For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to my blog, at December 2005.
This week’s parashah begins with a powerful, striking picture of Divine epiphany, probably the strongest prior to the revelation at Mount Sinai. While God is shown speaking to the patriarchs perhaps ten or more times in the Book of Genesis, only here is there a tactile image of angels going up and down a ladder, a concrete bridge between heaven and earth, and God speaking from its summit. Jacob declares the numinous quality of the place where he has chosen to sleep, “Indeed, God is in this place, and I did not know!” and continues: “this is naught but the House of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Gen 28:16-17). Hence, it is an obvious occasion for the Zohar to delve into various aspects of prophetic revelation; I shall bring here only a brief selection from its discussion. Zohar I: 149a-b:
Come and see what is written: “He dreamed: Behold, a ladder set up on earth, its head reaching to heaven” (Gen 28:12). He opened, saying: היה היה Hayo hayah. “Happening it happened, that the word of HWVH came to Ezekiel the priest, son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the River Kevar. There the hand of YHVH came upon him” (Ezek 1:3). Hayo hayah, “Happening it happened”—prophecy happened at that particular moment, being essential for exile, since Shekhinah descended among Israel in exile. Ezekiel saw what he saw at that very moment, even though that site was unsuitable. So hayo hayah, “happening it happened.” What is the meaning of hayo hayah? Hayo, above; hayah, below. As is written, “a ladder set up on earth, its head reaching to heaven”—moving above, moving below. Hayo hayah, one above, one below. Come and see: This ladder is planted firmly in two worlds, above and below, “in the land of the Chaldeans by the River Kevar.” “In the land of the Chaldeans”—in a place where exile prevails. But even so, “by the River Kevar.” What is “the River Kevar”? That which was kevar: already, previously. For Shekhinah dwelled in it, as is written: “A river issues from Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four riverheads” (Gen 2:10). This is one of those four rivers, and since She [Shekhinah] dwelled on it previously, manifesting there already, She dwelled there now, revealing Herself to Ezekiel.
This passage addresses itself to with one basic question: One of the axiomatic assumptions of mystical Judaism (see below) is that prophecy, God’s revelation of Himself, can only occur in certain special holy spots—in the Land of Israel or, during the period of the Exodus, whether at the holy mountain of Horev, or from within the Tent of Meeting. How then could He have revealed himself to Ezekiel in exile, in faraway Babylonia? (And, while this is not stated explicitly, this was the very epiphany in which he was shown the Merkavah, the Divine Chariot, the central esoteric image in all of Jewish mysticism!) This question, so it seems to me, is doubly apt in this chapter, where the sense of “place-ness,” of a specific locale being somehow fit for God’s presence, is stated so clearly.
The Zohar’s explanation is twofold. First, that Israel in exile needed this prophecy. (To cope with their situation? To receive encouragement during exile? For moral rebuke in light of some the things they were doing? Or perhaps a little bit of both?) The mention of Shekhinah going into exile—an idea already familiar from the classical Rabbinic tradition of Hazal—may allude to this prophecy somehow taking place “via the Shekhinah.” Second, there was a special feature of this place that made this possible: the phrase specifying Ezekiel’s location is read as drawing a contrast: “the Land of the Chaldeans,” which is impure, and “the River Kevar,” whose very name suggests that it partakes of the timeless, the eternal: the river of “already,” one of the four primordial rivers created at the very Beginning of the world, and thus partaking of the holiness of Creation. (Indeed, there are various Kabbalistic traditions and rituals that give a place of honor to the biblical verses describing the four rivers of Creation)
Two significant side comments: First, the idiom in Ezekiel, היה היה , hayo hayah, expounded here in partial explanation of how this exilic revelation came about, is a hapax legomenon, unique to this verse. The word hayo is used in four other places in the Bible, but in the future form of היו יהיה or היו תהיה, but not in the past tense as היה היה. In contemporary Israeli parlance, this phrase is familiar from its use in children’s stories, in the sense of “once upon a time…”—but this is clearly a modern neologism.
Second: for another, very ancient and interesting use of this double-entendre on the name of the River Kevar/Already, see the fourth century Merkavah text known as Re’uyot Yehezkel, brought by Daniel Matt in his excellent anthology, The Essential Kabbalah (San Francisco: Harper, 1996), in the selection entitled, ”The River of Already,” p. 126. (This book is forthcoming in Hebrew by Olam Qatan; the passage was first published by I. Gruenwald in Temirin I: 111-114.])
In brief, the basic idea here is that prophecy only occurs in certain places, because God ordinarily doesn’t rest, or make his presence known, in a place of tum’ah, impurity. R. Judah Halevi, in Sefer ha-Kuzari, written somewhat less than two centuries prior to the Zohar, elaborates a doctrine whereby prophecy is possible only in Israel, in the sense of both the people and the land—viz., that there can be nor full prophecy outside of the Land of Israel, and that there can be no prophecy to a non-Jew—not even to a righteous proselyte who was not born a Jew!—because he/she does not possess in his soul ‘inyan ha-elohi, “the divine element” unique to this people. Both these points are contested by Maimonides and others of the more rationalist and universal streams within Judaism. Part of the issue here is: how literally does one take the idea of God “dwelling” in a particular place? If He is transcendent, if even the heavens and the heaven of heavens cannot contain Him, how can He dwell anywhere on this earth except in a purely metaphorical sense? (For midrashim and further discussion of this subject, see also HY III: Vayetze [Midrash]). We continue:
Come and see: “He dreamed.” Was She revealed in a dream to Holy Jacob, Consummate Patriarch? In such a sacred site he saw only a dream? Rather, because at that time Jacob was not yet married and Isaac was still alive. Now you might say: Look, even after he was married, it is written, “I saw in a dream” (Gen 31:10)! But there the place [i.e., Paddan-Aram, when he was with Lavan] proved decisive and Isaac was still alive, so dream is mentioned. Later, when he entered the Holy Land together with the tribes, consummating the essence of the house and the joyous mother of children, it is written: “God appeared to Jacob again when he came from Paddan-Aram, and He blessed him” (Gen 35:9). Similarly, “God spoke to Israel in visions of the night” (Gen 46:20)—here dream is not mentioned since this issued from another, higher rung….
Translation from Daniel C. Matt, The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, II: 330-332.
Here another parameter or dimension of prophecy is discussed: the distinction between a vision attained in a dream and a “true” vision, experienced in the waking state. In this passage, the level of prophecy received is a reflection of one’s personal status at the time of receiving the prophecy. The Zohar is puzzled that Jacob, the “Consummate [or: Perfect] Patriarch” (שלימא דאבהן), can only see God in a dream. The answer given is that, because he was not yet compete and thus not ready for full prophecy or apprehension of the Divine. (The idea that a man is spirituality incomplete without a wife, is symbolized in Ashkenazic Jewish observance by the custom of unmarried men not wearing a tallit; needless to say, this refers only to those never married, not to widowers or divorcés.) Once again, this reflects the Zoharic emphasis upon sexual union as a central metaphor for the cosmic task of unifying all forms of polarities and opposites.
As for Jacob’s status being diminished by the fact that his father was still alive, this may be understood in one of two ways. Either, that at any given time in the sacred history of Israel there is one central figure who is the focus of Divine attention; or that anyone belonging to the eldest generation within a given family has a special status of pater familias or patriarch.