hashem had done for B’nei Yisrael was enough to inspire him to leave his country and join them in the wilderness. So for Yitro, the difference in hearing and seeing wasn’t great, while to the other nations that heard of the miracles there was a vast difference, so much so that none other than Yitro was moved towards connecting to Hashem and B’nei Yisrael. The other nations perceived the wondrous events as something distant that didn’t involve them. Even if it may have frightened them, it did not awaken them towards a revelation or revolution. To them, the difference between hearing a report and actually witnessing it with their own eyes was far too vast to be moved.10
The Chatam Sofer has a beautiful explanation as to the deeper realization that moved Yitro. Yitro inferred that Hashem could, of course, have stopped the Egyptians and Amalek by changing their free will or by a bolt of lightning, but Hashem is more disposed to alter the natural world than to interfere with the free will of human beings. If a person is granted carte blanche to do evil deeds, the same person certainly has equal autonomy to do good. And so, Yitro knew that if his desire to convert was sincere, then nothing would stand in his way, as he would be walking with Hashem.11
Carlebach points out that Yitro saw on one end Amalek, a nation that refuses to change, that remains unmoved by the wonder of this world. He saw that nothing can affect a bone in their body towards compassion. And, on the other end, he saw a people led by Moshe that are constantly changing, constantly striving towards unification with the Creator of all creations. It is for this reason that Yitro went to the desert and went out of his way to help Moshe and to be with B’nei Yisrael, as we read:
עַתָּ֞ה שְׁמַ֤ע בְּקֹלִי֙ אִיעָ֣צְךָ֔ וִיהִ֥י אֱלֹהִ֖ים עִמָּ֑ךְ הֱיֵ֧ה אַתָּ֣ה לָעָ֗ם מ֚וּל הָֽאֱלֹהִ֔ים וְהֵבֵאתָ֥ אַתָּ֛ה אֶת־הַדְּבָרִ֖ים אֶל־הָאֱלֹהִֽים׃
Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You represent the people before God: you bring the disputes before God.12
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov teaches that when we practice justice, we can attain a high level of consciousness (da’at), which corresponds to Moshe.13 Yitro came from an idolatrous background, experiencing a lot of evil. Even with the space he was in, surrounded by evil, he was able to reject it, purify himsel,f and draw close to Hashem. That is why it was Yitro specifically who advised Moshe about setting up a judicial system, because he had proven his judicial intelligence by knowing and acting on when to draw close and when to reject.14
In this way, we too must always draw close, the same way that Yitro did once he realized the true Source of all things. The first chapter of the Shulchan Aruch contains my favorite line from Tehillim, and one that must remain at the root of all moments:
שִׁוִּ֬יתִי ה’ לְנֶגְדִּ֣י תָמִ֑יד כִּ֥י מִֽ֝ימִינִ֗י בַּל־אֶמּֽוֹט
“Shiviti Hashem” – I have set G‑d before me at all times; as He is at my right hand, I shall not falter.”15 And as we know, d’veykut (attachment or clinging) to Hashem is done by always attaching our thoughts to our Source. Rashi in Talmud Sanhedrin explains that the “right hand” alludes to the Torah scroll that the king would carry suspended from his arm. King David was confident that in the merit of that scroll, he would not falter. And it is the same for us. This verse as a mantra is to strive to make Godliness– something that in a natural sense is limited to the intellect or to “hearing”– as something that is more real than the confirmation, the certainty, the feeling we have when we see. And so to tap into “Shiviti Hashem” is to tap into emet (truth), as if we have literally seen Hashem with our own eyes, because our souls, our spiritual reality stem from the revelation at Sinai, and so the part of us that is most connected has seen and heard the emet; it is only the part of us that is bound to physicality that resides in the concealment of this current state that hasn’t.
Isaac of Acco aka Isaac ben Samuel of Acre wrote about meditative techniques. One of the most important teachings involves developing hishtavut, which Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan describes as equanimity, stoicism, and a total indifference to outside influences, which Rabbi Isaac sees as a prerequisite for meditation. R. Isaac writes, “The Shekhinah is revealed to one who has attained this level of total indifference to all outside influences.” Rambam writes, “The power of thought that Hashem granted us is what connects us to Him.”16
Rav Moshe Weinberger teaches an important mindset that we need to feel that he expounds on as the definition of hishtavut: a person thinks to themselves “I am always equal. I am always in a state of equilibrium, whether I am being praised or I am being insulted. Everything is שוה (equal) [to the person]… as seen in the light of the greater awesome presence of Elokut (Godliness) and what that Godliness is calling upon you to do.”
The yezter hara, the sitra achra (other side), opposes the revelation of Godliness; it tries to keep it in a state of concealment, not just from the world, but from each of us at all times. The way to counter that is by being in a space of hishtavut, and this can only be done when we live in the space of “Shiviti Hashem,” setting Hashem before us at all times.
The Ba’al Shem Tov teaches that “the holy consciousness of a righteous person is able to discern and uplift the sparks of holiness in all things.”17 When I was in Yeshiva in Israel as a teen, I learned Ramchal with a passion. In his sefer Derech Eitz Chaim, he teaches how to attempt to rid oneself of the yetzer hara, writing, “Being conscious will strengthen the soul and certainly distance from him the yetzer. There is nothing that weakens the soul before the yetzer like the lack of consciousness. And if someone’s consciousness is broad and stands on his heart, he would never sin at all…Since G-d wants that man to be ruler over his yetzer…He put in him the ability to be conscious…”
Rav Weinberger teaches that we need to feel “in a state of spiritual symmetry and equilibrium… Why? Because Hashem “Shiviti Hashem L’negdi Tamid!” “Shiviti” becomes the battle cry of the Jew in this world… Everything is Elokut. Everything is שוה (equal) when perceived from that perspective.”18
The Ba’al Shem Tov has a great explanation of the verse; “I (Anochi) stand between HaShem and between you…” (אָ֠נֹכִ֠י עֹמֵ֨ד בֵּין ה’ וּבֵֽינֵיכֶם֙)19 explaining that this Anochiness, the I-ness, the ego, self-centeredness, is the screen, the barrier, that separates us from each other and the Divine. It is ‘Anochi’, this egotism, that separates us from Hashem, our Source.
There is a famous story from Talmud Makkot in which Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria, Rabbi Joshua and Rabbi Akiva go to Jerusalem. And it’s said that when they reached Mt. Scopus, they tore their garments, because when they reached the Temple Mount, they saw a fox emerging from the place of the Holy of Holies. Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Joshua started weeping, while Rabbi Akiva laughed.
They asked him, “Why are you laughing?” and he replied, “Why are you weeping?” And they reminded him that it is written that “A place [so holy] that it is said of it, ‘the stranger that approaches it shall die,’20 and now foxes traverse it, and we shouldn’t weep?” And so he replied, “That is why I laugh. For it is written, ‘I shall have for Me faithful witnesses—Uriah the Priest and Zechariah the son of Jeberechiah.’21 Now what is the connection between Uriah and Zechariah? Uriah was [in the time of] the First Temple, and Zechariah was [in the time of] the Second Temple! But the Torah makes Zachariah’s prophecy dependent upon Uriah’s prophecy. With Uriah, it is written: ‘Therefore, because of you, Zion shall be plowed as a field; [Jerusalem shall become heaps, and the Temple Mount like the high places of a forest.]’22 With Zachariah it is written, ‘Old men and women shall yet sit in the streets of Jerusalem.’23
And so Rabbi Akiva explains, “As long as Uriah’s prophecy had not been fulfilled, I feared that Zechariah’s prophecy may not be fulfilled either. But now that Uriah’s prophecy has been fulfilled, it is certain that Zechariah’s prophecy will be fulfilled!”
It is in a time of weeping, a time of seeing the “bad” of feeling unbalanced that they felt distraught, but as R’ Akiva explains, he laughed when he saw foxes come out of the Holy of Holies, because it showed that the prophecy of the destruction had been fulfilled and so certainly the prophecy of the redemption would be fulfilled just the same. And with this realization, they looked at Rabbi Akiva and said, “Akiva, you have consoled us! Akiva, you have consoled us!”24
So even in the darkest moment of our own history, when foxes were running amok in the Holiest of Holies, Rabbi Akiva only saw the good, that this meant that now we see that redemption is coming. It is just like this in our own lives: we rise up from our own adversities, our own destructions, and redeem ourselves from the experience to grow.
If everything is good
and everything is God
until there is only light
no longer bound
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Notes & Sources
- ”Lifted”, song by Nissim Black featuring Levi Robin
- Zohar, Vol II, p. 67b
- Bereshit Rabbah 10.6
- Exodus 20:2,3
- Shabbat Kodesh by R. Shimshon Pincus pp. 119-120
- Sefer HaChinukh 95
- Ibid 299:2
- Talmud Rosh Hashanah 26a
- Likkutei Sichot, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shmot, p. 279
- Darash Moshe, p. 119
- Chatam Sofer 86, ד״ה וישמע
- Exodus 18:19
- Likutey Moharan I, 15:6
- Likutey Halachot V, p. 210
- Psalms 16:8
- Moreh Nevuchim by Rambam 3:56
- Sefer Baal Shem Tov, parashat Ki Tavo
- Shiur by Rav Moshe Weinberger from The Last Will and Testament of The Ba’al Shem Tov
- Deuteronomy 5:5
- Numbers 1:51
- Isaiah 8:2
- Micha 3:12
- Zachariah 8:4
- Talmud, Makkot 24b