KABBALAH means receiving. It means taking in the spiritual energy coming down. It means doing nothing active.
This week’s Torah portion presents the purest opposite: creating something from nothing. Via a neder (“vow”), a person can actually create a piece of Torah. A neder is doing something active to the highest degree. Here, we must expel “vow,” the best available translation of neder — but not good enough.
To unfold all this, we turn to the Torah commentary of Shlomo Carlebach.
The revolutionary of Jewish music, Carlebach is lesser known as a scholar. In fact, he was a master interpreter of the Torah, albeit in his unscholarly idiom. Another singer, Shlomo Katz, has begun to publish Carlebach’s Torah commentary, with two volumes out on Genesis (Urim).
This is what Carlebach has to say in his own inimitable way about kabbalah, receiving.
“LET me ask you friends, what is Shabbos all about? . . . I want you to open your hearts.
“There are two kinds of holiness. There’s a holiness which I can add onto. Each time I do something good I add to it, and G-d forbid, if I do something wrong I make it a little bit less.
“And then there’s a holiness which is inside of me. Everybody has it, but by some it’s shining, by some it’s buried. That kind of holiness is indestructible, it is really so holy, which is the most G-d-given gift. Nobody can touch it, it cannot be destroyed, which is like Shabbos. . . .
“What’s happening only on Shabbos? On Shabbos we don’t have to do anything. So what are we doing? On Shabbos we’re picking up, we’re just picking up the whole energy which is coming down. You don’t have to do anything. You don’t have to add by doing something. Your thing is not to do, your thing is just to receive.
“How do we begin Shabbos? Kabbalas Shabbos, ‘the receiving of Shabbos’; to receive Shabbos. So you know what it is? I want you to know something very, very deep.
“You know friends, a lot of people are ready to do everything good, but very few people have this depth to receive something.
“Have you ever given someone a gift? They say, ‘Thank you very much’ and they put it on the table. Some bother opening it very fast, ‘Ah, thank you very much [sarcastically],’ and some people really know how to receive a gift. Very few people, very, very few people. I have no right to test people, but let’s say you walk up to someone and say, ‘you look so beautiful.’ They say, “ahh, you say that to everybody.’ Why can’t you receive a compliment? If I say, ‘Wow, you look so sweet,’ say thank you; receive it. Receive a compliment. Receiving is a very high thing. This has nothing to do with stupid pride.
“Now open your hearts.
“We find the word ‘to receive’ in three places.
“Kabbalas Shabbos, to receive Shabbos. To receive that holiness that you can’t add to, but you have to receive. You’re not creating it and you can’t destroy it. You cannot destroy it, but the question is, is it clear to you that unless you receive it, it’s not shining inside of you?
“Then there is such a thing as Kabbalas P’nei haShechinah, to receive G-d’s presence. G-d is here all the time. You cannot write him out and you cannot write him in. The question is, are you receiving G-d’s presence?
“The third time we find ‘receiving’ is receiving guests. The deepest depths is that I don’t receive the guest based on this person’s accomplishments in the world.
“Who knows, maybe this shlepper we will invite . . . maybe on the level of doing, maybe he never did anything good in his whole life. Maybe he’s doing everything wrong, a shlepper is usually doing everything wrong, on the level of doing. So on what level do I receive a guest? On that level that he has this holiness which he can’t destroy. . . . ”
SO much for receiving.
What about doing?
And doing on the highest level, creating, and creating on its highest level, via the neder?
There are two types of neder. Our Torah portion deals with the first type. This is when I declare a certain object forbidden to me. It is well known that the Torah forbids certain things: produce grown on the land of Israel tilled during the seventh, sabbatical year, for example; or meat from a pig. The taking of a neder (“vow”) enables me to create a piece of Torah, to make something prohibited to myself exactly the same way the Torah prohibits pork.
I might prohibit to myself a certain food — food with high cholesterol or with high carbs or high salt, for example — or produce from a certain country, for a certain period of time. For me, the consumption of that food is no different from the consumption of pork.
This level of creation is truly the purest type of creative activity.
It, like G-d’s creation of the world, is the creation of something from nothing. The Torah does not prohibit ice cream with high cholesterol or tomato sauce with high salt — many people eat these foods with no negative consequence. But if I wish to prohibit them to myself under a neder, I have created a piece of Torah out of nothing.
This week’s Torah portion presents this incredibly powerful capacity with which G-d has endowed man: creating something from nothing.
And so, we have two diametrically opposed spiritual capacities: receiving (kabbalah) and doing.
In practice, however, it can be difficult to disentangle one from the other, beyond obvious cases such as Kabbalat Shabbos, the receiving of Shabbos, and the taking of a neder. Consider the following incident in the life of the late pietist of Jerusalem, late Reb Aryeh Levin (d. 1969).
IT was midnight.
It was Shabbos.
A howling rainstorm was raging outside.
Suddenly there’s a knock on Reb Aryeh’s door.
Somebody’s outside, saying, “I have an urgent matter to discuss!”
Reb Aryeh climbs out of bed, answers the door and welcomes in a stranger — drenched, head to toe.
Reb Aryeh offers him a cup of hot tea.
“How can I help you?”
The man unburdens himself.
“My wife, unfortunately, is mentally ill. We live in Katamon [a very long walk from Reb’s Aryeh’s apartment]. This evening she just ‘went crazy’ but absolutely refuses to enter the proper asylum for treatment — unless you give your approval. That’s why I have come to you — to ask your opinion. Should I commit her or not?
“Return home,” answered Reb Aryeh. “Tell your wife that I command her to enter the asylum immediately, and that I bless her that she get well soon.”
“You have rescued me!” said the stranger. “I will do as you say.”
He left and disappeared into the dark night.
The next morning, after the Shabbos prayers, one of Reb Aryeh’s grandchildren visited him. Reb Aryeh told him the whole story, then added:
“Why did that man, whom I don’t even know, need to trouble himself to walk from Katamon to my house to ask a question whose answer is self-evident — especially in that kind of weather? Simple logic says that he could have left his house, waited a moment, came back in and told his wife that he asked me and I told him she had to go to the asylum.
“That, however, would have been a falsehood. He would have violated the commandment of the Torah, ‘keep your distance from falsehood’ (Exodus 23:7).
“I learned something from this Jew in his pain, namely, that even in the worst of times a person should try not to utter a lie. This man was a great person, deserving of admiration. He took a long trek in that kind of weather just to avoid telling a lie. He fulfilled keep your distance from falsehood with all his heart and all his might.”
Who was the doer, here?
Who was the receiver?
On the surface, Reb Aryeh was the doer and the stranger was the receiver. He asked for guidance and he received it. On a deeper level, Reb Aryeh was a receiver. His sensitivity allowed him to take his understanding of a dictum in Ethics of the Fathers, “learn from every person,” to a new level.
As doers, we can become receivers.
As receivers, we may well give to others, whether we realize it or not.
Copyright © 2014 by the Intermountain Jewish News