Teachings of the S’fat Emet on Hanukkah
5 December 2012 / 21 Kislev 5773
This week, I’m passing on to you all a Hanukkah gift I’ve been thinking about for at least a decade. I suppose the idea began to take shape when I was looking for a Hassidic teaching on Hanukkah to share with B’nai Or of Boston (or so my notes indicate). I found that teaching in the S’fat Emet, the collection of the teachings of the Gerer Rebbe R. Yehudah Aryeh Leib. The S’fat Emet is, I believe, a uniquely organized Hassidic text because not only do the teachings follow the annual Torah reading cycle, but they are subdivided by the years in which they were given. And what I noticed is that the Gerer Rebbe gave nineteen teachings between the years 1870 and 1903, eighteen of which begin with the same citation from the same midrash and the first, while not citing that particular text, sets the themes for those that follow.
For most of us these days, the easiest way to access Jewish mystical teachings is through a combination of translations and edited editions. The primary sources are often both very long and only available in Hebrew or Aramaic, without tables of contents and indexes, and so are hard to access. On the other hand, this makes us dependent on the translators and editors for our understanding of these teachings when it is also the case that the teachings are meant to be somewhat vague and requiring personal interpretation.
One dream of mine, therefore, has been to edit what could become a book of primary Jewish mystical sources, presented both in the original and in a translation which attempts to be more literal than poetic, and annotated to a degree that helps the reader find the sources on which the rebbe is depending and which it is assumed you know. In a way, what I am offering this week is a first step in the creation of this book. By using the link below, you can access my translation of all nineteen of the Gerer’s teachings given on Shabbat Hanukkah, as well as three of the primary sources on which he is depending.
1. These translations are not polished and tend towards the literal and I welcome your suggestions and questions to improve it. As much as I could, I looked up his references, which often are quite cryptic, and inserted them into the text. I also expanded many, though not all, of the roshei teivot and abbreviations, at least once each, to make the reading a bit easier. At the same time, it really isn’t possible to do a precise literal translation. These teachings were likely offered orally and in Yiddish, and only written down after Shabbat by the Hasidim, for whom Hebrew was not their first language. In addition Hebrew, like Arabic, is a nuanced language and translation depends on where and how a word is used and therefore any one word can be translated in more than one way. So you are left to make your own meaning from much of these texts, which is I think how the Gerer likely intended it to be.
2. Some of these teachings are “better” than others, just like our own. What most attracts me to hassidic rebbes is their humanity, their involvement in the lives of their hasidim, their openness about the difficulties we all face, which I deeply believe includes them as well.
3. There are aspects to these teachings I like less than others. I have difficulty when he says, for example, that Jews function as they should only when we are clear about our separation from others. I can deal with it because he specifically talks about idol worshippers rather than gentiles. I feel a close connection with all those who give their lives over to God in whatever way they understand God, who are dedicated to the improvement of the human race and care for those less fortunate. And I do feel a separation from those who worship the status quo, are devoted to the amassing of personal wealth without regard to its effect on the ecosystems of the planet. And I try to remember what the Gerer and every Hassidic rebbe affirmed, that there is only one source, even for that against which we have to struggle.
4. And there is much in this series of teachings I love: that darkness is limited, that trust in God, in the cosmos, in the love we all feel, is a true necessity and relying on the generosity of others to further our own careers is misplaced. Best to stay true to what one believes and be willing to accept the consequences.
5. Given the way the sefer is put together, it is special because Miketz is the sidrah for the Shabbat of Hanukkah 70% of the time. There isn’t a special Torah reading which replaces the weekly sidrah the way there is on a major holiday. So what we get are 19 teachings over thirty three years, all given on Shabbat Hanukkah, Parashat Miketz, and based on the same unit of B’reishit Rabbah. So we get to follow his thinking from year to year as he is drawn to the same theme over and over again. He’s thinking something through, something that engages him again and again throughout his life. What was troubling him? What was it that drew him to talk about light and dark and the power of evil so much? Note that the verse which begins the midrash is from Job, as are at least two other citations. What does that tell us?
6. What is at the end is present from the beginning. The first of these teachings, given in 1870, doesn’t cite the midrash directly, but does lay out the themes that he will return to year after year. I actually hadn’t noticed this until just a few days ago and then decided to translate it as well as the proper introduction to the other teachings.
Here is the link to this Hanukkah gift to you. I pray that within this series of teachings, you find your own meaningful synthesis as we approach Hanukkah this year.
With many blessings to you all as the solstice arrives and we light the lights which signal reaching the darkest point of the year and the beginning of light’s return.