Thursday, May 14, 2009

Emor (Zohar)

Sefirat ha-Omer

The counting of the Omer—of the 50 days between Pesah and Shavuot, between physical freedom and revelation and covenant—whose mid-point was reached this week, is derived from this week’s parashah, where it is described along with all the festivals of the year. The Kabbalistic aspects of this mitzvah are perhaps more widely known than those of any other: almost everyone who counts the Omer is familiar with the meditation referring to the various combinations of the seven basic sefirot for each of the seven times seven days. Hence, the Zohar’s own discussion of this mitzvah seemed as obvious choice for this week. Zohar III:97a-b:

Rabbi Abba and Rabbi Hiyya were walking in the road. Rabbi Hiyya said: It is written “And you shall count for yourselves from the day after the Shabbat, from the day of bringing the Omer…” (Lev 23:15). Would does this teach? He said to him: the Companions have established it thus. Come and see: When Israel was in Egypt, they were in the domain of the Other [Side], and they were separated, like a woman who sits during the days of her impurity. After they were circumcised their portion ascended to that holy portion called brit, “covenant.” Once they were singled out, their impurity ceased from them, like a woman whose blood of impurity ceases from her. After it ceases from her, what is written? “And she shall count for herself seven days” (Lev 15:28). Here too, once they had ascended to the holy portion, their impurity ceased from them, and the blessed Holy One said: from this point on is their counting of purification.

“And you shall count for yourselves.” “For yourselves”—specifically; just as we say “and she shall count for herself seven days”: “to her”—for herself. Here too, “for you”—for yourselves. Why? So that one may be purified in the supernal holy waters. And thereafter one is connected with the King and to receive the Torah.

It says there, “she shall count for herself seven days,” and here it says “seven weeks.” Why “seven weeks”? So as to be purified by the waters of that river that flows and comes out and is called living waters, and the seven weeks come out of that river. And for that reason “seven weeks”—specifically, so that he might merit thereby, like that pure woman who is united with her husband on that night.

We find here a complete parallel between the seven days of purification counted by the niddah, the menstruant woman, until she is reunited with her husband, and the seven weeks of Omer, purification of Israel Egypt, culminating “connecting with king and receiving Torah.” As we have already noted, the union of man and woman is used repeatedly as a central symbol in the Zohar, both for processes within the Godhead (the zivvug, the “mating” of Hokhmah & Binah, also called Abba & Imma, or of Tiferet & Malkhut), and for the relation between God and Israel. The latter, in which Israel is always the female, also appears in the Bible and Midrash, but here the erotic component is more explicit.

It has been suggested that the absence of a personification of the feminine in monotheistic religion is a serious lack, as a result of which God is seen either in harsh, demanding, authoritarian terms or, later, in the philosophical schools, as a cold, distant, abstract figure. The presence of the female figure of Sophia, the female personification of Divine wisdom in the Gnosticism of late Antiquity, or the Shekhinah in Midrash and Kabbalah, seemed needed to create a kind of psychological balance in the religious world—the anima mundi, the World Soul, who achieves redemption by a motherly type of love and by arousing desire. Yet—thus say the opponents of such imagery—such imagery opens the door to the riotous, if not orgiastic imagery of paganism, and the multitude of godlings of polytheism, which is precisely what the prophets so bitterly fought in ancient paganism. But others, such as the late Prof. Yosef Ben-Shlomo, speak of Kabbalah as reintroducing these mythic elements into Judaism because the pagan world was by then so distant as to be “safe.”

Note here also the water imagery, the seven weeks that “flow out of that river.” This serves to strengthen the parallel to the purification of the woman in thee waters of the mikveh, but is a common Zoharic symbol in its own right: both Binah, the sefirah close to the Divine source, and Malkhut, the “well of blessing” (see the next teaching below) are depicted in terms of water—a natural image for the abundant “flow” of blessing. To cite just two examples from the numerous earlier precedents of this: “And I shall sprinkle upon you pure waters and you shall be purified: (Ezekiel 36:25); and Rabbi Akiva’s double-entendre on Jer 17:13, in which God is the purifying “mikveh of Israel” (Mishnah Yoma 8.9).

It is written thus: “And when the dew descended upon the camp at night” (Num 11:9). It is written ”upon the camp”; it is not written “when the dew descended at night,” but rather “upon the camp.” Because it descended from that point upon those days that are called “camp,” and are connected with the Holy King. And when does that dew descend? When Israel approached Mount Sinai, then that dew descended in wholeness, and they were purified and their impurity ceased from them, and they were connected to the King and to the Congregation of Israel, and they received Torah, and it lasted. And that time is certainly “all the brooks go to down to the sea” (Eccles 1:7), to become clean and purified, and they are all connected [or: sanctified] and connected therein to the Holy King.

Come and see: All those people who do not complete this counting of “seven complete weeks,” so as to merit to purity, are not called pure, and are not included among those who are pure, and are not worthy to have a share in Torah. And one who comes in purity to that day and did not lose that reckoning, when he comes to that night, he is required to involve himself with Torah and to be connected therewith and to guard supreme purity on that night and to be pure…

—This section, like those of the past few weeks not otherwise attributed, were translated by myself. I wish to thank Reb Avraham Leader for his generous and invaluable assistance, both in helping me to understand the peshat for purposes of interpretation, and in interpretation of the deeper meanings, without which this would not have been possible.

Here, the water imagery is changed from the “stream” to the ”dew” which falls upon the camp, providing the final element of purification before receiving Torah. Note the idea that those who do not count the Omer, or fail to complete its counting, do not benefit from the inner purification that results from its counting. Here, Sefirat ha-Omer, which in Rabbinic literature is not a particularly important mitzvah (perhaps three or four lines are devoted to it the entire Talmud, at Menahot 66a) becomes one of crucial spiritual importance, a vital prerequisite for the [repeated] receiving the Torah that occurs on Shavuot.

This passage goes on to talk about the night of Shavuot and the special merit of Torah study on that night. With God’s help, we shall present that section in our teaching for Shavuot.

It should be mentioned here that Lag ba-Omer falls on Monday night and Tuesday of this week—a festive day associated in the popular imagination with Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai and the Zohar, when hundreds of thousands of people flock to the site of the great tanna’s grave in the Gailean villager of Meron. But, in point of fact, Lag ba-Omer as such is mentioned nowhere in the Zohar; it has been suggested that its identification as the date of R. Shimon’s death is based on a confusion between the phrases “the day of his joy” and “the day on which he died” (יום שמחתו and יום שמת בו) in a later source. If so, then it is rather the day of a great epiphany on which secrets of the Torah were revealed to him; some, such as Yehudah Liebes, have suggest that this in fact alludes, not to Lag ba-Omer, but to Shavuot. But there is also a tradition that the two are the same: the day on which Rabbi Shimon died was one on which he revealed great and profound secrets to the Companions at the gathering known as the Idra, because it occurred on a threshing-floor (Idra in Aramaic); these secrets are recorded in two special sections of the Zohar known as the Idrot: the Idra Rabba, or “Great Idra,” and the Idra Zutra, or “Small Idra.” The Idra Rabba in fact appears in the Zohar in Parashat Naso, the Shabbat that generally follows immediately upon Shavuot, while the Idra Zutra is in Ha’azinu, close to Yom Kippur. Hence, we shall discuss these and bring some passages in their proper place.


Post a Comment

<< Home