Where We Start and How We Continue: Tsidkat HaTsadik #1-2

The first chapter of Tsidkat Hatsadik, by Rav Tsadok Hakohen of Lublin, discusses passages from the first chapter of the talmudic tractate Berakhot from a Hasidic perspective. The first two paragraphs of the book, however, diverge from this commentary-esque character, with the first discussing the Pesaḥ sacrifice and the second discussing Berakhot only in the most abstract sense.

The two paragraphs meditate on the same issues: where do we start and how do we continue (serving God and studying Torah/making blessings, respectively), touching on fundamental issues regarding the respective roles of God and man in the service of God and in life more generally. Below are the passages and their translations, followed by an exploration of the ideas contained therein.

א.

ראשית כניסת האדם לעבודת ה’ צריך להיות בחפזון כמו שמצינו בפסח מצרים שהיה נאכל בחפזון ולא פסח דורות.

מפני שההתחלה לנתק עצמו מכל תאות עולם הזה שהוא מקושר בהם צריך לשמור הרגע שמתעורר בו רצון ה’ ולחפוז על אותו רגע למהר לצאת מהם אולי יוכל.

ואחר כך שוב ילך במתינות ולאט כדין פסח דורות:

 

1.

When a person first enters into the service of God they must be urgent (literally, “in a hurry”), like we find by the Pesaḥ sacrifice in Egypt which was eaten in a hurry, as opposed to the Pesaḥ sacrifice of continuing generations.

Since the first step is to detach himself from all the worldly desires that bind him, he must preserve the moment when God’s will awoke within him, and he must act urgently in that moment to quickly leave them, if he can.

Then, afterward, he can proceed more moderately and slowly, as with the Pesaḥ sacrifice of the generations.

ב.

(משלי י, ו): “ברכות לראש צדיק”. לכך מסכת ברכות ההתחלה מש”ס שעיקר הכל (דה”א כח, ט): “דע את אלהי אביך” ואחר כך “עבדהו” שצריך לידע למי עובד.

וזהו הברכה לפני כל מעשה ליחד כל מעשיו לה’ כמו שנאמר (משלי ג, ו): “בכל דרכיך דעהו” כמו שכתב הרמב”ם.

וזהו על ידי הברכה וכמו שאמרו (ברכות מח, א) השיעור בה קטן שיודע למי מברכין. מה שאין כן בשאר מצוות אין השיעור שידע למי מניחין תפילין וכיוצא. מבואר שהברכה עיקרה הידיעה למי מברכין שעל כך נוסדה:

וזהו התחלת הכניסה לתורה כמו שנאמר (תהלים קיא, י): “ראשית חכמה יראת ה'”. ויראת שמים הוא על ידי (תהלים טז, ח): “שויתי ה’ לנגדי תמיד” כמו שכתב בהג”ה דריש אורח חיים.

והיינו ברכות שכולן מתחילין בלשון נוכח שמיד בהתחלת הברכה צריך להיות השם יתברך נוכח עיניו כאילו עומד עליו ומצוהו. והסיום לשון נסתר דמיד נעלם כמו שנאמר (דברים לב, יא): “על גוזליו ירחף” נוגע ואינו נוגע כידוע:

 

2.

“Blessings upon the head of a righteous man” (Proverbs 10:6). This is why the Talmud begins with Tractate Blessings (Berakhot), for it is the essence of everything: “Know the god of your father” (Chronicles I 28:9), and afterwards, “serve him,” for you have to know for whom you are serving.

This is why a person says a blessing before each ritual act, to dedicate all of his actions to God, as the verse says,  “In all your ways, know him” (Proverbs 3:6), as Maimonides wrote.

This is accomplished by making the blessing, as the rabbis said the requirement [in terms of necessary age for making a blessing] is a child who knows to whom he is blessing (Bavli, Berakhot, 48a), as opposed to the rest of the mitsvot which have no requirement of knowing to whom one is making the blessing, such as phylacteries or the like. It is clear that the essence of a blessing is the knowledge of to whom the blessing is being made, and blessings were instituted for this purpose.

This is the beginning of entering into Torah, as the verse says, “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of God” (Psalms 111:10). Fear of God is achieved through “I have placed God before me always” (Psalms 16:8), as Rabbi Moses Isserles wrote in a comment at the beginning of Oraḥ Ḥayyim.

This explains why all blessings begin with direct, second-person, address (lashon nokhaḥ), because right at the beginning of the blessing God must be present (nokhaḥ) before a person’s eyes, as if God is standing in front of and commanding him. The conclusion is in third-person, because God immediately disappears, as the verse says, “Over his nestlings he hovers” (Deuteronomy 32:11), making contact and then moving away, as is known.

 

Where We Start

Both of these pieces assert that we do not start from zero. Torah study and the service of God do not happen in a vacuum. Paragraph #1 says that serving God starts with “being urgent” about the moment when the divine will awoke within you. Service of God starts after that moment, when you dedicate yourself to it and thus disconnect yourself from worldly desires. That moment of awakening is the starting point, the “given” fact that is necessary for the service of God. Paragraph #2 sees the necessary given as some form of knowledge of God, something that children are too young to properly grasp, and involving a sense of God’s presence “as if God is standing in front of and commanding” you. Rav Tsadok argues that this knowledge is necessary in order to dedicate all of your actions to God. However, he does not give any guidance for how to achieve this knowledge, beyond the silent implication that children will grow into it, instead focusing on how you move from this knowledge into blessings and Torah study.

The idea that we do not start from zero or exist in a vacuum is, I think, an important one. It goes the very nature of what it means to be a person. We do not choose where and when to be born and grow up, who raises us or in what type of society; we only get to decide what to do with these facts. Rav Tsadok is applying this same structure to the service of God and blessings. We do not choose if or when we experience an awakening, we make ourselves know God, so what matters is what we do once we experience this awakening, once we have this knowledge.

This puts Rav Tsadok in the tradition of Rabbi Yehuda Halevi’s “Kuzari,” which opens with the king of the Khazars receiving a revelatory dream, not discovering a philosophical truth. This is in contrast to Maimonides, who provides methods for coming to know God’s existence. Franz Rosenzweig, perhaps the Kuzari’s greatest disciple in the modern era, opens his “Star of Redemption” with an attack on modern philosophy for attempting to start from zero, to get outside the immediate situation of the thinking individual, with much of the rest of the book being dedicated to working out a new way of thinking that starts from the given facts of real life.

The idea that we do not start from zero is important for a variety of perspectives. There is a pious humility in recognizing that we are not our own creators, particularly if one takes Rav Tsadok’s approach of seeing inner experiences as deriving from God (for example, see Tsidkat HaTsadik #40 & #43). It also allows us to relax at times when we do not possess this starting point, rather than feeling frustrated about our inability to generate it ex nihilo (see more on this below). Perhaps most importantly, from an ethical perspective at least, it ought to affect how we see others. If the service of God requires a given starting point, rather than being something universally accessible via normal human tools like logic, then people who have not been “given” this starting point cannot get started, and therefore should be neither faulted nor judged for failing to do so. Too often we, as a society, consider people culpable for inner states (belief, love, etc.) over which they do not really have power, and it’s something that we should try to avoid.

How We Continue

Once Rav Tsadok has asserted that our starting point is not under our own control, he shifts the focus to what is under our control: how we relate to that starting point. Service of God is not just about having an experience of God, it is about what we do when we are not actively having that experience. Rav Tsadok’s argument is simple: when you are not having an unmediated experience, an awakening of the will or knowledge, you must be loyal to the experience that you already had.

Rav Tsadok describes this most powerfully, at the end of paragraph #2, by analogy to the grammar of the formal blessing:

This explains why all blessings begin with direct, second-person, address (lashon nokhaḥ), because right at the beginning of the blessing God must be present (nokhaḥ) before a person’s eyes, as if God is standing in front of and commanding him. The conclusion is in third-person, because God immediately disappears, as the verse says, “Over his nestlings he hovers” (Deuteronomy 32:11), making contact and then moving away, as is known.

The necessary starting point for a blessing, which is emblematic of the larger project of dedicating all of your actions to God, is the ability to address God in the second-person, to say “you” to God. Rav Tsadok compares the immediacy of this experience to speaking to a person face to face, and says that the formal liturgy of the blessing expresses this in the word, “Blessed are you…” The continuation of the formal liturgy, “…YHWH, our god, king of the universe, who sanctified us with his commandments…” speaks of God in the third-person, as if God were not present, a fact emphasized by the Hebrew term for third-person, “nistar”, which literally means “hidden.” You must therefore have had this direct experience of God’s presence in order to be capable of loyalty to that experience when God is hidden.

Rav Tsadok plays this out on the historical scale in the first paragraph, comparing the first Pesaḥ sacrifice with that of every generation after it.

When a person first enters into the service of God they must be urgent (literally, “in a hurry”), like we find by the Pesaḥ sacrifice in Egypt which was eaten in a hurry, as opposed to the Pesaḥ sacrifice of continuing generations. […] Then, afterward, he can proceed more moderately and slowly, as with the Pesaḥ sacrifice of the generations.

There was an urgency to the first Pesaḥ sacrifice, slaughtered and consumed in the throes of the exodus from Egypt, that cannot be replicated in the Pesaḥ sacrifices offered by the generations that followed, from the wilderness until now. What we can do, and, in a sense, exactly what we are doing, is be loyal to that initial experience of national redemption by God.

This historical picture brings us back to Rosenzweig, who spends much of the third section of “The Star of Redemption” delineating the historical roles and natures of Judaism and Christianity. One of the differences he elaborates is the role of revelation in the life of the Christian versus the life of the Jew. He argues that while a Christian’s religious life centers around the possibility of experiencing divine revelation, a Jew carries divine revelation with him in her blood and bones, and therefore has no need to experience it in her actual life. Being Jewish, for Rosenzweig, is not about responding to divine revelation but about fully living out the revelation and redemptive eternity that are bound up in Jewishness (this is his position in “The Star of Redemption;” he may take a slightly different position in “The Builders,” an essay that is part of his correspondence with Martin Buber about observing the commandments). This comparison to Rosenzweig also helps highlight the difference: Rosenzweig sees divine revelation as irrelevant to the light of the individual Jew, while Rav Tsadok makes some sort of divine knowledge/experience the starting point of serving God.

I think it is hard to understate the importance of Rav Tsadok’s second idea here. Most of live our lives experience God as existing in the third-person, at best. God’s hiddenness is a fact of our existence that is, if we are lucky, broken by occasional events where the boundaries between immanence and transcendence become meaningless and the incorporeal God is present before our very eyes. Those moments are few and far between, for those who have them, as are moments of real drive and desire to serve God such as Rav Tsadok mentions in the first paragraph. Thinking of our service of God as intended to generate these sort of moments or experiences seems to me to be a recipe for frustration and disappointment. Instead, Rav Tsadok asserts that service of God is what happens after these moments, in their dull absence. It is then, when we do not experience God, that we must be loyal to the times when we did.

 

[This post was based on and inspired by lectures by Yishai Mevorach, a student of Rav Shagar’s and an editor of his writings, and an interesting thinker in his own right. An English interview with Prof. Alan Brill about Mevorach’s new book, “A Theology of Absence” can be found here, and Mevorach’s Hebrew lectures on a variety of topics can be found on his youtube channel here. For a piece from Rav Shagar discussing the importance of loyalty in divine revelation, see here.]
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