Thursday, May 14, 2009

Aharei Mot-Kedoshim (Zohar)

AHAREI MOT: “A Well… and Three Flocks of Sheep”

At times the connection between the portion of the week and the Zohar homilies subsumed under it is tenuous, or non-existent. The Zohar (in this respect like much of the Talmud, and many portions of the Midrash), is organized through a process of free-flowing association. It may begin by interpreting verses from the parashah (in this case: the Atonement ritual in the Temple), but this suggests a related verse from Proverbs, which reminds someone on King Solomon, which prompts a series of homilies by different members of the Companions, which in turn leads somewhere else. Be that as it may, I found the following passage particularly beautiful and rich in meaning. Zohar III: 62a:

Rabbi Eleazar began, and said: “And he [i.e., Jacob] saw, and behold there was a well in the field… And all the flocks gathered there…” (Gen 29:2). These verses need to be examined, for they contain secrets of wisdom that I learned from father [i.e., R. Shimon], and this as their teaching:

“And he saw, and there was a well in the field.” What was that well? This was the same one of which it is written, “The well that was dug by the princes, delved by the nobles of the people…” (Num 21:18). “And behold, there were there three flocks of sheep crouching over it” (Gen., ibid.). These are [the three sefirot] Nezah, Hod and Yesod, which crouch over it and sustain it, and from them are filled the blessings of that well. “For from that well the flocks shall drink.” From that well are sustained the upper and lower [worlds], and they are all blessed as one.

“And there was a great stone on the mouth of the well.” This is Harsh Judgment that exist through the Other Side, which [prevents] drinking from it. “And there gathered there all the flocks” (Gen 29:3). These are the six crowns of the king [i.e., the six central sefirot] all of which gathered there, and they bring down blessing from the head of the king and empty it therein. And when they all join together as one to empty into it, it is written “and they rolled the stone off the mouth of the well.” They move the Harsh Judgment and move it way from it. “And they watered the flock.” They empty blessing from that well to above and below.

Thereafter, “they returned the stone to the mouth of the well to its place.” That Judgment is restored to its place, because it too is needed to bring fragrance throughout the world and to correct the world. And then the blessed Holy One empties blessing on it from the source of that stream, and from it all the people of that generation are blessed.

Blessed is your portion in the world, in this world and in the next. Of you is it said “and all your children shall be learned of the Lord, and great shall be the peace of your sons” (Isa 54:13).

The well, and water in general, is a central symbol in the Kabbalah. The well here is that at which Jacob met his destined wife, Rachel—but before that meeting, the Torah tells the story of the shepherds gathered there to water the flocks. But this well is clearly a mythical well, which the Zohar equates with the well (the Well of Miriam?) alluded to in the mysterious Well Song in Numbers 21. Ultimately, this well is Malkhut (=Shekhinah), the reservoir into which the Divine flow, starting from the highest spheres, flows down (most immediately from the three “closest” sefirot of Nezah, Hod and Yesod), from whence it serves in turn as a source of blessing to the whole world. These three lower, “crouching” sefirot, are equated with translating the Divine flow of word of intellect and emotion into action. As for the “six crowns of the king”: these allude to the six central sefirot which mediate the flow of Divine energy from above to below (including Gevurot), which are a kind of central column or pillar that support the world.

What is the stone that must be rolled off the well? It is a symbol of Harsh Judgment, the negative, harsh side of the sefirotic realm—but not to be confused with the demonic realm of the Sitra Ahara, those negative forces which run contrary to the Divine. No: this is the principle of limit, of at times closing the flow, of regulation necessary for the spiritual economy of world. Blessing cannot be uncovered all the time: there is need for limits. For that reason, after the “flocks” are “watered,” the stone ,must be rolled back over the well—and this too brings fragrance to the world and is necessary for its tikkun.

The idea that din kasheh is also needed to “make fragrant” the well, suggests that there can be a danger in an excess of flow and love and Hesed; the basic principle is one of a delicate balance. Sometimes, when I have an overdose of talking with negative, bitter people, filled with caustic criticism of others, I long to speak with a sweet, loving person who sees the good in others and has a generally positive and joyous outlook on life (like my friend Michael Miller, mentioned above, whose death we mourn this week). But sometimes that too becomes saccharine, and I long for a bit of irony and sarcasm and even cynicism which seems to express a kind of objective, realistic grasp of the obvious evils of the world and the glaring shortcomings of just about all the people in it. (I admit: I’m no tzaddik; I like a bit of acerbic gossip, even though there’s no halakhic or moral justification for it.)

POSTSCRIPT: Tazria: On 14 and 66 Days

My original intention in writing on Tazria-Metzora was to relate to what is perhaps the most vexing conundrum of this parasha: why does a new mother have to purify herself for twice as long a time period—14 days and 66 days, rather than 7 and 33—following the birth of a baby girl as opposed to that of a boy? The classical commentaries give a variety of answers, as do various modern thinkers and researchers, but none of the answers are really satisfactory. After I sent out Hitzei Yehonatan for that parashah, Avraham Leader drew my attention to the following very brief passage in which the Zohar gives its answer to this question. Zohar III: 44a:

“And if she bears a female” (Lev 12:5). As we have established, the Left Side is more dominant [in the female], and overwhelms the Right Side. For that reason, for every one day of separation for the [birth of a] male, there are two for the female, so as to [provide time to] connect the spirit to the body, for the Left does not settle itself as easily as the Right, and it is found in greater strength.

I have not the time to discuss this passage at any length; surely, most readers will wonder why the female, whom we intuitively associate with nurturing and motherhood and generous love—certainly more so than the combative and competitive male—is identified with the Left Side, which as we have seen above is more constrictive and limiting and less flowing. The one answer I heard once that a, as a mother, the woman’s love is focused on particulars, while the man is somehow more focused on universals, which ultimately bring him closer to a cosmic, all-embracing love. ואידך זיל גמור—this issue requires much more thought and reflection.


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