The Maharal1 of Prague was the outstanding Torah genius of his era. He was a towering scholar in both the revealed and hidden realms of the Torah as well as in the philosophical discipline known as Chakirah; he was talented musically; he was adept in all fields of scholarship; and he was a man of exemplary character. Above all, he was a remarkable educator, who hallowed and engraved customs in the hearts of Jews at large.

My great-grandfather, the Tzemach Tzedek, once recounted that as a little boy he heard from his grandfather, the Alter Rebbe, that when he was a little boy his great-grandfather, the learned R. Moshe Posner, told him that his father’s great-grandfather, the Maharal of Prague,2 established the following custom. In the week preceding the Shabbos on which Parshas Beshalach was to be read, he would instruct all the teachers and parents of little children to bring them to the courtyard of his shul on Shabbos Shirah.3 There, after telling them that this was Shabbos Shirah, the Maharal would direct the teachers to tell them all about the Crossing of the Sea – how the birds chirped and pranced as Moshe and all the people, men and women, sang the Song that begins Az Yashir, and how the children fed the birds with fruit from the trees that miraculously grew in the sea. To recall this, the children in the courtyard would then be given kasha, buckwheat, to scatter for the poultry4 and the birds. Finally, after blessing the children, the Maharal would bless their parents that they should bring them up to the study of Torah, to the wedding canopy, and to the performance of good deeds.

Another tradition relayed by my great-grandfather, the Tzemach Tzedek, was that the Rama5 kissed the fingers of the Maharal – the fingers which even in his youth wrote the holy works that roused thousands to do teshuvah, and that blazed a path for the study of Torah imbued with the awe of Heaven and with Divine service. Likewise, when the Maharal was still a young man, the Maharshal6 said of him that such scholarly genius was not to be found throughout the world.

My great-grandfather, the Tzemach Tzedek, once stated that the guidance with which the Maharal hallowed and engraved customs in the hearts of Jews at large is even loftier than all the classic works that he wrote. The Tzemach Tzedek added that the superiority of this heritage of customs over those classic works parallels the superiority of engraving over writing, for in the course of time, writing can fade; engraving is eternal.

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Let us now understand what Shabbos Shirah signifies in the light of Chassidus.

The Torah and its mitzvos are eternal, unchanged by time or space. Today is Shabbos Shirah, and on Shabbos Shirah Jewish souls sing the song that begins Az Yashir together with Moshe Rabbeinu, just as we all sang it for the first time after the Splitting of the Sea of Reeds, when G‑d took us out of the Egyptian exile.

[In the morning prayers7 we praise G‑d,] “Who in His goodness renews every day, continuously, the work of Creation.” Every Jew knows what those words mean – that G‑d in His kindness continuously renews the life of all the worlds and of all created entities every day. Each time, moreover, this takes place just as it took place at the initial Creation. At that time, during the Six Days of Creation, “He made that which does not exist – exist.”8 The Creator created the world and all created entities from nothing – to something.9 And every day there is a diffusion of light from the revelation that appeared on the corresponding day of the Six Days of Creation.

It is written, “In the beginning (Bereishis), G‑d created heaven and earth.”10 The world was created, explains the Midrash,11 for the sake of the Torah, which is referred to as reishis darko, “the beginning of His path,”12 and for the sake of the Jewish people, the Children of Israel, who are similarly referred to as reishis tevuaso, “the beginning of His harvest.”13 This [twofold purpose of Creation] is hinted at by the word for “In the beginning”: בְּרֵאשִׁית (Bereishis), which is composed of the letter beis (“two”) and the word reishis (“the beginning”).

This is why the Five Books of the Chumash are divided into readings for the weeks of the year, for thus, the content of each reading14 diffuses its distinctive light into its particular week. Examples are preserved in the notes in which I recorded my father’s words on various occasions: “This week is a jolly week.” Or, “This week is a stern week.” Or, “This week is a time for us to receive Mazel-Tov blessings for the Exodus from Egypt,” or “…for the Splitting of the Sea of Reeds,” or “…for the Giving of the Torah,” or “…for the commandment to build G‑d a Sanctuary,” or “…for the erection of the Sanctuary,” and so on and on.15

Each week’s reading reveals the content of that week, and that revelation is felt in all five levels of the soul.16

My notes also record a talk in which my father said:17

Whenever a Jew is called up to the Reading of the Torah [lit., “whenever he has an aliyah – an ascent – to the Torah”], this ascent is experienced by all the components of his soul: his nefesh ascends to the Torah in the spiritual World of Asiyah; his ruach ascends to the Torah in the World of Yetzirah; his neshamah ascends to the Torah in the World of Beriah; the transcendental soul-level called Chayah ascends to the Torah in the World of Atzilus; and the transcendental soul-level called Yechidah ascends to the Torah as far as the Sefirah of Malchus of the Ein-Sof, which transcends the World of Atzilus.

This theme underlies the words, Bereishis bara Elokim – “In the beginning, G‑d created.” The verb meaning “created,” bara, [can also imply] revelation,18 and the Divine Name Elokim (א-ל-ה-י-ם) is the numerical equivalent of hateva (הַטֶּבַע), which means “nature.” That is to say: the Torah and the Children of Israel, who together comprise the twofold purpose of Creation (as implied in the very word Bereishis by the letter beis and the word reishis), reveal the nature that the Creator implanted in heaven and earth. This is the underlying reason for which the Five Books of the Chumash are divided into weekly readings, for each reading [in its distinctive way] vitalizes the world and all of its created entities, and overtly lights up the five levels of the soul – nefesh, ruach, neshamah, chayah and yechidah.

Chassidus explains clearly that “there is no place that is void of Him”19 does not merely mean that G‑d is present everywhere. Beyond that, it means that everything is Elokus (Divinity), and Elokus (Divinity) is everything – for there is spiritual Divinity and also natural Divinity. As has often been explained,20 what people call nature (teva) is really Divinity – that is, Divinity that vests itself in all kinds of garments, which collectively are called “nature.” In the Holy Tongue, the root of that word (טֶבַע) also means “submerged,” or “drowned,” as in the phrase that speaks of the ancient Egyptians, who “were drowned in the Sea of Reeds” (טֻבְּעוּ בְּיַם סוּף).21 An object submerged in the sea is merely obscured and veiled by water, but in fact remains fully existent. Similarly, Divinity is submerged and hidden in the veils of nature.

Chassidus, whose function is to reveal the soul within everything, reveals the soul within nature. It explains that there is natural Divinity and also spiritual Divinity, and concludes with the profound concept that natural Divinity – Divinity as hidden in nature – is (if one may use the expression) loftier than spiritual Divinity.

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“The soul of man is a candle of G‑d.”22 Regarding that metaphor, the Alter Rebbe writes in Chapter 19 of Tanya that the flame of a candle is drawn towards its source,23 even though it will be extinguished and will no longer diffuse light. Moreover, when it reaches that source its identity as a luminary will utterly cease to exist – yet nevertheless, this is what it desires by nature. This, too, is the nature of the soul, just like the light of that candle, which is drawn to its source “in the universal element of Fire which is in the sub-lunar sphere.” Here we see that the word “nature” is a borrowed term for anything concerning which there is no explanation as to why it is as it is.

In other words, we know that this is the nature of the light of the candle, as is also the case with the nature of other entities, but why this is its nature, that we do not know. And in fact, the scope of the natural sciences that relate to all the various levels of created entities – mineral, vegetative, animal, human – is restricted to knowing that such and such is the case: how they are compounded and diversified, and what are the distinctive characteristics that the Creator imbued in each of them. As to why each of them has its particular nature, this the natural sciences do not know.

The Alter Rebbe is telling us that the nature of the soul resembles the nature of the light of the candle. The nature of the soul cannot be explained rationally because it soars above the heights of rational explanation, which is finite. The source of the soul’s nature is its faculty of Chochmah – the receptor for the Ein-Sof light, which is infinite. With that brief statement – that nature derives from the soul’s faculty of Chochmah – the Alter Rebbe throws light on the entire concept of nature, and endows it with its due status.

There is an expression of the Sages that “the Torah speaks in the language of mortals.”24 Chanah, for example, when addressing G‑d in her classic prayer, says, “If You will indeed see…”25 Another such expression: “to appease the ear with what it is able to hear,”26 meaning that the Torah expresses itself in words that a mortal ear can absorb. Thus, too, it is written, “The ear examines words,”27 for “hearing” implies understanding, as in the phrase, “Speak, for Your servant hears.”28 This, too, is an instance of appeasing the ear by employing phrases that the listener is able to grasp.

These two expressions are in fact diverse. The first expression – “the Torah speaks in the language of mortals” – means that even though the Torah is the wisdom of G‑d, it employs language that approaches the language of mortals. Thus, the Divine wisdom conveyed in the Torah also appears in mortal language, though without being at all changed. The second expression – “to appease the ear with what it is able to hear” – implies that the actual subject being transmitted undergoes a change. It means that what is said is restricted to only as much as the ear of the disciple can grasp. This explains why in Rashi’s paraphrase of this principle, for “to appease” (לְשַׁכֵּךְ) he writes “to explain (לְשַׂבֵּר = לְהַסְבִּיר) to the mortal ear.”

The diversity of these two expressions enables us to ponder deeply on the loftiest spiritual concepts, so that we can find analogies for them in the corporeal, natural comprehension of mortals.

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Anyone who is not (G‑d forbid) stone blind in the mystical inner dimension of the Torah,29 and who studies Section 4 of the Mechilta on the verse in Parshas Yisro that begins, “And Mount Sinai was all in smoke,”30 can perceive not only the soul of the revealed dimension of the Torah;31 he can also have some perception of the Torah’s inner dimension, which is the soul of the Torah’s revealed dimension.

The Mechilta says: “We call Him by names [borrowed] from the beings that He created, in order to appease the ear.” These words comprise the solid foundation underlying the explanations that Chabad Chassidus gives of the verse, “Know this day and take unto your heart that Havayah is Elokim; in the heavens above, and upon the earth below, there is nothing else.”32 This means that the Divine Names Havayah and Elokim call for knowledge and intellectual comprehension. In the words of Rambam,33 “[The foundation of all foundations and the pillar of all wisdom is] to know that there exists a Prime Being, and He brings into existence whatever exists.” Not to believe, but to know.

(In these words, by the way, Rambam hints that the Divine Name Havayah is “the foundation of all foundations and the pillar of all wisdom.”34 )

The Mechilta goes on to show how one can arrive at this knowledge. It substantiates the approach of Chassidus to the concept expressed by the verse, “For Havayah is a G‑d of multiple knowledge (E-l de’os Havayah), and by Him actions are measured.”35 [Noting that in the Holy Tongue the phrase quoted uses the plural form of de’ah – “knowledge,”] Tikkunei Zohar36 states that the verse implies two levels of knowledge,37 namely, Daas Elyon (lit., “higher knowledge”) and Daas Tachton (lit., “lower knowledge”). Daas Tachton is the [earthbound] perspective of created beings, whose knowledge is merely whatever they grasp with their mortal, bodily understanding; Daas Elyon is the G‑dly, spiritual perspective.

Chassidus explains that the lower perspective is infinitely inferior to the higher perspective. To state this in plain words, they are actually opposites. The higher perspective perceives that spiritual Divinity is what really exists,38 whereas natural Divinity, which creates all corporeal beings, is non-existent.39 In the eyes of the lower perspective, natural Divinity is what really exists, whereas the Divine power that creates that yesh is non-existent, in the sense that it is beyond comprehension. Nevertheless, that lower level of understanding is a conceptual upward step that brings a person nearer to the vantage point of the higher perspective.

The above approach as taught by Chassidus is substantiated by the Mechilta with the words, “We call Him by names [borrowed] from the beings that He created, in order to appease the ear.” That is to say: even though the lower perception of the universe is the opposite of the higher perception, it can serve as a conceptual prelude to that higher level. This statement of the Mechilta opens our conceptual eyes, enabling us to consider profoundly the meaning of the natural strength with which the Creator endowed the lion, or the natural life-giving power with which He invested water. In this way, the Mechilta shows us the approach of Chassidus, and the conceptual prelude, by which we should elevate ourselves from understanding the analogy to understanding the analog.

It is written, “From my flesh I behold G‑d”40 – from my body I behold Divinity. As Chassidus points out, when a body is created and it lives and creates, the very existence of that body generates a recognition of Divinity. The rationale: when a person realizes that his body’s life and creative power derive from the capacity of the soul to vitalize and empower it, he applies a parallel principle to the creation of the entire universe. In this spirit, Chassidus draws a number of significant corollaries from the verse,41 “and You grant life to them all.”

Chassidus thus throws open the gates of intellection, and conducts a person into a world suffused with light, into the world of the soul. After all, This World is the World of Falsehood,42 because it is a fleshly, earthy world, a world of egocentric existence43 – for the delusion that a yesh, a self-conscious entity, considers itself to be a metzius possessing self-sufficient existence, is an outright falsehood. In truth, it is the soul that animates the body, and the world of the soul is the World of Truth, which comprises light alone.

In that world suffused with the light of truth, the world into which the conceptual teachings of Chassidus conduct a person, he comes to know the inner essence, the soul, of everything around him. In that world, which is suffused with the light of truth, the inner essence and the soul of all created beings find their full expression – the speechless entity speaks, the vegetative being sings, the animal intones praises, and articulate man grasps the super-corporeal level of understanding.

This is what was meant when we said that Daas Tachton, the lower perspective of understanding44 – busying oneself with the concepts of creation yesh me’ayin,45 and with the various conceptions of the statement that “You grant life to them all”46 as based on the principle that “from my flesh I behold G‑d”47 – brings a person somewhat closer to Daas Elyon, the higher perspective of understanding.

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The above brief introduction will enable us to understand the Alter Rebbe’s illuminating discussion of the word teva, “nature:”48 we know that things are as they are, though without knowing why they are as they are. With regard to worldly things that are animated by “natural” Divinity, we do not know what cause arouses them to be drawn towards their roots Above.49 In contrast, with regard to nature of the soul, we do know that this arousal derives from the soul’s faculty of Chochmah.

With this statement, the Alter Rebbe positions nature in its due location – the Sefirah of Chochmah, which is the beginning of Seder Hishtalshelus, [the chainlike downward progression of successive stages of Divine self-concealment]. Thus, whatever is vested in nature begins with the Sefirah of Chochmah and continues with the lower Sefiros. Hence, whatever is higher than the Sefirah of Chochmah is supernatural.

Now, Tanya50 is the Chumash of the teachings of Chassidus. Just as in the Written Torah the letters of its words are precise, and the very placement of neighboring statements is significant, the same applies to Tanya. The letters of every word are precise, and one ought to invest deep thought in the G‑dly understanding that the Alter Rebbe is revealing to us.

The Alter Rebbe tells us there that the nature of the soul is the soul’s Chochmah, “in which the infinite Ein-Sof light abides.” At first glance, that phrase appears to be unrelated to what he is explaining at this point, namely, that the soul’s nature “is not based on reason, knowledge and intelligence that can be understood, but rather is beyond the grasp and comprehension of rational intelligence.” And what is that higher level called? – the soul’s faculty of Chochmah.

However, by adding those few words – “in which the infinite Ein-Sof light abides” – the Alter Rebbe explains us ten concepts:

1. The soul’s faculty of Chochmah is defined by the fact that “in it the infinite Ein-Sof light abides.”

2. The Alter Rebbe is hinting to us that soul’s faculty of Chochmah resembles the Sefirah of Chochmah in the World of Atzilus, and that level of Chochmah he explains in the gloss to Chapter 35 of Tanya.

3. The soul’s faculty of Chochmah is nature, but not like the nature of the created beings of the world. That is why he first speaks of the nature of the light of a candle, and only then does he speak of the nature of the soul. The latter is also one of the things vested in nature, but it is vested in an utterly different way, because the soul’s faculty of Chochmah is a receptor for the infinite Ein-Sof light.

4. The Alter Rebbe is hinting to us that the nature of the soul, i.e., the soul’s faculty of Chochmah, basically derives from Yechidah,51 which in turn is connected to the level of Elokus called Yachid.52 Moreover, it becomes revealed not via the successively gradated stages of Hishtalshelus, but by leaping over the lower levels of the soul, [namely, nefesh-ruach-neshamah].

5. Even though the infinite Ein-Sof light abides in the soul’s faculty of Chochmah, that faculty is part of nature, and does not transcend nature.

6. With the above hints, the Alter Rebbe indicates that that which transcends Chochmah – namely, the Sefirah of Keser – transcends nature.

7. The emphasis that Chochmah is nature, and that in it the infinite Ein-Sof light abides, gives us an understanding of the Sefirah of Keser: though it transcends nature, it is nevertheless no more than a garment.

8. This leads to the conclusion that Elokus vests itself, as it were, in two kinds of garments: (a) a garment of revelation, which transcends nature, and (b) a garment of concealment, which is nature.

9. The first of these garments (the garment of revelation, which transcends nature) is the light that transcends all the worlds – ohr hasovev kol almin, which is also known as ohr hamakkif. The second (the garment that is concealed in nature) is the light that is immanent within all the worlds – ohr hamemaleh kol almin, which is also known as ohr pnimi.

10. Two consequences that evolve below from these two kinds of garments, in which Elokus (so to speak) vests itself, are natural Divinity and spiritual Divinity.

From the above brief clarification of how Chassidus explains the concepts of nature and beyond nature, we can understand four points:

(i) The connection between all the soul-levels which the Alter Rebbe hints at in the above-quoted statement in Tanya – that the soul’s nature “is not based on reason, knowledge and intelligence that can be understood, but rather is beyond the grasp and comprehension of rational intelligence.” To use the terms that appear [in descending order] in the original: taam alludes to the soul-level called yechidah; vadaas alludes to chayah; seichel alludes to neshamah; musag – to ruach; and umuvan – to nefesh.

(ii) The connection between the various worlds – Asiyah, Yetzirah, Beriah, Atzilus, and the Sefirah of Malchus of the Ein-Sof, which transcends the World of Atzilus.

(iii) The connection between (on the one hand) the levels of the soul and (on the other hand) the corresponding levels of the worlds.

(iv) As we have seen, the root of the level of natural Divinity [i.e., the level of Elokus which is vested in nature] is the ohr pnimi, the indwelling ohr hamemaleh kol almin. [Being thus invested in the finite capacity of the recipient], it is now hidden there. Nevertheless, it is of a higher spiritual level than the spiritual Divinity whose root is the ohr makkif, the transcendent ohr hasovev kol almin.

The above discussion throws light on the statement cited above,53 that “whenever a Jew is called up to the Reading of the Torah [lit., ‘whenever he has an aliyah – an ascent – to the Torah’],” all the levels of his soul ascend to the Torah in all the spiritual Worlds..., as far up (so to speak) as “the Sefirah of Malchus of the Ein-Sof, which transcends the World of Atzilus.” And that entire ascent takes place in – and by means of – the weekly Torah Reading.

An aliyah to the reading of the weekly sidra [thus] brings the descent of a soul to completion, empowering it to fulfill the mission for which G‑d dispatched it to this world.