Monday, March 13, 2006

Purim (Hasidism)

Amalek, Lots and Chance

There is perhaps no other holiday on which Hasidim and Hasidism comes into their own as Purim. Cynics will say that this because they are fond of any and every opportunity to indulge in hard drink. But perhaps it’s more because of the paradoxical, hidden nature of this holiday—beginning with the seemingly non-sacred, not to say absurd and at times slapstick plot of the Megillah; through the costumes and drunkenness; and ending with the “concealed” nature of the filling of the hamantaschen, khalopchas (stuffed cabbage) and kreplakh customarily eaten—make it especially amenable to involvement with hidden things of Torah. Then, too, the earthy manner of its celebration, with plenty of food and drink, disguises, and permission for generally boisterous behavior, seem tailor-made to the idea of avodah begashmiut—service of God through corporeality.

I would like to present a teaching of R. Zaddok Hacohen of Lublin, from a slim volume of his derashot which I first discovered on a Purim more than thirty years ago. R. Zaddok is one of the trio of late nineteenth-century Hasidic teachers whose works are enjoying a particular revival among latter-day aficionados of Hasidut (the other two are R. Mordecai of Izhbitz, author of Mei Shiloah, and R. Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, the “Sefat Emet”). Unlike the other two, who grew up and studied in their youths in Hasidic courts, R. Zaddok was a “convert” to Hasidism. This transformation came about through a strange incident involving his wife. He suspected her of an indiscretion with a Russian officer; she, a pious woman, barely more than a girl, deeply offended by the accusation, refused to give him a divorce. Thus, he set out to gather the signatures of one hundred rabbis needed to override the ban of Rabbenu Gershom and to take another wife without divorcing the first (the story admittedly doesn’t show him in particularly complementary light). During the course of his travels he came to Izhbitz and to R. Mordecai, they talked about Torah and avodah, and he was so captivated that he decided to became a Hasid.

A prolific writer, he is the author of a five-volume set of Kabbalistic homilies on the weekly Torah portion, Peri Tzaddik; and a score of other extant smaller volumes of essays on all aspects of the service of God, marked by penetrating psychological insight, the best known of which is Tzidkat ha-Tzaddik. (It is said that he wrote over a hundred books in toto, but only these were published.) At times, his encyclopedic knowledge of Talmud, Midrash, and Zohar make reading him a formidable task: a typical page may contain a dozen fragmentary references to the traditional literature, which he assumed his readers would know. Reading him is thus a reminder of the erudition that was not uncommon among at least learned Jews not so long ago. The following teaching is from a volume which contains many of his teachings on Purim: Ressisei Lailah, §18.

The matter of Purim, which is named for the lot (pur), is as follows: The sanctity of Shabbat is fixed by God, may He be blessed, who sanctifies it; and the sanctity of the festivals and the New Moons is from Israel, who sanctify them [by the proclamation of the Court]. But Purim was that day which was determined by the lots cast by Haman, that was set aside for the eradication of Amalek. Like a forest chopped down with a hatchet whose handle is made from its own wood [Sanhedrin 39b]. And he himself chose it, by the lot that fell upon this day, that would be set aside for the erasing of Amalek, and for [the Jews] to rest on the following day, “and to make it…” [Est 9:17].

Now, offhand the lot seems to operate by chance, but Scripture declares “[He casts the lot in his bosom,] but his judgment is wholly from the Lord” [Prov 16:33]. That is, that even that which [seems to be] by chance is from God. And the main victory over Amalek took place by means of this, of whom it is said, ”who came upon you by chance on the way” [Deut 25:18]. And likewise concerning Haman it says, “those things that befell him” [Est 6:13]—that he attributed the things to chance, in accordance with their root. And so it is with all their things, as is said [Sanhedrin 90a] “Because he denied the resurrection of the dead, therefore he himself has no portion in the World to Come.” And thus far, it is according to free choice.

Amalek, who attacked Israel after the Exodus from Egypt (Exod 17:8-16) is the classic symbol in Judaism of pure, gratuitous evil—of people acting out of pure cussedness, spite, hatred, and meanness—whom Israel are commanded to utterly eradicate. Since Haman was an offspring of Amalek, Purim is equated with the constant struggle against Amalek. The central theme in this teaching of R. Zaddok is that the guiding principle of Amalek is the belief in chance, i.e., that there is no God running the world, but that things happen without any particular reason, by random chance, and that the world is bereft of any moral force. This is, on the most obvious level, opposed to the cardinal Jewish idea that God runs His world. Thus, Rambam, in Hilkhot Ta’aniyot 1.4, explains the idea underlying the process of fasting, public prayer, and repentance that is the halakhic response to disaster, by saying that to not do so is to act as if the world is governed by mere chance.

But R. Zaddok develops this idea on a more subtle, hidden, paradoxical level—namely, that even those acts that are seemingly random, such as the casting lots by Haman, are in fact instruments of Divine Providence, the way in which God acts within the world in a concealed way. He adduces as examples the casting of lots to determine which of the two identical goats involved in the Yom Kippur atonement ritual will be cast into the desert, or the division of the Land among the tribes of Israel by lot. All these things are only seemingly random or chance; in fact, they are expressions of the Divine will.

This idea is reminiscent of recent ideas in science known as chaos theory: i.e., the discovery of a certain order and pattern in seemingly random events or phenomena: “fine structures hidden within seemingly disorderly data” (see James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science).

But in terms of knowledge, it is the opposite: namely, that he who has no portion in the resurrection is the one who denies the resurrection. Similarly, the very essence of Amalek relates to the presence of chance in the world. For God, may He be blessed, also created the matter of chance, for there is nothing outside of God, and this matter too is from God: that there should be chance, that which is not arranged according to the order which He established. And this is Amalek; and because he is chance, as is written, “who chanced upon you by the way” [Deut 25:18], he makes everything dependent upon chance, and he [i.e., Haman] also said, “those things that befell him” [ibid.]. And this was at the time of his end, when he was on his way to perdition, he said, “that befell him”—that he made it all depend upon accident, for everything becomes clear in the end. And such was the case with Bilaam, that at the time of the incident of Shittim it became clear that his root was in licentiousness [see Num 25:1-9]. And it was then that he said: “Behold, I go to my people” [Num 24:14]; as the Sages said [Yalkut Shimoni, Balak, and Rashi there], “and it became known that he was odious.”

Just as the root of Amalek, and of Haman, lies in the matter of chance, so is Bilaam’s “root” found in sexual licentiousness, as expressed in his planning (according to Midrash) the seducing of the Israelites by the Midianite women (see Num 25).

For at the beginnings, the “coloration” of every evil thing is its opposite; and the coloration of Amalek [initially] was that one does not rely upon chance. For we find the matter of casting lots in the Torah regarding Yom Kippur and the division of the Land of Israel [see Lev 16:7-10; Num 26:55-56]. For this is the matter among Israel: that one relies upon the lot to strengthen a matter, for [in fact] nothing is by chance. And this [i.e., the pretending to be the opposite of what he really is] is the power of Esau, who sticks forth his hoofs [Gen. Rab. 65.1; i.e., that his seeming piety is hypocritical, like the pig who displays his split hooves to pretend to be kosher], until God needed to say, “I have uncovered Esau, I have revealed his hidden things.” For another cannot uncover these things. And this is what is written, “Esau is uncovered, his innermost hidden things are revealed” [Obad 1:6]. meaning that he has hidden things. And Scripture does not describe as “hidden things” that which is hidden merely from the eyes of ordinary people, but that which is hidden also from angels and prophets and wise men, and one need not add, from the person himself. For a person can fool himself, and none can reveal this except for God alone, may He be blessed, who is expert in the depths of the heart.

And this is the entire power of Amalek, who is called “the first of the nations” [Num 24:20]. And it says, “and it shall be, when God shall give you rest [from your enemies]… then you shall wipe out [the memory of Amalek]…” [Deut 25:19]. For all the [other] nations, if they did not have a root within the hearts of Israel, they could not exist in the world. And this is the entire matter of the victory over them. When he is victorious over that evil power that is in their hearts, he ipso facto defeats that nation in actuality.

And the evil of all the [other] nations is visible. “And when you shall be given rest…“—when you shall already have rest from this, then you shall not be confused by any evil, and it shall seem good in his eyes—it is then that he needs to strengthen himself against Amalek, who seems in his eyes to be good; but he is in fact the depth-source of evil, and all its other effects are not felt at all. And it is him that he needs to eradicate. For all those things that are evil in the revealed sense, are all for some need, for there is no bad trait for which there is not also some use, for were it not so, God would not have created this thing in the heart. And lust and anger and the like, are all at times needed, when one makes use of them according to the Divine Will, as is known. But this is not the case with Amalek, who is called “chance,” and is not from the Creation per se: for God also created such a thing, that it would appear as if it is chance; but one must eradicate it entirely, so that there remain no impression of it whatsoever. For the beginning of all is God, may He be blessed, and in terms of the expansion there come about the distinction of different attributes. But the “head of the nations” is “shall be destroyed in the end” [Num 24:20], for I [God] am first, and any “first” apart from Me is in truth naught. For all the nations called him “God of Gods” [Menahot 110a], which is not the case of those who make all dependent upon chance, [saying] that there is neither justice nor judge.

The other nations committed evil deeds and had evil traits, but they ultimately recognize the one God (see Malachi 1:11); the essential trait of Amalek is religious doubt, denial of God, and the concomitant belief that the world is governed by randomness, chance, chaos: “there is no justice and no judge”—a phrase that symbolizes for Hazal the very epitome of atheism. The description of Amalek here seems very similar to that of the “Void” spoken of by R Nahman (see HY IV: Bo). Is R. Zaddok here likewise confronting the aggressive atheism and all-embracing rationalism of the Enlightenment?

And just as in Israel, that which seems entirely evil is in truth entirely good, for they transform darkness to light; so the opposite holds true for the nations, that that which seems entirely good is in truth entirely evil, and has not even any trace of good.

And the root of Amalek lies in the heart, that is, in the lack of knowledge of the [Divine] presence, as is written (Midrash Tadshe, §491), “The Name is not whole, nor is the Throne whole, until [Amalek shall be eradicated].” And the wholeness of the Name is as it is written [Pesahim 50a], “Not as I am written am I read,” i.e., in this world. For in this world it is not obvious to all that God, may He be blessed, was, is, and will be, and that He makes all exist, which is the meaning of the Name HVYH. And the Throne represents Divine Providence, that He sits like a king upon His Throne and his dominion is over all.

This last passage alludes to the strangely truncated form of the Divine Name and the word “Throne” at the end of the Amalek narrative: ki yad al kes Yah; “For with a hand upon the Throne of God, God makes war against Amalek for all generations” [Exod 17:16]. The idea here is that the as-yet-unfinished nature of the battle with Amalek somehow impugns the very sovereignty of God over his world. Thus, the struggle with Amalek is pregnant with theological, nay, eschatological dimensions—which R. Zaddok dovetails into the understanding of Amalek as the great God-denier.

“And when he lets rest…” For at first there are other things that conceal this—lust and anger and so on. But once one’s heart is clean, but the awareness of the presence does not yet shine before him in a constant way, like one who stands before a great king, and it is tangibly felt to his eye in every thing how God guides and creates and there is naught but Him—this is from the source of Amalek, that one needs to eradicate through the service of the heart. “And when Moses lifted up his hands…” [Exod 17:11; a verse emblematic of the use of faith to combat Amalek; see HY IV: Beshalah]. And this precedes the introduction of any thing of holiness: for this was just before the giving of the Torah. And before the building of the First Temple, immediately upon the anointing of Saul as king, there was an awakening for the building of the Temple, and the eradication of Amalek was required prior to that, by Saul and David [see 1 Samuel 15:2-33]; and likewise before the building of the Second Temple, the eradication of Amalek through Haman; and so will it be before the building of the Third Temple, may it be rebuilt speedily in our days. Amen.

Many Jewish preachers are fond of describing any and very enemy of the Jewish people as Amalek; all the more so on a Purim such as this [written in 2003], literally on the eve of war with such an odious and loathsome figure as Sadaam Hussein, and when such moral notions as the “axis of evil” have been bandied about by world leaders. I am reluctant to go that route, certainly in interpreting this passage from R. Zaddok. Here, the notion of Amalek is reinterpreted as a trait within the heart of the individual, and its eradication as a matter for avodah—for inner spiritual work.

How does this relate to Purim, and specifically to the defining moment of drinking “till one does not know the distinction between ‘Blessed is Mordecai’ and ‘Cursed is Haman’”? If one merits, one succeeds in dropping the social face and posturing of everyday life, and the essence of one’s inner soul shines through with jewel-like clarity. Happy is he whose attachment to Hashem is genuine, and comes out after several glasses of shnapps. But it is potentially scary; of one’s piety and character and menshlichkeit are merely surface deep, that too emerges.

Purim and Transcending Good and Evil

In previous years I have written at some length about Purim, which according to many Kabbalistic and Hasidic readings is the festival of paradox—at once the most sublime and the most earthy, if not indeed ribald, of all Jewish festivals. It is the festival on which everything is turned upside-down, and nothing is as it seems; the fool turns mentor, while the learned tries to ascend to the level of holy foolishness through means of… inebriation.

This year, due to exigencies of time, I will only share a translation of one passage from Sefat Emet (I thank my dear friend Rav Mordechai Goldberg for drawing it to my attention), followed by a brief comment. The passage in question appears in Sefat Emet for Purim 5640 [1900], s.v. ita begemara:

It states in the Talmud: “A person is required to drink on Purim until he knows not the difference between ‘Cursed is Haman’ and ‘Blessed is Mordecai’” [b. Megilla 7b]. I heard something regarding this matter from the holy mouth of my grandfather, z”l, that one must ascend above the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. I do not remember the thing clearly, but the gist of it is the following:

It is written [that Haman made] “a gallows fifty ells high” [Est 5:14; on which he was later hanged, 7:9], and this corresponds to all the levels of the gates of impurity, of which there are 49 faces of impurity [and 49 gates of purity; this concept appears widely in the Zohar and in the Tikkunei Zohar]. For the power of Amalek is found at all the different levels, but in truth the fiftieth gate is that of holiness, and there these two paths are not to be found, for there all is good. For that is the root of unity. And regarding this it is written, “and when Moses lifted up his hands…” [Exod 17:11; a phrase from the account of the battle with Amalek, read on Purim morning]—to the fiftieth gate, to the Tree of Life, which is the Torah. Therefore, when the power of Moses our teacher, who was the Prince of Torah, is awakened, Amalek is defeated. Therefore it is said that on Purim they received the Torah [i.e., the Oral Torah, according to a Talmudic tradition in b. Shabbat 88a; see HY II: Tetzaveh]—that is, the revelation of the Tree of Life. And this is what is meant by “until he knows not the difference between ‘Cursed is Haman’ and ‘Blessed is Mordecai.’” For there is no grasp there for the Other Side at all, for that is the source of unity, as mentioned.

“To drink” [Hebrew: besumei; derived from the word bosem, “fragrance” or “perfume”]. This alludes to the fragrance of the spices that filled the world at the time of the Ten Commandments. And my grandfather said that this alludes to the spices [of the holy oil, mentioned in Exod 30:23], liquid myrrh, Mor deror, translated into Aramaic as “mor dekhi” [i.e., Mordecai; cf. b. Hullin 139b]. For Mordecai was a spark or light from the soul of Moses our teacher, the root of the Torah.

Like many Hasidic Torahs for Purim, this one too celebrates the unique spiritual consciousness to be sought on Purim, through transcending ones ordinary, everyday mode of apprehension. On this more sublime, higher consciousness, one perceives religious truths, plumbs to deeper and truer levels of the cosmos—presumably deeper than one reaches through the normal, rational-discursive mode of study of Torah or regular kavvanah during prayer. This level is one on which there is no good and evil, no distinction between the two, no duality of the paths in life, but in which all is one, all is holy.

What seems significant here is that the place or point at which one transcends Good and Evil is called “the root of Torah.” There are mystical unitive doctrines—both within Judaism and without—which argue that, ultimately, if God is One and the Creator of All, than any moral distinctions between good and evil have no ultimate reality, since both have their roots in God. Such a mode of thinking arrives at a conclusion of religious anarchism; a kind of antinomianism that rejects the very concept of law and of drawing clear distinctions and boundaries since, pushed to its ultimate logical conclusion, in its root evil too is part of the Divine unity, one more note in the harmony of the cosmic symphony. Or, in a somewhat different vein, one has the claims of a philosopher like Nietzsche, who rejects both conventional religion and morality, calling upon the truly courageous thinker to live “Beyond Good and Evil.”

Even if, on some theological level, this claim has its inner coherence, it is very far from the traditional Jewish understanding of such an idea. For the Sefat Emet, the “Purimdik” consciousness is one of “attachment to the root of Torah”: one that transcends good and evil, not by the abolition of Torah, but a kind of inner renewal of perception, in which evil somehow disappears by ceasing to be any kind of option for the person; in Musar terms, Milhemet Hayetzer, the inner struggle within the human psyche, between good and evil, is transcended. But never that evil somehow becomes good, or that the imperative to perform the good becomes irrelevant or unimportant. A similar idea appears in the Tanya, where the tzaddik gamur, the “wholly righteous” person, is one who has so thoroughly purified his own heart, whose perceptions are so God-like, that the Evil Urge ceases to be operative even within his innermost thoughts, and he naturally seeks only the good. I believe that it is this kind of consciousness that the Sefat Emet and other Hasidic authors of his ilk call upon us to seek, at least during this one day, through the transformed consciousness of Purim.

A fraylikhn Purim to all.


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