A “Simple” D’var Torah by Rabbi Julie Danan

Dymaxion map

On the occasion of the “Remembering Reb Zalman” Shabbaton, Broomfield, Colorado

Parashat Ekev, 20 Menachem-Av
August 16, 2014, Shabbat breakfast Torah
by Rabbi Dr. Julie Hilton Danan

The Ohalah conference was held in this space on Erev Tu Bishvat of this year. As Reb Zalman gave his customary closing remarks, there was a poignant moment in which he confessed that sometimes in his December years he felt like just a “pashuteh Yid,” a simple Jew.  You know, pashut like the word peshat, the simple meaning, nothing profound or mysterious. Yet simultaneously on a more transcendent plane it felt like our Rebbe was sharing, and continues to share, a supernova of Ruah Ha-Kodesh, the holy spirit that rested upon him, much as Moshe Rabbenu shared his spirit with the 70 elders (Numbers 11).

After Reb Zalman’s passing, I still turn to him for teaching. On a “simple” level, I have a whole shelf of his books and recordings. On a deeper level, I sometimes ask him to guide my studies. When I do that, I don’t know where we’re going but I know it will be just what I need to learn. So when I first asked Reb Zalman to keep on teaching me, I kept coming up with synchronicity around that word he’d used in that talk: pashut, simple, the root פ’ש’ט’ peh-shin-tet.

I quickly found out that simple isn’t so simple!

It started when I opened Reb Zalman’s book Credo of a Modern Kabbalist and found this teaching: “The rabbis taught that עתידה ארץ ישראל להתפשט לכל הארצות Atidah Eretz Yisrael lehitpashet le-khol ha-aratzot [in the future time] Israel will spread into all the countries of the world.” That’s a creative Midrashic solution to the problem of how the whole world will gather each Sabbath and New Moon at the future Temple in Jerusalem (Isaiah 66:23)—“simple,” Jerusalem will spread throughout Israel and Israel throughout the world!

Reb Zalman, of course, understood this spiritually. He wrote that “this doesn’t mean that all countries will physically become part of Israel, but rather that the sense of holiness that people now feel in the Land of Israel . . .will be something  that people feel wherever they are. . . In order for us to survive [as a species] we must learn to feel this holiness universally.”

While I think Reb Zalman was highlighting this teaching in an ecological sense, about the holiness of planet earth, of Gaia, this summer I have indeed felt like Israel has spread throughout much of the world in the sense that conflict there spreads outward to affect people far away, all around the world and into our own communities. And I am just as convinced that when peace finally breaks out it too will radiate forth from Jerusalem and Israel, modeling and spreading shalom far beyond its borders, throughout the world.

As I thought back to Ohalah, I realized that I had seen the root of “pashut” פ’ש’ט’ peh-shin-tet  in another context there, in a study led by Rabbi David Seidenberg from the book of Samuel I, chapter 19, where in an unusual episode, King Saul strips off his clothes—or maybe his royal garments or armor—falls to the ground, rolls on the earth and prophesies. The message seems to be that there is a connection between physically touching the earth with one’s body and prophecy, like Moshe taking off his shoes at the burning bush. And the word for stripping off of clothes is from the same root as Pashut, va-yifshat וַיִּפְשַׁט גַּם הוּא בְּגָדָיו וַיִּתְנַבֵּא

Reb Zalman wanted to open us all up to Prophecy. In Foundations of the Fourth Turning of Hasidism, Reb Zalman teaches that “The primary goal of Hasidism is a direct connection to God, often characterized as nevu’ah, ‘prophecy,’ or ru’ah ha’kodesh, the ‘spirit of holiness.’ Hasidism believes that the prophetic consciousness is still available . . . or as we might characterize it today, deep intuition” that comes when we are open to receive it (p. 12).

And there is still another meaning of the root of Pashut פ’ש’ט’ peh-shin-tet in the ethical realm. It can mean “to extend a hand.” In the Babylonian Talmud, first chapter of Tractate Shabbat, we find a discussion of pashat ba’al ha-bayit et yado פשט בעל הבית את ידו a householder putting out a hand to give to a poor person tzedakah. Reb Zalman wrote about Hasidism’s role as a movement to honor the simple Jew, the simple Ba’al Habayit/householder, who just wants to do good deeds for others in a direct way. That is also a way to spread holiness.


I invite you to take a moment now to pause and feel the movement of Pashut in your own body, gesturing with your hands: stripping off defenses—opening the heart—extending a hand, reaching and giving—spreading the holiness outward.


Finally, the root of פ’ש’ט’ peh-shin-tet also relates to the final stripping of earthly trappings. In Numbers 20, YHWH tells Moshe to strip off Aaron the High Kohen’s vestments before his death and puts them on his son Elazar using a word with the same root: va-yaphshet, וַיַּפְשֵׁט מֹשֶׁה אֶת אַהֲרֹן אֶת בְּגָדָיו וַיַּלְבֵּשׁ אֹתָם אֶת אֶלְעָזָר בְּנוֹ

[Compare this to Kings II 2, where Elijah is taken up in a chariot (Rechev Esh. Reb Zalman passed on the 5 of Tammuz, the day of Ezekiel’s vision of another chariot, the Merkava). In Elijah’s passing there was also a transfer of garment, his mantle, not stripped off and dressed ceremoniously, but dropped behind in the ascent and picked up by Elisha. There is also a transfer of spirit ruah רוח. Elisha receives a double measure and become the leader, but there is spirit to spare among a whole band of prophets.]

Like Aharon, his ancestor, our Rebbe has climbed to the mountaintop and taken off his earthly garments. Like King Shaul he has merged with the earth and like Elijah he has ascended to the heavens. We are now the next generation that our Rebbe so consciously nurtured.

Some of us don the priestly vestments of ritual and prayer leaders, some assume the mantle of spiritual and intellectual leadership, and some bear the royal robes and heavy crown of organizational leadership, but all can share in the Ruah Ha-Kodesh, the Holy Spirit. Because sometimes, as our Rebbe modeled for us (by sharing his Rebbe chair, for example), the way to receive that spirit and to carry on his legacy is to take off the roles, to connect with the earth, to extend our hand to those in need, and to spread the holiness, le-hitpashet, out to the world!

As Moses exclaimed when he shared from his holy spirit with the seventy elders:

וּמִי יִתֵּן כָּל עַם יְהוָה נְבִיאִים כִּי יִתֵּן יְהוָה אֶת רוּחוֹ עֲלֵיהֶם

U-mi yiten kol am YHWH nevi’im, ki yiten YHWH et ruho alehem!

If only all the people of YHWH could be prophets and YHWH will give his spirit upon all of them!

Ken Yehi Ratzon, May it be G!d’s will, that all of us can open to the Holy Spirit, can share it and spread it to the whole world. . .even if we are just simple Jews.

Especially if we are simple Jews, pashute Yiddin.

Keep it simple, my sweethearts.

D’var Torah Notes (for those who enjoy a deeper look)

The expression Pashuteh Yid is in Yiddish, with the words derived from Hebrew.

Atidah Eretz Yisrael lehitpashet le-khol ha-aratzot. In Credo of a Modern Kabbalaist, Reb Zalman and Rabbi Daniel Siegel give the sources for this saying as Pesikta Rabbati Ch. 1:4 (a selection is included on p. 173) and Sifrei Devarim, Piska 1. Interestingly, the concept of Israel “spreading throughout the world” is found there, but the precise word lehitpashet is not (which makes it stand out all the more for me). I had a lot of fun trying to track down the phrase, and in the Bar Ilan data base discovered a Teshuvah (rabbinic response) on the subject in the book Be’er Moshe  by Rabbi Moshe Stern (1914-1997), in which he was charged with looking up this “common saying” whose sentiment is in many sources but whose exact wording remains elusive. Rabbi Stern, as a noted Haredi authority, felt compelled to take the prophetic vision literally, but wrote that the even according to the simple meaning ע”פ פשטן של דברים, the expression can also mean that the holiness of the Holy Land will someday spread throughout the world.

When peace breaks out. In his D’var Torah after dinner on Erev Shabbat, Rabbi Shalom Schachter shared a Midrash about how Rabbi Akiba laughed to see a negative prophecy about the land of Israel fulfilled, because that would lead to a positive one being fulfilled as well. (Lamentations Rabba 5)

Touching the earth. More synchronicity: The episode of Moshe removing his shoes (Exodus Chapter 3) at the burning bush was also studied at Ohalah 2014, in a session led by Maggid of Zelig Golden of Wilderness Torah with Rabbi Dianne Elliot.

Extending a hand to the needy. In preparing for this D’var Torah, I felt Reb Zalman guided me to look in Geologist for the Soul, in which he wrote, “The Ba’al Shem Tov was continually singing the praises of the pashuteh Yid, the ‘simple Jew,’ and emunah pashuteh, ‘simple faith’. . .The pashuteh Yid [of the modern world] says: ‘What I God asking me to do in this moment? Whatever it is, I want to do it.’” (pp. 74-75).

The paragraph in brackets was originally written as part of this D’var Torah, but only summarized briefly in my oral presentation at the Shabbaton.

—Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan joined our congregation in August 2003. She and her family moved from San Antonio, Texas; for the past 13 years Rabbi Danan was the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Am, a Reconstructionist Congregation, in San Antonio. For over two decades, Rabbi Danan was a major contributor to community service, Jewish education, and interfaith and multicultural associations in South Texas and with national organizations. Since coming to Chico, she has continued her interfaith work by acting as the first chairperson of the “Celebration of Abraham,” bringing together local Jews, Christians and Muslims, and be serving as the president of the Chico Area Interfaith Council.  Read more.