Chapter 25

21 I will command My blessing for you in the sixth year, and it will yield produce for three years: Although we should strive to understand the lessons that God’s commandments hold for us, we should not fall prey to the tendency to rationalize them, i.e., to think that the logical benefits we discern in fulfilling the commandments is the their ultimate purpose. For example, with regard to the sabbatical year, it is very tempting to suppose that it is nothing more than a means of naturally improving the fertility of the soil. After planting for six years in a row, the nutrients in the ground need to be replenished, and so we leave it fallow for a year. After the rest, the field will understandably produce more and better produce than it did before.

The most serious danger in rationalizing the commandments lies in proceeding to the next logical step: presuming to evaluate the relevance of the commandments based on the rational explanation for them we suppose to be their purpose. In the case of the sabbatical year, for example, we could think that with modern agronomical advances, such as crop rotation and fertilization, etc., there is no need to let the land lie fallow for a year, so the observance of the sabbatical year is no longer relevant.

It is in order to disprove this argument that God promised His blessings specifically for the sixth year. Were the purpose of the commandment to allow the soil to be replenished, we would expect the Torah to promise increased yields in the years following the fallow year. By promising the increased production in the sixth year—which should naturally be the weakest—God shows us that it is specifically and exclusively His blessing that is the source of the increased production.

Although the laws of the sabbatical year apply only in the Land of Israel, its lessons are applicable in our day-to-day lives wherever we live. As Jews, we must spend time every day in prayer and studying the Torah study; we must give charity and support Jewish schools and yeshivas; we cannot work on the Sabbath and the holidays. How can we hope to live financially sound lives, when we see our non-Jewish neighbors, who are not “handicapped” by any of these obligations, struggling to earn their livelihood?

This is the lesson of the Sabbatical year. If we do what God requires, He will bless us—not only spiritually, but materially as well.1

I will command My blessing for you in the sixth year: Allegorically, the six years during which work is permitted are compared to the six millennia of the world’s present state of existence. The seventh year corresponds to the seventh millennium, when the world will “rest” from its present state. Thus, we are now in the latter part of the sixth millennium, i.e., towards the end of the sixth “year.”

In this context, the same question posed in the preceding verse applies: Aware of how the Divine consciousness and spiritual strength of the latter generations cannot compare to that of the earlier ones, we may wonder: how can it be that the sixth “year,” the weakest one, will be the one to provide for the seventh? How can our feeble attempts at Divine service usher in the Redemption, when that of our holy ancestors did not?

To this, God replies that in the merit of our simple faith, expressed in our dedication to our Divine mission despite all obstacles and beyond the constraints of logic, He will increase the yield of the “sixth year,” and bring us the Redemption.

Moreover, there are three levels of redemption, alluded to in the verse, “He will bring us to life after two days; on the third day, He will raise us up and we will live before Him.”2 The first level is the preparatory period before the advent of the Messiah, in which we experience a foretaste of messianic reality as we witness the final days of exile. The second level is the period immediately after the coming of the Messiah, in which the world will once again function as it is meant to, but still within the limitations of nature. This is the period the sages referred to when they that “the only difference between this world and the messianic era is with regard to the subjugation [of the Jewish people] under the [non-Jewish] nations.”3 The third level will begin with the Resurrection of the Dead and be characterized by a complete existential reversal of nature, in which what we presently consider miraculous will become natural.4

Thus, in this context, God’s promise that the sixth year will produce enough for three years means that the merit of our dedication to our Divine mission throughout the sixth millennium will suffice to bring us to all the three following “years,” the full flowering of the final Redemption.5

36-38 You must not take interest: There is a subtle yet crucial difference between profiting from an investment and from a loan. When we invest in a financial venture, the money we invest still belongs to us, and thus our money is “working” for us. We may therefore be said to have earned the profit that the venture returns. In contrast, a loan transfers the ownership of the principal to the borrower with no more than an obligation to repay it later. Thus, taking interest on a loan is profiting from someone else’s effort without having participated in that effort. The lender is collecting interest based only upon the fact that the money used to belong to him.

As such, taking interest on a loan is the very antithesis of the way God intended the world to run. God created the world in such a way that we must work for our achievements. Both spiritual and material reward is achieved only through effort. In the words of the sages, “If someone says to you, ‘I have toiled but not found [results],’ do not believe him. If he says, ‘I have not toiled, but nonetheless found [results]’ do not believe him either. Only if he says, ‘I have toiled and found [results],’ believe him.”6

To be sure, God could have arranged for us to receive His beneficence without having to earn it; this would have seemed to better accord with His intrinsic benevolence. But then we would have felt like the objects of charity, or worse, like parasites. We would have been denied both any sense of accomplishment and the great satisfaction of enjoying the fruits of our labors.

Moreover, God not only rewards us for our efforts but assures us that they are productive, for He knows that even the greatest reward will not satisfy a worker who feels that his work is pointless. This, in fact, was how the Egyptians tried to demoralize the Jewish people—not merely by making them work, but by making them perform utterly useless tasks.7

One who lends on interest is therefore contravening the fundamental principle of Judaism, denying the notion that the reward should be dependent upon and commensurate with the effort expended. The sages therefore assert that “Whoever accepts the yoke of [not lending with] interest has accepted the yoke of the kingdom of heaven; whoever rejects the yoke of [not lending with] interest has rejected the yoke of the kingdom of heaven.”8

From a somewhat deeper perspective, it could be argued that loaning on interest does not deny the principle of “reward for effort” completely; after all, the lender has enabled the borrower to invest and reap profits, and would seem to deserve some compensation for having done so.

The crucial point, however, is that taking interest on a loan is receiving reward for a past deed: the one-time act that took place at the beginning of the transaction. In contrast, taking a return on an investment is receiving reward for the ongoing involvement that continues throughout the life of the investment. In this sense, too, taking interest is fundamentally opposed to how God wants the world to run. God does not “loan” us the powers He grants us, as a one-time act; He “invests” them in us, remaining intimately involved in our efforts to reap the rewards of our efforts. Denying His involvement in our lives is a form of deism, a heresy totally inimical to the notion of Divine providence that lies at the core of Jewish belief.

God has woven into the fabric of creation the mechanism that He will behave toward us in the same way that we behave towards our fellows. In this vein, the sages’ statement, “Know what is above you”9 can be understood according to its literal translation, “know [that] what is above [is] from you.”10 Similarly, the phrase “God is your shade”11 is interpreted to mean, “God is your shadow,” i.e., He “mimics” our behavior towards others in His behavior toward us.12

Thus, when we forego interest on our loans, God responds in kind: He not only grants us the initial potential to be successful both materially and spiritually but continues to assist us throughout our labors. When someone takes interest, God also responds in kind: He grants him the initial potential but refrains from extending him ongoing supernatural assistance.

It is in this sense that the sages, explaining the mention of the Exodus in connection with the prohibition against interest,13 tell us that “whoever acknowledges the commandment [not to take] interest acknowledges the Exodus from Egypt; whoever denies the commandment [not to take] interest denies the Exodus from Egypt.”14 As we have seen,15 the Hebrew name for “Egypt” (מצרים) means “limitations,” so “going out of Egypt” means being released from the limitations of the nature, which is exactly how God treats us when we forego taking interest on our loans.

In a more abstract sense, resting on our laurels and relying on past successes is a form of taking interest. For example, once we have expended efforts in educating our children, students, or anyone else over whom we have had any influence, and have succeeded in inspiring them to teach others, we might be tempted to “retire” in order to focus exclusively on our own spiritual development, confidant that we will duly receive our share of the sublime revelations of Divinity they elicit by inspiring others. However, benefiting from the results of such past labor is like taking interest on a past loan, the interest of which is forbidden. In contrast, if we continue to disseminate Judaism just as we taught them to, our work with them remains an “investment,” the “interest” from which is rightfully due us.16

42 They are My servants: Some of us are so enslaved to our work during the six days of the workweek that it seems as if we have sold ourselves into the service of another person for six years. Even when the Sabbath comes, the “seventh year” when we are supposed to go free, we are loathe to release ourselves from the exhilaration of our work.

The Torah therefore teaches us that this is not right. We were created to serve God: to study His Torah and to fulfill His commandments. Since God created us for this purpose, He has certainly provided us with the wherewithal to implement it. Even when we work during the week, we must not consider ourselves enslaved to our work; rather, we should work in order to use the fruits of our labors for holy purposes. And on the Sabbath, we should rise completely above any association with our mundane lives.

By thus liberating ourselves from our personal enslavement, we hasten the general Redemption, when the whole world will be free to pursue spirituality and Divinity unhindered.17

43 You must not work him with backbreaking labor: As mentioned above,18 working without purpose is demoralizing and can even drive a person insane, whereas working with purpose—even if the task requires extraordinary effort—is richly rewarding. The satisfaction we gain from the sense of accomplishment is greater even than that which we derive from the wages we earn.19

A wealthy landowner found it relaxing to observe his laborers rhythmically swinging their scythes, harvesting the wheat in his fields. Wishing to enjoy the same peace of mind constantly, he approached one of the peasants with a proposition:

“I will pay you double your wages,” he told the peasant, “to stand in my living room and swing your scythe.” The peasant agreed with undisguised excitement, as he would be doubling his pay while considerably easing his workload.

After several hours of his imaginary labor, however, the peasant quit. Even when the landowner offered to further double his wages, he refused. “When I don’t see the result of my actions,” he declared, “it is impossible to work.”

The efforts we are required to expend in studying the Torah and fulfilling its commandments may be great, but we know that our efforts here below have profound influence on the cosmic realm above. Our knowledge of the effect of our efforts in the spiritual realms enables us to perform it with strength, vitality, and joy.20


Chapter 26

3 If you stride forward in My rules: The word for “rule” (chukah) means “something engraved.” As we have noted previously,21 an engraved letter, unlike ink on paper, becomes one with the rock it is engraved upon. This suggests that the Torah is referring here to an extraordinary level of commitment to our Divine mission, in which we totally lose ourselves and become completely absorbed in fulfilling it.22

4 I will give your rains in their time: The Torah here details the rewards for following its precepts. These rewards are overwhelmingly and conspicuously material; there is almost no mention of spiritual reward. This seems strange, particularly when we recall that these rewards are promised in return for our dedication to God’s “rules,” which, as we just saw, means that we have lost our sense of independent selfhood in our absorption with our Divine mission. Having achieved such elevated Divine consciousness, it would seem that if it were necessary to mention reward at all, the promise of spiritual reward would be more relevant.

Of course, one possible answer is that not everyone is refined enough yet—or all the time—to appreciate spiritual rewards. The Torah must therefore detail the palpable rewards that await us for obeying God’s will in order to motivate even those of us who are not mature enough to value heightened Divine consciousness. This answer, while certainly true, is insufficient, since it leaves these verses inapplicable to those among us who are spiritually mature enough not to need such enticements (or any enticement) to serve God.

In order to understand this passage, we should note that when people are truly and profoundly happy, they have to express their happiness with their physical bodies: they smile, clap, and dance; nothing short of this will do. The same is true of all the emotions: the test of whether an emotion has truly entered our consciousness and affected our essence is whether its effect is manifest on our body. When the core of our being has been touched, the effect is felt throughout our entire person, down to our physical beings. In contrast, when we only convince ourselves artificially into thinking or feeling a certain way, we are affected only superficially; since we have not been touched deeply, this way of thinking or feeling will have no lasting effects on our behavior.

Similarly, when we achieve true oneness with the Torah—as described above with regard to our dedication to God’s “rules”—our entire being is affected, even the physical aspects of our lives. In order to indicate that this is indeed the case, the results of such oneness must therefore also be physical. Hence, the material rewards spoken of here are not only an incentive to keep the Torah but the true indication that the Torah has permeated our lives so much that our observance produces tangible results.

Our sages teach us that these verses, besides describing the material rewards that God promises us in the present order, also refer to the even more miraculous material bounty that will characterize the messianic future. We are told that in the messianic era, plants will yield their produce on the same day they are planted; entire trees will be edible, not only their fruit; even non-fruit-bearing trees will bear fruit;23 the earth will produce delicacies and silk clothing; wheat stalks will tower like palm trees; and grains of wheat will grow as large as two kidneys of a large ox.24 Based on the explanation just given of the nature of the contextual meaning of these verses—as referring to the material rewards promised us in the present order—we can understand these messianic prophecies as not only serving as incentives but as physical expressions of the extent to which Divine consciousness has permeated our being.

The difference between the miraculous rewards of the present order and the even more miraculous rewards of the messianic future is due to the fact that only in the future will we be able to infuse our entire beings with Divine consciousness. The results of fulfilling our Divine mission will therefore be concomitantly all-pervasive. Just as there will be no dichotomy between us and our Divine source, there will be no dichotomy between the physical world and its Divine source, and the physical world will be able to express perfectly God’s infinite beneficence. The Bible and the sages therefore describe the opulence of the messianic era in detail, for this opulence will express most fully the consummation of the purpose of creation—making this lowest world a true vehicle for Divine consciousness.25

6 I will remove wild beasts from the land: According to the Midrash,26 this blessing will come to fruition in the messianic era. Rabbi Yehudah asserts that God will physically remove all wild beasts from the world, while Rabbi Shimon maintains that God will neutralize their aggressive instinct, as Isaiah prophesies, “the wolf will lie with the lamb,”27 implying that there will indeed be wolves in the future, but they will be docile instead of predatory.

The resolution of this difference of opinion favors Rabbi Shimon: wild beasts will still exist but their nature will change. Inasmuch as our lives now, during the exile, should emulate post-messianic reality as far as possible—both in order to ready us for the future and to hasten its arrival—we should also follow Rabbi Shimon’s view: instead of destroying the wild and untamed elements of ourselves and our world, we should transform them and channel them for goodness.28

14-43 Threats and Curses: In this passage, known “the Admonition,” God informs the Jewish people of the drastic consequences of veering from the Torah’s instructions for life. In the synagogue, this section is traditionally read quickly and in a lower tone than the rest of the reading, underscoring its foreboding content.

However, the Zohar informs us that God, the Torah, and humanity all possess hidden and revealed dimensions. In the Torah’s revealed dimension, these verses are indeed curses; in its concealed dimension, they are blessings.29 This does not mean that they are “figurative” blessings, painful experiences we must endure for a greater good; they are real blessings, and not just ordinary blessings, but the greatest, most sublime blessings.

In fact, it is specifically the most sublime blessings that have to be couched (and sometimes experienced) as curses. This is because whenever a blessing is bestowed by heaven, it must first pass through the heavenly court, where the prospective recipient is judged as to whether he is worthy of the blessing. When the blessing is “disguised” as a curse, however, it “bypasses” the advocates of strict judgment and can make its way straight to its recipient.

In the Talmud30 we are told that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (author of the Zohar) sent his son, Rabbi Eleazar, to be blessed by some of the sages. They bestowed upon him what sounded like a string of curses:

They said to him: “May it be [God’s] will that you sow and not reap; that what you bring in not go out; that what goes out you not bring in; that your house be desolate and your inn be inhabited; that your table be disturbed and you not see a new year.” When he came home to his father, he said to him: “They were so far from blessing me that they distressed me greatly.” His father asked him: “What did they say to you?” [Rabbi Eleazar said,] “They said thus and thus.” Said the father to him: “Those are all blessings: ‘That you sow and not reap’ [means] that you have children and they not die. ‘That what you bring in not go out’ [means] that you bring home daughters-in-law and your sons not die, so that their wives need not leave again. ‘That what goes out you not bring in’ [means] that you give your daughters [in marriage] and their husbands not die so that your daughters need not come back. ‘That your house be desolate and your inn be inhabited’ [means] that this world be your inn and the next world be your home…. ‘That your table be disturbed’ [means] by [many] sons and daughters. And ‘that you not see a new year [means] that your wife not die and you not have to take a new wife.’ ”

This explains why “God rebukes the one He loves.”31 The greatest love cannot be manifest through revealed good, for we might not be found worthy of such benevolence. It must be manifest in the guise of evil and suffering.

As was the case with Rabbi Eleazar, we must learn how to “decipher” these hidden blessings; only then can they be revealed as the blessings they truly are. For this, Rabbi Eleazar needed the guidance of Rabbi Shimon, who taught him how to decode the curses so they could be manifest as blessings. Inasmuch as Rabbi Shimon is the author of the Zohar, the seminal text of the inner dimension of the Torah, the lesson here is that the study of the Torah’s inner dimension trains us to perceive the inner dimension of reality in general, including the inner dimension of God’s apparent curses. Indeed, the above-cited passage in the Zohar itself goes on to tell us that the study of the hidden dimension of the Torah awakens the hidden dimension of our soul, which in turn enables us to experience the hidden dimension of God and thereby experience the hidden dimension of the curses, in which they are the most sublime blessings. Once we are aware that God’s curses are really blessings, we instinctively fulfill the sages’ counsel to “rejoice in suffering,”32 and this understanding allows the inner goodness of the apparent curses to be fully manifest.33

26 When I eliminate your every source of food (literally, “When I break your staff of bread”): Bread is a metaphor for the Torah: just as bread nourishes the body, the Torah nourishes the soul.

The Torah in its present manifestation—as we know it—is a fallen version of the original. In its original form, the Torah does not discuss earthly reality, but rather only describes the spiritual realm. This is what the Midrash means when it tells us that the Torah “preceded” the creation of the world. Similarly, the Torah studied by the souls of the departed and the not-yet-born in the Garden of Eden does not address physical reality. The Torah we see is a dim reflection of that Torah, a translation of its sublimity in earthly terms.

This fall took place when Moses broke the first tablets. When God gave us the Torah at Mount Sinai, we were cleansed of the spiritual impurity the world fell into because of Adam and Eve’s sin with the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil. Had we not sinned with the Golden Calf, the messianic era would have commenced then, and reality would have been elevated to the spiritual plane of the Garden of Eden before the Fall. Since we would have existed on this higher spiritual plane, the Torah would not have had to descend and become couched in terms germane to physical reality. We would have been able to understand the Torah as it is written “in heaven.” But when, because of the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses had to break the tablets, the world descended to its present, materialistic state, and our consciousness suffered a concomitant fall. The Torah “fell,” too—that is, its sublime meaning became couched in physical terms in order to address the physical realities of our world.

When I break your staff of bread thus refers to the breaking of the tablets, which caused the Torah to descend and become garbed in a physical context. The term the staff of bread alludes to the Tree of Life in the Garden Eden, the source of the Torah. The “breaking” of the staff refers to the descent of the Torah from its spiritual context as the Tree of Life into its present, fallen form.

(These words shed light on the Admonition as a whole. Our perception of the Admonition as a frightening prophecy is a result of the “breaking of the staff,” the disguising of Torah in the vocabulary of earth. In its heavenly form, the Admonition is all blessing; in heaven, no one is in need of admonition.)

The advantage of the Torah being couched in physical terms is that we can understand it. The disadvantage is that because we perceive the Torah in its earthly form, we may find it difficult to internalize it, to assimilate its teachings into our spiritual bloodstream. The Torah therefore tells us how to avoid the pitfall of storing the ideas of Torah in a theoretical corner of our mind.

Bake your bread: Just as unbaked flour cannot be absorbed by the body, so the bread of the soul, Torah, cannot be fully absorbed by its student unless it is properly “baked” in the fire of the soul’s love for God and its desire to cleave to Him. One can study thousands of pages of Torah and remain unaffected. To digest Torah so that it permeates all of our being, we must evoke our soul’s sometimes dormant love for God—the fire that prepares the Torah for human digestion. How do we stimulate this love?

In one oven (which can be read: in the oven of One): through meditating on the oneness of God—that nothing truly exists besides Him. The “oven” that contains the fire of love for God is created by meditating on His oneness. When we meditate deeply on the fact that nothing truly exists besides God, we forsake all our love-affairs with the things of this world and become consumed with passionate love for God, which we will quench by studying the Torah. But—

Ten: This love must encompass all ten powers of our soul: insight, understanding, knowledge, kindness, severity, beauty, victory, glory, foundation, and kingship. And—

Women: In male-female imagery, the female is the recipient.34 When our love for God is evoked, we must keep it “feminine,” i.e., we must remember that it is granted to us by God. We are only the recipients of this feeling of love; we did not create it.

When all of these conditions are met—

They will bring back your bread by weight (literally: on the scales): When one arm of a scale goes down, the other goes up. Similarly, by integrating the Torah into our beings, by bringing it “down” so it can reach even the most mundane facets of our lives, we cause a reciprocal reaction and “elevate” the Torah back to its primordial form, as it was before it “fell” into its present material context. The spiritual dimension of the Torah begins to open up before us, and we become privy to progressively deeper insights into its infinite meaning. As a result—

You will eat but not be satisfied: i.e., our love for God will be so great that we will never be able to learn enough Torah. As progressively deeper dimensions of the Torah open up before us, it will always seem new and thrilling.35

Inner Dimensions

[26] When I break your staff of bread: The Midrash, in fact, states that the Torah preceded the world by “two thousand years.” These years are understood to refer to the two sefirot of the intellect, chochmah and binah. The phrase “I will teach you chochmah” from the Book of Job36 can be read “I, chochmah, am a thousand,” implying that chochmah and binah are each represented by a thousand years. The seven lower sefirot, which correspond to the seven days of the Creation week, would thus correspond to the seven millennia of Creation, as it is written, “For a thousand years are in Your sight as a day that passes.”37 The sefirot of chochmah and binah, the primordial Torah, thus precede the world by “two thousand years.”

When I break your staff of bread: The breaking of the tablets (the Torah being the soul’s “food”) is a reflection of the cosmic “breaking of the vessels,” in which the lofty and uncontainable light of pre-creation “exploded,” leaving sparks of infinity scattered throughout the physical world.

Bake your bread:Bread is generally made with wheat, and the numerical value of the Hebrew word for “wheat” (חטה) is 22, the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet, with which the Torah is written. The imagery is thus that the “wheat”—the 22 letters used in the study of the Torah—must be “baked” into “bread”—a form in which it can be digested by the soul—by “fire”—the love of God.

Chapter 27

33 If he does substitute it, then both it and its replacement will be holy: The initials of the words in Hebrew for “he does substitute it, then it…will be” (המר ימרינו והיה הוא) are the same letters as God’s Name Havayah (יהו-ה) rearranged. There are actually twelve ways of arranging the letters of this Name, and each arrangement corresponds to one of the months of the year38 and one of the twelve tribes.39 The combination formed by this phrase corresponds to the eleventh month, Shevat,40 and the eleventh tribe (Jacob’s eleventh son), Joseph.41

Mystically, substituting one animal for another refers to the worthy endeavor of changing the mundane into holiness. With regard to one’s fellow human being, this means bringing someone who is estranged from his soul back to it, revealing to him his connection to God.

This person effecting this substitution must actually perform two substitutions in this process:

· He must first enter the realm of the person he is seeking to help, descending from his loftier preoccupations and “substitute” his spiritual ivory tower for the mundane world.

· He can then elevate the other person, “replacing” his estrangement from God with holiness.

If we find ourselves reluctant to leave the safe environs of holiness and enter the mundane world in order to elevate those in it, the Torah reassures us by telling us that—

both it and its replacement will be holy:i.e., both we and that which we replace—elevate to holiness—will be holy. We will not be denigrated by our descent into worldliness and whatever and whomever we elevate will remain within the realm of holiness.

The idea of bringing the estranged under the wings of the Divine Presence was exemplified by Joseph. Joseph was named by his mother with the prayer “may God add (yosef) for me another son.”42

Rachel’s prayer alludes to Joseph’s mission in life, which was to transform “others,” those who seem to be strangers to God, revealing that they are in reality “sons.” This, indeed, is what Joseph did: When his brothers, exiled from the Holy Land to the strange land of Egypt, felt concomitantly estranged from their Father in Heaven, Joseph ensured that they remained true “sons of Israel.”

Joseph’s mandate is that of all of us: to transform the world and all inhabitants, which appear to be “an other,” strange to and estranged from Godliness, into entities whose “lineage”—i.e., Divine source—is apparent, both to them and to all.43