Friday, May 15, 2009

Behar-Behukotai (Zohar)

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

“A Sabbath to the Lord”

This week’s passage bears an interesting parallel to that brought last week, from Emor, in which a correspondence was drawn between a woman’s counting seven clean days and the forty-nine days of Counting the Omer. Here the unit is not days, but years: the seven-year cycle of the sabbatical year and that of seven times seven years, culminating in the fiftieth, jubilee year. Zohar III: 108a:

“And the land shall rest a Sabbath to the Lord” (Lev 25:2). “A Sabbath to the Lord”—literally [i.e., shemitah is associated with the four-letter Ineffable Divine Name, and thus with the highest sefirot]. Rabbi Eleazar opened again: “When you buy a Hebrew slave, six years he shall work” (Exod 21:2). For every Israelite who is circumcised and has the holy sign upon him rests on the sabbatical year, for it is his, for it is shemitah to rest therein. And thus it is called “the Sabbath of the land,” for certainly there is freedom therein, rest therein. For just as the Sabbath is rest for all, so too is the shemitah rest for all—rest for the spirit and for the body.

In Zohar the number fifty represents Binah, the aspect of freedom, of transcendence, of that which is beyond duality (thus also Shavuot, on the fiftieth day). Moreover, the Aramaic word for jubilee, יובלא, is suggestive of that number, as its numerological value is 49, or 50, counting the word itself (kollel).

There is an association between circumcision, and by implication shemirat haberit, with shemitah. In Zohar, “guarding the covenant” means not forming a sexual alliance with a non-Jewish woman—a practice far from unknown among the upper classes of Spanish Jewry during the 13th century. By preserving ones sexual purity, one is able to be close to Malkhut/Shekhinah, which also corresponds to the seventh year.

Come and see: [the letter] Heh brings rest to above and below. For that reason there is an upper heh and a lower heh; rest for those above and rest for those below. The upper heh is seven times seven years; the lower heh is seven years alone. That one is shemitah and this one is jubilee. But when one looks at the words they are all one. For that reason it is “a Sabbath for the land.” —for that rest of the land one is [also] required to rest.

Here the Zohar refers to the mystical meanings of the letters of the four-letter Divine name, Yod- Heh - Vav – Heh; the two appearances of the letter Heh, here called “upper Heh” and “lower Heh,” are seen as corresponding to the seven years of shemitah and the 7 x 7 years of Jubilee.

But more than that: the Divine name is seen as composed of male and female letters: the first and third letters, the yod and vav, are masculine, symbolizing Hokhmah & the six sefirot of the central axis, respectively; or, the brain and the phallus. Graphically, Yod is a point, symbolizing the quintessence, the condensed kernel from which all things emerge (or, some would say, the hyper-condensed source of energy prior to the “Big Bang”); Vav is the extension of the point in a downwards direction, a conduit of flow from above to below.

The two hehs represent the female principle: Binah and Malkhut. The letter Heh, in its graphic form as a three sides of an enclosure, represents the womb, home, receptivity. But it also represents expansion: in heh the point of yod is expanded in two dimensions, in both length and breadth. Binah suggests receptivity on the intellectual level: the expansion, development, application of the kernel of insight represented by Hokhmah. Malkhut / Shekhinah represents that space in the concrete world where all the abundance of the upper world ultimately flows, becoming the source or “reservoir” of all blessing. Malkhut is also Knesset Yisrael: the reality of the Jewish people as well as a kind of collective soul of Israel. These two letters, as Binah and Malkhut, also represent woman in her two aspects, as mother and as bride, the ultimate goal being the integration of the two hehs.

These four letters, in their two pairs of male and female, thus represent the zivvugim, the uniting of the male and female principles in the cosmic worlds: the “upper zivvug” of the supernal Abba and Imma, or Hokhmah and Binah; and the “lower zivvug” of Tiferet (the central sefirah of the central axis of six, which represents them in their totality) with Malkhut.

In that resting of the land the slave must also rest. Hence it says, “On the seventh year he shall be liberated, for free” (Exod, ibid.). “For free.” What is meant by “for free”? That he not pay anything to his master?! Rather, there is a secret here, which we learn thus. It is written, “We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free” (Num 11:5). “Free”—i.e., without reciting a blessing [cf. Rashi ad loc: ‘free from the mitzvot’; and the basic idea is the same]. For in Egypt the yoke of Him Above was not upon them.

Come and See: slaves are exempt from the yoke of the supernal kingdom, and hence are exempt from the commandments. What is “the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven”? It is like an ox, upon whom a yoke is placed at the beginning, so that he may bring benefit to the world; but if he does not accept the yoke than one cannot work with him. So too a person is first required to accept the yoke, and thereafter serve [God] in every way that is required. But if he does not initially accept the yoke he cannot serve. This is what is written “Serve the Lord with fear” (Ps 2:11). What is meant by “with fear”? As is said, “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord” (Ps 111:10)—that is the kingdom of Heaven, and for that reason the yoke of the kingdom precedes all else.

What is the proof of this? In laying tefillin, one begins with that of the hand, as with this one ascends to the other [levels of] holiness. But if that is not found with him, the higher holiness does not rest upon him. For that reason “With this (בזאת–interpreted in Zohar as a symbol for Shekhinah) Aaron shall go into the holy place” (Lev 16:3). And that yoke cannot rest upon one who has other compulsions. And for that reason slaves are exempt from the yoke of Heaven.

Once again, we find here “straight” Jewish theology dovetailing with the Zohar, which gives its own unique twist. At the end of this parashah and the beginning of the next, it is stressed that God took Israel out of Egypt to be his servants (“For the children of Israel are my servants, whom I took out of the Land of Egypt… from being their servants, and I broke the bars of your yoke…”—Lev 25:5; 26:13). That is, there are two basic alternatives in life: either to serve God, or to serve some other master—whether that other be idols, other human beings or, in a more modern context, various ideologies, psychological needs, etc. Yeshayahu Leibowitz developed this idea in a radical way: pushed to its logical conclusion, it is opposed to the idea that such a thing as pure individual autonomy exists at all. For a Jew to say “I accept the mitzvot,” with emphasis on the “I,” is already a mistaken view.

Between Judaism and Calvinism

In loving memory of my mother, Fannie Chipman—Feige Gittl bat ha-Rav Avraham Naftali and Yitta—, who left this world on 24 Iyyar 5745 (15 May 1985)—a tireless fighter for and teacher of social justice. Note: a Hebrew version of this article appears this week in Shabbat Shalom.

For as long as I can remember, I have thought of Parshat Behar as the source par excellence for the biblical concepts of social justice and mutual responsibility. This chapter presents a series of sections, from Lev 25:2 on, each one of which begins with the words “when your brother waxes poor…” (ki yamukh ahikha), followed by a description of one or another personal misfortune—a person is forced to borrow money on interest; he sells his home in a walled city; he sells a field belonging to his ancestral inheritance; he sells himself into slavery (i.e., as an indentured servant) to another Jew; and, finally, the ultimate indignity, he sells himself to “a resident alien… or the offshoot of an alien’s family” (v. 47)—a non-Jew—as a slave. In each of these cases, the Torah commands those belonging to his milieu—his immediate relatives, the more distant family circle, and ultimately anyone who knows of his misfortune— to come to his help, taking those steps necessary (detailed in the various sections of this chapter) to save him from poverty, and thereby restore him to his erstwhile dignified position within the community.

Offhand, this text would seem to prove beyond a doubt that—if one may use an admittedly anachronistic term when speaking of the distant biblical past, with its less complex social organization—the spirit of Judaism is closer to what we may know today as “socialism,” with its ideas of the innate economic equality of all human beings and the responsibility of the community for the welfare of the individual, than it is to “capitalism,” with its acceptance of the inevitability of harsh economic struggle between human beings and the belief that laisser faire, allowing the free operation of invisible market forces, will ultimately maximum human happiness (sometimes quantified as “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”).

But there are also find texts within Judaism suggesting a diametrically opposed reading of this biblical passage. In a lengthy Talmudic aggadah based on this passage, the series of cases described here are read as the descent of a single unfortunate soul into progressively deeper levels of poverty, interpreted as his just desserts for his own wicked deeds. In the Bavli, Kiddushin 20a, we read (I bring here only the gist of the sugya, skipping the biblical proof texts, taken mostly from our chapter, and various marginal digressions):

Our Rabbis taught: Rabbi Yossi son of Rabbi Hanina said: Come and see how harsh is [the punishment for] even the slightest [transgression of] shevi’it. A person does business with fruits of the seventh year, at the end he sells his moveable property; as is said “In the seventh year each person will return to his homestead,” and immediately thereafter, “And if you sell something to your fellow or buy from your fellow”—referring to that which is traded from hand to hand....

If he did not feel [the element of Providence in this], in the end he sells his field. This does not come upon him until he sells his home… This does not come upon him until he sells his daughter… This does not come upon him until he borrows at interest… This does not come upon him until he sells himself… And not to “yourself” [i.e., to a fellow Jew], but to an alien; and not to a righteous alien, but to a resident alien … this is idolatry.

They taught in the school of Rabbi Ishmael: Since he went and became a priest of idolatry, one might think, “We shall push a stone after the one who is falling.” Scripture says: “after he is sold he shall have redemption; one of his brethren shall redeem him.”

The tone here, if not precisely vindictive, certainly suggests that this person has brought his economic difficulty upon himself: his poverty, the need to sell more and more of his assets and to take increasingly drastic measures to deal with his debts—all these are Divine punishment for his sins. Where then are the love and concern for the poor man that we seemed to see expressed in the peshat of the biblical text?

Our midrash is particularly concerned by the gravity of trade in the fruits of shevi’it, the sabbatical year, or even with avak shevi’it, more marginal violation of these laws. Why is this sin, specifically, singled out? The sabbatical year entails two important religious lessons: the first, trust in God, the belief that He provides food to every creature, even without human effort. On the seventh year one is able to live off the abundance of the earth, the sefihim, the blessing of those crops that grow by themselves (see Lev 25:19-22). This is also the idea of that midrash which compares those who observe shevi’it properly with the angels: “‘Bless God all his angels, mighty of power, who perform His word, who hearken to do His word’—this refers to those who observe shevi’it” (Midrash Shohar Tov at Ps 103:21). Secondly, the notion that “the world is God’s and all that is therein” (Ps 24:1) is symbolically acted out during the shemitah year. One year in every seven we relinquish ownership of our land and allow its fruits to be gathered equally, by all people; all are invited to come and eat, just as the beasts of the field come and freely graze (see v. 7).

Hence, a person who tries to get around these laws and to treat the produce of the seventh year as his private property, to be used for trade and profit, is seen as denying God’s benevolence, ownership and mastery over the world. One might even say: his punishment comes about because he treats the earth as an object for exploitation, to be treated in an instrumental way, without any restriction or limitation. If you wish, he takes the approach of capitalism to its ultimate limits.

We now turn to the question posed in the title of our article. Protestant Christianity, particularly that school associated with the name of John Calvin (1509-1564), has often been associated with the rise of capitalism. By emphasizing thrift, diligence, and hard work as key ethical and spiritual virtues, Protestantism helped create a new class marked by wealth and prosperity, traits that were in turn seen as signs of Divine blessing and favor. This idea also dove-tailed into certain Calvinist theological notions that certain individuals were pre-destined for salvation, of which wealth was seen as a sign—but that goes beyond our concern here.

Interestingly, two early twentieth century German sociologists wrote important books in which they argued the role played by religion in the creation of modern capitalism, focused respectively on Protestantism and on Judaism. I refer to Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and Werner Sombart’s The Jews and Modern Capitalism. Are Judaism and Protestantism indeed so similar in their social ethos? Jews, like Protestants, tend to be sober, hard-working, and have a strong emphasis on the intellect—factors making for success in their chosen endeavors; Jews as a group have clearly enjoyed considerable economic and professional success in the democratic West.

Ought our passage to be read, then, in quasi-Calvinist fashion, in which the loss of wealth is seen as a sign of Divine disfavor? I found an interesting answer to this question in the book Yalkut Yehudah by Yehudah Leib Ginzburg, a little–known rabbi who lived in Denver, Colorado during the first half of the twentieth century, who culled those sayings of the Sages on the Humash which have special bearing on issues of social justice and ethics, to which he adds his own comments (another volume, Mussar ha-Mishnah, approaches the Mishnah in similar fashion). Writing on our passage, he comments:

In general, one should know that what our Sages said in Berakhot 5b, “If a person sees that suffering comes upon him, he should search out his deeds”—for he must certainly assume that this happened to him because of his sins—the implication is that he alone must think thus. But if others see that sufferings befall a certain person, it is forbidden for them to assume that that person is definitely a transgressor. Likewise, when they see that poverty besets someone, they may not say that this came about because of the sins he has done. As it says in Bava Metzi’a 58b: “If sufferings came upon him… they should not speak to him as Job’s companions did to him…”... While it is a good quality for a person to examine his deeds, if he sets about to examine the deeds of others, this is a bad quality. Here too, if a person becomes poor, he must assume that it is because he did business with produce of shevi’it, but others are forbidden from thinking so.

There is thus a clear distinction drawn between how an individual besieged by economic or other troubles ought to look at himself, and how others should relate to him. The suffering individual must search out his actions, to see if there is some sin he may have committed from which he must turn and repent. This idea is deeply anchored in the Jewish faith that the world is not hefker, that it is not controlled by random forces; there is Divine providence, there is a principle of balance, of midah keneged midah at work in the world. God does not act in a cruel or arbitrary manner; there is a reason for everything that happens to us.

But all this relates only to the individual’s personal spiritual accounting, within himself. Others, who see his misfortune, may not even entertain the thought that he “deserved it” or judge him in any way. Their task is to practice kindness, generosity and righteousness, to extend him whatever help and comfort, both material and spiritual, that they are able to give him, and to leave the soul-searching to the one affected. This is the point made in the closing comment to our sugya cited from the school of Rabbi Ishmael: “You might think that we say, ‘Let’s push a stone after the one who is already falling’? Scripture says, ‘After he has been sold, he must be redeemed; one of his brethren shall redeem him’ (v. 48).”


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