Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Emor (Hasidism)

Bible critics speak of the final section of Leviticus—from Chapter 17 or Chapter 19—as constituting a distinct unit, “the Book of Holiness.” Without going into the theological and historical issues implied, it is clear that the group of Torah portions read during these weeks are united by a common theme and language—that of kedushah, holiness. Parshat Kedoshim opens with the imperative to all the congregation of Israel to “be holy, for I am holy” while the refrain “ani HWYH” (“I am the Lord”) runs through it like a leitmotif. Parshat Emor raises this concept to a higher level, so to speak, turning from the sanctity of all Israel to that of the priests and the sanctity of holy times. These represent two of the three fundamental dimensions or categories of Kabbalistic thought: nefesh, “soul”—i.e., human personality; and shana, “year”—i.e., time). Here, too, Again, the word kadosh is used repeatedly (“They shall be holy to their God” [Lev 21:6]; “I am the Lord who sanctifies them [the priests]” [v. 23]; “a holy convocation” [mikra kodesh; Lev 23: 2, 3, 8, 21, 24, 27, 35, 36, 37, etc.]. Behar, with its special laws regarding the produce of Eretz Yisrael, and the large-scale 7-year and 50-year cycles of shmitah and yovel, completes the cycle with the third dimension, olam (space—i.e., the three dimensions of conventional physics), and their interrelation with time and with persona.

As we commented last week, there is a basic paradox in the call for man to be holy, or indeed in making any object, place, person, or even time period holy: namely, the unfathomable gap between God, who is “Holy, Holy, Holy”—i.e., utterly transcendent, “Wholly Other,” beyond—and the application of this selfsame term to any created thing. This is the insight tersely conveyed by the midrashic comment, “My holiness is above your holiness.” And yet, our tradition nevertheless does dare to declare various elements and dimensions of our earthly existence to be holy. And the subject calls for deep reflection.

Among the “holy convocations” of Leviticus 23, there is an interim period of non-holy, yet nevertheless special time, set aside by a deliberate act of counting: Sefirat ha-Omer, the seven weeks of counting between Pesah and Shavuot. Interestingly, Shabbat Emor, when we read that chapter, always falls within this period. R. Nahum of Chernobol discusses this period as follows, in his book Meor Einayim:

“And you shall count…. [seven full weeks]” [Lev 23:15]. “Beloved are Israel, who were given a precious vessel. They were even more beloved, in that it was made known to them [that they were given a precious vessel]” [m. Avot 3.18].

First, a formal point: During the summer months, and most particularly between Pesah and Shavuot, Pirkei Avot—“The Ethics of the Fathers,” a mishnaic tractate consisting of obiter dicta of the Sages on a variety of moral issues—is read or studied on Shabbat afternoon, usually after Minhah. Hasidic authors often try to work the chapter read on the particular week into their homilies for this period. Thus the Meor Einayim, Toldot Yaakov Yosef, Degel, Sefat Emet, and others. Here, R. Nahum creates his homily as a kind of counterpoint between a Torah verse from the portion and a saying from this week’s chapter in ”Perek.”

The rule is, that constant pleasure is not enjoyment. Therefore, “the creatures rush back and forth” [Ezek 1:14]—but he does not cease, but only leaves an impression. And by removing himself he makes a vessel, that he may receive pleasure. For were he not to remove himself, there would be no vessel, and he could not receive pleasure. And this is: “Beloved are Israel, who were given a precious vessel”—a vessel in which to receive precious things. And this is “Even more beloved,” that they would be able to receive pleasure.

The expression from Ezekiel is often used by Hasidic writers as a metaphor for the oscillating, pendulum-like nature of a person’s religious states. By “passing through” moments, flashes of religious insight, of spiritual intimacy, closeness to God, even though these by their nature these do not last, a person creates a “vessel’ to receive more in the future. Such, indeed, is the nature of all pleasure; the greatest physical pleasures are of fleeting nature; were they to last forever, they would cease to be pleasurable. Can one imagine the moment of orgasm, or of tasting the sweetest delicacy, or the sensation of weightlessness of a bonja diver—being prolonged for an hour, a day, a year, an infinity? Or the pleasure of music, or of literary composition, which almost by definition is related to the sequence of sound across the axis of time.

“And from my own flesh I shall see God” [Job 19:26]. [i.e., he is about to bring an illustration of this idea from the concrete, physical realm]. As is said in the midrash: For that reason the Torah said: a niddah (menstruant woman) shall be impure for seven days, so as to make her more precious to her husband. And similarly God, may He be praised, commanded “you shall count seven weeks” [Deut 16:9], corresponding to the seven clean days, so that they may receive the great pleasure, that is, the receiving of the Torah. For on every festival of Shavuot we receive the Torah, as our rabbis said [Tanhuma, Yitro, §7], as if it were given this very day. And there is no pleasure comparable to the receiving of the Torah, which is an encounter face to face, as is written “Face to face the Lord spoke with all your congregation” [Deut 4:4 & 19, conflated].

The comparison of the seven “clean” days of waiting/counting undergone by the menstruant woman, and the seven times seven days of counting/waiting/anticipating from Passover, the time of liberation from Egypt, “the place of uncleanliness,” to the epiphany at Sinai, is an obvious one (as is the comparison, scandalous as it might seem to some Western, Christian-informed ears, between sexual and spiritual pleasure). Here, R. Nahum specifically emphasizes the pleasurable aspect of the awaited event: to increase the husband’s longing for and pleasure in his wife (and vice versa); to increase the Jews’ consciousness that the event at Sinai, and its spiritual reliving every year on Shavuot, the moment of intimacy with God, is the greatest imaginable pleasure.

The focus on the pleasure motif here is interesting. It is not self-evident that the revelation at Sinai, or religious experience in general, is meant to be pleasurable. For many people, these things are more often associated with calls to stern duty, moral imperatives, and fear of punishment rather than pleasure. But here, as in other mystical writers, it is assumed that the highest of pleasures is knowledge of God (lehit’aneg al Ha-Shem)—and the strongest and surest motivation for a person to undertake the admittedly long and arduous path of achieving spiritual perfection is the knowledge that in the end one will experience a pleasure beyond any known in mundane human life. See, for a few examples, the opening chapters of the dialogue version of Ramhal’s Mesillat Yesharim; Rambam’s ode to the love of God in Hilkhot Teshuvah, Ch. 10; or, for that matter, some of the psalms, such as 27, 42, 63, 84, and many others, which sing of the simple bliss of closeness to God.

A contemporary Hasidic thinker, R. Rafael Luria—a Slonimer hassid whose approach has been described as “a synthesis of Talmudic dialectics (lamdanut), Kabbalah, halakha and midrash”—draws this same comparison between niddah and Sefirat ha-Omer, adding an additional element. In his book Beit Genazai, he describes the mood of these seven weeks as a combination of yirah and simhah, of fear/awe and joy. A bride may look forward to her wedding day with joyful anticipation of being united with her beloved, combined with a certain bashfulness (at least in an age or cultural milieu in which brides had reason for bashfulness), if not awe and reverence, toward her husband and towards the encounter itself. All the more so that a human being anticipating a rendezvous with the Almighty, so to speak, is pulled in opposing directions: of excited anticipation, combined with a sense of his own insignificance and unworthiness, of being overwhelmed by the thought of encountering the Divine Presence. This, too, is the oscillation of ratzo vashov mentioned earlier. This may also help to explain the melancholy mood of these days, even the semi-mourning practiced therein, which according to Rav Soloveitchik have an existential as well as an historical origin.


Post a Comment

<< Home