Sunday, July 05, 2009

Balak (Zohar)

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

I have belatedly posted this year's teachings on Shavuot, which may now be found below in their proper place.

Rav Hemnuna Sabba’s Wunderkind

In this week’s parasha we encounter a figure seen in several places in the Zohar—the yanuka or child prodigy. This lad is remarkable, not only for his extraordinary knowledge of Torah (both revealed and esoteric—here, he delivers a series of off-the-cuff Kabbalistic homilies), not only for his meticulous piety, but also for his preternatural spiritual perceptions and powers—which include scathing criticism of the Companions themselves!—and an aura of mystery that surrounds him. Besides everything else, it’s a good story on the simple human level. Zohar III: 186a-187a:

Rabbi Isaac and Rabbi Yehudah were walking on the way. They came to the village of Sakhnin, where Rav Hemnuna Sabba had lived, and lodged at the home of his wife [i.e., widow], who had one small son who was in school all day. On that day he left school and came home. He saw these sages, and his mother said to him: Approach these holy men and get a blessing from them. He approached them, but before he came to them he turned back. He told his mother: I don’t want to approach them, because they did not read the Shema today, and I have been taught thusly: Whoever did not read Shema at the proper time is under a ban the entire day. They heard him and were astonished, so they lifted their hands and blessed him. They then said: Surely, that is how it was. Today we were involved in caring for a certain bride and groom who didn’t have their needs and had postponed their marriage, and there was nobody else to act on their behalf. Hence we acted on their behalf, and did not read the Shema in its proper time. For one who is engaged in a mitzvah is exempt from performing another mitzvah.

The unusual nature of this boy (child? lad? youth?) is shown straightaway in his reluctance to follow his mother’s instruction to show respect to these distinguished visitors, and is reinforced by his outspoken and unabashed criticism of their behavior, of which he could only know through supernatural means.

They said to him: My son, how did you know this? He said to them: From the smell of your clothing when I approached you. They were astonished; after that they sat down and washed their hands and broke bread. Rabbi Yehudah’s hands were soiled, but he washed his hands and said the blessing [this seems to refer to the Garce after Meals, as per below] without washing. He [the yanuka] said to him: If you are disciples of Rav Shemaya the Pious, you ought not to recite the blessing with soiled hands, for one who blesses with soiled hands is subject to the death penalty.

It is not clear whether the boy accepted R. Yehudah and R. Yitzhak’s earlier explanation for their failure to recite Shema (which was perfectly legitimate halakhically); in any event, here he catches one of them out in another ritual violation. This is exacerbated by their failure to respect the tradition they had received from their saintly teacher, Shemaya the Pious. (Incidentally, at this late date, well after the Destruction and the Hadrianic Persecutions [circa 135 CE], it’s difficult to imagine that this is the same Shemaya as is familiar from the zugot in Pirkei Avot—but who knows?) Meanwhile, the yanuka delivers the first of a series of Kabbalistic homilies:

The child began by saying: “When they enter into the Tent of Meeting, they shall wash their hands with water and not die” (Exod 30:20). We derive from this scriptural verse that one who is not careful about this and appears before the King with soiled hands is culpable of the death penalty. What is the reason? Because a person’s hands sit upon the heights of the world. There is one finger in a person’s hand which is the same finger that Moses lifted up. It is written, “And you shall make bars of acacia wood, five for the frame of the sanctuary on one side, and five for the frame of the sanctuary on the opposite side” (Exod 26:26-27). And it says “The middle bar shall span through, from one end to the other” (ibid., 28). Now, lest you think that that middle bar was not among those five, it is not so; rather, that middle bar was among the five: two on one side, two on the other, and one in the middle. And this was the central bar, the pillar of Jacob, the secret of Moses, like the five fingers of a human being. And this middle bar is in the center, greater and more sublime than the others, and through it all the others are sustained. And these five boards correspond to the five hundred years during which the Tree of Life goes out. And the holy covenant is awakened by the five fingers of the hand…

The five fingers of the hand, to which the practical rule of washing hands apply, opens up an entire world of associations: the five boards that held the Sanctuary together; and, in turn, the cluster of five sefirot found in the center of the Sefirotic “map”—Hesed, Gevurah, Netzah, and Hod, which surround Tiferet, ”the pillar of Jacob,” the central sefirah which harmonizes and mediates among the extremes: the “middle bar that spans from one end to the other.” In the imagery of the sefirot as Adam Kadmon, the archetypal human being, Tiferet is the torso, to which the four limbs are connected. Moses, who in some schemes is Nezah, is also part of the central column of the sefirot: Yaakov and Moshe, as Tiferet and Da’at, hold the entire structure together.

Hence, all the blessings of the priests depend upon the fingers, in the same manner as the spreading of Moses’ hand. Given all this, is it not proper that they ought to be clean when one blesses the Holy One, as it is through them and their like that the Holy Name is blessed? Given, therefore, that you are very wise, how is it that you were not careful about this? Have you not served R Shemaya the Pious, who said: All dirt and filth betake themselves to the Other Side, which derives sustenance from them. For that reason, the Latter Waters (mayim aharonim; i.e., before Grace After Meals) is an obligation. And they were astonished, and could not say anything.

Yet another mitzvah in which the hands play a symbolic role is the Priestly Blessing, in which the priests hands are joined at the thumbs, the other four fingers of each hand being divided into two groups of two—again, fitting the scheme outlined above.

He then goes on to introduce the notion of the Sitra Ahara—the “Other Side,” i.e., the powers of evil and impurity that exist in the world. The idea here is that the realm of evil must be given a certain minimum sustenance—in this case, the water which carries away filth attached to the hands—as otherwise it will seek to “feed” upon other places, and begin to swell and grow out of all proportion. This is an important psychological insight: there is never a total defeat of the Other Side; there is never (or hardly ever) a person who achieves absolute religious perfection, purity, holiness. There is always some small part that “belongs” to the Other Side—hence the idea of giving some small “table scraps,” so to speak, to the demonic forces, lest they grow and take over altogether everything. This is further elaborated below.

More generally, the Yanuka’s homilies are all focused on examples of specific halakhot or ritual practices and customs and their Kabbalistic rationales, showing himself, despite his youth, as a sage whose scope of knowledge and thought equally embrace halakhah and aggadah/Kabbalah. We continue here:

Rabbi Judah said: My son, what is your father’s name? The lad was silent for a moment; then he went over to his mother and kissed her. He said to her: Mother, they asked me about father…. His mother answered him: My son, have you examined them? He said: I have examined them, and have not found them fitting. His mother whispered to him, and he returned to them. He said: You asked me about father. Now, he has departed this world, but every day when sublime pious men come on the road, he follows after them as if he were a beggar. And if you are sublime holy people, how is it that you did not notice a beggar walking after you?! But before I saw you [i.e., as really are] and now too I see you, for father never sees [a wise man] without following him with his donkey, so as to carry the burden of Torah. Since you did not merit to see father going after you, I will not tell you who my father is. Rabbi Judah said to R Yitzhak: It seems to me that this lad is not a human being [an expression of astonishment; meant as hyperbole, not that he is literally not human].

In this brief exchange, we see the Yanuka imbued with a deep sense of belonging to a kind of spiritual elite—so much so that his very identity, the name of his father, is a secret that must be kept from all but the holiest and purest of men. Equally strange, R. Yitzhak and R. Yehudah seem to accept with grace and humility the insult implied by his telling them that they are not worthy of knwong his name!

They ate their meal, while the lad said new and wondrous words of Torah. Upon finishing they said: “Come, let us say Grace.” He said to them: You have spoken well, for the Holy Name is not to be blessed until the Invitation (i.e., Zimmun) is said.

He then quoted the verse: “I will bless the Lord at all times” (Ps 34:2). He said: the permissive form, “I will bless” (or: “let me bless”) is used, for when a man sits at the table, the Shekhinah is there, and the Other Side is also there. But when a man invites the company to bless the Holy One, the Shekhinah takes her place above to receive the blessings, and the Other Side is subdued. But if a man does not invite the company to bless, the Other Side hears and pushes in, so that he may have a share in that blessing.… [He then elaborates as to why this danger doesn’t exist in the case of other blessings, such as that over fruit. The scene then concludes:] Rabbi Judah said: Happy is our lot, for never until this moment have I heard these things. Assuredly, I say, this is no son of man…..

They again kiss him and give him blessings; the Yanuka presents several more Kabbalistic homilies on a variety of interwoven subjects, until they finally prepare to say Grace. The conclusion of the scene is particularly moving: Zohar III: 187b-188a:

They came and kissed him as before, and they said: “Come, let us say Grace.” He said: I shall say Grace, for all that you have heard thus far has been from me. I shall thereby fulfill in myself the verse, “He that has a bountiful eye shall be blessed” (Prov 22:9), which may be read as “shall bless.” Why? Because “he has given of his bread to the poor” (ibid.). You have eaten of the bread and food of my Torah.

R. Yehudah said: My son, beloved of the Lord, we have learned that “the host breaks bread and the guest says Grace” (sugyot in b. Berakhot Ch. 7). He replied: Neither am I host nor are you guests, but I have found a text which I will carry out. For I am certainly “bountiful of eye,” seeing that without being asked I have spoken till now, and you have eaten my bread and food. He took the cup of blessing and said Grace, and his hands could not support the cup and they trembled as he held it. When he came to [the blessing] “for the Land and for the food,” he exclaimed: “I will lift up the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord” (Ps 116:13). He put the cup down and took it up in his right hand and resumed. At the end he said: May it be God’s will that the life of one of these may be prolonged from the Tree of Life on which all life depends, and may the blessed Holy One be surety for him, and may he find surety for himself below with the help of the Holy King. He then closed his eyes for a moment, and when he opened them he said: Companions, peace to you from the Lord of goodness, to whom the whole world belongs. They wondered greatly; then they wept and blessed him, and they stayed there overnight, and in the morning they rose early and departed.

When they came to Rabbi Shimon, they told him all that had happened. R. Shimon was greatly astonished, and said: He is a mighty rock, and is worthy of this and even more than one can imagine. He is the son of Rav Hemnuna the Elder. R. Eleazar was very excited and said: I must go to see that Flaming Lamp. But R. Shimon said: His name will not be known in the world, because there is something very exceptional about him. It is the light of the anointing of his father which shines on him from the supernal light, and this secret is not to be divulged among the Companions. (Translation partially based upon the Soncino Zohar, V: 254-257, 259)


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