Some Torah Insights from the “Kedushat Levi”

(By Rabbi Pinchas Frankel)

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak is one of the most beloved figures in Jewish History. Born into a prominent rabbinical family in 1740, he exhibited in his youth greatness in Talmud and studied with the author of the “Pri Megadim.” He also served as rabbi of a number of Polish communities. However, after encountering Rabbi Shmelke of Nikolsburg and Rabbi Dov Baer, the great “Maggid of Mezeritch,” who was a student of the Baal Shem Tov, he was won over to Chassidus and became one of the most influential Jewish leaders of his time, perhaps of all time. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev is particularly famous for defending the Jewish People before G-d, and always interpreting their actions in the best and most compassionate light, as we will see in his view of the Sotah.

Rav Shneur Zalman of Liady, the founder of Lubavitch Chassidus and the author of the “Tanya,” said of Rabbi Levi, “The Holy One, Blessed is He is, as it were, the Righteous One in Heaven and Rabbi Levi Yitzchak is the Righteous One on earth!”

And the “Chozeh,” the Seer, of Lublin, said of him, “Every day I set aside time to express gratitude and praise to the Creator of the Universe, May His Name be Blessed, for sending to the world a soul as great and holy as that of the Holy Rabbi of Berdichev!”

The holy “neshama” of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev left this world shortly after Sukkot, the night of 25 Tishrei of Year 5570 (1810), leaving the Jewish world bereft of its great defender.

Among the contents of Parshat Naso (the longest parshah in the Torah), we find one of the saddest sets of circumstances in Jewish family life. That is the account of a breakdown of trust within a marriage, in which the husband, having become suspicious and jealous of a certain man because of the latter’s relationship with his wife, warned her not to seclude herself in the company of that individual. The wife ignored this warning and secluded herself with him. What happened between them in that room was known only to that pair of human beings and G-d Himself.

In perhaps the most unusual method of determination of the Truth concerning a set of events in the Torah, the woman is commanded to swear to her innocence, and drink water from one of the holy vessels in the Temple, into which some earth from the Temple Courtyard has been mixed. Also in the potion is the erased text of the verses describing the curses that will befall the woman if she is guilty (If she is innocent, or even if she is guilty but her husband has also not upheld the bonds of faithfulness in their marriage, she will be unaffected by the water). In those verses, the Holy Name of G-d appears. Now that Name is not even to be pronounced (except by the High Priest on Yom Kippur); certainly in general is it forbidden to be erased. In this case, however, HaShem, as it were, overlooks His Great Honor and commands that it be erased, in order to restore “Shalom Bayit,” peace and harmony in the marriage.

Now this woman, even if innocent of adultery, will certainly not win any award for “tzniut,” modesty, because after all she did ignore her husband’s warning against seclusion with one whose relationship with her was very troubling to him. And certainly, if she was guilty, and suffered the terrible curses brought on by the water, it would be hard to find something good to say about her. But Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev tries! The following selection from “Kedushat Levi” is a translation of his own words concerning the nature of the punishment that the Torah prescribes for the “Sotah:”

“…’May HaShem set you as a curse and as an oath among your people, when HaShem makes your…’ (5:21).”

“It is necessary to scrutinize the language ‘May HaShem set you…’ for from Him, May He be Blessed, evil does not come (Eichah 3:38). It seems that there are times when the Holy One, Blessed is He, executes judgment upon the wicked, and His Holy and Blessed Name is not made holy by those punished, and there are times when HaShem executes punishment upon the wicked, and by virtue of that punishment, His Great Name is made Holy. In this case the judgment upon them was a kindness for them, for they served as tools for the enhancement of the Holiness of the Blessed Name, and that is, again, a kindness for them, for it is possible that there will be an elevation for their souls through the punishment.”

“…And that is hinted at here as well, where it says, ‘May HaShem set you as a curse and as an oath in the midst of your people…’ And this was in fact a kindness for her, because through her, the Holiness of HaShem’s Name was enhanced, such that people would fear Him, and the hint is “May HaShem set…” The fact that it was through her that the Holiness of His Great Name was enhanced made her punishment a kindness for her, as hinted by the use of the Divine Name associated with the Attribute of Mercy.”

In Parshat Naso, the Berditchiver also comments on “Birchat Kohanim,” the Blessing given by the Priests to the Jewish People.

“HaShem spoke to Moshe, saying: ‘Speak to Aharon and to his sons, saying, ‘So shall you bless the Children of Israel, say to them:’ (6:22-23)”

“The principle here is the following: As the Baal Shem Tov used always to admonish the people, using this verse (Tehilim 121:5), ‘HaShem is your shadow…’ which means that just as a person’s shadow does everything that he does, so does the Creator, Blessed is He, do, as it were, what Man does. And therefore, a person should take heed to perform the Commandments, and to give charity, and to treat the poor with compassion, so that the Creator, Blessed is He, will act kindly towards him (refer to Shabbos 151:). This characteristic is called ‘Koh,’ ‘Just As,’ for that is the meaning of the word ‘Koh;’ that is, as he acts, just so will the Creator, Blessed is He, act.”

“And it is well-known that the Creator, Blessed is He, desires to bring good upon His People, Israel, because even more than the calf wishes to suck from the breast of its mother, does the cow desire to nurse her calf (Pesachim 112.). Therefore, when a person stands up to pray before the Creator, Blessed is He, all of the Eighteen Blessings, or other words of Supplication, he must pray in such a manner that the Creator, Blessed is He, will derive pleasure from it. This is similar to what the Mishnah says (Avos 2:8), “If you learned a lot of Torah, do not be overly pleased with yourself; for that was the purpose for which you were created.” The meaning of this is that a person’s deeds should be done only for the purpose of giving pleasure to the Creator.”

“And this too is well-known, that when a person prays in his own behalf, he is considered a “recipient” (refer to “Tikkunei Zohar,” Tikkun 6, 22.), and when one wishes to receive something, he turns the back of his hand downwards, towards the ground, and the open palm he turns upward. But when a person prays, and his only motivation is to give the Creator, Blessed is He, pleasure, then he is called an “active provider,” who is providing, so to speak, benefit for the Creator, Blessed is He (refer to “Zohar HaKadosh,” Part II, 32:), and the provider holds the back of his hand upwards, and the palm of his hand downwards.”

“Now, when the Blessing of the Kohanim is performed by the Kohanim, it is with their hands in the “raised” position; that is, with the backs of their hands towards their faces, each in the manner of one whose intention it is to bestow benefit. This then is the meaning of the verse, “In this manner (‘Koh’) shall you bless the Children of Israel;” that is, that they shall bless Israel in order that the Creator, Blessed is He should take pleasure in that blessing, and thus you will be “active providers,” so to speak, for the Creator, Blessed is He. And afterwards, the Creator, Blessed is He, will provide through you all manner of benefits and blessings onto Israel, as we explained above, that this characteristic is called “Koh,” “Just As;” that is, just as Israel acts, so does the Creator, Blessed is He, and provides for His People Israel benefits and
blessings, life and peace, Amen.”

The following selection from the “Kedushat Levi” on Parshat Bo gives us a glimpse into the feelings of the Tzaddik about the relationship between HaShem and the People of Israel:

“We speak in praise of the Holy One, Blessed is He, and He speaks in praise of Israel. And so it is that we wear Tefillin, and what is written there is praise of the Holy One, Blessed is He, and the Holy One, Blessed is He puts on Tefillin, in which is written praise of Israel. This sheds light on what is written in Tanna D’vei Eliyahu; namely, that it is a Commandment for us to speak in praise of Israel, and HaShem, May He be Blessed, derives pleasure from speaking in praise of Israel. And the reason for the above is that it is forbidden to remove one’s concentration from Tefillin, and it is a Commandment for every person to occupy himself at all times with Tefillin – either to speak in praise of Israel, as do the Tefillin of the Master of the Universe – or to speak in praise of the Holy One, Blessed is He, which is the content of the Tefillin of Israel.”

And an unmistakable and clear response from HaShem to the following plea for mercy made by the Berdichever would, to say the least, be very helpful for the Jewish People in its present condition. Where its blood was spilled copiously in the streets of Yerushalayim last week, and which is locked in a bitter struggle with Yishmael, under the mostly hostile gaze of the western world, which is Esav, which is Edom, which is Rome:

“Master of the Universe! Go out and see the behavior of the simple Jew, who only with great difficulty can recognize the forms of the Hebrew letters, if he sees his Tefillin falling to the ground, G-d Forbid, rolling on the ground, would he not instantly bend down, pick them up and kiss them, and return them to their place of honor? Why then do You not act in a similar manner, when You see Your People, Israel – who are Your Tefillin, as it is written concerning them (II Shmuel, 7), ‘And who is like Your People, Israel, a Unique Nation in the World’ – rolling on the ground, in disgrace and shame, time after time?”