Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Vayakhel-Pekudei (Hasidism)

The Rhythm of Shabbat and Weekday

This week’s Torah portion, although devoted mostly to the actual construction of the Mishkan (Sanctuary), begins with three significant verses about the Shabbat. The following excerpt from a lengthy sermon by R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady, the founder of Habad Hasidism, presents an interesting approach to the spiritual significance of Shabbat, within the overall context of a Hasidic view of the service of God. From Torah Or, Vayakhel (pp. 174-175 in the Brooklyn 1992 edition):

To understand the matter of Shabbat as a whole: For there is a well-known saying of our Sages, that on Shabbat an extra soul is added to each and every person in Israel. And on the face of it, the nature of this extra soul is not understood, for a person does not feel within himself any additional life-force on Shabbat, any more so than on the other days of the week.

But the matter is thus: It is written in the first paragraph of Shema, “Hear O Israel [the Lord our God, the Lord] is one. And you shall love…” That is, that this love is born and drawn down by means of contemplation of His greatness, may He be blessed, how HVYH is one. As our Rabbis said: “Make Him king in the heavens and on the earth and in the four corners of the earth.” And this is alluded to by the [letters] he”t and dale”t of the word Ehad. The he”t [whose numerical value is 8] represents the seven heavens and the earth. And the dale”t [=4] represents the four corners of the earth, which are all nullified to His unity, alluded to by the letter Alep”h. And similarly in the supernal world, to the very heights, the aspect of the seven heavens and the earth exists in the spiritual sense, as alluded to in the verse, “Yours O Lord is the greatness [and the power and the splendor]…” [1 Chr 29:11; a verse recited in various places in the daily prayers, which is seen as alluding to the seven “lower” Sefirot, from Hesed to Malkhut]. And all of them receive their life-force from the aspect of the Name of His glorious kingship alone.

And by means of this contemplation a person arrives at [the fulfillment of] the aspect, “And you shall love [the Lord your God] with all your heart…” [Deut 6:5]. And this is what the tribes [i.e., his sons] said to Jacob [Gen Rab. 98.3 and parallels]: “Just as there is naught in your heart but One, so is there in our heart naught but One.” That is, “there is naught in your heart but One”—because the root of Jacob was very high and sublime, as he was literally the Chariot of God’s unity and oneness. “So is there naught in our hearts but one”—because even though we [i.e., Jacob’s sons] are below in the World of Separation; nevertheless, by means of negating our own will, that we do not submit to the Other Side, that we not desire any thing in the world but God alone, we too are united with one heart to our Heavenly Father…

This last section is a very interesting reading of the well-known midrash telling how, just before Jacob’s death, his sons recited the Shema and he responded with the words “Barukh shem kevod…” This Hasidic interpretation brings out the great gap between Jacob and his sons: it all but apotheosizes Jacob, seeing him as part of the ”Divine Chariot,” on such a sublime level that he is himself automatically part of God’s unity. But the important point it wishes to make is that his sons, who remained in the mundane, human realm, could achieve the same thing by a volitional act of self-negation. (More on this below)

And this is what is meant by, “’And you shall love [the Lord your God] with all your heart’—with both your Urges” [m. Berakhot 9.5]. That is, even the will of the animal [i.e., biological] soul, which is called the Evil Urge, shall be transformed to be for God alone. And this will and this love are brought about and drawn down by means of the intellect; that is, by means of the contemplation he performs concerning God’s greatness and sublimity, how everything is considered as naught before Him and there is none but Him—and from this he comes to the negation of his own will. Therefore the verse ”You shall love…” follows the verse “HVYH is One,” that immediately precedes it; for by means of contemplation of how He, may He be blessed, fills the seven heavens and the earth, both spiritual and corporeal, the aspect of ”and you shall love… with all your heart” is drawn down.

This passage presents, in a nutshell, the essence of the Habad understanding of what happens during avodat ha-tefillah, the act of Divien service worship through prayer. The focal point is on profound meditation on the first verse of Shema. This contemplation of God’s greatness and His permeating the entire universe leads to intellectual understanding, which in turn leads to love (as I remarked in an earlier piece, this is very Maimonidean; see esp. Hilkhot Teshuva, Ch 10). This is the “intellectual” side of the Habad system—i.e., one that arrives at religious consciousness through arduous intellectual meditation. On the other hand, the next section points to a totally different dimension, “above reason and intellect,” symbolized by Shabbat.

Now, all this holds true during the six days of activity, of which it said, “six days you shall labor” [Exod 20:9]. And the labor referred to is that of service of the Compassionate One, which is performed in the aspect of labor and effort. For it is impossible that love be born and drawn down through contemplation, unless one exerts himself to connect his mind forcefully. And for this one needs to perform all the 39 labors [associated with week-days alone] on the spiritual plane: sowing and reaping, etc., as we have written elsewhere. And this aspect of love of the week days is only that love which is drawn down through intellect and contemplation.

But on Shabbat there is added to each person an additional soul; that is, there is born within the Congregation of Israel a new thing that does not at all exist on week days. And this is the aspect of love and will that is directed to God alone, that transcends intellect and contemplation. For there is will, and there is will. There is will derived from the intellect and from contemplation, which is called the Lower Will, because it is below the level of Wisdom and Understanding (Hokhmah and Binah), and is drawn from there. But there is also an attribute of Higher Will, that is far above Wisdom. And the manifestation of this attribute within the human soul is that of love, which is not born out of contemplation and of the mind, but is simple love, that is above the mind. And this is the aspect of yehidah (“the Unique One”) within the soul, that is above Wisdom.

Several significant points here: First, R. Shneur Zalman here spiritualizes the concept of labor on weekdays; rather than physical labor in the material world, it is defined as a specific kind of religious service—one that is strenuous and taxing, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. Shabbat, by contrast, is seen as a place of spiritual grace, a gift that comes from a place beyond the “labor” of meditation: “that transcends intellect and contemplation.” Second, these two types of prayer and spiritual insight each have a specific Kabbalistic “address”: the love born of intellectual meditation comes from Hokhmah and Binah, the two intellective Sefirot, which, while very high, are still not the center or root of the Godhead Itself. “Simple love,” by contrast, comes from a sublime place, “beyond mind and reason”—i.e., from the Divine Will itself: from Keter, the “Divine Crown” that represents the Godhead Itself; which is simultaneously that part of the human soul, Yehidah, which is somehow, deep inside the unconscious, in harmony with the highest reaches of the Divine. Third: one may perhaps connect this teaching with the well-known human insight that, at times, too much intellectual effort is counter-productive. Often, in spiritual and intellectual matters, the most profound insights suddenly appear to one, unexpected and unplanned, when the mind and spirit are at rest. It is a common experience of those that work with their minds, that one may concentrate hard, “breaking one’s head” over a problem, finally leaving it in frustration; until suddenly, in a dream or in a relaxed moment doing something totally different, one attains the missing insight. The same holds true, lehavdil, for the sense of God’s Presence.

For example, when a person desires a certain thing that pertains to his very life-soul itself, and this causes him to do things not according to his sense ad intellect, for his will is far deeper than his intellect…

Perhaps the most apt analogy from our everyday life would be the experience of falling in love: e.g., you want a certain woman/man because you want her/him. You might offer “reasons” or “explanations” for this choice, but essentially such a choice comes from a deep place within, not amenable to logic or rationales. The same holds true for any matter of primordial choice: whether aesthetic—tastes in art, music, or literature; choice of where to live, a certain profession, or even tastes in food—why one person prefers avocado and another zuccini.

And this attribute of love and will directed towards God is manifested in the human soul specifically on the Sabbath day. And this is the attribute of Ahavah Rabbah [“great love”; also the opening words of one of the blessings of the morning Shema] that comes from above to below into the divine soul [i.e., one of the five levels of the human soul] on Shabbat. That is, that the love is not according to the apprehension of the mind and its contemplation alone, but it transcends intellect and is drawn down from the attribute of the Supreme Will that is above Wisdom (as it is explained in [R. Hayyim Vital’s] Peri Etz Hayyim, that the Palace of Love that illuminates Keri’at Shema on Shabbat is far above the attribute of the Palace of Love that illuminates it on weekdays). For the manifestation of the Upper Will is specifically on Shabbat, as is said, “the gate of the inner courtyard that faces east [shall be closed on the six days of the week and shall be opened on the Sabbath day]…” [Ezek 46:1]

The verse from Ezekiel (which in original context refers to the gates of the future Temple) with which this discussion of Shabbat concludes is a favorite of many Hasidic authors, interpreted, again, in a metaphoric way: that is, that the “gate” through which man may approach God is open on Shabbat in a way that it is not on weekdays.

A Postscript on Angels

Re: the piece presented two weeks ago from Sefer Baal Shem Tov, which among other things discussed the various classes of angels. Perhaps one way of reading this concept is that it is important in that it implies the existence of a spiritual dimension to the universe. That is, the underlying idea in the existence of angels is that there are beings that are not God, but are nevertheless still incorporeal, spiritual; a kind of in-between realm. By contrast, many monotheists today may be materialists but still believe in a transcendent God, nowhere near our universe.

The four-tiered model, with its intermediate realm of things that are “form, but not matter” (this quote, which I mentioned last week, is from no less than Maimonides, in Yesodei ha-Torah 2.3) is important. It somehow makes the existence of a spiritual dimension of living, corporeal beings more accessible: that is, it somehow makes room for the idea that human beings also have a non-material component.

This point deserves fuller discussion another time. In particular, also, because it is the central theme of the blessing Yotzer Or recited in Shaharit, and of Kedusha; that many midrashim contrast the angelic recital of Kadosh with our saying Shema, etc.


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