Friday, February 06, 2009

Beshalah (Zohar)

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

On Manna —and the Sustenance of the Righteous

This week’s Torah portion includes the story of the manna, the supernal food with which the Israelites were fed for forty years in the desert, beginning shortly after the Crossing of the Sea. This unique food serves as a symbol for direct Divine involvement in human life, as well as a paradigm for life lived on a special spiritual level, as we shall see in the following passage. This includes reflections on the meaning of food and on eating generally in human life, some of which will be sent later, in a special supplement for Tu Bishevat. Indeed, this subject is singularly appropriate for that festival, which falls this Sunday night and Monday, and is devoted to trees and to a festive meal with the fruits of the trees. Zohar II:61b-62a:

The Section of the Manna. “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Look, I am about to rain down bread for you from heaven” (Exod 16:4) …… Come and see: Every single day dew trickles from the Holy Ancient One to the Short-Tempered One, and the whole Orchard of Holy Apples is blessed. Some of that dew is drawn to those below, and holy angels are nourished by it, each and every one according to his diet, as is written: “Man ate the bread of the mighty” (Ps 78:25), for of that food Israel ate in the wilderness. Rabbi Shimon said: Some people are nourished by it now. And who are they? These Companions, engaging in Torah day and night. Now, would you imagine, from that very food? Rather, resembling that food, two balancing one. Come and see: When Israel entered and cleaved to the King by revealing the holy insignia [or: seal], they became worthy eating other, higher bread—higher than at first, when they went out of Egypt, eating the bread called matzah. Now they entered and proved worthy of eating other, higher bread from a high place, as is written: “Look, I am about to rain down bread for you from heaven” (Exod 16:4)—“from heaven, really / literally! At that time it appeared to Israel from this place! Companions engaging in Torah are nourished from another, higher place. What is it? As is written: “Wisdom gives life to its possessors” (Eccles 7:12)—a higher place. Rabbi Eleazar said to him: If so, why are they weaker than other inhabitants of the world? They should be stronger and more powerful! He replied: You have asked well! Come and see: All food of the inhabitants of the world derives from above. The food that comes from heaven and earth is food for the whole world; it is coarse and dense. Food coming from higher above is food that comes in Judgment, from a place where Judgment prevails; it is finer food. The food that appeared for Israel at that time—from a high place called “heaven”—is finer food, entering the soul most deeply, dissociated ever more from the body, called ”ethereal bread” (Num 21:5). Highest food of all is food of the Companions, those engaging in Torah, who eat food of spirit and soul-breath—not easting food of the body at all—namely, from a high place, precious beyond all, called Wisdom. Therefore the body of the Companions is weaker than inhabitants of the world, for they do not eat food of the body at all. They eat food of spirit and soul-breath, from a distant, supernal place, most precious of all. So that food is refined of the refined, finest of all. Happy is their portion, as is written: “Wisdom gives life to its possessors” (Eccles 7:12). Happy is the share of the body that can be nourished by food of the soul!

First, some comments on difficult phrases in this passage: (1) The “dew” trickling from the “Ancient One” (Atika Kaddisha) to the “Short-Tempered One” (ze’ir anpin), and from there to the “Holy Apple Garden” (hakal tapuhin kaddishin) refers to the devolving down of Divine energy and blessing from the highest parts of the sephirotic realms, to the group of sefirot clustered around Tiferet, down to Malkhut, “the Apple Orchard.” These three faces or aspects of God, developed further in Lurianic Kabbalah, are especially celebrated in the three Shabbat meals; (2) The “bread of the mighty ones” eaten by a “man” is understood by the midrash as referring to the angelic company, whose ordinary food is manna; hence, its consumption in the desert indicates that the Israelites were privileged to exist on a level transcending their usual earthbound one (see Yoma 75b); (3) “Two balancing one.” This refers to the Companions, i.e., the mystical circle of R. Shimon, who are, as it were, sustained, even in the bodily sense, by Wisdom—a realm even higher than the manna; hence, twice as holy; (4) “Revealing the holy insignia.” This is understood as referring to circumcision; though this covenant was introduced by Abraham, it was neglected in Egypt, and only renewed just before the Exodus. In circumcision, the corona or crown of the male organ is uncovered; this is seen as resembling the Hebrew letter yod, the first and most sublime letter of the Divine name; hence it is called the “holy insignia” or “seal.” Only after they were circumcised were they allowed to eat this supernal, angelic bread, the manna.

The basic idea discussed here is the contrast between sustenance based on gross corporeal food as opposed to that rooted in higher, more spiritual realms; higher spiritual activity must be sustained by more rarified food (and those engaged in such activity, living in the spirit, are weaker in terms of simple bodily strength—see the old stereotype of the weak, slight, non-aggressive, pale yeshiva bokhur). The paradigm of this is the manna, called in midrash the “food of the angels.” Interestingly, matzah, mentioned here, is seen by many commentators as a spiritual kind of food, because of its very simplicity. It is called lehem oni, “the bread of poverty” or “poor bread” because it cannot be baked mixed with any rich additives, such as wine, eggs, oil, honey, etc., even if unleavened. The Maharal of Prague speaks of it as symbolizing simplicity and humility, thus the most essential and most perfect food.

Rabbi Eleazar said to him: Certainly so! But how can these foods be found now? He replied: You have certainly asked well! Come and see: This is the clarity of the matter. The first food is food of the whole world, that which derives from heaven and earth, food for all. Food that is higher—that which is finer, deriving from a place where Judgment prevails, called tzedeq, “Justice.” This is food of the poor. Mystery of the matter: One who fulfills [or: satiates] a poor person adds one letter to it, transforming it into Tzedakah, “Charity.” This is: “A man of kindness benefits his soul” (Prov 11:17)—implying rendering kindness, for it dwells in Judgment and is fulfilled by kindness, becoming Compassion. Food higher than these is a supernal, precious food, from a place called “heaven.” This is finer than all of them, and it is food of the sick, as is written, “the Lord will sustain him on the bed of illness” (Ps 41:4). The Lord (YHWH), specifically! Why? Because the sick are only nourished by the actual food of the blessed Holy One. And what is that? Fat and blood, as is written: “to offer Me fat and blood” (Ezek 44:15). This is food from the place called ”heaven”—supernal, precious, finest of all. Supernal, holy, precious food—food of spirit and soul-breath—is food from a supernal distant place. This is food of the Companions engaging in Torah, food coming from supernal Wisdom. Why? Because Torah issues from supernal Wisdom, and those who engage in Torah enter the essence of her roots; so their food derives from that supernal holy place. Rabbi Eleazar came and kissed his hands. He said: Happy is my portion, that I understand these words! Happy is the portion of the righteous, who engage in Torah day and night, rendering them worthy In this world and in the world that is coming, “for she is your life and the length of your days” (Deut 30:20). (—Translation by Daniel C. Matt, The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, IV: 328-334

I cannot explain in detail all the allusions here: the meaning of food coming from a place pf “justice”; the special appropriateness of such food for the ill; etc. What is striking here is the emphasis on food coming from a higher, more spiritual, “heavenly” place. This seems to contrast greatly with Hasidism and its emphasis on “service in corporeality” (avodah begashmiut): that is, elevating mundane activities in the real world through holy intention alone. The Zohar here seems to express an ambivalence about us humans being bodily, carnal beings; the ideal would be were we to be like angels, sustained by “spiritual food,” as the Zohar sees manna.

It occurs to me that the same problematic that exists regarding sexuality—how to reconcile the powerful call of the body with our aspirations for the spiritual, the transcendent, for uninterrupted God-consciousness. In sexuality, because of the particularly intense, all-consuming nature of sexual desire and of the sexual act, the problem is even stronger (albeit I once saw a very amusing piece arguing the relative virtues of the pleasures of chocolate and sexual orgasm), the essence of the problem is much the same. In general, it seems to me that there are three basic ways of relating to the physical—not only in Judaism, but in spiritual religion generally: denial or mortification of the body (like those early Christian ascetics, such as Simon of the Desert, who rejected not only sexuality, but also tried to minimize any pleasure from food to absolute minimum; or certain extreme Hindu sects); spiritualization of the bodily, as in the passage discussed here; and unitive acceptance of the worldly as part of the holy.

In our own days, I sometimes feel a similar spirit, in a secular or non-organized-religious context, in vegetarianism, which at times can be a kind of asceticism or puritanism about the body—especially in the vegan school (which allows no animal products whatsoever, including eggs and dairy products, no coffee, alcohol, stimulants, etc.), which seeks a kind of pristine simplicity and purity of diet. I might add that elsewhere in the Zohar we find different moods. For example, in next week’s sedrah there is a passage read by many people before the Friday night dinner that speaks of laying the table for Shabbat as creating a kind of conduit by which to bring down supernal blessing, “for blessing does not rest on an empty table.” (See the teaching beginning with “R Yitzhak began…” in Zohar, Yitro, II: 88a-89a; Matt, IV: 497-504.)

The ultimate issue is one that I have sometimes referred to as the conflict between dualistic vs. unitary spirituality—but I cannot elaborate on this here.


This Shabbat is also, perhaps best known, as Shabbat Shirah, the “Sabbath of Song,” for the reading of the Song of the Sea: This coming week Israel will be going to the polls. I will refrain from engaging in partisan politics on these pages, both because my purpose is to teach Torah, and because in nay event this time around I find it difficult to get passionate about any party, large or small, including the one I’ll probably vote for in the end. But, one can say for sure whom the blessed Holy One will vote for: at the end of Yishtabah He is called by the epithet, הבוחר בשירי זמרה, “He who chooses [or: elects; or even: takes delight in] melodic songs of praise.”

So, if He takes pleasure from our songs of praise; especially, from this context, from the daily portion of “hallelujahs” in Pesukei de-Zimra, which some rush through ir skip merely because it is not, strictly speaking, an “halakhically required” portion of the davening. Take five minutes to read three or four of these psalms slowly, meditatively, melodically, as sweet songs of praise, and the whole prayer experience will be different.

Further Teachings on the Manna

The Zohar’s section on manna is so rich in ideas on the significance of food and eating that I thought it fitting, particularly in light of Tu Bishevat, to share another brief passage—this one dealing, not with transcendent, angelic food, but with a certain approach to the concrete, down-to-earth act of eating. Zohar II:62a-b:

“Look, I am about to rain down bread for you from heaven” (Exod 16:4). Rabbi Yossi began: “You open Your hand and satisfy every living thing with favor” (Ps 145:16). What is written above [this verse]? “The eyes of all wait for You [and You give them food at its proper time]” (ibid., 15). All the inhabitants of the world await, lifting their eyes to the blessed Holy One. Therefore, every single day all those scions of faith should request their food from the blessed Holy One, offering their prayers for it. Why? Because whoever offers his prayer to the Blessed Holy One for his nourishment causes that tree containing all nourishment to be blessed every day through Him. The meaning of the matter is: “Blessed be the Lord day by day” (Ps 68:20). Even if one has it, he should make a request before the blessed Holy One, offering his prayer for food each day, so that blessings will prevail every single day above.

Two main ideas are interwoven here. First, there is the ethical-religious idea that a person should pray for his food every day, thereby expressing his dependence upon God for this, the most basic of all human needs. But, secondly, there is also a kind of sacred symbiosis between man and God: God somehow needs our prayer; our prayers somehow affect things within the Divine economy. (One is reminded here of the midrashic idea that God caused such as Sarah, Rivkah and Hannah, to be barren because He “desired their prayer”—He wanted them to beseech Him for children.) We have here an important Kabbalistic theme: that human prayer, and other actions, have a kind of a theurgic affect: our prayer somehow causes the divine mechanism of blessing (“that tree containing all nourishment…”) to get moving. There is a reciprocal movement here, expressed in the proximity of the two verses—“the eyes of all wait upon You” and “You open Your hand…”—which indeed indicates a causal link. Man prays for the food that He needs in order to live, while God, in response to that prayer, provides. We continue:

Therefore, a person should not cook food on one day for another day, prolonging a day to another day, as is written: “The people shall go out, and gather each day’s share on its day” (Exod 16:4)—“each day’s share on its day,” specifically! Except on Sabbath eve for the Sabbath, as we have established. Consequently, the blessed Holy One is full of blessings every single day. Thus it is written, “You open your hand and satisfy every living thing with favor [or: will].” What is “favor”? That which appears from the Holy Ancient One, “favor” (or “will”) issuing from Him so that food will be available for all. Whoever requests food every single day is called “son of faith,” a son through whom blessings are found above.

Here we find a more radical view, a picture of life lived with an attitude of total trust and “waiting upon God.” Taken literally, the Zohar is saying that one should never prepare food in advance, beyond that day; that is, to take each day as it comes. The ideal here is that ordinary, mundane life ought to be patterned after the life of the Israelites in the desert, when the people went out and gathered manna every single day, thereby expressing in a concrete way their dependence upon the ongoing Divine fulness. Needless to say, this approach is in no wise required by the halakhah—with the exception of the half-dozen or so festival days during the year, when one is only permitted to cook for the immediate day—but is a kind of supererogatory piety. In the continuum between bitahon and hishtadlut, i.e., faith in God vs. human effort, this passage seems to represent that of bitahon.

For me, this passage conjures up an image of certain of Shlomo Carlebach’s hippie Hasidim whom I met in the early 1970’s. One day, while visiting Israel, I went to see a small colony—at that time, only two couples and a bunch of small children, who were trying to set up a community near the shores of the Kinneret. I asked one of them: “What is your everyday life like? What do you do every day? What work do you do?” He answered: “We take each day as it comes, and do whatever Hashem sends us that particular day. For example, today He sent us YOU.” The ground attitude is a complete rejection of routine, of security, of concern with such things as retirement funds and insurance, and a sense that our lives are totally in God’s hands. I don’t know whether this approach can be taken literally in our culture as a life plan, or seen as a kind of unrealized ideal, which cannot be realized in practical life (certainly not in a religion like Judaism, which eschews celibacy and calls on its faithful to bear and raise children—small creatures who have a strange way of making their parents want things like a roof over their heads, some food in the refrigerator, a dresser with a few changes of clothing, and if possible a few dollars in their pockets).

The figure of the man who lives with a naïve, utter trust in God reappears in R. Nahman of Braslav’s tale of the Hakham ve-Tam, “The Wise Man and the Simple One,” or in the genre of holy fool stories Shlomo used to tell, about rebbes who worked an hour or two to earn what they would need for their family for that day, and then would give everything else away. The hero is a footloose “holy beggar”: a person who travels light and has only the loosest attachments to place, things and even to “hearth and home.”

Rabbi Yeisa Sava would not prepare a meal each day until he offered his prayer before the blessed Holy One for food. He said “I will prepare the meal when it is provided from the house of the King.” After offering his prayer, he would wait one hour and then say, “The time has offered arrived for it to be provided from the house of the King. From this moment on, prepare the meal!” This is the way of those in awe of the blessed Holy One, those who fear sin. —Translation from Daniel C. Matt, The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, IV: 335-336

I have omitted one passage of a more technical-exegetical nature. Here we are shown a picture of a pious man, Rav Yeisa Sava (I wonder whether there is any relation between him and Yeiva Sava, the hero of Saba de-Mishpatim) who every day asked for his food and quite literally waited upon God to provide him, seeing himself eating at the Table of the King. Did food miraculously arrive on his table each day? In any event, I am remind here of a pious custom among some to recite Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd…”) and other biblical passages and prayers before eating—not only on Shabbat, but every day. I used to think of this as a Hasidic custom until one day when, while visiting my late friend Rav Feist (see my blog archives at May 2005) at the Lakewood Yeshiva, we sat down to lunch in the yeshiva dining room, and I noticed the a middle-aged man sitting opposite us, dressed in the austere garb of the Lithuanian-style talmid hakham, reciting Mizmor le-David before he began eating.


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