The Power of the Individual

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein



By Rav Elyakim Krumbein


Shiur 9: The power of the individual

Rav Elyakim Krumbein





            Thus far we have dealt with the Gra's fundamental positions connected to Torah – its significance and its study, and we considered several consequences of these positions. Now I wish to examine some of the Gra's views on other issues. It should be remembered, however, that in the case of the Gaon of Vilna, no matter where we turn, we do not cut ourselves loose from the Torah.


            I wish to deal with a principle that was exceedingly important in the eyes of the Gra and his disciples. On the face of it, this principle is elitist, but the Gra himself tried to make it meaningful and approachable for the average person.




            At the end of the previous shiur, we saw that according to the Gra every individual has a "source" in the Written Law, and that his personal verse alludes not only to his physical existence, but also to his essence in general. It is impossible not to see the consistency here – just as the Torah is essentially a system that flows from sources, so too a person and his life follow from a source in the Torah, to the point that the "code" of a person's life draws its vitality from it. In fact, the consistency here is even more impressive. For the Gra maintained that what is true regarding the individual and his life, applies equally to all of creation. All of history, the past and the future, is alluded to in the Torah. Thus he writes in his commentary to Sifra de-Tzeni'uta (chap. 5, p. 55):


And the rule is that whatever was, is and will be to eternity is all included in the Torah from "In the beginning" to "in the sight of all Israel." And not just the generalizations, but even the particulars of each and every species, and each specific person, and everything that will happen to him from the day he is born to his end, and all his detailed particulars. And similarly every species of animal and beast, and every living creature in the world and every herb and plant and mineral and all the detailed particulars of every species, and of the particulars of the species to eternity, and what will happen to them and their roots… All this is included in Parashat Bereishit until Noach… and the general principles are included in the first chapter until, "which God had created and performed," as mentioned above. And the overriding principle is found in the first verse, in the seven words, [which allude to] seven thousand years… And they are four general principles which correspond to the four worlds…


            This structure – particulars that are found in the Written Law, and that are included in increasingly greater concentration in "sources" arranged one above the other – is very similar to the description of the Torah itself in the writings of Rav Chayyim of Volozhin. Only that here the topic is not the Torah itself, but the real world. The sources of the universe and all its particulars are found in the Torah.


            Where else do we find such an understanding of the universe? Anyone who reads the Ramban's introduction to his commentary to the book of Bereishit encounters a very similar principle:


Everything that has been said by prophecy concerning the esoterics of the Divine Chariot and the process of Creation, and what has been transmitted about them to the Sages together with an account of the four forces in the lower world: the force of minerals, vegetation in the earth, living motion, and the rational soul. All of these matters - their creation, their essence, their powers and functions, and the disintegration of those of them that are destroyed – were told to Moshe. And all is written in the Torah, explicitly or by allusion. Our Rabbis have already said that fifty gates of understanding were created in the world and they were all transmitted to Moshe, with the exception of one, as it is stated: "You have made him a little lower than the angels" (Tehilim 8:6). And the statement that fifty gates of understanding were created in the world means that there was one gate of understanding pertaining to the creation of the minerals, their force and their effects, one gate of understanding pertaining to the creation of the vegetation in the earth, and similarly, as regards the creation of trees, beasts, fowl, creeping things and fish. This series culminates in the creation of the rational soul enabling man to contemplate the secret of the soul, to know its essence and its power…. And everything that was transmitted to our master Moshe regarding the gates of understanding was written in the Torah, explicitly or alluded to in letters, or in gematriyot, or in the shape of the letters written properly or in altered form … or in their strokes and crowns… And king Shelomo to whom God gave wisdom and knowledge, it was all from the Torah, and from it he learned even the forces and essences of the grasses… All this he knew through the Torah, and all this he found in it, in its explanations, in its precise readings, in its letters and in its strokes, as I have mentioned…


            According to the Ramban, the roots of reality are alluded to in the Torah. There is, however, a great difference between the words of the Ramban and those of the Gra. The Ramban describes the Torah as the source of the science of creation, through which one can know and understand the laws and principles according to which the world is governed. The Gra emphasizes another element – not only science, but even history is included in the Torah. This is a very novel approach, because, on the face of it the course of historical events is determined by the free will of human beings, and by Providence's responses to their actions. Accordingly, the details of the actual events could not have been foreseen from the outset. The most that can be said is that the general thrust of history – the appearance of God's kingdom – was set at the beginning, and it will at some point be realized. The promised final goal does not determine the path that will lead us to it, and many alternatives are possible that depend on human choice. As stated, however, the Vilna Gaon anchors even the details of human history in the Torah.




            One might have thought that this perspective would have brought the Gra to a deterministic worldview, which imposes passivity and powerlessness on man. Such a conclusion, however, is very far from the truth. It is precisely his general perspective on the Torah and history that underlies the Gra's position that each individual has a clearly-defined role: each person must make his own special contribution to the perfection of the world. Each individual has a personal destiny that must be fulfilled specifically by him. This understanding, which greatly magnifies the importance and power of the individual, is found in the Gra's commentary to Tikkunei Zohar Chadash.[1] The Zohar states there:


Regarding this power it was stated that whoever does not know his gematriyot and calculations will go down to Sheol, as it says: "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your strength, for there is no act, nor calculation, nor knowledge, nor wisdom in Sheol" (Kohelet 9:10).


            The Zohar issues a harsh decree against one "who does not know "his gematriyot and calculations" – he "will go down to Sheol." The Gra explains this as follows:


Every individual in Israel has a root above in those calculations of his name. "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your strength, for there is no act, nor calculation, etc." – that is to say, those people who had in this world an act or calculation are not found there in Sheol.[2]


            In other words, those who are found in "Sheol" are those people who during their lifetimes did not realize their destiny according to their heavenly root, and their "actions" were cut off from those "calculations." Realization of one's personal destiny promises redemption for the soul in the world-to-come. It follows from here that understanding one's place in God's comprehensive plan does not paralyze man; on the contrary, it provides him with clarity regarding his role in life.


            It may be understood from what he says here that sometimes one can decode one's personal destiny through gematriyot. For example, a tradition that was prevalent among the disciples of the Gra relates to R. Moshe ben Hillel Rivlin, who was known as "R. Moshe Maggid." His father, R. Hillel, was the reputed author of Kol Ha-Tor, which deals with the Gra's teachings about the redemption. This R. Moshe was talented, gifted, and especially strong in the field of darshanut. At the age of 15, his father brought him before the Gra, and the Gra said to him: "Know that with this power that God gave you, you must seek out Zion, as the Gemara says: "'She is Zion, there is none that seeks for her.' 'There is none that seeks for her' implies that she should be sought." The Gaon added on that same occasion that his role is alluded to in the gematriya of his name, for the numerical value of the words "Moshe ben Hillel ben Binyamin" is equivalent to the numerical value of "Doresh Tziyon."[3] From the time of that meeting with the Gra, R. Moshe eagerly accepted upon himself his role in life: to encourage the people of Israel to rebuild Zion, and he devoted his homiletical skills to further this end. He did this for many years in Eastern Europe. Eventually, he moved to Jerusalem, where he served as one of the community's leaders and was active on behalf of the welfare of the yishuv.




            Here we must fill in part of what we owe from the previous shiur. We noted there that the Gra, who was able to point to each person's verse, ceded to a request put forward by one of his disciples, and pointed to his own personal source. The Gra testified that the verse containing his own personal destiny is "A perfect and just weight" ("even shelema va-tzedek"). We were left with the question: What can we learn from these words about the Gra's role on earth?


            According to a tradition among the Gra's disciples, the answer to this question lies not so much in the verse itself, but in its location. The command, "But you shall have a perfect and just weight" (Devarim 25:15) as part of the section dealing with weights and measures, appears almost at the end of Parashat Ki-Tetze. It is immediately followed by: "Remember what Amalek did to you" (ibid. v. 17), and in the continuation we find the order to blot out the remembrance of the enemy "when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies round about." Then a new parasha begins: "And it shall be, when you come in to the land… and you shall possess it and dwell therein" (ibid. 26:1) – the mitzva of first-fruit.


            What follows from here is that the Gra fills the roll of herald, who leads and hastens the arrival of the period of Israel's redemption, a period in which Amalek's memory will finally be blotted out, and the people of Israel will arrive in their land, inherit and settle it, by the merit of their fulfillment of the mitzvot that depend on the land, such as first-fruit. The previously mentioned author of Kol Ha-Tor discussed this matter in detail. Preparing for the redemption was a very live issue for the Gaon of Vilna, and the assumption that he saw it as his main role in this world fits in with many facts in his life. We will leave a broader discussion of this issue for some future opportunity. For now let us go back to our main issue: uncovering one's personal uniqueness.




            The words of the Zohar, which obligate each and every person to know and act in accordance with "his own calculations," present us with a difficult problem: How are simple people like us to reveal our special "verse"? Must each individual approach a person like the Gra so that he might reveal this vital information to him with the help of spiritual inspiration and insight? This is difficult to accept, but if not the question arises – how is the average person to know what Providence expects of him?


            The answer to this question is a test for the Gra's leadership. Were he to leave all of these teachings about the individual's destiny to those initiated in the esoteric law – e.g., to his close disciples – who are fluent in the paths of gematriyot and allusions, this would testify to spiritual elitism. In that case we would find ourselves justifying the image of the Gra as one who was not only raised up above the rest of his people, but also detached from them, and who was only interested in his own teachings and his narrow circle of followers.


            The truth, however, seems to be different. R. Eliyahu maintained that the individual's responsibility for his personal destiny is a principle towards which it is important to educate the wider public. His commentary to the Zohar was meant to be studied only by students of Kabbala,[4] and he understood that in order to spread this idea, he must use a more popular literary form. So too would it be necessary to find a way to make this principle relevant to the masses in a practical sense, without making use of means that are not readily available to the average person.


            To further this end the Gra used his commentary on the book of Mishlei. The Gra instructed his disciples to publish this work before his other writings. It seems that the Gra attached special significance to this commentary, which offers guidance to the community at large. What is relevant to this discussion is his comments on Mishlei 16:1-4:


The thoughts of the heart are man's, but from the Lord comes the utterance of the tongue.

All the ways of a man are clean in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the spirits.

Commit your works to the Lord, and your plans shall be established.

The Lord has made every thing for his own purpose; yea, even the wicked for the day of evil.


            The Gra first explains these verses according to their plain sense. But then he shifts to a different plane, which he calls "sod," "secret." On this level, the objective of these verses is to show "the way to man, how to behave and follow His will, blessed be He, and good counsel. For each and every person has his own path to follow, for their dispositions are not the same, their faces are not the same, and the natures of two people are not the same." How can each person identify his unique path to fulfill the will of God? The answer to this question depends on the historical changes in the level of the generations of Israel. In ancient times, the revelation of each person's individual path was cast upon the shoulders of the prophets:


When there were prophets, people would go to the prophets to seek God, and the prophet would tell each person based on prophecy the path that he should follow according to the root of his soul and the nature of his body. This is [the meaning of] "The thoughts of the heart are man's," that he need only prepare his heart to seek God with all his heart, "and from the Lord comes the utterance of the tongue," by way of the prophet how he should conduct himself.


            Under these circumstances, what is asked of the individual is genuine seeking of God "with all his heart." The task itself of identifying the path that he should take falls upon the prophet. The responsibility to turn to the prophet with pure intentions is connected according to the Gra's explanation – in accordance with the plain sense of Scripture – to the aforementioned verse: "When he must speak before the king or before an officer, he must only prepare his heart for God, and from God will come the utterance of the tongue, and whatever God puts in his mouth he will say. And so too with the Torah, God desires the heart, and when a person sets as his goal to study God's Torah with all his heart and all his soul and all his might, God will give him knowledge, understanding, and insight to learn and to teach."


            But let us go back to the level of "secret" – how does a person clarify his role when there is no prophecy?


And when prophecy ceased, the holy spirit was in Israel, and each person's spirit would inform him how he is to conduct himself, each person having the holy spirit. "Blessed is the man to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile"… and in his spirit there is no stain. Then, "the Lord weighs the spirits, and all the ways of a man are clean in his own eyes." This is [the meaning of] "There are many devices in a man's heart, but the counsel of the Lord, that shall stand."


            In a most fundamental and surprising manner, the Gra asserts that in the absence of prophecy each person has the holy spirit, and that he may rely on it in order to reveal for himself his right path. Only that using this channel is conditional on spiritual perfection:


But who can say that "my heart is clean," that there is no guile whatsoever in his spirit….[5] For he in whose spirit there is no guile is he who actually clings to the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be He. But if, God forbid, there is in his heart a small root that bears gall and wormwood, there is then guile in his spirit. If he conducts himself according to his spirit, and the ways of man are clean and upright in his eyes, he will fall from heaven to earth until he is unable to rise…


            In practice, then, moral defects block this second route of relying on personal "holy spirit." But even in this situation, there is what to do:


This is [the meaning of] "Commit your works to the Lord," that is to say, now we are not to go after great things and marvels, but rather to see that our works are "to the Lord," that is to say, in accordance with His will (blessed be He), "and your plans shall be established," that is to say, the works themselves, i.e., the fulfillment of the positive precepts, and the caution regarding the negative precepts, they will establish your plans. For "the Lord has made every thing for His own purpose," that is to say, God's principal desire is the Torah and the commandments… And therefore, stray not from them, and they will establish your plans…


            In our day, argues the Gaon, the best way to reveal one's personal destiny is to take a paradoxical path. A person must concentrate on fulfilling the Torah and the commandments, which constitute God's principal desire, despite the fact that these are shared by every member of Israel, and it would seem that they do not relate in any way to his personal path. All this notwithstanding, "they" – the Torah and the commandments – "will establish your plans," that is to say, they will establish and illuminate the unique dimension of the individual.


            In his talks with his students, my revered teacher, HaRav Yehuda Amital, ztz"l, would often come back to the message emerging from these words of the Gra. Today, he would say, everyone tries to emphasize what is unique about himself, his own "special letter" in the Torah. But, he would continue, look, for example, at the Ramim in our yeshiva. We have merited that almost all of them developed themselves in our Bet Midrash, but as you can see, each of them has his own special path in Torah study and the service of God. No two are alike. How did this happen? They all studied what everybody else was studying, they heard the same shiurim, they kept the same sedarim. What is amazing is that with this broad and common basis, they each found their own path, and brought their own uniqueness to full revelation and realization.


            I am left with two comments on this process.


            First, the question may be raised: The Gra indeed maintains that cleaving to the Torah and the fulfillment of the will of God will in the end bring a person to find his own personal path. But the question is whether there is any explanation or logic to this position? How and why should this happen?


            It seems to me that here we must go back to the Gra's position that the Torah is in fact the source of everything. The unique lives of each and every individual exist only within its framework, and draw only from its light. From here it follows that whoever cleaves to the Torah is likely to find his own place in a most natural manner.


            And in conclusion, a second comment. Careful attention should be paid to the fact that a process is taking place here that is reminiscent of what we have already seen regarding spiritual elation. The Gra waived "unifications and intentions" as a means, and hung his achievements on studying Torah with full dedication and perfect concentration. So too regarding the matter at hand. The experts on the issue, i.e., the prophets, might use their esoteric knowledge to arrive at a certain result. But it is also possible to succeed with much more "ordinary" means that are available to the average person. Full faith in the power of the Torah and mitzvot, and placing the responsibility and the challenge in the hands of each and every individual – are clear characteristics of the Gra's legacy.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] Vol. II, 61b (the reference is based on the Responsa project).

[2] Cited by S.Z. Havlin, Ha-Maggid Doresh Tziyon, Jerusalem, p. 61. The traditions that we will cite here about R. Moshe Maggid are from this volume, p. 3 and on.

[3] This example is based on a verse from the Prophets, and not from the Written Law. R. Moshe's grandfather, R. Binyamin, who was a direct disciple of the Gra, added other allusions, including: "Ad ki yavo Shilo," and so too "Yinon Shemo," are both equivalent to "Moshe ben Hillel."

[4] The Gra was sure that his kabbalistic books would not achieve broad exposure. Only in this way can we understand how he was able to write in one place in his commentary to Sifra de-Tzeni'uta: "I charge the reader under oath not to reveal this matter." He apparently believed that if all the readers of the book commit themselves not to publicize his esoteric teachings, they will not become revealed.

[5] It is recommended that the reader examine the omitted section, which expands upon the point in a kabbalistic framework.