Friday, November 28, 2008

Hayyei Sarah (Zohar)

Rabbi Mickey Rosen, founder and spiritual leader of Yakar, is seriously ill. We ask all readers to pray for the speedy and compete recovery of Shmuel Meir ben Beila Bryna.

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to my blog, at November 2005

The Cave of the Machpelah

There has been much talk lately about the conflict and possible violent confrontation between settlers and IDF over the rightful ownership and use of certain buildings in the city of Hevron. We present here another view of the significance of Hevron and the Cave of Machpelah, that will perhaps shed some spiritual light on what is perceived by many as a political-national-power conflict. Zohar I: 127a-129a (selections):

Rabbi Yehudah said: Abraham recognized a sign in that cave, and there his heart’s desire focused—for previously he had entered and seen Adam and Eve buried there. How did he know it was them? Because as he gazed upon his image, an opening to the Garden of Eden appeared and that same image was standing nearby. Come and see: Whoever gazes upon the image of Adam can never escape, for as a person departs this world he sees Adam and—that very moment—dies. Yet Abraham gazed upon him, seeing his image, and endured. He saw a light illuminating the cave and a lamp burning; then Abraham yearned to dwell in that site, and his hearts desire focused constantly on the cave….

Rabbi El’azar said: When Abraham entered the cave, how did it happen? He was running after that calf, as is written, “Abraham ran to the herd…” (Gen 18:7), and the calf fled to that cave, so he entered after it and saw what he saw. Further, he used to pray every day, going out to that field, which emitted subtle fragrance. He saw a light radiating from the cave, so there he prayed, and there the blessed Holy One spoke with him. Therefore he asked for it, since his desire focused constantly on that site....

The first part of this passage, describing how Abraham discovered the Cave, portrays it as a kind of threshold or gate between this world and the Garden of Eden. But this Garden is not that from which Adam and Eve were banished, but a spiritual realm, where the dead pass after departing this world; but neither, it would seem, is it an entirely heavenly realm either. The significant idea here is that the world of material corporeality and that of the spirit and the soul are not entirely separated, but that there are secret passageways, openings, between one realm and the other—at least for those of extraordinary spiritual consciousness. In the cave, Abraham encounters Adam, not as a dead body, nor as a malevolent ghost, but as a living persona—spirit, warm, welcoming, even smiling at him.

What is the significance of the idea expressed here, that each person see Adam’s image just before their own death? This is a highly pregnant image, that requires much reflection. Perhaps because Adam is the ultimate ancestor of us all, and in death we return to our archetypal forebear?

It seems to me that this passage, or one of its numerous midrashic parallels, must have served as the inspiration for an interesting short tale by S. Y. Agnon, “A Tale of a Goat” (מעשב בעז), in which a goat belonging to a Jew runs away and, after some time, returns bringing with him fruits of unearthly beauty. One day he follows the goat, who enters a cave which brings him, at the other hand, into a beautiful, fragrant countryside which turns out to be the Land of Israel. Notwithstanding that the one tale involves a goat and other a calf, the one leads from the Diaspora of Eastern Europe to Eretz Yisrael, and the other from the Land to the supernal Land of Life, the miraculous, supernatural passage way from the realm of the mundane to a fragrant, enchanted place, is much the same.

Come and see: When Abraham first entered the cave, he saw light; then dust scattered, revealing two graves. Meanwhile Adam arose in his image, saw Abraham, and smiled; so Abraham knew he was destined to be buried there. Abraham said: “Please tell me, Fortress Quaestor, are you sequestered here?” [“Fortress Quaestor” is Matt’s translation for the Zohar’s קוסטרא קטיר, evidently a Greek loan word, which refers either to a fortress or to a Roman official ] He replied: The blessed Holy One buried me here; and ever since I have been hidden in the skin of a sling—until you came into the world. From now on, because of you, there is enduring ascension for me and the world!

Look at what is written: “The field and the cave that was in arose” (ibid., 20)— rising, literally, which it never had before!” [a hyper-literal reading of the idiom ויקם השדה, usually translated as ‘the field came to belong to …”] Rabbi Abba said: “The field arose,” literally, rising and ascending in the presence of Abraham—for until then, nothing was visible there, but now what had been hidden rose and ascended, so all rightfully.”

The second part of this sugya (if one may call it thus) explores the meaning of the name, Me’arat ha-Makhpelah, and carries the motif of the connection between the mundane world and the spiritual world one step further.

Rabbi El‘azar asked Rabbi Shimon, his father: Isn’t this cave double? For look at what is written: מערת המכפלה, “the double cave” (ibid 23:9). Yet later, Scripture names it “the cave of the field of Machpelah” (ibid., 19), calling the field “double.” He replied: so it is called “the cave of Machpelah,” as is said, “so he will give me the cave of Machpelah” (ibid., v. 9); but really, by your life, the cave is not “double” nor is the field called “double.” Rather, this cave and field are named for “Machpelah: the field of Machpelah”—precisely, not the cave—because the cave lies in the field, and that field abides in something else. Come and see: the entire Land of Israel is enfolded (אתכפל) within Jerusalem, which exists both above and below. Similarly, Jerusalem above, Jerusalem below; linked above, linked below. Jerusalem above, linked in two directions: above and below; Jerusalem belo, linked in two directions: below and above. So She is double, and this field derives from that double, abiding there. Similarly it is written, “like the fragrance of a field blessed by the Lord” (Gen 27:27), above and below. So “the field of double,” literally, not “the double field.”

Further, mystery of the word: “the field of double,” literally! Who is “double”? The letter heh (ה) of the Holy Name, who is double, yet all abiding in one. For Her the verse is read secretly ה מכפלה, “double heh,” for this is the only double letter in the Holy Name. Even though it was really was a double cave, a cave within a cave, it was called “cave of the field of Machpelah” for another reason, as already explained. Abraham knew; but when speaking to the Hittites, he concealed the matter, saying: ”so he will give me the cave of Machpelah,” since it was a double cave, while Torah calls it “the cave of the field of Machpelah,” fittingly. The blessed Holy One has formed everything so that this world corresponds to the pattern above, so that one cleaves to the other, so that His glory manifests above and below. Happy is the share of the righteous, in whom the Blessed Holy One delights, in this world and in the world that is coming!

—From the translation of Daniel Matt, The Zohar, Prisker Edition, II: 219-225

The very name of the cave, “the cave of Machpelah,” is derived from the Hebrew word for folding or duplication, כפל. The cave thus symbolizes the mirroring of above and below. This mirroring seems to me to relate to a central theological difficulty, which Kabbalah addresses more thoroughly than the philosophical approaches within Judaism: namely, the tension between Divine transcendence and immanence. A simple reading of the Bible, not to mention the philosophers, portrays God as omnipotent and omniscient—the supernal Creator, Judge and Lawgiver who is majestic, remote, awe-inspiring, even aloof, what Otto called the “Wholly Other.” Yet, paradoxically, he is also omnipresent; He relates to mankind, and especially to His beloved people, in an intimate, loving way. (A younger scholar, Yitzhak Lifschitz, well captures this tension in the title of his forthcoming book about the subject, Far Away, So Close). The image of the upper and lower world mirroring one another, somehow pairing off in complementary ways, emphasizes this point further.

This duality is ubiquitous in the Zohar and in Kabbalistic thought: there are various pairs of sefirot balancing one another; sexuality serves as a central image (human sexuality involves duality on a horizontal, earthly plane—but also mirrors a heavenly doubling or coupling in the Sefirotic world); and, here, in the duality of life and death. The scene here is of a burial cave where the dead and the living meet, the smiling figure of Adam chatting away with Abraham about how he was buried in a sling, etc. Yet another aspect of this double cave is perhaps that it is “the cave of the couples”: the three patriarchs and their wives, plus Adam and Eve—four couples, perhaps alluded to in Hebron’s other name, Kiryat Arba, “the city of the four.”

Eliezer and the Shalshelet

When I first learned to read Torah as a boy, shortly after my bar mitzvah, as part of a small group of boys taught by the Sexton of our Conservative synagogue, the late Jack Feldman (may God bless his soul), a special place of fascination was reserved for the shalshelet: that rare cantillation note, consisting of three successive glissandos, that appears in only four places in the entire Torah. Being assigned to read one of those was seen by us as a special treat. One of them occurs in this parashah, at Gen 24:12. Abraham’s faithful servant, Eliezer, is sent on a mission to find a bride for Yitzhak. Upon arriving at the town of Nahor in Aram-naharim, he turns to God in prayer, “And he says…” (ויאמר; here there appears the shalshelet), and asks that the maiden whom he asks to draw some water for him, and offers to water my camels as well—“she is the one You have proven to be for my master Yitzhak!”

Rather strangely, there are two separate passages in the Talmud (Ta’anit 4a; `Hullin 95b) that seem to criticize Eliezer for making this fateful (one might even say, in retrospect: world-historical!) decision dependent upon a contingency or sign. It seems to me that perhaps the shalshelet is intended to draw our attention to this, and perhaps to suggest that there is more here than meets the eye. First, that the sign chosen was one that implies kindness, not only to humans, but even to animals, making the sign a test of character rather than a random, chance matter. Second, that the context, specifically that of the introductory verse where the shalshelet appears, is one of faith in God and reliance on Divine assistance—and this makes all the difference (see Torah Temimah ad loc., v. 14, §xvii).

In today’s cultural climate, there are those who say that interpreting seemingly chance events as being significant is a desirable spiritual practice, seeing them as “signs from the universe” (thus, for example, in The Celestine Prophecy and by other New Agers). This seems to me rather problematical. I understand that, in an age of the mechanization and hyper-rationality of many aspects of everyday life, people seek spirituality and meaning almost anywhere. But Judaism, in ancient times, rejected all forms of divination, anything that even smacked of it. Are we coming full circle today to a kind of neo-paganism?

Two concluding notes. First, is there any common factor unifying all the occurrences of the shalshelet in the Torah? The other places are: Vayera: Gen 19:16, ויתמהמה—Lot’s hesitation before leaving Sodom; Vayeshev: Gen 39:8, וימאן—Joseph’s refusal of Potiphar’s wife’s advances; and Tzav: Lev 8:23, וישחט—Moses slaughters, specifically, the eil ha-milu’im, the crucial, central offering in the installment ceremony of Aaron and his sons. It is always at the beginning of a verse; it always begins with a vav; and it draws special attention to the verse. Does anyone have any ideas beyond that?

Second: some weeks ago I mentioned, entirely in passing, the Rabbinic tradition that Rivkah was three years old when she was married to Yitzhak. Someone thought some readers might think this suggestive of pedophilia. I should hope not. My main problem with this is that it just doesn’t make sense, and is based on a way of reading that assumes that proximity of location in the text implies proximity in time—which to me seems unwarranted, and leads to absurdities, such as three-year-old being married off to a stranger in a remote land—not to mention her shlepping heavy pails of water back and forth. I find no objection, in the peshat of the biblical text itself, to Rivkah being 15, 18 or 20 at the time of Eliezer’s mission.

“Alien Thoughts”

Hayyei Sarah portrays Yitzhak “going out to commune in the field”—a verse seen by many as portraying him as a contemplative mystic, engaged in prayer. Hence, I have been in the habit of devoting this Shabbat to discussion of prayer.

A recent book popular among New Age types, Eckhart Tolle‘s The Power of Now, elaborates one central insight: that the main source of human pain and trouble is the identification of the self with the mind, with its transient emotions and ceaseless background “chatter” (my word). There is a subject–object dichotomy within the human being, in which there is an observing “I” detached from the self that lives life, and constantly commenting on it. His basic idea is that one must learn to detach the self from the mind, and to dwell within Being. This does not mean that one ceases to think, but that the mind is used to serve the process of living—to perform practical tasks, and even to acquire wisdom and knowledge of the world—but that it is not identified with the self.

Upon reading this, it occurred to me that this approach is not all that different from the concerns of the Baal Shem Tov et al about mahshavot zarot, alien thoughts during prayer. A basic problem in prayer, which particularly concerned early Hasidic thinkers (much of Amud ha-Tefillah in Sefer Ba’al Shem Tov is devoted to this subject) is distraction: one’s thoughts wander to everyday concerns and worries, or even to sensual temptations and fantasies. One is not focused upon the present, upon the act of prayer itself. The Hasidic masters attempted to teach people how to focus upon prayer (“go the tevah—go to the word”), while also comforting them that alien thoughts can themselves be a positive source of religious service, of tikkun, if one “lifts them up to their source.”

Tolles, coming from the Buddhist tradition, says something similar: a person ought to use his mind to do whatever he’s doing in the best possible way—be it studying, working, talking with friends, davening, even eating—by being wholly focused upon what one is doing at that moment, rather than identifying with the little voice in ones head that observes one’s life from without.

This also explains something else I heard, davka from Rabbi Rosen: that in Pshyskha (Przysucha) the practice was to meditate for some time prior to prayer, so as to enter into the proper state of mind—but then to recite the actual prayer quickly. I never understood this until I recently realized that, once one is focused, concentrating intently upon prayer itself and nothing else, tefillah need not be excessively drawn out (although doubtless it will still be somewhat slower than the pace in a typical synagogue)—precisely because one is focused. Indeed, the Lubavitcher Rebbe z”l did not daven particularly slowly—taking perhaps five minutes for the Minhah Amidah on an ordinary weekday, like an ordinary Jew—presumably because he was totally focused.

This also relates to a point I made in my essay on sex as spirituality and The Da Vinci Code (HY X: Bereshit - Supplement): that some people wish to define sex as a spiritual experience, because at the moment of orgasm the mind “blanks out.” By this, they mean that the subject-object distinction, which the ordinary person experiences constantly, disappears, at least during that brief moment. Even during the sex act, a piece of the mind may be observing from without and saying, “I am coupling with my partner,” or all kinds of other thoughts —but at the moment of orgasm one IS the pleasure. (But see what I wrote there as to why this is a mistaken interpretation of religious consciousness.)

Lehavdil elef havdalot: in prayer, the ideal state is one in which one is wholly identified with the act of prayer itself. This is beautifully expressed in the verse in Psalms 109:4: ואני תפלה — “and I am prayer.” But, since human beings are what they are, Baal Shem Tov and his school needed to address issue of “alien thoughts” as a commonplace problem.

A final comment: many people are troubled by the popularity of Buddhism among many Jews, and by the various attempts to create a kind of synthesis between the two, to see parallels between Buddhism and certain themes in Hasidism, etc. Notwithstanding that Buddhism is another religion, I believe that one can apply to it the maxim תוכן אכל, קליפתו זרק (“he ate his inner core / essence and discarded his shell”). Buddhism is a-theistic, in the sense that it does not address the issue of existence of a personal God one way or another. It is more a philosophy, or perhaps a psychology, whose central concern is the human condition, and how to deal with the pain and suffering that are an inevitable part of our lives. As such, it seems to me that one may treat it in the seem way as one does any philosophy which Jews, including learned, pious ones, have embraced at various times, from Kantianism and Hegelianism, existentialism, to Freudianism and Jungianism, even Marxism (not to mention the Platonism and Aristotelianism of our great medieval thinkers)—as a legitimate source of wisdom that may be superimposed upon the ground level of Jewish belief, Torah and mitzvot. The Buddha himself, Gautama Siddhartha, was simply a very wise human being (even though folk Buddhism literally turns him into an idol) who thought deeply about certain human problems and had something significant to say. As for the specific notions of “detaching mind from self” and “living in the consciousness of being,” I see nothing here that contradicts the belief in the Creator. Indeed, in Hasidism there is much talk of “negating the self” in order to achieve total sense of God-consciousness.

Hilkhot Crembo

This week I was asked an interesting halakhic question: May one / Should one recite the blessing Sheheheyanu upon eating the first Crembo of the winter season? (For those who don’t know: Crembo is a singularly sticky Israeli sweet, consisting of marshmallow-like stuff atop a thin cracker, covered by chocolate, and sold in silver-foil wrapping; because it easily melts, it is only manufactured and marketed during the winter.)

After doing a double–take at the thought that a mature adult was sufficiently enamored of Crembo to ask such a question (after all, there’s no accounting for taste), I began thinking seriously about the issue. According to the codified halakhah (OH §225), Sheheheyanu is recited upon seeing (or eating) seasonal fruits, whose periodic reappearance indicates that one has lived another year, and may again enjoy the peaches, apricots, watermelons, grapes, oranges, grapefruits, etc., that the Almighty has created for the delight of human beings. It is likewise recited over periodic mitzvot that recur at a given time during the year, as well as over life-cycle occasions, such as a brit or pidyon haben (why not a wedding?), or upon acquiring a new clothing.

The issue here is: in are the laws of Sheheheyanu limited to those cases specified in the halakhah, or is there room for the subjective, personal feelings that the individual feels upon some occasion not prescribed by the halakhah. Crembo is seasonal, not because such is part of the natural order created by God, or of the mitzvot given in His Torah, but because its manufacturers decided to make it so (for cogent reasons). Nevertheless, there are numerous halakhic sources (unfortunately, neither myself nor the learned scholar I consulted were able to provide specific citations offhand) pointing towards a subjective element in Sheheheyanu: what makes YOU happy, on having lived to again experience a given event or enjoy a given thing.

An interesting parallel: many years ago, a dentist friend of mine asked the Bostoner Rebbe whether he could renovate his clinic during the semi-mourning period of Sefirat ha-Omer. The answer was in the negative, and the reasoning was the following: ordinarily, one may renovate an office or clinic during Sefirah. But the Rebbe knew his questioner as a meticulous craftsman who took great pride in every aspect of his profession; thus, having a renewed clinic would have given him great joy, incompatible with the spirit of Sefirat ha-Omer. The conclusion suggested is that the subjective element, based on some understanding of the psychology of the one asking the question, plays a role in halakhic ruling. So, if my interlocutor is a true Crembo enthusiast, it is entirely appropriate for him to recite Sheheheyanu.


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