A Grain of Sand

"I will multiply you as the stars in heaven and as the sand upon the shore." - Genesis 22:17

"I can see the master's hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand." - Dylan, Every Grain of Sand (on Shot of Love)

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Torah Portion: Kedoshim - Nothing's Shocking

Does slavish observance of Jewish ritual seem meaningless and low to you? You're in good company - the company of one of the great chasidic masters.

Let's be honest: any Jew who has thought about Jewish law and ritual has thought, at some point, something like: "What is the point of such an such a practice? The Torah says "Do X" and you do X? Why? For a reward? What is this adding to your life?"

Judaism can become, as we know, a checklist of behaviors: keep kosher, check; go to shul on high holy days, check; observe shabbat, check. Etcetera, ad infinitum. What's the point?

Today Rabbi Marc and I came across a mind-blowing explanation of one of the most beautiful and mysterious verses in the entire Torah. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev has a heavy take on the verse from Leviticus 19:2, which reads "You shall be holy for I, Adonai your God, am holy."

Levi Yitzchak picks up on the impossibility of the statement. How can it be that a human being can become like God in holiness? Or put differently, how can a human being become anything more than a human being?

His solution is that you become more by becoming less. Reinterpreting a passage from the Mishnah, he reminds us that we have come from nothing. Before there was anything, there was nothing - and this nothingness is an essential feature of God.

This nothingness underlies all reality. All matter, all bodies, brains, trees, money, and yes, even the Clintons, are only temporary - but underneath all this physical matter is a nothingness that is concealed from us. We think of ourselves as being made of something, as our lives and our achievements as counting for something. But Levi Yitzchak claims that all of these outward dimensions of human existence are illusions - really underlying it all is nothing.

And this is what we share with God. For God's nothingness preceded all creation - and this absence of physicality, this nothingness, is one of the features of God's holiness.

Through our physicality - actually, through the structure of the commandments, he suggests, we can raise our consciousness enough to see that we are comprised of nothingness. This nothingness is what we share with God. Thus, Be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am Holy.

He goes further and says that observance of the commandments in a slavish fashion, when it is done simply out of fear of punishment (or for many Jews, the fear that they will stop being Jewish, or lose connection to Jewishness) is insufficient. Instead the commandments should lead us to revere the nothingness that is the true essence of all reality. The commandments are to raise our consciousness of this fundamental and humbling reality of our existence.

Can we live in this way? With a profound humility that reminds us that all being is merely an outward manifestation of a much deeper truth - to use the language of Zen, an illusion? The commandments are, for Levi Yitzchak, the path to this awareness.

More on this later.


  1. I was waiting for you to mention Zen and finally, in the last section you do. Is there also a connection between Jewish prayer and meditation? In both, we are connecting with the vast nothing beyond.

  2. This sounds like Buddhism or Taoism. Nice interpretation. One might go further into defining 'nothingness' as the absence of the idea of individualism and therefor the promotion of the relationship with the group or community... or the world as the most important relationship. In any case, this way of thinking is prevalent throughout Asia.

  3. Interesting idea, Dan (I mean Moe), about the connection between tefillah and meditation. There are similarities - but it really depends on the kavvanah, the intention, or inward focus, of the prayer. There are vast differences in how the prayers are interpreted.

    Michele, an important difference between Judaism and Buddhism, at least Zen, is that Judaism affirms the reality of the self. Each soul has within it a spark of the divine and in that sense is part of a larger whole, but the perception of "I," as far as I....understand it, is an illusion in Buddhism and is an essential reality in Judaism.

    Thanks for the comments.

  4. So, I is an illusion in Buddhism but not in Judaism? How does this fit with Buber saying there is no I, only an I-Thou ... we only exist when we stand in relation to another. He could also be discussing a profound meditative state. And, of course, he is simultaneously describing our relation to other people, our relation to the community and our relation to God.

  5. Answer to Rabbi Josh’s article “Torah Portion: Kedoshim-Nothing’s Shocking
    I would disagree with Levi Yitzchach’s claim that the outward dimensions of human existence are illusions-“really underlying all is nothing”. Creation is the ultimate reality although it existed in the mind of the Lord before the reality of creation. But our minds are not infinite mind of the Lord. Our minds our finite, our lives our mortal, and our power and understanding is very limited.
    Yet the ultimate “nothing” is the Lord God Almighty of Israel is eternal, all powerful, all knowing, all wise and all good.
    Rabbi Josh’s attempt to be nothing by quoting the Torah, “Be Holy, for I, Adonai your God am Holy, is a great step forward into the ultimate eternal nothingness (Heaven, spiritual place) of the Lord God Almighty of Israel
    In Rabbi Josh’s answer to Michelle he also pointed out “A…understand it, is an illusion in Buddhism and is an essential reality in Judaism.
    I am so proud of Rabbi Josh. It is a struggle for me but seems to come so easily for him.