Thursday, January 26, 2006

Vaera (Hasidism)

A Hasidic Doctrine of Exegesis

Degel Mahaneh Efraim on this week’s parsha presents an interesting discussion of methods of exegesis:

“And I appeared to Abraham to Isaac and to Jacob…” And Rashi explained; “to the fathers.” But Rashi’s words here do not add any clarification of this. What did Rashi wish to say by this? And one may say, in my humble opinion according to which the Lord has graced me, with His compassion and great mercy: that it is certain and true, that the Torah was given without vocalization. And the reason for this is that there are seventy faces to the Torah. And the Torah may be expounded according to the vocalization that pertains to the matter of the homily, one of its various faces. And one may vocalize the Torah with whatever vowel signs that one wish that work out properly with the derush. And there is an allusion to this in the Tikkunei Zohar, in the passage Petah Eliyahu: “Malkhut refers to the mouth, with is called the Oral Torah.” And it is known that Malkhut refers to HVYH, [the Divine name] which has no vocalization [because the Ineffable Name is not pronounced], and that is, that Malkhut is the secret of Oral Torah, which cannot be with vocalization. For there are seventy faces to the Torah, and one may expound it one time with this vocalization and another time with that other vocalization, according to the matter of the homily.

To put it crudely: the Torah, in the eyes of this Hasidic teacher, is almost infinitely flexible! R. Efraim of Sudylkow as much as says: “You can say whatever you want, and vocalize the words in whatever way necessary to make your homily work out properly after the fact.” Is this intellectual chicanery? Sacerdotal sleight of hand? No! In a strange, and seemingly paradoxical way, these rabbis (like many other Jewish exegetes [or is the better word “eisegetes”?] before and since) believed that any idea they found in the Torah, however artificially presented, was on some level an authentic word of God. Gershom Scholem, in his essay, “Reflections on the Possibility of Jewish Mysticism in Our Time” made the fascinating observation that:

Each and every word and letter… is an aspect of the revelation of the Divine Presence; and it is this specific revelation of holiness that is meant by Torah from heaven. It is only for this reason that they were able to find infinite illuminating lights in every word and letter, in the sense of seventy faces to the Torah—of the infinite interpretation and endless understandings of each sentence.… Once a person has accepted the strictures of this faith and this quality of faith… he enjoys an extraordinary measure of freedom…. He is able to uncover level upon level, layer upon layer, in the understanding that the gates of exegesis are never closed… The awesome faith in the power hidden within the divine word… allows wide latitude for religious individualism, without leaving the fixed framework of the Torah, which reserves to itself the possibility of unique inspiration, which is only granted to a particular individual whose soul is hewn from the same source or from its sparks.

To return to our text: after explaining his theory of exegesis, the Degel presents a Kabbalistic interpretation of the title verse of this portion. Having laid the groundwork above, this is based upon an alternative reading (vocalization) of a key word:

It is known that Abraham was the attribute of Hesed, which is [the Divine name] El; and Jacob also had the attribute of El, as is written [Gen 33:20]: “And they called it [lo; also: “him”], El, the God of Israel. And Rashi comments there, “The God of Israel called Jacob, ‘El.’” And one may say that this is alluded to by the words va’era el, “ and I appeared to…” The word va’era, is the same numerical value as Yitzhak [208]. “El” [to], if vocalized with a tzeirei, is [the Divine name] ”El,” which is Hesed, and these are the patriarchs: Abraham and Jacob are the attribute of “El,” and Yitzhak, who was not the attribute El [since he was the attribute of Stern Judgment - JC], is alluded to in the word Va’era, which alludes to Isaac by his number. We thus find that the words Va’era el include [all] the fathers, and this is what Rashi alluded to, “to the fathers”: that in these words are incorporated the patriarchs. And understand.

Over and beyond the word and number play, what is the underlying idea of this passage? That the patriarchs are at some level tantamount to God? Or perhaps, more modestly, that they were the human beings who must closely emulated the Divine qualities—and that they, in turn, may serve us as models of imitatio Dei.

The Secret of Greatness and Smallness

A bit further on, Degel Mahaneh Efraim addresses the more substantive question, which we discussed at length above: what is the significance of the “play” between the two Divine Names on our opening verse? His answer, as we shall soon see, is rather different than that of the classical and modern commentaries invoked above:

Or one may say: “And I appeared to Abraham to Isaac and to Jacob as El Shadday, and I did not make known my name HVYH to them.”… Let us introduce this it by what is stated in the Talmud [Yoma 28b], “Abraham, our father fulfilled the entire Torah before it was given”—and one needs to understand this. From whence did he know and apprehend to fulfill all the details of the commandments of the Torah?

And one may say, that in my humble opinion, according to what he heard from “the great terebinth” : that Abraham took upon himself the sign of the covenant, and this commandment encompasses within itself all 613 commandments. I also heard that the word Brit equals 613 with the kollel [i.e., its gematria is 612: 2 + 200 + 10 = 400, plus adding one, the “kollel” for the word itself]. And one may say that this is the intent: that there are embodied incorporated within it a 613 mitzvot.

And one may say that from this commandment Abraham looked upon the details of all 613 mitzvot of the entire Torah, and fulfilled each and every one of the mitzvot. For this mitzvah, which is the holy covenant, includes all the mitzvot, and therefore Abraham, was able to convert proselytes; and understand this…

For then, at the time of Abraham, the entire Torah, which corresponds to a person’s limbs and sinews, was yet in the secret of smallness, for it was contracted within the one small organ, which is the sign of the covenant. And the Torah, and the Holy One blessed be He, and the souls of Israel, were all one, and the light of his soul and his attribute were all in the secret of smallness, like the Torah. and therefore he converted proselytes…

And this is the meaning of the verse, “and I appeared to fathers in El Shadday:”: that at that time the name of HVYH, which is the secret of the entire Torah… was then contracted into El Shadday, which is the secret of the holy covenant, as stated above. And from there thy would look gaze at the name HVYH to fulfill all details of the commandments of the Torah, which is the name of God, and the light of man’s soul.

For the Torah and the Holy One blessed be He and the souls of Israel are all one. And therefore the name of the Holy One blessed be He was also in contraction in the name Shadday, as were the Torah and the souls of Israel. Until afterwards when Moses our teacher came, and Jacob had already propagated twelve tribes. And the name HVYH had also ready spread to its twelve permutations combinations, and afterwards there came out of them the sixty myriads of Israel who were in Egypt. and there the names of HVYH, which is the secret of the entire Torah, spread further in all its sides, and it became the six hundred thousand letters of the Torah, that each one in Israel has a hold upon one letter of the Torah, as is known. The name Israel, is the initials of the phase: “There are sixty myriad letters in the Torah” (yesh shishsim ribo otiyot latoarah). And this is the aspect of greatness…

And contemplate he fact that the entire Torah is the name of the Holy One blessed be He, and all this is by way of Da’at [Knowledge], that spread forth as is known. For Da’at lifts up all small aspects to the aspect of greatness. Therefore when Moses found sixty myriad Israelites, and he was the root of them all, for they were all included within him. Then he took them out of Egypt, which the aspect of smallness, to the aspect of greatness, which is the giving of the Torah, with the spreading forth of the 248 positive mitzvot and 365 negative mitzvot, that are explicated in the sixty myriad letters of the Torah….

I will suffice this time with a few very brief comments. First: he defines the two names as representing the states of katnut and gadlut, “smallness” and “greatness,” in the sense of limited as against expanded consciousness—central Hasidic themes, which we have discussed previously. In what way? Perhaps Elohim, the cosmic, “generic” God, known through a kind of simple argument from existence or design, represents a “small,” non-comprehensive faith. HVYH, by contrast, is further-reaching, richer in potential for mystical knowledge and apprehension. (I don’t understand the relationship between Abraham’s proselytizing activity and “smallness”; vetzarikh iyyun).

Second: the description of the “expansion” of the Torah, of the people of Israel, and of God’s name, all expanding parallel to one another, is fascinating. Beginning with the Zoharic (?) saying that, “Torah, God and Israel are all one,” he works out an across-the-board equivalence among their different stages of development. Torah expands from the single commandment of circumcision, to the 613 commandments and 600,000 letters of the Torah; the Jewish people begins with a single patriarch, and expands to the twelve sons, until it becomes the [again] 600,000 who went out of Egypt; while God’s Name “expands” from El Shadday, to HVYH, to the letters of the Torah, which are again seen mystically as the Name of God.

Third: the idea of brit milah. Why are all mitzvot encapsulated in this one mitzvah? Perhaps it is a concept of pre-Sinaitic Torah; more likely, because it is a sign of the covenant, it contains within itself the essential relationship to God. But perhaps also: because circumcision is performed upon the organ of generation, through which occurs the regeneration of life and the passing on of the genetic heritage of a new human being, it thereby somehow encapsulates the “souls” of Israel, and contains more than a hint of the “expansion” that is the theme of this piece.


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