To Know That We Don’t Know Anything

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The Secret Kavanah of Brit Milah (Part 2)

In last week’s article entitled Revealing a Tefach and Covering a Tefach, we began to explore a little bit of the hidden meaning of the mitzvah of brit milah. Guided by Likutei Moharan 63, we learned that the Torah has hidden the deeper kavanot of brit milah within the secrets of the six tefachim of the amah and the six wings of the seraphim. In short, there are three main kavanot to brit milah and they deal with one’s responsibilities to oneself, to others, and to Hashem. And each one of these three aspects is associated with two opposite components which are hinted at by the phrase מְגַלֶּה טֶפַח וּמְכַסֶּה טֶפַח (revealing a tefach and covering a tefach).

In review, the two wings of the seraphim that cover the face teach us that a person who wishes to fulfill the mitzvah of brit milah in completeness needs to be willing to suffer on behalf of his fellow Jews in order that the bounty, i.e. shefa, and Divine Providence, i.e. hashgachah pratit of Hashem, that by right should go to him be redirected to others even though they may be unworthy of receiving it. We also learned that the two wings of the seraphim that cover the feet teach us that sometimes someone who fulfills the mitzvah of brit milah to the utmost needs to draw close to others, allowing them to receive his counsel and learn from him the ways of kedushah and avodat Hashem, while at other times he needs to hide or distance himself from others, accepting upon himself disgrace and shame that arise from time to time as a result of the questions that arise in the minds of others regarding his behavior. We will now focus on the meaning of the final two wings of the seraphim, the ones used to fly.

It is written in Yeshayah 6:2: שְׂרָפִים עֹמְדִים  מִמַּעַל לוֹ שֵׁשׁ כְּנָפַיִם שֵׁשׁ כְּנָפַיִם לְאֶחָד בִּשְׁתַּיִם יְכַסֶּה פָנָיו וּבִשְׁתַּיִם יְכַסֶּה רַגְלָיו וּבִשְׁתַּיִם יְעוֹפֵף (Seraphim were standing over Him; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew). What is the meaning of ‘with two he flew’? Rashi explains ובתרין משמש (and with two, he would serve). We see the same understanding expressed by the Metzudat David who writes יעוף בשליחות המקום (he would fly in the service of the Omnipresent One). So how do both of these commentators know that ‘flying’ implies serving Hashem? They know because they are both relying on the mesorah of Yonatan ben Uzziel, a Tanna who studied under Hillel the Great. In his authoritative Aramaic translation of the Nevi’im, known today as the Targum Yonatan, he translates וּבִשְׁתַּיִם יְעוֹפֵף (and with two he flew) as וּבִתְרֵין מְשַׁמֵשׁ (and with two he would serve).

Just as we learned in the previous article that each of the two main kavanot of brit milah, i.e. knowing how to relate to oneself and knowing how to relate to others, is each associated with an aspect of revealing and concealing in the aspect of ‘revealing a tefach and covering a tefach‘, this third component of knowing how to relate to Hashem, is also associated with an aspect of revealing and concealing. R’ Nachman explains the first aspect, the aspect of revealing a tefach, in Likutei Moharan 63: כִּי צָרִיךְ לְדַבֵּק וּלְקָרֵב עַצְמוֹ לְהַשֵּׁם יִתְבָּרַךְ כְּאִלּוּ כִּבְיָכוֹל הַשֵּׁם יִתְבָּרַךְ נִגְלֶה וּמִתְקָרֵב אֵלָיו (For he [the tzaddik] needs to cling to and draw near to Hashem, may He be blessed, as if, so to speak, Hashem, may He be blessed, is revealing and drawing near to him). What does this mean? It means that a tzaddik (or even someone who aspires to fulfill the mitzvah of brit milah with completeness) needs to serve Hashem with mochin d’gadlut, i.e. expanded consciousness, and with a tremendous amount of ahavah, i.e. love.

But there is another aspect of serving Hashem which can sometimes be more difficult than loving Hashem with mochin d’gadlut. And what is that? It is serving Hashem with mochin d’katnut, i.e. restricted consciousness. This means that one must learn to serve Hashem with yirah, i.e. with fear and awe. What is needed to achieve this state of avodah? Again, let’s quote from L.M. 63 to understand the aspect of covering a tefach as it relates to serving Hashem: אֲבָל כָּל מַה שֶּׁמִּתְקָרֵב יוֹתֵר לְהַשֵּׁם יִתְבָּרַךְ צָרִיךְ לְהִתְרַחֵק יוֹתֵר הַיְנוּ כָּל מַה שֶּׁמִּתְקָרֵב יוֹתֵר צָרִיךְ לֵידַע שֶׁהוּא רָחוֹק מְאֹד מֵהַשֵּׁם יִתְבָּרַךְ (However, to the extent that someone draws closer to Hashem, may He be blessed, he will need to distance himself more, i.e. to the extent that one draws close, he needs to know that he is actually more distance from Hashem, may He be blessed). R’ Nachman is explaining the aspect of yirah that a tzaddik must arouse within himself when serving Hashem. And yirah itself is made up of two components. The first aspect of yirah is what we call the ‘fear of Heaven’. This means that one must develop a deep sense of awe for the grandeur and omnipotence of Hashem. The second aspect is the ‘fear of sin’, which means that one must be afraid of violating or trampling upon even one of Hashem’s precepts.

Therefore, the two aspects of serving Hashem are ahavah and yirah. Ahavah corresponds to revealing a tefach while yirah corresponds to concealing a tefach. Another way to understand these two opposite forces is that ahavah relates to observing positive mitzvot while yirah relates to guarding oneself against violating negative mitzvot. This is expressed by the Ramban (Shemot 20:8): כי הנשמר מעשות דבר הרע בעיני אדוניו ירא אותו ולכן מצות עשה גדולה ממצות לא תעשה כמו שהאהבה גדולה מהיראה כי המקיים ועושה בגופו ובממונו רצון אדוניו הוא גדול מהנשמר מעשות הרע בעיניו (The one who guards himself from doing something bad in the eyes of his master fears him and, therefore, positive mitzvot are greater than negative mitzvot just like ahavah is greater than yirah for one who fulfills and performs, with his body and money, the will of his master is greater than one who guards himself from doing bad in the eyes of his master). For example, when we eat our meals in a succah during Chag Succot, we are expressing our love to Hashem because He commanded us to do just that; yet, when we refrain from putting on clothes containing sha’atnez, we are serving Hashem out of yirah because He commanded us not to wear such clothing. For those who want to study further, this is also the main distinction between the middah of zehirut [מִדַּת הַזְּהִירוּת], being vigilant not to violate a negative mitzvah, and the middah of zerizut [מִדַּת הַזְּרִיזוּת], being eager to perform a positive mitzvah, as explained by the Ramchal in Mesillat Yesharim.

In other words, loving Hashem is not enough. There must always be yirah, for a great danger exists in serving Hashem solely out of love without any yirah. This was the grave mistake of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon ha-Kohen (Vayikra 10:1-3). They burned with love for Hashem, but for various reasons (which are beyond the scope of this article) had not yet learned the importance of yirah. They had failed to realize that there must always be self-restraint even in the midst of ahavah. We can see another example from the four sages who went into Pardes, two of which we’ll mention here (Chagigah 14b): בֶּן עַזַּאי הֵצִיץ וָמֵת עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב אוֹמֵר ״יָקָר בְּעֵינֵי ה׳ הַמָּוְתָה לַחֲסִידָיו״…רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא יָצָא בְּשָׁלוֹם (Ben Azzai gazed [toward the Shechinah] and died. About him the pasuk says, ‘Precious in the eyes of Hashem is the death of his chasidim’…R’ Akiva left in shalom). How come R’ Akiva left unharmed while Ben Azzai died? R’ Akiva had learned to serve Hashem not only out of ahavah but also out of yirah. He had learned the secret of what it means not only to reveal a tefach but also to cover a tefach. On the other hand, Ben Azzai had not yet perfected the middah of yirah. He only knew how to reveal a tefach. True, he burned with love toward Hashem (like R’ Akiva) but was unable to restrain this love with appropriate yirah. The Maharsha in his Chiddushei Aggadot put it this way: בן עזאי הציץ ומת מתוך שדבקה נפשו באהבה רבה דבקות אמתי בדברים עליונים (Ben Azzai gazed and died because his soul clung with great love, true devikut to lofty things).

But someone may ask, Does it even make sense that the more one draws closer to Hashem, the more he should feel that he is, in fact, farther away from Hashem than when he began? That seems so paradoxical. The answer is that, in truth, it is paradoxical and it is impossible to explain fully in words. It can only be experienced. Nevertheless, R’ Nachman briefly explains the concept (L.M. 63): כִּי אִם יַחֲשֹׁב וִידַמֶּה בְּדַעְתּוֹ שֶׁכְּבָר נִתְקָרֵב לְהַשֵּׁם יִתְבָּרַךְ וְיוֹדֵעַ בִּידִעוֹת הַשֵּׁם יִתְבָּרַךְ זֶה סִימָן שֶׁאֵינוֹ יוֹדֵעַ כְּלוּם כִּי אִם הָיָה יוֹדֵעַ קְצָת מֵהַשֵּׁם יִתְבָּרַךְ הָיָה יוֹדֵעַ שֶׁהוּא רָחוֹק מְאֹד מִמֶּנּוּ כִּי כָּל מַה שֶּׁמִּתְקָרֵב יוֹתֵר לְהַשֵּׁם יִתְבָּרַךְ וְיוֹדֵעַ יוֹתֵר הוּא יוֹדֵעַ שֶׁהוּא רָחוֹק מְאֹד וְאֵינוֹ יוֹדֵעַ כְּלָל (If he were to think and imagine in his mind that he already drew close to Hashem, may He be blessed, and that he has attained [some] knowledge of Hashem, may He be blessed, this is a sign that he doesn’t know anything, because if he knew [even] a little bit about Hashem, may He be blessed, he would know that he is very distance from Him, because the closer one gets to Hashem, may He be blessed, and comes to know more, he should know that he is more distance and doesn’t know anything). In short, the more one comes to know Hashem, the more one should realize that he knows nothing at all about Hashem. How come? Because Hashem is absolutely unknowable and beyond all human comprehension.

Perhaps no better expression of this truth is contained in our Torah than in the opening words of the well-known prayer ‘Patach Eliyahu’ that is reprinted in many of our siddurim (Tikkunei Zohar 17a) : רִבּוֹן עָלְמִין דְּאַנְתְּ הוּא חָד וְלָא בְחֻשְׁבָּן אַנְתְּ הוּא עִלָּאָה עַל כָּל עִלָּאִין סְתִימָא עַל כָּל סְתִימִין לֵית מַחֲשָׁבָה תְּפִיסָא בָךְ כְּלָל אַנְתְּ הוּא דְאַפִּיקַת עֲשַׂר תִּקּוּנִין וְקָרִינָן לוֹן עֲשַׂר סְפִירָן לְאַנְהָגָא בְהוֹן עָלְמִין סְתִימִין דְּלָא אִתְגַּלְיָין וְעָלְמִין דְּאִתְגַּלְיָין וּבְהוֹן אִתְכְּסִיאַת מִבְּנֵי נָשָׁא (Master of the worlds, You are one, but not in number. You are the most supreme, the most hidden. No thought can grasp you at all. You are the One who brought out ten tikkunim and called them sefirot to conduct the hidden worlds which are not revealed and the revealed worlds, and with them You are hidden from mankind). To feel these truths in our bones, as opposed to just knowing them, requires tremendous humility—which is exactly what R’ Nachman is explaining in Likutei Moharan. The more one comes to appreciate or ‘understand’ the Infinite, the more one comes to appreciate the incredible, i.e. infinite, gap that exists between himself and that Infinite.

This same idea is expressed in Sichot ha-Ran 3: כִּי לִגְדֻלַּת הַבּוֹרֵא יִתְבָּרַךְ אֵין שִׁעוּר כִּי נַעֲשִׂים דְּבָרִים נוֹרָאִים בָּעוֹלָם, נִפְלָאִים וְנוֹרָאִים מְאֹד וְאֵין יוֹדְעִים כְּלָל הַיְנוּ שֶׁעֲדַיִן אֵין יוֹדְעִים שׁוּם יְדִיעָה כְּלָל כְּלָל לֹא (For the greatness of the Creator, may He be blessed, is without measure, for there are awesome things which are done in the world, wondrous and very awesome, and we don’t know anything [about them], i.e. we still have no knowledge at all, not at all). So consider the following. If we don’t have the slightest idea about many of the things that take place in this physical world, even things on this planet, how much more so when it comes to knowledge of the vastness of the universe, or of the vastness of the higher worlds, or more importantly, when it comes to knowledge of the infinite expanse of the Creator of all!

Bachya ibn Pekuda, the author of Chovot ha-Levavot, writes the following in Sha’ar Yichud 10: ותכלית דעתך אותו שתודה ותאמין שאתה בתכלית הסכלות באמתת עצם כבודו (The ultimate goal of your knowledge of Him is to acknowledge and believe that you are totally ignorant of the truth of the essence of His kavod). Perhaps R’ Nachman put it best (L.M. 24:8): וְדַע שֶׁזֶּה תַּכְלִית הַיְדִיעָה כִּי תַּכְלִית הַיְדִיעָה דְּלֹא יֵדַע (You should know that this is the ultimate goal of knowing, that the goal of knowing is [to realize that] one doesn’t know [anything]).

Interestingly, even some of the most influential teachers among the goyim have known this truth. For example, Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher and teacher of Plato said, “The only true wisdom is in knowing that you know nothing.” Confucius, the famous Chinese philosopher, said, “To know is to know that you know nothing: that is the meaning of true knowledge.” Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian author, wrote, “We can know only that we know nothing, and that is the highest degree of human wisdom.” Therefore, no one (neither Jew nor Gentile) can claim ignorance. Hashem has made sure that all of us have been taught this important truth.

The vision of Yeshayah teaches us that the seraphim fly with two wings, i.e. they serve Hashem with two aspects. These two wings correspond to the final two tefachim of the six tefachim of the amah (which as we learned about in last week’s article represent brit milah). Serving Hashem requires that we become experts at two different functions. On the one hand, we must serve Hashem with unbridled and passionate ahavah. Yet on the other hand, we must realize our place and serve Him also with deep yirah. We approach, we learn, and we come to ‘think’ that we know something of Hashem and His ways. This is good, right and proper, and is the aspect of revealing a tefach. Yet, the more we think we know, the more we come to realize that we really don’t know anything at all. This too is good and is the aspect of covering a tefach.

In short, we may summarize the three main avodahs associated with observing the mitzvah of brit milah in completeness, as follows: (1) a willingness to suffer, i.e. experience Hashem’s face of anger, on behalf of the Jewish people, (2) a willingness to be disgraced, i.e. hide one’s essence from others, and (3) the need for infinite humility. None of these are simple; they require a lifetime of dedicated effort. This was (and continues to be) the essence of Yosef ha-Tzaddik. Therefore, if you want help, connect yourself to the Tzaddik.

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