Saturday, January 24, 2009

Vaera (Zohar)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog at January 2006.

The Plagues: Left Side and Right Side

This week’s parashah begins with the Divine epiphany in which God announces to Moses the forthcoming redemption; the bulk of the reading is devoted to the first seven of the Ten Plagues, which demonstrate God’s power and might to Pharaoh. In the Zohar passage we present here, Rabbi Hiyya expounds the verse introducing the first plague—but this is preceded by another brief passage in which there is a dialogue between himself and a child or young person, identified as “Rabbi Zuta” or “the small Rabbi Yossi.” Zohar II: 29a-b:

Rabbi Hiyya rose one night to study Torah, and with him was Rabbi Zuta [or: Rabbi Yossi the small], who was still a child. Rabbi Hiyya opened, saying: “Go eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has already taken pleasure in your deeds” (Eccles 9:7). What prompted Solomon to utter this verse? Rather, all of Solomon’s words were spoken in wisdom. As for his saying, “Go eat your bread with joy”— when a person walks in the ways of the blessed Holy One, He draws him near and grants him tranquility and rest. Come and see: he eats and drinks bread and wine with a joyful heart because the blessed Holy One is pleased with his deeds. That child said to him: You said that Solomon’s words were spoken in wisdom; yet where is the wisdom here? He replied: My son, cook your dish and you will discover this verse. He said: I haven’t cooked yet, but I know! He asked him: How do you know? He replied: I heard a voice from my father, who uttered this verse. Solomon is alerting a person to crown assembly of Israel “with joy,” which is the right side—bread crowned with joy. Then, to be crowned with wine, which is the left, so that total joy will appear in complete faith, right and left. When She is between both of them, all blessing dwell in the word. All this when the blessed Holy One is pleased with the deeds of human beings, as is written: “for God has already taken pleasure in your deeds.” Rabbi Hiyya came and kissed him. He said: By your life, my son! I left this word for your sake. Now I know that the blessed Holy One and desires to crown you with Torah.

There are several scenes in the Zohar in which small children participate in the study of Torah (see, e.g., HY X: Lekh lekha). These are almost always marked by great warmth and tenderness—as are, indeed, many of the scenes in which the companions engage in studying this mystical teaching. The central ”action” of the Zohar is the often peripatetic discussion and exegesis of Torah in light of this hidden teaching, set against the backdrop of various places in the Galilee.

Note Rabbi Hiyya’s comment that the child is not yet mature enough to understand the wisdom in Solomon’s words: “My son, cook your dish and you will discover this verse.” The idea is that these teachings require a certain maturity, beyond mere intellectual understanding (see our discussion below). Here, unexpectedly, he replies that even though he “hasn’t cooked yet,” he still knows.

As for the contents of the verse, expounded Kabbalistically: “bread crowned with joy” and “wine” symbolize the complementary qualities of Hesed and Gevurah, identified as right and left. Wine is associated with Gevurah because of its red color, similar to that of blood, while perhaps bread is seen as Hesed because it is the “staff of life.” Implicit here is the idea that even a physical act, such as eating and drinking with joy, can be a holy act, and a fitting expression of Solomon’s wisdom. (This idea later became a central theme of the Hasidic movement, with its notion of avodah be-gashmiut, “service through corporeality.”) The “Assembly of Israel” that is thus crowned is the quality of Malkhut=Shekhinah, which is located between these two poles—and thus a source of blessing.

Rabbi Hiyya then begins a new teaching, relating to the plagues as such:

Rabbi Hiyya opened again, saying: “Say to Aaron: take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt” (Exod 7:19). Why Aaron and not Moses? Because the blessed Holy One said: Waters exist in Aaron’s place, and left must draw waters from there. Aaron, who comes from that side, will stimulate them, and when left gathers them, they will turn into blood. Come and see: Lowest of all rungs was struck first.

Rabbi Shimon said: From the lowest the blessed Holy One begins, and His hand struck with every single finger. When he reached the highest of all rungs, He played His part, passing through the land and killing all. Thus he killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, since that is the firstborn rung of all. Come and see: Pharaoh’s dominion was by water, as is written, “the great sea serpent sprawling amidst his streams” (Ezek 29:3). Therefore his river was turned into blood. Afterwards, frogs wielding eerie voices, croaking within their intestines—emerging from the Nile, climbing onto dry land, raising shrieks in every direction, until they fell dead in their houses. Muse of all: All those ten signs performed by the blessed Holy One all issued from the mighty hand. That hand was raised over all rings of their dominion in order to muddle their minds, so they did not know what to do. Come and see: As soon as any of their rungs emerged to accomplish something visible to all, they were unable to do anything. When? When the mighty hand loomed over them.

—translation from Daniel C. Matt, The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, IV: 114-116

Why is Aaron, specifically, the one to stretch his staff over the waters? Water, which corresponds to Hesed, to qualities of love and expansiveness, is related to Aaron (“who loved peace and pursued peace”)—but, in the context of the first plague, it turns into blood, an element from the negative side of sternness and judgment.

The more general idea is that the plagues are delivered to the Egyptians, an evil nation, in a kind of mirror image of the world of Divine “rungs” or sefirot. “The lowest of all rungs was struck first… From the lowest the blessed Holy One begins, and His hand struck with every single finger.” The ten plagues correspond to the ten fingers of the Divine hand (an echo of the notion of the Divine body, found in such early Kabbalistic works as Shiur Komah), which are the “ten rungs” arranged from lowest to highest—i.e., Zoharic terminology for the ten sefirot. In Hasidic writings, and perhaps earlier, we find explicit statements in which the ten plagues serve as a negative counterpoint to ten sefirot, which further parallel the structure of the universe: i.e., the Ten Words with which the world was created, and the Ten Commandments given at Sinai, which are a kind of précis of the entire Torah.

The realm of evil: in some later Kabbalistic works, the idea that the world of evil is a mirror image or counterpart to the world of holiness is worked out in some detail. Thus, the 49 days from Pesah to Shavuot, of counting the Omer (7 x 7) are devoted to a tikkun, a “correction” or birrur (“cleaning out”?) of all the various permutations and combination of the seven lower sefirot, in which one cleanses an purifies oneself of the 49 sefirot of the shadow world. Habad, following Lurianic teaching, speaks of kelipat nogah and kelipat tum’ah (“shells of brightness” and “shells of impurity””). All this is found in the Zohar, but in far more cryptic and allusive form.

Pharaoh’s punishment began with the water because that realm is his “dominion”—but unlike Aaron, he was not connected to water in a manner that brought out its Hesed-full, life-giving qualities, but related to it through his own ego and desire for domination, the arrogant feeling that “I am the Nile and I made it”—that he ruled the water and was thus tantamount to a god who governed this all-important source of life for the Egyptians. In the second plague, the frogs, who emerge from the water, utter weird noises in an almost supernatural or demonic manner, thereby belying Pharaoh’s claim to rule. Water, which he thought to be his dominion, thus became the root of his punishment.

Zaddok of Lublin on Pardes

I recently came across a passage in the writings of R. Zaddok ha-Kohen of Lublin—one of the most original, daring, and prolific Hasidic thinkers—which has bearing both upon our discussion in Parshat Vayigash about the nature of the soul, and upon Rabbi Hiyya’s discussion with the child. In this passage R. Zaddok elaborates upon the four levels of Torah, known as Pardes (peshat, remez, derash, sod), in which he defines the essential difference between sod, “secrets of Torah,” and the other three levels. The first three he defines as: the performance of Torah in practice (peshat); the intention within the person’s heart (remez); and the wisdom contained therein (derush)—corresponding roughly to limbs, heart and mind. But then he continues:

But after he attains these three things—the tools of practical life, and a heart that desires and the eye that sees the wisdom of the thing—then he merits to the [level of] sod, secret…. namely, the rationale (ta’am) for the mitzvah, as in the verse “Taste and see that God is good” (Ps 34:9) which is called secret, for it is impossible to explain to ones fellow the taste that he feels in his palate. As is said, “Two people eat from the same bowl, but each one tastes according to his deeds” (Avot de-Rabbi Nathan §37). … For the taste is different to each one. And this is what is called sod—namely, that which it is impossible to relate to others at all. For if it is possible to relate it, then after he tells it is also known also to the other. How then is it a secret? And it says, “God’s secret (sod) with those that fear Him” (Ps 25:14); and “with the upright is His secret” (Prov 3:32). It therefore follows, that [secret] is something that is revealed only to those who merit [to understand it], and it is impossible to reveal it at all. And this is the “taste” that each person experiences according to his share… —Tzidkat ha-Tzaddik, §177

Thus, sod is not like subject matter that can be learned and understood by simply applying oneself to the mastery of the theoretical, conceptual material on the intellectual level. Rather, it is essentially a stage or level of insight, a way of seeing and perceiving the world, the soul, and God, that results from a combination of study with meditation, ethical behavior, and a change in mindset – in brief, a kind of “turning a corner” in one’s whole being.

Postscripts: Shemot

A few thoughts about Parshat Shemot, that also relate to this week’s parashah. It has been noted that God’s name is not mentioned at all in the first two chapters of Exodus, except in passing (in 1:17, where the midwives’ ethical behavior, in not killing the male babies, is explained by the fact that “they feared God, and did not do as Pharaoh commanded”). As if to say: these chapters depict a natural human situation, without God, in which there is, on the one hand, oppression, subjugation, cruelty, exploitation of man by man; and, on the other, a sequence of fortuitous events in the early biography of Moses allowing the future leader to grow up in relative comfort, in a situation that permitted him to grow morally and intellectually. These eventually led to his break with Pharaoh’s house. We are shown a series of three vignettes that dramatically illustrate his moral sensitivity: the striking dead of the Egyptian who struck a Hebrew slave; his intervening in the fight between two Hebrew slaves—but through verbal rebuke, not violence; and his saving Yitro’s seven daughters from the depredations of the shepherds (Exod 2:11-19).

The third chapter, by contrast, describes God’s epiphany to Moses in the burning bush—the beginning of a new era of Divine involvement in history, marked also by a new name of God, different from that known to the Fathers: God as Ehyeh, as Being, as All-Present. This idea motif is reiterated at the very beginning of our parashah in the title verses: “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I was not made known to them by My name YHWH” (6:2-3).

These new epiphanies are led up to by the verses immediately preceding the Burning Bush chapter, in a strange group of verses (2:23-25): “And in those many [long drawn out?] days… the Israelites groaned from their toil and cried out , and their cries ascended to God from their labor. And God heard their howls, and remembered his covenant… and God knew.” (Elohim: the generic name of the All-Powerful, master of the natural order.)

Many years ago, Rav Soloveitchik quoted a Zohar passage on this verse, which I have unfortunately been unable to locate. The Zohar states that the Israelites were so heavily oppressed by the circumstances of slavery that even their voices were in exile (kol begaluta). They were so downtrodden that they hung on to their Divine image and human dignity by a mere thread, making them unable to express their pain by even a cry or a groan. They were like those in the concentration camps known as Musselmänner: individuals who had reached a point of apathy such that they lacked the elementary will to live—and more often than not these were the first to die. The first step towards redemption, towards the restoration of one’s elemental humanity, was to cry out, even if this cry was not addressed to God. At that stage they regained their voices, through not yet the ability to articulate what they felt (dibbur begaluta). Only much later could they begin to speak and to articulate their voice.


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