Monday, March 09, 2009

Tetzaveh-Purim (Zohar)

For more teachings, both on this parashah and on Purim, see the archives to this blog at March 2006. This week I have chsoen to depart from the usual format, and to bring a few insights about the parasha as well as, in a lighter vein, some teaching related to Purim.

“And You Command the Children of Israel”

All the commentators note that this week’s parasha is the only one in the entire Torah (from the point that he first appears on the scene), in which Moses’ name is not mentioned. Instead, the opening verse, and the opening verse to the section about the priestly vestments (Exod 27:21 and 28:1), begin quite simply with the pronoun ואתה (“and you”), whih by implication is addressed to Moses.

The usual interpretation is that, as this portion always falls during the week following the 7th of Adar, the traditional date of Moshe’s death, the omission of his name alludes indirectly to his death—his “absence.” Another interpretation, suggested by UK Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, is that this parasha deals entirely with the priestly or Aaronide pole of the priestly-prophetic dialectic so central to Judaism—one half is dedicated to the priestly garments, the other to their seven-day long initiation; hence, the name of Moses, “father of the prophets,” is absent.

I would like to suggest an opposite reading. The absence of Moshe’s name does not signify his absence or distancing, but rather, his being addressed by ואתה implies greater intimacy. It is a common social convention that, when people stand in a formal relation to one another, they address one another with titles: Mr. A, Ms. B, Dr. C, Prof. D, Rabbi E, etc. The change to addressing others on “first-name basis” signifies a certain familiarity, or at least informality. But the greatest intimacy (Martin Buber has constructed an entire doctrine of relationships revolving around the “basic words” I and Thou) is that in which we call the other “You.” (This is particularly strongly felt in those languages, such as French and German, which have both intimate and formal terms for “you”: tou & vous; du & ihr. The “Thou-ing” of Quakers was originally intended to signify brotherhood and fellowship among all. Some old-fashioned Hebrew speakers make this distinction as well, addressing non-intimates in the third person: "כבודו"). In this context, addressing Moses as “you”—in the use of the word ואתה at the beginning of the parasha, and continued with second-person imperative verbs throughout the parasha—indicates a sense of intimacy between God and Moshe. This, it seems to me, is related to the ultimate purpose of the Sanctuary/Temple: as a locus of intimate relation between man and God: אשר אועד לך שמה—“where I will make Myself known to you” (Exod 29:42).

A second insight about the parasha concerns the hoshen mishpat, the breastplate worn by Aaron and subsequent high priests on top of their robe and tunic. I would like to see this in the overall context of parallelism between the synagogue and the Temple. The two are not only parallel in function, in that both are focii of public communal worship, nor even in the fact that the synagogue is called mikdash me’at, a “little Temple,” but in their actual physical layout. The Temple had two focal points: the altar and the Holy of Holies. The one is the focus of worship through the sacrificial offerings offered thereon; the other is the (symbolic?) dwelling place of the hidden, unknowable God who dwells in darkness (see Solomon’s prayer, at 1 Kings 8:12). The synagogue likewise has two focii: the Bimah (like the altar—square, raised, and located in the center of the sacred area), from which the Torah is read; and the Aron Kodesh—the Ark, whose very name parallels that of the Ark of the Covenant—in which the Torah scroll, the representative or embodiment of the Divine presence among us, is housed. (NB: I should add that the traditional synagogue also has a third important focus: the amud ha-tefillah, the Prayer Leader’s stand, usually located in front of and slightly to the right of the Ark, usually a simple stand just large enough for a Siddur and some sort of lamp or candelabrum. Does this perhaps correspond to the incense altar, suggesting a parallelism of prayer/Torah // incense/animal sacrifice? In any event, of late I’ve noticed a tendency in many synagogues to conflate or combine the bimah and the amud—which, to my mind, seems rather problematic.)

Having said that, what about the garments of the Sefer Torah? The Torah is always covered with a decorative cloth garment, known as a me’il. In many synagogues, the Torah is also covered with one or more (halakhically optional) ornate metal decorations, at least when taken out of the Ark to be read: the breast plate, which sits on top of its garment; a crown (Keter), that fits on top of the two wooden poles (atzei hayyim) to which the scroll itself is attached; or, alternatively, two silver adornments, often with tiny bells, placed on the two poles, known as Rimonim. All of these things—breastplate, me’il, rimon, and bells—correspond to one or another of the high priest’s garments, suggesting the thought that that the Torah itself somehow corresponds to the high priest (who, on Yom Kippur, is the only one to stand before the Aron inside the Holy of Holies). What it all means is food for further thought.

Finally, two questions. Tetzaveh is generally very difficult to understand. It demands very careful reading for one to understand exactly how each the various items of clothing were made, especially those relating to the high priest and his breast plate, with the shoulder-pieces and chains and threads and rings and cords used to hold it in place above the ephod, so as not to move. In that context (and preparing to read the Torah publicly) the question occurred to me: why are vv. 13-14, which describe the gold filigree plates or settings (משבצות), and which, we later learn (v. 25), serve as a kind of base for the breastplate, with its woven cloth and inlaid jewels, set apart from the text in a separate parasha, only two verses long. Note: the division of the Torah into parshiyot is an important part of the oral tradition governing the writing of a Torah scroll, and each one has its own significance.

Second, in v 22 we have the wordsשרשות גבלות , translated as “twisted” or “braided chains.” Is this simply a corruption of שרשרות, the common word for chain, used earlier in v. 14—perhaps an error in transcription by a scribe who dropped the second resh? Or does it mean something else? (Rashi here is interesting, seeing שרשות as derived from שרש, that which “roots“ or hold something down in a fixed place, like the roots of a tree; but then he notes that it is analogous in meaning to שרשרת, as indeed does Onkelos. Or is the latter word perhaps derived from שרש?)

The Torah of Purim or Purim Torah?

The reader is invited to decide how seriously to take this.

Why do we eat Hamantaschen on Purim? Some say it’s in memory of Haman’s three-cornered hat (after all, that’s what he’s shown wearing by medieval European artists, and they should know), some say his ears, and some say they are “Haman’s pockets.” In any event, these three-cornered dough-cakes with pockets are traditionally filled with poppy seed or prune jam, symbolic respectively of Daniel’s (or Esther’s) eating only seeds while staying in the royal place, and of the verse “the sun has burned me” (ששזפתני השמש; Songs 1:6). But woe to us! Today there are innovators, worse than the Reformers, who dare to call themselves “faithful” (neeman), who fear not that which their fathers feared, and who brazenly sell Hamantaschen filled with chocolate and pareve cream stuff and other unmentionables, in clear violation of the custom of Israel, who if they are not prophets are surely sons of prophets. אוי לנו כי השברנו, ואןי לעיניים שרואות ולאזניים ששומעות דבר נורא כזה

To return to our question: all the foods of Purim are prepared in a modest, hidden manner, alluding to the Almighty’s hidden way of bringing about the deliverance, and some say also in allusion to Esther, the modest, “hidden” one (מל' הסתר אסתיר), who maintained her modesty and inner purity even in the hands of the vulgar sheigetz king. Hence, the custom to eat Hamantaschen, and especially various dishes stuffed with meat, such as khaloptzies (stuffed cabbage), stuffed peppers, kreplach mit zoup, and the like, all of which signify the hidden nature of the Purim miracle.

But I wish to reveal a deeply hidden secret, of the secrets of the Torah, that I heard one day from an elderly man, a reincarnation of the donkey-driver of Zohar Mishpatim, whom I met one day on a bus from Ramat Gan to Beit Dagon, and who taught me the secret of the three corners of the Hamantasch.

Three, as is well known, is the number of dynamics, of change, of growth, of renewed life, as in the words of the Divinely-inspired wise philosopher Hegel. The first apex of the triangle is that of Mordecai and Esther, that of goodness and life and Israel. They are two, man and woman: like Adam Kadmon, the pre-Creation human, who was both male and female. But their relation is ambiguous. They are both innocent and experienced, child and adults, like the cherubim in the Temple whom some say were children, and others say were an adult man and woman in passionate embrace. Was Mordecai Esther’s uncle, or her husband, or perhaps lover? Or is perhaps the former bond truly closer? In his famous essay eulogizing Reb Velvel of Brisk, the Rav ztz”l read the verse from Song of Songs, Mah dodekh midod, as “Who is your uncle among the uncles?”— adding that Reb Velvel was not only betrothed to the Torah, but married to it! (What would all our post-modern scholars make of the gender symbolism here, I wonder?)

The second apex is that which mediates between Mordecai/Esther and Haman—the king, who leans first one way and then another. But this apex is also double: “the king” is at one and the same time Ahashverosh, the buffoon king who is swayed by his emotions and by chance events—and by the wine he has imbibed (hence, חייב אנוש לבשומי וכו'); but also the King of Kings, the Holy One blessed be He, who transcends the polarity of good and evil, raising up one and letting the other fall. Both sacred and mundane, both the Almighty and the earthly king. He who has (Haman’s)-ears shall know which is which.

And at the third apex is Haman, the embodiment of evil and pure cussedness. But this apex is also double, for his name, המן, is also that of the life-sustaining manna which our forefathers ate in the desert, the purest, highest, holiest, deepest food there is. So it comes that good and evil, life and death, are really mirror sides of one another. If you turn a corner in a Klein bottle Mordecai the Jew may turn out to be Mordecai the greatest sinner, vehamaskil yavin. All is one. All distinctions disappear in the profound insights that you get when you are truly high, higher and higher and higher… “Life is a bowl of cherries.”


All of the above are my stream of consciousness thoughts for this Purim. But I will conclude with an idea prompted by something I read in R. Nahum of Chernobol’s wonderful book, Me’or Einayim, on both Terumah and Tetzaveh. He interprets the midrash stating that Haman’s choice of the month of Adar to kill all the Jews was prompted by the fact that this was the month during which Moses died. What he forgot was that Moses was also born on that same day. The Chernoboler goes on to interpret this in terms of Moses symbolizing the quality of da’at, religious knowledge or consciousness; his death thus signified the “departure” or “removal” of da’at; but even after his death, through studying Torah with attachment to its Divine root, Jews reintroduce da’at into the world. “Moses“ is thus constantly reborn.

I wish to connect the notion of הסתלקות הדעת, the “departure of consciousness,” with the idea that, one week after Moses’ yahrzeit, one is supposed to drink so much on Purim עד שלא ידע..., “until one doesn’t know.” On Purim, we reenact the departure of da’at by becoming stoned out of our minds, and then are reborn in a higher da’at. Perhaps, one might say, the idea of Purim is in some way to let go of one’s old, conventional consciousness (“thinking in boxes”) and in some way become reborn in a new, clearer consciousness—the ideal being to be just drunk enough to laugh at one’s own, and other’s, ego-pretenses and other falsities. This is what Hasidut calls bittul ha-yesh, negation of ones’ own selfhood—not altogether unlike the Buddhist idea of negation of attachment.

Postscript: ZOHAR— Kegavna

After writing about Kegavna two weeks ago, I had a brainstorm, of the variety of “Why didn’t I think it earlier? It’s so obvious.” Why des this Zohar passage stress the recitation of Barkhu as the moment upon which all the supernal joy, unification, etc., is focused? Because, at the time Zohar was written, the prayer service we know as Kabbalat Shabbat service did not exist! It was introduced by the school of Tzfat, during the early or mid-sixteenth century. Indeed, even the Shulhan Arukh, compiled in 1554, and even the 1580 edition with the glosses of the Rema, does not contain so much as a single word about Kabbalat Shabbat—not even about the truncated version, consisting of Psalms 92 & 93, recited when Shabbat coincides with or follows immediately upon festival days (see Sh.A., Orah Hayyim §667). Thus, the recitation of Barkhu in fact marked the beginning of Shabbat!

I must share a personal experience about this subject. When I was a young yeshiva student in Israel in the early 1970’s, I decided that I wanted to see the “Yerushalmi Briskers”—the cousins of my teacher, Rav Soloveitchik, a school equally known for their intellectual acumen and their strange customs. So one Friday evening I set out to recite Kabbalat Shabbat at the minyan of the Briskers which, I was told, met in the home of the late Reb Velvel of Brisk, located on a quiet side street in Geulah. I arrived just about sundown, to find only two people studying Humash in a small room lit by gaslight: a middle-aged man and a chubby young boy, both with the characteristic roundish clump of hair at their temples which serves as the Brisker version of payot. I found something to study meanwhile, and bit by bit more people drifted in. When more than half an hour had passed, I asked a young man, who appeared to be an American bokhur from a “Litvishe” yeshiva, how soon they would begin Kabbalat Shabbat, and was told, “They don’t daven Kabbalat Shabbat here!”

At first I thought I had misheard, but then I understood: the Brisker school has a pristine, almost purist approach to halakhah, one that disregards the layers of custom which have accrued over the centuries and returns to direct interpretation of the Talmud as the source of halakhah. And, since Kabbalat Shabbat is required neither by the Talmud nor by the rishonim, they see no good reason to recite it. And so, I waited another half-hour until “Reb Beryl” (the “other” Joseph Baer Soloveitchik, also z”l) came in, and straight away began the call to prayer: Barkhu et Hashem Hamvorakh!


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