Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Terumah (Hasidism)

This Torah selection signifies a complete turnabout in terms of character and subject matter. Almost everything in the Torah until this point can be appreciated or at least understood by a secular humanist: Genesis, with its seemingly artless tales of the beginnings of all things and, mostly, its grand family saga extended through a series of generations (even if at times drawn in colors larger than life); the first twenty chapters of Exodus, with the account of a nation in becoming and its liberation from slavery; and the down-to-earth law code of Mishpatim, with its practical rules for almost any conceivable situation of human conflict. Only the Six Days of Creation and the epiphany at Sinai (the Ten Words and the Ten Commandments) are unabashedly theocentric.

With this week’s portion, Terumah, there is a complete weather change. With the laws of construction of the Temple, we find ourselves in an entirely different world, that of religious symbolism. The focus here is on the symbolic gesture, nay, on an elaborate physical structure with all its embellishments, devoted to the symbolic acting out of man’s homage to an invisible, utterly unknowable Deity—and it will continue thus for almost as many pages as the Torah has gone thus far. For the modern, humanistic mind-set, there is surely something bizarre and alien about these chapters. No wonder that, except for professional Bible scholars, secular readers of the Bible à la Ben-Gurion, or for that matter post-Enlightenment religionists, such as classical Reform, seeking either national or universal human messages, give these chapters only the most cursory of readings.

But for the traditional Jew, each and every parsha, as every day on the sacred calendar, is at least potentially the most important one in the entire Torah. A friend of mine who spent many years studying with Reb Shlomo Carlebach recently commented that he approached every Shabbat as the most important one of the year, containing the most profound messages that we needed to learn. In this, he was very much in tune with the Hasidic mentality; the Toldot Ya’akov Yosef constantly asks the question: “How is this verse true for every person, at every time?” To know the relevance, the connection to our lives of this parsha, nearly two millennia since the destruction of the Temple, we need to turn to Hasidic teachings. I bring R. Nahum of Chernobol’s Me’or Einayim on this week’s reading:

“And they shall take Me an offering” [Exod 25:2]. Rashi: “Me, for My Name.” And offhand this is surprising, for do not all the mitzvot need to be done for God’s Name? Why then is this matter specified particularly regarding the Building of the Temple?

Now it is known that the matter of the dwelling of the Divine Presence in the lower realms is that the Holy One blessed be He contracted His Shekhinah for the sake of the lower realms, and that the Presence only dwells upon Israel, as our Rabbis said: “Moses wished that the Shekhinah should rest upon Israel and not upon the nations of the world” [Berakhot 7a]. And it is known that even in our exile the Lord our God has not abandoned us, but He makes His Presence to rest within the righteous men of each generation. As our Rabbis said, “They were exiled to Babylon, the Shekhinah was with them; to Elam [i.e., Persia], the Shekhinah went with them [Megillah 29a]. But the main indwelling of the Shekhinah will occur, God willing, with the coming of our Messiah, speedily in our days.

For the main indwelling of the Shekhinah involves the final letter He”h of the Divine Name HVYH, blessed be He. And one needs to unite it with the Holy One blessed be He, who causes His Shekhinah to rest in the lower realms—and this is the matter of the letter Va”v of the Name HVYH. And this is what is known as the unification of the Holy One blessed be He and His Shekhinah. But in our exile there is no complete unification, but only a little bit, by the righteous who are in every generation. But in the future there will be a complete unification of the Va”v with the He”h, a unification of the Holy One blessed be He in a perfect unity.

And this is what is meant by: “And they shall take Me—for My Name—an offering [terumah]—“lift up the he”h” [terom heh]. That is, they shall lift up the he”h together with the va”v; and this is by means of the labor of the Sanctuary, which is the matter of the indwelling of the Shekhinah, as is said, “and they shall make Me a holy place, and I shall dwell among them” (Lev 25:8].

The idea of “for My name” is read here, not metaphorically—i.e., in the sense of “for My sake”—but literally, for the Name. The Kabbalah often dwells upon the mystical idea of the unification of the letters of the Divine Name, particularly the letters vav and heh. Each of these four letters represents a different aspect of the Divine, different Sefirot or groupings of Sefirot. In extremely capsule form: Yo”d is the Source, the Infinite, the point from which all devolves (Hokhmah); the first He”h is the expansion or extension of Divine energy in which the act of Creation itself originates (Binah); Va”v is the channel or conduit through which this abundance or flow of Divine power is drawn into the universe via the lower sefirot, culminating in Yesod; this also corresponds to the masculine principle, in an almost graphic, phallic sense (the letter va”v, the lulav). The final He”h represents the feminine vessel of receptivity, dwelling in the world itself (Malkhut).

This Divine unity is somehow broken, damaged, even shattered. Malkhut or Shekhinah is separated from its source, is in exile. She is the bereft female figure who goes into exile with Israel; she is Rachel weeping for her children, or the mysterious figure met by Jeremiah in the dirge for Tisha b’Av. We thus have the metaphor of sexuality, of the separation of male and female forces, woven within the very structure of the cosmos, as a symbol for incompleteness in the world, while their ultimate union as a symbol for the longed-for ultimate Tikkun and redemption. This reunification of the va”v and he”h, of Yesod & Malkhut, of “the Holy One blessed be He and the Shekhinah” is thus the central task of the mystic, with his yihudim, his meditations on unifying the Divine. (A similar idea is hinted at in the Shema, in the interplay between Shema and Barukh shem kevod malkhuto.)

The Temple, as the symbol of the indwelling of the Shekhinah in the world, becomes the symbol for the wholeness and non-alienation of the universe as a whole. When the Shekhinah goes into exile with Israel she is seen as separate from her husband; as against that, the building of the Sanctuary or of the Temple is a means of unifying or uplifting the Divine Name. As our author says, “the main indwelling of the Shekhinah will occur, God willing, with the coming of our Messiah.” The very presence of the Temple is thus somehow a source of mystical power. (Hence the intense power of the Temple Mount; this, along with the fact that others also claim it as a scared site, makes it such an explosive subject. No wonder that, as some political scientists suggests, this more than anything else was the cause of the Camp David failure in 2000.)

Moreover, the separation of Malkhut from the other sefirot is variously described in Kabbalistic literature as the ultimate sin, referred to as “uprooting the plants” (kitzutz ba’netiot), and as the basic flaw in the cosmos that requires correcting. (See, for example, Recanati’s dream in which a mysterious visitor wrote the Divine Name without the final letter he”h: HY III: Sukkot). To be sure, this type of thinking is anathema to classical Maimonideans, for whom God is closer to the unmoved mover of Aristotelianism, who by definition cannot be imperfect—but that is a whole other world.

But what do these words and symbols mean? A generation ago Protestant theologian Rudolph Bultmann used the word “demythologization” to describe the central task of modern theologians: namely, the translating of central ideas expressed in archaic and often unintelligible symbols into modern conceptual language. Notwithstanding the profound differences between the symbolic worlds and language of Christianity and Judaism, something similar needs to be done in the case of Kabbalah.

(Incidentally, I use the word myth here in a positive sense: as a series of vivid symbols or archetypes used to convey an abstract idea. Prof. Yosef Ben-Shlomo once pointed out that biblical Judaism made war with mythology, which was rife with paganism, sexual debauchery, human sacrifices, etc.; by the time Kabbalah came around, that world was distant and long forgotten, making it “safe” to create a mythical language within the very heart of Jewish monotheism—i.e., Kabbalah.)

What, then, would “unification of the va”v and the final he”h in the Divine Name” mean, translated into non-symbolic language? Two suggestions: first, a psychological interpretation, as an act of unifying the two opposing and even conflicting elements within the human being, who is him/herself a microcosm of the divine world. These male and female principles may be variously described as the two poles of hishtadlut, effort, and bittul, self-negation; initiative and passivity; “doing” and “being.” The male, thrusting impulse, sees itself as constantly needing to act, to accomplish, to do; its maxim is that whatever happens in life only takes place as the result of conscious, directive action. Against that is the “feminine,” receptive, open, dependent, child-like stance; the sense of fundamental trust in the world, of letting things be. In a way, these are also the two Adams of the Rav’s famous essay “Lonely Man of Faith”—Majestic Man who strives to conquer and control the world, and the man of faith, existential man, who keenly feels his own existential limits and sense of creatureliness. The Rav often spoke of this child-like element as central to the religious personality: it is the moment when man ceases to act, to try to change the world; the meditative, prayerful moment, when he knows that he is but a transient moment on the sea of eternity. Its opposite, no less central to Judaism, is the prophetic moment, which knows the urgency of moral action, of action to change the world, of tikkun olam.

Our current world situation seems dominated by men who, literally or figuratively, have an excess of testosterone, of aggressivity—Bush, Sharon, Sadaam. I greatly fear that the unleashing of “masculine” violence may yet destroy the delicate fabric of our very existence on this planet. Or we have women, for whom the apotheosis of “feminism” is not being a counter-balance to an uncontrolled male culture, but rather making it in the corporate world, crashing through the “glass ceiling and becoming, perhaps, the CEO of a major bank who is able to fire 900 breadwinners with the same ruthlessness as a man (even if she smiles girlishly and talks vaguely about “moving on into the future”).

Perhaps this is the source of the attractiveness to so many in our generation of Eastern religion—namely, its expressing the insight that the human being is not omnipotent, all-knowing, all-capable, and that Dukkha—“attachment” to things of this world—is itself the source of all pain and suffering, dissatisfaction, alienation, loneliness, and fear. In a certain sense, the Eastern path takes the world ”lightly,” almost an illusion. This is not entirely unlike some Hasidic teachings, in which the perception of the world from our viewpoint, and from God’s viewpoint, are totally different. Yet that way, too, has its clear dangers, without a sound counter-balance of this-worldly ethics and responsibility. In brief, we need to avoid the twin pitfalls of too much hishtadlut, of unleashed masculine energy, as well as that of feminine receptivity run berserk.

A second possible reading is that the vav and heh allude to the gap between the Divine and the world. YHV without the final letter expresses a God who is wholly transcendent; in which the realm of the holy, the sublime, the transcendent, is seen as “Wholly Other,” as totally removed from the dirty, grimy, sweaty reality of human life. The sin of “cutting the plants” is in this view not denying God’s existence per se, but denying His relevance, his involvement with the world. Tikkun means to unite this world, which is called Malkhut because of its potential to be the site of Divine kingship, with its Source (see also Sefat Emet, who constantly talks of man connecting to his root).

And this is, in fact, the purpose of the Temple, even on the level of biblical peshat. What happened at Sinai, even more than the revelation of Law, was that for one brief, mysterious moment Heaven and Earth kissed; Moses ascended the mountain and God descended, and the two met; the infinite gap between Man and God was somehow bridged. The construction of the Sanctuary was meant to somehow perpetuate that state; compare the wording of Exod 24:15-18 with 40:34.

This teaching in Me’or Einayim continues by relating our subject to the month of Adar—the favorite month of the year for Hasidic homilists—which always begins with Shabbat Terumah. (See Kedushat Levi, Tzidkat ha-Tzaddik, and other books, in which the homilies for Purim far outnumber those for Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Pesah rolled together.)

And this is, “Once Adar enters, we increase our joy” [Ta’anit 29a]. And this is surprising, for the principle miracle [of Purim] occurred on the 14th and 15th of the month [an especially germane question in an intercalated year such as this, when Purim doesn’t even fall in the First Adar]. Why then does one begin rejoicing from the beginning of the month? But the names of the months came up from Babylonia, and there is a reason for the names of all the months, why this one is called Nisan and that one is called Iyyar, and so on. And the reason the month of Adar is called thus is because this month alludes to the phrase Ale”ph dar: that Aleph—that is, the Aleph or Prince of the world, as is written, “You are the prince of my youth” [Jer 3:4]—that just as the letter aleph is the first of all the letters, so is God the first of all things that exist. And this is the meaning of A” dar: that “Aleph” [i.e., God] dwells in the lower realms, that he causes His Shekhinah to be present in the lower realms.

He goes on to explain why the subject of God’s indwelling is particularly apt to Adar. (Interestingly, the New Testament uses a very similar homiletic device, translated into Greek, when it has Jesus stating in Rev 1:8, “I am the alpha and the omega.” Might they have borrowed from Hazal, I wonder?)

Now that wicked one [Haman] cast lots from day to day and from month to month, so as to destroy our people, the children of Israel, in the month of Adar, because on the seventh of Adar, Moses our Teacher died. But he did not know that on the seventh of Adar Moses was also born, as explained by our rabbis [Megillah 13b]. And it is explained in the Holy Zohar, that the expansion of Moses is in each and every generation, to sixty myriad generations, and this is the matter of Da’at [Knowledge /awareness]: that each person in Israel has, so as to apprehend the Torah, and all this is by virtue of the aspect of Moses, who was the Da’at of all Israel…. [he goes on to elaborate the idea of Moses’ relation to all Israel, etc.]

There is much more to be said. The continuation of this derasha, for those who have access to this book, is well worth reading, containing profound insights about different kinds of religious consciousness, and their development and progression both in the individual’s life biography and in history. Unfortunately, since it’s already way after Shabbat and I am trying to return to something resembling a schedule, I cannot translate and comment on a whole new, lengthy section. Perhaps some day in the future.


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