The Tisch: The embodiment of Torah

Rabbi Meshulam Feivish Heller Halevi of Zbarazh was one of the leaders during the formative period of the nascent hassidic movement.

Torah scroll 521 (photo credit: Stockbyte)
Torah scroll 521
(photo credit: Stockbyte)
Rabbi Meshulam Feivish Heller Halevi of Zbarazh (c.1742-1794) was one of the leaders during the formative period of the nascent hassidic movement. R. Feivish was born into a rabbinic family of illustrious lineage – a direct descendant of Rabbi Gershon Shaul Yom Tov Lipmann Halevi Heller (1579-1654), the author of the Tosefot Yom Tov commentary on the Mishna and other works. It appears, however, that R.
Feivish himself did not serve in the rabbinate.
R. Feivish’s fame is primarily due to his writings. His work Yosher Divrei Emet, first published in 1792 as part of Likutim Yekarim, is an important document that reflects early hassidic thought, identity and organization.
Another short work, Derech Ha’emet, was first published in 1830 as an appendix to Darchei Tzedek. Two letters penned by R. Feivish and sent to the Land of Israel have survived. It is clear from these letters that R. Feivish was an avid supporter of the hassidic aliya to the Land of Israel in 1777.
Hassidic collective memory credits Rabbi Dov Ber, the great Maggid (preacher) of Mezritch (d. 1772), with fashioning the decentralized ethos of the Hassidic movement, where each hassidic leader was a master in his own court. Yet R. Feivish wrote that he saw the Maggid only once, though he later procured notes “from his holy words that enthuse those who tremble for the service of God.”
Rather, R. Feivish was a student of a different person associated with Hassidism of that period – Rabbi Yehiel Mikhel of Zloczow (1726-1786). R.
Feivish also visited Rabbi Meir of Przemyslany (the first, 1703-1773 or 1781?).
In his writings, R. Feivish credited these two personalities for all that he writes, adding: “At times I explain their words with an accessible parable, and at times I explain a biblical verse or a talmudic passage, but the main wisdom is from their words – that which God has graciously allowed me to understand from them.”
Thus it would appear that what would become known as Hassidism of the Besht did not develop in a linear fashion of master to disciple; rather, it grew out of a number of different, contemporary streams.
A LOVELY idea regarding our connection to the Torah is reported by a 20th-century author, Rabbi Meyer Schwartman (1901-1969), who served as rabbi in Winnipeg from 1938. R. Schwartman reported that he had heard the idea from his father in the name of one of R. Feivish’s descendants.
Others credit R. Feivish himself with the idea.
The Bible outlines the limitations of the power of the king and obligation that he must specifically fulfill (Deuteronomy 17:14-20). Inter alia, the king must write a Torah scroll and carry it around with him. Unlike in English, Hebrew nouns are gender specific, thus the Hebrew word Torah is a feminine noun. Appropriately the Bible uses the feminine vehayta imo (literally: and she should be with him) to describe the Torah that the king must always have with him.
Strangely, the Bible uses a masculine preposition in the next two words when it says that the king must not only have the Torah with him, but must read it – vekara bo (literally: and he will read him), instead of the feminine ba. This inconsistency perplexed commentators.
R. Feivish reportedly explained: the verse begins with the feminine verb – vehayta – to appropriately describe the Torah. The king must have the Torah with him at all times, but not just on his person: the sovereign is charged with being one with Torah. The Torah should be part of his identity such that Israel can read the Torah from his face, from his eyes, from his conduct, from his every move. The Torah must be “with him” such that the sovereign embodies the Torah. Then vekara bo, the Torah can be read “in him” – in the king. Whoever wants to attain Torah would merely look at the monarch and “read” his moves.
Receiving the Torah is not about merely holding a physical object; it is about becoming one with Torah, embodying Torah. To use Erich Fromm’s terms: receiving the Torah is not just about having the Torah, it is about being the Torah.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.