Thursday, November 20, 2008

Lekh Lekha (Zohar)

We belatedly, and out of sequence, present teachings for the parasha before last. For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to my blog, at November 2005.

On Midnight

The selections we have brought thus far have all been of an exegetical nature, taking as their starting point specific verses or sections of the weekly Torah portion. But much, perhaps even most of the Zohar, wanders much further afield, and only relates tangentially, if at all, to the weekly portion. When all is said and done, the Zohar’s prime concern is to convey a certain esoteric teaching about the nature of God, the world, etc. But there is a second major literary organizing principle that sets the scene for much of the Zohar—namely, the travels of R. Shimon bar Yohai and/or his disciples and associates as they wander about the Galilee, encountering various interesting people and places, hearing Torah, etc. Thus, we read the following in Zohar I: 92b:

Rabbi Abba was traveling from Tiberias to his father-in-law’s castle, accompanied by Rabbi Ya’akov son of Rav. They came upon Kfar Tarsha (Clod Village). As they were about to lie down, Rabbi Abba asked, ”Is there a rooster here?” The host said, “Why?” He replied: ”I want to rise at midnight.” He said, “I don’t need one, because look—I have a signal in this house: this weighted water clock [or: water wheel] in front of the bed! I fill it with water, which drips drop by drop. Precisely at midnight, all that water empties out, and this cogwheel spins and clangs—its noise is heard throughout the house. Then it’s midnight precisely! I had an old man who used to rise every midnight and engage in Torah, so he built this.” Rabbi Abba said, “Blessed is the Compassionate One who sent me here!”

Two of the circle, in the course of their travels, spent the night in a strange place, and ask the innkeeper for a rooster so as to rise at midnight—already indicating that rising at midnight was a known pious practice in which they, and no doubt others, engaged. Their host explained that he had invented an ingenious mechanical device to serve the same purpose; mention of the “old man” who used to rise at midnight suggests that this practice was not unknown to him, and that there was a certain group of people who engaged in this practice. We continue:

At midnight that cogwheel clanged. Rabbi Abba and Rabbi Ya’akov arose. They heard that man, sitting in the recesses of the house together with his two sons and saying: It is written, “Midnight I rise to praise You for Your righteous judgments” [Ps 119:62]. What prompted David to say “Midnight” rather than “at midnight”, but rather “midnight,” specifically? Thus he exclaimed to the blessed Holy One. Now, is the blessed Holy One called that? Yes, because at precisely midnight, the blessed Holy One manifests together with His retinue: that is the moment that He enters the Garden of Eden to delight with the righteous. Rabbi Abba said: Let us certainly join the Shekhinah and unite as one! They approached and sat down with him. They said: Utter the word of your mouth, for you speak well! From where did you derive this? He replied: I learned this word from my grandfather. He used to say that at the opening of the first hour of night all chastisers below arouse, roaming the world. Precisely at midnight, the blessed Holy One arouses in the Garden of Eden and chastisers below are nowhere to be found. All supernal nocturnal conduct manifests only at midnight. How do we know? From Abraham, as it is written: “The night was divided for them” (Gen 14:15). Similarly in Egypt: “Now it was in the middle of the night” (Exod 12:29). And so on in many other places in the Torah. David knew. What did he know? As the old man said: that his kingship depended on this. So he rose at that hour and chanted songs, calling the blessed Holy One “Midnight,” literally! “I rise to praise You for Your righteous judgments,” for all judgments derive from here; judgments of Malkhut (‘Kingship’) manifest from here. That hour linked with David, so he rose and chanted songs....

Here we turn to the actual teachings of midnight, which they learned at midnight. The two companions find their host sitting with his sons, in a midnight Torah study session. The ideas presented here are rather novel. First, that the word Hatzot (midnight) is itself one of God’s names (!), for He and His retinue somehow manifest themselves in a unique way at midnight. Second, that during the first part of the night “chastisers” (Heb: dinim)—lower, destructive forces of “judgment,” that may precipitate negative events—are abroad in the world. At midnight, these negative forces disappear and are powerless, and God is free to act in a merciful way. It was this that prompted David to rise at midnight and sing praises of God—an idea inferred both from the Psalm verse quoted, and from a Talmudic aggadah at Berakhot 3b (though, unlike this company, he was awoken neither by a rooster nor by a waterwheel, but by the northern wind, which plucked the strings of his harp).

He [the child they encountered in this house] said: I too have heard that night is royal judgment, entailing judgment universally, but his exclamation of “Midnight” derives from its absorbing two modes: judgment and love. Certainly, half is judgment—for during the other half, Her face radiates from the aspect of love. Therefore it is written: “Midnight,” specifically. Rabbi Abba rose, placed his hands on his head and blessed him, saying: I really thought that wisdom manifest itself only in the righteous, deserving of it. Now I see that even children in the generation of Rabbi Shimon are worthy of wisdom! Happy are you, Rabbi Shimon! Woe to the generation from whom you depart! They sat until morning, engaging in Torah …

Translation: Daniel Matt, The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, II:82-85

This section continues the theme of the special qualities attached to midnight. In Zohar and in Kabbalah, time generally carries metaphysical meaning, each time period carrying specific mystical qualities and being suited for different things. This is one reason why the various mitzvot have specific times, appropriate to them. Midnight, and the wee hours of the night that follow, is especially suited for prayer and esoteric study. Hence, there are various special practices associated with this time: e.g., Tikkun Hatzot, the special prayer service of mourning and lamentation, instituted by the Tzfat Kabbalists, bewailing the destruction and ongoing absence of the Temple and the travails of the Jewish people generally, and praying for its rebuilding, often followed by a period of Torah study until dawn; or the Selihot recited during the period preceding Rosh Hashanah and the Ten Days of Teshuvah: again, ideally, recited between midnight and daybreak.

Here the small child (yanuka) adds a new nuance to what was stated earlier: that midnight itself is perfectly balanced between the two aspects of nighttime: judgment—the harshness and dominance of the “chastisers” found in the former half of the night; and mercy, characteristic of the its latter half, which is propitious for prayer and as a time for seeking divine mercy. Once again, the importance of balance and equipoise between two opposing principles is seems to be a major theme of the Zohar in general. Compare, in our own recent Zohar readings: in Noah, the balance between male and female, upper waters and lower waters, whose upset led to the Flood; and, in Vayera, the intertwining or mutual encompassing of fire and water, seen as symbolically enacted in the Binding of Isaac.

Night is traditionally perceived, already in the Talmud, as an ideal time for Torah study. (see Avodah Zarah 3b: “whoever studies Torah at night, a thread of lovingkindness is spread over him during the day”; and compare Rambam, Talmud Torah 3.13; Cant. Rab. 5.11). Yet another Talmudic passage (Berakhot 3a) describes the characteristic signs of the three mishmarot, or watches of the night, in the following terms: the first watch, donkeys braying; the second watch, dogs barking; and the third, “an infant suckling from its mother’s breast and a man and his wife ‘conversing’ (i.e., making love).” Here too, the earlier part of the night is portrayed in terms of neutral or negative images, while the final watch, the last four hours of night, is filled with images of nurturing and intimacy—surely, human modes corresponding to the Divine response of Hesed.

Malchizedek and the King of Sodom

A few brief thoughts on certain verses in Lekh Lekha. Chapter 14 of Genesis describes the “battle of the kings,” in which a coalition of five kings, led by Chedorlaomer of Elam, had exacted tribute from the group of four kings led by Birsha king of Sodom. The latter eventually rebelled, leading to the former group in turn waging war on them. During the course of battle, Abraham’s nephew Lot is taken captive, and Abraham and his men (318 combatants, or possibly just Eliezer?) join the pursuit, swinging the tide in favor of the Sodom coalition, and freeing it.

At this point (v. 17) the king of Sodom comes to meet Abraham; but before we are told of that meeting, we encounter a mysterious, heretofore unmentioned figure, Malchizedek (the name mans “my righteous king”), of Shalem (=Jerusalem), who brings bread and wine to Abraham and blesses him in the name of “the Almighty God,” of whom he is a priest. In other words, it would appear that this Malchizedek was already a monotheist on his own accord! After this interlude (vv. 18-20) we return to the king of Sodom, who turns to Abraham in rather preemptory fashion and, without so much as saying ‘thank you’ for saving him, let alone offering him his blessing or some symbolic gesture of peace and gratitude, says “Give me the people, and take what property you wish.“ As if to say: we know you are a soldier of fortune, a mercenary; take what you think is your due. Abraham replies: I don’t want a single thing of your’s, not so much as a thread or a shoelace!

The contrast between Malchizedek and the king of Sodom could not be more striking. The one is gracious, generous, filled with blessing and cordiality—in short, a real mensch. The other is brusque, cynical, suspicious of the other; his approach one of pure business and functionality: let’s close our accounts with another and move on.

It occurred to me that this little incident is setting the stage for the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in the next parashah. Indeed, when Lot chose to settle in Sodom, we are already told, “the people of Sodom were very evil and wicked to the Lord” (Gen 13:13). Moreover, the name of both this king, Bera, and that of his companion from Gomorrah, Birsha, allude to evil and wickedness: ברע may be read as the word, “with evil,” while ברשע contains the word rasha, “wicked.”

Interestingly, the midrashim characterize the people of Sodom, not only in terms of outright evil, but as having a lack of generosity or ordinary human fellow feeling: they punished anyone who gave bread to a stranger, or practiced other kindnesses.

One of the Dead Sea Scrolls (4Q280) also speaks of Malchizedek and Malchiresha (“my wicked king”), the latter being a kind of negative foil to Malchizedek, who is seen as a semi-mythical, mystical hero of sorts. Perhaps Bera and Birsha may be seen in the role of Malchiresha?

Simhat Torah Postscript

This year I was honored on Simhat Torah as Hatan Bereshit at Yakar, which had been my congregation for ten years; on Shabbat Lekh Lekha, at the traditional seudah in honor of the conclusion of the Torah, at which myself and Dr. Moshe Dickman, the Hatan Torah, were guests of honor, I presented various thoughts about this festival.

The festive meal in honor of the conclusion of the Torah, and the titles of Hatan Torah and Hatan Bereshit, are among the oldest components of Simhat Torah—a holiday whose origins are, in fact, relatively recent, first taking shape as such in medieval Ashkenaz. The seven Hakafot, the festive processions with the Torah scrolls, are later, dating from the Lurianic Kabbalah of the 16th century, while the joyous, ecstatic dancing with which most of us associate this holiday, began later still.

The two hatanim, the two men honored respectively with concluding and beginning the Torah again, are so to speak the principles in this celebration; but if there are hatanim, “bridegrooms,” then there must surely also be kallot, brides. After all, we are told (for example, on the very first page of Masekhet Ketubot) that the center of joy and consideration at any wedding is the bride. Who then is the bride or brides? Obviously, the kallah is the Torah—but in what sense are there two brides?

There are two distinct aspects of Torah, celebrated in he two central moments of Simhat Torah. The reading by the Hatan Torah celebrates the completion of the Torah: the Torah is seen as something complete, whole, fixed—ready to be rolled up and covered with its mantle, as we dance with it on Simhat Torah. This aspect of Torah is completely Divine; indeed, one might call it a kind of apotheosis of God.

The aspect of Torah symbolized by the Hatan Bereshit is quite different. The very name, Bereshit, “in the beginning,” signifies, not only the book of that name (Genesis), but also the parashah of the Creation, of the Beginnings—not only of the cosmos, but of humanity, of families, and of all of the central aspects of the human condition: sexuality, aggression, hubris, the desire for knowledge, for mastery; also the opening word of the Torah (which is itself pregnant with worlds of meaning: seventy different combinations of its six letters are elucidated in Tikkunei Zohar). But most of all, it is a new beginning of our involvement with Torah, of Torah as something with which we are constantly engaged. The blessing speaks of לעסוק בדברי תורה, a never-ending process of study, which also implies: a never ending process of beginning, a never ending process of innovation, of new insights, of new levels of understanding, of hiddushei Torah—of that aspect which Sefat Emet identifies with Oral Torah. There is a tradition among some people to mark Simhat Torah by beginning some new project of Torah study, to which they will devote the following year: a new commentary on the Torah itself, a new tractate of Talmud, a new book of Jewish thought which they have never studied before.

Some years ago Professor Yochanan Silman of Bar Ilan University wrote a book about the halakhic process, which he entitled Kol gadol velo yasaf—a deliberately ambiguous or ambivalent title. The phrase, from Deut 5:19, may be translated either as “a great voice that never continued”—that is, something fixed, delimited, finite, unique in time; or it may be read as “a great voice that did not cease”—i.e., one that is constantly changing and being heard anew through the ages. For, if the Torah is infinite, like the Almighty Himself, it must also burst out of any limits we attempt to place on it.

During Simhat Torah itself, watching and participating in the dancing, I kept thinking about the phrase, an expansion of a saying in the Zohar: ישראל, אורייתא וקודשא בריך הוא חד הוא—that is, “Israel, Torah and the blessed Holy One are one.” To my eyes, Simhat Torah somehow embodies that idea. The Torah is at the focus—but in relation to Israel, to Jews dancing with the Torah and rejoicing in the Torah and, if one may say it thus, giving the Torah life. On the other hand, there is a sense in which the Torah is a kind of mediator—an apotheosis of God, but also a worldly thing, an actual book and a body of teaching—that enables Jews to relate to God without being overwhelmed, without fainting away from awe and wonder in the presence of the Divine.

There is an aggadah at the very end of Ta’anit describing how, in Days to Come, the righteous will dance in a circle; each one will point with his finger, saying: “this is the God whom we have awaited and who has redeemed us; let us rejoice and be glad in His salvation” (Isa 25:9). Rav Soloveitchik once read this as a description of Simhat Torah: During the seven days of Sukkot, Jews march around the synagogue holding the lulav and etrog, a precious object of mitzvah, with a Torah scroll in the center of the circle; on Simhat Torah, the Torah is with the Jews on the periphery of the circle, while the center of the circle is empty. At that moment, the Rav said, God Himself is in the center of the circle!

The idea of Simhat Torah as symbolizing a deep, almost pre-conscious Jewish connection to Torah, calls to mind the significance of this festival in the 1960’s in Moscow, during the beginnings of awakening of Jewish consciousness in Soviet Russia. Jews came to stand outside the synagogue, perhaps to sing Hebrew songs, simply to be with other Jews, specifically on that day…

But this threefold unity is also problematical. In a forthcoming essay about Simon Rawidowicz and about the dilemmas of contemporary Jewish identity, I argue that this three-fold bond has become unraveled—but I shall leave that subject until then.


Post a Comment

<< Home