Monday, December 19, 2005

Vayeshev (Hasidism)

“The Lover of Israel”

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev was one of the main disciples of the Maggid of Mezhirech and a major architect and leader of the Hasidic movement. He was less renowned for his theoretical teaching than he was for his intense love of Israel, and for his constant efforts to defend and find something good to say even about the most sinful Jew. A typical story concerns a Jew whom he once saw smoking in the street on Shabbat. R. Levi Yitzhak approached the man to admonish him, and gently said to him, “Reb Yid, surely you must not realize that today is Shabbat.” “Oh no, I know very well.” “Then surely you must not know that it is forbidden to light or use fire on the holy Sabbath?” “What, do you think I’m an ignoramus? Everybody knows that.” At this point the Rebbe turned his eyes heavenwards to God, and said, “Ribbono’she l’Olam, Master of the Universe, see how righteous your people Israel are! Even when they violate the Shabbat, they are meticulous about the commandment of Your Torah, ‘Keep far from any false thing’ [Exod 23:7].”

But R. Levi Yitzhak was equally passionate in his love for God, if not more so. The above story illustrates the familiar tone with which he addressed His Creator, expressing a sense of great intimacy. There are many other tales told about the intensity of his prayer and mitzvah performance, to the point that he was oblivious of all else. The following, somewhat amusing story, was told by Reb Shlomo Carlebach:

Rav Barukh of Medzibozh (grandson of the Baal Shem Tov) used to wear a special tallit for Shabbat which was marred by a big, malodorous stain. When asked why he didn’t clean it, he told the following story: Once Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev was his guest for Shabbat. The Berditchever was known for his uncontrollable fits of rapture while doing mitzvot or davening. His host invited him to recite Kiddush, but R. Levi Yitzhak refused, knowing that he would be unable to control his ecstasy and would spill wine over everything. “I’ll make do with saying ‘Amen,’” he told him. He did the same for Hamotzi. Finally, when they settled down to eating, R. Barukh turned to his guest to ask him if he liked fish. He answered “I like fish, but I love God.” At this point, upon the mere mention of God’s Name, Rav Levi Yitzhak was so overcome with ecstasy that the whole tray—gefilte fish, jelly and all—flew up in the air and landed on his host’s tallit [worn by some rebbes throughout the Shabbat meal]. “And so,” the Medzibozher concluded, “How can I wash a tallit that was soiled through such holy, pure love of God?”

The story continues that, when R. Barukh was dying, he ordered that the tallit, rather than being buried with him as was the usual custom, be passed down to his son, who would wear it on Shabbat because of its great holiness. The tallit was passed down in this manner through several generations of rebbes; at a certain point it was only used on Yom Kippur, and later still only at Neilah. Only in the 1930’s, when the Munkaczer Rebbe foresaw the coming Holocaust, did he order that he be buried in this tallit, as it would anyway have been destroyed.

Rav Levi Yitzhak’s major theoretical work is Kedushat Levi. The following brief teachings on Hanukkah give some of the flavor of the book:

The rule is that on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur the Holy One blessed be He remembers Israel for good, but it is only on Hanukkah that Israel sees this good in their minds, and this takes place through thought. For [the phrase] “the eyes of the congregation” is explained by Rashi [at Num 15:24] to mean ”the sages of the congregation.” Therefore on Hanukkah there are the candles, which are connected with seeing; and thereafter Purim, which is connected with speech, because we read the Megillah; and on Pesah it is through action, because one eats matzah. Therefore Hanukkah is concerned with seeing, and it is in the month of Kislev, whose combination is “When the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, saw…” [vayar yoshev ha-aretz ha-kena’ani; Gen 50:11], which is indicative of seeing.

There is a propensity of Hasidic derush (homiletics) to offer far-reaching symbolic interpretations of the holidays, and to attempt to create over-all schemes indicating the interconnections among the various points on the calendar. Here, a connection is drawn among Hanukkah, Purim and Passover, which are seen as corresponding to thought, speech, and action—the three levels of human activity. But this is done in a roundabout way: Hanukkah is the festival of seeing par excellence, as the main symbol of the holiday are the lamps, which are perceived through the faculty of sight. But, he adds, the eyes are really the servant of the mind, being that organ of perception which most directly feeds into the mind, the proof being that the wise men of the community are called “the eyes of the congregation.”

Almost in passing, he also draws a connection between Hanukkah and Rosh Hashanah—Yom Kippur: the favorable judgment that God passes on the Jewish people on those days is only absorbed or understood by the human mind on Hanukkah. Taking one step further the idea that the “sealing” of the Divine judgment of the Days of Awe spills over into Hoshana Rabbah, some Hasidic thinkers say that the truly final closing of the process of judgment and determining man’s lot, the “last chance” to do teshuvah, is Hanukkah.

As for the reference to “combinations” (Hebrew: tzirufum): according to Kabbalah, each month of the year has a different permutation of the four letters of the Divine Name, indicated by a certain verse for which it serves as an acronym, and which somehow embodies the essence of that particular month. Here, VYHH, represented by the verse about the Canaanites, is the “permutation” for the month of Kislev; hence, yet another connection to the idea of seeing.

Another passage about Hanukah:

In the Shemonah Esreh Prayer we say, “and for Your miracles which are with us every day”: “with us,” specifically, referring to that which we do by means of our own actions, through which You perform miracles with us. “And for your wonders and goodness that are at all times, evening and morning and noon.” Here it does not mention “with us,” for we are not the ones who cause it; rather, He pours out His great grace, so to speak, without “awakening from below.”

And I shall explain to you, with the help of Heaven, that the miracles which were done at the time of the Exodus from Egypt were performed by God, may He be blessed, without any lower awakening. But this was not the case regarding Hanukkah, where the miracles were also a little bit by means of the lower beings, that the Hasmonean and his sons made war with the army of the evil Antiochus, may his name be wiped out. Therefore, on Hanukkah we recite “Veyehi noam” [a prayer beginning with Ps 90:17: “May the favor/pleasantness of the Lord our God be upon us…”] at the lighting of Hanukkah candles. It says there, “establish the works of our hands upon us,” to allude that the miracle of Hanukkah was somewhat the work of our own hands, through the war. However, [we then pray], that God, may He be blessed, “establish You the work of our hands.” That is, that the Holy One, blessed be He, makes the works of our hands successful, that we may overcome in war.

There is a dynamic here between the qualities known as bitahon and hishtadlut: trust in Divine Providence vs. human effort. This is a constant theme in Hasidim. On the one hand, it makes much of miracles, seeing the Divine hand, hashgaha pratit, constantly, on many different levels of human life. Hasidic stories about this—often involving the intervention of rebbes, with superhuman insights and powers—are legion. But they also recognize the need for human effort. This takes two forms: hitoreruta diltata, “the awakening from below,” most often refers to prayers and mitzvot, or to what scholars of religion call ”theurgic action” (see, e.g. Moshe Idel’s Hasidism, Between Ecstasy and Magic)—various mystical acts, most often performed by the tzaddikim, which are thought to influence or bend God to behave in a certain way. But secondly, this may also refer to human effort in the simple, pragmatic, earthly sense—e.g., the example given here of the Maccabees waging war against the Greek overlords. On the other hand, even in the case of Hanukkah, while R. Levi Yitzhak does speak here of “a little bit” of human effort being involved, he ends his discussion by taking pains to reiterate the role of God in making the war successful.

This issue is perhaps the single greatest watershed in modern Jewish thought and ideology. Secular Zionism took to its heart the holiday of Hanukkah, emphasizing specifically its aspects of Jewish heroism and this-worldly initiative, seeing in the Hasmoneans warrior-heroes in their own image (and vice-versa). This was part of the idea of rejection of Galut, of the passivity of the exilic Jew. A modern Jewish mythology has been created of a new kind of Jewish heroism, of the “Tough Jew”; a recent book, a family guide for Hanukkah, contains a whole section of “Jewish heroism,” featuring such figures as Yitzhak Rabin, Golda Meir, and Natan Scharansky. Old-line Orthodoxy virulently rejected this, at times invoking the “three oaths” of Ketubot 111a in which the Jews swore not to throw off the yoke of the Gentiles nor to go up “as a wall” to Eretz Yisrael of their own initiative. (Interestingly, today such activist, militant, and even violent ideologies as that of Meir Kahane find support even among Haredi circles.) Israel today is still very much in the throes of a culture of militancy and self-assertion as a counterfoil to the Galut mentality, and is still far from the natural, calm sense of being at home in its own land. The Arab-Israeli conflict is as much about mentalities and psychology as it is about balance of power and concrete geo-politico-economic interests. I pray every day for the emergence of an Israeli De Gaulle (or a second one; perhaps we’ve already had one and he’s been killed?)—a man confident enough in his own identity and position to know how to make compromises and to see the enemy not only through the use of arms; one who will understand, as Von Clausewitz put it, that war is to be used as an instrument to further specific goals of national policy and not as an end or way of life in itself.

Vayeshev: Story of an Angel

Over thirty-five years ago I spent Shabbat Veyeshev at the Beit Midrash of the Lubavitcher Rebbe at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. Suddenly, in the middle of the Torah reading, I felt overwhelmed and put off by the noise, the chaos, the aggressive and unctuous piety of many of the Hasidim whom I’d met during the weekend “Encounter” with college students. As these thoughts were running through my head, an elderly Hasid standing nearby turned to me and said: “The Torah says that Joseph was sent to Shechem to find out the well-being (literally, ‘peace’) of his brothers: ‘lekh na re’eh et shelom ahekha’ [Gen 37:14]. You must seek the shelemus (good points; lit., “wholeness”) of your brethren, not the hesronos (shortcomings) of your brethren.” It seemed as if this man had read my thoughts, and sensed that I was too much focused on the imperfections of this world of Hasidism, rather than its positive features; or perhaps, more generally, that I had a tendency to be over-critical of others.

Interestingly, on the very next verse in that Torah portion, where Joseph encounters a mysterious person who asked him what he was looking for, Rashi says that this man was the angel Gavriel. At times, reflecting on this long-ago encounter, it seems that this mysterious old hasid, whose name I never even knew, was an angel bringing me an important message.

The Mussar of Everyday Life: Two News Items and an Anecdote

Two interesting items appeared in this week’s newspaper (for a change, having nothing to do with Israel, the Middle East, Bibi, politics, etc.)

Myra Henley was a serial murderess who, in the mid-‘60s, committed a series of brutal murders of children. It was a very grisly case, that at the time elicited deep horror and disgust throughout England. In time, she was duly caught, tried, convicted, imprisoned and, about two weeks ago, after thirty-odd years in prison, died of cancer at age 64. The prison authorities approached over twenty undertakers, all of whom refused to take her corpse, until finally one in the far north of the country agreed to see to the task. The others explained that they feared that other customers would refuse to use their services if they knew that Henley’s body had been in their hearse, even for a short drive.

What was going on here? Justified moral outrage at the atrocities committed by this woman? Fear of “contamination”? That her ghost would continue to work evil? This story illustrates that, beneath the facade of rationalism and “modernity,” our society is still plagued by rank superstition and demons and bizarre fears; or else, a kind of cruelty, rejection of deviation (in this case, admittedly, deviation of a type that had little redeeming virtue), a rejection of the old-fashioned idea that death is a common denominator of all mankind, and that a minimum of human respect and dignity is due in death even to the worst criminal (not to mention the distinct possibility that she may well have undergone profound psychological and moral changes during the course of three decades in prison).

One thing I know for certain: the halakha derives the mitzvah of burying the dead, generally, from the verse stating that a hanged criminal must be taken down before evening, ki killelat elohim taluy—“a hanged man is an affront/curse to God” (Deut 21:23). Demeaning the body of even the most abominable criminal ultimately demeans and cheapens the image of God in every human being.

The second case involved a rabbi from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, Fred Newlander, who was convicted of hiring an assassin hit-man to kill his wife—apparently so that he could continue conducting an affair with another woman in his congregation. The paper reported that he pleaded to be sentenced to life imprisonment rather than execution, quoting biblical verses in which he invoked the sanctity of human life and stated that he hoped to use his time in prison to teach Judaic values to the other prisoners. He also asserted that he still loved his wife.

One of the dangers of the rabbinate, or of the role of the clergy generally in Western society, and of other professions involved in preaching lofty ideals, is that their practitioners start to believe that words alone, in lieu of action, are of real value. This man, whose words belay his actions, presents an extreme caricature of that trait. A lesson worth pondering in these days of primaries and election campaigns.


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