Thursday, October 12, 2006

Simhat Torah (Hasidism)

Closing the Circle

On Simhat Torah we finish reading the Torah, and straightaway begin again. Thus, the Torah is in a sense transformed from a linear entity, with a beginning, middle, and end, into a continuous circle, whose “end is anchored in its beginning and its beginning in its end” (an oft-quoted saying, which I believe first appears in the Zohar). Thus, many Hasidic teachings for Simhat Torah—the day on which the linear is transformed into the circular, perhaps yet another meaning for the dancing in circles that marks this day—deal with the inner connection between the opening and closing words of the Torah: Bereshit / le’einei kol Yisrael. The following, for example, is what R. Moshe Hayyim Efraim of Sudylkow has to say about this in Degel Mahaneh Efraim; Parshat vezot haberakah:

“And for all the great and awesome deeds that Moses did in the eyes of all Israel” {Deut 34:12]… “In the beginning” {Gen 1:1]. One might say regarding this, so as to anchor its end in its beginning, according to what my grandfather z”l [the Baal Shem Tov] said: The name Israel indicates that, when the Holy One blessed be He created the world, He would have returned it to its root in oblivion; but when He looked upon the creation of man, who is called Israel, then the world was sustained from naught to being. And this is alluded to in the name Yisrael: that is, yesh {being] and r’el. For the letter resh alludes to Hokhmah/Wisdom; aleph, to Da’at/Knowledge; and lamed to Binah/Understanding, all of which are also alluded to in the word ayin [i.e., the three intellective qualities of the Godhead]. And they were sustained by the beingness of Israel, as explained elsewhere.

As we saw a few weeks ago (HY IV: Yom Kippur), the intellective qualities within the Godhead are called ayin, perhaps because they relate to a realm that transcends materiality or, indeed, that is above any internal tension or differentiation. I do not know why the letters resh-aleph-lamed specifically relate to these three aspects.

It is important to note that the concept ayin does not mean nothingness in the usual sense of oblivion, non-being. Otherwise, it could not be identified with the sefirot of Divine intellect! Rather, it refers to undifferentiated being, the Divine essence that is content to reside within itself, in that place where all is divine: a realm of existence that we mortal beings cannot even begin to comprehend, let alone define or articulate. From the perspective of the Divine Nothingness, the choice to create being other than Himself was a radical and, if you like, risky one. Man is autonomous, independent, willful, and can get up to all sorts of mischief. The existence in God’s universe of an intelligent, free being is hardly a recipe for harmony, peace, or tranquility.

Interestingly, some psychologists, in speaking of the choice between life and death, see death as a symbolic return to the womb, to undifferentiated unity, to perfection. There is a certain seductiveness to symbols of peacefulness, total inactivity. (One is reminded of the scene in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, in which the hero is tempted to lie down and rest in the snow, dreaming peaceful dreams—and thereby meet an icy death.) In a certain sense, the striving for perfection, for the Golden Age, for the lost Eden, for utopia (again, ou-topos, Greek for “no place”) is really a desire for oblivion—perhaps coming from the insight that living, however constructed, is a hard game. (See also Rashi’s comment at Gen 37:1, with its image of the righteous as being perpetually active; the wish to dwell in tranquility as contrary to their basic nature.)

And this is “Israel — In the Beginning.” That by means of Israel, whose name signifies yesh-ayin, being-nothingness—there comes about the emergence of being from nothingness, as above. This is, “in the beginning”—that is, the sustaining of the works of creation, that they not return to nothingness, is by means of the being of Israel. And understand. …

And one may also say, so as to connect the end of the Torah to its beginning: Israel—Bereshit. How when each person begins to study Torah, this is via the adage, “If there is no fear [of God] there is no wisdom.” And Israel is composed of the letters of yare’ shel, that is, shalem, as in Jerusalem. In other words, when he will achieve “complete fear-of-God,” that is, inner fear, he then may become a vessel for the attribute of wisdom, and there enters into him the aspect of “In the beginning,” that is, Wisdom, which is the entire Torah. And he begins the Torah from Bereshit…

(I don’t know how he makes the jump from yare’ shel to yare’ shalem.) In simple terms: “Israel” symbolizes proper, inner piety, fear of God, the ethical-psychological qualities needed to know God; while Bereshit symbolizes Wisdom itself, the primordial Divine Logos, which is attained as this prerequisite of “fear” is met. The point here is that the latter is dependent upon the former.

The Sukkah as Sacred Space

I wish to develop an idea at which I hinted in the postscript to my last page: namely, the sukkah as sacred space. There is a paradox here: Sukkot is, historically, a pilgrimage festival—in a sense, perhaps much more so even than Pesah. In theory, Jews were supposed to make pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem three times a year, but in practice, between the lines, the impression gained is that Sukkot was the most popular of these festivals, with throngs crowding the Temple courtyards for Simhat Beit ha-Shoevah, and other celebrations. Symbolically, too, it is connected with the dwelling of God in Jerusalem: its haftarot deal with messianic, even apocalyptic redemptions; as the third pilgrimage festival, it corresponds to the building of the Tabernacle, that follows the Exodus and Sinai in the Book of Exodus.

But the sukkah as we know it is a personal sacred space. The sukkah symbolizes Divine protection, “to dwell in the Shadow of the Holy One blessed be He,” sufficient unto itself. In Kabbalah, the skhakh, the covering of the sukkah, symbolizes makifin, the transcendent presence of God. Indeed, Habad Hasidim refrain from sleeping in the sukkah because of this overwhelming holiness, following the guidelines laid down by R. Yosef Yitzhak. (My friend and fellow parsha-sheet writer Yaakov Fogelman gets greatly exercised about this every year; but his must be understood as a classical case of conflict between straightforward halakhic and aggadic-kabbalistic thinking, which are legion.) The sukkah itself as defined as space: a minimum of three walls, covered with thatching, for which there are numerous stipulations; the mitzvah itself is simply to be there. In lieu of Temple, it is a kind of place where each individual can experience divine presence in an immediate way.

Lulav celebrates space in another way: the central ritual involving it, much elaborated in Kabbalah is in Hasidism, is the shaking of lulav to the six points of space; the four compass points, up and down. The four kinds, or seven items, symbolize the community, or the human body, or the Godhead: the four letters of the Divine Name, or the complete sefirotic system. Thus, the shaking of the lulav may symbolize the completeness or wholeness of God pointing in all directions, filling the entire cosmos. If the sukkah is makifin, transcendence, lulav is a symbol of divine immanence, in all places.

There is much more to be said about the tension between centralized vs. decentralized experiences of holiness, as of that between linear and circular conceptions of history. That all these impinge upon the reality of our lives, may be seen from the fallout from that terrible day thee years ago when the courtyards of the Lord were coarsely trampled, igniting fire whose waves have made our lives a living nightmare ever since.

A short teaching from Midrash Pinhas by R. Pinchas of Koretz, one of the earliest and closest disciples of the Baal Shem Tov. This was sent me by Mark Kirschbaum with the comment that “it will blow you away.” R. Pinhas explains that da’at on Sukkot is linked to joy, and is a higher level of consciousness than that of Yom Kippur—just as a baby, when first born, does nothing but cry, but once he gets a little more developed, he develops the social smile.

Mourning and Festival Joy

At the risk of being thought morbid, I would like to share some thoughts about the relationship between mourning and festive joy. I had an opportunity to write this up in a letter to someone, and decided to share it with everybody. The halakhah states that a festival day not only suspends, but cancels the seven-day period of mourning, even if the close relatives of the deceased only observed shivah for an hour. Some years back I gave a talk on Shavuot night about this subject, when we experienced a dramatic example of this: a woman in the Ramat Eshkol community died during the pre-dawn hours of Erev Shavuot, was buried around 1 pm (with more or less our entire shul in attendance), the family sat shivah for about two hours during the afternoon, and by the evening were considered to be in shloshim.

Much has been written about the therapeutic aspects of Jewish mourning ritual, and the central role played by shivah as a time for working out, in isolation from the hustle-bustle of everyday life, at least some of the pain and anguish of the death—through quiet talks with friends who visit, one by one, during the week following the funeral, through conversation among the family, and through the twice-daily home prayers. The question raised is: if this is so, then why should the relatives be deprived of this valuable experience merely because the death happened to occur close to yomtov?

I explained the underlying concept as follows: the Jewish people may be described as a series of concentric circles: 1) the nuclear family; 2) the local community, centered around the synagogue, which constitutes itself every time there is public worship, the minyan serving as a kind of microcosm of Knesset Yisrael; 3) the entire Jewish people living today; 4) Knesset Yisrael, past, present and future—the ultimate subject of the covenant with He who is past, present, and future.

When the basic family unit is irreparably disrupted by the death of one of its members—parent, sibling, spouse, child—every other member feels a rent in terms of his own place in the world, and needs time for that rent to begin to heal, through the familiar practices of aveilut, with all its various laws and customs which I need not repeat here. The family will need to realign and reconstitute itself after this death; it will never again be the same. Mourning itself symbolizes the person being outside of the normal circle of the community, in certain ways almost parallel to a menudeh or a metzora, one placed under the ban or a leper, who also do not even leave their homes.

The festivals of the Jewish year symbolize the intense, collective experiencing or reliving of an event of overwhelming significance for Klal Yisrael, the Jewish people as a whole: the Exodus on Pesah, the Epiphany at Sinai on Shavuot, collective cathartic forgiveness on Yom Kippur, etc. These events are so powerful that they somehow override the disruption of the microcosm that is the nuclear family and, at least on some metaphysical or spiritual level, leave the individual in a different place then he was during shivah, obviating the need to return to that degree of distancing from the center even after yomtov.

Of course, in practice things may not work out this way, and I can understand the feelings of those who feel the lack of a “real” shivah, with several days to absorb the shock, etc. I know of cases—and cannot imagine any halakhic objection to such a practice—where people have set aside a kind of “non-shivah” shivah, a day or evening when they receive comforters in their home to talk about their loss. I know of cases where this was done, either because shivah was truncated by a festival, or where mourners living in Israel went to the US for the funeral of a parent (or vice versa), and held a “shivah” upon returning to their home community. On the other hand, it is important that people understand the inner logic of the halakhah and what it is teaching us about the meaning of the festival days.

Interestingly, there is a passage in the Gemara suggesting that in certain circumstances people made unofficial condolence calls during Hol Hamoed. Sukkah 41b describes the pious men of Jerusalem, who would hold their lulav wherever they went during the course of the hag: “He goes to visit the sick and comfort the mourners, and his lulav is with him.” What kind of nihum aveilim might be doing on yomtov or hol hamoed? When the Boston Hevrah Shas studied this passage with Rav Soloveitchik ztz”l, he cited a source (which I have been unable to locate) that “If someone died on him during yom tov, the public are to engage in comforting him” (rabim mitaskin imo lenahamo).

A Sort of Hadran

A few concluding words on the past year’s studies on Hasidism. It is difficult to summarize so complex and multi-faceted movement as Hasidism without resorting to platitudes. In the introduction to this year’s studies, I already mentioned some of the phrases used to describe it, such as “Kabbalah made praxis” (Buber), “magic and ecstasy” (Idel), or it being a shift in the center of gravity from halakha to avodah (from Law to worship), from study to prayer.

Hasidism is a multi-faceted movement, blessed with a multitude of schools and courts. There is Habad, with its highly disciplined regime of study and deep, inwardly-turned meditative prayer. Then there is Bretslav, with its utter simplicity, simple faith, ecstatic song and dance, and emotional outpouring of the soul in spontaneous, personal language. Or there is Kotzk & Pshyscha, with its intense self scrutiny and call for rigorous honesty (somewhat reminiscent of its contemporary Mussar movement), combined with a kind of bohemianism and deliberate disregard for social convention. Then there is the grandeur of Galician Hasidism, of the large courts in which the Rebbe’s tisch is almost a royal ceremony, filled with pomp and circumstance, and precisely choreographed ritual: thus, once, was Rozhin; today, such an atmosphere exists perhaps in Belz, Vizhnitz or Bobov. And on yet another plane, there is the rich variety of Hasidic musical traditions, each one with its own unique character and spiritual mood.

Perhaps the best summary I ever heard of the essence of Hasidic teaching was one offered by Art Green, in a lecture he gave once in Jerusalem. He quoted two Hasidic sources, each one presenting what he described as a three-word motto of Hasidism, in Yiddish. The one, a letter between two Habad Hasidim, simply said Alle ist Gott—“all is God.” The other, a document from the circles of Pshyscha and Kotzk, says m’darf arbeit zu zein—“one has to work on oneself.” One could well say that all of Hasidism exists between these two poles: on the one hand, awareness of the mystical unity of God and His presence in all things; on the other, the imperative to work on oneself, the concept of all of life as avodah, as the service of God, and the need, in order to do so, to hone and perfect one’s character, one’s knowledge of Torah, and one’s performance of Torah and mitzvot, both between man and man and man and God.

It occurs to me that these two poles also encompass the two poles of Hasidism described by Rivka Schatz in her classic book Hasidism as Mysticism: namely, activism and quietism. If all is God, then one is ipso facto filled with joy and inner peace by mere knowledge of this fact; if one needs to work on oneself, then the imperative to act, to change, to initiate, to do, is imperative at each and every moment. Somehow, both of these are found in Hasidism.

During this year I have tried to present a sampling of the teachings of the earliest disciples of the Baal Shem Tov, classic schools that by and large no longer exist as social realities: Chernobol, Sudylkow, Polnoyye, Berdichev, Hanipol, Mezhirech. Looking back, I feel that I have barely scratched the surface, presenting only one or two teachings from such major thinkers as the Maggid of Mezhirech or the Toldot Ya’akov Yosef,. Thus, I can only end with the blessing of zil gemor—“go and learn”: that those who are able to do so, may continue their studies on their own; and with the fervent wish, traditionally uttered at the conclusion of studying any holy book, of hadran alakh: that at some date in future, “may we return to you.”

Finally, some good news: during Hol Hamoed Sukkot, I was privileged to see the typescript of the semi-final draft of a complete English translation of Amud ha-Tefillah—a collection of teachings on prayer from the Sefer Baal Shem Tov to which I’ve referred and quoted several times during the past year. This translation, made by Menahem Kallus, will hopefully be available in book form in the not-so-distant future.


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