Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Shemini (Zohar)

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

Wine, Water and Oil

One of the central incidents related in this week’s parasha is the sudden death of two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, when they offer “a strange fire” before the Lord. The Sages debated the justification for this tragic death, while engaged in holy service on the festive occasion of dedicating the Sanctuary. One view suggests that they were drunk; in wake of this, the Zohar discusses the respective roles of wine, water and oil. Zohar III: 39a:

“Drink neither wine nor strong drink, you or your sons [when you go into the Tent of Meeting…]” (Lev 10:9). R. Judah said: From this passage we infer that Nadav and Avihu were under the influence of wine, since the priests were forbidden to drink it [when serving]. [see R. Yishmael’s view in Leviticus Rabbah 12.5]

R. Hiyya expounded [the verse]: “Wine rejoices the man’s heart” (Ps 104:15). If the priest is required to be glad and have a joyous countenance more than other men, why is he forbidden wine? For it brings joy and a radiant countenance! But rather, at first wine rejoices and thereafter it saddens. Moreover, wine comes from the side of the Levites, from that place where wine is permitted, for Torah and the wine of Torah [which are associated with the Levites, Moses being a Levite, and see also Deut 33:10; but contrast Mal 2:7, where the lips of the priest, specifically, give knowledge and Torah is sought from his mouth] come from the side of Gevurah, [another reading: but both the beginning and the end of the priest’s service must be with gladness]; hence, the side of the priest is from pure and clear water.

R. Yossi said: Each one lends to the other, and they are incorporated in one another; therefore wine gladdens at first, because it contains water, but thereafter it reverts to its own nature and brings gloom and anger and Judgment.

R. Abba said: Wine, oil and water [and milk and honey] all issue from the same place. Water and oil, which are from the right side [i.e., Hesed], are taken and inherited by the priests—oil most of all, which is joy at first and last, as is written, “Like the goodly oil upon the head that runs down upon the beard, upon Aaron’s beard” (Ps 133:2). Wine, which is on the left, is inherited by the Levites, who raise their voices in song and are not silent, for wine is never silent, but oil is always noiseless. What is the difference between them? Oil, which is always silent and unheard, comes from the side of Thought, which is always silent and unheard—hence, it is from the right side. Wine, which is for raising the voice and is never silent, comes from the side of the Mother, is inherited by the Levites and is on the left side, and is for song and raising the voice, and exists in Judgment. Hence it is written, “And by their word shall be [resolved] every dispute and every [case of] damage” (Deut 21:5).

Therefore the priest, when entering the sanctuary to perform Divine service, is forbidden to drink wine, for his service is carried out quietly. And in secret we come and direct our intention, and there couples with whom one couples, and brings blessing to the entire world, and all this in silence. And it is all done in mystery; but wine reveals secrets, for its whole existence is to raise up the voice.

—Translation based on Soncino Zohar, IV: 403, with numerous emendations

Our discussion begins with the observation that, after drinking, people go through a phase of loud boisterousness, when they seem filled with joy—but thereafter comes a stage of sullen depression, perhaps belligerency and argumentativeness. But the approach given here is not a puritanical one, as of teetotalers or prohibition, who would ban alcohol altogether; rather, it imposes certain limitations upon it, particularly for the kohanim, who need to conduct themselves with a state of joy—which I would translate as a state of spiritual elevation, glad-heartedness, a kind of heightened consciousness that is at once joyous and solemn—from beginning to end.

The contrast between priests and Levites is associated with the sefirot of Hesed and Gevurah, the right and left sides. The service of the priesthood is quiet, solemn, a kind of concentrated, focused solemnity—an inner joy, clean and pure like mountain water. (Bible scholar Israel Knohl aptly named his book on Leviticus Silent Sanctuary.) Moreover, oil, even more than water, flows silently; unlike the rushing current of water, it makes no sound whatever when moving.

But why is the song of the Levites, and even more so the Torah itself, compared to wine, and by extension to Gevurah? Gevurah here implies all that is rich, “full-bodied,” variegated, exciting, passionate (including the richness, complexity, intellectual stimulation, geshmack of Rabbinic Torah study!)—all that makes one ”high.” It would seem that both measures are needed.

Our passage ends with an allusion to sexual union, which is performed in private, in modesty and silence—and yet is a source of blessing, of new life. The metaphor of sexuality exists on several levels. Avraham Leader pointed out to me that in the famous passage about the “hind of the dawn” (ayelet ha-shahar: Zohar III:249a—Pinhas), the priests and Levites serve a function analogous to that psychopomps—in Jungian psychology, spiritual mediators between conscious and unconscious realms; here, facilitators of the intra-Divine union between Abba and Imma—the sefirot of Hokhmah and Binah, here referred to as “Thought” and “Mother.” The Levites arouse the passion and desire of the two sides by their loud and full-bodied song, while the priests do so by their quiet, solemn acts that provide light. (May one then say that the priestly function here is like what Matthew Arnold called “sweetness and light”—which is also more fitting to the aspect of “thought”: inner, focused intellect?) On another level, human love may be aroused by music, by strong drink, by words of passion—but it is ultimately consummated in quiet, in modesty. And, on a third level, the prayer service itself culminates in the Amidah: the standing prayer, recited in silence, which is seen as the closest thing to union of the worshipper’s soul with the Divine (and thus compared to sexual union!).

I would like to conclude by suggesting that Hesed and Gevurah may best be understood, not only as expansiveness, love, and generosity vs. sternness, limitation, judgment, constriction, but also, almost to the contrary, as respectively symbolizing the Dionysian and Apollonian mentalities and approaches to life. On the one hand: ecstasy, excitement, sensuality, the feeling of going outside of the constraints and limitations of mundane, ordinary life; on the other hand, quiet, restrained, high solemnity and inwardness.

Returning to Nadav and Avihu: perhaps they offered their “strange fire,” not because they were drunk from wine, but because they were psychologically intoxicated by their own desire for religious ecstasy, by the unrestrained mystical quest itself, understood as the desire for personal experience of the Divine, seeing religion in terms of the subjective emotional sense of being “high” and close to God. The Sefat Emet says as much quite explicitly; see his words at Shemini, 5636, s.v. beshem. All this is not uncommon in today’s religious and cultural climate—on which see the next section.

Thoughts on Word and Melody of Prayer

The reading of the Song of the Sea—the archetype of sacred song in Jewish thought and liturgy—prompts some thoughts about prayer, in word and in music. Over the past decade or two, a new style of worship has emerged in many synagogues, known as Nusah Carlebach. The emphasis has shifted away from silent recitation of most of the prayers, led by the hazan in the traditional recitative mode of nusah, to much singing in unison by the congregation, mostly using melodies composed by the late Rav Shlomo Carlebach—hence the name. In some places, one gets the feeling that, if it is good to sing three songs during the course of, say, a Shabbat morning service, ten are better, and if there are twenty—preferably all lively and lending themselves to lots of clapping, pounding on tables, and dancing—then one has surely had an authentic spiritual experience, and is but a step away from Giluy Eliyahu!

It should be noted, first of all, that Reb Shlomo himself did not daven that way. While my own experience of Shabbat prayer with Shlomo was admittedly, and regrettably limited, it seems clear to me that he took his own model from Hasidic rebbes. He taught prayer, not only through song, but through teaching, and through telling stories of what prayer meant in the classical Hasidic milieu. Such prayer involved not only joy and singing, but emotional and spiritual intensity, weeping, crying out in pain and despair and hope, often following arduous inner preparation and concentration, kavvanah. True, his concerts typically built up to a climax of joyous song and dancing on the stage, and at times a single song might be repeated over and over again for half an hour or more; but all this was only a first step, crafted to fire up the imagination of the neophyte and to whet their interest in Judaism. Shlomo would have been the first to acknowledge that real life is not a Shlomo Carlebach concert.

But going beyond Shlomo: if one reads Amud ha-Tefillah of Sefer Baal Shem Tov (an assemblage of that great teacher’s dicta on prayer), one finds that joy is but one of many elements of prayer. Indeed, as Rivka Schatz has taught us, the Hasidic emphasis on joy was largely intended as an antidote to the depression and self-castigation that are all too common among many people who set themselves too high a bar of religious standards—a far cry from singing and noise as wends in themselves.

A younger scholar, Yitzhak Lifschitz, recently wrote an essay on this question in the Israeli journal Akdamut in which he bewails the widespread departure from the traditional mode of traditional Ashkenazic prayer, presenting a theological model in which prayer is characterized by a certain melancholy, reflecting the sense of ontic distance between the human being and his god, and the desire to imitate the angels. While his formulation is perhaps extreme, his essential point is well-taken: that, as in the above-mentioned Zohar passage, the starting point if prayer must be a certain inner sense of reverence, of standing before the Divine, and not the over-heated, emotional stimulation of lively music.


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