Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Simhat Torah (Rashi)

For more teachings on Simhat Torah, etc., see the archives for this website at October 2006.

“The Lord Came from Sinai…”

And so, once again, we have come full circle to the end of another cycle of reading the Torah. The final portion, Ve-zot haberakha, read on Simhat Torah, contains Moses‘ blessings to each of the twelve tribes, a prophetic outpouring filled with allusion to future events. But unlike Jacob’s blessing to his children in Genesis 49, it begins with a poetic recounting of God’s epiphany at Sinai, that event which made Israel a unique people, giving a transcendent dimension to the chapter as whole. Let us examine Rashi’s comment on the opening verse in this blessing, in which he presents several of the best-known, most powerful midrashic motifs on this event:

Deut 33:2. “And he said: The Lord came from Sinai, and shone upon them from Seir, appeared from Mount Paran, and came with the multitudes of holy beings. At His right hand a fiery law for them.”

Rashi: He began with the praise of the Omnipresent, and thereafter with the needs of Israel. And because he began with it, there is mention of the merit of Israel. And all this in a conciliatory manner; as if to say, these are worthy of blessing coming upon them. “He came from Sinai.” He went out to meet them when they came to stand at the bottom of the mountain, like a bridegroom coming to greet his bride, as is said, “[He took them out] to greet God” [Exod 19:17]—we learn that He came opposite them.

He begins with the picture of Sinai as a marriage between God and His people. What is significant is that God was active in going out to receive them, as if pursuing them or courting them. He was not like a king who sits in state in his throne room, waiting to receive homage but, as befitting a marriage in which each partner eagerly awaits the other, He too sets out to meet them.

<“And he shone to them from Seir.” He began by approaching the children of Esau that they receive the Torah, but they did not want it. “He appeared from Mount Paran.” He went there and offered it to the Ishmaelites that they might receive it, and they did not wish. “And he came…” To Israel. ”With the myriads of holy ones.” With Him were some of the myriads of the holy angels—not all of them, nor even most of them. And this was not in the manner of flesh and blood, who displays all his honor and wealth and glory on his wedding day.

The second midrash is that in which God offers the Torah to the other nations, so that they not be able to come afterwards and claim, “If you would have offered it to us, we would have accepted it.” The full text of this midrash is a damning condemnation of the other nations of the world. Each one asks God, “What is in it?,” and each in turn rejects it because they cannot accept one of the basic clauses: one’s entire culture is based upon thievery, another on sexual licentiousness, a third on bloodshed and violence. Only Israel are willing to accept the Torah sight unseen, so to speak, making themselves into a tabula rosa, prepared to accept God’s word unconditionally.

<“A fiery law.” That was written before Him in black fire on white fire, which He gave to them in tablets written with His right hand. Another thing: “A fiery law.” As in the Targum, that he gave it to them from within the fire.

The third section is the motif of the Torah given in fiery letters, “black fire on white fire.” What does this mean? I read this as a symbol of the numinous quality of the Torah, supernatural, not of this earth, expressing its mysterious quality, its Divine origins; that it is not merely a secular law code.

Rashi’s Hadran to the Torah

Deut 34:12. “And for all the strong hand, and all the awesome fear, that Moses did in the sight of all lsrael."

Rashi: “And for all the strong hand.” That he received the tablets of the Torah with his hands. “And all the awesome fear.” Miracles and mighty deeds that he did in the great and frightening wilderness. “In the eyes of all Israel.” That he chose to smash the tablets before their eyes, as is said, “and I broke them before their eyes” (Deut 9:17), and God agreed with his mind, as is said, “which you broke” (Exod 34:1). Good for you that you broke them! (Shabbat 87b)

I find this passage puzzling. Traditionally, the final section of a book—a tractate of Talmud, or any other Jewish book—known as the hadran, is of special significance, and usually ends on a positive note. Why then does Rashi end his entire Torah Commentary on what seems a negative note, remembering Israel’s moment of shame and faithlessness? The point of this verse—of the last three verses, really—are to praise Moses, the great teacher and prophet. Evidently, of all of Moses’ acts during the course of his leadership of the people, his finest moment was his response to the Golden Calf. Superficially, the act of breaking the tablets might be seen as an expression of anger, of losing self-control, of surrendering to emotions of frustration and despair. But midrashic tradition sees it differently. This was a sign of his powerful leadership—on the one hand, of “tough love,” of shocking the people into understanding the magnitude of their misdeed. In this respect, he was the opposite of his brother Aaron, who is seen as the embodiment of peace and gentleness, and whose weakness lay in his tendency to be too soft and yielding. On the other hand, he was in his own way kind and merciful, the great defender of Israel before God, smashing the tablets, which are seen midrashically as counterpart to the marriage writ, “that they might be judged as an unmarried woman rather than as a married woman.” It was to this that God agreed, saying “Well done!”

Some Thoughts on Kohelet

If Kohelet were had lived in the twentieth century, I think he would have been as existentialist; his book might be compared to Jean Paul Sartre’s Nausea, or even to the writings of those French existentialists who say that the only real question is why a person ought not to commit suicide.

I shall repeat something I said here some years ago: Kohelet starts with the individual and his existential situation. Judaism by and large starts with the covenant, with the law and mitzvot, with the People Israel as a community, as axiomatic, as givens, expecting the individual to find meaning and happiness within them. Here, Kohelet assumes none of that, asking drastic questions from the standpoint of the lone individual. In this, he is very much in keeping with the modern, or even the “post-modern” zeitgeist. Particularly in the first half of book, he questions everything, systematically describing his attempts to find the answer to the question, “What is the good life for a person to pursue?” “I tried this, I tried that” (wisdom, happiness, money, sensual pleasures), much like today’s cynical “Been there, done that.” (The second half of the book, from Ch. 7 on, seems much more disjointed, rather like the Book of Proverbs—a collection of short sayings, loosely organized around themes or key words).

Like the existentialists, he feels loneliness, anguish, boredom, even a deep-rooted disgust with life itself, with what might be called the very “thingness” of things, the very facticity of things. In this, I find him very reminiscent of Sartre’s Nausea. Even to the point of saying, “I hated life.” There is a sense of him being removed from the flow of life, an outsider looking in from without.

Perhaps the turn to religion, in the final verse, may be seen as move of desperation: “in the end, this is the one thing that has any real, lasting value.” But his despair of ordinary life is an integral part of him reaching this conclusion. Here, one is reminded more than anyone else of Kierkegaard, whose religiosity was decidedly outside of the conventional round of church and bourgeois society, something almost thrust upon him from strange emotional places deep within himself.

Kohelet does not reject God or Torah in the usual sense; he is not an apikoris in the familiar sense; indeed, he hardly talks about God or mitzvot at all during the first 98% of the book. If he rejects conventional religiosity, it is as part of his rejection of conventional life in general. In a certain sense, notwithstanding the profound difference in mood and contents between the two books, there is a certain kinship to Job. In Job, the friends speak in trite, conventional, pious platitudes about the reason for Job’s sufferings, while Job, painfully, with great honesty and integrity, moves beyond them, to a new place. Kohelet, too, finds himself outside of the usual way of thinking about life, rejecting all that is important to most people. In addition to Kierkegaard, I find him reminiscent of the wildness and anarchism of certain early Hasidim—say, of Kotzk—or for that matter of Shlomo’s hippie hasidim. He is the perpetual outsider, struggling to make sense of life outside of the usual boxes, questioning the conventions of what would today be called middle-class society: the value of family, material success, having wealth to inherit to one’s children.

A Sukkot Question

A friend of mine asked me why we take the number of items we do in the arba’ah minim, the Four Kinds. The source is Leviticus 23:40, and the answer is roughly this:

There is only one etrog because it’s referred to there in the singular, as peri. Lulav, while called kapot temarim, is written without the vav, and thus can be read as kapat -- again in the singular. Arvei nahal is plural. The general rule is that the minimum of plurality is two. Hence two branches. Why three hadasim, myrtle branches? Rashi says that the three words used to describe it, ‘anaf ‘etz ‘avot (all beginning with ‘ayin, a real challenge to the baal korei's abilities to pronounce guttural letters!) suggest three. Tosafot ad loc (all this in the Talmud, at b. Sukkah 46b, which elaborates the mishnah) adds that “a thick branch” indicates that its leaves are overlapping, as if woven, requiring at least three leaves at each given point on the stem, which is another of the laws about myrtles. But the logical jump to three branches, rather than just triplets of leaves on each branch, is unclear to me.

In addition to all this, they add up to a total of seven items: 3 + 2 + 1 + 1, which is a favorite Kabbalistic number; note also the seven Ushpizin, seven hakafot on Hoshana Rabbah and Simhat Torah, etc. There are also direct equivalences to the Kabbalistic sefirot: the three myrtles are hesed, gevurah & tiferet; the two willows netzah and hod; lulav is yesod (a conduit, or spine, or perhaps a phallus, much like the lulav), while etrog is malkhut (heart, yon).


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