Chapter 31

2 Today I am exactly 120 years old: The fact that Moses died on his birthday indicates that the years of his life were all full; even his last year of life was not left unfinished. The sages teach us that this means that Moses lived his life to its fullest, not wasting any time or leaving undone any part of the task with which he was charged. This, they say, is the hallmark of a truly righteous person. According to tradition, the three patriarchs also died on the day or in the month of their respective births.1

It is true, of course, that none of us can compare with Moses or the patriarchs; nonetheless, our people have been blessed with many righteous individuals throughout the course of our history, and only a select few have passed away on their birthdays. Indeed, since righteous people devote their lives entirely to spirituality, to fulfilling their Divine mission, what is so significant about the fact that they complete their years perfectly?

The answer is that while it is true that our lives are meant to be oriented toward Divinity, which transcends the externalities of time and space, we are nonetheless intended to bring this transcendent consciousness into the physical world. From this perspective, it is only natural that a righteous person’s spiritual perfection be mirrored in at least some sort of physical perfection. The fact that at his death, it is revealed that all his years were complete reflects the truth that his life work in general was complete—that his service of God affected every last iota of his life, in both time and space. We have seen the high regard that the Torah accords this fullness in living with regard to Abraham.2

Moreover, the fact that a righteous person’s physical life so perfectly mirrors his spiritual life indicates that he has successfully overcome the dichotomy between the spiritual and the material: there is no artificial bifurcation of life into physical and spiritual realms; it is all one.

The reason this unity of the spiritual and the physical is expressed chiefly with regard to the years of a person’s life is because the year is the unit of time that encompasses the full cycle of change, as primarily evidenced by the annual repetition of the seasons. Indeed, the very word for “year” in Hebrew (שנה) is related to the words for “change” (שינוי) and “repetition” (שנון).

In this context, those righteous individuals whose years were complete, although exceptional[myw1] , serve to express a truth that applies to all righteous people. The fact that most people—even the very righteous—do not die on their birthdays can simply mean that they either finished their tasks early or that they were given extra time after having finished their tasks in order to accomplish some additional purpose. Nonetheless, when righteous individuals do reflect this perfection openly by dying on their birthdays, it indicates that they did embody the ideals mentioned above in a particularly manifest way throughout their lives.

In any case, the lives of these righteous individuals should inspire us to live our own lives to the fullest, the consciousness of our Divine mission permeating every minute and every item in our lives, thereby dissolving the artificial dichotomy of the spiritual and the physical and revealing the innate Divinity underlying all reality.3

11 You must read from this Torah before all Israel: The sabbatical year teaches us three primary lessons:

· God is master over us; this is expressed by His command that we refrain from certain types of work during the sabbatical year.

· God is master over nature; this is expressed by His command that the earth rest during the sabbatical year.

· God is master over our possessions; this is expressed by His command that the produce of the sabbatical year, even if it grows on our property, be ownerless and available to all equally.

The passages that the king reads during the septennial assembly ceremony reflect these specific lessons, which this ceremony is meant to carry from the sabbatical year into our mundane lives:

· The beginning of the Book of Deuteronomy serves as an introduction to the following passages, exhorting the listeners to internalize them properly.

· The first paragraph of the Shema expresses God’s mastery over us, which frees us from the world’s materiality, enabling us to devote ourselves to Him, His Torah, and His commandments.

· The second paragraph of the Shema expresses God’s mastery over nature, which He manipulates in accordance with our behavior (rewarding us with rain in the proper time if we fulfill His commandments, etc.), teaching us that our livelihood depends primarily on His blessing and only secondarily on our own efforts.

· The passages about tithes express God’s mastery over our wealth; as its owner, He commands us to give part of it to the poor.

· The passages containing the blessings and curses express our covenantal bond with God, elevating the previous three notions from the components of a relationship between two entities (us and God) to expressions of our inseparable oneness with God.

· Concluding with the passage about the king (and having these passages read by the king) emphasizes how we must subjugate ourselves and all aspects of our lives to God, for the purpose of the king is to inspire and imbue us, his subjects, with true devotion to God.4

You must read from this Torah before all Israel: We saw above5 that we are all required to appoint a metaphorical “king” over ourselves, i.e., a spiritual counselor responsible for ensuring that we stay firmly on the path of spiritual growth. This king’s primary responsibility is to “read to us”—i.e., inculcate us with—the passages from the Torah that the real king reads to the people at the septennial assembly. The primary lesson is contained in the first paragraph of the Shema, which focuses on accepting “the yoke of the kingdom of heaven,” i.e., submitting to God’s authority. This is followed by the second paragraph of the Shema, which teaches us that material success is dependent upon heeding God’s commands.6

12 Assemble the people: As long as the Temple is not standing, it is not possible to fulfill this commandment as described in the Torah. Of course, we can fulfill it in any number of allegorical ways, some of which are outlined here. In general, fulfilling any of the Torah’s commandments involves our faculties of thought, speech, and deed; when it is not possible to fulfill a commandment in deed, we should still try to fulfill it in thought (e.g. by learning the laws regarding how to observe the commandment, internalizing the lessons inherent in it, etc.) and in speech (by reciting the passages of the Torah describing the commandment, taking care to learn its laws out loud, etc.).

With regard to most of the Torah’s commandments, the physical execution of the commandment has its own value, independent of any intentions associated with it. Although immeasurably enhanced when performed with the associated intentions in mind, it nonetheless stands on its own.

The commandment of the septennial assembly, however, differs from most of the Torah’s other commandments in that the intention behind it is not a mere result or by-product of its performance, but an integral component of its performance. This difference is evident in how the Torah describes at length the intention behind the assembly: “in order that they hear…in order that they learn…in order that they revere…and safeguard, etc.”

Thus, when we fulfill the intention behind this commandment, even nowadays, we are not only fulfilling its thought- and/or speech-dimensions, but at least part of its deed-dimension, as well. In this way, the septennial assembly is similar to prayer: Prayer is also performed in all three dimensions—thought, speech, and action—but its thought-dimension is an integral component of it. Mouthing the words of prayer and going through the motions without paying attention to what we are saying is not true prayer.

Since the objective of the septennial assembly is to strengthen the foundations of Jewish education and observance, and since, as stated, we can indeed fulfill it nowadays (albeit not yet in exactly the same form as described ideally in the Torah), it is vital that we all try to do so to the greatest extent possible. To begin with, we should all endeavor to “assemble” all the divergent facets of our personalities and imbue them with the knowledge and reverence of God.7 Next, we should assemble our families periodically and, in a spirit of family love and camaraderie, strengthen each other in these areas. Finally, we should try to assemble whatever groups of people we can, whether at work, at school, in our synagogues, our extended families, our wider circle of friends, etc., in short, in whatever social context we can, and thus influence as many people as possible to enhance their commitment to the Torah’s values and lifestyle, as based on the love and awe of God.

Fulfilling this commandment to the greatest extent possible will then elicit God’s reciprocal response, and He will enable us to finally fulfill it in its optimal fashion, in the rebuilt Holy Temple, as we listen to the Torah read to us by the reinstated Jewish king, the Messiah.8

Their obligation to learn the Torah for learning’s sake: As we have seen,9 women’s obligation to the study the Torah is largely equal to that of men. First of all, women are required to be conversant in all the laws that apply to them. This requirement encompasses a large part of Jewish law: the laws of daily conduct, life cycle, prayer, conducting business, interpersonal relationships, observing the Sabbath and holidays, kashrut, marital relations, oaths and vows, and so on. (And inasmuch as we expect the Messiah to come imminently, women should also be conversant in the laws that will apply to them when the Temple is rebuilt, such as the laws of ritual purity and sacrifices.) All this is besides the laws surrounding the six constant commandments: to believe in God, not to believe in other deities, to love and fear Him, to understand His oneness, and to avoid temptations. In order to fulfill these latter commandments properly, it is incumbent upon women to be educated in the inner dimension of the Torah, which expounds upon the inner relationship between God and us, both collectively and as individuals.

So, to a great extent, women’s obligation to study the Torah is exactly the same as men’s. The essential difference is that women are not obliged to learn those parts of the Torah that do not directly apply to them, whereas men are required to learn the entire Torah, “for learning’s sake.” Thus, beyond women’s obligation, men are obligated to learn not just the laws that apply only to men (such as the laws of wearing ritual tassels [tzitzit]), but also the laws that do not even apply to them specifically (such as, for laymen, the laws that apply to priests), as well as the Talmudic derivation of all the laws.

(Also, men have an obligation to study the Torah constantly (that is, every moment when they are not required or allowed to do something else), whereas women are not required to do this. Thus, theoretically, if a woman would learn all that she is required to and retain it perfectly, she would not have to spend all her spare time studying the Torah, whereas a man under the same circumstances would.)

However, especially nowadays, since technological advances have afforded both women and men much more free time than was formerly at their disposal, and since it is also common for women to pursue higher education, it is essential that women learn not only the dry laws that apply to them (which, as we said, is already quite a formidable task), but also the philosophical reasons behind the laws and even their Talmudic derivation, in order that they develop their intellectual abilities and talents in a way consonant with the spirit and holiness of the Torah.

Moreover, the woman—both as a housewife, setting the spiritual and moral tone of her home, and as a mother, intimately and continuously involved in raising her children—is the one chiefly responsible for the education of her children. This is particularly true when they are young and at home most or all of the day, but also after they leave the house. In fact, it is more important for the mother to be actively involved in the education of her children that it is for the father, since the mother’s unmatchable empathy, love, and endearment toward her children is essential in inculcating them with enthusiasm for the lifestyle and values of Judaism. Within the context of raising her children as good Jews in general, the Jewish mother is also responsible for raising them to be enthusiastic about studying the Torah. One way she does this is by taking an interest in her children’s studies and reviewing them with them.

It is therefore crucial that she herself be well-educated both in the letter and the spirit of the Torah—even in those parts of the Torah that do not specifically apply to her—in order to educate her children both correctly and effectively. For example, even though women are not required to wear ritual tassels (tzitzit), they should nevertheless know the laws pertaining to wearing them in order to be able to teach their sons how to do so properly and in order to be able to review these laws with her children when they study them.

And finally, the woman also can uniquely enhance the Torah study of the male members of her household. By virtue of her innate, superior, womanly warmth and emotion, she infuses this warmth and emotion to her husband and children when she studies together with them or reviews their studies with them.

It is true that in past generations, women did not typically pursue the study of the Torah as a whole, and particularly not the philosophical or Talmudic underpinnings of the Torah’s laws (although there have been notable exceptions). But now that, as stated, this pursuit on the part of women has become both possible and vital, it may be seen as yet another harbinger of the imminent advent of the messianic era, in which10 “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of God as the sea covers the seabed.”11

17 Is it not because our God is no longer among us that these evils have befallen us?: This verse may be read: “It is because my God is not within me that this evil has found me.” Rabbi DovBer of Lubavitch explained this verse as referring to the Ba’al Shem Tov’s teaching12 that in order to show us our own faults—which we are naturally disposed not to notice, or to rationalize—God shows them to us in other people. Thus,

Because my God is not within me: Because I am not sufficiently spiritually attuned to be sensitive to my own shortcomings—

That this evil has found me: I have been forced to see my own evil reflected in my fellow Jew.

Rather than noticing others’ faults, we should endeavor to notice their virtues; moreover, we should emphasize them, in our own minds, in their minds, and in the minds of all those around us. Just as the sages encourage us to inspire those around us to love God, so should we endeavor to inspire those around us to love every Jew, for, as Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi points out,13 loving our fellow Jew is a means by which we can achieve love of God.14

18 I will hide My face on that day: In Hebrew, the verb “I will hide” is intensified by an emphatic repetition (הסתר אסתיר, literally, “hiding, I will hide,” or idiomatically, “I will hide, yes, hide”). The contextual implication of this form is that God’s hiddenness will be particularly acute.

On a deeper level, however, the Ba’al Shem Tov interpreted this expression to mean that God’s very hiddenness will itself be hidden from us,15 that is, we will be so submersed in our exile that we will have forgotten what it was like not to be in exile; thus, we will not appreciate how utterly deplorable life has become. Having become accustomed to spiritual darkness, we will view it as natural, and consider light and goodness to be abnormal, even unwholesome. In the words of the prophet Isaiah,16 “Woe to those who speak of evil as if it were good, and of good as if it were evil; who consider darkness light and light darkness; the bitter sweet and the sweet bitter.”17 This curse is apparently the worst possible—for when we are at least aware that we are suffering, we can attempt to negate the cause of the suffering and thereby bring our suffering to an end, but when we are not even aware that we are suffering, this hope does not exist.

Nonetheless, since we have pointed out18 that all the curses in the Torah are really blessings too intense to be revealed as such prima facie, it follows that this dire prediction is also a blessing in disguise. In fact, since this is apparently the worst form of curse possible, it follows that it embodies the highest form of blessing possible.

To understand this, let us recall that Divinity, in its relationship to creation, may be divided roughly into three categories: (a) immanent Divinity, which is the life-force felt by all creatures, even if they do not recognize it as coming from God; (b) transcendent Divinity, which is not felt by creation but is nonetheless responsible for the existence of all created reality; and (c) God’s essence, which transcends creation altogether, and whose nature can therefore not be grasped by any created being. As we have seen,19 the nature of God’s essence is so beyond the ken of creation that not only can we not conceive of it, we cannot even conceive what it is that we cannot conceive. It is, in this sense, doubly hidden from us, similar to how, at the other extreme, Divinity can be so hidden in exile that we are not even aware that it is hidden. The fact that God’s double hiddenness stems from His double transcendence is alluded to by the fact that the word for “I” in this verse (anochi), the subject of the double verb of hiding, refers specifically, as we have seen,20 to God’s essence.

As we will soon see,21 we have been assured that the Torah will never be forgotten by the Jewish people. It therefore follows that no matter how severe the exile, even if we have sunk to the point that we mistake darkness for light and light for darkness, we will nevertheless always know that we are doing this, incredulous as it may seem to us at the time. If, based on this knowledge, we realize that what we are experiencing is in fact double darkness, and then further realize that every negative phenomenon in life is just a fallen version of that same phenomenon in its positive form, we will finally realize that the inverse correlate of double darkness is double light, i.e., the notion that God transcends transcendence.

Once this awareness of God’s supra-transcendent essence dawns on us, we will realize that God is beyond everything, even the dichotomy of unlimitedness and limitation, and that He can therefore extricate us from the double bind of having to choose between opposing what appears to be familiar and surrendering to what we know to be darkness. This awareness inspires us to dedicate ourselves fully to God, returning to Him with infinite devotion.22

26 Take this Torah scroll and place it alongside the Tablets of Testimony: Thus, the Ark contained the Torah both engraved in stone and written on parchment. As has been explained,23 the difference between engraved and written letters is that the former are part and parcel of the medium (the stone), whereas the latter are independent of the medium (the parchment) and grafted onto it. Thus, engraved letters allude to our essential connection to the Torah, how “Israel and the Torah are one,” whereas written letters allude to how we preserve our connection to the Torah even during our mundane lives, when the heightened Divine consciousness we experience in Torah study and prayer recedes and we are more conscious of ourselves as independent agents.24

As we have also seen,25 the Ark of the Covenant transcended the limitations of physical space, reflecting God’s infinity. The presence of both the engraved Torah and the inscribed Torah within the Ark alludes to the idea that we must both experience our intrinsic connection with the Torah and be prepared to carry that experience with us into our mundane lives. The consciousness inside the Holy of Holies—that time and space, being creations of God and subject to His will, are really not bound by the limitations of time and space—is meant to disseminate beyond the boundaries of the Holy of Holies, eventually filling the whole world and all its inhabitants with its transcendent Divine consciousness.26