Monday, February 16, 2009

Yitro (Zohar)

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

Anokhi —“I am the Lord…”

This week’s parasha is one of the richest in the entire Zohar—and hardly surprisingly, as it relates the Sinai Revelation, that great and mysterious moment, the focal point in the Jewish experience of God, in which heaven and earth met. The Zohar attempts here to express the inexpressible, to convey in word images and symbols the ineffable.

There is so much here that one hardly knows where to start or what to choose. I bring here the Zohar’s reflections on the very first word of the Ten Commandments: Anokhi — “I am the Lord your God.” This one word is perhaps the most meaningful single word in the entire Torah (matched only by בראשית, “In the Beginning”—the mystery of Creation). This opening word of revelation is seen as all-inclusive, encapsulating within itself all teachings, all polarities, all dualities that seek union.

What follows is a series of interpretations, a kind of theme and variations on Anokhi. I cannot expound each line fully—one could devote a complete essay to each line, but will offer a few brief comments. However, the words themselves, the images they conjure, even without a full exposition of their sefirotic and other allusions, are powerful in themselves, serving to arouse the imagination, the sense of mystery and wonder at the great epiphany, the most singular event in the history of humankind. So we bring Zohar 90b-91a:

“God spoke all these words” (Exod 20:1). “All these words”—this totality is entirety of all, entirety of above and below.

In Jewish mysticism, the Torah is not a finite book, confined to a limited canon, even if an extensive one (e.g., the five books; or the books of Tanakh; or even the canonical texts of the Oral Torah—the Mishnah, Talmud, and tannaitic and perhaps later midrash), but is infinite, as broad and all encompassing as God Himself.

אנכי Anokhi — I. Mystery of the upper world, in mystery of the Holy Name יהו (YHV).

In various places in this passage, the four Hebrew letters of the name Anokhi are seen in counterpoint to the four letters of the Holy Name YHVH; here, it is seen specifically in relation to the first three letters of that name, which constitute the “mystery of the Upper World.” Yod is the quintessential point, the most concentrated essence of the Godhead, so to speak, from which it emanates into the created worlds; the first Heh is Binah, the realm of extension and expansion; while Vav corresponds to the six central sefirot, through which the Divine energies descend into the world. But two sentences later Anokhi is the lower Throne —i.e., Malkhut or Shekhinah, the feminine, receptive element within the concrete world, the “final heh” of the Divine name.

Anokhi — I. Revealed and hidden. Revealed in holy mystery of the Throne, for the moon waxes full, as one, when the sun prevails and the moon is illumined. Her only praise is that of the light shining upon her.

An alternative image of complementariness: the moon and the sun as the revealed and the hidden or, as in the next phrase, the Husband and his Bride.

Anokhi — I. Consummating mysteries of perfection of the Throne below, and holy living beings (hayot) ascend and She is arrayed in Her adornments. When She is beautiful to look upon and Her Husband approaches Her, She is called Anokhi, I.

Anokhi — I. Mystery of all as one, in totality of all letters, in paths of Torah radiating from supernal mystery. Upon this depend upper and lower mysteries.

But even in its textual sense the Torah is considered the totality of all. All the letters of the Torah make up a kind of summum bonum of the universe, a blueprint, a map of Creation (see the very opening of Genesis Rabbah). But also: the entire Torah is somehow condensed or contained within the Ten Words revealed at Sinai, which are in turn all contained within the single word Anokhi.

Anokhi — I. Mystery of giving a fine reward to the righteous, who wait and observe the commandments of Torah. Through this, they have proper faith in the world that is coming. Your mnemonic is: אני פרעה — “I am Pharaoh” (Gen 41:44).

Anokhi — “I” and “You shall have no other [gods beside Me]” (Exod 20:3) were spoken in the mystery of Torah, and this is “Remember” (v. 8) and “Observe” (Deut 5:12).

“I am the Lord” and “you shall have no other gods before Me” are the two primal, most essential commandments of the Torah, containing within themselves the quintessence, respectively, of the positive and negative mitzvot of the Torah. But these two are themselves really one, spoken in one breath, in a manner that “the [human] mouth cannot speak and the [human] ear cannot comprehend.” The same holds true for Zakhor and Shamor (“Remember” and “Observe”), the two Shabbat commandments familiar to all synagogue-goers from the hymn Lekha Dodi as being “spoken in one word.”

Anokhi — I. Sealed, hidden mystery of all those rungs of the supernal world in a single totality. As soon as Anokhi, I, was uttered, all united as one in one mystery.

Anokhi — I. Mystery of two thrones: אני (ani), כ (kaf ) of another throne.

Anokhi — I. For the Sanctuary was purified and no stranger approached it; the Sanctuary shone alone, for at that moment the Evil Impulse was abolished from the world, and their blessed Holy One alone was exalted in glory. Then was uttered Anokhi: “I am YHVH your God”—complete mystery in the Holy Name.

Here we have an interesting inversion of a central biblical theme. The Sanctuary was built as a kind of permanent embodiment of the revelation of the Divine Presence at Sinai, a fixed home for the Presence that was revealed there (hence the parallel motif of the cloud at Exod 24:16-18 and 40:34-38). Here, Sinai is the Sanctuary which was purified and where no stranger was allowed to approach.

א Aleph. Mystery of unifying the Holy Name in its rungs to become one, so that it will be ו, vav.

נ Nun. Mystery of revering the blessed Holy One and knowing that there is Judgment and a Judge, a fine reward for the righteous and retribution for the wicked; for its mystery is lower ה (heh).

כ Kaf. To sanctify the Holy Name every day, to sanctify oneself on holy rungs, to offer prayer to Him at all times, so that the supernal crown, mystery of the upper Throne, may be raised above the supernal living beings fittingly. Its mystery is upper ה (heh).

י Yod. To engage in Torah day and night, to perform circumcision in mystery on the eighth day, to sanctify the firstborn, to don tefillin and tzitzit, to place a mezuzah, to surrender one’s soul to the blessed Holy One, to cleave to Him.

These are twelve supernal commandments, encompassing two hundred thirty-six other commandments, inhering in the mystery of Anokhi, I —totality of “Remember.” This letter is not permuted in this place, for it is Yod —supernal mystery, totality of Torah. In these twelve are twelve attributes of Compassion, depending on them, and one presiding, making thirteen….

In this section, the name Anokhi is broken down into its four letters, each one of which is read as the source of various key commandments of the Torah—twelve in all. Once again, we find the entire Torah condensed into a single word, as these twelve in turn contain or allude to another 236 (totaling 248: i.e., all of the positive mitzvot of the Torah). A similar idea is expressed in some of the medieval piyyutim known as Azharot, recited on Shavuot, in which all of the commandments of the Torah are presented as branches or offshoots of the Ten Words said at Sinai.

In this passage, the four letters of Anokhi correspond to the name YHVH, but not in its proper order. Rather, aleph, nun, and kaf correspond to vav, the latter heh, and the former heh of the Divine Name; while the final Yod is the initial yod of that Name.

The mitzvot listed here are all particularly central to the service of God, in one of two ways. Some are basic beliefs or attitudes of the soul—to fear God and know there is reward and punishment; to unite His name (which may also allude to the practical mitzvah of reciting Shema ); to sanctify God’s name; to cleave to Him and to (be willing to) surrender one’s soul to Him. Others are basic rituals expressing love of God and allegiance to Him: daily prayer, Torah study, circumcision, tzitzit, tefillin, and mezuzah. All these, interestingly, closely correspond to those mitzvot listed by Rambam at the very beginning of Sefer ha-Mitzvot.

(Translated by Daniel Matt, The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, IV: 518-522)

A Homily on the Negative Precepts

Daniel Matt called my attention to the following brief but pungent homily on the negative precepts that constitute the second group of five commandments. The central idea articulated here is the paradoxical nature of these prohibitions—that even those acts most stringently forbidden by the Ten Words are, under certain circumstances, permitted, for if not society could not exist: in the Zohar’s words, the prohibitions contain within themselves the permission. But the application of this principle is itself rather far-fetched and almost bizarre. Zohar II:93b-94a:

Lo tirtzah. “You shall not murder.” Lo tinaf. “You shall not commit adultery.” Lo tignov. “You shall not steal.” Lo —“not”: interrupted by an accent in all these three. Otherwise, there would never be social order and we would be forbidden to kill anyone in the world, even if he transgressed the Torah. But, being interrupted by an accent, it is [both] forbidden and permitted.

Murder, the taking of the life of a human being created in the Divine image, is prima facie the gravest imaginable crime—yet at times it is necessary, for the greater good of society, to execute a criminal who has committed an act that undermines the foundations of society. To this one might add (particularly in the present situation of the aftermath of the War in Gaza, when the ethics of warfare are much discussed) that the Torah permits making war, taking lives of others in self-defense or to protect an entire population against enemy attack—but the entire question is a complex one that demands a separate discussion.

The Zohar derives this argument from the taamei ha-mikra, the cantillation notes used when chanting the Torah text in synagogue. In Commandments 6, 7 and 8, the word lo (“do not.. ”) and the verb that follows are read with a tiphah and sof-pasuk: two notes that separate the words from one another. In Commandments 9 & 10, by contrast, the word lo leads directly into what follows, as we shall see presently.

Lo tinaf. “You shall not commit adultery.” Were it not interrupted by an accent, it would be forbidden even to procreate or to delight with one’s wife in the joy of the mitzvah. Yet being interrupted by an accent, it is forbidden and permitted.

This passage is extremely puzzling. The verb נאף clearly refers, whenever it appears in Scripture, to what is known in the ordinary sense of the word as adultery. (True, Ibn Ezra does read it as a kind of “heading” incorporating all those forbidden sexual acts included in Leviticus 18, but he certainly does not extend it beyond that.) From whence then does the Zohar derive the premise implicit here, that ordinary sexual life within marriage could fall under this category?

Perhaps it is starting from the fact that the physical nature of the act itself is the same in both cases. Perhaps the premise is that sexual desire by its nature is so powerful, the experience during the act so overwhelming, that sexuality per se has the potential to lead one to the brink of chaos. I sometimes think of sex as the “joker in the deck”—the unpredictable, “centrifugal” force in human life, turning people away from the motifs of value, reason, self-control and faith in God, and towards self-pleasure.

It is well known that there are many religious traditions—certainly including medieval Christianity—in which sexuality per se is seen as somehow dirty, wicked, tainted with immorality, permitted only as a stopgap against greater sin. As the NT says: “It is better to marry than to burn [i.e., with lust].” Perhaps these ideas penetrated into certain Jewish circles, including those close to the Zohar.

“Forbidden and permitted.” This motif is reminiscent of a saying in Hullin 109b, attributed to Yalta, wife of Rav Nahman, that “Everything which the Torah prohibited, the Merciful One created its counterpart that is permitted.” Some examples given are: Pork, which is forbidden, and the brain of a fish called shibuta (mullet?), which has a similar taste; blood and liver, which is permitted even though it has something of the taste of the blood with which it was filled; milk and meat and the flesh of the udder; and, most significant for our passage, the forbidden relations with a married woman, as against the permission to be with a divorced woman in her husband’s lifetime—as if the latter has something of the aura of adultery to it. The author of the Zohar doubtless knew this passage. (By the way, the maverick rabbi Shmuel Boteach wrote a book entitled Kosher Adultery, in which he advocates rejuvenating marriages by introducing some of the stealth and excitement of adultery into overly-domesticated sex.)

Lo tignov. “You shall not steal.” Were it not interrupted by an accent, it would be forbidden even to appropriate the mind of one’s teacher in Torah or the mind of a scholar by gazing upon him—or for a judge who adjudicates by listening to claims, who must trick a deceiver or trick both disputants in order to elucidate the judgment. Yet being interrupted by an accent, it is forbidden and permitted.

Here, too, theft or stealing are interpreted in the broadest conceivable terms—and then some. Not only stealing money or property, but even appropriating the ideas or mind of a scholar (anticipating the modern notion of intellectual property) are seen as “theft” of a sort, requiring special permission. Certainly, a judge who imposes a fine or orders a litigant to pay damages or some other claim might be perceived as “stealing” from the defendant—but this is clearly a necessary societal function.

Lo ta’aneh. “You shall not bear false witness against your fellow.” Here the accent does not interrupt, since this is totally forbidden.

Interestingly, bearing true witness, telling the truth under oath, is an absolute imperative—more so than the three weighty proscriptions that precede it. Bearing true witness is somehow linked to God’s own holy name.

In all words of Torah, the blessed Holy One has placed supernal mysteries, teaching human beings how to follow the path to perfection, as is said: “I am the Lord your God, instructing you for your benefit, guiding you in the way you should go” (Isa 48:17).

So, too, Lo tahmod, “You shall not covet” (Exod 20:14)—not interrupted at all. Now you might say: even desiring Torah is forbidden, since the accent does not interrupt. Well, come and see: In all of them, Torah spoke generally, while here specifically, “your neighbor’s house, his field, or his servant…” (Deut 5:18)—all things of the world. But Torah is precious constantly, a delight, hidden treasures of life, length of days in this world and in the world that is coming.

Finally, lo tahmod is not qualified by the placement of the cantillation sign—but, being a transitive verb, is limited to things of this world, such as those listed in the verse (but in those situations it is absolute, precisely because it is an inner attitude of the soul and not an action). But desiring knowledge of Torah, even coveting another’s knowledge, is not only permitted, but is seen as a catalyst to learn more oneself.

The passage concludes with a festive peroration:

These ten utterances of Torah are the totality of commandments of Torah, entirety of above and below, entirety of ten utterances of Creation. These were engraved on tablets of stone, and all the treasures hidden within them were seen by the eyes of all—to know and gaze upon the mystery of 613 commandments of Torah, contained within them. All revealed to the eye; all through understanding, contemplated by the heart of all Israel. All illumined their eyes at that moment; no mysteries of Torah, no higher or lower mysteries, were withheld from them, for they saw eye-to-eye the splendor of the glory of their Lord. Nothing like that day has ever occurred since the day that the world was created, for the blessed Holy One appears in His glory upon Mount Sinai.

Matt, The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, IV: 532-534


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