Friday, November 28, 2008

Vayera (Zohar)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog, below, at November 2005.

Fire and Water: The Binding of Isaac

The Akedah (the Binding of Isaac) is rightly regarded as the centerpiece of this week’s parasha; it is at once regarded as the pinnacle of Jewish faith, taken as a paradigm by future generations of Jews seeking to sanctify God’s name and demonstrate their love of Him in the most complete and intense way—and as a paradoxical, absurd story, seemingly flying in the face of basic ethical and religious principles. It has thus inspired commentary from every imaginable direction: from all major Jewish exegetes, philosophers, and midrashists, as from non-Jewish thinkers. The interpretation offered by the Zohar is unique, taking the Akedah in a totally unexpected direction. Zohar I:119b:

“It came to pass, after these things” [Gen 22:1]. Rabbi Shimon said: We have learned that the expression ויהי בימי (“It came to pass in the days of”) denotes sorrow, while the phrase ויהי (“It came to pass”)—even without “in the days of”—is tinged with sorrow.

“It came to pass after”—the lowest of all upper rungs. Who is that? Devarim (things/words); as is said, “I am not a man of devarim (words; Exod 4:10). Who came after this rung? “And Elohim tested Abraham” [Gen, ibid.] for the Evil Impulse came to accuse in the presence of the blessed Holy One.

Here we should contemplate: “Elohim tested Abraham.” The verse should read: “tested Isaac,” since Isaac was already thirty-seven years old, and his father was no longer responsible for him. If Isaac had said, “I refuse,” his father would not have been punished. So why is it written, “Elohim tested Abraham,” and not “Elohim tested Isaac”?

Thus far, our passage does not sound all that different from a traditional midrash. The idea that “vayehi” or “vayehi ahar…” signify trouble is a traditional midrashic notion. The central question posed here—Why does the verse say that God tested Abraham, rather than Isaac, since the latter was already an adult, is not unlike other midrashic questions.

As an aside, it is worth mentioning here that the Zohar is not discontinuous with the rest of Jewish tradition. Many people—including both those who hold it in extreme reverence, as the holy of holy of Jewish mysticism, and those who debunk it, such as the entire 19th century School of Wissenschaft historians and certain contemporary pan-Talmudic Rabbinic rationalists—who see it as totally apart and separate from everything else in Judaism. It seems to me that the Zohar is better understood as a “mystical midrash”—a work that is at once firmly planted in the soil of Rabbinic tradition, but which also carries a new and even radical message, an utterly new way of looking at the world and at the Godhead.

One phrase in this first part, “the lowest of all upper rungs“ (דרגא תתאה דכל דרגין עלאין), that already belongs to this new world of the Zohar. The tacit assumption here is that there is a spiritual world of Divine entities, hierarchically arranged in higher and lower “rungs” or “levels,” outside of the human or material world as we know it. Later Kabbalistic commentaries identify this with Malkhut or Shekhinah, the lowest of the ten sefirot, through the verbal connection of devarim with Devar Hashem, the Divine word (=Shekhinah).

I would add one more point: Just about everyone who knows anything at all about Kabbalah is familiar with the concept of the ten sefirot: the vessels or tools or instruments (some would say, Divine apotheoses) used by the Almighty to bridge between His Own hidden, Infinite Self (Ein Sof; Keter) and the “real,” concrete world. But it is important to note that explicit, systematic discussions of the sefirot and their complex interrelationships are found by and large in later, more systematic works of Spanish and, even more so, in the Lurianic Kabbalah of 16th century Tzfat. While these ideas are certainly present in the Zohar, they are only rarely named as such. (The most familiar “Zoharic” source to list the ten sefirot in an orderly fashion, Patah Eliyahu, recited regularly in certain Jewish liturgies, is part of the Introduction to Tikkunei Zohar, a somewhat later work not part of the Zohar proper.) The references to sefirot appear more often in glosses to the Zohar or in commentaries on the page (see HY X: Noah for one typical example of this). Daniel Matt, whose Zohar translation we have been using here, responded to my personal query on this matter by writing that: “Commentators often indulge in finding sefirotic references that are not necessarily intended by the ba’alei ha-Zohar [authors of the Zohar]. But the scribal glosses are often more innocent, not adding sefirot that aren’t intended but rather ruining the poetry of the Zohar by insisting on naming various sefirot that are subtly alluded to in the original text.”

We continue in our text:

But Abraham, specifically! For he had to be encompassed by judgment, since previously Abraham had contained no judgment at all. Now water was embraced by fire. Abraham had been incomplete until now, when he was crowned to execute judgment, arraying it in its realm. His whole life long he had been incomplete until now, when water was competed by fire, fire by water.

So “Elohim tested Abraham”—not “Isaac“—calling him to be embraced by judgment. When he did so, fire entered water, becoming complete. One was judged, one executed judgment—encompassing one another. Therefore the Evil Impulse came to accuse Abraham, who was incomplete until he executed judgment upon Isaac. For the Evil Impulse appear “after devarim,” coming to accuse.

Come and see the mystery of the word: Although we have said that “Abraham” is written, not “Isaac,” Isaac is encompassed by this verse through the mysterious wording: “Elohim tested et Abraham.” It is not written נסה לאברהם (“tested to Abraham”) but rather נסה את אברהם—“tested et Abraham,” specifically! This is Isaac, for at that time he dwelled in low power. As soon as he was bound on the altar, initiated into judgment fittingly by Abraham, he was crowned in his realm alongside Abraham—fire and water encompassing one another, ascending. Then division became apparent: water versus fire.

Who would have created a compassionate father who turned cruel? It was only so that division would manifest: water versus fire, crowned in their realms, until Jacob appeared, and everything harmonized—triad of patriarchs completed above, and below arrayed.

In this section, we find a classic Zoharic move, in which Abraham and Isaac are read as archetypes or symbols: “fire and water.” And, while this is not stated explicitly, fire and water are in turn symbols of something else again: the qualities of judgment or power (Din / Gevurah) and compassion (Rahamim / Hesed). The test of the Akedah is thus transformed from a test of individual faith, of how far even as heroic a figure as Abraham is willing to go in obedience to his God, to an intertwining and mutual “encompassing” of two opposed cosmic principles! And then, in the final phrase, in almost Hegelian fashion (but long before him), harmonized in the third member of the triad!!

This passage may also be read in psychological terms: the person who is a model of kindness and generosity and caring is an incomplete human being until he learns how to be strict and even cruel, to conquer his own natural goodness when necessary; all the more so that one of “low power,” of harsh and simplistic, all-consuming, fire-like judgment (legalism?) must be “encompassed” by the flowing water of kindness.

Memories of Shlomo

In loving memory of Rav Shlomo Carlebach, who departed this world fourteen years ago, on 16 Marheshvan 5755.

I first met Shlomo when I was 17-years-old, when he came to Camp Tel-Yehudah, the national summer camp of Young Judaea, to give a concert and stayed overnight. I;’d never met or seen anyone like him: a rabbi, with a beard and tzitzis and peyos and who even said a blessing over water—out loud, even—but played the guitar and told stories and talked to just about everyone as if they were his oldest friend.

But I didn’t really begin to see him as a soul teacher, as someone more than an odd rabbi-entertainer with a guitar, until after college, when I moved up to the Boston area. I don’t remember exactly when I first realized that he was a soul teacher: perhaps it was one winter when he came up to teach at Boston University once a month; perhaps it was the first time I spent a Shabbat with him, at Brandeis University; or perhaps it was before that. I remember one Shabbat in the summer of 1969 when I was staying in Morningside Heights and walked halfway across Manhattan to daven in his shul on 79th Street, and ended up having lunch alone with just me, Shlomo, and Mother (quite an experience!).

One time that stands out in my memory was the Shabbat he spent at Brandeis University in 1971-72. It was midwinter, and snow fell all Shabbat long, covering the campus with a thick coat of snow, adding to the sense of stillness and quiet and peace of the Shabbat. I picked up Shlomo at his hotel, and drove him to the Bostoner Rebbe’s mikveh mid-day Friday—Shlomo was always careful to bathe in the mikveh before Shabbat. In the mikveh, I watched with astonishment as Shlomo unrolled his beard; his beard, which usually looked short and carefully trimmed and pounded (like in all the photographs), turned out to be long, going almost to his waist, and was held up with bobby-pins (!). I subsequently learned that this was an old Hasidic practice, especially common in Habad, based on the Kabbalistic idea that one should never trim one’s beard, not even with a scissors.

When we arrived on campus he went to his room at the faculty club to rest before Shabbat. A small incident before davening taught an important lesson about priorities. About 5 o’clock Shlomo arrived at the campus synagogue, by which time it was completely dark. He turned to his entourage and said, “OK, khevra, let’s daven Minhah.” The gabbai of the regular student minyan (today, a distinguished professor of medieval Jewish thought) turned to him and said: “Excuse me, Rabbi Carlebach, but it’s time for Ma’ariv now!” Shlomo retorted: “Tell me, are you a clock Jew or a neshama Jew?” I must admire him for his honesty; he replied, “I’m a clock Jew.”

In the end, there were two minyanim; the differences were just too big. After Ma’ariv, Shlomo turned to the group: “We have five minutes till we have to go to the dining hall for supper. But you know, the rebbes teach us that even five minutes can be used to learn something,” and he opened up a thin Hebrew book with a black covered, which I later learned was Resisei Laylah by R. Zaddok Hakohen, and he began learning, in his own inimitable way. He may have gone on a bit more than five minutes, but the lesson was learned. In any event, that was my first introduction to R. Zaddok Hakohen, one of the most important and interesting Hasidic authors.

Shabbat morning davening was very special. Some of us began Pesukei de-Zimra before Shlomo arrived. Before davening, he learned; and the learning sooner-or-later turned into a long and elaborate Hasidic story; and the story segued into singing. Only after people were in a “high” mood did he begin davening, from Barkhu. It took me many years to understand his approach: he assumed that here, as on most college campuses, the majority of people who came didn’t really know Hebrew; moreover, many of them had been spoiled for Judaism by long hours of what they saw as meaningless chanting, which nobody had ever bothered to explain to them. He saw it as most important to teach the really basic things, about God and Shabbat and faith; to expose young people to the really deep things in tuarh, but in a language they could understand. Then, the davening itself, in Hebrew, was the basic required halakhic minimum, very intense but often ”real fast.” The same held true for the Torah reading: between each aliyah, he would tell in his own words the basic idea of the particular aliyah, always including some idea, story, lesson, moral that people could grasp.

I also learned something about Shlomo’s “hippies” and what he had managed to teach them, There was one girl I especially noticed at this weekend, a beautiful young woman who had just come “East” from San Francisco—with long black hair, a long skirt, the very embodiment of hippie purity and innocence—who was on her way to New York to study at a more conventional Orthodox seminary. Late Shabbat afternoon, after the end of the long davening and after lunch, when Shlomo had gone to rest before that evening’s concert, some of “the khevra” sat around and had a kind of impromptu shalosh seudot. This girl talked about the Luz bone—the one bone in the body that is indestructible, and from which the body is reconstructed at the time of tehiyat hametim, when the dead return to life. It’s name, Luz, is like the town of that name (AKA Beth-El), whose inhabitants lived forever, so long as they didn’t leave the town. I was astonished to hear such deep, esoteric Kabbalistic teachings from the lips of a girl like this.

Having heard so much about San Francisco, and the House of Love and Prayer—a strange combination of Hasidic Beit Midrash and synagogue and hippie communes—where people who had come to San Francisco as the Mecca of the hippie culture of those days, found a place where they learned about celebrating Shabbat and davening and so on from other “long-hairs” of their own age, in a tolerant, “do-your-own-thing” environment. I decided to go there myself and see what it was all about. This was in 1971, after the heyday of the House. In fact, during the first part of the time I was there, there was no House at all; later, I was there for the opening of a new House, on Judah Street and 10th Avenue.

Three scenes stick in my memory. One: a young, newly-wedded couple had just arrived in San Francisco following their wedding. It was already after the week of sheva brakhot: the wedding itself, as far as I remember, had been in Israel, while the last days of Sheva Brakhot were celebrated in New York with the girl’s family, who were Orthodox. But when they arrived in SF an “eighth night” of Sheva Brakhot was held—a pot luck supper, with lots of singing and Torah—in the home of one of the “adult” supporters of the House, Dr. Forman z”l (he died young). There were no formal sheva brakhot; instead, all present gave the young couple a personal blessing of their own.

Shabbat: on two consecutive weeks, Shabbat was held in an enormous loft owned by an artist follower of Shlomo, somewhere in South San Francisco. The first week Shlomo was traveling, so the group did their own Shabbat; what I most remember was that the food was vegetarian, mostly organic, and that at the blessing of Ha-Motzi each person fed someone else with a piece of the enormous challah, instead of putting it in their own mouth. This custom seemed to dramatize, more than anything else, the idea of sharing and community.

The second week, Shlomo was there, and the Shabbat atmosphere was very high. But what I remember is one small incident: on the way back, walking back to the motel where Shlomo and some of the khevra were staying, we ran into a stranger, black woman, whom Shlomo stopped to talk with. Suddenly, she offered us some of the Oreo’s cookies she had just bought (Note: in those days, Nabisco was definitely not kosher). Shlomo thanked her, broke the cookies into pieces and distributed them among the five or six people who were with him, and went on. I asked him: Why? How could you eat them? He explained that he didn’t want to insult her by refusing her gift; to carry them with us and throw them away after she was out of sight would be a real violation of Shabbat—carrying an object a certain distance in the public domain. By dividing them among us, no one person ate enough non-kosher food to violate any law of kashrut, by even the strictest construction. This answer impressed me for three reasons: his mastery of halakhah; his humanity and sensitivity to the feelings of others, even of non-Jews, as a major consideration; and his lightning-quick mind, that figured out this unconventional, but clearly correct solution to this problem, in a matter of seconds.

At one point during the time I was in San Francisco weeks Shlomo and about a dozen of the khevra visited the Integral Yoga ashram in the Mission District. We went into a room filled with young people dressed in white robes, sitting on the floor in lotus position; on the periphery, I noticed some young women nursing babies (not yet as common a sight as it was to later become). I wondered what Shlomo could possibly say to this group, who were so obviously dedicated to a totally alien system of belief and practice. But he took out his guitar, started singing Hashivenu Hashem eilekha (this was the first time I heard this melody, which is still popular today, and was probably new then), and soon everyone there was singing and clapping and even dancing to his music. Then he talked about Shabbat and what it meant, and knowing that there really is a God; they listened, not only politely, but with real interest and receptivity. When we left, they invited us to come back the following week (on a Sunday which happened to be Tisha b’Av!) for a wedding within the group. Later on, Shlomo commented to the khevra that many, if not most, of the “yogilakh and swamilakh” were Jewish. I also learned that this meeting was not unusual; Shlomo was often invited by the various religious groups, precursors of the New Age, which flourished in San Francisco; and more than once Shlomo served as a kind of mediator to make peace among rival factions or sects. And indeed, at another point that month the whole group from the house participated as the Jewish participants in the “Meeting of the Ways,” a gathering of different spiritual paths, on a mountain top in Marin County.

A few concluding words. I come from a somewhat different place then many of the Shlomo khevra, in that I was already observant and had serious connections within the Jewish and religious world before I met Shlomo. Thus, Shlomo was never my exclusive rebbe, as he was for many people; I always had several teachers, and “swam” in different worlds: the straight Orthodox world (modern and Haredi); the beginnings of the “Jewish counter-culture” in the Havurat Shalom in Boston; academic Jewish studies, through which I make my living; religious Zionism; etc. What place, then, did Shlomo play in my life?

We read at the beginning of Pirkei Avot that there are three pillars on which the world stands: Torah, Avodah, and gemilut hasadim. I had three main teachers, each one of whom taught me primarily one of these three pillars. Rav Soloveitchik ztz”l was my main teacher of Torah in the intellectual sense, from whom I learned how to study Talmud, Rambam, and other texts in a deep, analytical way. Art Green taught me avodah, “worship” or “Divine service” in the sense of God-consciousness; he taught me what prayer was all about; he was also the first one to really introduce me to Hasidic books. Shlomo was my teacher for gemilut hasadim, for “acts of kindness.” He taught me how to connect all this to people; he taught me that we live in a world filled with people, and not just with ideas and books; that we have to reach out to others, to learn how to see others, to learn how to live with the heart and not just with the mind (a big shortcoming in the way many bright American Jews are raised). Every word he said was ultimately an act of love of others, of hesed, of caring, of giving—even those things he did that some critics considered sins were ultimately rooted in the world of love. Yehi zikhro barukh; May his memory be a source of ongoing, ever-flowing blessing.

Over the years I’ve written a great deal about Shlomo; since about five years after his death, almost every year I’ve written something about him for his Yahrzeit in my parsha sheet, Hitzei Yehonatan, each time from a different angle. Those interested may check the archives of this blog: at October 2004, November 2005 , and November 2006.


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