Friday, December 05, 2008

Toldot (Zohar)

With deep sorrow and grief, we report the untimely death of Rabbi Michael (Mickey) Rosen, friend and teacher, founder and leader of Yakar. A eulogy will follow.

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

“Isaac’s Eyes Were Dim”

In this portion, the Zohar explores the meaning of Yitzhak’s blindness (which, on the simple level of the Biblical text, plays a crucial role in enabling Rivkah and Yaakov to deceive him), as contrasted with Abraham’s remaining clear-sighted into old age. This difference is seen as reflecting something essential about the two patriarchs. Zohar 141b-142a:

"When Isaac was old” (Gen 27:1). Rabbi Shimon said: It is written, “God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night” (Gen 1:5). This verse has been established and explained, but come and see! All actions of the blessed Holy One are true entities, reflecting supernal mystery. All words of Torah are words of faith, supernal mysteries, fittingly. Come and see: Isaac was not as virtuous as Abraham, whose eyes were neither blinded nor dimmed. But here is supernal mystery, a mystery of faith, as has been said, for it is written: “God called the light Day”—Abraham, light of day, whose light grows brighter and stronger in the ripening of day. So what is written? “Abraham was old, coming into days (בא בימים)” (Gen 24:1)—into those luminous lights. As he aged, he grew brighter—corresponding to what is said, “shining ever brighter until full day” (Prov 4:18). So “God called the light Day.” “And the darkness he called Night”—Isaac, who is “darkness,” proceeding to absorb Night. As he aged, what is written? “When Isaac was old, his eyes were too dim to see.“ Certainly so! He had to grow dark, cleaving to “darkness,” his rung, fittingly.

In this passage we find an extraordinary use of Kabbalistic symbolism: Abraham is equated with light and day, while Isaac is equated with darkness and night. Where does this come from? In Kabbalistic symbolism, Abraham and Isaac are often seen as corresponding to the Divine attributes of Hesed and Gevurah (see below). Here the Hesed-Gevurah polarity seems to be raised one level, to that between “light“ and “darkness,” Isaac’s blindness being explained as his coming from the “side of darkness,” called “his rung.”

Note the way in which the Zohar introduces this interpretation: “This verse has been established and explained, but come and see! … All words of Torah are words of faith, supernal mysteries, fittingly.” That is, the Zohar knows that it dealing with old, familiar problems, that have already (seemingly!) been fully explicated in the Rabbinic and midrashic tradition—but the Torah is in fact filled with secrets, with “supernal mysteries,” and it is those which the Zohar sets about to explain. Then comes the characteristic phrase used to introduce a new idea: תא חזי (“Come and see!”) Where the Talmud, being in its essence an oral tradition, a tradition of disciples listening to their masters and telling their own students what they have heard, says Ta shema, “come and hear,” the Zohar, through use of the phrase ta hazi, emphasizes seeing: the visual, perhaps even visionary side of experience and perception. (In this, may it be seeing itself as returning to the ancient prophetic, visionary tradition?)

This passage seems to open up the entire question of the correspondence between certain sefirot and various personalities of the Torah: i.e., that Avraham = Hesed, Yitzhak = Gevurah, Yaakov=Tiferet, and so on. In this context, at least on the face of it, we are told that Yitzhak was “less virtuous than Abraham”? What is meant by that? Is it perhaps because of the perfect faith demonstrated by Avraham on the occasion of the Akedah, in which he was the prime actor?

Gevurah or Din (Pahad Yitzhak; Gen 31:53), the quality identified with Yitzhak, is identified with a kind of inner strength, self-restraint, the ability to resist negative forces that might lead one away from the proper path—if you like, a certain stringency, piety, “fear of God.” This is diametrically opposed to Hesed: the flowing, life-giving aspect of the Divine; of loving-kindness, generosity, caring, as human characteristics.

There is a certain passivity, which might be read as a kind of weakness, in Yitzhak’s character: he sits and waits upon God, while Abraham goes out and acts in the world, is subjected to various trials and tribulations, opens his home to the four winds so as to practice kindness and hospitality to all comers—or, to quote the image developed especially by Rambam in Hilkhot Avodah Zarah Ch. 1, went out and preached the message of God’s unity, converting hundreds, thousands, even myriads of people to his belief. Yitzhak, by contrast, is an introverted, meditative type, who sits at home while the faithful family retainer undertakes a long journey to find him a wife.

It has been suggested that some readers might appreciate some basic definitions. To go back a few steps: What are the sefirot? And what are Hesed & Gevurah? Sefirot are described as vessels, as vehicles or instruments created by God used to bridge the gap between the world of the infinite, the undifferentiated unity in which He resides, and this material world, in all its diversity, multiplicity, and corporeality. The sefirot, which correspond to various clusters of ethical-personality characteristics, somehow connect between these two: the Infinite, in all its transcendence and otherness and awesomeness, and the limited natural world.

It is important to remember that the sefirot are not persona of God, analogous to the notion of the Trinity in Christianity; the statement of some extreme critics of Kabbalah, that “they believe in ten gods rather than three,” is based on a deep misunderstanding of this notion. Indeed, a reading of Kabbalistic theoretical and systematic-theology discloses a strong sense of the ineffable nature of Ein Sof, of God in His infinity, as He is in Himself; to be sure, there is more than a little resemblance between such works and Maimonides’ “negative theology.”

To return to the striking image of this passage, in which Yitzhak is equated with darkness: It must be remembered that light and darkness are extremes, but both are ultimately created by God. Neither in “mainstream” Biblical or Rabbinic Judaism, nor in Kabbalah, is there a dualistic world view in which God and the powers of Evil (such as the Good God and the Demiurge / Creator God in Gnostic myth) are diametrically opposed to one another. Darkness is not negative, but only the other side of light—or, in the famous words of Isaiah 45:7, “He creates light and forms darkness; makes peace and creates evil; I, the Lord, do all these.” Even Satan is a servant of God, not an autonomous power of evil.

The Lurianic myth (which developed some 300 years after the Zohar) of the “breaking of the vessels” is a way of accounting for evil, negativity, and destructive powers in a world in which evil is not an enemy, a counter force to God, but part of the Divine system created by God. In primordial history, God somehow lost control, and “the vessels were broken,” scattering unredeemed sparks throughout the universe. The purpose of the mitzvah, of the entire Jewish religious enterprise, is to “lift up” these sparks that are in exile—and Kabbalah sees itself as making the way to do this explicit, and providing kavvanot, direction, how to go about doing so in a specific way.

NB: The above has been no more than an extremely sketchy and condensed survey of some very complex and profound ideas. For proper understanding, as Hillel’s famous adage ahs it: zil gemor! Go and study properly!

Another thought: it has been suggested that Yitzhak coming from “the side of darkness” relates to his character as a mystic, as something of a recluse, who is “blind” to things of this world; he is so much focused on things of eternity that he literally doesn’t see this world. In this, he is perhaps reminiscent of the first beggar in R. Nahman of Braslav’s Tale of the Seven Beggars, who people think of as blind, but simply doesn’t see this world because from his purview it is no more than a “wink of an eye.”

Rabbi Eleazar, his son, came and kissed his hands. He said: Fine, Abraham shines from the side of his rung; Isaac darkens from the side of his rung. But why of Jacob is it written: “Israel’s eyes were heavy from old age” (Gen 48:10)? He replied: Precisely so! It is written, “were heavy,” not “were dim.” It is written, “from old age,” not “from his old age.” Rather “from old age”—from Isaac’s “old age,” from that side they were “heavy.” “He could not see”—see properly, but they were not dim; whereas Isaac’s were really dim, totally, so he turned into darkness, embraced by night, fulfilling “the darkness He called Night.”

—Translation by Daniel C. Matt, The Zohar, Pritzker Edition II: 287-288

In this final section, R. Shimon’s son, R. Eleazar, extends the discussion to Yaakov, who is also shown as having difficulty with his vision in old age—“his eyes were heavy with age”—as in the famous scene where he blesses Ephraim and Manasseh. But this too is explained in keeping with the Kabbalistic notion that Yaakov represents a kind of synthesis between his two predecessors, much as the sefirah Tiferet, with whom he is identified, mediates between Hesed and Gevurah. Hence, the “heaviness” of eyes spoken of here, which would tie him more closely with darkness, is an element he received from his “Yitzhak-side,” and not an innate aspect of his own essence.

HAYYEI SARAH Postscript: the Shalshelet

Reader (and translation colleague) Perry Zamek took up the cudgels in my challenge to find a general explanation for all those places that have a shalshelet note:

Shalshelet: Two of the places describe hesitancy (Vayema’en; Veyitmahmah). Perhaps the shalshelet on Vayishhat also suggests hesitancy on the part of Moshe, since it is the eil miluim that installs Aaron as high priest, and “demotes” Moshe, as it were, to a (mere) Levi. Accepting that, we might posit that Eliezer is hesitant regarding finding a wife for Yitzhak in Haran (cf. Rashi on ulai, spelled eilai —“to me”).

I would add: a well-known midrash states that Joseph was seriously tempted by Mrs. Potiphar’s proposition (he was, after all, a young, hot-blooded, unmarried man in his prime), and was only held back from doing the deed by a sudden vision of his father Jacob’s stern visage.

As for Eliezer’s hesitancy: Perry quotes Rashi, who states that Eliezer secretly hoped that he would not succeed in his mission, and Yitzhak would marry his own daughter! But I wish to add something I learned about this from Rabbi Mickey Rosen, whose untimely death we mourn this week, in the name of R. Simhah Bunim of Psyshkhe (Kol Simhah, ad loc.). The word אולי, “perhaps [the girl won’t come with me…],” appears twice in the story, in vv. 5 and 39; however, it is only the second time that it is written with the deficiently, with the qubutz vowel, as אלי. This was so, because it was only after Lavan and Rivkah agreed to the match that Eliezer became aware of his own ulterior motivations, which had until then been unconscious!

Finally: the long-drawn-out musical nature of the shalshelet (certainly the most elaborate of all the te’amim) itself well expresses hesitation.

TOLDOT: “Tell them you are my sister”

This parasha describes the incident in which Yitzhak tells Abimelech king of Gerar that Rivkah, who is in fact his wife, is his “sister,” so as to avoid being killed by someone who might desire his beautiful wife. (A strange story: risking his wife being abducted and raped in order to protect his own skin!) A perennial problem raised by biblical critics: this is the third such very similar incident recorded in the Bible regarding the patriarchs, suggesting that this is what they call a topos, a literary motif.

This year I tried to figure out what is going on here and, as a first step, decided to compare the three stories, note the differences among them, and perhaps thereby arrive at some insight about this repeated motif.

1. Gen 12:10-20. In Egypt, Abraham simply lies, saying that Sarah is his sister. She is taken into Pharaoh’s house; he and his household are stricken my נגעים גדולים, “great plagues” of an unspecified nature; Pharaoh figures out that this is on account of Sarah, and sends her away unceremoniously and with no little pique at Avraham.

2. Gen 20:1-18. Much the same happens in Gerar with King Abimelech—but here God appears to him in a dream, preventing him from violating Sarah—and also strikes the kingdom with a general plague of impotence and infertility. Abimelech turns to Abraham and asks him: “Why did you do this?” He explains: “I thought there was no yirat elohim (fear of God; meaning—basic morality, human decency) in this place.” Abimelech apologizes, showering him with gifts and telling him that “my country is yours”; he clearly regards Abraham as a holy man, even referring to him after the incident as a “prophet.” The overall atmosphere is one of dialogue, dignity, and mutual respect—as different from that in Egypt as can be imagined. Can it be that this in itself is the point of the repetition?

3. Gen 26:6-12. A generation later, Yitzhak and Rivkah also go to live in Gerar. There is no abduction at any point, but Yitzhak again tells the people that “she is my sister.” One day the king sees them “sporting” together like man and wife (was this actual sex, or in some form of erotic play that was unmistakably that of people accustomed to being lovers? Did it occur in public, or was he a peeping tom —i.e., was the “window” mentioned in verse 8 that of his own palace looking out on some open place, or that of their own home? We are not told). In v. 10 the king expresses the fear that “one of the people” (אחד העם) might have slept with his wife had he maintained this fiction, and issues a royal decree that no one is to touch this man or his wife. There is no expulsion, and the scene ends with Yitzhak enjoying great material blessing.

Those are the basic, raw data of these three sections. A proper analysis must wait for another time.


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