Rabbi David Zeller Pesach Teaching
Our first rebbe’s tisch this past Shabbat was a wonderfully haimish evening at the home of Len Fellman and Tovia Rubenstein, in which Rabbi David Zeller z”l, through his own songs and writings and the stories and writings of others about him, became our rebbe-in-residence. Our circle was joyfully enlarged by the presence of former members of the original Aquarian Minyan Band, Rich and Eliot, and their respective partners, Marie and Lynn, as well as by early Minyan member Jerry Greene.
We ate and schmoozed, taught and learned, and ended the evening with a beautiful havdalah ceremony, in which we affirmed the Minyan’s role as a k’li aggada, a powerful vessel for holy story. Like the light of the braided candle, the combined light of our stories of spirit—held aloft, witness, honored—radiates out to illumine and warm our lives, and those of the larger Renewal community.
I shared a teaching I received from Reb Dovid sometime before Pesach 5762 (2002), in which he elucidates a text of Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav from the Hasidic collection Likutey Hilchot Orach Chayyim. This past week’s parashah, B’ha’alotkha, “in your raising up,” begins with a reference to the raising up of the seven-branched Menorah in the Mishkan, a powerful symbol of the ever-present supernal Light of HaShem. The same verb, b’ha-alotkha, might also be seen to apply to the Israelites’ being brought up from the land of Mitzrayim, literally the “Narrow Spaces,” and, on the intra-personal level, to our release from the narrow spaces of small mind in which we are caught, over and over. The parashah also includes a reiteration of the commandment to offer the Pesach sacrifice each year on the 14th day of the first month (Nisan), the day when we celebrate the Passover seder.
I share below my notes from Reb Dovid’s teaching, may his name always be invoked for blessing. Because I took these notes during an oral teaching, they may be a bit disjointed (not as bad as the Talmud, however!). I’ve included some of my own observations in brackets; any mistakes are mine alone.
A Pesach Teaching from Rebbe Nachman, via R. David Zeller z”l
B’mitzrayim lo haya adayin ha-k’lei shel yisrael, sh’hem k’lei hamochin, shelahem m’toknim b’tachlit hashleymut machnat tumat mitzrayim…..
“In Egypt there was not yet in Israel the vessel of mind to receive the higher light…” In other words, in Egypt B’nei Yisrael were drowning in the 49 levels of tumah (impurity, sin). Normally the light that comes is the light that the vessels are ready to receive. If one has the proper vessels, the energy can be handled. But if not, you die [as did the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, when they brought esh zara, strange fire, into the Holy of Holies. Another way of saying this is that “support precedes movement.” There must be adequate infrastructure in place for growth to happen in a balanced, integral way.]
The holy Light is like the drug of death if you’re not ready to receive it. That’s what the plagues of darkness and death of firstborn in Egypt were! The Midrash tells that not only Egyptians, but many Israelites also died in these plagues. If God’s light had come down according to the vessels there to receive it, it would’ve been even more nightmarish, more disastrous than it was.
The true miracle of Pesach is that God comes down first, before the awakening from below. [That is, the vessels were not prepared, but God comes anyway.] The sense is that if God had not intervened, the people would’ve been goners. God does it for the sake of the ancestors, for Avraham. Although the original time of the exile in Egypt was told to Avraham as 400 years [see Genesis15:13, the “Covenant between the Parts”], the Sages determined that the time was shortened by some 180 years [see a special prayer in the Artscroll Siddur, p. 898, that gives thanks for this reprieve] because the people could not handle it.
God creates the world only on the condition that God can put Torah into the world and that there will be people there to receive it. And remember, the leaving Egypt, the moving into “freedom,” is not a movement toward no-boundaries, toward license, but toward Sinai, toward a new socio-spiritual reality. We leave servitude in Egypt in order to serve God.
The Arizal [the great kabbalist of S’fat, Rabbi Isaac Luria] taught that before the world was created, there was one supernal, simple Light, a kav or ray. And there arose in the “Mind” this “thought:” “I’d like this Light to be known.” Light is dark until it strikes something opaque, until it is reflected. Out of this initial kav came all the emanations of Creation. But—and here’s the catch—the World is created with free will, meaning that the Light isn’t automatically perceived. [Thus the density, the opacity of our world, far from being an obstacle, is intended, necessary to the “knowing” of the Light! Yet the reflection alone is not enough; it needs a perceiver.]
There were two trees in the garden: the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life. We exist in the realm of the Tree of Life until we eat from the Tree of Knowledge. There is a midrash that teaches that the servitude in Egypt was to expiate the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge. We move toward Sinai to receive Torah from the Tree of Life, and we blow it, we aren’t ready yet. We create a golden calf as soon as Moses is gone a few hours too long. Our mission is to unite spirit and matter, and we blow it.
Moses brings down the first set of tablets, inscribed by God’s hand, but in the face of the golden calf, the energy of God flies off the stone and they become so heavy that Moses can’t hold them and poof!—they shatter. He has to go back up another 40 days and nights and laboriously transcribe them himself, this time. So we get Torah not from the Tree of Life, but from the Tree of Knowledge, and we are fated to struggle lo these thousands of years with duality.
Creation is made to reflect Light. The nature of avdut mitzrayim, the servitude in Egypt, is that we see the object in the light, but we don’t see the light in the object. This is the mission of Judaism, the true meaning of being a “light to the nations”—to move from seeing the object in the light, to seeing the light in the object. This is the journey from Pesach to Shavuot [and the purpose of our annual practice of counting the omer during those 49 days]. To become free from our incarceration in slavery to the material, we have to get out, to move from the mitzrayim of limited vision, small mind. [Perhaps this is what we are sacrificing when we perform, symbolically now, the Pesach sacrifice!] We have to strengthen our vessels, to take the time to get in touch with the tzaddik place in ourselves that can perceive the hidden, original Light in every bit of Creation.