Thursday, May 25, 2006

Bamidbar-Shabbat Kallah (Hasidism)

Why was there Darkness at Sinai?

In anticipation of Shavuot, two teachings about the great event that happened at Sinai. First, a brief teaching of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav deriving an interesting lesson from one of the verses. Likkutei Muharan, §115:

“And the people stood afar, and Moses approached the thick darkness where God was” [Exod 20:18]. For one who walks in corporeality all his life, and thereafter becomes enflamed and wishes to walk in the path of God, may He be blessed, then the Attribute of Judgment takes an accusing posture against him, and does not allow him to walk in the ways of God, but prepares an obstacle in his way. But God is compassionate, and hides Himself, so to speak, in that very obstacle itself.

Now, a wise person (bar da’at) looks at the obstacle, and finds God there. As it says in the Jerusalem Talmud [Ta’anit, Ch. 1]: “If a person asks you, ‘Where is your God?’ Tell him, ‘In the great city in Aram,’ as is said, ‘My God calls out to me from Seir’ [Isa 21:11].” But one who is not wise immediately turns away upon seeing the obstacle. And the obstacle is the aspect of cloud and thick darkness, for cloud and thick darkness (‘anan va-‘arafel) are darkness (hoshekh), and darkness is from the same word as obstacle, as is written, “And you have not withheld [your son from Me]” [Gen 22:12; hasakhta].

The word-play here, based on the words hoshekh / hasakh, treats the letters shin / sin, differentiated by a right-hand and left-hand dot, as the same. (Readers of modern Hebrew may be confused, because samekh is often used today, both here and elsewhere, instead of sin.)

And this is the meaning of the verse, “and the people stood afar.” For when one sees the fog, that is, the obstacle, as mentioned above, one stands far away. But Moses, who was the attribute of the knowledge of all Israel, drew close to the darkness, where there was God. That is, to the obstacle, in which in itself God is hidden.

We find here a basic religious teaching: the deceptive nature of appearances. A great man, one with a modicum of depth of vision, must see beyond the surface appearance. That which conceals God is precisely the place one must approach in order to reach a higher place, to grow spiritually.

The idea of meni’ot, “obstacles,” is a central one in Bratslav teaching. This is at times drawn in an almost dualistic, Manichean manner—that there are objective Powers of negativity, of evil (the Satan or the “Baal Davar”) which begin acting in the world whenever a person sets about to perform some positive, godly act. The real religious life is not one of smooth, comfortable piety, where everything is set up for one to do mitzvot and study Torah without any effort, but the overcoming of challenges and conflicts. Mesillat Yesharim speaks of life in such terms, as an arena of constant testing of a person’s mettle. There is also an interesting midrash, quoted by Rashi at Gen 37:1, in which Jacob after all his trials finally wants to sit at home and enjoy a calm existence, and God tells him: “Isn’t the life of the next world enough for you? The righteous aren’t supposed to enjoy peace and quiet!” (see HY I: Vayeshev)

There is also a certain idea of indirection here: that sometimes God sets up a certain situation in an entirely different way than is expected. There are innumerable Hasidic stories in which the hero sets off to go to a certain place, and on the way his wagon’s wheel breaks (or some other obstacle), he is forced to spend the night at an inn in a strange town, and there he has a fateful encounter with a stranger. Perhaps he gives him the 500 rubles he has painstakingly saved up to marry off his own daughter, because the other is more needy, thereby setting off a chain of fortuitous, if not redemptive events—at the end of which he is rewarded. Or, put more concisely: the point isn’t the destination, but the journey itself.

What Happens on Shavuot?

The following passage from R. Nahum of Chernobol elaborates a familiar Hasidic idea, in which each festival represents an actual reliving of the event commemorated on that holiday; the idea of the “eternal return.” Meor Einayim, Parshat Yitro, s.v. ita be-kitvei ha-Ari:

It states in the writings of R. Yitzhak Luria, z”l, that regarding each different time, such as Pesah, Shavuot and Sukkot, that recurs each year, when that time comes, things are as they were the first time: on Pesah, the Exodus from Egypt [see HY IV: Pesah]; on Shavuot, one receives the Torah; and so on for each time. Now one needs to understand how one receives the Torah every Shavuot, or has not it already been given? But this may be understand according to the dictum of the Rabbis z”l [Tanhuma, Yitro, §7], “On each day they shall be new in your eyes, as if on that day they were given”; and it is this one needs to accept upon oneself every Shavuot.

And our Rabbis said, “Two thousand years are Torah” [Sanhedrin 97a; see below] and Rashi explains that the two thousand years of Torah began in the days of Abraham, and according to this the Torah existed in the days of our Father Abraham. If so, what did Israel receive [at Sinai]? Bui the truth is, that the Torah existed in the days of Abraham, but it was clothed in the tunic made from the skin of the serpent, as in the verse “And the Lord God made for Adam and his wife garments of skin, and they wore them” [Gen 3:21]. And Adam and Eve correspond to the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. For Adam, before his sin, was utterly without materiality. Moreover, in every person it is thus. And the main acceptance of the Torah consisted in that their contamination ceased, and they were made “garments of light,” with the letter aleph [word-play on ‘or, “skin,” and or, “light”], and they perceived the inner light of the Torah, and the Torah of light. And it is this that one needs to receive every Shavuot, so as to apprehend the vitality and innerness of the Torah, as is said, “Uncover my eyes, and let me see miraculous things from your Torah” [Ps 119:18].

The passage quoted from Sanhedrin presents a schema in which the world will exist for 6000 years (based on the equation in Ps 90:4, “A thousand years in Your eyes are like a single day”)— 2000 years dominated by chaos, 2000 years of Torah, and 2000 years of Messiah. More generally, the idea here, a constant motif in Kabbalah and Hasidut, is of Shavuot as a festival of mystical revelation: a day when deep apprehension of the Divine, or at least new insights, are available to the individual; when particularly profound Torahs are apt to be said. Similarly, some scholars suggest that Rabbi Shimon’s “Idra” epiphany, described in the Zohar, was originally seen as occurring on Shavuot, and only later associated with Lag ba-Omer. (See HYI: Shavuot).

For every day one needs to attain new life energy from our Holy Torah. And our Rabbis said, “All forty days, Moses our teacher would learn and then forget, until it was given him as a gift” [Nedarim 38a]. And it is written ”from the wilderness they went on to Matanah” [Num 21:18], and our Rabbis expounded it this, ”He who makes himself like a wilderness, that everybody tramples over, the Torah is given him as gift” [Nedarim 55a]. And it is this that one needs to receive every Shavuot, that one be like a wilderness, and not forget the Torah that he studies. And this thing itself, to be like a wilderness, he needs to ask of God, may He be blessed: “and let my soul be like dust to all” [from the personal petition recited after the Amidah]. And understand this.


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