Torah from Around the World #142


Josh Jacobs-Velde

, Rabbi of

Congregation Ohev Tzedek

Youngstown, Ohio

Heading into a Place of “Divine Anger”

For this teaching, I would like to draw on
the psychological-spiritual wisdom of Hasidism, particularly the teaching of
the Chernobler rebbe, Menachem Nahum Twersky. Also known as the

Me’or Eynaim

(the title of his most famous text from which I am drawing), he lived in
Ukraine from 1730–1797. As one of the numerous extraordinary students of the
Maggid of Mezeritch, he was part of the third generation of Hasidism. I first
learned this teaching with my teacher Rabbi Miles Krassen, so some of the ideas
here are filtered through his insight.

In a general sense, the Hasidic approach to
torah is to read the text as a vast spiritual landscape, filled with
psychological insight that has great relevance for our own struggles to grow
and to walk the spiritual path.

We begin with the first verse of our



Jacob left Be’er Sheva and went toward Haran

.” (Gen. 28:10)

Jacob leaves

Eretz Yisrael

with the
blessing of his father Isaac, having wrested Isaac’s blessing from Esau, and is
charged with finding a wife in his ancestral land of Haran. The

Me’or Eynaim

sees Haran as not just any old place, but a place of darkness. Through a
typical rabbinic play on words with the same Hebrew roots, he reads Jacob’s
destination “Haran” as hinting at “

ḥaron af haMakom

,” i.e., Divine

How does the

Me’or Eynaim

this place of “Divine anger?” It is a place of


, he says,
exemplified by the figure of Jacob’s uncle Lavan, with whom Jacob will spend
the next twenty years. Let’s unpack this a little:


“shells”) are an important concept in Kabbalah. In the Kabbalistic cosmology of
the seminal thinker Isaac Luria, the


are the places that obscure
the Divine light, where the Divine sparks became trapped during the breaking of
the vessels that accompanied the creation of the world.

Rather than “shells” I would translate


as “obscurations,” so a place of


would be a place where
Divine light is very “thin,” like oxygen at high altitudes. In our experience,
this might be a place where kindness is completely lacking, or where there is
great tension and ill feeling. This place is exemplified by Lavan because
generally in the rabbinic view, Lavan is understood as being the exact opposite
of his name (which means “white”). He is seen as a person for whom deceit is
the core of his nature.

Before we go further, it is important to note
radical and liberating ideas here about “Divine anger.” By his creative
interpretive move of reading Haran as hinting at

ḥaron af haMakom

, the


helps us let go of problematic, limited and vindictive images of the
“angry God of the Bible.” His reading allows us to understand a place of Divine
anger as a place where Divine light and compassion are merely obscured, and
require our active efforts to ferret them out and reveal them.

And in fact, that is how the

Me’or Eynaim

understands Jacob during his twenty year sojourn with Lavan. He sees Jacob as
trying to sift out the wisdom (torah) that is hidden in the place of Lavan’s
great darkness. (See

Me’or Eynaim


Parshat Va’yeitzei

). The idea
is that usually when we find ourselves in a place of “Divine anger,”
such as a situation of great negativity, we end up becoming completely
identified with an aversion response (i.e., “I just have to get out of here,
get away from this person, this situation,” etc.). The suggestion is, following
Jacob, to see if there is any torah, any Divine sparks that we can sift out
from the situation, which is called


(sifting) in the spiritual
language of Hasidism.

How do we do this? It’s not a simple
question. But the

Me’or Eynaim

does give us one clue: softening the
heart. When Jacob arrives in Haran, one of the first things he does is that he
meets his future wife Rachel and he rolls the stone off of the opening of a
nearby well. (Gen. 29:10) The

Me’or Eynaim

reads Jacob’s rolling
away of the stone covering the well as a removal of that which is obscuring the
living waters below, i.e., torah (which is also called

mayim chayim

living water). The Me’or Eynaim brings a beautiful verse from Ezekiel (36:26)
into the conversation: “

I will remove the heart of stone from your body and
give you a heart of flesh

.” Read together with this verse from Ezekiel,
Jacob’s act of rolling away the stone from the well becomes an act of
softening, of transforming a heart of stone into a heart of flesh, an act that
will aid him in his difficult years ahead with Lavan.

Note that the

Me’or Eynaim

does not
say that when going into a dark situation where we feel God’s presence to be
absent, that we should steel ourselves or toughen ourselves up. He says
precisely the opposite: going into those situations where the Divine presence
is most obscured, we are to soften our hearts. A soft heart is of course an
open heart, and an open heart has a greater chance of perceiving the hidden and
obscured sparks of holiness and wisdom that may be present in a given
situation. An open, softened heart can see through the seeming limitations that
present themselves to the eye.

With this kind of perspective, we stand a
much better chance at seeing the obstacles and challenges we face in our lives
as important opportunities for growth along the spiritual path. At the deepest
level, everything we encounter is part of the path.

Rabbi Josh Jacobs-Velde can be emailed at


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