Thursday, January 05, 2006

Vayigash (Hasidism)

The Joseph Story and “Garments of Torah”

Having introduced several of the most important works of the early generations of Hasidism, we shall now return to one of my favorites, R. Nahum of Chernobol’s Me’or Einayim, on this week’s portion:

“Then Judah drew near to him and said, ‘O my lord, may your servant speak a word in my lord’s ears, and be not angry with your servant, for you are like Pharaoh himself….” [Gen 44:18]

[One needs] to understand why this is written in the Torah, for it is impossible that these should be, Heaven forbid, simply stories [in the Torah], as the Holy Zohar answers [III.182] to those who say that the Torah is merely stories of events. It is written, “With glory and splendor you are clothed” [Ps 104:1]. Glory and splendor refer to the Torah, as is written “whose glory is above the heavens…” [Ps 8:2]. “You are clothed…”—that the Creator clothed the Torah in garments. For the Torah is called fire, as is written, “Is not My word like fire” [Jer 23:29]. Just as it is impossible to grasp fire without garments, so is the Torah called fire, that one can take hold of it without a vessel. Therefore it needed to be clothed in garments and vessels.

How are we to understand the presence of seemingly mundane, human dramas such as the family saga of Joseph and his brothers in the Torah, which is perceived as the very quintessence of supernal, Divine wisdom? R. Nahum answers this perplexity through means of the concept of levushin, “garments.” His underlying assumption is that the Torah is not merely the text that we know, but in its essence is a kind of transcendent, cosmic entity, as in the midrash that God “looked at the Torah and created the universe.” Hence, the Torah as we know it is only the external manifestation, the outer garment of that entity, needed to bridge the gap between Heaven and Earth, between the transcendent, spiritual realm, and the earthly realm in which human beings live their concrete lives. But it should be noted that this concept, far from being dualistic, in a certain sense elevates the earthly, making it into a vital, indispensable tool for grasping the ineffable, fire-like realm of the Infinite. (We shall discuss the significance of story telling further next week)

And at times the Torah is called water, as is written “Ho, everyone who has thirst, come to the waters” [Isa 55:1]. On the face of it, how can both of these two aspects be in the Torah, fire and water, which are two opposites? It could not be, were it not [for the fact that] the Creator, blessed be He, makes peace in the high places. As our Rabbis said, “Shamayim [Heavens]—[that is] esh [fire] and mayim [water], for the Holy One blessed be He mingled them together, making from them heaven” [Haggigah 12a]. And He connects them and unites them, for He is the intermediate between the two aspects, and He connects them and unites them.

An important concept of Hasidism is that all opposites are united within God. (The Hebrew title of Rachel Elior’s book on Habad, The Paradoxical Ascent to God, was Yihud ha-Hafakhim, “the unity of opposites”). All dualities within the world—fire and water, light and dark, male and female, life and death (and also halakhically defined opposites as well, so central in the life of the Jew: meat and milk, Shabbat and weekday, tamei and tahor, permitted and forbidden), even good and evil—are all so only from our limited human perspective. Within God, “in the source,” all is ultimately one. At times, Hasidism seems to revel in such paradoxes, perhaps even hovering on the edge of a kind of anti-nomianism, which sees even the moral order itself and the universe of sharply defined distinctions, so central to the traditional Jewish world-view, as ultimately illusory.

But what are fire and water? They are love and fear, which are the essence of the entire Torah. For without His love and His fear one cannot ascend upward [Tikkunei Zohar §10). Fire is fear [=awe/reverence], for just as one is afraid to draw near to the great fire, so too is the Creator blessed be He a consuming fire, that consumes all the fires in the world. And water is love, for water irrigates and causes to grow all kinds of pleasures. We thus find that water is the root of all the kinds of love in the world.

Over and over again in Hasidic teachings, we find mention of fear and love (in Aramaic: dehilo u-rehimo), the two central religious emotions, the “motors” which so-to-speak drive all a Jew does in the realm of mitzvot. The authors of medieval compendia of the 613 commandments, such as Rambam’s Sefer ha-Mitzvot or Aaron Halevi of Barcelona’s Sefer ha-Hinukh, listed the love and fear of God among the other mitzvot, albeit important ones and high up on the list. Here, they play a central role, being seen as somehow the essence of the Torah itself, as present in all other mitzvot, “fire” and “water,” or as the root of, respectively, all the negative and positive mitzvot. He continues to connect this with a well-known Rabbinic dictum:

Therefore our Rabbis said that “the numerical value of Torah is 611“ [Makkot 23b], for even though there are 613 commandments, the two [first] mitzvot, love and fear, are the root of the entire Torah, and they need to be present within each mitzvah. “Therefore ‘I am [the Lord]’ and ‘You shall not have [any other gods…]’ [Exod 20:2-3] we heard from the mouth of the Power” [ibid., 24a]. That is, we heard the essence and root of all the Torah from the very mouth of the Creator. For “I am the Lord” corresponds to love, for He took us out of the Land of Egypt, and you need to love Him. And “you shall not have any other gods”—any other forces. As is said regarding the verse, “And the Lord shall circumcise your heart… to love… for the sake of your life” [Deut 30:6]. For why did God give us an opening to do this, [namely,] to love Him for the sake of some ulterior motive, by saying “for the sake of your life”? But [the answer is] that one needs to believe with perfect faith that all of one’s powers and vitality are [themselves] the Creator, blessed be He. For man is a microcosm, composed of all the worlds, and the Creator, blessed be He, connects and unites all the worlds, as in their saying, “And you are He who connects them and unites them” [from Petah Eliyahu, Introduction to the Zohar]. And as R. Moses Isserles said [in a gloss on Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 6.1]: “’…and He does wonders’—that he connects the spiritual with the material.”

Note the radical immanentism in this interpretation. The meaning of idolatry is here extended, from the acceptance of other deities, to acknowledging the reality of any power or force—even one’s own will!—apart from God. The indwelling presence of God in everything is made here into a cardinal tenet of faith.

Secondly, the concluding sentence remark refers to the blessing recited after performing one’s bodily functions. This is indeed one of the most amazing items in the Jewish liturgy: that even the meanest physical act, which among many people elicits no little disgust, is seen as a manifestation of God’s miraculous, life-sustaining power. Interesting, too, to my mind, is the language: the phrase with which the Asher Yatzar blessing concludes, umafli la’asot (“and He does wonders”), in its original context in Judges 13:19 refers to the scene where Manoah and his wife see the angel ascending heavenward in the flames of the make-shift altar they had built—truly an uncanny, supernatural event. Here, the routine functioning of the body in ridding itself of waste matter is described in the same phrase. (This may also be taken as emblematic of the transformation from the biblical to the Rabbinic mindset, as oft described by David Hartman.)

And this is how the Creator taught us to love Him, saying, “for the sake of your life.” That is, for the sake of the Creator, who is your life; for all your powers and vitality are the Creator, who connects and unites all the worlds that are within you, and connects the spiritual and the physical. For when you move any limb, who is it that moves it? The Creator.

And this is, “you shall fear the Lord your God” [Deut 11:20]. Your God, specifically, who is mighty and has capability and is the master of all the forces, for He is the Master of all of your forces. And this is, “you shall have no other gods”—no other forces. As the Besht said: “lest you go astray and serve other gods’ [Deut 11:16]. As soon as you turn aside from Him and from faith in Him, that all of one’s powers and vitality is the Creator, than immediately one is called an idolater.

And the saying is well known, repeated several times, “The righteous rules through the fear of God” [2 Sam 23:3; parsed as one phrase against the Masorah]. And our Rabbis said: “The Holy One blessed be He said, ‘Who rules over me? The Righteous.’ For the Holy One blessed be He makes an edict, but the righteous man nullifies it” [Moed Katan 16b]. And they asked in the Holy Zohar, “And is the righteous the prosecuting attorney of the Lord?” And we have explained this according to their care in choice of language, “and who rules Me (bi)” rather than “and who rules over Me (alay)”… [the rest of this teaching is missing]

This teaching concludes with interpretations of several more biblical phrases in light of the same central idea: that God is everywhere, and that all reality is essentially Him.


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