Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Shemot (Hasidism)

Two Kinds of Tzaddikim

With the Book of Exodus, which begins with this parsha, we turn to the drama of Exile and Redemption, and the meaning of the Exile in Egypt—both in itself and as a paradigm for all kinds of exile and alienation. This week we will present two passages dealing with the meaning of exile and descent. First, a brief passage from R. Elimelekh of Lizhensk on the opening verse, taken from his Noam Elimelekh:

“And these are the names of the children of Israel who come to Egypt: [Jacob, and] each man and his son came” [Exod 1:1]. To explain the change in language, that it begins by saying “who come” [haba’im], in the present tense, and concludes in the past tense, “came” [ba’u]. Also, at first they are called by the name “Israel,” and in the end by the name “Jacob.”

The homily begins, in classical derush form, by noting a problem in the text: the unexplained shift from present to past tense, and the inconsistent use of the two names for the patriarch: “Jacob” and “Israel.” This is resolved by means of the typology of two kinds of righteous men, which he then elaborates.

The intention in this is that the great tzaddik, who strengthens and becomes venerable in his righteousness for many years—then, even when he does great things and many righteous acts, nevertheless he is saved from greatness. For to the contrary, he finds in himself lacks, saying [to himself] that he still falls short in the [Divine] service, and he pains himself over this.

The “greatness” spoken of, both here and below, is of course not true greatness, but rather haughtiness or arrogance—that is, “greatness” of ego—and therein lies his true greatness.

Moreover, he is pained over the needs of Israel and their bitter exile, with taxes and levies imposed upon them. And all of the ardor and attachment which he feels in his worship are worth nothing to him, because of his great worry for them. And these [righteous] are the pillars of the world, called Israel.

But those same righteous people who are just beginning their service, who have recently come: when they do some thing of holiness, there burns within them the [feeling of] greatness, and they think that they have already achieved the essence of true worship. And even though they are righteous, they stumble in the sin of greatness, and they are called Jacob.

The typology is straightforward and perhaps familiar: there is the spiritual neophyte, perhaps a young man, who is wrapped up in the excitement and passion of religious worship, during which he experiences a sense of elevation and transcendence of worldly things, and imagines that he is caught up in mystical fervor, and has even achieved the state of “aliyat haneshama,” of soul ascent spoken of in some Kabbalistic texts. By contrast, the older, worldly-wise mystic, prays with great fervor and devotion—but knows that the troubles of the world, the down-to-earth sufferings of his flock, continue nevertheless—and these give him no rest. The latter, who sees his own self in a more humble perspective, and whose love and concern for others is a fixed part of his make-up, is the more authentic tzaddik.

And this is what the text alludes to in saying, “the children of Israel who come to Egypt”—to say that the great tzaddikim are always in straits and worry about their service, saying that they still fall short. And through this they are constantly ascending, without interruption. And this is “who come,” in the present tense.

“Jacob and his sons came”—in the past tense, to hint that those who think that they have already perfected their service without any lack—to them it is due to say that this is not the true level, but rather one must constantly keep an eye on ones own lowness, so as to save from greatness—and then it is well with them.

To reiterate: the authentic, “old” tzaddik is constantly dissatisfied with himself and never rests on his laurels; is always concerned with the straits of others, and not only the pleasure, however spiritual and refined, of his own religious experience.

R. Elimelekh, as mentioned previously, was perhaps the main formulators of the Hasidic concept of the tzaddik. It is worth noting, for a clearer historical perspectuve, that R. Elimelekh, even though usually considered to part of the third generation of Hasidic teachers—that is, disciples of the Maggid of Mezhirech—he was a the senior member of that group and a near contemporary of the Maggid (his dates are 1717-1786 or 87; the Maggid died in 1772); unlike most members of that group, he died well before the onset of the nineteenth century. He was in turn the teacher of several important figures, such as R. Menahem Mendel of Rymanow, R. Avraham Yehoshua Heshel of Apt, R. Naftali of Ropzhits, R. Zvi Elimelekh of Dynow (B’nai Yissakhar) and, along with the Maggid, R. Yaakov Yosef, the “Hozeh” of Lublin (in turn a seminal figure in the beginnings of what became the noted 19th century school of Pshyscha).

The central idea expressed here is that of yeridat ha-tzaddik, the “descent” of the righteous man into the world. The central task of the tzaddik is to “bring down” the spiritual knowledge, power, and connection with the Divine gained from contact with the realm of the ineffable; or, even more simply, the capacity for love and sympathy with the suffering and problems of the ordinary man—even with his difficulties in living up to the stringent demands of Judaism—and somehow helping to “repair” or “correct” his soul and lift him up. In a certain sense, it is almost as if the fact of ecstasy, of reaching the mystic heights of devekut, of attachment to God, is seen as relatively “easy”; the true task and challenge of the tzaddik is to deal with this world.

One might perhaps compare this to certain ideas in Buddhism. There, the person who achieves enlightenment leaves the “wheel of suffering,” which is synonymous with physical existence. But on a still higher level is the Bodhisattva, the one who achieves enlightenment but agrees to return to this world in subsequent reincarnations, to bring enlightenment and comfort to others and to relieve their pain and suffering.

Egypt as “Exile of Consciousness”

A second passage discusses the nature of the Exodus in Egypt as such, elaborating upon the Zoharic definition of it as galut hada’at, exile of knowledge or consciousness. This is taken from R. Nahum of Chernobol’s Meor Einayim, s.v. vaya’avidu (p. 85 in the 1968 Jerusalem edition):

“And Egypt enslaved the Israelites with harshness” [Exod 1:13]. And they explained this in the Talmud [Sotah 11b], “’With harshness’ [be-farekh]—with logical refutations” [firkha]. But first we need to understand the verse, “And the Lord said to Moses, go unto Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart, that I might place my signs on him…” [Exod 10:1]

For it is known that the secret of the exile in Egypt, is that da’at (mind/ knowledge /consciousness) was in exile, that they did not at all know of the Creator, blessed be He, nor of His Torah. For during the generation of the Flood, they said, “Who is the Almighty that we should serve Him?” [Job 21:15]. For even though the Torah had not yet been given prior to the Flood, it was nevertheless [already] within the world, as the power of the cause acting within the effect, but it was not yet given in its garments, as it was after the Giving of the Torah, when it was embodied in garments of this world.

This is an interesting conception of Sinai. The pre-existent Torah was a force in the world even before the Creation, and all the more so during the millennia between the beginnings of mankind and the revelation at Sinai. Hence, the Giving of the Torah was not so much the bringing into the world of something radically new, but a kind of working out, a bringing into actuality of something that was there in potentia all along. Of course, the Torah spoken of in the pre-Sinai was not the document made up of letters, words, verses and paragraphs, of narratives and laws, as we know it, but more a kind of disembodied force, a kind of apotheosis of the Divine wisdom. Might one see in this view the basis for an almost naturalistic, immanent concept of Torah: one in which a kind of natural law, immanent in the world, and the revealed Torah, are seen as two sides of the same coin, rather than as diametric opposites? As noted, the question of “what was the Torah before it was given” is a central one in the worlds of both midrash and Hasidism. (For scholarly discussion of this concept, one might start with Gershom Scholem’s important essay in his On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, and Arthur Green’s Devotion and Commandment.)

Note: the placing of the verse from Job in the mouth of the generation of the Flood is not a mistake, but a kind of “midrashic license”—i.e., the verse represents a state of mind, or better, state of soul, applicable to all times and places.

But there were a few select unique individuals who fulfilled the Torah as it exists in the supernal realms, because they apprehended it through their great intellects (or: expanded minds, mohin degadlut), until they apprehended its true innerness, as it was before it was given, such as Methuselah, Enoch and Adam, who studied Torah, as is known.

And during the generation of the Flood there were very evil people, until they cut off the world, with its activating force, which is the Torah, from the Creator, blessed be He. So much so, that the world and the Torah were cut off from their root. Therefore the world was destroyed at that same time, and the Flood occurred. And to whence did they cause the Torah to fall? To the shells of Egypt. Therefore Da’at (knowledge/consciousness) was in Exile, as is known, for the Torah is the attribute of Da’at.

Therefore Israel needed to descend to Egypt, to lift up the Torah, which had fallen into the shells of Egypt, as is written in the holy Zohar, “And Egypt enslaved the children of Israel with mortar” (homer)—that is, with kal vahomer; “and with bricks”—this is the clarification (libun) of halakha; “with harsh labor” (bafarekh)—this is Talmudic refutation (pirkha).

And this Torah, which was literally among them, was taken out by Israel with all its attributes, for all this is the attribute of Torah, as we have found in the Talmud [Zevahim 102b]: “Rav Ahai refuted it”—that is, that each one, according to the aspect of his soul, apprehended one of the attributes of the Torah. And so on with all the other aspects of Torah, such as kal vahomer [reasoning from minor to major—a type of syllogism] and the like, until they brought up the letters of the Torah from the depths of the shells of Egypt. And then, when they went out, they were able to receive the Torah in three months. And this was “and they despoiled the Egyptians” [Exod 12:36] as is known.

In a rather fanciful Hasidic derash, based upon a complex double-entendres, the words used to described the various aspects of the servitude—“bricks,” “mortar,” “harsh labor”—are each related to common terms from the field of Talmud study. In this way, the Torah itself was literally “in exile” in Egypt, waiting for the Israelites to redeem it, and also ready to be revealed to them at the proper time.

The discussion continues. The conclusion reached is that, after the Exodus, and Sinai, Da’at, meaning God consciousness, is no longer in exile: that is, people by and large know there is a God. What remains in exile are the two attributes of fear and love, the emotional qualities by which one serves God. This remains the ongoing task of every person: to utilize the attributes of love and fear, not for ego gratification (e.g., love translated into erotic desire; fear translated into anger and aggression), but to serve God.

It is interesting that, as in the Noam Elimelekh, here too the central motif is that of redemption from a low place, of sparks of holiness being everywhere. This teaching gives a vivid portrayal of the miserable situation of exile and alienation: God, and even more his Torah, is hidden. This is the basic situation of the world, and the life experience of most people at most times. Radiant tzadikkim like Rav A. I. Kook, who saw God in the everyday, are most rare; their images, or even the stories of their lives, serve as an inspiration for the majority of us who are on a more ordinary level, to just keep on plodding along in the path of learning Torah, performing mitzvot and acts of kindness to others, and perhaps finding occasional glimpses of ascent in the service of tefillah.


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