Saturday, March 28, 2009

Vayikra (Zohar)

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

The Sacrifices as a Feast of Agape

I will begin with what is perhaps a strange question: this Shabbat we begin reading the third of the five books of the Torah. That is, we are not yet even half- way through it: the midpoint of the Torah, whether counted in verses, words, or letters, is still before us; likewise, the midpoint of the liturgical year, Pesah, in some ways the “counterpoint” to Sukkot, is imminent, but not yet here. Yet today we begin the third of the three volumes of the standard edition of the Zohar (like the Talmud, the Zohar has a standard system of pagination, in its case based on the 1558 Mantua edition). My question is: why is the Zohar “top-heavy”? Perhaps because the first two books contain such central moments in the spiritual history of God, Israel and the cosmos, as the Creation, Sinai, the erection of the Mishkan, and the lives of the three patriarchs, who serve in the Zohar as veritable mythical archetypes—all of which serve as rich material for exegesis. But perhaps my own “friends and beloved companions” more versed in such matters will enlighten me.

Parshat Vayikra is the beginning of the exposition of the sacrificial offerings offered in the Sanctuary/Temple, a subject of great importance to the Zohar. I present here a brief passage from the opening of the parashah, in which the Zohar expounds a verse from Song of Songs in relation to this subject. Zohar III: 3b-4b:

“And He called unto Moses, and the Lord spoke to Him from out of the Tent of Meeting, saying” (Lev 1:1). R. Hiyya connected this with the verse, “I am come into my garden, my sister, my bride; I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey, I have drunk my wine with my milk, [Eat, O friends, drink and be drunk, O beloved ones]” (Song 5:1). The former part of this verse does not accord with the latter, nor the latter with the former. It says, “I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey, I have drunk my wine with my milk,” and thereafter, “Eat, O friends.” If a man invites another [to eat, he does so] while the food is spread before him. But after he himself has eaten, how can he invite others?

But happy are Israel, whom the blessed Holy One wished to purify, and befriend more than any other nation, and once He befriended them, wished to rid them of all the Accusers in the world. Come and see: On the day when the Tabernacle was erected below, on that same day another Tabernacle was erected above, as is written “the Sanctuary was set up” (Exod 40:17)—i.e., without specifying [where]. And that day was one of great joy to the blessed Holy One. But once the Tabernacle was erected, it is written that “Moses was not able to enter the Tent of Meeting” (Exod 40:35) [“because the cloud rested upon it” i.e., it was filled with the overwhelming direct Divine Presence]. Once the blessed Holy One saw this, He said: How is it that the Tabernacle has been raised by the hand of Moses, yet he must remain alone [outside]? Straightaway, “He called to Moses” (Lev 1:1). He said to him: Moses, how does one dedicate a house? Not with a banquet! Therefore, “when any man of you offers an oblation unto the Lord” (Lev 1:2). Of this it is written, ”I am come into my garden, my sister, my bride.”

The Zohar sees here a striking paradox. On the one hand, God ordered the construction of the Sanctuary because He wished a place that would serve as a focal point for Hios friendship, intimacy, even love with Israel—“to dwell among them.” Yet His own holiness, the awesomeness of His presence, was so great that no man, not even Moses, “the man of God,” could enter the Tent of Meeting when He was there. The solution was to make the Sanctuary also a focus for a kind of love banquet (what I have called Agape feast, a phrase used in early apostolic Christianity, referring to a communal feast of all, rich and poor)—a meal in which God and the people are united in one fellowship (see esp. Exodus 24:11 re the feast following the covenantal ceremony at Sinai). And all this is seen alluded to in our verse from Song of Songs.

Another interpretation of [that same verse]: “I am come to my garden.” “Garden” is the supernal Garden of Eden. “My sister, my bride” is the Community of Israel [used here in the sense of Shekhinah / Malkhut], for on that day all unions were consummated, there being unions in that Garden of Eden, all being blessed from the water of the supernal stream, and each one being connected to his beloved one. Of this it is written, “I have gathered my myrrh with my spices, I have drunk my wine with my milk”—all drank and were satiated by that flowing stream. “Eat, O friends, drink and be drunk, O beloved ones”: all those that are below, and all the branches were blessed and nourished when those were blessed above. And with what were they all blessed and regaled? With the [sweet] odor of the sacrifice.

Come and see: When the Community of Israel came down to make her abode on earth, the blessed Holy One proclaimed this verse to her, for there was blessing and joy in all the worlds, and she too was firmly established as a source of blessing to all. For when those Six [grades; i.e., the six central sefirot, from Hesed to Yesod] are blessed, then all the worlds are blessed below as one, and are blessed above, and Israel draw blessing from all of them….

R. Eleazar said to him [R. Shimon]: We have seen that the term “beloved” [dodim] is the more precious of the two. Why then does it refer to those below? He answered: Those who yearn for one another, but are not always together, are called “beloved” (dodim), whereas those who are always together and never hidden or separated from one another are called “friends” (re’im). And for that reason these are called “beloved” and these are called “friends”: these, with the friendship of inseparable unity, these with their yearning, make up a complete whole, for the blessing of the Community of Israel and the joy of all the worlds.

At first blush, one might say, quite simply, as we might be prone to use these words, that “beloved” refers to the erotic tension and yearning of the love between man and woman, while “friends” is the steadfast, fellowship of same-sex friendship. Indeed, in Song of Songs, the great poem of love and Eros, with striking scenes of parting, distance, yearning and reuniting (see. esp. Songs 3:1-6; 5:2-6:2), the word dodim is used almost exclusively. Ye the sixth of the Seven blessings recited at every Jewish wedding refers to the newlywed couple, modeled after the original couple in Eden, as רעים האהובים, “loving friends,” or perhaps “friends and lovers” (see Baer, Siddur Avodat Yisrael, p. 564, for variant readings and their meanings).

The Zohar is primarily concerned with the vacilitating rhythm of Divine-human relations, with its “arousal from below” and “arousal from above,” as described in numerous Zohar passages—but it may also be read as a portrait of human love, whose wholeness somehow requires both—distance and longing, and togetherness and fulfillment—to be complete. Whose heart does not thrill by the charm and magic of tales of clandestine lovers who meet secretly—like the lovers in Shir ha-Shirim; and who does not rejoice at a wedding, the public celebration of two people’s love, or take pleasure in seeing or living the quiet joy of happy domesticity?

R. Hizkiyah applied that verse to the sacrifices, because they are the banquet that is brought before the King, and the Accusers [negative, demonic forces?] also partake of it and are satisfied, so that joy is diffused everywhere. R. Ahha applied this verse to the time when the Shekhinah entered the Tabernacle, blessing and joy being then universally diffused, and the Shekhinah ascended like a bride entering the marriage canopy. And then Israel is perfected below and joined to the blessed Holy One on earth; of this it is written, “and they shall make me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell among them” (Ex 25:8), and thus those above and below are regaled.

Postscripts: Zohar Vayakhel

A few further thoughts on last week’s discussion of Berikh Shmeiah. First, in wake of my postscript about Kegavna and my anecdote about the Brisker minyan where they refrain from reciting Kabbalat Shabbat, a friend asked me whether the Briskers recite Berikh shemeih. And indeed, I once heard Rav Soloveitchik mention something about this in passing: that his grandfather, Rav Hayyim of Brisk, refused to recite this prayer because of the phrase therein, “before Whom and before whose glorious Torah I bow at all times.” Rav Hayyim said that the Torah, sublime as it is, is ultimately a nivra, a created entity, and not something comparable to the Creator. Hence, this phrase borders on heresy, in equating the Creator and any element in the created world. The Rav concluded that he himself did say Berikh Shemei, but omitted the offending phrase.

All this is of course a far cry from the Zohar and Kabbalistic tradition, for whom “He who touches the Torah is as if he touches Himself.” Moreover, in many aggadic and midrashic texts as well, one finds the noption than one may attach oneself to God —who as such is a “consuming fire” and too dangerous to approach—through attachment to and study of Torah, or even through attachment to talmidei hakhamim. In Kabbalah, the Torah seems to be conceived almost as an apotheosis of God, a kind of tangible presence of God in world, and a necessary intermediary between corporeal man and the ineffable, transcendent God.

In this context, the act of public Torah reading assumes a mystical meaning: note in particular the sentence immediately preceding Berikh Shemei in the Zohar text—“When the Book of the Law is taken out to be read before the congregation, the mercy-gates of Heaven are opened, and the attribute of Love is stirred up above”—in which the moment of opening the ark is described as a moment of special Divine grace. One more thought: in a section that I did not bring last week, but summarized, the Torah scroll is seen as embodying the Written Torah (=Hokhmah), which is almost too sublime for this world, while the Oral Torah is described as including, not only the rabbinic tradition of Torah exegesis, but the vowel sounds and cantillation (=Binah). As one who regularly reads the Torah in public, I realized that this is an exact description of my own task: the Torah reader approaches a scroll, which has nothing but letters and words; his task is to supply from his own head the vocalization and cantillation notes that makes the reading coherent, as articulated words and syntactically complete sentences. In other words, he gives over to the public what he sees before him, plus what he has learned through studying codexes (i.e., printed books) containing the Masoretic tradition: that is, he pulls together and united the Written and Oral Torah.

VAYKHEL, General

The late Lubavitcher Rebbe used to say that the title of each parasha is indicative of a central theme that runs through the whole. Vayakhel, “And he [Moses} gathered…” introduces things said in a “gathering” of all Israel. It is one of the few places in the Torah where this root is used, whether as a verb, or in the noun kahal used in reference to the Isrealite people. It also appears in Kedoshim (Lev 19), a chapter upon which “many basic rules of the Torah are taught”; and in Exodus 12, the chapter read this same Shabbat as Parshat Hahodesh, commanding the first paschal sacrifice, a formative rite of the Jewish collective.

Here, the verb is used to introduce two brief verses about the observance of Shabbat, followed by a detailed account of the making and assembling of the Mishkan. The latter, described here in great detail, is of course the major religious project of the entire whole people; but what of the Shabbat? The Shabbat is not only a private day of rest for each individual and each family, but is also a social institution, shaping the rhythm and public life of the Jewish community. Of all the Ten Commandments, the Shabbat is arguably almost the only one that is not primarily individual.

Addenda: Art Green—A Birthday Tribute

Two small addenda to the supplement sent out earlier this week. First: the title of Greens forthcoming book based on the Rosenzweig Lectures, is Radical Judaism: Hasidism for a New Era (Yale University Press; projected for the end of 2009), and not as listed in the bibliography, based upon an earlier title.

Second: in discussing the various categories of Art’s writing, I neglected to mention that he has written extensively on a wide gamut of issues, whether relating to the American Jewish community, to general American political and social questions, or to the State of Israel. By this, he exemplifies the tradition of the engaged intellectual, who does not retreat into an ivory tower but is passionately concerned with the life of the world around him. These writings really constitute a fourth category, and have appeared in such forums as The Reconstructionist, Tikkun Magazine, the Philadelphia Jewish Observer, Conservative Judaism, and many others. Because they are both more numerous and also far shorter than his scholarly and theological writings, it is difficult to list in a bibliography (perhaps the Festschrift now being planned for his 70th birthday will include a comprehensive bibliography).


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