Language, Prayer, Compassion, Interpretation

Happy Chanuka! What follows are some words of Torah that I offered on Saturday night in honor of the 25th anniversary of the passing of my friend and teacher Allen Afterman, one of the greatest human beings I have had the honor and pleasure to know. Not sure how clear it came out, but its the 8th night of Chanuka, so Yalla, here it is:


I want to translate and comment on an amazing “Torah” of the Maggid of Mezerich and Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, but first, some intro:


One of the strangest, most profound sections of the Torah is to be found in Exodus Chapter 33 and 34. Moshe is on his way down from the mountain, when he discovers that the People of Israel, in his absence and because of his absence, have created an idol, a Golden Calf, and are worshiping it, in an orgy of celebration and dance. What follows is a kind of labyrinthine narrative that twists between Moshe’s negotiations with God on behalf of Israel (one of Moshe’s greatest lines is found here: reacting to God’s offer to wipe out Israel and start a new nation from him, Moshe says: “If you do this, erase me from the Book which You have written”), and Moshe’s acts of retribution against the sinners. And in the midst of all this, as if suspended in a time that is no-time, are the most personal, mystical encounters between God and Moshe that we are privy to have recorded in the Bible.

At the end of Chapter 33 during this mysterious dialogue between Moshe and God, Moshe asks God: “Show me Your ways, that I may know You.” There is so much to ponder and interpret in the ins and outs of the next few passages, but at one point Moshe repeats his request 'Show me, I pray Thee, Thy glory” And God answers: (33:19) “And He said: 'I will make all My goodness pass before thee, and will proclaim the name of the LORD before thee...”


Notice who it is that says “I will proclaim the name of the Lord before thee”--None other than God Himself. This is quite clearly the simple meaning of the Torah, and this startling idea is repeated again and then enacted—God calls out to God-- a few passages later in Chapter 34, right after the hewing and writing of the second tablets, replacing those which Moshe had broken: “4And he hewed two tables of stone like unto the first; and Moses rose up early in the morning, and went up unto mount Sinai, as the LORD had commanded him, and took in his hand two tables of stone.5And the LORD descended in the cloud, and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. 6 And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed: 'The LORD, the LORD, God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth; 7 keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin; and that will clear but not always clear the guilty;

The prayer that begins “The Lord, the Lord, God, merciful and gracious”, is known as the prayer of the 13 qualities of compassion—in Hebrew 13 midot harachamim.

In the transmission of this most important of prayers, at the core of the Jewish prayer tradition, we find God calling out to God. An early midrash, in the Sifra underlines the radical significance of this event: “If it was not written explicitly in the Torah, it would not be possible to utter this—it teaches us that God wrapped Himself in a prayer shawl like a prayer leader and showed Moshe the order of prayer. He said: Whenever Israel sins, do according to this order before Me and they will be forgiven.”


The midrash acknowledges and emphasizes the strange fact that our initiation into prayer through this most primordial of outcries is through God praying to God. To me this suggests that in fact all prayer is God calling out to God—that the faith, longing, hope and connection that compose prayer are an expression the divine within us, the living core of life that is a flame from God Himself.


Now that I have got that off my chest, lets turn to Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, a beloved figure from the third generation of the Hasidic movement, and a disciple of Rabbi Dov Baer of Mezeritch, the Maggid, who was in turn a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov.

In order to enter Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s Torah, we must introduce one more concept, that of the 13 methods (midot, as in the 13 qualities (midot) of compassion) through which the Torah is interpreted. In the same early midrash, the sifra, that we quoted above, Rabbi Ishmael lists the 13 rules through which the Torah can legitimately be interpreted in order to arrive at Halacha, Jewish law. In the interest of brevity, I won’t go into the logic of these interpretive rules. But the second one, called a “gezerah shaveh” which might be translated as “comparison through similar words” comes into play when the same word is used in two different passages. In certain circumstances, that is to say when there is an oral tradition backing up the invocation of the “gezera shaveh” the meaning or context of the word in one passage can be used to unlock and interpret the other passage.

Now we are ready for Rabbi Levi Yitzchak. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak comments on the verse we talked about above“And the Lord passed by before him and proclaimed”, as follows: …..My teacher, Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezerich, said that the 13 midot (methods) through which the Torah can be interpreted are one with these 13 midot (of compassion)...and the quality “merciful” (rachum) is equivalent to the method of comparison through similar words (gezera shaveh). For the general principle is that when the wealthy person has compassion on the poor, he must identify with and cleave to the suffering and the pressure experienced by the poor person in order to have compassion on him by equating his self with that of the poor person—this is the compassion of the wealthy person on the poor, and then we find that the rich person and the poor person are equal. And so it is too with the Creator, may He be blessed, as it is said (in Psalms, 91:15) “I am with him in his suffering, and that is the connection between the quality of compassion and the interpretive methodology of gezerah shaveh equating two words from different contexts (in order to transmit meaning and aid interpretation).


This project of equating the 13 qualities of compassion with the 13 interpretive rules very suggestive. To me it means, first of all, that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak is saying that all true insight into the Torah must of necessity be done through the interpretive lens of compassion. It seems to me that this is not only an ethical statement, but an ontological one, a statement about the nature of language. The Torah, as the Jewish tradition sees it, is language in its purest and most potent form, oozing with meaning that can be mined through the interpretive methodology of the 13 midot. Language is the miraculous medium through which sentient beings can express their inner experience and thoughts to others. The very act of using language implies that these others are similar, that they too possess inwardness and consciousness that is somehow equivalent to one’s own. Thus a kind of empathy or identification is an underlying foundation and premise of language itself. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak implies this by saying that the equivalence of words is “one” with the act of equalization that compassion entails. Its not enough for a rich person to feel pity on the poor, he must become equal to the poor person, at least in his consciousness, an equality borne out of complete identity. This identity is the same thing that makes language possible.

And ultimately, returning to the 13 qualities of Compassion, this kind of identity can only be rooted and supported in something that transcends individuals and is the foundation of all existence.