Growing up in Philadelphia I recall the esteem in which New York’s doubly initialed J.J. Schachter was held, a prodigy two years older than I who would become well known in Orthodox Jewish circles. That may be superficially why the doubly initialed Y.Y. Jacobson’s name stuck with me the first time I heard it, but the deeper reason is the breadth of his intellectual reach.
Consider for example this press release from the Duke University School of Law, in 2004:
“The Judaic Themes in American Law Speaker Program hosts Rabbi Yosef Y. Jacobson on Thursday, Feb. 26, to discuss “What Role Does Religion (God) Play in The Courtroom.” During his talk, Rabbi Jacobson will re-examine the Ten Commandments case from a Jewish perspective on separation of church and state, and discusses the case pending in the Supreme Court concerning removal of the words “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance …
Rabbi Jacobson, one of the most sought after Jewish speakers in the world today, has lectured to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences on six Continents. A teacher of Jewish law and Kabbalah at the Rabbinical College Covevay Torah in New York, Rabbi Jacobson’s weekly Internet essays on Judaism, mysticism and psychology are read by tens of thousands the world over. An exceptional orator, he has touched thousands with his deep, intuitive grasp of the human condition and his remarkable ability to explain the ancient Jewish wisdom of the mystical texts and inspire his listeners with its relevance to their daily lives. His lectures throughout Asia, Israel, Europe, Australia, South Africa, North and South America were attended by many thousands, who flocked to listen to Jacobson’s profound thoughts peppered with an incredible sense of humor.”
It is with that background that I share with you a remarkable video forwarded by my sister-in-law Ruthi, of a presentation by Rabbi Jacobson that is nearly two hours in length. The YouTube tag line reads: As Moshe was About to Say Goodbye, He Left His People with Nine Life-Changing Insights. This women’s class was presented for the Torah portion of Devarim and the 9 Days, based on a commentary by the Ohr Hachaim, Rabbi Chaim ben Atar, on Devarim. The class was presented on Tuesday, 5 Av, 5779, August 6, 2019 at the Ohr Chaim Shul, Monsey, NY.
A transcription of the video is beyond my pay grade, but permit me to share with you a few of the highlights as I experienced them (in the vein of a speaker saying: “I want to share a few words with you …”).
If you want to meet a person at a specified location, you might pinpoint that spot with a few references, signs, or landmarks. This will give the individual more confidence that they have arrived, as GPS would say, at their final destination. Parenthetically, Rav Jacobson’s brother told him that he stopped using GPS years ago after driving to a cemetary, when the satellite’s voice announced “You have reached your final destination”.
But imagine someone telling you a story about a location, and using nine different reference points to describe it. A bit excessive, wouldn’t you say? Yet that is precisely what happens in the opening verse of the weekly Torah portion of Devarim (Deuteronomy):
“אֵ֣לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר דִּבֶּ֤ר משֶׁה֙ אֶל־כָּל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּעֵ֖בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֑ן בַּמִּדְבָּ֡ר בָּֽעֲרָבָה֩ מ֨וֹל ס֜וּף בֵּֽין־פָּארָ֧ן וּבֵֽין־תֹּ֛פֶל וְלָבָ֥ן וַֽחֲצֵרֹ֖ת וְדִ֥י זָהָֽב”
“These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel #1) on that side #2) of the Jordan #3) in the desert, #4) in the plain #5) opposite the Red Sea, between #6) Paran and Tofel and #7) Lavan and #8) Hazeros and #9) Di Zahav.”
Only later would the Torah say the location where Moshe (Moses) delivered his farewell address to the nation was actually in Moav. Here, the iconic commentator Rashi notes, the Torah is speaking in code – referring to prior significant messages of rebuke that Moshe delivered in his monumental career as a leader. Then comes the more elaborate commentary of the Ohr Hachayim Hakadosh – another great luminary on the Torah, written by Rabeinu Chayim Ibn Attar, born in Morocco in 1696, and considered one of the greatest teachers of his day on a vast range of topics and issues, despite living only until his 40s. Let’s take a look at how the Ohr Hachayim explains this first pasuk (sentence) of Devarim.
“In one small verse, Moshe taught the Jewish people the general principles of Fear of G-d, and the appropriate characteristics that those who walk in the way of G-d ought to cultivate and internalize in their life, and they consist of nine steps.” Why does Moshe pick this juncture to provide a blueprint on how to live? Most likely because he sensed that his time was coming to an end. It was five weeks before his passing, and he knew that Joshua, his successor would be leading the people into the Land of Israel. The Ohr Hachayim takes each key word in the first verse and decodes the message Moshe was trying to convey. The source material has been posted on yeshiva.net, and what follows is largely R. Jacobson’s exposition.
#1: בְּעֵ֖בֶר – a code advising Jews to emulate Avraham (Abraham) “Haivri”. That is why the original name of the Jews, patterned after was “Ivrim” or “Hebrews”. Avraham came from the other side of the Jordan (present day Iraq) and crossed into Canaan. He was a contrarian, relative to the rest of the world, in giving unconditional love. He saw love everywhere he went, and cultivated it. For some individuals, that attribute comes more naturally than others. R. Jacobson touches upon predisposing and epigenetic factors – how we were educated, and the circumstances in which we find ourselves – but when you have to choose, as you must ultimately take responsibility or your own actions, choose the path of love not detachment.
#2: הַיַּרְדֵּ֑ן – This is a reference to Tractate Brahcos (p. 7) which states that one statement of sincerity or internal moment of awakening (the word stemming from the root of “yered”), is superior to 100 lashes coercing someone to adopt your point of view,. This is the modern day equivalent of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation, and R. Jacobson notes that it applies to children, employees, and acquaintances no less than it does to one’s self. There is no substitute for sincerity.
#3: בַּמִּדְבָּ֡ר – which literally means “in the dessert”, refers to the attribute of humility. A dessert is raw, naked, barren, authentic, humble. It is a place of truth, unadorned by beautiful landscapes or the cosmopolitanism of urban centers. The Torah was given in the dessert because the dessert is ownerless. That symbolism speaks to the fact that it is accessible to everyone.
#4: בָּֽעֲרָבָה֩ – of which there are several roots. One is from the root “arev” meaning sweet. Humility should be sweet, so that it promotes real growth and connection. Guard against self-deprecation to the point of emotional paralysis or numbness. “Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Bazeh” – all of Israel is intermingled, with common threads that should prompt caring and concern for other individuals. We are guarantors for one another, and that obligation should reflect encouragement more than judgementalism. Maintain a voice of social consciousness and responsibility.
#5: מ֨וֹל ס֜וּף – means “facing the end”. The Ohr Hachayim says this means maintaining perspective. See long term. Be willing, at appropriate times, to contemplate mortality. Can you really make peace with your mortality? King David, as captured in Tehilim, beseeched G-d to allow him to know the end of his days: “לִמְנוֹת יָמֵינוּ כֵּן הוֹדַע” Facing the reality of your life enables you, in a paradoxical way, to maximize each day as you align your life with eternity.
R. Jacobson does not conceive of death as the ultimate finality because the soul, the body’s life force, is an element of G-d. Think therefore of what we call death as the unplugging of the soul from its body, almost as one might think of a discarded refrigerator. The fridge no longer has electricity coursing through its parts. But the electricity that previously flowed supplied it still exists. The force of electricity doesn’t die. It has simply reverted to its origin; to its source. Life is divine electricity that is allowed to be manifest through our body over a certain period of time.
This struck me in terms of not only the question of what constitutes being alive from the medicolegal perspective, but the concept of the electrochemical forces that exist within our bodies, most notably the heart and the brain.
#6: בֵּֽין־פָּארָ֧ן וּבֵֽין־תֹּ֛פֶל – “Paran” is from “P’ehr” which means beauty and “Tofel” means something raw in need of repair. Live a life in between the extremes; between glory on one side, and awareness of everything that still requires repair on the other side – so that you never become stagnant. Be discreet in sharing your misfortunes; others don’t want to indulge self-pity disguised as a balm for discontent. Celebrate life and invite room for growth. Seek improvement rather than perfection. I am fond of quoting a wise patient who said to me many years ago: “You don’t have to make it perfect, Doc. You just have to make it better.”
#7: וְלָבָ֥ן – “lavan” means white. Keep your heart white, pure, and innocent. Sometimes you will see others through a lens or mirror that isn’t a reflection of who you could or should be. It can be challenging to retain one’s self-identity. Take the classic example of Yosef (Joseph) whose brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt. Miraculously working his way through the system, he becomes a person of power in Pharoh’s court where he ultimately crossed paths again with his brothers.
When Yosef revealed his identity he said: “I am Yosef your brother, who you sold in Egypt.” The Ohr Hachayim points out that these descriptors were not a reminder for the brothers, who knew full well what they had done, but for Yosef himself as a way of reconnecting with his sensitive side despite the trappings of his position and power. This reminded R. Jacobson about the legendary sensitivity of R. Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev. He told the story about a man in Pinsk who tried to sabotage the Berditchever in his pulpit position by setting him up with several “L’Chaims” on Erev Yom Kippur ostensibly to make peace. Expecting the Rabbi to be a no-show, and disgracefully drummed out of town, he was floored when the the Berditchever showed up right on schedule for Kol Nidre.
When the Ma’ariv service was over, the Berdicthever led the congregation in the communal repetition of verses of Tehilim. When he came to Chapter 41, verse 12, he read: בְּזֹ֣את יָ֖דַעְתִּי כִּֽי־חָפַ֣צְתָּ בִּ֑י כִּ֚י לֹֽא־יָרִ֖יעַ אֹֽיְבִ֣י עָלָֽי. “How do I know, G-d, that you like me? Because you won’t let my enemies be victorious over me”. But then he repeated the phrase in Yiddish three times, putting his own spin on the translation: “G-d, how do I know that you love me? Because you will not let my enemy suffer because of what he wanted to do to me.” Although his nemesis had a heart of stone, he still had a heart. Realizing how pure the Berditchev was, he publicly asked the great Rabbi for forgiveness. Sometimes people can’t know who others are until they free themselves from the haze of their own toxicity.
It isn’t likely that any of us can operate on the level of consciousness of the Berditchev, but we can strive to do better in terrms of shedding grudges and negative energy. Engage with the beauty that is in this world. Don’t allow your enemies to live in your head rent-free. Pursue a clear conscience, and let go of the agony and pain of grudges.
#8: וַֽחֲצֵרֹ֖ת – courtyards of learning. Never stop immersing yourself in learning and in growth. Internalize G-d’s wisdom in your mind. A great scholar in Judaism is not called a “chacham”, a wise man. A great scholar is a ‘talmid chacham”, a lifelong learner and student of wisdom.
#9: וְדִ֥י זָהָֽב – which means, enough gold. One should tell the gold “enough”, enabling you to celebrate over what you have, as if you already have all the gold. Don’t wait until tomorrow to start living life to its fullest. Learn to see the cup as half full; to focus on the bagel and not on the hole. Be more bagel-istic and less hole-istic. It’s often a matter of perspective that will provide you with a sense of contentment rather than defining your life by what you don’t yet have.