Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Seventh Day of Pesah (Zohar)

Two Types of Song

Shirat Hayam (“The Song of the Sea”; Exodus 15:1-21), which serves as the centerpiece of this festival day’s Torah reading, and of its celebration in general, also plays a central role in Jewish liturgy. It serves as a kind of template for Hallel (the Talmud hints that the antiphonal manner in which the Hallel was originally read is modeled after Moses’ reading each verse aloud, and the people responding); it also, as the Siddur has developed to this day, is the final section of the daily Pesukei de-Zimra. As such, it prompts various thoughts about different kinds of song and praise.

In the one place in the Talmud where Pesukei de-Zimra is discussed by name (Shabbat 118b), Rav Yossi says: “I wish that I could recite Hallel every day,” to which there comes the immediate retort, “But one who says Hallel every day is as if he blasphemes!” After it is clarified that he is referring to Pesukei de-Zimra, his interlocutor concedes: “Ah, that is different.”

In what sense are the two kinds of Hallel different? (See what I have written on this at HY II: Ki Teitsei—Yahrzeit Shiur; HY VI: Metzora-Hagadol [Psalms]) Reflecting further on this matter, it seems to me that these two units of praise reflect two very different kinds of models. The Hallel read on festival days, known as Hallel ha-Mitzri, marks God’s acts in history, His incursion into this world of routine and causality and predictability and performing “signs and wonders,” setting aside the laws of nature that He Himself has established, to affect redemptive acts. These songs of praise celebrate God’s dramatic involvement in history, and especially His love and caring for His people Israel, through such redemptive acts as the Exodus; hence its name, “the Egyptian Hallel.” To recite this Hallel every day would be to reduce the great events of our history to the level of the banal, the mundane, the routine; it is precisely their celebration on special occasions that accentuates their significance.

Not so Pesukei de-Zimra. These psalms, recited daily as a kind of introduction to the daily morning prayers and, some say, as a means of entering prayer in a proper mood, celebrate God ‘s involvement in the everyday world, as author of the universe, as He who feeds His creatures, gives them life, is present in their every breath—in short, God as manifested in the round of everyday life itself. The psalms chosen for this unit of prayer speak of God’s ethical qualities and caring for the downtrodden and misfortunate in general (e.g., in Pss 145 or Ashrei, and 146), portray the entire cosmos or all the instruments of the orchestra in a symphony of praise (Pss 148, 150) or His innumerable acts in the “day of small things” (Ps 147).

I would characterize these two kinds of Hallel as reflecting two paradigmatic events in history, around which, one might say, all biblical and Jewish thought revolve: the Creation and the Exodus. To celebrate the Creation means: to recognize God’s presence in all places and all times, to see Him as the “ground of being” (to use the language of the Germanic theologians). To celebrate the Exodus means to see Him forts and foremost as the God of History, and to see history itself as a process leading towards the third great moment: Redemption. Indeed, in the Diaspora, where the final festival day of Pesah is doubled into two days, the Eighth Day of Pesah is devoted to the them of messianic, eschatological redemption, in which God will so-to-speak repeat the miracle of the Exodus, raised to a higher, cosmic level. Thus, the haftarah is taken from Isaiah’s vision in Chs. 11-12, while the Ma’arivit poems, recited in the old Ashkenazic liturgy, present a series of alternating stanzas counterpoising Pesah Mitzraim and Pesah le-Atid (the “Passover of Egypt” and “the Future Passover”).

In a way, these two paradigms reflect what might be called linear and cyclical perceptions of time. There is a certain conventional wisdom which holds that Judaism sees history in linear terms, leading to the betterment of the human condition in the future universal peace and plentitude of the Messianic Age. Some even suggest that the passion with which many secularized Jews embraced movements of social change which sought to create utopian societies, whether socialist, liberal-democratic, or Labor-Zionist, had its roots in this messianic tradition. But this view is only a half truth.

A Creation-oriented theology celebrates the regular, cyclical ordering of the universe, each year returning to the same point where it was in previous years: the regular cycles of day and night, the seven-day cycle of weekday and Shabbat, the phases of the moon, the rhythm of spring and autumn, summer heat and winter rain—and even the life cycle of the human being, from birth, through maturity, to death, repeated endlessly, with each new generation taking the place of its parents and continuing human—and Jewish—civilization and tradition through all eternity (this is one plausible reading of the imperative, “you shall tell them to your children,” which lies at the heart of the Seder).

It has been claimed that a respectable group of thinkers, including Franz Rosenzweig, Leo Strauss, Yitzhak Breuer, and Hermann Cohen, represent a school that has been called the “rejection of history” (or at least historicism)—that is, the perception that that which is most significant about Jews and Judaism exists outside the vagaries of history, in a kind of sub species eternitae (see David N. Myers, Resisting History).

The sub-text of this dispute, within the contemporary scene, relates to Zionism. Zionism has been seen as the exemplar par excellence of the Jewish return to history, and the attempt to achieve redemption of the Jewish nation in actual history (Gush Emunim and other post-’67 settler ideologies represent the fusion of this with traditional religious messianism). The alternative, more “a-historical” view, sees our historical moment more in terms of olam keminhago noheg, “the world goes on its usual way,” and our task as religious people as the same as it was 100 or 500 or 1000 years ago: to perceive the Divine presence within the seemingly mundane, secular world, dominated by human greed and passions and at times violent, Hobbesian struggle—and to somehow sanctify that world.

ZOHAR: Redemption as Untying Knots

I wish to present a brief and somewhat enigmatic passage from the Zohar, in which the spiritual process that facilitated the Exodus from Egypt is described as an “untying of knots.” According to this, Pharaoh and his magicians had “bound” the Israelites in knots—a symbol for the forces of impurity which had hold of them; in order to redeem them, God needed to untie or break these knots. Due to time limitations, my comments will be very limited. Zohar II:37b-38a

“[And God killed] every firstborn” (Exod 12:29). All the rungs, high and low, were severed from their links; all those ruling by their wisdom, as is written: “in the land of Egypt” (ibid.). All these rungs, high and low, that were torn from their links are alluded to in the verse, as is written, “from the firstborn of Pharaoh sitting on his throne to the first born of the slave girl who is behind the millstones, and every firstborn of the beasts” (Exod 11:5). All of them are revealed in the verse!

The gist of the matter: “from the firstborn of Pharaoh sitting on his throne”—the low crown of regal adornment of supernal Kingship. “To the firstborn of the slave girl’—left crown, below regal adornment; behind four millstones, four camps. [This is implied] because it is written: “behind the millstone” and not “from the millstones.” “And every firstborn of the beasts”—lowest of the low, female of females, found among donkeys and beasts, large and small; males and females are received from them. “To the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon” (Exod 12:29). Those issuing from “the slave girl,” through whom they forced captives to be enslaved to them forever, never going free. [These four levels represent different powers of darkness and impurity; hence, even if in worldly terms they are socially marginal, in metaphysical terms they are potent forces of destruction]

Relying on these rungs, the Egyptians refused—for by them they entangled Israel so that they would never escape bondage. Here the power and dominion of the blessed Holy One was revealed, and this memory will never be destroyed [or: forgotten] among Israel throughout all the generations. Were it not for the might and power of the blessed Holy One, all the kings of the world, sorcerers of the world, and the wise of the world would be unable to deliver Israel from slavery; for He untied their bonds ands smashed all those crowns to bring them out. Of this it is written, “Who would not revere You, O King of the nations? For it befits You, since among all the wise of the nations and among all their kingdoms there is none like You” (Jer 10:7).

Rabbi Shimon wept, raising his voice and groaning. He said: Cluster of chiding! Have you pondered how many times the blessed Holy One praises Himself? “Who brought you out of the Land of Egypt” (Exod 20:2)… [the Zohar goes on to quote a series of verses—Deut 16:1; 5:15; Exod 12:17; 13:3a; Deut 4:37; Exod 13:3b—all referring to God’s performance of the Exodus]

However, it has been taught: There are ten crowns below, corresponding to the pattern above, all of them concealed in these three that we have mentioned. With three knots they bound them on Israel’s three rungs, so that they would never escape their bondage.

Happy are you, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, by whose merit the knots were untied! The blessed Holy One remembered your three knots of faith, as is written: “And the Lord remembered his covenant with Abraham (one knot, of Abraham), with Isaac (a second knot, of Isaac), and with Jacob (a third, complete knot, of Jacob)” (Exod 2:24).

It has been taught: All festive seasons, holidays and Sabbaths are in memory of this, and upon this they all are based; for were it not for this, there would be no observance of festive seasons, holidays or Sabbaths. Consequently, the memory of Egypt has not been eliminated from any festive season, holiday or Sabbath. Come and see: This is the foundation and root of Torah and its commandments and the entire faith of Israel.

From The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, translated by Daniel Matt, IV: 176-178


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