Friday, January 18, 2008

Beshalah (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this parasha, see the archives to my blog, at February 2006.

“Shabbat was Commanded at Marah”

Parashat Beshalah contains the first mention in the Torah of the actual observance of Shabbat: once the Israelites begin traveling through the desert, after the Splitting of the Sea and their conclusive liberation from the Egyptians, God sends them manna to eat every day and, on the first Friday, informs them that they will be given a double portion on that day, enough for both Friday and Shabbat, as on Shabbat there won’t be any manna. This might aptly be described as teaching them about Shabbat through an object lesson, as a day of cessation observed by God Himself (as in Gen 2:1-3), nay, as part of a pattern woven into the very fabric of Creation—and thus Friday is a day of preparation. (This pattern is felt very strongly here in Israel: there is much hustle and bustle and long lines at the bakers and butchers and grocers on Friday, but silence and relative stillness on the main business streets on Shabbat.)

This is alluded to in a rather strange Talmudic saying: that at Marah (the first place they encamped in the desert after crossing the Sea), the Israelites were given “a few laws: dinim [were these certain basic civil laws? or perhaps the rudimentary basis of a judicial system?], Shabbat, and respect for parents” (Sanhedrin 56b). The first of these, at least, is derived from on an enigmatic phrase in Exodus 15:25, “there he gave them statutes and ordinances (שם שם לו חוק ומשפט), and there he tested them.” Shabbat and kibbud av are also inferred from the fact that the latter version of the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 5:12, 16) refers to these two as if they had already been given prior to Sinai: “Observe the Shabbat… Honor your father and mother… as the Lord your God has commanded you”).

What was the nature of this “pre-revelation” or “mini-revelation”? I would read it as analogous to the Noahide laws, albeit in this case directed to Israel. That is, a kind of natural law concept, of mitzvot as accessible to the human conscience and religious sensibility, on a kind of parallel track to revelation. There are two approaches to the nature of Torah in Judaism: the one, predominant in contemporary Orthodoxy, emphasizes heteronomy, the transcendent nature of the Divine will; the idea of submission, of unquestioning obedience, of man standing before God “like a servant before his master.” But there is also a second view, in which that learned from revelation is seen as conforming to man’s inner nature, to his own higher, or deeper, inner self. This idea was articulated, among others, by Rav Kook, who said that if the Torah learned from books and from one’s inner soul are not in concert, something is seriously wrong. If you will, this is a continuation into the Sinaitic age of what might be called the Abrahamic approach, in which “his two kidneys were made like two founts of wisdom.”

Returning to Shabbat per se: one of the unique liturgical features of Shabbat that has always puzzled me is why, unlike both the weekdays and the other festivals and holy days, Shabbat has three distinct texts for the middle section of the Amidah for each of the three prayers: Ma’ariv, Shaharit and Minhah? Two explanations: one, of a more theological bent, sees each time-period of Shabbat as commemorating a different aspect: the evening (אתה קידשת) relates to Shabbat Bereshit, Shabbat as both culmination and commemoration of Creation; the morning (ישמח משה), the Shabbat of Sinai (hence, Shabbat morning is the paradigmatic occasion for reading the Torah); and Minhah (אתה אחד ושמך אחד), the twilight hours when the holy day is waning, as containing hints of Redemption. The second explanation sees Shabbat as signaling the “wedding feast” between Israel and the Holy One: Ma’ariv, which opens with the words “You have sanctified,” suggests the kiddushin, the nuptial ceremony; Shaharit, when “Moses rejoiced…,” points towards the rejoicing in the festivity; Musaf, with its burnt flesh offering, wine, grain, and oil, corresponds to the menu of the wedding feast; while Minhah, the time of greatest intimacy and yearning—“You are one and Your name is one, and who are like Your people Israel, one nation in the land”— suggests the nuptial union of bride and groom.

Thus, Shabbat is not only a formal structure of “do’s” and “don’t”s but, perhaps more than any other institution of Judaism, has a powerfully poetic quality. To speak of this romantic aspect of Shabbat, for me, calls to mind the book by Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Sabbath; Its Meaning for Modern Man, with its evocative woodcuts by Ilya Schor. I first read this book when I was fourteen years old, and it left a deep impact on me. It is there that Heschel first speaks of the Shabbat as a “Temple in time.” In general, Heschel’s genius lay less in creating a consistent system of Jewish thought than in conveying the feeling of Judaism, the emotional quality of prayer, of Shabbat, etc., to modern Jews who had lost this sense. He taught them how to feel as Jews. Thus, he wrote of such things as “God in search of man”; of the empassioned, involved God of the prophets; or, in his masterly Torah min ha-Shamayim be-aspaklarya shel hadorot, he issued a plea for a Judaism in which aggadah and halakhah would exist in a complementary balance.

“I will sing unto the Lord”

A second mitzvah implied by this parasha is the call to sing out in praise to the Lord. There is an aspect of prayer that involves standing before God in our human vulnerability, in our existential situation, with all our unfulfilled needs and requests—such is Tefillah, Prayer as such, as expressed in the Amidah. And then there is prayer as a song of gratitude, of singing out to God in joy and wonder and gratefulness for His wondrous deeds of deliverance, or in gratitude for the everyday miracles of life itself.

The Song of the Sea, which might well be called the centerpiece of this week’s parasha, is understood by the halakhah as both precedent and archetype for such ecstatic joyous praise, and as laying the foundations for its inclusion in the liturgy. It is thus seen as a model for the laws of Hallel, the collection of six psalms recited on festival days, as well as customarily serving as the final chapter of the daily Pesukei de-Zimra. And, if we may return full circle to our original subject: Shabbat is itself paradigmatic for such songs of praise. The day begins with the six psalms of Kabbalat Shabbat, leading up to the hymn Lekha Dodi, while Pesukei de-Zimra of Shabbat morning is greatly extended and recited in more leisurely fashion, including many wisdom psalms reflecting upon the riddles of God and man, and culminating with the great paean of praise, Nishmat kol hai, “the breath of every living thing shall praise You.”

I have long felt that Pesukei de-Zimra is greatly neglected in many if not most of our synagogues, people arriving late or rushing through it without reflection. Hence, some years ago I wrote a study of this important section of prayer (HY II: Ki Teitse–Yahrzeit Shiur) which, for the benefit of new readers, I have now posted on my blog.


Before turning to the next two principles, a response from reader Avraham Leader to my comment about Abulafia not knowing the sefirot:

A very quick response about R. Abraham Abulafia and the Sefirot: of course he was aware of them and accepted the sefirotic construct. There is an oft-quoted sentence of his that researchers have used in order to prove that he didn’t accept the Sefirot, but anyone familiar with his teachings knows that to be grossly untrue. He is held to be a mystic and ecstatic, and is the founder of “prophetic Kabbalah,” but I would venture to call him a scientist and researcher of human consciousness. In this sense his approach is rationalistic, and that is why he saw himself as a student of the Rambam. He viewed Sephirotic Kabbalah as the first level of this study, from which one progresses to Kabbalat ha-Shemot [the Kabbalah of Divine Names] and Kabbalah Nevu’it [“Prophetic Kabbalah”], although in practice the three fields are integrated.

I would argue that, in fact, the ten Sefirot (which of course evolve from Sefer Yetzirah’s “Ten, not nine; ten, not eleven,” and are simply the expression of one of the three sefarim—being sefar, simply the ten basic digits, the base of numbers, along with sefer, 22 letters, the basis of words, which together are the 32 [paths]) are an attempt at reconciling the extreme corporeality of tracts like Shiur Komah with incorporeality, by translating the divine “body” into powers / attributes / qualities, rather than/in addition to body parts. There is much more to be said, but this is not the place to do so…

Here is the relevant quote from Abulafia’s Iggeret Ve-Zot le-Yehudah. As you can see, he does not deny the Sefirot, only the misunderstanding of them:

ואומר כי הקבלה הזאת הנעלמת מהמון הרבנים המתעסקים בחכמת התלמוד נחלקת תחלה לשני חלקים בכלל, והם חלקי דעות השם על דרך עשר ספירות הנקראות נטיעות אשר המפריד ביניהם מקצץ בנטיעות והם המגלים סוד הייחוד וחלק ידיעות השם על דרך כ"ב אותיות אשר מהם ומנקודותיהם ומטעמיהם הורכבו השמות והחותמת והם המדברים עם הנביאים בחלומות ובאורים ותומים וברוח הקודש ובנבואות.... א"כ קבלת עשר ספירות וענינו קודמת לקבלת עוד ידיעות השמות ולא יתהפך זה ולפיכך אודיעך שבעלי הקבלה הספירות חשבו לייחד השם ולברוח מאמונת השלוש ועשרוהו וכמו שהגוים אומרים הוא שלשה והשלשה אחד כן מקצת בעלי הקבלה מאמינים ואומרים כי האלוהות עשר ספירות והעשרה הם אחד, והנה הם רבוהו תכלית הריבוי והרכיבוהו תכלית המרכבה ואין ריבוי אחר העשרה, ואלה יודעים שלא עלה למעלה מעשרה ולא ירדה השכינה למטה מעשרה ולא הבדילו בין הצבור שהם תשעה ובן שליח הצבור שהוא עשירי, והיודעים לחלק הספירות ולכוללן יודעים שהספירות הם תשע נטיעות רמז לתשע מראות שראה יחזקאל הנכללות בפסוק אחד והעשירי שורש האילן אם האחד פרי האילן או האחד שורש האילן והעשירי יהיה קודש לה' והוא הפרי, אבל הסבה הראשונה שבראה אין סוף לפי דרכנו אינה ספירה אבל סופר הספירות והוא אשר נטע האילן משרשו ועד פריו, והגן עד לא כי הוא מקום הנטיעות כולו הנטועים בעדן:

Second, some more general comments on the Thirteen Principles. Some time ago I received an interesting letter from another reader, who commented that some figures in the Sephardi tradition (e.g., that of the Ben Ish Hai) see the Ikkarim in Kabbalistic, rather than philosophical-rationalistic terms; hence, rather than Yigdal, they sing Pizmon Bar Yohai (which also has 13 verses) as a kind of mystical faith affirmation. Along the same lines, I have seen Sephardic Siddurim that contain the words “I believe with perfect faith in God, who emanated ten sefirot….”

Indeed, one might well argue that for many centuries Kabbalah functioned de facto as the main stream in Jewish theology. An often-ignored historical fact is that, notwithstanding the fierce polemic in the late 18th century between the nascent Hasidic movement and the Mitnaggedim, both groups shared an essentially Kabbalistic world-view: the writings of both the Gaon of Vilna and R. Hayyim of Volozhin are steeped in Kabbalistic thought; their differences with Hasidism revolved around other issues, more halakhic and sociological than they were theological. Indeed, if one were to attempt a bowdlerized, extremely abbreviated summary of Jewish systematic theology, one might say that the outstanding landmarks were Rambam’s Thirteen Principles and its philosophical offshoots, mostly in the 14th and 15th centuries; then, both parallel in time and following that age, the whole Kabbalistic nexus—in Spain, in Tzfat, in Yemen and North Africa and Iraq and in Eastern Europe—really everywhere, with a series of systematic works presenting the basic ideas of the Zohar in orderly fashion; and, in recent times, with the emergence of modernity—say, from Rav S. R. Hirsch on—the proposition that belief in “Torah from Sinai” is the single and central platform of a beleaguered “Orthodoxy.”

IV. “He is prior to every thing that was created; He is first, and He is without beginning”

The fourth principle relates to God’s preexistence. In the Rambam’s original context, this implies rejection of the Aristotelian doctrine of the eternity of the universe—perhaps his most important departure from the philosophy of that school. The universe itself is created, finite; God alone is infinite, the First Cause, the origin of Being itself. He is not coterminous with the universe, but precedes it. In terms of modern cosmogonic theories, we would say that He was even before the “Big Bang” that originated the physical universe of matter as we know it. What He was—what existed before there was matter or space or time, the basis dimensions or parameters we use for thinking about existence itself—is utterly impossible for a human being to begin to comprehend or imagine.

Abstract and remote as these ideas may seem, they are of fundamental importance for our concept of God. The fact that He is the creator, but is not Himself created, but always has been, is an essential part of the definition of His existence as the First Cause, implied in the First Principle.

It is also important in that it implies rejection of simple pantheism: that is, the identification of God with some immanent force in the world—which would of necessity have come into existence with the “Big Bang.” Rather, He is transcendent, beyond, “Wholly Other,” in Otto’s words—not identified with anything in nature, and thus His essence is ultimately incomprehensible to the human mind. There is an idea in Kabbalah that we cannot say anything at all beyond the Sefirot of Hokhmah and Binah: the very first Sefirah, Keter, “The Crown,” and beyond it the Ein Sof, the Infinite, are named in the system, but they are not, indeed, cannot, be described in any coherent way. God in His pre-Creation transcendence is identified with Yod, the first letter of the Divine Name that is no more than a point.

This goes beyond any particular scientific theory. Some time ago I saw a TV program about what seems to be the cutting edge of physical cosmogonic theory: the notion of a series of higher dimensions, containing “membrane-universes” that exist outside our own universe; possibly an infinity of such universes, with different rules of physics, existing alongside our own. This seem to confute the idea of our universe being unique, with the suggestion that the Big Bang resulted from the violent collision of other membrane-universes. But be this as it may, basic question remains: How did Being as such start? What preceded Being? Thus, even if the particulars of the known physical universe—the positive and negative charges of electrons, the structure of subatomic particles, the role played by carbon in organic life, etc.—is “late” in the history of cosmos, there was still the “Master of the Universe, who was prior to every created thing.” And, if you wish, the 974 worlds of the midrash that were created and destroyed prior to our own universe may be read as the other “membrane-universes,” while the eleven dimensions may be seen as the Sefirot and Ein Sof.


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