Friday, February 06, 2009

Bo (Zohar)

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

More on the Exile of the Word

I begin with an apology: in our last issue we brought a teaching for Parshat Shemot concerning the absence of God’s name in the first two chapters of Exodus, and the depressed and alienated state of the Jews in Egypt. I somehow neglected to mention that this was largely based upon ideas I heard from Mordechai Goldberg in a talk he gave at his synagogue on that parasha—a talk which was in turn based upon Mei ha-Shiloah, Vol. 2, on Shemot; and Sefat Emet, Shemot 5631, s.v. Amar avi zekeni.

My good friend and mentor in Zohar, Avraham Leader, guided me to the relevant passage in Zohar regarding the “exile of the voice” and the “exile of speech,” which I present here. Zohar II: 25b:

“Moses spoke thus to the children of Israel, but they did not listen to Moses out of shortness of breath and harsh bondage” (Exod 6:9). What does this mean: “out of shortness of ruah [breath]”? Rabbi Yehudah said: That they could not relax or take a deep breath. Rabbi Shimon said: “Out of shortness of spirit”—that the Jubilee had not yet released the soul [having not yet been legislated! - YC] , and final spirit did not yet prevail, executing its judgments; so there was constriction of spirit. For whom? Final spirit, as we mentioned.

Come and see: “Look, the Children of Israel did not listen to me, and will Pharaoh listen to me, and I am uncircumcised of lips.” (Exod 6:12). But it is previously written: “No man of words am I… for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue: (4:10), and the blessed Holy One replied to him, “Who gives a mouth to a human being? Who makes him mute?...” (ibid., v. 11). And He said, “I myself will be with your mouth” (v. 12). Might you imagine that it was not so? Yet now he [still] says, “I am uncircumcised of lips”! If so, where is the word that the blessed Holy One promised him previously?

However, it is a mystery. Moses is voice, and speech, which is his word, was in exile; so he was “uncircumcised”— obstructed from expressing words. He said, “How will Pharaoh listen to me,” when my word is in exile? For I have no word! I am voice; word will be lacking, for She is in exile. Consequently, the blessed Holy One made Aaron his partner.

Our passage begins with a hyper-literal reading of the idiom קוצר רוח, “impatience,” which literally means “shortness of breath.” The Israelites in Egypt were impatient because they were either unable to breath regularly or, on a deeper level, constricted in spirit. But then the Zohar discusses Moses: the leader of the people was known to be inarticulate and “heavy of speech.” Yet God had promised that He would help him with this. Here the Zohar turns to a mystical explanation: this was no ordinary speech impediment, but Moses’ ”word” was in exile. Moreover, “Moses is voice”—Moses’ essence was somehow associated with “voice,” whereas “speech” was a quality that was somehow added to him. (We shall discuss the meaning of these terms further on.)

Come and see: As long as speech was in exile, voice withdrew from it, and the word was obstructed, voiceless. When Moses appeared, voice appeared. Moses was voice without word, which was in exile; as long as speech was in exile, Moses proceeded as speechless voice. And so it continued until they approached Mount Sinai and the Torah was given, whereupon voice united with speech, and then the word spoke, as is written: “Elohim spoke all these words” (Exod 20:1). Then Moses became complete with the word fittingly—voice and speech as in one consummation. Therefore Moses complained that he lacked the word—except for the time when it spoke in complaint against him, as is written: “Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, [he has done evil to this people, and You surely have not rescued Your people!] (Exod 5:23). Immediately, “Elohim spoke to Moses” (Exod 6:2). Come and see that it was so! The word began to speak—and was interrupted, for the time had not yet arrived, as is written: “Elohim spoke,” and stopped, and another completed the word, as is written: “He said to him: ‘I am YHVH’” (ibid.). For speech was in exile, and the time to speak had not yet arrived.

Moses’ inarticulateness is read here as a spiritual phenomenon: “voice without word”—kol without dibbur—as an external manifestation of a deeper phenomenon—the “exile” of the word. It was only at the epiphany at Sinai that there took place the reunification of what had been separated—for Moses, and by extension for the people as a whole: voice and speech. The Sinai event was thus not only a revelation of a teaching, of Torah, but also a redemption of speech itself.

Come and see: Therefore Moses was incomplete at first—appropriately, because he is voice, coming for the sake of speech, to bring it out of exile. As soon as it came out of exile, and voice and speech united as one at Mount Sinai, Moses was completed and healed; voice and speech became as one in consummation. Come and see: All the days that Moses was in Egypt, seeking to bring the word out of exile, the word did not speak. As soon as it came out of exile, that word—who is speech—led and guided Israel, but did not speak until they approached Mount Sinai, when it opened with Torah fittingly. Now, you might say, “For Elohim said (amar): Lest the people regret when they see battle, and go back to Egypt” (Exod 13:17). However, it is not written “For Elohim spoke (dibber)” but rather “For Elohim said (amar)” which is silent intention of the heart, as we have already established. (translated by Daniel C. Matt, The Zohar, Pritzker Edition IV: 90-93)

What is voice, and what is speech? In traditional Kabbalistic teaching, the two are identified, respectively, with the sefirot of Tiferet, and of Malkhut. On the face of it, this seems somewhat surprising, for “voice,” which seems more primitive and elemental, less complex or sophisticated than “speech,” which is the lowest sefirah. But on another level dibbur is that force which animates the entire world; godliness connects with the concrete world through speech.

Kol, “Voice,” represents the pre-verbal level, the intuitive grasp of things, the level of simple attachment to God (“beyond reason or knowledge”). Kol is the shofar—the sound of Rosh Hashanah, of beginnings, of turning, of pleading with God like a baby. It is, if you like, the “primal scream,” or the sounds made by a baby to its mother and vice versa. “Voice” comes from the inner self, from that which is most authentic, whereas much of our speech is disconnected from that level; it is that to which the Zohar refers when it speaks of “speech without (true, inner) voice,” just as there can be voice without speech. Moses also had a preverbal connection to God; he was chosen to be the “Father of the Prophets,” not so much for his brains or wisdom, but for his bittul, his self-abnegation and humility. Moses was also a kind of “mother” to the people, who carried them in his bosom “as a nursemaid carries an infant.”

Speech, by contrast, is clear, distinct. One speaks in Hebrew of hitukh hadibbur, of the manner of “cutting” speech. Speech is cited, most notably by Onkelos, as the paramount sign of human superiority over the beast; it belongs to the world of havdalah, of distinctions, of separation. Kol, by contrast, belongs to the realm of pure unity, prior to speech as an instrument of thought and communication. There is much more to be said about this, but I shall suffice at present with these terse and almost telegraphic associations.

A Very Short Feminist Devar Torah

Has anyone noticed that the first person to see prayer and worship of God as an exclusively male concern is …. Pharaoh! Near the beginning of this week’s parashah we read: “No! Let the men [alone] go and serve the Lord” (Exod 10:11). This, in response to Moses’ earlier statement: “With our old people and youth shall we go, with our sons and our daughters, with our flocks and our herds, for it is a festival to the Lord!” (v. 9). Food for thought!

Some Notes on Religion and Social Behavior

University of Miami psychologist Michael McCullough and Brian Willoughby, after reviewing eight decades of research, have concluded that religious belief and piety promote self-control. A report on their study will appear in the upcoming issue of the Psychological Bulletin. (NYTimes, 30-12-08) On this astonishing finding, the immortal Homer Simpson would say, “Duh!” That is, what religious person (certainly any pious Jew!) hasn’t been aware of this fact, on some level, his whole life! Long live science!

Another interesting finding in the US: That there is a correlation between conservative political orientation (Republicans and the like) and generosity in terms of actual contributions to charity. This, notwithstanding that liberals are supposedly more concerned about issues of poverty and social justice. The explanation of this seeming paradox is that conservative political views, certainly in the US context, tend to coincide with religiosity—among evangelical Christians, traditional Roman Catholics, Orthodox Jews, although not among the black churches— and thus with charity as a religious duty. (An ironic aside: gay activists in California were disappointed that many African-American leaders in that state did not support them in the recent referendum on legalizing/recognizing homosexual marriages in that state. Evidently, the “liberal” alliance doesn’t cross lines from racial to gender issues). This observation is confirmed by my own experience viz. things like home hospitality for Shabbat meals—Orthodox Jews, and the more pious the more so, are incomparably more open to opening their home to strangers than are others.


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