I had just finished tracing the theme of loving-kindness through the book of Ruth and wondering why the story is one of particular agony when I had to run out to do a grocery shop. I remember exactly which aisle at Pick n’Pay I was standing when I bumped into my friend Nicole Landau. I was so happy to see her. I told her my question. Together we thought about the question and exchanged ideas as to possible answers and then with hints of smiles on the corners of our mouths we parted to do our shopping.
When I came home (ok maybe it was later that night) I was floored to see that the Vilna Gaon had the same question that had disturbed me.
I will take you through the commentary, so you can directly taste the sweetness of his writings and discover the answer the way that I did.
The midrash begins expounding on the Book of Ruth by saying “And it was in the days of the judging of the judges… בני הפכפכין המה”. This was a generation in which the judges were being judged by the nation, and rightfully so, as the leadership itself was suboptimal and as wanting as the people who were meant to be following their guidance. “They were hafachfachin” says the midrash, which is a hard word to translate into English. הפך means upside down, inverted, up-side-down. And the shoresh – the Hebrew root – of this word doubles on itself, הפכפך, to mean utter reversal.
How does Hashem to respond to a nation that is not following their leadership (and indeed whose leadership is not worthy to be followed) and that is described by the midrash as being hafachfechin – up-side-down? How does He guide a misguided and confused mess of a people back to some sort of alignment?
“To destroy them, I cannot do.” Says Hashem – they are not evil – just off kilter. And besides, He promised that He would never destroy us. “I will have to inflict them”, says Hashem. And the famine begins.
To understand the spiritual underpinning of what this midrash means, it is necessary to tap into the mystical tradition and transform the way we look at the megillah (and life!) by so doing. Suddenly, it will fall into place with stunning simplicity. It is about seeing rightly that allows us to perceive, interpret and therefore interact with our world.
The Vilna Gaon says that there are two concepts that without some grasp of them, we cannot begin to understand the deeper dimensions of life. They are reflected in the two names of Hashem, י-הוה and שקי (the dash in the first name and the ק in the second name are ways to get around the prohibition of not writing Hashem’s full name. The ק is a substitution for the letter ד.) The first name, י-הוה, combines within it the words היה, הוה, ויהיה – He was, He is, and He will always be. This alludes to the Divine trait of loving-kindness, which is essentially the quality of expansiveness and magnanimity which by definition knows no bounds. This is His deepest truth and essence; He created the world to do kindness for us, and just like His essence will never run out, His Kindness for us will never die.
The second name that He uses to manifest Himself in creation is the name שקי – which is a shortened form of the phrase שאמר לעולמו די – “that He said to His [infinitely expanding] universe [at the time of creation] enough!!” At some point He had to place a limit on the forces of creation so that the world could function as an arena for His intended inhabitants, man. Hence, the name שקי denotes His attribute of דין – which literally means judgement and justice – from the word די – “enough.” Judgement is not the withholding of love, rather, it is the force that distributes it according to the merit of the recipient, and to the degree that it is ultimately the most loving. Together with these two names, a perfect world came into being.
Since we are created in the image of G-d, we too are made up of these two qualities of spiritual material. The proper placement of these traits as intended by G-d is hinted to us in the secret of the Mezuza scroll.
On the inside of the parchment, the sofer, scribe, writes the Shema and within that seminal statement of faith is the name י-הוה. Once the script of the Shema and its accompanying paragraphs is complete the sofer rolls up the scroll and writes the name Shakai – שקי on its exterior. Some mezuza cases even mirror this law with the letter ש written decoratively on it.
The message of the mezuzah scroll is that the force of endless expansion which is the hallmark of giving should be applied on the inside of the mezuza, and the force of limitation and restriction should be applied to its exterior. The message hinted to here is clear. “Please”, says Hashem, “emulate me in my quality of kindness. Please place your never-ending appetite for more and more within the domain of your souls. Never stop learning Torah, never stop giving to others, never stop loving. Never stop praying and ascending higher and higher to reach your greatest potential.” Like the inside of the scroll, our souls should be the recipients of our constant and intense desire for expansion.
On the outside of the scroll, however, on the bodies which contain our souls like the mezuza exterior holds the parchment within it, we etch the name שקי. We feed our bodies the food it needs, clothe ourselves with dignity, house our families with comfort and furnish those homes with warmth. But in so doing we have a foot on the brake, knowing that ultimately life is a see-saw, each side vying for our intense interest and dedication. The soul, the body. The body, the soul. Where we put our weight at that moment defines us. At times, we need to shift our weight towards the soul. At times we get stuck in a more chronic state of imbalance where the soul starts to receive a limited energy supply, only after the needs of the body find their full satiation (which, says chazal, by definition never happens). Like cinderella, waiting to receive her chance to start living, the soul sometimes finds herself fulfilling all the chores of the body, with hardly anything left over for her own development and beauty. This imbalance – this off-kilter-ness – is what the midrash is referring to when they described the generation as being הפכפכין – up-side-down and back-wards-round. The proper qualitites are there – the chessed and the din – only in reverse.
How does Hashem, in His infinite loving-kindness, coax us back to spiritual health and appropriate balance of the powers within us, to live lives that He is proud of?
The formula is as follows; when we apply limits to our physical pursuits, He opens up the storehouses of bounty in Heaven and showers us with their goodness. When we scramble and worry for our material satisfaction, He “turns off the shower” so that we experience limitation – since we didn’t apply breaks from within, He applies them from without. The more we clamor for tasty morsels and luxurious delights for the body, the more Hashem frustrates our attempts, as if to say; “your focus is off. Leave the blessing to Me. There is no-one who does it better. But who will shepherd your soul to its scintillating potential if not for you? You’re on a see-saw – and you need to shift your position.”
Similarly, when we do chessed to others, Hashem approves of our placement of chessed and mirrors our human kindness with HisDivine variety. There is no better place to see this principle in action than the verse in Malachi 3;10 “הביאוני את כל המעשר אל בית האוצר… ובחנוני נא בזאת…. אם לא אפתח לכם את הארבות השמים והריקותי לכם ברכב עד בלי די”
“Bring your tithes to my storehouse (the temple) … you can test me on this …. [if you do] I will open for you the windows of Heaven and pour on you blessing without limit”.
Nowhere else does the Torah say; you can test me on this! These are the spiritual laws of the universe and can be trusted.
As women, there is a deep resonance with this spiritual laws which is contained in the laws of taking challah – an olive size amount of dough when a significant and specific quantity of flour is used. (That’s where the name challah comes from!) This mitzvah involves separating and ideally giving away the dough to the kohanim in the time of the temple. [Today, we dispose of the removed portion of the dough]. As paradoxical as it feels to remove some of the dough from the very mass of nourishment that you just sweated to create, the act itself contains the secret of blessing. When we can restrict our intake of physical pleasure, we allow our soul to soar to great places, and Hashem responds by blessing us with all our needs in ample supply. Its when blessing starts to dwindle that we need to ask ourselves – where am I off – where am I הפכפך – essentially flipped, that Hashem is trying to bring me back into alignment?
This explains the story down to its every detail. As Elimelech runs away from helping the poor, the famine intensifies. His sons forget about the plight of the land of Israel while in Moav and marry Moabite princesses. Since they don’t have stirrings of teshuva even after a ten-year grace period in which Hashem was hoping they would repent, Hashem has no choice but take their lives. (It is the perpetuation of the soul of Machlon actually through the act of yibum – as the mystics describe – that he is given another chance!) Naomi suffers – though she herself was not guilty of this character deficit of kindness – but then again, she did not protest adequately to the misdeeds of her husband and sons.
Ruth, called by the midrash a pearl in the sand, a descendant of Lot, the nephew of Avraham, carried this hidden trait of kindness within her miserly host nation, and is attracted to the Jewish people by the law of attraction of likes. Through her kindness to Naomi, a new trend is set in motion, and she then graciously receives the kindness of Boaz. Through unfailing faith in G-d’s goodness despite the hardest of times, slowly, slowly, a new balance is set and spiritual health is restored. Hashem, through His tears so to speak of having had to remove His name of י-הוה out of manifestation for while, smiles down on His tzaddikim, Rus, Naomi, Boaz, and indeed a whole nation recovering from their temporary lack of righteousness. Chessed and Din occupy their right places in the hearts of the people as well in the working of the world and the window of history closes with the heralding of the eventual mashiach through David HaMelech.
The Vilna Goan closes his commentary of the first verse with going back to the opening words of the scroll. “ויהי בימי שפוט השופטים – and it was in the days of the judging of the judges.”
We have two compartments of our hearts, two inclinations that drive and motivate us. The yetzer tov when he is allowed to rule manifests only good and blessing in our lives. When the yetzer hara is given the reigns, we experience doubt in Hashem’s kindness and misery only. But there is a third state – called זה וזה שופטן – when both the evil and good inclinations thrash it out – seeing who will overpower whom in any given moment. This is the state of הפכפכון – when we sometimes follow our higher drive to do good and sometimes follow our lower drive motivating our own personal physical or ego centered pleasure. This is the internal flipping motion of real life – or the state of human mediocrity – of being a בינוני, an in-between person, when we are constantly being bombarded by conflicted messages from both domains which leave us confused and exhausted.
“And it was in the days of the judging of the judges – when the yetzer tov reigned – as well as the yetzer hara/ evil inclination – that Hashem had no choice but to afflict us, to bring us back to a state of pure good in which He can shower us with His abundant love.
In this light, yesurim, the Jewish understanding of suffering, is a vote of confidence, a chance to eradicate traces of evil that wrack our systems and implant themselves into our beings and only serve to prevent the greatest blessings from reaching our doors. Having this view of the difficulties of our lives is what will eventually bring us back to Hashem, and allow us to become the next hero in the story that He is writing of the very life that we are living.
May we all respond to the call with greatest kindness – kindness to others, and in so doing, we bestow kindness onto our own souls – and allow Hashem to do what He longs to do the most.
Let us never be caught – Ruthless.