Thursday, March 09, 2006

Tetzaveh-Ki Tisa (Hasidism)

Both of the above parshiyot—of last week and this—have particular bearing on the subject of prayer, although in almost diametrically opposed ways. Tetzaveh continues the description of the construction of the Tabernacle and its artifacts, begun the previous week, concluding with two commandments: the making of a “continual offering” upon the altar every morning and evening, and the making of the incense altar. Our own daily prayers are patterned upon the fixed daily offering, as a symbol of constant devotion to and service of God, in response to His Own presence, irrespective of any recompense or reward, while the incense is entirely “a sweet savor” offered before God, comparable to the sweetness of praise and prayer rising up from a sweet, calm, joyous place. Indeed, the Psalmist says, “Let my prayer be counted as incense before thee; the lifting up of my hands as an evening service [or: sweet offering]” (Psalm 141:2)—a verse recited by Eastern Jews before Minhah every day.

In Ki Tisa, on the other hand, by contrast, prayer is primarily concerned with petition. At its center is the figure of Moses asking God to forgive the people following the sin of the Golden Calf: pleading, praying, petitioning, beseeching, and also, at least according to the Midrash, cajoling and arguing. This is prayer of need (literally: bakashat tzerakhim), of anxiety, even of crisis. These two poles—selfless devotional prayer, and begging God for our concrete human needs—appear constantly, both in halakhah and in Jewish thought about prayer.

In lieu of a Hasidic teaching on the parsha itself, we present here a teaching on prayer taught in the name of the Baal Shem Tov. We shall bring more of these over the coming weeks, in concert with the Torah portions concerning the Temple service, as well as a halakhic-theological essay on Pesukei de-Zimra, a sequel to the lengthy study I presented in these pages two summers ago. The following passage is from Sefer Ba’al Shem Tov, Amud ha-Tefillah, §142:

The reason why we say Hodu [1 Chr 16:8-36, followed by assorted verses] between the Korbanot and Pesukei de-Zimra, and why we do not say them within Pesukei de-Zimra, is this: For it well known that the Korbanot are of the World of Action [‘Asiyah], and Pesukei de-Zimra are of the World of Formation [Yetzirah] and Yozer Or [”He who creates the luminaries”; i.e., the section of Shema and its blessings] is of the World of Creation [Beri’ah]. And this is the secret of the Ophanim and Hayot and Seraphim [different classes of angels].

The immediate problem addressed by our passage is an almost technical one, concerning the proper order of the liturgy. Hasidism, from is inception, and perhaps following the practice of the circle of “pre-Hasidic Hasidim“ in Brody at the turn of the eighteenth century, followed the Sephardic rite, in which “Hodu,” a collection of miscellaneous biblical passages and verses, is recited before the official opening of Pesukei de-Zimra (i.e., the blessing Barukh She’amar), rather than within it. In the course of explaining this practice, the Besht presents a four-tiered schema—of the world, of the human psyche, of the angelic beings, and of the order of Morning Prayer (here, only the first three of each of these are mentioned)—elucidating the meaning of each one.

The lowest world, “The World of Action,” refers to the concrete, practical, material world; its counterpart in prayer consists of the initial blessings recited upon rising in the morning, for the whole gamut of concrete things of everyday life and, especially, Korbanot—the series of passages from the Torah, Mishnah, and Talmud instituted as a remembrance of the physical service of God through the sacrifices offered in the Temple. The next world, that of “Formation,” corresponds to the world of emotions (and the intermediate world of angelic beings); its counterpart in Pesukei de-Zimra, the series of celebratory psalms of praise and song uttered to God, awakens the emotions of awe and love of God. The third world, the World of Creation, is the world of clear, transcendent intellect, of unchanging, eternal ideas or spiritual entities; this corresponds to the world of Platonic archetypes, or what medieval philosophers called the Active Intellect; or, as Rav Adin Steinsaltz calls it, the Throne World or the world of the Divine Chariot. This corresponds to the Shema and its blessings, which is an act of profound contemplation of God, rather than standing directly before Him. As such, it centers around crucial theological truths and distinctions: day and night, light and darkness, the Torah, the ultimate object of study, and finally the Shema, with its meditation on the unity of God and the multiplicity of all other things. Finally comes the World of Emanation (Atzilut), that of the Godhead itself, which is approached by the human being on the level of the neshama, the innermost soul of man, the faculty capable of spirituality, which transcends ordinary, “conscious” human faculties. Note that in this highest world there are no angels, because this is the World of Unity.

And the secret of their names is this: those belonging to the realm of Action are called Ophanim, from the word wheel, for the angels are those that desire [hoshkim; also “surround,” like a hoop] and roll about to connect themselves above; and this are also the secret of the Soul [nefesh], from the language of that which is additional, that they desire to add to themselves an added increment of flow and vitality. And the angels of Yezirah are higher, and their vitality comes to them from a more supernal place, and therefore they are called Hayot [Living Creatures]. And the angels of Creation are even higher, and are more intensely “fired up” to connect themselves above; and they are called Seraphim [the fiery ones].

On another level, the four worlds correspond, not to different levels within the human psyche, but to objective realms or spheres of spiritual being, populated by different classes or grades of angels: spiritual, non-corporeal being created by the Almighty to serve Him. Unlike human beings, these are without wills of their own, and hence do not confront the inner conflicts and ethical choices faced by humans; they are also ethereal, and hence without the bodily needs and drives of flesh and blood; rather, they are “form” without “matter.” I must confess that the entire subject of angels mystifies me; I do not begin to understand what they are, nor how to translate their existence into terms that make sense to me or correspond to anything within our purview, beyond the metaphorical and literary sense. (I once heard a profound attempt to explain this by Rav Shlomo Twersky, z”l, but I forgot it.) But, unlike my more strictly modernist and rationally-minded friends, I am willing to accept at least the possibility of their existence on faith, given that they appear in books written by those who are wiser than myself, acknowledging that there are mysteries in the cosmos that transcend our positivist experience. I have even met people who claim to have experienced angelic presences; they figure prominently in mystical ascents; and, of course, they are the “heroes” of two central passages in our daily prayers: the Kedusha (doxology) recited in Yotzer, and that in the Amidah.

In any event, here the Besht offers a sweet little homily explaining their names in terms of their different activities: there are the “wheel-like” angels, who use their rolling motion to draw closer to God; the “lively” angels, who are close to the source of life and vitality; and the “fiery” angels, whose spiritual life is characterized by “burning” intensity—a quality celebrated in numerous places in Hasidism as deserving of emulation by humans.

And man is a miniature world [a microcosm]. When a person rises from his bed in the morning he is without the fear of God entirely; and when he says the Korbanot, he awakens it, as said in the Zohar (Bamidbar, III.120b). And this is the secret of the Ophan, who seeks to connect and to roll himself to God, may He be blessed. And with what? With Pesukei de-Zimra (the Verses of Song), for by these verses he achieves greater ecstasy (hitlahavut) than with the sacrifices. But before coming to that greater ecstasy, he must begin without so much ecstasy, and therefore it was instituted to recite Hodu first, as it contains only scattered verses, and not the actual verses of song; thus, when he reaches the Verses of Song he will be in greater ecstasy. And then he receives more vitality (hayut), for ecstasy is vitality. And in like way he will come to even greater ecstasy, and reach the level of Seraphim.

What is significant in this teaching is not only the metaphysical mapping, but their application to human religious life: the process of prayer is one whereby man gradually moves, each day anew, from a state of absence of religious feeling, gradually ascending higher and higher, reaching greater and greater enthusiasm and ecstasy, as he progresses along the various stages of the prayer in the Siddur. These constitute milestones in the process of spiritual ascent, the “angels” of each “world” serving as models for man’s own ascent in this service.


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