Jewish Living

Beyond the River

By Rabbi Moshe Weinberger

Does having “all the right colors and forms” ensure a spiritual Jewish life? 

In the spring of 1929, at the age of 40 and at the height of his powers, the fiery tzaddik, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira of Piasecna (in Poland) penned the following words:

     What can I take upon myself to learn?  It seems to me that I use my time to the utmost and that I am quite removed from forbidden desires.  What I’m lacking, plainly, is to be a Jew.  I see myself as a person who has all the right colors and forms, who has everything, and is lacking only a soul.  I confess before You, who sees every hidden thing, I plead before You…I am very far from You…I simply want to “convert” and to be a Jew from now on.  Help me not to waste the rest of my years, draw me near and bring me into Your secret, hidden chambers.1

This momentary glimpse into the inner chambers of the tzaddik‘s heart leaves us moved, but puzzled.  What manner of “conversion” or transformation was the Rebbe seeking?  What was the meaning of his plea to be “a Jew from now on”?  If, by his own admission, he had “everything” (spiritually) how could he see himself as lacking a soul?

How contemporary his critical self-analysis seems today.  It seems that in our Orthodox community we too “have all the right colors and forms.”  New Torah institutions are blossoming, and the wonderful fragrance of Torah has reached the masses to an unprecedented degree.  There is increased commitment to halachah and a renewed effort to distinguish ourselves by our education, language and dress.  And yet, during occasional, quiet moments of truth, we wonder:  Where is our soul?  My daughters are far better educated than their matriarchal ancestors.  They understand Tehillim from the perspective of the Radak, Metzudos and the Malbim.  Their grandmother didn’t.  But their grandmother was able to cry over Tehillim, to laugh and sing together with King David.  My daughters cannot (yet).

Why hasn’t our observance of Torah and mitzvos brought the soulfulness of our ancestors into our lives?  Reb Tzaddok HaKohen of Lublin began his work Yisrael Kedoshim with the following words:

     All mitzvos infuse the Jewish heart with holiness, as it is written: “You must perform all My commandments, and you will be holy,” and “You have sanctified us with Your commandments.”  The mitzvos are preceded by the blessing: “…who has sanctified us with His commandments.”  It appears, therefore, that mitzvos are intended as an instrument to attain holiness…They are aids to bring holiness to man from Above.

The mitzvah to be holy (kedoshim tihiyu) has been interpreted as admonishing us to conduct our lives with moderation and restraint by abstaining from immorality and self-indulgence. (See Rashi and Ramban, Vayikra 19:2.)  But one can only wonder if this exhausts the definition of kedushah.  Is this all that Reb Tzaddok was referring to?  Is this all that God meant when He lovingly and proudly characterized us as His “Kingdom of priests, a Holy nation?”  Clearly, Rashi and Ramban intended to convey that in order for holiness itself to flourish, a certain quality is necessary in our environment.

But what, then, is holiness itself?  Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook devoted a large measure of his enormous spiritual and intellectual energy to describing the condition of holiness, yet concluded that holiness itself is indefinable. The fact that something cannot be defined does not mean it cannot be attained.  Paradoxically, although holiness is the ultimate goal of a life of Torah and mitzvos, its precise definition continues to eludes us.

Reb Yaakov of Izhbitza wrote:  Holiness is the opposite of the inconsequential (devarim shel ma b’kach).  The Talmud states that the nations of the world possess fear of the King.  This means that they are always fleeing from His presence, because they are seeking momentary pleasures of this world.  For this reason, they fear Him and the more they can distance themselves from His presence, the more are they able to expand the experience of their illusionary desires which are inconsequential.3

In a godless world, every detail is diminished to the inconsequential.  To consider ultimate meaning would interfere with the pursuit of life’s momentary pleasures.  The solution to this is to remove the larger picture.  And so, man continues to hide behind the details and the pleasures of the moment, while God sits silently in the distance.

…But Israel understands that even in this physical world, nothing that God creates is inconsequential.  And Israel knows that every action and thought can either be a source of good, or the opposite, if it is contrary to His will.  Israel strives to stand in His presence and can only find joy in everlasting good.  This is the root of holiness.4

Attainment of kedushah requires a change of posture.  Instead of looking away from God, I face Him, I seek His presence always, everywhere, and in everything.  Insignificance is nonexistent.  As a child, the Kotzker Rebbe was offered a coin if he could say where God resides.  He rejoined by offering two coins to anyone who could say where He does not reside.  In short, those who face God, find Him everywhere; those who run from Him, find Him nowhere.

     The Haggadah traces the history of the Jewish people.  And Joshua said to all the people, “So says Hashem, the God of Israel: ‘Your fathers had always lived beyond the river…and I took your father Avrohom from beyond the river…'” (Joshua 24:2)

The Zohar teaches that in order to create a meaningful world, God ran a “River” through reality, “separating” His Divine presence from physical existence.  This River is the source of all concealment and confusion.  Our world is referred to as an “alma d’piruda,” a “world of estrangement.” (Zohar 1, 22A).

The “River of separation” runs through every moment and every thing.  Each fragment of physical reality has its spiritual counterpart, separated by the River.  Mankind alone has been granted the power and vision to stand before these “opposing” realities and gaze beyond the River, to the source of all life.  The children of Avraham, Ivrim, “those who have crossed over,” have vivid memories of life beyond the River.

Man tends to turn away and settle into life on this side of the River, thereby creating an all-pervading sense of the triviality of everyday existence.  On the other hand, were he to focus entirely on the world beyond the River, he would be overwhelmed and paralyzed by the breathtaking scope of Divine reality.  This experience would strip Man of his independence and free choice.  His own personal journey beyond the River would prevent him from telling the world about life beyond the River and impede his role as “repairer” of the world.

According to Chazal, Adam and Eve were originally created as one being with an Adam, male side, and an Eve, female side.  On the first Rosh Hashanah, the day of man’s creation, an astounding event took place which is referred to in the kabbalistic tradition as the “nesirah,” the severing.  Rosh Hashanah is called Yom Hanesirah, the “Day of the Severing.”

Rav Gershon Henoch of Radzyn explains that in every human being there exists the feminine, Eve-like desire to receive, to become completely absorbed in God’s presence.  The masculine, Adam-like part of Man urges him to turn away from God, to seek an independent life of his own on this side of reality.

As long as Adam and Eve existed in their original, symbiotic state, Man could easily strike a balance between giving and receiving.  Though we have retained a vague recollection of this primordial balance, the severing of Man on Rosh Hashanah, the “nesirah,” is the source of Man’s confusion as well as his greatness.

Free choice in the post-nesirah era involves recognizing the internal conflict between one’s independent “aloneness” and his residual feeling of dependence.  It means the turning of Adam’s head to search for Eve, his other half.  One must choose to acknowledge his/her own helplessness and sense of alienation and face the reality of one’s own true nature, though it reduces one’s “masculine” confidence.5

Ironically, as long as Adam and Eve were inseparable, they were incapable of real love, they could not see eye to eye.  The painfulness of severance and separation stirred man to yearn for God.

Every Rosh Hashanah, we feel the effects of the nesirah anew.  While continuing to live our seemingly independent lives, on this side of the River, we turn towards God with  a persistent longing for deeper meaning, for the world beyond.  We move through ongoing “inconsequential” moments.  Holiness descends upon us when we lift our eyes to the world beyond; when we remember Eve during our Adam-like experience of  life.  This is the Judgment that takes place on Rosh Hashanah, the  day of the severing.

I believe this is what Reb Tzaddok meant when he wrote that each mitzvah infuses a Jew with holiness, and that  kedushah is the purpose of our lives.   A “mitzvah moment” means taking something of this Adam-like world and turning it to face the Creator.  Davening means ignoring the “rational” voice inside me that tells me that I am the master of my own fate.  Instead, I turn to Heaven, begging for a blessing to continue with the business of life.  Nothing is inconsequential; everything is a gift from the Master of the Universe.6

Perhaps the restlessness of the Piasecna may be traced back to the “day of the severing.”  Was this great man saying that even acts of learning and davening can descend into the realm of the inconsequential if they are performed while one’s back is facing the other side of the River?  Is it possible that in the very act of seeking God, I have been hiding from Him?

Over the years, I have spoken to countless yeshivah and seminary graduates who have emerged from the “holy experience” without the slightest sense of yearning for God.  One particular young man (who is no longer observant) was publicly reprimanded by a rosh yeshivah for commenting: “It seems to me that there’s very little interest in God in our yeshivah.”  He was scolded: “You came here to study Torah.  This is not a baal teshuvah yeshivah!”

Halachic observance should draw holiness into our lives.  So why is it that despite the increased enrollment in yeshivos and more meticulous mitzvah observance, the Gentile world and all that it offers is becoming an increasingly attractive alternative for us and our children?  We have everything.  We are only lacking a soul.

As the walls of the ghettos began to crumble, and the call of the “Enlightenment” reached the shtetl, the Chofetz Chaim’s insistence that young women receive a thorough Torah education was met in many Orthodox circles with scorn and resistance.  Who would now dare contest the Chofetz Chaim’s historic insight?   Unless young women were exposed to the beauty of Torah, how could Judaism compete with the sophisticated culture of Western Europe?  Why should one gaze beyond the River and turn one’s head toward God, if life, art and literature seem so much more appealing?

In a famous passage, the Zohar anticipated this spiritual-intellectual upheaval:

In the 600th year of the 6th millennium (1840 C.E.), the gates of wisdom above, together with the wellsprings of wisdom below, will open, and the world will usher in the 7th millennium…This is hinted at in the verse, “In the 600th year of Noah’s life…all the wellsprings of the great deep burst forth and the floodgates of the heaven was opened.” (Zohar, 1,117a)

We must drink deeply of the supernal waters in order to swim safely in the “wellsprings of wisdom below.”  Rav Kook wrote:

…It is necessary to give full freedom to the spiritual inclination within the soul to develop and expand in all its abilities…Now the times require acquiring the inner Torah7…A generation whose general knowledge has risen and developed, but whose religious thought has not developed, will be in an unfortunate and lowly state.8

I’m not suggesting that the study of Kabbalah be included in the yeshivah curriculum.  I do feel, however, that our souls and those of our children are not being  sufficiently invigorated by the traditional curriculum.  Thousands have groped among the trees only to have missed the panoramic, breathtaking view of the forest.  The typical yeshivah student will emerge from years of intense study sorely lacking in any broader grasp of what Yiddishkeit is all about.  The short musar seder cannot possibly compensate for the lost Kuzaris, Maharals, Ramchals, Sfas Emes, etc. which could have helped establish a rich appreciation for the depth and beauty of Yiddishkeit.  How many students feel comfortable explaining even the most basic issues of Jewish belief?

Although Chazal have taught that one who “wishes to recognize the Creator of the world” should study aggadah, the non-halachic sections of Gemara are frequently studied superficially.  The over-intellectualization of Torah study has filled the batei midrash with enthusiastic students who, for the most part, remain firmly rooted on this side of the River.

Consider for a moment the contemporary Jewish music scene.  This music is, to a large extent, non-Jewish in beat and style, provocative and shallow in form and content.  It is sought mostly to provide entertainment, not holiness.  The marathon Chol Hamoed concerts smack of secular commercialization, much to the delight of cheering crowds.  If kedushah eludes us, it is because we have not used God’s wonderful gifts (Torah, music, etc.) as a means of facing Him, of seeking holiness.

The story is told of a tzaddik who found his son crying.  He told his father that he was playing hide-and-seek with his friends and it was his turn to hide.  “So why are you crying?” asked his father.  “Because I realized I was hiding and my friends never came to look for me.  I was hiding and nobody was seeking.”  The father himself began to cry.  “This is the fate of the Master of the World too.  He hides and we have stopped seeking.”

This is the period of teshuvah.  Perhaps some of us will lift our heads a bit and seek once again that place beyond the River.  Maybe some of us will join together with the martyred Rebbe of Piasecna and pray: “Help us to not waste the rest of our years.  Draw us near to Your secret, hidden chambers…”

Rabbi Weinberger is the Rav of Congregation Aish Kodesh, Woodmere, N.Y.  He teaches at Ezra Academy of Queens and is the author of Jewish Outreach: Halakhic Perspectives, Ktav, 1990.


  1. 1. From the Forward to A Student’s Obligation, Shapira, translated by Micha Odenheimer, Jason Aronson, 1991.
  2. 2. See Introduction to Oros Hakodesh, p.18.
  3. 3. Bais Yaakov, Vayikra, p.197.
  4. 4. ibid.
  5. 5. Ultimately, the Radzyner writes, it will be revealed that the precious point (nekudah hayekara) of femininity, despite its seeming weakness, has in truth been the sustaining force of creation.
  6. 6. Perhaps this is what Rav Kook meant, when in referring to kedushah he spoke of “the spirit of life within all of life” (Oros Hakodesh, Vol.2, p.354) and the “soul within the soul” (ibid. p.349). The Sfas Emes describes this as: “The inner, life-giving point hidden in every single thing.” (Bereshis, p.63).  See also Sfas Emes Devarim, p.31;  Maharal, Tiferes Yisrael, ch.13; Malbim, Bereshis 1:25; Oros Hakodesh 1, p.173, Intro. p.35-36, 2, pp.374, 276, 518, 522; R. Tzaddok, Yisrael Kedoshim 56B, Likutei Mohoran 1:1)
  7. 7. Oros, (Jason Aronson, p.202-205)
  8. 8. Ikvei HaTson, p. 142.
This article was featured in the Fall 1995 issue of Jewish Action.
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