Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Shoftim (Hasidism)

“Do Not Cast Me Aside in Time of Old Age”

Erev Shabbat Shoftim is the first day of Elul, the “month of mercy and forgiveness.” During this month Sephardim rise before dawn to recite Selihot, penitential prayers, while Ashkenazim begin a period of spiritual preparation for Rosh Hashanah culminating in the days of Selihot at the end of the month. Among the verses recited with special pathos during Selihot is al tashlikheni le-‘et ziknah—“Do not cast me off in time of old age” (Ps 71:9). Sefer Ba’al Shem Tov brings a series of metaphorical interpretations of this verse, relating it to matters of prayer. Amud ha-Tefillah §§66, 67, 68:

§66. At times a person wishes to pray with ecstasy, but cannot do so because his limbs are heavy. And R. Israel Baal Shem Tov said that it was concerning this that King David prayed, “Do not cast me aside in time of old age”—when his limbs are heavy like those of an old man.

§67. From the Baal Shem Tov, an explanation of the verse, “Do not cast me aside in time of age.” The sense is, that He should not cast time into old age, for at times a person’s service of God falls into old age, through the passage of time.

§68. From the holy teacher, the Baal Shem Tov, on the verse “Do not cast me aside in time of old age.” He questioned: And in youth one does not need [Divine] assistance? How can such a thing be possible! Rather, the intention is that at times a person may become enthralled regarding a certain [facet of] Divine service, whether of Torah or prayer, but this excitement and desire does not become old [i.e., remain] with him, but immediately he falls from the desire, and it seems to him as if he has become old from that mitzvah. As people say [in Tur, Orah Hayyim §61; regarding the improper way to regard the recitation of Shema], “like an old edict.” Concerning this he said, “Do not cast me off” from the enthrallment, that it not be in my eyes like something old or an old edict, but rather may it seem to me like a new edict.

In all three of these teachings old age is understood symbolically, as a kind of stagnation or boredom that may occur over the course of time, due to the sameness and repetition of the prayer text. Hasidism was greatly concerned with the importance of newness and freshness and vitality in the religious life; one could day that constant renewal is its very essence. “If I pray today only because I prayed yesterday, I’m not really praying at all.” This is a persistent, chronic problem of any repeated ritual: as it becomes too familiarized and routine, it ceases to have an impact upon the person. Hasidism thus sought ways of revivifying the repeated mitzvot, of constantly reminding people, making them conscious of their inner light. Or, to put it differently: Tzadikkim are those capable of looking at the universe with child-like eyes.

Is God a Partner in our Sins?

One of my readers, asked “Have I read in Tzidkat ha-Tzaddik that God is a partner in our sins? Could this be a concept consistent with some of the Hassidic thought you have dealt with? (Or did I misread the passage??).” He refers to what is perhaps the most widely read volume of the books by R. Zaddok ha-Cohen of Lublin (with the possible exception of his five-volume set on the Torah portion, Peri Tzaddik). As we mentioned earlier this year (HY IV: Purim), R. Zaddok, who lived and taught during the latter half of the nineteenth century, was one of the most prolific and psychologically penetrating Hasidic teachers. At times his books are almost epigrammatic, containing brief teachings or insights about the way to serve God, without necessarily starting, as is customary, with a homily based on a biblical verse or a Rabbinic saying. Tzidkat ha-Tzaddik, in particular, is a kind of handbook to Divine service, with much material on prayer, comments on the aggadot found in tractate Berakhot, and more. The following is my translation of the passage my friend inquired about (Tzidkat ha-Tzaddik, §39):

Sometimes it seems to a person that he has Divine help for a particular thing that he is doing. But he should not rely upon this, saying to himself that it must be a good thing, for if it were not so then the Holy One blessed be He would not assist him. And that only in the case of one who comes to purify himself does He come to his assistance, but one who sets out to become impure [i.e., to sin], He only opens the way for him, but does not [actively] help him.

All this is the hav amina—the (in this case) incorrect line of reasoning into which a person may fall, thinking that, since all that happens has its ultimate origin in God’s will, whatever happens must be an expression of Divine Providence, and hence good. Such a line of thought appears at times in the thought of his teacher and contemporary, R. Mordecai Ishbitzer. Is this passage a polemic with the determinism of the Mei Shiloah, arguing the complexity of moral choices, and the ambiguity of what happens in life?

In any event, at times it may be that he was assisted because it is a trial, or the like. As it is written regarding Micah, who said, “Now I know that God has done good to me [Jdg 17:13; her uses here the Divine name HVYH, which is sacred, as noted in Shavuot 35b], for the Levite has become my priest.” For he thought that he received help from Heaven and Divine assistance that brought the Levite to serve as his priest and to help him. But in fact, as our Sages said in Tanna de Bei Eliyahu [end of sect. 26], Micah denied the first commandment, ”I am the Lord your God,” as I explained elsewhere that this is a denial of the very root of Israelite being [of a person]. And only in such cases is there found one who is God forbid a root that bears fruit of gall and wormwood.

He invokes the example of Micah, in the Book of Judges (not the prophet of that name!), who considered himself a pious person, building a private sanctuary and hiring a priest to run it, but was in fact a blasphemer.

But as for us, who among us knows where he stands (as written in Kiddushin 71b)? And the advice for this is prayer and supplication to God, for divine compassion from heaven, that are effective to change even the root, as we said elsewhere on the verse “A pure heart create for me, O God” [Ps 51:12], that creation in all places refers to creation from nothing [ex nihilo], and see above, §4.

The bottom line is that a person cannot know with certainty why God acts as He does, or whether a given situation is a trial, a Divine gift, or whatever. The final comment is significant: that the verse, “create for me a new heart,” alludes to creation ex nihilo, meaning, that it is possible for God to create within us a totally new heart; or, translated into psychological terms, that radical teshuvah, a complete change of a person’s will and his way of being in the world, is a possibility.

ELUL: Some Theological Reflections

This past Shabbat I came across an extremely interesting teaching of the Sefat Emet relating to the significance of the month of Elul (Shoftim, 5631, s.v. bekhol makom). He raises the following question: what is the meaning of ‘et ratzon, “a time of grace,” a phrase used in connection with the month of Elul, as well as of the Third Meal on Shabbat? Given that God transcends time, how can one speak of a “time of grace” in connection with Him? The answer he gives, is that this is a time “when man can draw close and attach himself to God with a genuine will and with his innermost heart.”

In short, he essentially spiritualizes or psychologizes the idea of holiness within time and, one may assume, also space. Interestingly, A. J. Heschel, in his famous book The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man, coins the phrase “a temple in time” about the Shabbat, to imply that time rather than place is the locus of holiness in Judaism—especially so, no doubt, following the Exile and the destruction of the Temple when a living connection to holy places was no longer a viable option. Needless to say, with the restoration of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, many say that this is an opportunity for revitalizing the whole concept of place, of space and location in the physical world, as a locus for holiness. This is in fact a key ideological or even theological issue underlying the controversy within Israel about the Palestinian question and the possible return of territories—to wit, how can we forego our holy places. (The other issues have to do with the concrete, real-politik level: how does one interpret the climate within the Arab world, what are their real intentions, how will various scenarios affect Israel’s security, both in the short-run and in the long range—which is of course a totally different kettle of fish).

In any event, what the Sefat Emet does here is far more radical even then Heschel’s idea. Space and time are realms of holiness only vis-a-vis a human being: that is, the halakhic consequences of holiness in space and time remain: certain days and times carry various prohibitions and obligations, just as certain holy places have various laws—one cannot enter except under certain conditions; there are certain specific places where one is allowed e.g. to offer sacrifices (in a hypothetical future situation when the Temple will be rebuilt). But all this has nothing to do with who and what God is in Himself. The Divine Presence, one may imagine, is also a function of man’s openness to God, not an objective metaphysical phenomenon. Or, as the Kotzker (a kind of spiritual forebear of the Sefat Emet, through his grandfather’s discipleship) said, “Where does God dwell? Wherever you let him in.”


Post a Comment

<< Home