Friday, January 09, 2009

Vayehi (Zohar)

The Secret of Death

This weeks’ parasha is a kind of hiatus or interlude in the progression of the Torah’s narrative. As Rav Soloveitchik once noted, this parasha is superfluous in terms of dramatic development: the final verse of Vayigash, Gen 47:27, which relates that the Israelites lived in the land of Goshen and greatly multiplied there, is echoed by the opening first verses of Exodus. Rather, here the children of Israel turn inward upon their own family life, and upon certain powerful spiritual lessons and prophesies. The central event is the death of Jacob: what precedes it—his blessings and parting words; his death itself, followed by embalmment (!), interment and mourning; and the aftermath.

The moment of death and those immediately preceding it are seen as an occasion of revelation, of heightened spiritual perception, as the soul prepares to leave this world and is given a glimpse of the transcendent realms to which it is entering. Hazal, in their glosses on Gen 49:1, tell us that Jacob “wished to reveal the End”—i.e., the secret of the future Redemption—to his sons, but was prevented from doing so, vision being closed off to him. In similar fashion, the death of Rabbi Shimon is a central event in the Zohar. On the day of his death he was granted a powerful mystical vision, many of whose secrets he revealed to his circle in the famous gathering at a threshing floor (Aramaic: idra; hence, the section of the Zohar dealing with this is known as the Idrot—the Idra Rabbah and Idra Zutra. We shall turn to this later on in the year, in its proper place in Ha’azinu, or perhaps on Shavuot).

In general, death and mortality are among the greatest mysteries and conundrums of human life—indeed, the single central fact of our existence, that gave rise to all the deepest existential pondering throughout the history of human thought. Why are we born, given a great capacity for thought and feeling and experience and learning and doing, only to die in the end? Does not the grave, as Rav Soloveitchik put it more than once, make a mockery of all our dreams and hopes, of all our claims to human dignity and stature? In the following brief passage the Zohar poses the question directly, in all its severity. Zohar I:235a:

Rabbi Eleazar posed a question to Rabbi Shimon: Since it is revealed before the blessed Holy One that human beings will die, why does He bring spirits down into the world? Why does He need this? He replied: This question has been posed to the rabbis by so many, and they have established it. However, the blessed Holy One bestows souls who descend to this world to make His glory known, and He gathers them afterward. If so, why did they descend? Well, this mystery is as follows: He opened, saying: “Drink water from your cistern, flowing water from the midst of your well” (Prov 5:15). “Cistern”—a place not flowing on its own. When do these waters flow? When a soul is perfected in this world, when it ascends to that place to which it is linked—then [it is] complete on all sides, from below and from above. When the soul ascends, desire of female arises towards male, and then water flows from below upward, and the “cistern” becomes a “well” of bubbling water. Then joining, union, desire, rapture—for by this soul of the righteous that place is perfected, and love and passion arose above, joining as one.

—translated by Daniel C. Matt, The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, III.425

The Zohar, as is perhaps fitting to a theocentric book, poses this question, not in humanistic terms, but in terms of God Himself: why does He need the whole business of sentient, intelligent life in mortal form? The second paragraph gives a partial answer, but in turn opens a new question: God send souls to the world “to make His glory known.” But surely that could be done more efficiently and simply by the angels—transcendent beings (made, as Rambam puts it, of form but without matter) who praise God regularly without being embodied in flesh and undergoing the whole messy cycle of conception, birth, living on this earth for 70 or 80 years or more with all its attendant problems, and then death? Why not leave the souls in their transcendent source?

The Zohar then gives the “secret” of life and death, through a midrash on the verse in Proverbs which mentions a “cistern” and a “well”—i.e., a place of still waters and one of flowing water. Life exists, according to this, for the moment of death itself: for that moment when the perfected soul rises upwards to “that place to which it is linked”—i.e., its origins in Shekhinah, the female element in the Divine which is described in many places in Zohar as the “source of souls” (which, as an aside, seems to function here very much like the figure of the “Great Mother” in various cultures), and as a “flowing, gushing river.” This ascent arouses a desire from within the Godhead— more specifically, from the male component symbolized by Tiferet. This is depicted in erotically charged terms, but really refers to a spiritual movement. The soul’s desire for God elicits a passionate response—and it would appear that that Divine desire, and union with the Shekhinah, is the ultimate good.

Two reflections prompted by this picture: First, the idea of female yearning and male yearning, waters from below and waters from above, bring to mind what is referred to, especially later on in Hasidic terminology, as itaruta dil’eila and itaruta dil’tata—that is, “arousal from above” and “arousal from below.” These terms refer to the interplay between God’s love, and human yearning for Divine closeness and intimacy, and the role of human initiative in the religious life. At times, God may reveal Himself spontaneously, to an individual or to a whole nation; but equally or even more central is the “awakening from below”—the human initiative, of love and desire for God expressed in prayer, in songs of praise, in Torah study, in mitzvot—that evokes a Divine response. On another level, this is also the root of the theurgic moment in Kabbalah and Hasidism: of human attempts to force God’s hand, so to speak, be it to effect the deliverance of the Jewish people from some immediate crisis, or to hasten the ultimate Messianic redemption.

Second, we find here a hint of the idea that the soul is alien in this world. The yearning to return to its source or, in the language of this passage, “ascent to that place to which it is linked” implies that the soul is not really at home in the concrete, corporeal world. One is reminded of R. Nahman of Bratslav’s tale of the prince who is sent into exile among simple, coarse people, who cannot even understand the world from which he has come or why he misses it (again, all this is foreshadowed in medieval sources, and even in classical midrash). Then there is the Habad story about the tune known as Shmiel’s Niggun, composed by the leaders of some sort of rebellion who was locked up in a Czarist prison, who sings this song to express his yearning for the open sky and forests and fields of his homeland—all of which is interpreted by the Habadniks, who sing this as one of their devekut niggunim, as a metaphor for the yearning of the soul to be free of the body.

The Zohar on this parasha being both particularly rich and extensive—perhaps prompted by the theme of death and the related one of the life of the soul—I shall bring one more passage. This source relates the story of R. Yitzhak, who had a vision of his own imminent death, which was then stayed by R. Shimon bar Yohai’s intervention. For reasons of both space and time I shall simply present the text without commentary or discussion. Zohar I:217b-218a:

Rabbi Yitzhak was sitting one day at Rabbi Yehudah’s door and he was sad. Rabbi Yehudah emerged and found him by his gate, sitting in sadness. He said to him: How is this day different from others? He replied: I have come to ask you three things. One, when you speak a word of Torah and you mention some of the words that I have said, that you say them in my name, mentioning my name. Another, that you render my son, Joseph, worthy through Torah. And another, that you go to my grave all seven days and offer a prayer for me. He said to him: How do you know [that your death is imminent]? He replied: Look! My soul departs from me every night and does not enlighten me with a dream as before. Further, when I pray and reach [the words], “Who hears prayer,” I look for my tzelem [astral body?] on the wall and do not see it, so I conclude that since the tzelem has disappeared and do not see it, the herald has already gone forth and issued the proclamation, as is written “Only with a tzelem does a human walk about” (Ps 39:7)—i.e., as long as a person’s tzelem does not disappear, “a human walks about”—his spirit is sustained within him. Once a person’s tzelem passes away and cannot be seen, he passes away from this world. He [R. Yehudah] said to him: Also from here, as is written: “Our days upon the earth are a shadow” (Job 8:9). He said: All these things that you ask I will do. But I ask of you to select my place in that world next to you, just as we were in this world. Rabbi Yehudah went and said: Please, Let me stay with you through all of these days!

They went to Rabbi Shimon and found him engaged in Torah. Rabbi Shimon raised his eyes and saw Rabbi Yitzhak, and saw the angel of Death running in front of him, dancing. Rabbi Shimon rose and grasped Rabbi Yitzhak’s hand, saying: I decree: Whoever is accustomed to enter may enter. Whoever is not accustomed to enter may not. Rabbi Yitzhak and Rabbi Yehudah entered; the Angel of Death was bound outside. Rabbi Shimon gazed and saw that the time had not yet arrived, for it had been arranged for the eighth hour of the day. Rabbi Shimon seated him in front of him and engaged in Torah. He said to his son, Rabbi Eleazar: Sit by the door, and whatever you see, do not speak with it! And if it wants to enter, place it under oath not to. Rabbi Shimon said to Rabbi Yitzhak: have you seen the image of your father today? (For we have learned: When a person is about to depart the world, his father and relatives are present with him, and he sees and recognizes them. And all those with whom he shared the same rung in that world, they all gather around him and accompany his soul to the place where she will abide.) He replied: I have not yet seen anyone. At once Rabbi Shimon rose and said: Master of the World! Rabbi Yitzhak is well known among us: he is one of the “seven eyes” here. Look, I am holding him! Give him to me! A voice issued, proclaiming: Flying sparks of his Lord enveloped in the wings of Rabbi Shimon! [Matt: a conjectural translation of this cryptic phrase] Behold, he is yours! You shall bring him with you when you enter to occupy yoru throne. Rabbi Shimon said: Certainly so! Meanwhile, Rabbi Eleazar saw that the Angel of Death had departed. He said: Nothing bound to a glowing ember [conjectural, as above] in the presence of Rabbi Shimon son of Yohai!

[Rabbi Yitzhak] asked his father [whom he saw in a dream]: Father, how much time has been granted me in that world? He replied: We are not permitted, nor is a human being informed. But at the wedding feast of Rabbi Shimon, you will arrange his table…

Matt, Zohar, Pritzker Edition, III.313-317

Let me end this discussion of death with the wish that we may all live to venerable old age, filled with sage wisdom; that there be fulfilled the prophecy “the youth [i.e., the youngest] shall die a hundred-years-old” (Isaiah 65:20); and, especially, that we no longer see young people cut down in their prime, as we have these past weeks in the battlefields of Gaza.

MIKETZ & VAYIGASH Postscripts: Thoughts on the Joseph Narratives

• First, I wonder how the story of Joseph and his brothers relates to various archetypes of older and younger brothers, in the sense that that term is used in comparative anthropology or the study of mythology: i.e., the tale of the youngest son who is teased, ridiculed and even vilified by his elder brothers, while perhaps babied and spoiled by his parents, and who, after all kinds of difficulties, makes good and saves the family. Many of us may remember from our childhood fairy tales in which three sons are sent to perform a series of difficult tasks—to “slay the dragon,” literally or figuratively; to recover a treasure guarded by dragons or ogres in an impregnable fortress, after crossing mountains and rivers; and, in the end, the youngest of the three ends up succeeding in the task, marrying the beautiful maiden, and perhaps saving his birth-family from disaster in the bargain. The Yosef saga of course has a far more serious tone, raising serious moral issues of the brother’s murderous cruelty, depicting real personal growth and change in the characters of both Yehudah and Yosef, and ending in far-reaching consequences for the historical dynasty of the people Israel. Nevertheless, the parallels to these motifs are intriguing, and invite speculation.

• In Miketz, especially, we see a sentimental side to Yosef: three times, in the course of a few chapters, we see him weeping. Twice, once during each of his brothers’ visits to his palace, he is overcome by emotion and turn asides to weep, and then washes his face to conceal the fact, so as to maintain the persona of the imperious Egyptian official: the second time (Gen 43:30) is when he sees his full-brother Binyamin after more than twenty years; the first time (42:24), perhaps more interestingly, was when he hears the brothers speaking among themselves in Hebrew (which they assume he doesn’t know), expressing real contrition for their cruelty to Yosef and seeing their present predicament as Divinely–sent retribution. The third time, in Vayigash (45:2), Yosef is no longer able to hold back and, in one of the most moving scenes in the entire Tanakh, reveals himself to his brothers.

• Father Jacob’s rebuke of the brothers when they are considering returning to Egypt a second time, and realize that they must bring Benjamin with them if they are to “see the man,” is interesting. He blames the brothers for having told “the man” too much about their family, to which they reply: we spoke to the man in all innocence when he inquired about our family; how were we to know he would ask for our brother? (43:6-7). It seems to me that there is a covert agenda here: Yaakov is really blaming them for what happened to Yosef, so many years earlier. True, he never says this explicitly, but between the lines one gains the feeling that he harbored deep resentment and suspicion against them: how could they have allowed Yosef to disappear, whether things happened in the way they described in their cover story (“a wild animal mangled him”) or whether Yaakov suspected that he wasn’t being told the whole truth. Here, suddenly, all his suspicions and bad feeling about the remaining ten sons come out in a round-about manner.

• I found myself wondering whether the scene in which none of them recognized Yosef was plausible: surely, one of them must have felt a sense of the familiar about this stranger, even if they couldn’t place him due to the vastly different context in which they found him? But then I remembered an incident in my own life. In 1998 I returned to the United States for the first time in 22 years—exactly the same number of years as Yaakov was away in Haran, and Yosef in Egypt. One Shabbat I went to the Bostoner synagogue, where I had worshipped for many years, and was approached by someone I thought was a stranger—a man somewhat younger than myself, wearing a bowler hat, a dark suit, and sporting a full, thick black beard—who said: “You’re Jonathan Chipman; I recognized you by your body language.” As soon as he told me his own name I recognized him (and, like Yosef, even asked after his old father, who was no longer alive). In retrospect, this little incident was an exact parallel to 42:5 (“Joseph knew his brothers, but they did not know him”), which Rashi explains with the comment that when he last saw them they already had hatimat zaken, their faces were already bearded, while he was still a beardless youth. My Boston acquaintance was a 16-year-old kid when I last saw him, and now he was a 40-yaer-old man dressed in balle-batish fashion, whereas I looked much the same, notwithstanding that my reddish-brown hair and beard had now turned grey and even white.

• Many Hasidic masters seek a connection between the Yosef stories and the minor festival of Hanukkah, which always falls at the time of its reading. I found several interesting parallels between the Yosef story and Purim, specifically. Pharaoh gives Joseph royal garments, a golden chain, changes his name, gives him his signet ring, and allows him to ride in a royal chariot (41:42-43)—all of which are reminiscent of the honors bestowed upon Mordecai in the second half of the Megillah.

• At the start of Vayigash (44:27), Yehudah quotes his father as saying “my wife bore me two children…” This is a pregnant psychological slip-of-the-tongue—as if to say that Leah wasn’t really his wife. I am reminded of a family legend concerning “der Alter Ziskind,” an elderly Jew named Ziskind whom my grandfather hired as a melamed to tutor my mother when she was a young girl, in an America bereft of Jewish schools. Widowed and remarried, he would refer to his second wife, in a thick “Galitzianer” accent, as mein pylygesh—that is, “my mistress.” Somehow, he didn’t see this as a “real” marriage, but as an arrangement for fulfilling certain domestic and other needs.

A Post-Hanukkah Riddle

I will conclude with a riddle. This year we had an interesting calendrical phenomenon: four consecutive days, each one of lesser sanctity than the one preceding it. December 27 was marked by the confluence of Shabbat and Rosh Hodesh and Hanukkah, requiring one to read from three separate Torah scrolls. The next day was Rosh Hodesh and Hanukkah, with its concomitant prayers (i.e., both Ya’aleh ve-Yavo and Al Hanissim); the day after that was Hanukkah alone; while Tuesday, December 30, was an ordinary weekday. My question is: are there any other possible examples in the Jewish calendar of four consecutive days of diminishing kedushah? Readers are invited to send in their answers.


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