Peshat and Beyond: How the Hasidic Masters Read the Torah

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Batya Hefter

In this article, I have three objectives. First, I will illustrate how the hasidic masters read the narratives in the Torah as the unfolding process of tikkun ha-middot, the refinement of human-divine character traits. Isaac will be a case in point. Second, following a method that I refer to as “peshat and beyond,” I will show how these insights, despite their apparently operating on a level beyond peshat, are in fact supported by a close reading of the text. Finally, I contend that the case of Isaac is relevant not only to biblical parshanut but also to the challenges of our everyday lives.

The hasidic tradition views the Torah as revealing the “inner life of God.” This life is comprised of divine characteristics that have analogous human characteristics: anger, love, jealousy, judgment, perfectionism, compassion, mercy, etc. As these divine traits enter the human realm, they become confused and diminished by human imperfections such as desire, personal agenda, and self-interest, and are therefore in need of tikkun, repair. The narratives in the Torah are understood to be an unfolding of how God’s personality can be known to us. Each patriarch, for example, is perceived as embodying a specific divine trait. The travails of their lives coincide with an inward journey, as each refines his character, following an individual path towards tikkun. In so doing, each reveals the godly aspect of his own particular character. Framed in this way, tikkun ha-middot extends beyond a personal journey of perfection, and becomes symbolic of a divine drama.

Reading the Torah through a Hasidic Lens

According to the hasidic tradition, the core personality trait and religious orientation that personifies Isaac is gevurah, or restraint, which is associated with the emotion of yirah, fear of acting in a way that contravenes the will of God. This fear results in a strict devotion to the law, din.[1] This pairing of gevurah and yirah is powerfully portrayed by the familiar midrashic formulation that the Torah was given “from the mouth of the Gevurah. Read symbolically, this means that law was given by God’s quality of restraint. While the narratives in the Torah show how Isaac managed to refine his attribute of gevurah, we will see how excessive devotion to this trait could have brought about his downfall, instead of his tikkun.

Finally, R. Yaakov Leiner, in his work Beit Yaakov, teaches that “the entire creation of the world is hinted to within the soul of a human being” (Commentary to Genesis, 15), echoing the Talmudic teaching that a human being is a microcosm of the universe.

The assumption of the Hasidic tradition is that the human soul is a reflection of the divine soul, “an actual piece of God” (Tanya 1:2), and God is revealed through the human personality and image.[2]

Seen in this broader context, the significance of tikkun ha-middot is more than the refinement of personal character traits. Successfully achieved, the human being is a vehicle to reveal God’s traits. In this case, Isaac is a vehicle to reveal God’s characteristic of gevurah. With these assumptions laid out, let’s turn to the narrative.

The Case of Isaac

A dreadful tremor shook Isaac to his core. Instead of blessing Esau, his eldest son, he had just unwittingly blessed Jacob, the younger brother. How had this come to be?

The story begins when Isaac, old and with failing vision, summons Esau and asks him to prepare food so that he may bless his firstborn before his dies. Jacob disguises himself as Esau, and deceives his father in order to obtain the blessings. Blind and unsure who stands before him, Isaac enlists his other senses to help him recognize whether it is Esau or Jacob. He attentively inclines his ear to Jacob’s voice and he feels the texture of his skin. “The voice is the voice of Jacob,” he remarks, puzzled, “but the hands are the hands of Esau” (Genesis 27:22). Still uncertain, Isaac inquiries, “Are you really my son Esau” (27:24)? Jacob responds, “I am” (27:24). Isaac asks to be kissed. As his son draws near, he breathes in the smell of his clothes. The fragrance, “like the smell of the fields that the Lord has blessed” (27:27), fills his senses; he is intoxicated, transported. In this elevated state, lyrical phrases of dew, wheat, wine, strength, and leadership flow freely from Isaac’s lips to the son who stands before him. The words of blessing subside, and Jacob takes leave. Just as he exits, Esau, the intended son, enters and demands his blessing. Isaac then begins to grasp his terrible mistake:

Isaac was seized with very violent trembling. “Who was it then,” he demanded, “that hunted game and brought it to me? Moreover, I ate of it before you came, and I blessed him.” (27:33)

Isaac is bewildered and shaken, as the gravity of the incident sinks in. And then, suddenly, a complete reversal occurs. He affirms his action and, unexpectedly yet unequivocally, declares: “Now he must remain blessed!” (27:33)

How are we to understand the fact that Isaac is deeply grieved by Jacob’s deception, yet reaffirms his blessing in almost the same breath? What accounts for Isaac’s abrupt reversal from shock and inner turmoil to benign acceptance? I suggest an answer based primarily on the teachings of R. Mordekhai Yosef of Izbica in his Mei ha-Shiloah, and his son, R. Yaakov Leiner, in his Beit Yaakov. These works offer a unique lens through which to read our biblical narrative. Although written over 150 years ago, their approach resonates strongly with the modern student of Bible and contemporary religious seeker.

The Patriarchs as Archetypes of Middot

In Be-Sod ha-Yahid Ve-hayahad, (pg. 199), R. Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik writes:

The character traits of God descend to the lower world and become cloaked in the personalities of the great figures of Israel, the sages of our tradition. From within the crevices of their souls, a wondrous light shines, splintering into an abundance of colors. They become the dwelling place for the divine presence, their very personalities emanate beauty from above and spread a ray of something divine… the great man is sanctified, so that he become a (holy) vessel which can actualize the potential of this holiness… he becomes its symbol and its banner.[3]

The Rav is reiterating the traditional kabbalistic idea that God’s middot descend to our world and become known to us through the souls of great Jewish figures. The Rebbe of Slonim suggests similarly that the world of tikkun begins with the patriarchs Abraham and Isaac, who represent two foundational personality traits, which are also divine traits.[4]

Abraham, following this approach, symbolizes universal, unconditional love, the divine attribute known as hesed. Abraham has an expansive and inclusive nature; he desires to give to all. This trait is evident as he welcomes strangers and argues on behalf of the wicked people of Sodom. The primary flaw of his boundless hesed is that he gives indiscriminately, without regard to whether the receiver is worthy or interested in receiving. In order for his efforts to be sustaining, Abraham must learn to be more discerning in his giving. The hasidic masters thus understand the events in Abraham’s life as a series of separations intended to counteract the boundless giving and inclusiveness of Abraham’s character: he separates from his birthplace, parents, siblings, and nephew Lot, from his allies via circumcision, which permanently marks him as different, and from his beloved son, Isaac, at the akeidah. With each separation, Abraham refines and consolidates his expansive hesed until he is able to focus it on the deserving few.

The Middah of Isaac

Isaac, on the other hand, as noted, is characterized by yirah and gevurah, which are expressed by stubborn adherence to law. If we follow the arc of Isaac’s life, we see that in many ways, he can be contrasted with Abraham. His father is portrayed as a man of vision and action who leaves behind all that is familiar to him, and boldly ventures out on a new and uncertain life. He is an influential and charismatic leader who forges alliances, whether with Ephron the Hittite, Malki-Tzedek, or the King of Sodom. His expansive nature attracts people to him. Isaac is of a decidedly different nature.

He appears to be less of a man of vision and initiative. Isaac does not do the unexpected. He avoids all uncharted territory, and is very intentional. Ironically, this means that Isaac consciously follows the proven path of his father before him. Digging wells in the biblical narrative often symbolizes forging new territory; Abraham, not surprisingly, was a digger of new wells. But, unlike his father, Isaac redigs and reopens the very same wells, giving them the names his father had already given. Abraham forges new territory; Isaac consolidates. Abraham takes chances; Isaac seeks certainty.[5]

The Sages bring another example that portrays Isaac’s actions as more conservative and cautious than his father’s. According to the midrash (Genesis Rabbah 39:16), Abraham inspired many converts to share his love of God and newly discovered truth. However, when he died, deprived of his compelling presence, these people reverted to their previous habits (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 29). R. Tzadok ha-Kohen of Lublin teaches that Isaac, in contradistinction to his father, would not even consider taking a questionable candidate under his wing.[6] Abraham opened his arms to the world, but that love was not sustainable. Isaac was discerning. He focused his energy on a deserving few, and the result of his restrained effort was enduring (Peri Tzadik, Lekh Lekha 9).

Understanding Isaac

We cannot escape the circumstances of our birth, or many of our core experiences. Without our bidding, they shape our personalities and provide the lenses through which we see and interact with the world. R. Yaakov Leiner teaches that our personal circumstances are the windows through which we perceive God, each of us according to our specific inclinations (Beit Yaakov, Genesis 41).

The circumstances surrounding Isaac’s birth are striking. When God tells Abraham in his old age that he will have a child, Sarah laughs in disbelief: “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment, with my husband so old?” (Gen. 18:12) The rabbinic imagination further inflates this biological impossibility by claiming that not only did Sarah no longer menstruate, but she actually had no womb. One could say, as does R. Mordekhai Yosef, that in some sense it was really God who gave birth to Isaac.[7]

The picture that emerges from Izbica-Radzyn is that Isaac, having experienced the akeidah, perceives his life as a gift from God. He takes nothing for granted. Having been bound on the altar and had his life teeter on the edge of a knife, Isaac owes his life to God, who withdrew his father’s hand. He has known the terror of not-being. Isaac lives conscious of the transcendent space where not-being becomes being. He knows God as the one who traverses that space to give life. Having experienced total dependence on God, it is natural for Isaac to defer to God. His religious life is to be devoted to fulfill God’s command with certainty. Living in this state, his existence is testimony to God’s command. Thus, Isaac seeks to know that each gesture of his life is aligned with God’s command. Constantly in conscious awareness of “The Other,” the law-giving God who resides outside of himself, Isaac is naturally self-abnegating. He personifies devotion to the law.

With this reading of the akeidah as the defining experience of Isaac’s life, we can understand R. Mordekhai Yosef’s inclination to interpret Isaac’s determination to bless Esau, his eldest son.

Though Jacob may have been the more deserving son, Isaac is committed to blessing Esau because he is the firstborn. Placing aside the promptings of intuition, divested of all self-interest, Isaac submits himself before the law in a non-discriminate way. “Let the law pierce the mountain” (Sanhedrin 6b). Come what may, God has determined that Esau is the first born, and Isaac, for his part, must fulfill the law and bless Esau.

But despite Isaac’s intentions, Jacob enters the tent, deceives his father, and carries off the blessing that was meant for Esau. Esau’s presence reveals Isaac’s failure to execute the law. His initial response is utter shock; he “was seized with very violent trembling. Who was it then,” he demands, “that hunted game and brought it to me? Moreover, I ate of it before you came, and I blessed him; now he must remain blessed!” (27:33)

Based on what we presented above about the characteristic of Isaac, I would suggest that the following occurred in the space between Isaac’s violent trembling and his acquiescence to confirm the blessing. As the words of blessing flowed through his mouth, an altered state of being took hold of Isaac. His hesitations and doubts about whom he was blessing abated as he became a free-flowing, unobstructed conduit of God’s words to bless the one before him. When however, Esau entered to demand his due, he was abruptly forced out of his altered state of mind and, in a flash, Isaac’s conscious mind was restored. He was seized with a great trembling.

What rests at the depths of Isaac’s violent trembling? Isaac has failed to faithfully carry out the law of blessing his eldest son. And since devotion to the law is the only path he knows to be true, his whole way of being in the world stands challenged. In that moment, he must overcome the temptation to hold fast to his known path and transcend the urge to deny what he experienced. This was in fact one of Jacob’s fears when he undertook to act out his mother’s plan: “I shall… bring upon myself a curse and not a blessing” (27:12).

The illumination that occurs at this pivotal moment in Isaac’s life, then, is a transformative moment leading to a tikkun in his middah of gevurah, adherence to din. What allows him to relinquish control and entertain a way of seeing otherwise?

R. Leiner has an instructive teaching which outlines the requirements for tikkun ha-middot: “There is no middah that has any intrinsic value of its own other than what the Holy One Blessed be He has apportioned” (Beit Yaakov, Vayehi 6). Middot are only limited pieces of the whole divine “personality.” As such, clinging rigidly to only one middah is a distortion, since it disregards the larger picture. Flexibility is the key to tikkun.

The Hebrew translation of the word middah means not only characteristic, but also measure, or portion. As such, it refracts and reflects into this world a measure: a portion of God’s infinite light, but not all of it. Life is fluid, and so are God’s ways of running the world. When God’s infinite light shifts course and expresses His will via another middah, one must be attuned to the shifting tides and be able to make a change.

Reading this biblical story through this hasidic lens, the crucial question becomes: can Isaac realize the dynamic nature of God in the world? Can he recognize the limitations of his own path?

A central pillar in Izbica-Radzyn thought is that while God is the infinite source of life, there are two different paths to access that source. There is the Halakhah, and there is the will of God, and these two paths are not equivalent.[8] The path to this source which God imparted to Isaac is symbolized by rigid adherence to the Halakhah. Restrained and focused, this path embodies constancy and certainty; one devotes himself consciously to doing the right thing. However, we know that our intellects and conscious minds are limited.

The alternative path demands constant and vigilant attunement to the will of God. Access to this much more elusive route requires one to be continually receptive to the flow and vicissitudes of God’s will. Even though one knew the law yesterday, one must nevertheless constantly look towards God, being attentive in seeking to determine “which way the law may shift today” (Mei ha-Shiloah, Vayeshev, s.v. Va-yeishev Yaakov). Attuned to the living and dynamic nature of God, this is considered the superior path of enlightenment.

With this understanding in hand, we return to ask what happened in the inner hollows of Isaac’s world to allow this shift to occur? How he was able to transcend the law, align himself with God’s will, and bless Jacob?

The Limitations of Law

Consciously, Isaac would not be able to make this paradigmatic shift. But there are other ways in which God communicates. In the words of R. Mordekhai Yosef of Izbica, in this story, “God guided him beyond his conscious awareness.”

Isaac comes to realize that this blessing, given by bypassing his consciousness, was in fact an act in the service of God. Through his intuitive faculty, ex-post facto Isaac understood that God had been acting through him. While he had never before relied on intuition as a trustworthy source of knowledge, he was brought to the realization that there is another path. The trembling settles as Isaac’s experience moves to his conscious mind. Isaac knows that God spoke through him and intended for Jacob to receive the blessing. And so, when Isaac utters the words “he must remain blessed,” he shifts from faithfulness to the law to faithfulness to God.[9] This is the transformation of Isaac’s middah.

Isaac’s Blindness

The physical detail which opens our narrative, “And Isaac was old, his eyes were too dim to see” (27:1) is viewed by R. Leiner as the key that opens the door to Isaac’s transformation.

Normally we associate sight with clarity and blindness with ignorance. R. Leiner turns this around. Paradoxically, Isaac only perceives the truth in his blindness. Sight, in this reading, is associated with ego-consciousness and intellectual efforts. It is connected with human activity and impact, which only estimate the truth and, in this case, miss the truth.

Being blind and cut off from the clarity of the intellect actually allows the person to access a deeper truth. In his words, “the essence of truth and certainty occurs when one relinquishes his control and turns his face towards God; only then can one be receptive of abundance that has no limit” (Beit Yaakov, Toldot, 37). When we are blind to the outside world, we can turn our interior eye towards God.

The extraordinary shift that Isaac was able to make, which led to his tikkun, was to put a limit on his restraining nature. Paradoxically, he had to restrain his natural tendency for control and law in order to be receptive to the divine message. In short, he restrains his restraint.

Making it Personal

According to this reading, Abraham is every person and Isaac is every person, and in this way the Torah is eternal. In other words, the eternal value and meaning of the Torah is that the personalities in the Torah resonate within the soul of each of us.

How, then, can this narrative be read on a personal level? We may find within ourselves these very God-given qualities of restraint, self-control, and fear that we find in the personality of Isaac, or perhaps, the expansiveness, love, and indiscriminate compassion of Abraham. Most likely, if we look deeply, we find these tendencies to be manifest in different degrees at different times.

To be on the path of tikkun ha-middot is a lifelong investment of watchful self-reflection and thoughtful receptivity. It is to live in a state in which one is conscious and attuned, to have his antennae up and be ready to acknowledge when God has removed his “light” from one middah and now shines His light through another middah. It requires great flexibility and not a small amount of faith to relinquish control of our predispositions.

Stubbornly, too often we hold fast to what we know and follow the most familiar path. Correct as that approach may be at times, it is nevertheless a middah, literally, only a measurement of truth. At times, according to these hasidic masters, what is needed is a shift, requiring a different mode of action or middah. On this approach, if, when it is no longer God’s directive, one does not have the flexibility to adjust but clings to one’s familiar middah, then one is worshipping one’s self and not God.

Of course, no one has a direct line to God and, more often than not, we are not at all sure when to change course. However, that does not mean that we are absolved from doing our best to refine ourselves. Through trial and error, we make progress. According to these masters, if our efforts are sincere, we are gifted with a higher level of attunement, and the process continues.

It is my hope that inspired by Isaac, when we are called upon to recognize the flaws and limitations of our own middot, we will have the faith and inner resolve to turn our gaze inward. Upon reflection, may we be receptive to change so that we too “shall surely be blessed.”

[1] Peri Tzadik Lekh Lekha; Mei ha-Shiloah, Vayehi,  s.v. sikel et yadav; Beit Yaakov, Toldot, 3.

[2] On the verse ‘Through my flesh I shall perceive God” (Job 19:26), Shelah ha-Kadosh says that “the reality of God becomes known and revealed through the human personality and image.” .

[3] My translation.

[4] Netivot Shalom, Taharat ha-Middot, 1:4.

[5] Beit Yaakov, Toldot, 3.

[6] Much like Shammai (Shabbat 31a) and Rabban Gamliel (Berakhot 28a).

[7] Mei ha-Shiloah, Vayera, s.v. Va-tehahesh Sarah. Beit Yaakov, Toldot 3.

[8] This is considered one of the antinomian aspects of Izbica. This one-sided impression, however, is often misunderstood as supporting or leading to antinomianism. For discussion of this point see Wisdom of the Heart, Ora Wiskind-Elper, pg. XX, and unpublished MA thesis, Herzl Hefter, Reality and Illusion: A Study in the Religious Phenomenology of R. Mordekhai Yosef of Izbitz, pgs. 7-8.

[9] Importantly, Isaac does not initiate extra-legal behavior; rather, he recognizes it ex-post facto. As pointed out in the previous footnote, R. Mordekhai Yosef and R. Yaakov Leiner are well aware that this approach of the superiority of the will of God may yield antinomian behavior. See Mei ha-Shiloah, Vayeshev, s.v. Vayeishev Yaakov.

Batya Hefter is the founder of Lev Nachon – Center for Transformative Torah, whose focus is to transmit the teachings of Hasidic masters into a vital ethical and spiritual path for the modern seeking Jew. She is the founding Rosh Beit Midrash of The Women’s Beit Midrash of Efrat and Gush Etzion where she served as spiritual leader and executive director for two decades. She holds a master’s degree in Rabbinic Thought from Hebrew University. Batya just completed the manuscript of her first forthcoming book; Opening the Window:Hasidic Readings for Life – The Teachings of Rabbi Ya’akov Leiner of Ishbitz-Radzyn.