Reading Aurora Leigh In Mishpacha

And truly, I reiterate, . . nothing’s small!
No lily-muffled hum of a summer-bee,
But finds some coupling with the spinning stars;
No pebble at your foot, but proves a sphere;
No chaffinch, but implies the cherubim:
And,–glancing on my own thin, veined wrist,–
In such a little tremour of the blood
The whole strong clamour of a vehement soul
Doth utter itself distinct. Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with G-d:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware
More and more, from the first similitude. — Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, Seventh Book

R. Dovid Bashevkin writes:

[Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan] begins one essay with a poem that I remember to this day by Elizabeth Barret[t] Browning, a 19th-century poet: “Earth is crammed with heaven / And every common bush is afire with G-d / But only he who sees takes off his shoes.” At the time, I found it intriguing to find a poem within his writing. But to this day, it may be the one piece of his writing, though not his own words, that I can cite verbatim. I think in many ways the poem captures who Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan was and what he intended to demonstrate. There is holiness to be found wherever you look. But in order to access lasting spirituality, you need to connect with people and their experiences. You must take off your shoes and feel the common ground upon which people walk. Rabbi Kaplan’s words set fire to many bushes. And his lasting inspiration continues to remind me to remove my shoes.1

ברוך שהחיינו וקיימנו והגיענו לזמן הזה, that the leading general audience English language Haredi magazine is discussing the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning! But I think that R. Bashevkin, at least (I don’t know what R. Kaplan actually wrote), misunderstands the poem, and has the relationship between seeing G-d and removing one’s shoes backward: it is clear from both the poem’s wording as well as the underlying Biblical narrative that removal of the shoes is not a prerequisite of seeing G-d, but a consequence of seeing Him!

[I have discussed the episode of the burning bush in several lectures, available at the Internet Archive: I have surveyed the halachic perspectives on the removal of shoes in the synagogue in lectures available here and here, and I have cited Ralbag’s interpretation of Moses’s interest in the bush as typifying his scientific curiosity, “which enabled him to reach the wonderful level that he reached” in a pair of lectures available here.]

Regarding Barrett Browning, הואיל והזכרנו אותה, נספר בשבחה: as I have long noted, Sonnet XIV of her Sonnets from the Portuguese is an absolutely perfect rendering of a famous Mishnah in Avos into verse:

כל אהבה שהיא תלויה בדבר–בטל דבר, בטלה אהבה; ושאינה תלויה בדבר, אינה בטילה לעולם. איזו היא אהבה שהיא תלויה בדבר, זו אהבת אמנון ותמר; ושאינה תלויה בדבר, זו אהבת דויד ויהונתן.2

If thou must love me, let it be for nought
Except for love’s sake only. Do not say
“I love her for her smile–her look–her way
Of speaking gently,–for a trick of thought

That falls in well with mine, and certes brought
A sense of pleasant ease on such a day”–
For these things in themselves, Beloved, may
Be changed, or change for thee,–and love, so wrought,

May be unwrought so. Neither love me for
Thine own dear pity’s wiping my cheeks dry,–
A creature might forget to weep, who bore
Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby!
But love me for love’s sake, that evermore
Thou may’st love on, through love’s eternity.

It should be noted that this wonderful, thoroughly Victorian (in the best possible sense) poem was written by a woman to the man she eventually married and with whom she literally lived happily ever after, until the day of her death.

  1. R. Dovid Bashevkin, Mishpacha Issue 744 (10 Shevat 5779 / January 16, 2019, p. 44. []
  2. אבות ה:טו []

Moshe Rabbeinu: A Life

R. Yitzchok Adlerstein writes:

One of the meforshim of the Hagadah comments on מתחילה עובדי ע”ז היו אבותינו, תרח Was Terach one of the avos? Well, yes! From Terach, Avraham learned that there was a higher power, even if Terach got it completely wrong.

R. Adlerstein unfortunately does not name the commentator in question, but the idea presented is strikingly similar to a remarkably provocative one of Ralbag that has long fascinated me: G-d engineered the raising of Moses in Pharaoh’s household since that was the intellectual center of Egypt, and this eventually led to his acquisition of natural philosophy and [consequently] the achievement of prophecy, “for the doctrines of the Egyptian scholars, even though they were erroneous, inspired him to find the truth”:

התועלת השני הוא בדעות, והוא להודיע עוצם השגחת השם יתעלה במושגחים ממנו, שהוא סיבב שתמצאהו בת פרעה ותחמול עליו להצילו, והיה זה סיבה אל שגדל בבית פרעה והתחכם שם עם חכמי מצרים, והיה זה כלי לו אל שהשיג חכמת הנמצאות והיה נביא; וזה כי דעות חכמי מצרים, ואם היו משובשות, הנה העירוהו למצוא האמת.1

In the same vein, Ralbag explains Moses’s curiosity about the anomaly of the burning bush (which he apparently understands to have occurred within a prophetic vision)2 as illustrative of his customary scientific curiosity – “he would yearn to know the causes of things to the extent possible” – which was the key to his achievement of his wondrous spiritual level:

התועלת הששי הוא בדעות, והוא שראוי לאדם לחקור בסיבות הדברים הנמצאים לפי מה שאפשר לו, ולא יקצר מזה. כי בזה האופן יעמוד על חכמת השם יתעלה בשומו הנמצאות על האופן שהם עליו, לפי מה שאפשר לו מזה, ויהיה זה סיבה אל שישיג השם יתעלה לפי מה שאפשר; כי אנחנו נשיג מה שנשיג מהשם יתעלה – בהשגתנו מה שנשיג מנימוס אלו הנמצאות המסובבות ממנו יתעלה, וסדרם וישרם, כמו שביארנו במאמר הראשון מספר מלחמות השם ובחלק השלישי מהמאמר החמישי ממנו. הלא תראה כי משה רבינו ע”ה, תכף שראה זה הענין הזר – והוא היות הסנה בוער באש והסנה איננו אוכל – התעורר לסור ולראות, כדי שיעמוד על סיבת זה הענין. וזה ממה שיורה שכן היה מנהגו, רוצה לומר שכבר היה משתוקק לדעת סיבות הדברים לפי מה שאפשר, ולזה הגיע אל זאת המדרגה הנפלאה אשר הגיע אליה.3

I discuss these sources, among others, several years ago in my lectures for parashas Shemos, available, along with accompanying handout, at the Internet Archive.

  1. רלב”ג על התורה, פרשת שמות (וילך איש מבית לוי) תועלת ב’ []
  2. (אמר שבזה העת הרב) שם באור דברי הפרשה []
  3. שם תועלת ו’ []