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Eretz Harim U’vkaos


The wording of the verse (Deuteronomy 11:11), “[The Promised Land is] a land of mountains and valleys; from the rain of heaven [she] drinks water” affords us a glimpse at the symbolism of the earth’s topography, as well as insight into the reciprocal nature of our relationship with G-d.

Two grammatical points must be made by way of preface:

First, the Hebrew word used in the above verse for “from the rain” is lim’tar. This actually means “to the rain,” or “for the rain,” not “from the rain,” which would be mim’tar. As the verse can only be understood sensibly with the meaning “from the rain,” the question may be asked, what is the Torah hinting to us by using an expression that literally means “for the rain”?

Second, the Hebrew for “[she (i.e., the land)] drinks water” is tishteh, which, by the rules of Hebrew grammar, is technically in the future tense, and can be understood as either the second-person masculine (“you shall drink”) or the third-person feminine (“she [or ‘it’] shall drink”). Furthermore, the Hebrew second-person future (“you shall drink”) is also used to indicate that type of future that expresses a wish, as in, “you should drink,” or “may you drink.” Thus, the word tishteh is susceptible to two meanings: it can be understood, consistent with the plain meaning of the verse, as referring to the land of Israel (which is considered feminine), or it could be interpreted as a blessing directed at the Jewish people: “you should drink water from the rain of heaven.”

The combination of the above grammatical points imparts an alternate, yet completely literal and correct, meaning to the verse: “for the rain of heaven, you should drink water.” What is the message of this alternate reading?

The answer lies in the principle of ratzoh v’shov, “running and returning,” which in our context refers to the reciprocal relationship we have with G-d: when we reach out to G-d (the “running forth” to Him), He responds by coming closer to us (the “return”).

To appreciate how this plays out, lets us consider the difference between g’dulah, or “greatness,” and chesed, “kindness.” The two are closely related, for “greatness” refers to that aspect of the benefactor that motivates him or her to do “kindness” towards another. However, greatness per se is an attribute of the benefactor – prior to the point of expression in acts of kindness. At the point of kindness, there is, paradoxically, an aspect of humility involved – the opposite of greatness. This is because kindness means giving to another, and the question is, will the person give selflessly, altruistically – without regard for his or her own interests; or will they give only superficially, just enough to be considered “giving,” but not enough to really detract from what they have? True chesed is altruistic kindness, without thought of self. For this reason, what originates as an element of substance, power, wealth – i.e., g’dulah or “greatness” – is actually expressed as something involving selflessness and negation of ego: chesed, which in its pure form requires the utter humility and selflessness that allows one to give one’s all.

This “switch” or changeover from one aspect to its opposite is compared to a signet stamp, in that such a stamp is made so that what protrudes from its surface is impressed into the wax or whatever it is stamping, leaving a corresponding indentation. In this case, it is as though the attribute of g’dulah is the protrusion that is mirrored in the indentation of chesed.

Now, consistent with the above, our patriarch Abraham (who, as explained elsewhere, epitomized the attribute of kindness), exhibited also the utmost humility and negation of ego, as it is written of him (Genesis 18:27), “I am but dust and ashes.” This quality is comparable to water, which has the nature of always flowing to the lowest point, for chesed involves both viewing oneself as “low” or selfless, and also generously giving forth to benefit those even lower, in greater need.

There is also an element of “fire” to chesed: the attribute of kindness is considered the source of the emotion of love. The love of a Jewish person for G-d is a fiery love which leaps and strains upward in its striving for closeness to G-d as a flame leaps free of its wick, as it is written (Song of Songs 8:6), “its coals [i.e., of the Jew’s love for G-d] are coals of fire.” The soul simply yearns to break free of its earthy mooring and be reabsorbed into G-d’s oneness, even though this would involve foregoing its existence as a seemingly independent entity.

We therefore see here the opposite dynamic: The “metamorphosis” of g’dulah into chesed (a quality characterized by “substantiality” and “existence” – as in the “greatness” of G-d – ending up being expressed as “selflessness” and “non-existence” – the humility of one who emulates Him and does kindness) discussed above begins from above (with G-d) and is expressed below, like water flowing downward. By contrast, the Jew’s burning love for G-d and resulting desire to lose oneself completely in Him, though also involving the “switch” from “something” to “nothingness,” is initiated down below, with our love, and is directed upwards to G-d, like a flame leaping heavenward.

This, too, is like a seal whose substance (the protrusion) is expressed in lack of substance (the impression or indentation). However, one may say that the first “seal” was positioned with the protrusion above and the impression below, while the second “seal” has the protrusion below and the impression above.

Every detail of the universe expresses G-dliness and spiritual concepts. The above ideas are likewise embodied in physical things. The fiery love for G-d, the reaching and striving towards the heights of heaven, is symbolized by mountains, which rise heavenward. They are the protrusions of the earth, whose impressions are left above. (Abraham was, in fact, referred to as a “mountain”; see P’sachim 88a.) On the other hand, valleys represent that quality of lowliness and humility, making oneself as naught, which is the hallmark of true chesed; they are the indentation left by the imprint of the protrusion from above.

That is the inner meaning of the verse “It is a land of mountains and valleys.” The term “land” (eretz) is used in mystical literature to describe k’nesses Yisroel, the collective community of Jewish souls. The verse is thus telling us that the Jewish people (“eretz”) is comprised of both elements: mountains – the fiery love for G-d likened to the seal whose protrusion is from below – and valleys – the selflessness and humility likened to a seal whose indentation is below.

And the reason the plural – mountains and valleys – is used in this context is because there are several degrees of “mountain,” or love for G-d (love with joyful performance of mitzvos, love tinged with bitterness at one’s distance from G-d, etc.), and several degrees of fear of G-d and nullifying oneself before Him (explained elsewhere as yirah tatah, lower-order fear, and yirah ilah, higher-order fear, etc.).

Now, as noted above, G-d responds in kind to our efforts to relate to Him. Using the metaphor of the signet, our approaching G-d with love – like a seal protruding from below – elicits a response on the order of the corresponding impression above, while our approaching G-d with fear – like the seal whose impression is below – elicits a response comparable to the protrusion above. And in fact, the Divine response to our “indentation” – that is, when we approach G-d with humility and selfless kindness towards others – is greater than the response we merit by approaching G-d with love. This is because our worship with love is follows the “model” of our being “something” and G-d being “nothing,” like the protrusion from below that elicits a response characterized by “indentation” or lack of substance above; while if we start with humility – our own “nothingness” – we get a response from the level of G-d’s “substantiality,” i.e., the revelation of the Or Ein Sof – G-d’s infinite light – unrestrained by any concealing elements.

This, then, is the deeper meaning hinted at by the wording, “for the rain of heaven, you should drink water.” The expression m’tar hashamayim, the “rain of heaven,” is a reference to the great and substantial Divine response that can only be elicited by our worship, comparable to water that flows always to the lowest point, with humility and self-nullification. “For the rain of heaven,” that is, in order to bring about this type of heavenly response, “you should drink water,” in other words, your approach should be with humility and bitul (selflessness).

This is like a person who provides drink to another, in the hope that that person will then respond by offering the giver a drink. And it is possible to understand the sacrificial libations of the holiday of Succos along the same lines:

All throughout the year, the sacrifices offered in the holy temple were accompanied by the pouring of wine upon the altar. On the holiday of Succos, though, water was poured. The pouring of wine mystically represented the joy flowing from a revelation of G-d’s attribute of bina (“understanding”) which joy is associated, as explained above, with love of G-d – the protrusion from below. On the other hand, pouring water on the altar represented G-d’s attribute of chochmah (“wisdom”), which, as explained elsewhere, is characterized by utter bitul, selflessness. It therefore corresponds to the approach in which the indentation, or lack of self, is below. This order of worship on the Succos holiday results, on the immediately following holiday of Sh’mini Atzeres, in the true absorption and internalization of the revelation of the Or Ein Sof in the souls of the Jews – which is the mystical symbolism inherent in the recitation of the phrase morid ha-geshem (“He makes the rain fall”) beginning on Sh’mini Atzeres. That is, the rain falling symbolizes the great revelation brought about through the water-libation: “for the rain of heaven, you should drink water.”

This principle – that our relationship with G-d may be compared to a signet that switches the character of the letters or symbols from protruding to indented or vice versa – may also be used to understand the verse (Micah 7:18), “Who is a G-d like You, Who pardons sin … for the remnant of His heritage?” The sages of the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 17a-b) interpret the phrase lish’eiris nachalaso, “for the remnant of His heritage,” as implying “for one who makes himself as excess (shirayim),” i.e., one who views him- or herself as utterly insignificant, as though one is merely excess or superfluous.

The meaning of this teaching is based on the fact that with respect to G-d Himself – G-d as the blessed Ein Sof, or “Infinite One” – the concept of “kindness” is inapplicable: G-d’s true infinity precludes the existence of anything else at all, and there is therefore nothing to be “kind” to. However, to the extent that, as explained above, g’dulah, “greatness” per se, is an attribute of the benefactor – prior to the point of expression in acts of kindness – we can still say that G-d the Infinite One is (infinitely) “great,” as we are told (Psalms 145:3), “His greatness is unsearchable.”

What is more, kindness as we know it – that is, once we are no longer speaking in terms of G-d’s exclusive existence as Ein Sof, and we allow for the creation of the universe (at least, from our perspective as mortals unable to perceive the truth of G-d as Ein Sof) – certainly comes from G-d, and thus, in a certain theoretical way at least, may be mentioned as “present” among G-d’s attributes. This is in accordance with the verses (Proverbs 16:15), “In the light of the King’s countenance is life,” and (Psalms 145:8), “[G-d is] slow to anger and of great kindness.” The Hebrew phrase “slow to anger” (erech apayim) is more literally translated “of long countenance,” an expression the profound mystical significance of which is beyond the scope of this adaptation. The meaning in our context, however, is that even within that lofty level of G-dliness termed “long, or great, countenance” we may identify a form of Divine kindness termed “great kindness.”

But all this is utterly inapplicable to created entities; it is all a function of G-d’s greatness, which implies “existence” and being “something.” For created beings, whose true nature is that of utter non-existence next to G-d, this is all irrelevant. (That is why the verse says (I Chronicles 29:11), “Yours [exclusively], O G-d, is the greatness, etc.”)

Yet, we do find such a thing as “kindness” in the created world, below. How did that come about? The answer is that, like the signet that changes the character of the symbols from something to nothingness, from protruding to indented, kindness is expressed in the lower world not as a function of “something,” but, as explained above, as a function of selflessness and altruism. That is why Abraham, the paradigm of chesed, kindness, in this world, said of himself “I am but dust and ashes,” and why Jacob likewise stated (Genesis 32:11), “I have become small from all the kindnesses.”

In sum, this switch from G-d’s attribute of “great kindness” to the worldly kindness we experience is elicited by our “making ourselves as excess,” by our acting with true humility and bitul. That is what acts as the “indented seal” from below that brings about the great revelation of G-dliness from above.

(The above explains why, in early Kabbalistic texts, G-d’s attribute of chesed is not called by that name, but rather is referred to as g’dulah, following the listing of attributes in the above-quoted verse, “Yours, O G-d, is the greatness (g’dulah), and the might (g’vurah), and the beauty (tiferes), etc.” It begins to be called chesed only with the work Eitz Chayim. This is because G-d’s “own” attribute (as it were) is, in fact, more properly called g’dulah, but the later works such as Eitz Chayim are speaking of the spiritual level of chesed as found within the “small countenance” (z’eir anpin, or “z.a.”) of the realm of Atzilus – a point at which the “switch” has already taken place: the keilim, or “vessels,” of z.a. are batul, as nothing, to G-d and one can therefore speak of chesed, which is characterized by bitul. By contrast, on the higher spiritual level of “great countenance,” (arich anpin) the attribute can only be referred to in terms of “great kindness,” since it is indeed an aspect of G-d’s infinite existence.)

Now, the concept of kindness is, seemingly, found also among those who are not humble and selfless. However, this is not true chesed. Rather, it is flawed, in that it is motivated by the opposite of altruism: the desire to enhance one’s “self,” the desire for glory and honor, like one who gives charity to build his or her reputation. Spiritually, this expression of kindness did not descend from G-d’s g’dulah, but from the “breaking of the vessels” of the “realm of chaos,” olam ha-tohu. It is thus also “broken,” and cannot lead to manifestation of G-d’s greatness upon us. By contrast, when we Jews shun this approach (associated with Abraham’s son, Ishmael) and instead practice kindness with true humility and selflessness (in the manner of our forefather Abraham), then, like the seal indented from below that reflects the substance and protrusion above, we actually draw upon ourselves G-d’s “own” attribute, that of g’dulah itself.

Lo Tov Heyos HaAdam Levado
Mayim Rabim Lo Yuchlu L'Chabos
B'Etzem HaYom Hazeh Nimol Avrohom
Erda Na
Chayei Sara
V'Avraham Zakein Ba Bayamim
Vayachp'ru Avdei Yitzchok
Vayashkeim Lavan Baboker
Vayeavek Ish Imo
VeHinei Anachnu M'Almim Alumim
Ner Chanukah Mitzvah L'Hanicha
Vayigash Eilav Yehudah
Chachlili Einayim Miyayin