Sunday, July 05, 2009

Hukat (Zohar)

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

“The Law of the Torah”—and Other Laws

This week I shall present a passage from the beginning of this week’s Zohar, which develops its first verse by almost free association. Zohar III: 179b-180a:

Rabbi Shimon and R. Abba and R. Eleazar and R. Yitzhak were at the home of R. Pinhas ben Yair. R. Pinhas b. Yair said to R. Shimon: I beg of you—you, who have been above and seen in a revealed manner what no other person has been permitted to see, say some new words on this portion. He said to him: And what is it? He replied: “This is the law of the Torah” (i.e., Hukat; Numbers 19:2).” He said: Let the other Companions say. He asked Rabbi Eleazar his son: Eleazar! Rise up in your place and say a word on this portion, and the Companions will say after you.

Pinhas ben Yair was a model of tannaitic piety, celebrated far and wide, both in the Zohar and in the Mishnah and Talmud, for his scrupulous and meticulous behavior. He is perhaps best known for his articulation of the series of personal qualities, or middot (at the end of Sotah and elsewhere) by which one may ultimately attain the Holy Spirit—a list which forms the framework for Ramhal’s ethical treatise Mesillat Yesharim—and for having a donkey who was more pious then many a human being (see HY III: Hayyei Sarah).

This opening narrative is interesting. R. Pinhas asks R. Shimon, who was known to have ascended to Heaven, and thus had first hand knowledge of the secrets of Torah, to say something on the weekly portion. But he defers, first to the other members of the group, then to his son R. Eleazar in particular:

Rabbi Eleazar rose up and said: “And this is how it was in Israel in times past, regarding redemption and transfer, to confirm any matter” (Ruth 4:7). One needs to reflect upon this verse. If the people of old observed this practice [based upon] the laws of the Torah, and those who came after them nullified it, why did they do so? Is not one who nullifies a single word of Torah as if he has destroyed the entire world?! And if it is not [based on] the laws of the Torah, but simply a convention, why is the shoe [mentioned] here? But certainly, it was based on the laws of the Torah, and the thing was done through a supernal secret. And because the former ones were pious, they merited that these words be revealed among them; but once sinners became more numerous in the world, these things were done in a different matter, as these words, that were done in a sublime secret, were concealed.

R. Eleazar begins with an interesting question: there is a scene in the final chapter of the Book of Ruth in which Boaz goes to another “redeemer,” who is closer to Naomi and Ruth’s deceased menfolk than he is, to relinquish his claims both on Elimelekh’s estate and on the attendant obligations to his widowed daughter-in-law. This verse describes an archaic custom, in which such transfer of rights and obligations was done by means of removing a shoe. More than halitzah, this sounds like a precursor of kinyan sudar—the lifting of a handkerchief or other small garment to symbolize the acquisition of certain intangible rights recorded in a document. The Zohar’s question is based on a deep reverence for the Torah: if they did this thing in ancient times, presumably it was based on Torah; how then could later generations have abandoned it? And if not, who cares, and why bother to mention it? The answer, again typically Zoharic, is that this custom somehow embodied a holy secret, of which later generations were no longer worthy.

One will note that this opening has nothing to do with the title verse of Hukat, except perhaps for the use of the word זאת, “this,” as the opening word. Much like the Midrash, the Zohar—which has often been called a “mystical midrash,” and follows similar methodology, if with different concerns—often uses the petihta structure; this begins with a verse from the Holy Writings, and only arrives at the Torah verse ostensibly under discussion after a long and circuitous route:

Come and see: “And He said: Do not draw close! Remove your shoes from your feet” (Exodus 3:5). Why is there a shoe here? Rather, we say that He commanded him concerning his wife, that he should separate from her and unite with another woman upon whom there is the holy light—namely, the Shekhinah. And that same shoe is used in another place: he was removed from this world and placed in the other world. And for that reason, whenever a person sees death in a dream, he does well to take some undistinguished [literally: bad] article of clothing from his home, such as a sandal. What is the reason for this? So that he may take his feet, which are [i.e. symbolize] a human being’s existence in this world, and bring them into the other world, the place where death exists, as is written: “How beautiful are your steps in your shoes, O noble daughter “ (Songs 7:2). [What is meant by “noble daughter”? This is the daughter of Abraham, as is written, “the nobles of the peoples gathered together, the people of the God of Abraham” (Ps 47:10)—and not God of Isaac.] And the secret of these words is among the Companions. And that refers to when death takes them. But during life, he pulls off the shoe and gives it to another person, so as to sustain that which exists [i.e., is alive], as was done in the above edict. And the shoe of halitzah [i.e., releasing the surviving brother from levirate marriage] is like that which we saw above, another shoe; but all of it is one place (or: united; one secret).

Here we turn to the actual esoteric homily, the exposition of the secret itself. This relates: first, to Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush; second, to premonitions of death; and third, to yibbum and halitzah, levirate marriage and the release therefrom, and ideas of reincarnation and transmigration of souls.

The common denominator of all these is shoes, and the feet on which they are worn, which symbolize the person’s being—that on which he or she “stands.” Transferring a shoe means transferring a person’s essence, whether from life to death, from death to life (i.e., as a protective rite to counteract a dream that seems to augur death) or, in the case of Moses, his leaving one woman for another “woman.” As a person who existed on a totally transcendent level, constantly open to converse with God, Moses was, as it were, married to the Shekhinah. (His abandoning of His “Kushite” wife for this reason was the subject of Aaron and Miriam’s criticism of him in Number 12, for which the latter was punished.)

The concluding section of this passage, which I cannot translate or explain here due to limitations of time, alludes to the notion of transmigration or metempsychosis of souls underlying the commandment of yibbum—a subject treated by the Zohar at length in Sabba de-Mishpatim. The brother of a man who does without offspring is commanded to marry his widow, so as to “sustain his brother’s seed.” (Deut 25:5-10) In Kabbalah, both Zoharic and its contemporaries, and especially in the later Lurianic school (e.g., Sefer ha-Gilgulim), the infant born of such a union is seen as a reincarnation of the dead man, providing his anchorless soul with a home.


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