Biblical Roots in the Torah Portion of Va'era
Some skeptics ask: Where in the Torah – in
the written Torah that is – is there reference made to the
spiritual, the mystical?
A very devout Rabbi once actually criticized
me for using the word ‘spiritual’ in my talks and writings.
“Spiritual,” he suggested “is a foreign concept to Judaism.”
“Why are you allowing Torah teachings to be contaminated by
new age ideas, by this… by thissss, spiritual thing?!” he
stammered, barely able to utter the word ‘spiritual’ from
his mouth, as if it were an anathema.
Others have suggested that too many teachers
today have gotten caught up in ‘psychobabble,’ and are replacing
time tested classical Torah thoughts for modern day fads,
or at least adding them into our vocabulary, instead of relying
on the language that has always been used by Rabbis and scholars.
It reminds me of an interesting question I was
once asked at the end of one of my classes. A young man, clearly
a yeshiva educated fellow, was disturbed by that fact that
I was teaching “Kabbalah” as he put it, to people who were
under forty years old. “Isn’t there a clear prohibition not
to study Kabbalah until you reach the age of forty?” he contended.
I replied by asking him if he says Modeh
Ani with his young children. [Modeh Ani is a morning
prayer recited right upon awakening. In it you acknowledge
G-d for returning your soul to you after a night’s sleep.
In the original: Modeh ani lefonecho Melech chai v’kayam
she’hechozarto bi neshmosi, b’chemlah rabbo emunosecho].
“Of course,” he said, of course I teach my children this prayer.”
I continued: “And what do you tell your child when s/he asks
you what is “nishmosi” (my soul), where did my soul
go to during sleep, and what does it mean that my soul is
now being returned to me – how do you explain this to your
I was hoping that he wouldn’t tell me that his
children don’t ask these questions. Because children do
ask these questions, and if they don’t there’s a problem.
Anyone thinking about these words has to ask what does a soul
mean? Where does it go, and how does it return.
“Do you tell your child,” I asked, “that you
will have to wait till you’re forty years old before I can
explain to you the meaning of a soul (neshomo)?…”
“And then what do you tell your child when they
say the next prayer, “Elokei neshomo she’nosatoh bi tehoreh
hi, atoh boroso, atoh yotzarto, atoh nofachto bi, v’atoh meshamoro
b’kirbi” (My G-d, the soul which you have given within
me is pure, You have created it, You have formed it, You have
breathed it into me, and you preserve it within me.” What
are these levels of “tehoreh,” “boroso,” “yotzarto,”
“nofachto”? Does anyone suggest that we are not to
understand the meaning of our prayers until we become 40 years
old?! And “tell me, my friend, if we don’t understand what
we pray for 40 years, will we be able, or even be interested,
to understand their meaning when we hit 40?!
I explain to him and to the class, that the
prohibition of learning Kabbalah (even if it applies today
– which requires a discussion of its own) certainly doesn’t
apply to explaining the meaning of a soul to our children
The basic foundation of the entire Torah is
that G-d created the universe (the first verse in Genesis)
and gave the human race laws by which to live. Torah is based
on the fact that we have a relationship with G-d and we are
required to cultivate this relationship; to ‘know G-d,’ to
‘love G-d’ and to stand in ‘awe of G-d’ – are all mitzvahs
in the Torah, obligations that every man, woman and child
are required to fulfill (not at age… 40, but) from the time
of bar/bat mitzvah, and education of this relationship begins
from the youngest age, from birth and even earlier.
No, spirituality is not a foreign concept to
Judaism; it is the essence of the entire Torah: To establish
a relationship between the mundane and the Divine. To bridge
heaven and earth – the material and the spiritual – through
infusing our physical lives with G-dly energy. ‘Ruchnius’
is the word in Hebrew for spirituality; the entire Torah and
mitzvot was given to bring peace to the world – peace between
matter and spirit, to achieve dominance of spirit over matter
(‘hagborot ha’tzurah al ha’chomer,’ ‘nafsho ikker,
v’gufo tofel’ – see Tanya chapter 32).
There are two dimensions in this process, corresponding
to the two dimensions in Torah: The ‘body’ of Torah – Talmud,
halacha (law) – teaches us the Divine mechanics about
how to live our lives, the ‘whats’ and the ‘whens.’ The ‘soul’
of Torah – the esoteric and mystical – teaches us the inner
spirit of all the mitzvahs. Like a body and a soul both are
necessary, the fusion of both creates one complete unit.
We have been trained and taught not to teach
Kabbalah per se, but to teach the basics of Judaism, the abc’s
that have always been known by Torah scholars and leaders:
to teach about the soul and it’s connection to G-d. To teach
that Torah is not only a body of laws, a conglomerate of tradition
and history, a document of inspiration. Torah is a rich spiritual
text that addresses the real issues of life. Torah is instruction
(form the word ‘horaah’), a guiding light that illuminates
the paths of life, addressing all our challenges – our pain
and joy, our childhood and growth, our homes and wealth, life
and death and everything in between, over and under.
Judaism is not just a culture and a religion;
it is a comprehensive blueprint – and yes, a spiritual blueprint
– for life.
This is why the Torah is still with us today.
Not because of it being yet another constitution of law, but
because it carries the eternity of the Divine, and yes, the
spiritual and sublime, that transcends the vicissitudes of
time and space. Timeless, yet always profoundly relevant and
All my classes and writings are produced with
this spirit in mind. I always hope and pray that I succeed
in being faithful to the source material and maintain the
integrity of the original while attempting to apply it to
Indeed, this is one of the biggest challenges
facing us today: How to experience Torah as relevant to our
lives. How to apply Torah teachings in a way that resonates
and is indispensable to us.
But after all, after so many discussions on
the psycho-spiritual applications of Torah thought, where
is there reference in the Torah to these mystical and psychological
One of the prominent places is in this week’s
Torah portion (Va'eira). The parsha opens with G-d’s words
“I am G-d (Y-H-V-H). I revealed
Myself to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob, by the name of El
Sha-dai, but by My name, Y-H-V-H, I did not make Myself known
What is the difference between ‘El Sha-dai’
and ‘Y-H-V-H’? And isn’t the name Y-H-V-H also mentioned earlier
when G-d appears to the Patriarchs?
These different levels of Divine revelation
are obviously mystical and spiritual by definition, and can
only be properly understood in that context.
Even Rashi, the classical Torah commentator,
who explains the verse according to pshat (the literal
interpretation), comments here, that G-d is saying to Moses:
“I did not reveal My quintessential truth,” represented by
the divine name Y-H-V-H, to the Patriarchs.
What we have here are clearly different spiritual
expressions of the Divine. G-d’s quintessential truth expressed
in Y-H-V-H in contrast to the name El Sha-dai which represents
a more limited manifestation of G-d’s expression.
The great Torah scholar and Kabbalist, Rabbi
Menachem Emnuel Ezariah of Pano (1548-1620) and the Shaloh
(1565-1630) explain that the Torah essentially “speaks about
that which is above [the spiritual] and alludes to that which
is below [the physical].” In other words, Torah is a spiritual
document that ‘speaks in human language.” This does not mean
that the verse is not to be taken literally (we have the axiom
that ‘ayn mikra yotsei m’idei pehsuto’), but that the
root and source of the literal is in the sublime. Or as Nachmanides
(the Ramban) writes: “The entire Torah are names of
Therefore it should be no surprise that there
are many direct references in Torah to the spiritual, beginning
with the first description of the human being, created in
the “image of G-d.” Unique to this week’s Torah portion is
the fact that we catch a direct glimpse of the Divine names,
the different manifestations of G-dly energy, which is generally
concealed in other parts of Torah (though all of Torah are
‘names of G-d’).
Today more than ever we are in desperate need
of the psycho-spiritual application of Torah in order to demonstrate
its personal relevance. Religious commitment is meant to be
experienced not by rote, but with renewed vitality each day.
This is possible only if we allow our souls to experience
tradition with a deep spirituality, and not be just trapped
in the mechanical ritual of our bodies.
And this spirituality is not just the domain
of the spiritual seeker. Each of us has the obligation to
infuse our rituals with life, passion and vivacity.
May we all live up to the Maggid of Mezeritch’s
interpretation of “v’chai bohem,” ‘and you shall live
by them [by the mitzvot]’ – you shall make the mitzvot come