Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Yitro (Hasidism)

“Who revealed this secret to my children?”

The following teaching of R. Nahum of Chernobol provides a new interpretation of the familiar midrash about the words said by the Israelites when they were given the Torah: “We shall do and we shall hear” (na'aseh venishma). Me'or Einayim, beginning of Yitro:

When Israel said “we will do” before “we will hear” [Exod 24:7; ~19:8] a voice issued forth, saying: “Who revealed this secret to my children, that the ministering angels use” [as is said: ‘Bless the Lord, His angels, mighty ones who do His word, to listen to the sound of His words” (Ps 103:20)] (Shabbat 88a)

This midrash is frequently quoted as exemplifying the “standard” Orthodox philosophy of the primacy of halakhic behavior over religious thought, belief and, especially, understanding. At times, one wonders whether the actual meaning is not lost in its ideological use. Especially interesting to note is that it is told in the context of Moses’ heavenly visits before receiving the Torah, and the angels astonishment and peevishness about a human being becoming privy to their secrets. The Midrash infers this from the verse from Psalms, given here in brackets, in which angels are described as “giborei koah oseh devaro” —“mighty ones” who, first of all, “do His will.” (Maharsha, in his commentary on the Talmudic aggadah, explains that this is all the more surprising, because angels do what they do naturally, as they do not have the divided will characteristic of human beings. They automatically obey their Creator; they have no “Evil Urge” (yetzer hara), seen here as equivalent to a sense of self, of will, etc.—the implication being that heteronomy is the ideal (I shall address the implications of autonomy vs. heteronomy another time).

Here, as mentioned, Me’or Einayim gives a Hasidic interpretation, based on a metaphorical, symbolic reading, which addresses more Hasidic concerns ,relating to the Divine service.

Now it is known that there is a World of Pleasure, the World of Understanding/Intuition (Binah). And when he speaks the words with happiness and ecstasy, with love and fear, the pleasure comes to him afterwards. For at first he needs to exercise himself in the Divine service, so that there may be arousal and longing, and this is called “the World to Come”—that is, the world that always comes during the time of [Divine] service. But the future world is called in the Talmud atid lavo [“that which shall come in the future”; i.e., and not “the world to come”]. And “hearing” [as in the above verse] comes from the language of Binah (understanding), as in the verse, “and Joseph hears” [Gen 42:23]. For were it not thus, that one first needs to make an effort, it would not be called “service,” for it would merely be an appetite like any other appetite.

The central issue here is the relationship between the effort invested in religious activity, i.e., avodah, and the pleasure that follows. The underlying idea is that the mystical quest, the religious experience, is deeply pleasurable, perhaps the most satisfying experience a human being can have, and that the ultimate motivation or goal of religious service is the pursuit of pleasure, albeit on an extremely refined and subtle level. This is legitimate (“For me, being close to God is good” – Ps 73:28; “One thing have I asked… to sit in the house of God all the days of my life” –Ps 27:4; “Like a hart longing for rushing water, so does my soul long for Thee” —Ps 42:2). A separate issue is whether this pleasure is attained in this world, as a result of changed consciousness, or only in the World to Come (see e.g. the introductory chapters of Mesillat Yesharim, esp. in the newly published dialogue version of Makhon Ofek, based on the 1738 Leningrad manuscript). The message here is the need for patience, the understanding that this pleasure comes slowly, not automatically; “The Longer Short Way.”

And this is what Israel said, “We shall do and we shall hear.” That is, we shall engage in the Divine service and exert ourselves, and thereafter enter into the world of pleasure, so that it might be considered service. [And this is what is meant by], “a heavenly voice issued forth and said, ‘Who revealed this secret to my children, the language that the ministering angels use.’” For this is truly a very great thing, for even with the angels it is thus, that at the beginning he needs to arouse his longing for holiness and to receive vitality from God, may He be blessed.

To Rejoice in All the Good

In this teaching of R. Nahman of Bratslav, we have what is ultimately a very simple, self-explanatory message of unitive mysticism; viz. the connection to the one God as the source of all true joy. He describes here the all-inclusive nature of true joy, based upon the true, deep understanding of any phenomenon, with Yitro as the hero of the passage. Likkutei Muharan, Tinyana. §34.

“And Jethro rejoiced for all the good [that God had done to Israel]” [Exod 18:9]. For among ordinary people, the joy is not for all the good things together, for there are numerous divisions in the matter of joy. For example, when one comes to a wedding, there are those who enjoy the food, that he eats fish and meat and the like; and there is one who enjoys the musicians; and one who enjoys other things, and the like; and there is one who rejoices over the wedding itself, such as the parents, who do not give any heed to the food and drink, but only rejoice in the wedding itself, and similar divisions. But there is no person who rejoices over all the joys together. And even one who does rejoice over all of these things, even so, his joy is not for all of the things together, but from each one by itself, one after another. And there is also another person, who does not derive any joy at all, neither from the food and drink, nor from the other things, but, to the contrary, he feels jealousy and anguish, for he is jealous of the match, that so-and-so is marrying so-and-so.

But the wholeness and perfection of joy is of one who is able to rejoice in all the good together. And this is only possible when one looks above at all the good; that is, at the source from whence all the good things are drawn. For there, in the root, all is one, and then his joy comes from all the good together. And then the joy is very great and shines with a very great light. For through the totality [i.e., integration], by which each joy is incorporated in the next, the light of all the joys is very much increased. And the more the multiplicity of joys are incorporated within one another, the light of the joys is all the more increased, for the light is very much increased through the brilliance that shines from one joy to another.

And the more the greatness of the joys that are incorporated together, the greater the light of the shining; therefore, when the joy of all the goods is integrated together, then the light of joy is very great, from the increase of the shining from one to another.

And this is, “and Yitro rejoiced for all the good”; that he rejoiced for all the goods together. And this is, “for all the good,” for he looked on high, at all the goods, that is, at the root, where all is one, and where all the joys are incorporated together. Therefore he rejoiced over all the goods together, as mentioned.


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