For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog, at April 2006.
The Idra Rabba
Although the parashah whose name appears above has already passed here in Israel, outside of the Land, where the Torah readings are one week behind those here (due to the Second Day of Shavuot that fell last Shabbat), it still remains to be read. In any event, Parashat Naso contains one of the deepest sections of the Zohar, known as the Idra Rabba (III: 127b-145a). Along with the Idra Zuta, or “Smaller Idra” (Ha’azinu; III: 287b-296b), and the Safra de-Tzeniuta (Terumah; II:176b-179a), these sections constitute the core of the Zohar’s teaching on the nature of the Godhead. The name Idra (or Idrot, in the plural, used to refer to both these sections) is the Aramaic word for “threshing floor,” referring to the place where Rabbi Shimon gathered together his disciples, the Hevraya or “Companions” who appear throughout the Zohar, to reveal especially profound secrets.
I will not go into the actual contents of this section in any depth. Regarding these sections, at least, it seems wisest to exercise some of the traditional reserve and discretion which states that one ought not to reveal esoteric matters in an open, public manner (“One does not reveal Ma’aseh Merkavah, the secrets of the ‘Divine Chariot’ [literally, the esoteric meaning of Ezekiel’s vision in Chapter 1 of his book] to even one person, unless he is wise and understands by himself”—and even in that case one only tells him rashei perakim, ‘chapter headings’—Mishnah Hagiggah 2.1). This is particularly so, given that I am myself something of a novice, far from understanding these more esoteric teachings with any great clarity. Suffice it to say that, whereas most of the Zohar is concerned with the Sefirot—the various emanations or vessels or instruments utilized by God in creating the world and in acting within it, and the interactions among them—this section focuses on the nature of the Godhead Itself. (I should add that the precise nature of the Sefirot is itself a subject of some controversy. Some later Kabbalistic theologians, who attempted to create a coherent, lucid and consistent system out of the vast body of homily, myth and symbolism that makes up the Zohar, say that the Sefirot are themselves part of the atzmut, the substance of the Godhead, while others say that they are kelim, instruments used by God, created entities, and as such not part of His own Self.)
More specifically, the Idra Rabba is an attempt to delineate or even in some sense create the image of the “face” and “beard” of the Atika Kaddisha, and thereafter the “face” and “beard” of the Ze’ir Anpin. ‘Atika Kaddisha, “the Holy Ancient One,” an expression based on the Divine epithet used in the Book of Daniel, ‘Atik Yomin, “the Ancient One of Days” (7:9, 13, 22), whose garments and beard are “white as snow.” In the Zohar this phrase is used to refer to God’s most hidden aspects, that which dwells in the recesses of the Infinite, beyond any human description, to which we can perhaps refer but of which we can essentially say nothing. Some have suggested that this is best described by the paradoxical term Ayin, the “Nothing,” perhaps not unlike the Buddhist concept of the Infinite Nothingness.
But through the very act of describing His “face” and “beard,” the Infinite Hidden God begins to assume shape and form, which may be imagined as possessing a will and desiring to create a universe. The beard, specifically, corresponds in some sense to the stream of energy flowing down from the Infinite into this world. (The notion of God as having a body, with a face and beard, was of course seen as scandalous by many philosophically minded Jews. Indeed, in standard editions of the Zohar a redactor or proofreader named Avraham introduces the Idra Rabba with the disclaimer that none of these matters are to be taken in the literal sense, but must be understood as metaphors, as ways of speaking of God, Who is transcendent and beyond all corporeality. But did the author of the Zohar think thus? The court is still out, to say the least.)
The familiar scheme of ten sefirot is barely present in the Idrot. There are only Atika Kadisha, or Arikh Anpin, the “Long Face,” Who transcends even Keter, not to mention the supernal pair known as Abba/Imma = Hokhmah/Binah; Ze’ir Anpin, the “Little Face,” identified with the entire realm of sefirot, or especially with the six central sefirot; and, Nukva, the Female Principle, corresponding to Malkhut/Shekhinah, with whom ‘Atika Kadisha ecstatically unites at the end of the Idra Rabba. These terms, which hardly appear in the main body of the Zohar, are extensively used and elaborated in Lurianic Kabbalah, some two and a half centuries later, in the doctrine of the Divine partzufim, or “faces.”
Having said that, we now present the opening passages of the Idra Rabba, to give readers some feeling of the nature of this text, and in passing we shall dwell upon one or two more ideas. Zohar III:127b:
The Holy Great Idra
They taught: Rabbi Shimon said to the Companions: How long shall we dwell in the place of the one pillar? It is written, “It is time to act for the Lord, they have abrogated your Torah” (Ps 119:126). The time is short, the creditors press, the proclamation is read out every day, and those reaping the field are few—and only at the edge of the vineyard. And they do not see and do not know where they are going, as is fitting.
Between the lines, one gains a feeling of great urgency here. These are not mystics who live in some sort of trans-historic calm, detached from the world surrounding them; their theosophic concerns, which to the modern reader seem abstruse and esoteric, somehow embody knowledge which is of vital importance to the entire world. There is an atmosphere of pre-Messianic crisis, of crucial events about to occur.
Enter, O Companions, the House of the Idra, garbed in armor, carrying swords and spears in your hands. Be zealous and quick in your preparations—in counsel, wisdom, intellect, knowledge, sight, with strength of hands and feet. Coronate upon yourselves He [the King] in whose domain is life and death; to declare words of truth, words to which the supreme Holy Ones hearken and are joyful to hear and know them.
Rabbi Shimon sat and wept. He said: Woe if I reveal it, and woe if I do not reveal it! The Companions who were there were silent. Rabbi Abba rose and said to him: It is fitting before our Teacher to reveal it, for it is said “the Lord’s secret is with those who fear him” (Ps 25:14), and all these Companions fear the Holy One blessed be He. And they have already ascended during the Convocation (Idra) of the House of the Sanctuary, when some entered and some left.
They taught: The companions were numbered before Rabbi Shimon, and there were present there R. Eleazar his son, R. Abba, Rabbi Judah, R. Yossi b. Yaakov, R. Yitzhak, R. Hizkiyah b. Rav, R. Hiyya, R. Yossi, and R. Yisa. They gave their hands to R. Shimon, raised their fingers aloft, went into the field between the trees, and sat down. Rabbi Shimon rose up and prayed his prayer. And he sat down by them and said: Let each one place his hands on my breast; they placed their hands and he took them, and began to teach the deepest secrets.
An important aside: The Companions and their social interaction play an important role in the Zohar. In Western culture, we are used to thinking of mysticism as a solitary concern—such figure as Trappist monks, silent for their whole lives; or certain Church fathers, who lived lives of extreme isolation, in caves in the desert or atop a pillar for twenty years; or the proverbial Buddhist masters on mountain tops in Tibet or Nepal, spending their lives meditating in splendid solitude; or even contemporary Buddhist retreats, where people sit in silence for entire days, readily come to mind. With some rare exceptions, this is not the case of Jewish mysticism, and certainly not of the Zohar. We see the Companions constantly talking to one another (in the best tradition of New York Jews!), walking together on the road, stopping here and there, sharing thoughts, homilies and Torah teachings they’ve heard.
We also know that the actual history of the Kabbalah revolves around social groupings and circles: Yitzhak Baer has written of the circle of the Raya Mehemna; recent Zohar research speaks of a circle of authors associated with the main body of the Zohar; the Ari’s teaching in Tzfat was conveyed through a group of disciples; among the precursors of Hasidism was the circle in the ”Klaus” in Brod; in early Hasidism there was the circle around the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid, while later on this was institutionalized in circles of Hasidim centered upon the charismatic figure of the Rebbe–Tzaddik. In general, the circle of the Companions, with the charismatic figure of Rabbi Shimon, may be seen as a paradigm for later Jewish mystics, almost always organized in circles of disciples and teacher.
It is also significant that the Companions listed here, including Rabbi Shimon, are exactly ten in number—a minyan. Possibly, besides the obvious significance of a minyan in Judaism generally, this also corresponds to the ten sefirot; perhaps they even sat in an arrangement corresponding to the different sefirot.
When R. Shimon began to recite most secret things, the place shook, and the Companions quaked. He revealed secrets and began by saying: It is written, “These are the kings who reigned in the land, before a king reigned in Israel” (Gen 36:31). Happy are you, O righteous ones, that there are revealed to you the secret secrets of the Torah, that have not been revealed to the highest holy ones. Who shall see this, and who shall merit this, which is witness to the faith of all. May my prayer be [accepted] with Will, that I not be held guilty for revealing this. And what shall the Companions say, for this is a difficult verse, that human beings cannot know and listen and feel it in their knowledge.
They taught: The most ancient of ancients, hidden of hiddenness, before the royal garments and the adornment of the crowns were ready—there was no beginning and no end, and He would engrave and estimate in Himself. And he spread a partition before Himself, in which He shaped and chiseled the kings, but their tikkunim were not sustained, as is written, “And these are the kings who lived in the land of Edom before a king reigned for the children of Israel.” The primeval king, of the primeval children of Israel. And all that were chiseled (but could not be sustained) were called by their names. And they did not exist for long, but He placed them and hid them away. And after some time He ascended to [or: looked upon] that partition, and was dressed in His garments. And they taught: When it arouse in His will to create, the Torah ws hidden for two thousand years [an allusion to the Talmudic aggadah: “The Torah preceded the world by two thousand years”], and then she came out, and immediately she said before Him: He who wishes to garb and to create must first put on His own garments.
The “death of the kings” is a profound and major subject of the Idrot in its own right, in which the Zohar projects a routine, historic genealogy referring to the early kings of Edom back into a kind of mythical prehistory of the universe, reading the names of these kings as entities that preceded the Creation of the universe, and that were ultimately destroyed because of the lack of balance among the various sefirot (note also the Talmudic aggadah that God created and destroyed 974 worlds before our own). This may also be read is a kind of prefiguring or earlier version of the story of Shevirat hakelim, the pre-Creation catastrophe that figures so prominently in Lurianic Kabbalah, and which may be read as a kind of source for the chaos, disorder and general imperfection of our universe.