Thursday, April 06, 2006

Tzav (Hasidism)

To Burn with Passion for the Divine

A relatively short teaching on the portion from R. Nahum of Chernobol’s Meor Einayim:

… By means of the Torah a person may attach himself to God, may He be blessed, who is hidden within the Torah, and He is the light that is within it… and by means of the Torah a person may be attached to God and subdue his Evil Urge. And this is, “I have seen ‘masters of ascent’ [i.e., spiritual adepts] and they are few in number” [Sukkah 45b]. For by means of the Torah a person may ascend on high, and also correct that which he has spoiled. And this is, “the Torah of the [offering] that rises up” [Lev 6:2]. That is, by its means he may ascend on high “all the night until the morning” [ibid.]—so that even his darkness can ascend, so that he may turn it into morning light.

This is a pun on the opening phrase in verse 2, torat ha-olah (lit., “the teaching about the olah-offering”): that the Torah itself is the instrument whereby a person may ascend spiritually. Other Hasidic teachings on the opening verses of this portion, with it’s command to assure that a fire burns continually upon the altar, read this as a command to light one’s inner fire—that is, that even before opening one’s mouth in prayer, one must constantly be on fire with love and passion for God.

“And the fire shall burn upon the altar, it shall not be extinguished” [v. 5]. For the light of the Seven Days of Creation, by which Adam saw from one end of the world to the other [Haggigah 12a], was concealed after he sinned; that is, it was put away for the righteous for the Future. For at the beginning, before the Sin, the light was in a revealed state; but after the Sin the light was hidden in garments that clothed the light; that is, the light was embodied within the Torah. And this is: “and the Lord made for them tunics of skin” [kotnot ‘or; Gen 3:21]. And in the Torah scroll of R. Meir it was written “tunics of light [or], with an aleph [Gen. Rab. 20.12]. And this is difficult to understand, for if one substitutes the letter aleph for ‘ayin [or any other letter of the Torah], the Torah scroll is unfit. Thus, whichever way you look at it: either our Torah text is unfit, or the Torah of R. Meir was unfit!

But one may say thus: that Rabbi Meir was known as “Nehorai” [light], because he enlightened the eyes of the Sages in halakhah [Erubin 13b]. That is, the Torah scroll that R. Meir wrote by a scribe contained the letter ‘ayin [i.e., “tunics of skin”] just as in our Torah, but he taught the members of his generation and enlightened their eyes. That is, he taught them how to come to the hidden light within the Torah, for because it was embodied in garments not everyone was able to arrive at the hidden light, but Rabbi Meir taught his generation and enlightened their eyes so as to come to the hidden light.

There is a certain tension here between the primordial light and the Torah. The entire structure of Torah and halakhah is seen as a covering, a “garment,” for something more basic, more elemental, closer to God Himself, symbolized by the original light of Creation, the very first thing that God created. The alternative reading of Gen 3:21, in which Adam and Eve were clothed in “garments of light,” suggests this state of pristine holiness as well: somehow, even the garment made to cover their nakedness after they discovered they could sin is none other than an embodiment of Divine light. This is what is taught in “the Torah of R. Meir.”

But that Torah, sublime as it may be, cannot substitute for the regular Torah scroll used in the synagogue—if only because there can be one, and only one, accepted reading for every verse, word and letter in the Torah (the unresolved variant for “daka” in Deut 23:2 caused no end of trouble to the poskim). And, significantly, this reading (“tunics of skin”) shows Adam and Eve in far more earthbound and mundane terms than does this almost Gnostic alternative. R. Meir is portrayed here as resolving this dilemma by, on the one hand, on the exoteric level, embodying loyalty to traditional halakhah, through having a “standard" Torah scroll with the usual reading; and, on the other, esoteric level, teaching through his very being the spiritual message of the “hidden light” within the Torah. One feels that R. Meir is invoked here as a kind of symbol of how R. Nahum saw himself and other Hasidic teachers of his day: as teaching others ‘how to come to the hidden light within the Torah.” (Interestingly, there are several stories about people secretly observing the Baal Shem Tov while davening privately, late at night, who described him as being surrounded by a great light.)

This inevitable tension between the immediate encounter with the Divine and the forms through which it is mediated is an inevitable, constant feature of all religious life (see Art Green’s excellent discussion of this in his book, Devotion and Commandment, especially its opening pages). Hasidism was particularly strongly imbued with this tension: the longing for the direct experience of devekut, of attachment or “cleaving” to God, combined with loyalty to Torah and halakhah. Many Kabbalists resolved this dilemma through integration of the two: following the traditional path of halakhah, of living within the community in a normative way, while imbuing the words of prayer or acts of mitzvah with esoteric, mystical intentions. Thus, several outstanding halakhists were deeply immersed in the world of Kabbalah—R. Joseph Caro, R. Solomon Adret (Rashba), the Rabad of Posquière, to name but a few (not to mention the great, charismatic tannaitic figures, such as R. Shimon bar Yohai, R. Akiva, or for that matter R. Meir himself, who are more distant from us than the medieval figures, making it more difficult to sort out legend from historical reality).

Now let us return to our subject. For by means of Torah a person ascends—“this is the Torah of the ascent offering.” And how does a person ascend by means of the Torah? This is by coming to the hidden light, that is, that he shall gaze by means of the hidden light from one end of the world to the other. And this is “Command [Aaron and his sons]” [Lev 6:2]. “The word ’Command’ [tzav] connotes ‘zeal,’ that is, admonition both immediately and for generations” [Rashi ad loc.]. That is, that which is now in the present, immediately, and that which shall be in future generations, are both the same to him. Therefore R. Shimon bar Yohai spoke in the Zohar of Rabba bar bar Hanna, who lived several hundred years after R. Shimon b. Yohai; and also Moses our Teacher saw R. Akiba [Menahot 29b], who was several thousand years later. But this is because of their Torah they came to the hidden light, where there is no distinction between the immediate present and future generations, for that is the place where all is equal, present and future. This “hidden light,” in its unadulterated form, can even enable a person to transcend the ordinary limitations of time, separating past, present and future—almost like God Himself.

R. Shimon said, “And it [i.e., the above-mentioned language of ziruz] is needed most of all in a place where one is out if pocket [hisaron kis, i.e., monetary loss; Rashi on this verse, quoting Torat Kohanim]. That is, if he studies Torah and comes to the hidden light, and there the light is not dressed in any covering [kisuy; word-play on hisaron kis mentioned above] or garment, but is as the Torah was before the sin of Adam, which was before he made the garments of light, because the light was not covered by the garments of the Torah, but the light was revealed, and this is “lack of pocket [covering].” And this is what our Sages said, “Would that they would abandon Me and keep My Torah” [Petihta to Lamentations Rabbah]. For when a person studies Torah he sees before him letters, and then, when he contemplates, there are opened before him the gates of wisdom, to understand the Torah with intellect and understanding…


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