Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Mishpatim (Zohar)

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

A Donkey Driver’s Riddles

This week’s presentation is somewhat longer than usual, but hopefully those readers who bear with me will find their patience rewarded. This week’s portion contains one of the best-known, important, and beautiful sections in the entire Zohar, that known as Saba or more properly Sava de-Mishpatim, “The Old Man of [Parashat] Mishpatim”—so-called because of the Sava, the old man who is its hero. The story begins with Rabbi Yossi complaining to his companion about an old donkey-driver (no doubt the ancient equivalent of today’s garrulous taxi driver) who bothered him with all kinds of strange and seemingly pointless, if not absurd, riddles. Needless to add, this figure turns out to be the wisest and deepest of them all.

This section is introduced within the context of Parshat Mishpatim following one or two homilies about the opening verses of this parashah— the first predominantly legal series of chapters in the Torah. This is interrupted to tell the story of this old man, who then continues to deliver a series of homiletic expositions on various passages in this parasha which, taking off from the laws of slavery, etc., talk about reincarnation and other esoteric doctrines relating to the soul.

A word about the translation. To date, The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, translated by Daniel Matt, consists of four volumes, up to and including Yitro—that is, at this point we have passed the point for which published material exists. Prof. Matt has most graciously made available to me a pre-publication version of the next two weekly portions, Mishpatim and Terumah, selections from which will appear here and in next week‘s HY. At this point, I wish to again express my deepest gratitude to him, both for generously allowing me to use this material, as well for his ongoing advice and guidance, calling my attention to particularly interesting passages, and answering my questions, however tiresome, during the course of the past half year or so.

Having said that, I turn to the beginning of the section known as Sava de-Mishpatim—Zohar II: 94b-95a:

One night Rabbi Hiyya and Rabbi Yossi encountered each other at the Tower of Tyre. They lodged there, delighting in each other. Rabbi Yossi said: How happy I am to see the face of Shekhinah! For just now, the whole way, I was pestered by a certain old man, a donkey-driver, who kept asking me the whole way:

Who is a serpent that flies in the air, moving in separation, while an ant lies comfortably between its teeth? Beginning in union, it ends in separation. Who is an eagle that nests in a tree that never was—its young plundered, though not by created creatures? Ascending, they descend; descending, they ascend. Two who are one, and one who is three. Who is the beautiful maiden without eyes, whose body is hidden and revealed? She emerges in the morning and is concealed by day, adorning herself with adornments that never were.

All this he asked on the way, and I was annoyed. Now I can relax! If we had been together, we would have engaged in words of Torah instead of other words of emptiness. Rabbi Hiyya said: Do you know anything about that old donkey-driver? He replied: I know that his words have no substance. For if he knew anything, he would have opened with Torah, and the way would not have been empty. Rabbi Hiyya said: Is that donkey-driver here? Sometimes, in these empty ones, you may discover bells of gold! He replied: Here he is, preparing fodder for his donkey.

They called him, and he came to them. He said: Now two are three, and three are like one! Rabbi Yose said: Didn’t I tell you that all his words are empty and inane? He sat down before them, and said: Rabbis, I became a donkey-driver only a short time ago; previously I wasn’t one. But I have a son, and I put him in school, and I want him to engage in Torah. So when I find one of the rabbis traveling on the road, I goad his donkey from behind. Today I thought I would hear new words of Torah—but I haven’t heard anything!” Rabbi Yossi said: Of all the things I heard you say, I was astonished by only one. Either you said it out of foolishness, or they are empty words. The old man said: And which one was that? He replied: “A beautiful maiden…”

I see Rabbi Yossi as a conventional religionist, one who thinks “within the box.” For him, Torah is a specific set of written texts (and oral traditions); thus, when he hears something that does not belong to that framework—especially coming from someone who to all appearances is not part of the ”guild” of Torah scholars—he dismisses it as so much nonsense. But in fact the old donkey driver functions here as a kind of Zen teacher—someone who deliberately asks paradoxical questions, forcing a person to open his/her mind and think about things in a deeper, unconventional way. Melila Hellner-Eshed sees this as a basic feature of the Zohar’s language generally, forcing the reader to think in a fresh way, so as to see “beyond the veil” (see below for a reference to her work).

Simultaneously, the persona of the donkey driver himself is one that breaks conventional stereotypes. Rabbi Yossi thought that the Sava was a simple, ordinary workman—but in the course of this section, indeed, from this point on, he emerges as a thinker of great profundity, who has plummeted the inner depths of Torah and has esoteric knowledge of the Godhead. This figure—the hidden tzaddik or hidden sage—is a familiar Jewish archetype: the unkempt stranger who turns out to be Elijah the prophet or an angel bearing a secret message; or R. Nahman of Bretslav’s Tam, the simpleton who turns out to be far wiser than the Hakham, the educated sophisticate. Or, if I may apply this model to a real person in recent times, the mysterious “Mr. Shoshani,” an eccentric genius who appeared out of nowhere after the Shoah and who knew everything—all of Jewish literature as well as the entire Western humanistic tradition—and went on to became the mentor of some of the great minds of our day, beginning with Emanuel Levinas and including Shalom Rosenberg.

Thinking out of the box is also important in terms of religious faith. For much of the twentieth century atheism was the “default option” for intellectuals (things have changed somewhat in so-called “post-modernity”); even today, atheism is certainly a coherent, consistent, and comprehensive world-view, in which no major questions remain, only ”filling in the gaps” (I should know—I have a few such in my own family, and have read Dawkins; see HY IX: Vaethanan; Re’eh). To my mind, religious faith today can no longer be based upon tradition and received doctrine alone; one raised with the modern, rational mind-set needs to “turn a corner in his mind” so as to begin to see the world and his own life in a different manner than the empirical, objective mode of perception.

To return to our Zohar text: the riddles are not answered directly, but here and there hints are given in the numerous derashot that follow. We continue with a brief transitional passage:

The old man opened, “The Lord is with me, I do not fear. What can a human do to me? The Lord is with me, helping me… It is better to take refuge in Lord [than to trust in a human] (Ps 118:6–8). How fine, lovely, precious, and sublime are words of Torah! Yet should I speak in the presence of those from whose mouths, until now, I have not heard a single word? But I should speak—for there is no shame at all in uttering words of Torah in the presence of anyone!”…..

The Ravishing Maiden Without Eyes

At this point, following a brief moment of hesitation about speaking before these distinguished rabbis (see above), the Sava delivers a series of homilies to R. Hiyya and R. Yossi regarding various matters in the parasha—the soul and its peregrinations, good and evil, life and death, teshuvah, etc. Considerations of both space and time preclude me from presenting even one of them here, so I will turn directly to a brief homily based upon the concluding section of this week’s portion, describing Moses ascent of Mount Sinai. This is followed by a beautiful parable in which the “ravishing maiden without eyes” turns out to be the Torah—but the absence of eyes belongs, not to the beautiful maiden/Torah, but to the majority of people, who do not have eyes to see what is hidden within her. Zohar II: 99a-99b:

The old man opened, saying, “Moses entered within the cloud and went up the mountain” (Exod 24:18). What is this cloud? The same of which it is written, “My bow I have set in the cloud” (Gen 9:13). We have learned that the rainbow removed its garments and gave them to Moses. In that garment he ascended; from within it he saw what he saw, delighting in all. Until here. The Companions came and fell down before him, and weeping they said: If we had come into the world only to hear these words from your mouth, it would have been enough for us!”

Both the cloud which rested upon Sinai (and later upon the Tabernacle), and the Rainbow, represents the Divine Presence (see esp. Ezek 1: 28, at the end of the vision of the Divine Chariot). In Kabbalah, its colors correspond to the sefirot; alternately, it may represent Yesod, the “garment” found within the cloud =Shekhinah /Malkhut. He then continues:

The old man said: “If he takes himself another wife” (Exod 21:10). Companions, not for this alone did I begin to speak, for an old man like me doesn’t just rattle or call with a single word. Inhabitants of the world are so confused in their minds! They do not see the path of truth in Torah. Torah calls to them every day, cooing, yet they do not want to turn their heads. When I said that a word of Torah emerges from her sheath, is seen for a moment, and then quickly hides away, this is certainly so; but when she reveals herself from her sheath and quickly hides, she does so only for those who know her and recognize her.

This may be compared to a beloved maiden, beautiful in form and appearance, concealed secretly in her palace. She has a single lover unknown to anyone—except to her, surreptitiously. Out of the love that he feels for her, this lover passes by her gate constantly, lifting his eyes to every side. Knowing that her lover is constantly circling her gate, what does she do? She opens a little window in that secret place where she is, reveals her face to her lover, and quickly withdraws, concealing herself. None of those near the lover even sees or notices, only the lover, and his inner being and heart and soul go out to her. He knows that out of love for him she revealed herself for a moment to arouse him.

So it is with words of Torah: she only reveals herself to her lover. Torah knows that one who is wise of heart circles her gate every day. What does she do? She reveals her face to him from the palace and beckons to him with a hint, then swiftly withdraws to her place, hiding away. None of those there knows or notices—he alone does, and his inner being and heart and soul follows her. Thus Torah reveals and conceals herself, approaching her lover lovingly to arouse love with him.

Come and see: This is the way of Torah. At first, when she begins to reveal herself to a person, she beckons him momentarily with a hint. If he perceives, good; if not, she sends for him, calling him simple. “Tell that simpleton to come closer, so I can talk with him.” As is written: “Whoever is simple, let him turn here, he who lacks understanding” (Prov 9:4). As he approaches, she begins to speak with him from behind a curtain she has drawn, words suitable for him, until he reflects little by little. This is derasha. Then, she converses with him from behind a delicate sheet, words of riddle, and this is haggadah. Once he has grown accustomed to her, she reveals herself to him face-to-face, and tells him all her hidden secrets (razin) and all the hidden ways, concealed in her heart since primordial days. Then he is a complete man, husband of Torah, master of the house, for she has revealed to him all her secrets, concealing nothing. She says to him: Did you see the hinting word with which I beckoned you at first? These are the secrets! This is what it is! “Then he sees that one should not add to these words or diminish them. Then [he knows] peshat of the verse, just as it is. One should not add or delete even a single letter. So human beings must be alert, pursuing Torah to become her lover, as has been said.

Here the Torah is personified as a living being. It is not merely a subject to be studied objectively, but a living entity with, so to speak, her own consciousness, who reveals her secrets to the truly devoted student. (Theologically, may one perhaps speak of the Torah as an apotheosis of the Godhead?) I am reminded here of an extraordinary talk I once heard from Rav Soloveitchik, in which he described the practice of fixing times for Torah as making a ”rendezvous with the Shekhinah.” He then added that one who studies Torah in an intimate way enjoys a privilege denied other people: to converse with one’s own mother even after her death! (Here, astonishingly, the Shekhinah and one’s mortal mother were somehow conflated! The Rav’s own mother had died perhaps two or three years before this talk, and he was deeply grieved by the loss within three months of the two women who had been closest to him, his mother and his wife.) Of course, the Rav was far less concerned with “secrets of Torah” in the esoteric, Kabbalistic sense; while he knew Zohar well and his inner spiritual development was deeply influenced by Habad Hasidism, he thought of Torah study primarily in terms of plumbing the depths of ever deeper, more profound insights and understanding of niglah, revealed halakhic Torah.

The second important thing about this passage is the idea of multiple levels of Torah: like an onion or a Russian doll, with level after level of inner layers of meaning, revealed by turns to the true devotee—a theme which runs like a thread throughout the Zohar and which is, indeed, the basic idea underlying the entire notion of “secrets of Torah.” These are referred to here, respectively, as derasha, [h]aggadah, remazin, and peshat, suggesting that, while the four-fold model did exist, the specific term Pardes was not yet in use.

Following this the Sava offers more homilies; in the end he reveals his name, Rabbi Yeiva, the companions bless him and part from him with tears, and go to Rabbi Shimon to tell him of their meeting (the latter is, of course, the great Rebbe of the Zohar and the last word on all important matters), who tells them that this man is really a great sage and “a lion,” a person of great mystical powers. The peroration appears at Zohar II: 114a:

“Until here, Companions! From here on, you will know that the evil side has no power over you. I, Yeiva Sava, have stood before you to arouse these words.” They rose like one awaking from sleep and prostrated themselves before him, unable to speak. After a while they wept…. As for us, love and sparks of flame of the heart [referring to a homily on Song of songs 8:6, which we have omitted here] concluding follow you. May it be the will of the blessed Holy One that our image be engraved in your heart as your image is engraved in ours! He kissed them and blessed them, and they went.

When they reached Rabbi Shimon and told him all that happened, he was delighted and amazed. He said: How fortunate you are to have attained all this! Here you were with a supernal lion, a mighty warrior compared with whom many warriors are nothing, and you did not recognize him right away. I wonder how you escaped being punished by him! The blessed Holy One must have wanted to save you. He proclaimed for them: “The path of the righteous is like gleaming light, shining ever brighter until full day. When you walk, your stride will be unrestrained; if you run, you will not stumble” (Prov 4:18, 12). “Your people, all of them righteous, will inherit the land forever—sprout of My planting, work of My hands, that I may be glorified” (Isa 60:21) Until here from Rabbi Yeiva Sava.

—based upon the as-yet-unpublished translation by Daniel C. Matt, with minor changes. An earlier version of his translation of this passage appears in Matt’s The Essential Kabbalah (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996), 138-144.

I conclude with some bibliography from contemporary scholars: (1) Daniel Abrams, “Knowing the Maiden Without Eyes: Reading the Sexual Reconstruction of the Jewish Mystic in a Zoharic Parable,” in Da’at 50-52 (Nahum Arieli Memorial Volume; 2003), English section: lix-lxxxiii; (2) Elliot R. Wolfson, “Beautiful Maiden Without Eyes: Peshat and Sod in Zoharic Hermeneutics” in The Midrashic Imagination, ed Michael Fishbane (Albany: SUNY Press, 1993), 155-203; (3) Melila Hellner-Eshed, A River Flows From Eden: The Language of Mystical Experience in the Zohar [Hebrew], (Tel Aviv: Alma, Am Oved, 2005), esp. Part III: Chapter 1, and passim; an English translation is forthcoming in April 2009 from Stanford University Press; (4) this passage has been discussed by other notable scholars, including Matt himself, Moshe Idel, Yehuda Leibes, and others, but I do not have detailed citations—for which my apologies.


Post a Comment

<< Home