Chapter 3

27 You will not cross this Jordan River: As we have mentioned previously,1 had Moses himself led the people into the Promised Land, their entry would have been miraculous: they would have been led by the Clouds of Glory and the pillar of fire, and the nations occupying the land would have offered no resistance. This miraculous conquest would have been a direct continuation of the miraculous Exodus from Egypt, which had stricken the nations occupying the Land of Israel with intense fear, as the Jews proclaimed at the Song of the Sea: “Nations heard and became angered; terror gripped those who dwell in Philistia. The chieftains of Edom became disoriented; trembling seized the mighty men of Moab; all the inhabitants of Canaan melted away.”2

However, now that Joshua was going to lead them, the Israelites would have to battle the Canaanite nations without relying on open miracles, and this would require them to evince self-sacrifice. They would now have to summon their deepest inner strength and dedication to their purpose in order to win the wars.

This is another example that demonstrates how the purpose of revealing Divinity to the greatest extent possible in the world—here evinced by the Israelites’ unshakable dedication to their Divine mission—was better served by Moses not crossing the Jordan along with the Jewish people.3

Chapter 4

1 So now, O Israel: As has been pointed out previously,4 the name “Israel” connotes the victor in battle, he who has “striven with God and with men and has prevailed.”5 It is specifically “now,” i.e., during the present order—when the Divine soul must combat the innate drives of the animal soul—that the Jewish people are referred to as “Israel,” with regard to their victory in this struggle. In the World to Come, however, when physical reality will reveal its true Godly source and this battle will no longer be necessary, the Jewish people will no longer be referred to by this name. We are taught that since the Divine soul will then be able to manifest itself unhindered, the righteous will then be identified using God’s own Name—every Jew will be a transparent conduit for Divinity into the world.6

Therefore, Moses begins by saying, “Now, O Israel….”7

4 Whereas you, who cleave to God: One could very well imagine that the deeper and more complete the relationship we forge with God, the more our own individual concerns and personalities will be diminished. The Torah here teaches us that the opposite is actually true: Our true life and vitality are directly commensurate with the depth of our attachment to the source of all life, God. In fact, what we normally mistake as our personality or “persona” is largely rooted in the animal drives of our secondary, animal souls. The individual nature of this personality is merely an illusion; inasmuch as we share the same animal drives with the rest of humanity, the personality born of these drives is, at best, a variation on the same, common theme everyone else is living out, and at worst, a vain attempt to establish a sense of self-worth through feigned individuality. In contrast, since God is infinite, the avenues by which His Divinity can manifest itself in reality are also infinite; thus, it is only our Divine personality that is truly unique. It follows that the more we allow our normative personalities to dissolve as we draw closer to God, the more our true, Divine personalities can shine forth in all their unique individuality.

The same principle applies “quantitatively”: the more we surrender our apparent individuality to God’s omnipresence, thereby connecting to our true source of life, the more our earthly, limited lives take on something of the eternal longevity of spiritual beings. Indeed, Rabbi Dovber, the Maggid of Mezeritch,8 teaches that the angels’ immortality is due to their consummate fear of Heaven resulting from their constant awareness of God.9

A Closer Look

[31] He will exile you: The exact number of years implied by the word for “and you will be long established” (ונושנתם) is alluded to by its numerical value, 852. Thus, as the year 3340 (the 852nd year after the Israelites’ entry into the Promised Land) approached, the condition of being “long established” in their land was about to be fulfilled. Therefore, in order to avoid having to fulfill His threat of utterly destroying them, God exiled the people two years early, in the year 3338.10

35 He ‘opened’…then ‘tore’: The existential difference between “heaven” (the spiritual worlds) and “earth” (the physical universe) is that the former manifest Divinity, each on their own level, whereas the latter denies Divinity, at least a priori. Therefore, in order to show the people that His is the sole presence within the spiritual worlds, it was enough for God to “open” these worlds up, i.e., to simply remove their natural spiritual opacity, enabling the people to “see” how the spiritual worlds manifest Divinity. In contrast, in order to show the people His presence within physical reality as well as to show them that His is the only true reality altogether—how all the worlds (down to ours, the entire physical universe) are really just part of God’s essence—God had to “tear open” heaven and earth, i.e., to overturn the external façade of independent existence pervading the entire hierarchy of creation.

By showing us both aspects of His relationship to reality, God enabled us to relate to Him in these same two general ways:

Revealing His presence within the spiritual hierarchy of creation enabled us to elevate all aspects of life to their Divine source by orienting them toward their Divine purpose, thereby revealing their true, inner Divine essence. This includes the ability to refine our own intellect and emotions by focusing them on God, contemplating His creation and providence.

Revealing His essence, beyond creation, enabled us to transcend the limits of nature by responding to critical challenges with self-sacrifice, overriding (“tearing”) the limits imposed both by our intellect and emotions as well as by our natural instincts toward self-preservation and comfort-seeking.

The latter process works in reverse, as well: In order to overcome challenges and tests in our lives, we need to remind ourselves that “there is nothing other than Him,” i.e., that nothing can constitute a real obstacle to fulfilling God’s intentions, since everything, in the final analysis, is part of God’s essence. Evoking this awareness within ourselves elevates our Divine consciousness to the level of truly perceiving God’s essence everywhere. This, in turn, serves to hasten the messianic Redemption, when “the glory of God will be revealed and all flesh will see it together.”11

35 & 39 There is no other reality besides Him…. There is no other reality: In verse 35, Moses tells the people that when God gave the Torah, He showed them that there is no other reality other than Him. In verse 39, Moses tells them that they should not rely on the recollection of this revelation but rather respond to it by striving to know God on their own, as well.

Thus, there is no mention of “heaven and earth” in verse 35 (as there is in verse 39), because when God pulled back the veil in order to show the people that He is the only reality, the focus was on the presence of God, not on the nature of reality: the force of God’s revelation was so overwhelming that all other reality simply disappeared from everyone’s consciousness. In contrast, when we, working from our earthly perspective, aspire to knowledge of God, the nature of reality is a very real issue; hence the necessity of bringing the awareness that “God is God” into “heaven above and earth below.”

For the same reason, verse 35, which describes God’s self-revelation, ends with the phrase, “there is no other reality besides Him”—implying that in the face of that revelation there is indeed nothing other than God at all; whereas verse 39, describing our upward climb to Divine knowledge, ends only with the words, “there is no other reality”—implying by contrast that from our perspective there is indeed a reality “besides Him” but that we are aware that it possesses no intrinsic existence on its own.

The Divine consciousness we were granted at the Giving of the Torah was loftier than any Divine consciousness that we can achieve on our own, since the former was powerful enough to annihilate all awareness of created reality whereas the latter is not. On the other hand, seeing God in everything when working out of the initial spiritual darkness of our physical world is a much greater feat than seeing Him in everything when everything has already been dissolved in His overpowering presence. In fact, seeing God in everything while still retaining consciousness of the world is possible only when we look at the world from the perspective of God’s essence (rather than that of any revelation of Him, no matter how sublime), for God’s essence transcends the dichotomy of revelation and concealment.

Verse 39 thus describes the progressive ascent in Divine consciousness we are bidden to follow: We are to first “know” God through intellectual inquiry, contemplating His presence in the world. We are then to proceed to the much harder task of “considering it in your heart,” that is, making this reality so relevant that we get emotionally involved in it. The Torah then describes how the content of our contemplation also ascends progressively: First we are to realize that “God is God,” i.e., that God is both transcendent and immanent. We are then to realize that God’s transcendence governs the spiritual worlds (“in heaven above”), which is relatively easy to conceive of; and then that it governs the physical universe (“upon earth below”) as well, which is harder to conceive of. From there we are to ascend to the awareness that even though reality exists, it owes its existence entirely to God and is therefore nothing but an expression of Divinity (“there is no other reality”).12


On a deeper level, it is possible to view the difference between the two closing phrases of these verses inversely: “There is nothing besides Him” implies that “besides Him”—meaning “without Him”—nothing can exist, but “with Him”—meaning “with His help”—reality does exist; it just owes its entire existence to Him. In other words, whereas God’s existence is intrinsic, everything else’s existence is contingent (upon His existence).13 In contrast, “there is nothing else” implies that there is no other existence whatsoever. This is not meant to deny the existence of reality, but rather to imply that everything that exists is just a part of God. Thus, in this context, verse 39 describes a higher level of Divine consciousness than that discussed in verse 35.14

In accordance with this interpretation, the difference between these two verses can be explained as follows:

It is important to realize that there can never be unequivocal, unassailable logical proof of God’s existence, for two reasons. Firstly, the nature of intellect is such that any argument that is presented, no matter how sound, can be undermined by a counterargument. The most that we can achieve through reason is a degree of plausibility that enables us to live our lives in a consistent and honest way, but we can never achieve absolute certainty through reason alone. Secondly, if we could prove God’s existence conclusively, doing so would preclude any possibility of free choice, and would thus undermine the whole purpose of creation.

Therefore, when God gave the Torah, He instilled within every individual Jew a “knowledge” of His existence that is not predicated on logical reasoning. Ever since that time, this surety has been part of our Divine soul; we therefore have no control over it and it does not result from any effort on our part. True, we are not always conscious of this innate knowledge, and if we allow the materialistic perspective of the physical world to overtake our consciousness, it will bury our innate surety under its skepticism and ridicule (this being what ensures free choice despite the surety of the knowledge). But if we train ourselves to see beyond the material façade that the world presents us by periodically meditating on the logical reasons for God’s existence, we can recover this God-given certainty.

This is why the gift of this knowledge is described as a visual experience: “You were shown to know.” Seeing something fixes it in our minds with consummate certainty, and this knowledge of God’s existence has been fixed in our psyches with a certainty akin to that associated with sight.

Yet this knowledge of God applies only to His immanence within creation. This is what was imprinted on our souls at the Giving of the Torah, and this is what we can recover through intellectual meditation. In contrast, we cannot know God’s transcendence, since it is by definition totally beyond our ken; we can only believe in it.

But if, as we said, there can be no unassailable logical proof of God’s existence as He is immanent within creation, then surely there can be no such proof of God’s existence as He transcends creation. We can, of course, speculate and theorize about God’s transcendence; even non-Jewish philosophers and theologians have done so extensively.15 But absolute, concrete belief in God’s transcendence is by definition beyond human reach.

God therefore imprinted the belief in His transcendence on the Jewish soul when the Torah was given, and it, too, is now part of every Jew’s Divine soul. But since this transcendence is by definition removed from us, we don’t immediately realize its ramifications in our lives. This explains, for example, why a thief can pray to God for success in his theft: although he believes that God can influence the outcome of events supernaturally, this belief does not register in his consciousness as making any moral demands on his behavior.

It is therefore necessary to bring our ingrained belief in God into our conscious minds, similar to how our ingrained knowledge of Him is active in our conscious minds. This feat is accomplished by studying the Torah and fulfilling its commandments; it is the unique, spiritual property of the Torah and the commandments that they bridge this gap between God’s infinite transcendence and our finite minds, enabling us to “know” what we initially only “believe.”

This is why we are commanded in verse 39 to “make every effort to know,” even though we were already “shown to know,” as described in verse 35. At the Giving of the Torah, we were granted the “knowledge” of God’s immanence; it is now up to us to also “know” God’s transcendence. Because the means we use to attain this knowledge are the study of the Torah and the observance of its commandments, verse 39 adds the word “today,” for only “today”—in our lifetimes—are we given this opportunity, whereas “tomorrow”—in the afterlife—this opportunity does not exist. This is also why, in the next verse, Moses once again exhorts the people to fulfill the Torah’s commandments, for as stated, the unique and special property of the Torah and its commandments is that they enable us to know God’s transcendence, not only to believe that it exists.

Due to the world’s (and our own) present imperfections, the gap between what we can know and what we can only believe is bridged to a greater or lesser extent, depending on our spiritual state. The more we are properly focused on the Torah and its attendant lifestyle, the more God’s transcendence becomes part of our lives and the less we are subject to the limitations of nature. When we are distracted, we experience the gap between our knowledge and belief in God’s transcendence.

This gap will be totally bridged only in the messianic future, when God will “remove the spirit of impurity from the earth”16 and “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of God.”17 Allegorically, “the earth” refers to our faculty of belief, which, like the lowly, inanimate earth, is devoid of the ardent feelings of the emotions or the intellectual stimulus of the mind. In the messianic future, our belief in God’s transcendence (“the earth”) will be transformed into (“filled with”) knowledge of it, similar to how we can presently “know” His immanence.18


As mentioned above, the Torah describes our knowledge of God’s immanence using the metaphor of “sight.” Sight is considered a higher level of perception than hearing because it evokes a much more intense emotional response than does hearing, indicating that it touches the soul more deeply. On the other hand, the advantage of hearing over sight is that it perceives sound, which is invisible and thus relatively less “corporeal” than the visible objects perceived by sight. In this sense, although the people had “seen” God’s immanence, they had only “heard” about God’s transcendence.

Moses, on the other hand, possessed the same knowledge of God’s transcendence as he did of His immanence; he did not need to believe in it. In this sense, he was living in the messianic future during his lifetime.

As was explained in the Overview, Moses wanted God to enable the people to “see” His transcendence as well as just “hear” about it. He knew that this would happen if God would allow him to enter the Promised Land, for the land, as we saw, is a metaphor for belief. This is the allegorical meaning of his request to “cross over and see the good land,”19 i.e., to infuse it with the surety of sight, elevating it to the level of knowledge.

However, as the Torah will relate,20 God did not grant Moses’ request, because the world at large was not yet ripe for this level of Divine consciousness. As stated above, this will be achieved only in the messianic future. Moses could therefore only enjoin the people to “hear” God’s message.21

Chapter 5

6-19 The Repetition of the Ten Commandments: In preparation for the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, the people completed a thorough process of spiritual and mental purification, thereby earning the most intense revelation of God that the world had ever witnessed. The force of this revelation purged them completely of evil inclinations and the effects of sin, enabling them to achieve consummate Divine consciousness. This Divine consciousness was channeled into the world via the tablets later carved by God, on which He inscribed the Ten Commandments.

But, as has been seen,22 despite the exalted spiritual level that the people attained through the Giving of the Torah, they still lacked the powerful yearning for Divinity that is known only to a penitent soul. So God “coerced” them into the sin of the Golden Calf in order to afford them this advantage, as well. (Although only a small percentage of the people were actually guilty of this sin, the rest were implicated by their failure to prevent it. In this way, they all “participated” in the sin; they were therefore all able to feel the yearning associated with penitence.)

This reality of yearning for God was reflected in the second set of tablets: God inscribed them, too, but Moses was the one who carved them,23 and as such, they expressed humanity’s aspiration toward Divinity, as opposed to the first set of tablets, which expressed God’s unsolicited gift of revelation.

In this parashah, Moses describes how God gave the Ten Commandments the first time, before the sin of the Golden Calf. Nonetheless, he is speaking long after God had replaced the first tablets with the second ones. Thus, his repetition of the Ten Commandments expresses the spiritual state of reality embodied in the second tablets.24

The differences between the description of the Giving of the Torah in the context of the historical narrative (in parashat Yitro) and the description in Moses’ review (here, in parashat Va’etchanan) also reflect the differences between the first and second tablets:

In parashat Yitro, emphasis is placed on how the Divine revelation shook and shocked both nature and the Jewish people. “There was thunder and lightning…an exceedingly loud blast of a ram’s horn, and all the people in the camp trembled.… The whole of Mount Sinai was in smoke,”25 and so on. The image is that of a searing revelation that destroyed the power of evil and its hold over the people. When the people expressed their fear of this direct revelation, Mose replied26 that this was exactly the point: that this awesome experience nullify their sense of self in their overwhelming experience of God.

In parashat Va’etchanan, however, the emphasis is on how the Divine message was absorbed and internalized by the people. “You were shown [in order] to know that God is the only God…. God spoke with you face to face…God spoke all these words to your entire assembly,”27 and so on. This time, when Moses recalls how the people expressed their fear, he records God’s reaction: that they were right in being afraid and that they should indeed strive to retain at least something of this fear of God. Since God “leaves room” for people to exist on a lower level of Divine consciousness, in which they retain their own sense of self, it is therefore necessary for them to know how to fear Him.

Nonetheless, the context, as we said, is the account of the giving of the first tablets. In fact, after Moses recounts the Giving of the Torah, he pauses in his review of the historical narrative of the Jewish people and discusses how the recollection of the Giving of the Torah should engender feelings of love for God and loyalty to Him. He does not resume his review of the historical narrative—picking up with the sin of the Golden Calf and its aftermath, including the giving of the second tablets—until well into the next parashah, Eikev.28 This discontinuity emphasizes the fact that at this point, Moses is focusing on the original, unbounded relationship between God and His people that existed when they possessed the first tablets. We thus learn that even in our present state of reality—that of the second tablets—we can and should retain a residual taste of the pure reality we knew briefly when we possessed the first tablets.

In other words, although Moses is addressing the generation that had not witnessed the revelation at Mount Sinai and that is living in the post-fall reality of spiritual consciousness, he is teaching them that they must still nurture a vision of the pristine, pre-fall reality. This memory of their original, ideal spiritual state will be as essential to their success in their encounters across the Jordan as is their clear understanding of their own existential reality.29


On a deeper level, the first account of the Ten Commandments, couched in God’s first person, is what allows us to experience God’s presence in the Torah as we learn it. This experience prevents us from forgetting that the study of the Torah is a spiritual encounter between God and us and not merely an intellectual pursuit. The second account of the Ten Commandments, couched as part of Moses’ address to the people, is what allows us to employ our own, human intellect in the study of the Torah, in order to internalize it and absorb its message fully; in this way, the goal of making this world into a home for God is achieved.30

19 A great voice, not pausing: One meaning of the expression “not pausing” is that the voice of God at Mount Sinai continued—and continues—to be revealed in the prophecies and teachings of the prophets and sages of each generation.31 The fact that these prophecies and teachings were not explicitly articulated when the Torah was first given is simply because the state of the world and the Jewish people did not yet necessitate it. They were nonetheless implicit in the original revelation of the Torah.

As has been mentioned,32 God addressed each Jew individually at Mount Sinai. (Hebrew has different forms for the singular “you” and the plural “you.”33 The word for “your” in the opening statement of the Ten Commandments—“I am God, your God”—is in the singular.) By extension, then, the words of every prophecy and teaching uttered by a true Torah sage are addressed to each Jew individually.

A second meaning of God’s words “not pausing” is that the voice of God did not cease once it was heard in Hebrew but rather split into the seventy seminal languages of humanity.34 God thus addressed not only each individual Jew but also every human being, thereby obligating all humanity for all time to respond to His call to observe the Noahide commandments.

By translating the Torah into all the earth’s languages, God also informed us that the Torah may be studied in any language. By doing so, we elevate that language, utilizing it for a holy purpose. As has been mentioned,35 this is also why God later had Moses translate the entire Torah into all seventy languages.

A further meaning of God’s words “not pausing” is that there was no echo.36 True, the absence of an echo normally characterizes a weak sound, not a “great voice.” Here, however, the absence of an echo indicated that the voice of God did not reverberate off the mountains but was rather absorbed by the mountains themselves.

Inasmuch as the spiritual and material are two distinct aspects of reality, we normally would not expect the spirituality of the Torah to be absorbed into physical reality. But inasmuch as God revealed His essence at Mount Sinai, and His essence transcends the normal dichotomy between spirituality and physicality, this revelation was indeed able to permeate the physical dimension of existence.

Based on what we have explained previously, it is clear why these details of the revelation of Mount Sinai are given specifically here and not in the description of the event given in parashat Yitro. The generation of the conquest was about to embark on a long journey through history, which would take them and their descendants far from the original memory of the voice of God on Mount Sinai. As the memory of this voice would fade, it would be of paramount importance that these descendants be aware that it continues to speak to them through the prophets and sages of each generation.

Secondly, since the generation of the conquest and its heirs would have numerous encounters with other nations, it was important that we be told that the voice our forefathers heard at Sinai was heard by the non-Jews, as well. Therefore, in our efforts to encourage them to establish a Torah-based relationship with God and to observe the Noahide commandments, we are not confronting them with something essentially foreign to them, for the voice of God has been imprinted on their psyches from Mount Sinai.

Finally, as the Jewish people was about to pass from its spiritual existence in the desert to its material existence in the land, it needed to be reminded that the voice of God and the Torah permeate all existence and that everything, even the inanimate kingdom, is saturated with latent God-consciousness. Nothing about reality can truly be a deterrent to fulfilling God’s will; if it appears to be so, this is only a façade, a test of our determination and devotion to our Divine destiny. By approaching the Torah and its lifestyle as an encounter with God Himself, we continue to cause His voice to permeate all reality, thereby making the world a home for Him and fulfilling the purpose of creation.37

20 When you heard the voice: The Torah here records how the people, after “seeing” God’s transcendence at the Giving of the Torah, contested Moses’ wish that they retain this level of Divine consciousness for all time. God, in turn, ratified the people’s perspective;38 Moses therefore couched his exhortation to the people to maintain consciousness of God’s transcendence in terms of “hearing”39 rather than “seeing.”40

Chapter 6

4 Hear, O Israel: This verse, known as the Shema after its first word in Hebrew, is the basic statement of Jewish monotheism. Fundamentally, this verse proclaims that God is the one and only deity and that, moreover, there is not even any lesser power with whom God shares His jurisdiction and dominion over all creation. (In contrast, although non-Jews are also required to be monotheists, they are allowed to believe that God shares His dominion over the world with lesser powers, inasmuch as this is what an a priori, direct observance of natural reality would lead one to believe.41)


On a deeper level, however, this verse describes God’s relationship with all of creation and the implications of this relationship in our lives.

As was mentioned above,42 the existence of God is not something that can be conclusively proven by logic, so God “showed Himself,” so to speak, at the Giving of the Torah and imprinted the memory of this revelation on all Jewish souls, who, we are taught, were present in one form or another at this occasion.43 Although this certainty about God’s existence can be obscured by the disproportionate bias toward the material perspective of creation endemic to all physical creatures, we can always recover it by contemplating the true nature of existence in order to “rediscover” God within the world, for just as a superficial look at the world belies God’s existence, so does a close look bespeak His existence. This is what the Torah means when it tells us to know that God exists: to recover our awareness of this sometimes obscured truth.

However, as was also mentioned, this knowledge of God’s existence applies only to God the Creator, i.e., His immanence within creation, which brings it into being and sustains it continuously. There is also an aspect of God that transcends the context of creation and indeed was neither changed nor affected by the creation of reality in any way. It is this transcendent aspect of God that we are required to believe in, since direct knowledge of it is presently unattainable.

The two names of God most commonly used in the Torah refer to these two aspects of God. The name Elokim (translated here simply by the word “God”) refers to the immanent Godliness that informs creation, while the name Havayah (translated here by the word “God,” spelled with small capitals) refers to the transcendent Godliness that exists outside the context of creation.

Thus, the Shema is first of all a reminder that “God is our God,” i.e., that as Jews, we possess an innate, inviolable belief that God is not only immanent but also transcendent. But in addition, we are enjoined to know God’s transcendence, not only to believe in it. This is why the verse continues “God is one.”

The adjective “one” can describe:

· one entity among many (“he is one of them”);

· a unity composed of parts (one body made of many limbs and organs); or

· a unique entity (“one and only”).

Although God is certainly “one” in the third sense, as will be explained shortly, when we say “God is one,” we mean “one” in the second sense, for the intent behind these words is that the world and all its constituents, rather than being individual, disparate entities, are in fact part of God.44 This realization flows logically from the awareness of God’s transcendence, for when we say that God transcends the universe, we obviously do not mean that He does so in a physical sense, for God is not corporeal. Rather, we mean that God, even as He is present within and throughout creation, is at the same time beyond it and unaffected by it, not at all subject to the limitations of time and space.45 From this perspective, the creation of the world effected no change in God; He is the same after creation as He was before creation—filling every moment of time and every iota of space. When we look at the world from this perspective, we no longer see trees and tables; we only see God. God is everything.46

The implications of such a worldview are sweeping. If God is everything, then there is no longer any possibility of self-centeredness or even self-awareness. Former personal interests and pressing issues melt away in the face of our all-encompassing Divine consciousness. The importance and significance we normally grant the world and the attention and devotion we normally let it command dissolve into nothingness. We can no longer be fazed by any seeming obstacle that the world purports to pose to the observance of the Torah,47 for—as the converse implication of what we said above—when we look at trees and tables, we see trees and tables, but we know we are really seeing God in the form of trees and tables. We can truly “know God in all our ways,”48 for everything is God.49


Although Moses knew that—at least in the present, pre-messianic order—we cannot sustain such a lofty level of Divine consciousness, he felt that meditating on it would at least inspire us to love God, providing us with all the motivation necessary to live lives of full devotion to God and his law.

The sages, however, understood that this is not enough. They therefore instituted an ancillary statement to accompany our liturgical recital of the Shema: “May the name of the glory of His kingdom be blessed forever and ever.”50 This statement bids us to focus on God’s immanence rather than on His transcendence. Rather than contemplate God Himself, our attention is drawn to His “name,” His “glory,” and His “kingdom,” which signify the traces of God that we can apprehend in our worldly existence. (A person’s name is in no way part of him; the “glory” of his name is further removed from him; the “kingdom of the glory of his name” is even further removed.51) By meditating on how God is manifest throughout creation, we recall how everything’s existence, including our own, is contingent upon His. (Since this awareness is counterintuitive to the superficial view of the world, it is formulated as a prayer that it be forever “blessed,” i.e., retained in our consciousness.52) By meditating on how merely a glimmer of God’s creative energy—the “name of the glory of His kingdom”—is necessary to enliven all creation, we realize how deceptive our cherished sense of self really is.53

The implications of this worldview are less drastic—although equally as universal—as those of the worldview based on God’s transcendence. Here, we are entirely aware of our own existence and feel ourselves to be free agents, separate from God. Nonetheless, our cognizance of the contingent nature of our existence induces and compels us to submit to His will.

The Zohar calls the awareness of God’s unity with creation vis-à-vis His transcendence “the higher [perception of God’s] unity” (יחודא עילאה) and the awareness of God’s unity with creation vis-à-vis His immanence “the lower [perception of God’s] unity” (יחודא תתאה).54 In “the higher unity,” all of creation is united with God by the fact that it is all in fact just a manifestation of God; in the “lower unity,” all constituent parts of creation are united with God by virtue of the dependence of their existence on His existence.

The sages insisted that we contemplate the “lower unity” only after first considering the “higher unity” because, as stated, our perception of the “upper unity” is only akin to that of hearing, and the disadvantage of hearing is that it evokes a much less intense emotional response than does seeing.55 In contrast, since our perception of the “lower unity” is akin to that of sight, we can be much more successful at rousing ourselves to love God by contemplating the “lower unity,” meditating on God’s immanence within creation.

Nonetheless, contemplating the “lower unity” must follow contemplating the “higher unity,” because the contrast in how we perceive these unities serves to arouse us to an ecstatic yearning to experience the “higher unity” with the same intensity with which we can experience the “lower unity”—in other words, to experience the Divine consciousness that will inform the world in the messianic future.56


There is, in fact, a third level of Divine consciousness, beyond both the “lower unity” and the “higher unity.” At this level, not only is the existence of all creation contingent on God’s creation; not only is God all that exists because all creation is part of God; God is all that exists because creation does not exist altogether. This idea would be aptly expressed by calling God “alone” (יחיד) rather than just “one” (אחד). This is the perspective of reality from the point of view of God’s essence, which is beyond any notion of creation altogether.57

It is important to realize that although this third perspective is true, the other two perspectives are also equally, if paradoxically, true. That is, our world as God created it does indeed exist, and the two perspectives that acknowledge this reality are intended to be the goals of our quest for Divine consciousness. It is for this reason that the Torah instructs us to contemplate how God is “one” rather than how He is “alone.”

Furthermore, the perspective that God is one with His creation is in a sense even higher than the perspective that creation is just an illusion, for the latter perspective admits that the plurality of creation is in some way a contradiction to God’s oneness, while the former can be true only if we assert that God transcends the dichotomy of oneness and plurality. Thus, even though the perspective that God is one with His creation is not the perspective of God’s essence, it strikes deeper into God’s essence than does the perspective seen from the vantage point of God’s essence (i.e., that creation is an illusion)! It is for this reason, too, that the Torah bids us to contemplate how God is “one” rather than how He is “alone.”

Nonetheless, this advantage of God’s “oneness” over His “aloneness” becomes apparent only after we become aware of His “aloneness”: in order to sense that God transcends the dichotomy of unity and plurality, we must first sense that such a dichotomy exists, and that there is an advantage of unity over plurality.58 The perspective that God is in fact all that exists is therefore alluded to by the first mention of God’s Name in the Shema. In this context, the Shema can be read: “Hear, O Israel: God, [in the presence of whose essence nothing exists,] [contracts Himself via His Name Elokim in order to become] our ‘God,’ [and then creates the world, but is still the transcendent] God, [who is manifest throughout all creation equally, thus rendering all things] one [i.e., part of Him].”59

Thus, the affirmation of monotheism embodied in the Shema includes, on a deeper level, the belief that all creation is part of God. It follows that neglecting to contemplate and internalize this belief is a subtle form of idolatry; our duty to repudiate idols has expanded to include the duty to repudiate the independent existence of anything apart from God.

This belief was always part and parcel of Judaism;60 it was only the exigencies of history that necessitated its explicit articulation with the advent of the Chasidic movement. We are therefore obligated to integrate this “new” understanding of the Shema into our lives no less than we are obligated to integrate all other latent facets of the Torah that become revealed as history progresses.61

A Closer Look

[4] God is one: According to the sages, this phrase enjoins us to declare God king “above, below, and in all four directions.”62 This idea is in fact embedded in the significance of the letters that spell the word for “one” (אחד): The numerical value of the first letter, alef, is 1, alluding to the one God; the numerical value of the second letter, chet, is 8, alluding to the seven heavens and earth; and the numerical value of the final letter, dalet, is 4, alluding to the four directions of the compass.63 Additionally, the word alef means “leader” or “ruler,” alluding to God, ruler of the world;64 the arch over the scribal form of the chet (ח) alludes to God’s presence in heaven;65 and the numerical value of the dalet alludes to His presence in the four directions of earth.66

Furthermore, the fact that the statement added by the sages expresses the same directive, i.e., to enthrone God over the world but on a lower level of consciousness, is reflected in the fact that the last word of this statement—“and ever” (ועד)—can be seen as a reductive transformation of the last word of the Shema, “one” (אחד): The alef transforms into a vav since they are both vowel-letters (אהו״י); the chet transforms into an ayin since they are both guttural letters (אחה״ע); and the dalet remains a dalet.67

Specifically, the sequence of alef-chet-dalet indicates how God (indicated by the alef) creates the world through the sefirot, the first of which is chochmah (indicated by the chet, its initial letter), as expressed through speech (dibur in Hebrew, indicated by the dalet, its initial letter). The dalet in this case is written larger than usual in order to indicate how, in the world of Atzilut (the realm of consciousness of the “upper unity”), God’s speech is not a diminution of intensity or content vis-à-vis His thought, as is human speech is vis-à-vis human thought, but rather a perfect expression of it.

The sequence of vav-ayin-dalet indicates how God “descends” by becoming vested within a created world (the physical form of the vav—a straight line—indicating “vertical” passage). In this context, the focus of the sefirot is the emotions, indicated by the ayin (whose numerical value is 70, indicating the seven emotions, each comprising ten sub-sefirot). Here, the dalet indicating God’s speech is of regular size, indicating how speech is disconnected from thought, thus producing worlds that are conscious of their own independent existence.68

Inner Dimensions

[4] God is one: The Divine consciousness of the “higher unity” is that which is operative in the world of Atzilut; the Divine consciousness of the “lower unity” is that which is operative in the worlds of Beriah, Yetzirah, and Asiyah. In fact, the words “name,” “glory,” and “kingdom” in the added statement allude to these three worlds, respectively; the words “forever and ever” allude to our physical world.69

The dominant sefirah in the world of Atzilut is chochmah, the radical insight that overwhelms the intellect when it ascends to a new conception of reality. The prerequisite for this new insight is self-abnegation, for a mind that is complacent in its own worldview is not ready to accept a new, revolutionary worldview in its place.

In contrast, the dominant sefirot in Beriah, Yetzirah, and Asiyah are binah (understanding), the midot (emotions), and malchut (expression), respectively. These states of consciousness do not presuppose any self-abnegation; therefore, the Divine consciousness that characterizes these worlds does not contradict any sense of self.

Specifically, the “higher unity” refers to the union between Z’eir Anpin and Nukva of Atzilut, whereas the “lower unity” refers to the union of Nukva of Atzilut with the three worlds below Atzilut into which it descends in order to enliven them.70

1-4 In the land into which you are about to pass…: The implication here is that the commandment to recite the Shema and to believe that God is one applies only in the Land of Israel. This, of course, is not the case: the commandment to recite the Shema applies wherever we may be, and belief in the oneness of God is one of the six constant commandments that apply to all Jews in all places at all times (the others being71 belief in God’s existence,72 not serving idols,73 loving God,74 fearing God,75 and not being lured to sin by what one sees76).

As was mentioned above,77 the lowly and inanimate “land” allegorically refers to the lowest form of connection we have with God: simple, unassuming faith. Faith carries neither the excitement of the emotions nor the mental stimulation of the intellect; it serves rather as the silent bedrock of the rest of our spiritual lives. Nonetheless, it is specifically through faith that we can relate to God in His transcendence, for our intellect and emotions are too limited to grasp this facet of Divinity, whereas faith is unlimited—just as the ground, although bland and relatively nondescript itself, possesses the power to produce and sustain all forms of life.

Nonetheless, as was mentioned above, faith needs to be activated and bolstered by contemplating and meditating deeply on the inner, Divine nature of reality. This, we said, is the message of the Shema. Thus, the juxtaposition of the Shema and the “land” is to be understood to mean that we must constantly recall and strengthen our faith in God’s transcendence until we “know” it as well as we “know” His immanence.

When we answer the challenge of the Shema by bringing God’s transcendence into our Divine consciousness, we make the “land” “flow with milk and honey,” meaning that God’s transcendence becomes so real to us that we both grow from it (just as milk nourishes a growing child) and are filled by it with sublime delight (just as honey tastes sweet).78

5 You will love: If someone loves God, he does not need to be told to do so; if he does not love God, telling him to will not make him do so. Maimonides79 and the Ba’al Shem Tov80 therefore explain this verse to be both the commandment to contemplate the unity of God described in the preceding verse as well as a promise that if we meditate on its meaning deeply enough, we will thereby come to love God.

This commandment was not given to the generation of the desert, because their experience of God was so intense that His unity was self-evident to them.81

With all your heart…soul…means: Having descended the conceptual ladder of God’s oneness in the previous verse (and in the statement added by the sages)—beginning with His essence, continuing with His transcendence, and concluding with His immanence—we are now bidden to re-ascend this ladder, responding to these three levels of Divine consciousness with three corresponding intensities of love for God.

Awareness of God’s immanence throughout creation inspires us to love Him “with all your heart,” redirecting the love we normally feel for earthly things toward God. Instead of pursuing desirable food, clothing, housing, challenges, companionship, stimulation, power, wealth, and so on, we are asked instead to orient our drives for these things toward Divine consciousness. The technique involved is straightforward enough: by contemplating the fact that all aspects of life originate in Divinity, we come to realize that the truest experience of all these things is to be found within a heightened experience of God—and that furthermore, the desire we feel for these things is really just our innate desire for God in disguise. (It is for this reason that the sages instituted the description of the angels’ devotion to God as part of the liturgy directly preceding the recitation of the Shema every morning: by recalling how the angelic archetypes of our animalistic human soul acknowledge their Divine source in Divine ecstasy, our human soul follows suit, ecstatically submitting itself to God, as well.)

Thus the human-animal soul, which initially only understands the material world, learns to love God. The Divine soul, in contrast, needs no prompting to love God, for that is its nature. Its role vis-à-vis this love is to contemplate how God is immanent within creation; the human-animal soul then “overhears” the Divine soul meditating on this fact, and this in turn leads it to even greater love for God. In fact, as it pursues God with all the raw power innate to its animal drives, its passion for God eventually surpasses that exhibited by the Divine soul itself.

Awareness of God’s transcendence inspires us to love Him “with all your soul,” which means “even at the expense of your soul”—to the extent of martyrdom, if necessary. The fact that all creation is part of God—and thus God is all that exists—renders all worldly pursuits trivial, if not ridiculous, leaving only God as the legitimate focus of our love. This love not only makes us willing to give up our lives for God if necessary; it makes us want to abandon the farce of worldly life altogether and become consumed in the blazing fire of God’s presence. This is accomplished most effectively by total immersion in the study of the Torah, in which our mind fuses, so to speak, with the mind of God.

This form of love is purely an experience of the Divine soul. The human-animal soul cannot participate in this kind of love: since this soul is by nature self-oriented, the self-destructive element of love “with all your soul” is entirely foreign to it.

What keeps us from indeed expiring in Divine rapture at this point is our further ascent to the consciousness of God’s essence, which, as noted above, transcends the dichotomy of transcendence and immanence. At this stage of love, we merge absolutely with God and, in complete submission to His will (this form of union surpassing that of the mind-union achieved in the preceding level of love), recall that He wants us alive and functioning in the physical world in order to elevate it and transform it into His home. This is loving God “with all your means.” Primarily, this includes using our money for spiritual ends, chief of which is charity.82

In this context, loving God “with all your means” in fact expresses a higher form of self-abnegation than loving Him “with all your soul.” At both levels of love, we are ready to lay down our lives for God, if need be. The difference is that doing so out of love for God “with all your soul” is a conscious choice between remaining alive but denying God and dying but affirming God, whereas doing so out of love for God “with all your means” is a spontaneous reaction, a compulsion born of our absolute identification with God.83


From another perspective, loving God “with all your heart” means, again, redirecting our worldly loves toward God by contemplating God’s immanence within creation; loving God “with all your soul” refers to the pure love of God that only those who identify completely with their Divine soul can experience; loving God “with all your means” (here interpreted according to the phrase’s more literal meaning, “with all your boundlessness”) refers to the love of God experienced by penitents, whose former estrangement from God propels them to desire Him with an infinitely greater motivation than even someone who has always been righteous can experience.84

To suffer martyrdom: God had promised the Jewish people that He would send the dread of Him before them, making their enemies flee before them,85 and He would soon reiterate that promise, saying that “no one will stand up against you…. God will cast the terror of you and the dread of you upon all the land.”86 There was therefore no need to spur the people to martyrdom on the eve of their entry into the land. It was necessary, however, to provide them with the means to fulfill the Torah’s instructions at all times, even when they might be lured into doing otherwise. Moses therefore urged them to love God to the extent that they would be ready to lay down their lives for God if called upon to do so, and to recall this commitment constantly. Hence, if they would be ready at all times to sacrifice their very lives for God, all the more so would they be ready to overcome any lesser challenge in order not to be severed from Him, even momentarily.

We, too, can call upon this readiness for self-sacrifice to enable us to overcome any challenge to our observance of the Torah’s instructions, whether from within ourselves or from without.87

7 You must learn: The verb for “to learn” used in this verse (שנן) literally means “to repeat”; one learns by repeating and reviewing the material many times. The commandment to teach the Torahis stated only later,88 using the usual verb, “to teach” (למד).89

The sages, however, understand this verse, too, to refer to teaching the Torah to students.90 It follows that they understand the “repeating” in this verse to refer to a methodology of teaching rather than of learning. The fact that the methodology of “repeating” is mentioned in the Torah before plain “teaching” implies that pedagogically, “repeating” should precede the actual teaching!

Hence, the notion that repeating is to precede the original act of teaching lies at the very core of Jewish education. First and foremost, a child should be instructed over and over again regarding the fundamental concepts of belief in God, the recitation of the Shema and blessings and the like, until these become second nature. Only then is he ready for the steady process of intellectual learning described later in Deuteronomy.91

A Closer Look

You will discuss them…when you lie down to sleep at night and when you wake up in the morning: These words are explained in the Oral Torah92 to mean that we are obligated to recite “these words,” i.e., the paragraph in which they appear, twice a day: when we go to sleep at night and when we wake up in the morning. The similar phrase in a parallel paragraph below93 adds that paragraph to this obligation. Finally, the phrase “in order that you remember the day when you went out of Egypt all the days of your life,” found further below,94 adds the paragraph describing the commandment of tzitzit and the Exodus from Egypt95 to this obligation.96 (There are other passages that enjoin us to remember the Exodus from Egypt, but this paragraph was chosen because the commandment of tzitzit serves to remind us of all the Torah’s commandments as well.97)

Thus, the liturgical recitation of the Shema comprises these three paragraphs, which constitute a central focus of the morning and night daily prayers. (In contrast, the Shema is not part of the afternoon prayer).

20 What are the testimonies, rules, and ordinances: The Torah’s “ordinances” are the commandments that mortal intellect would dictate by itself in any case, such as the prohibitions against thievery, murder, and so on. “Testimonies” are the commemorative commandments, such as the holidays, tefilin, and so on, which mortal intellect would not necessarily legislate but which make perfect sense once the Torah commands them. “Rules” refer to the commandments that have no rational basis (even if some lesson can be inferred from them), such as the prohibitions of mixing milk and meat, mixing wool and linen, or the rite of the red cow.

Thus, in terms of the involvement of human intellect in the commandments, the three categories of commandments are here listed neither in ascending nor descending order. Rather, they are listed in the descending order of the aspect of Divinity they express. Since ordinances are fully graspable by human intellect, they reflect the Divine energy that is immanent within creation and grasped by the intellect. Rules, which transcend human intellect, reflect the Divine energy that transcends creation and is therefore beyond our ability to grasp with our intellect. Testimonies, which are neither obligated by the intellect nor beyond the intellect, reflect God’s essence, which transcends even the dichotomy between immanence and transcendence.

Although every commandment in the Torah falls into one of these three categories, each individual commandment also expresses the defining characteristics of all three categories: Every commandment challenges us to understand its message to us—even if that message is that its message is beyond the limits of our intellect—and in that sense is an ordinance. Similarly, every commandment is an expression of God’s inscrutable will, despite the fact that we can grasp some elements of its meaning. Finally, every commandment testifies to the special relationship between God and the Jewish people.98

That God has commanded you: The intelligent child excludes himself from the others who are performing God’s commandments not because he sees himself as apart from them, as does the wicked son, but rather because he considers himself a perpetual beginner. Fulfilling the Torah’s instruction to view the Torah everyday as fresh and new, “as if I spoke them to youtoday,”99 he always seems to himself as not yet having received the new level of the Torah he aspires to each day.

As such, he ponders every day anew the difference between the refinement of the world effected by the forefathers and that which we effect now, after the Torah has been given. The fact—he notes—that the commandments are divided into categories based upon the various aspects of Divinity they express implies that the commandments reveal Divinity in the world. But, he further notes, the forefathers’ relationship with God focused on abstract spiritual activities, such as meditation, prayer, debate, and edification. These activities promoted a palpable increase in Divine consciousness. At the Giving of the Torah, however, the focus switched to the physical performance of the commandments, which may indeed infuse the world with Divinity but do not necessarily entail any open increase in Divine consciousness. Therefore, he asks, why do we concern ourselves at all with the difference between testimonies, rules, and ordinances?

The answer that the Torah tells us to give him is that even though “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt”—even though we may not have even begun the work of refining the world according to the Torah’s instructions, nonetheless, “God took us out of Egypt with a mighty hand”—by giving us the Torah, God has enabled us to do the seemingly paradoxical, seamlessly blending our devotion to executing God’s will as expressed in His commandments with the ascent in Divine consciousness that performing these commandments affords.100

24 To perform all these rules: Whereas above, in verse 20, all three categories of commandments are mentioned, here only the rules (chukim)—those commandments with no rational basis—are mentioned. The implication is that we should perform all the commandments, even those that appeal to human intellectual understanding, as if they were simple rules. Ultimately, we should behave in accordance with God’s will not because doing so seems reasonable to us, but simply because it is God’s will; even when we strive to understand the significance of a commandment and thereby become enthused about it, we do so because this, too, is God’s will. This is the highest, most selfless way of fulfilling God’s commandments.101

Chapter 7

7 You are the least of all the peoples: Among the nations of the world, the Jewish people have almost always been a minority; among the Jewish people themselves, those Jews who have scrupulously fulfilled the commandments have always been a minority; and even the most religious of us succeed in dedicating only a minority of our time to explicitly holy pursuits such as prayer and Torah study. This objective reality may prompt us to wonder how this minority can be expected to hold its own against the majority, and even if it can, what’s the point, since it seems doomed to remain the minority? Furthermore, as time progresses and assimilation and war erode our numbers while the demands of modern life leave us both less and less time for spiritual pursuits and with less and less sensitivity to them, this question becomes increasingly trenchant.

The decisive answer to this question has been discovered only in modern times. As science has learned to unleash the power of the atom, the world has learned that size is not always an indication of power. What matters is knowing how to access the energy latent in the smallness; once that knowledge has been discovered, even the smallest particle of matter can release incredible amounts of force.

The basic process used to release this force is nuclear fission, in which the atom is broken down into smaller components. As Jews, this teaches us that the key to releasing our latent, infinite potential is by breaking our egos, allowing our inner, Divine essence to shine through. The better we master this “spiritual technology,” the less we need be intimidated by being an apparently insignificant minority among the world’s populace, by being the relative few among our people who are seriously devoted to the Torah’s teachings, or by having only limited time and energy to devote to holy endeavors. Within us lies the power to change the entire world for the good!102