The Pledge by Rabbi Yehudah Ashlag (Ba’al ha-Sullam)

by tillerofthesoil

Ba'al ha-Sullam Portrait

All of Israel are responsible for one another

And once the whole nation unanimously agreed and said, We will do and we will heed (Exodus 24:7), each member of Israel became responsible that nothing  be lacking from any other member of the nation. Only then did they become worthy of receiving the Torah, and not before. Because the Torah was not given to them before each and every one of Israel was asked if he agreed to take upon himself the mitsvah of loving others in the full measure, expressed with the words: love your fellow as yourself (Leviticus 19:18). This means that each and every one of Israel would take it upon himself to care and work for each member of the nation, and to satisfy their every need, no less than the measure embedded in him to care for his own needs.

With this collective responsibility, each member of the nation was liberated from worrying about the needs of his own body and was able to keep love your fellow as yourself in the fullest measure, and give all that he had to any needy person, since he no longer cared for the existence of his own body, as he knew for certain that he was surrounded by 600,000 loyal companions, who were standing by ready to provide for him.

For this reason, they were not ready to receive the Torah in the time of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but only when they came out of Egypt and became a whole nation. Only then was there the possibility to guarantee everyone’s needs without care or concern.

However, while they were still mingled with the Egyptians, a portion of their needs was necessarily given into the hands of these savages permeated with self-love. Thus, the measure that is given into the hands of foreigners will not be secured for any person of Israel because he will not be able to provide for those needs, as they will not be in possession of them. Consequently, as long as the individual is troubled with concerns for himself, he is unfit to even begin to keep love your fellow as yourself.

And evidently you discover that the giving of the Torah had to be delayed until they came out of Egypt and became a nation of their own, so that all their needs were provided for by themselves, without dependence on others. This qualifies them to receive the aforementioned עַרְבוּת (arvut), pledge, only then were they given the Torah [alternate vocalization: עֲרֵבוּת (arevut). Cf. Genesis 43:9: I will be אֶעֶרְבֶנּוּ (e’ervennu), his pledge, from my hand you may seek him; BT Sanhedrin 27b; Shevu’ot 39a: “All of Israel are עֲבִירוּת (avirut), responsible, for one another”]. It turns out that even after receiving the Torah, if a handful of Israel betray them and return to the filth of self-love, without concern for others, that same amount of need that is put into the hands of those few would burden Israel with the need to provide for it themselves.

This is because those few would not pity them at all; hence, the fulfillment of love your fellow as yourself would be withheld from the whole of Israel. Thus, these rebels would cause those who keep the Torah to remain in their filth of self-love, for they would be prevented from engaging in love your fellow as yourself and fulfilling their love for others without their help.

As a result, “All of Israel are responsible for one another,” both on the positive side and on the negative side. On the positive side, if they keep the pledge until each cares and satisfies the needs of his fellows, they can fully keep the Torah and mitsvot, meaning bring contentment to their Maker. And on the negative side, if a part of the nation does not want to keep the pledge, but rather chooses to wallow in self-love, they cause the rest of the nation to remain immersed in their filth and lowliness without ever finding a way out of their filth.

Therefore, the Tanna described the pledge as two people on a boat, when one of them began to drill a hole in the boat. His companion asked, “Why are you drilling?” He replied, “What business is it of yours? I am drilling under me, not under you.” So he replied, “Fool! We will both drown together!” [see Vayiqra Rabbah 4:6, cf. Zohar 3:122a].

From this we learn that since those rebels wallow in self-love, through their deeds they erect an iron wall preventing the keepers of Torah from even beginning to keep the Torah and mitsvot to the full degree of love your fellow as yourself, which is the ladder for attainment of cleaving with Him. And how right were the words of the proverb that said, “Fool, we will both drown together!”

Rabbi El’azar son of Rabbi Shim’on son of Yoḥai, extends the pledge even further [see BT Qiddushin 40b]. It is not enough for him that all of Israel be responsible for one another, but the whole world is included in that pledge. Indeed, there is no dispute here, but everyone admits that to begin with, it is enough to start with one nation for the observance of the Torah for the beginning of the repair of the world. It was impossible to begin with all the nations at once, as they said that the blessed Holy One went with the Torah to all the peoples and tongues, but they did not want to receive it [see BT Avodah Zarah 2b–3a]. In other words, they were immersed in the filth of self-love up to their necks, some with adultery, some with robbery and murder and so on, until it was impossible to conceive, in those days, of even asking if they agreed to retire from self-love.

Therefore, the blessed Holy One did not find a people or a tongue capable of receiving the Torah, except for the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, whose ancestral merit reflected upon them, as our Sages said, “The Patriarchs kept the whole Torah even before it was given” (M Qiddushin 4:14 on Genesis 26:5) [cf. Vayiqra Rabbah 2:10; Bahir §192; Zohar 3:277a (RM)]. This means that because of the loftiness of their souls, they had the ability to attain all the ways of the blessed Holy One with respect to the spirituality of the Torah, which stems from their cleaving, without first needing the ladder of the practical part of Torah, which they had no possibility of observing at all, as is written in Matan Torah (Giving Torah).

Undoubtedly, both the physical purity and the intellectual loftiness of our holy Patriarchs greatly influenced their sons and their sons’ sons, and their righteousness reflected upon that generation, whose members all assumed the sublime service, and each and every one said clearly, We will do and we will heed. Because of this, we were chosen, out of necessity, to be a chosen people from among all the peoples. Hence, only the members of Israel were admitted into the required pledge, and not the nations of the world at all, because they did not participate in it. This is simply the reality, and how could Rabbi El’azar disagree with it?

But the end of the repair of the world will only be realized by bringing all the people in the world under His service, as is written, And YHWH shall be king over all the earth: in that day shall YHWH be one, and His name One (Zechariah 14:9). In that day—and not before. And there are several more verses, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of YHWH, [as the waters cover the sea] (Isaiah 11:9); [And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of YHWH’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills;] and all nations shall flow unto it (ibid. 2:2).

But the role of Israel towards the rest of the world resembles the role of our holy Patriarchs towards the nation of Israel: Just as the righteousness of our Patriarchs helped us develop and purify until we became worthy of receiving the Torah, were it not for our Patriarchs, who kept the whole Torah before it was given, we would certainly not be any better than the rest of the nations.

Also, it is upon the nation of Israel to qualify [or: enable, prepare] itself and all the people of the world through Torah and mitsvot, to develop until they take upon themselves the sublime service, the love of others, which is the ladder to the purpose of creation: cleaving with Him.

Thus, each and every mitsvah that each man of Israel performs in order to bring contentment to his Maker, and not for any self satisfaction, helps, to some extent, with the development of all the peoples of the world. This is because it is not performed all at once, but rather by slow, gradual development, until it increases to such a degree that it can bring all the people in the world to the desired purity. And this is what our Sages call “weighting down the scale of merit,” meaning that the requisite weight of merit has been reached. And they compare it to weighing on a scale, where the shifting of the balance is the attainment of the desired weight [see BT Qiddushin 40b, cf. BT Sotah 3b; Midrash Tehillim 30:4; Zohar 3:111a (RM)].

These are the words of Rabbi El’azar son of Rabbi Shim’on who said that the world is judged by its majority. He was referring to the role of the nation of Israel to accrue to the world a certain measure of merit, until they are worthy of taking upon themselves His service, no less than Israel were worthy at the time they received the Torah. In the words of our Sages, it is regarded as if they had accrued enough merit to overcome the scale of liability, which is filthy self-love.

Of course, if the scale of merit, which is the sublime attainment of the benefit of loving others, overcomes the filthy scale of liability, they become qualified for the decision and the agreement to say, We will do and we shall heed, as Israel said. But before that, before they obtain sufficient merit, self-love certainly prevails and the sentence is their refusal to assume his burden.

Our Sages said, “If he performs one mitsvah, happy is he for turning the scale both of himself and of the whole world on the side of merit.” This means that an member of Israel finally adds his own part to the final reckoning, as one who weighs sesame seeds and adds them one by one to the scale, until the balance tips. Certainly, everyone takes part in this tipping, and without him, the sentencing would never be completed. Similarly, it is said about the acts of a member of Israel that he sentences the whole world to a scale of merit. This is because when the matter ends and the whole world has been sentenced to a scale of merit, each and every one will have a share in this tipping, for were it not for his deeds, the tipping would have been deficient.

Thus you find that Rabbi El’azar son of Rabbi Shim’on, does not dispute the words of our Sages that all of Israel is responsible for one another. Rather, Rabbi El’azar son of Rabbi Shim’on, speaks of the restoration of the whole world at the time of the end of the repair, whereas our Sages speak of the present, when only Israel has assumed the Torah.

And this is what Rabbi El’azar son of Rabbi Shim’on quotes from the Writings: yet a single offender destroys much good (Ecclesiastes 9:18). This is because it has already been explained that the impression that comes to a person when engaging in mitsvot between man and the Omnipresent is completely the same as the impression he gets when engaging in mitsvot between man and man. He is obliged to perform all the mitsvot for their own sake, without any hope of self-interest, meaning that no light returns to him through his trouble in the form of reward or honor, and so forth. Here, on this exalted point, the love of the Omnipresent and the love of his fellow unite and actually become one.

Thus he affects a certain measure of advancement on the ladder of love for others in all the people of the world in general. This is because that rung, which this individual caused by his deeds, whether large or small, ultimately joins the future in tipping the world to a scale of merit, since his share has been added and joins the tipping.

And one who commits one offence, meaning he cannot overcome and conquer his filthy self-love, and thus steals or something of the sort, weighs himself and the whole world down in the scale of liability. This is because with the revelation of the filth of self-love, the lowly nature of creation is bolstered. Thus, he withdraws a certain amount from the scale of merit. This is similar to a person removing from the scale a single sesame seed his fellow had placed there.

Thus, to that extent, he slightly tips the scale of liability. It turns out that he devalues the world, as they said, a single offender destroys much good. Because he could not overcome his petty lust, he thrust the spirituality of the whole world backwards.

With these words, we clearly understand what we said above, about the Torah being given specifically to the nation of Israel, because it is certain and unequivocal that the purpose of creation lies on the shoulders of the whole of the human race, black, white or yellow, without any essential difference.

However, because of the descent of human nature to the lowest rung, which is the self-love that rules over all of humanity without restraint, there was no way to negotiate with them and persuade them to agree to take upon themselves, even as an empty promise, to abandon their narrow world for the expansiveness of the love of others. The exception was the nation of Israel because they were enslaved in the savage kingdom of Egypt four hundred years in horrible torment.

Our Sages said, “As salt sweetens meat… so does suffering wash away all the iniquity of man” (BT Berakhot 5a). Meaning they bring great purification to the body [which constitutes all of humanity]. And in addition, the purification of their holy Patriarchs assisted them, which is the most important, as some verses of Torah attest to.

Owing to the experiences [of themselves and their ancestors] they were qualified for it [cf. Nietzsche, Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, 205]. And this is why the text refers to them in singular form, as is written, and Israel camped there over against the mountain (Exodus 19:2), and our Sages interpret “as one man with one heart” [see Rashi: “And Israel camped there (Exodus 19:2). וַיִחַן (Va-yiḥan), and he camped [third-person masculine singular]—as one man with one heart.” See Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishma’el ad loc.].

This is because each and every member of the nation completely detached himself from self-love, and wanted only to benefit his fellow, as we have demonstrated already regarding the meaning of love your fellow as yourself. It turns out that all the members of the nation came together, becoming as one heart and one man, for only then were they qualified to receive the Torah.

Thus, because of the aforementioned necessity, the Torah was given specifically to the nation of Israel, solely to the descendents of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, for it was inconceivable that any stranger would take part in it. Because of that, the nation of Israel had been established as a kind of gateway by which the sparks of merit would shine upon the whole of the human race the world over.

And these sparks multiply daily, like one who gives to a treasurer, until they are filled sufficiently, that is, until they develop to such an extent that they can understand the pleasantness and tranquility that are found in the kernel of love of others. For then they will know how to tip the balance to the right, and will place themselves under His burden, and the scale of liability will be eradicated from the world.

Now there remains to complete what we have said above about the reason why the Torah was not given to our Patriarchs, because love your fellow as yourself is the axis of the whole Torah around which all the mitsvot revolve, so as to clarify and interpret, it cannot be observed by an individual, but only through the consent of an entire nation.

And this is why it took until they came out of Egypt, when they became worthy of observing it. And then each and every one of the nation was first asked if they agreed to take that mitsvah upon himself. And once they agreed to it, they were given the Torah. However, there still remains to clarify where we find in the Torah that the children of Israel were asked that question, and that they all agreed to it prior to receiving the Torah.

Bear in mind that these things are evident to every educated person in the invitation that the blessed Holy One had sent to Israel through Moses, prior to receiving the Torah. As is written “And now, if you will truly heed My voice and keep My covenant, you will become for Me a treasure among all the peoples, for Mine is all the earth. And as for you, you will become for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.” And Moses came and he called to the elders of the people, and he set before them all these words that YHWH had charged him. And all the people answered together and said, “Everything that YHWH has spoken we shall do.” And Moses brought back the people’s words to YHWH (Exodus 19:5–8).

These words do not seem to fit since common sense dictates that if one offers one’s fellow to do some labor, and he wants him to agree, he should give him an example of the nature of that labor and its reward. Only then can he examine whether to decline or to accept.

But here, in these two verses, we seem to find neither an example of the labor nor its reward, because he says, And now, if you will truly heed My voice and keep My covenant and he does not interpret the voice or the covenant and what they apply to. And then he says, you will become for Me a treasure among all the peoples, for Mine is all the earth.

It is not clear whether He commands us to labor to be a treasure among all the peoples, or whether this is a promise of good to us.

We must also understand the connection to the end of the verse, כִּי (ki), for, Mine is all the earth. All three translators—Onqelos, Yonatan ben Uziel, and the Jerusalem Talmud, and all the commentators: Rashi, Naḥmanidies, etc.—try to emend its literal meaning. Ibn Ezra says, in the name of Rabbi Marinus [Rabbi Yonah ibn Yanaḥ], that כִּי (ki) means אַף עַל פִּי (af al pi), although, and he translates: you will become for Me a treasure among all the peoples, although Mine is all the earth. Ibn Ezra himself tends to agree, but this interpretation is not employed by our Sages, who said that ki serves four meanings: “אוֹ (O), if, דִּלְמָא (dilema), perhaps, אֶלָּא (ella), but, דְּהָא (deha), because” (BT Gittin 90a).

And he even adds a fifth meaning: אַף עַל פִּי כֵן (af al pi khen), even so. Afterwards the verse ends: and as for you, you will become for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. But here, too, it is not self-evident if this is a mitsvah and one must delve into it, or a promise of good. Also, the words a kingdom of priests are not repeated nor explained anywhere in the Bible.

The main thing here is we must discern between a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. For according to the ordinary meaning of priesthood, it is one aspect of holiness, and it is therefore obvious that a kingdom entirely of priests must be a holy nation, so a holy nation seems redundant.

However, according to all that we have explained from the beginning of the essay until now, we learn the true meaning of the words, to resemble a negotiation of offer and agreement. This means that with these words, He really does offer them the whole form and content of the labor in Torah and mitsvot, and its worthwhile reward.

The labor in Torah and mitsvot is expressed in the words, you will become for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. A kingdom of priests—all of you, from youngest to oldest, will be like priests. Just as priests have no land or any material possessions because YHWH is their domain, so will the entire nation be organized so that the whole earth and everything in it will only be dedicated to YHWH, may He be blessed. And no person should have any other involvement in it except to keep the mitsvot of YHWH, may He be blessed, and to satisfy the needs of his fellow. Thus he will lack none of his wishes, so that no person will need to have any worry about himself.

This way, even secular tasks such as harvesting, sowing, and so forth are regarded precisely as the service of the sacrifices performed by priests in the Temple. How is it different if I keep the mitsvah of making sacrifices to YHWH, which is a positive mitsvah, or if I can keep the positive mitsvah, love your fellow as yourself? It turns out that he who harvests his field in order to feed his fellow is the same as he who sacrifices to YHWH. Moreover, it seems that love your fellow as yourself, is more important than he who makes the sacrifice, as we have already shown.

Indeed, this is not yet the end of it, since the whole of the Torah and mitsvot were given for the sole purpose of purifying Israel, which is cleansing of the body, after which he will be granted the true reward: cleaving with Him, the purpose of creation. And that reward is expressed in the words a holy nation. Through cleaving with Him, we become holy, as is written, You shall be holy, for I YHWH your God am holy (Leviticus 19:2).

And you see that the words a kingdom of priests express the entire form of the service on the axis of love your fellow as yourself, meaning a kingdom entirely of priests, that YHWH is their inheritance, and they have no material personal property. And we should admit that this is the only definition by which we can understand the words, a kingdom of priests. For you cannot interpret it with regard to the sacrifices on the altar, for that could not have been said of the whole nation, for who would be making the sacrifices?

Also, with regard to taking the gifts of the priesthood, who would be the givers? And also, to interpret the holiness of the priests, it has already been said, a holy nation. Therefore, this must certainly mean that it is only that YHWH is their domain, that they lack any material possession for themselves, meaning love your fellow as yourself to the utmost degree, which encompasses the whole Torah. And the words a holy nation express the entire form of the reward, which is the cleaving.

Now we understand fully the aforementioned words And now, if you will truly heed My voice and keep My covenant—to make a covenant on what I am telling you here—you will become for Me a treasure among all the peoples. You will be My treasure, and sparks of purification and cleansing of the body shall pass through you onto all the peoples and the nations of the world, for the nations of the world are not yet ready for it. And at any rate, now I need one nation to begin with, so it will be as a remedy for all the nations. And therefore He ends, for Mine is all the earth; all the peoples of the earth belong to Me, as do you, and are destined to cleave to Me.

But now, while they are still incapable of performing that task, I need a treasured people. And if you agree to be the treasure of all the nations, I command you to become for Me a kingdom of priests, which is the love of others in its ultimate form: love your fellow as yourself. This is the axis of all the Torah and mitsvot. And a holy nation is the reward in its ultimate form of cleaving with Him, which encompasses all the rewards that can ever be imagined.

These are the words of our Sages in clarifying the ending, these are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites. They were precise regarding “These are the words—do not add and do not subtract” (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishma’el, Baḥodesh 2) [cf. Rashi]. This is perplexing: How can you say that Moses would add or subtract from the words of YHWH to the point that YHWH, may He be blessed, had to warn him about it? And we find none like him in the entire Torah. On the contrary, the Torah says about him: In all My house he is trusted (Numbers 12:7).

And now we can fully understand that concerning the service in its final form, as understood by a kingdom of priests, the ultimate definition of love your fellow as yourself, it was indeed conceivable for Moses to delay and refrain from revealing the outline of the service all at once, lest Israel not want to detach themselves from all material possessions and give all their wealth and property to YHWH, as taught by a kingdom of priests.

Similarly Maimonides writes, that women and children should not be told of the pure service, which must for the sake of reward, and wait until they grow, become wise, and have the courage to execute it [see Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 10:5]. Therefore, YHWH, may He be blessed, gave him the aforementioned warning, “do not add,” but presented them with the true nature of the service, in all its sublimity, expressed in the words a kingdom of priests.

And regarding the reward that is understood in the words a holy nation, it was possible for Moses to contemplate interpreting and elaborating further about the pleasantness and the sublime subtleness that come with cleaving with Him, to persuade them to accept this extreme, to completely detach themselves from any worldly possessions, as do priests. Hence, he was warned, “do not add,” but be vague and do not elaborate about the entire reward included in a holy nation.

The reason for it is, had he told them about the wondrous things in the essence of the reward, they would necessarily use and assume His service in order to obtain that wonderful reward for themselves. This would be considered serving themselves, for self-interest. That, in turn, would falsify the whole purpose.

Thus we see that regarding the nature of the service expressed in the words a kingdom of priests, he was told, “do not subtract.” And about the undetermined extent of the reward, expressed by the words a holy nation, he was told, “do not add.”