Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Pinhas (Zohar)

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

Ayelet ha-Shahar (The Doe of the Dawn)

This week’s Zohar portion—one of the longest in the entire Zohar—contains one of the most beautiful, lyrical passages in the entire Zoharic corpus. A friend of mine is accustomed to conclude his study session on Shavuot night, as dawn approaches, with this passage. In order not to interrupt the poetic flow, we will hold our comments and “intellectualizations” until the end of the text. Zohar III:249a-b:

“And in the seventh month” (Num 29:16). Rabbi Abba began: “As a hart longs for flowing water, so does my soul long for you, O God” (Psalm 42:2). This verse has been interpreted [i.e. in Rabbinic midrashim]. It says here ayal (“hart / hind—i.e., male deer”), and it says there ayalah (“doe, i.e., female deer”), for there is male and there is female. But even though there are male and female, it is all one. For that ayal is itself called male and is called female. Hence it is written “as a hart longs”—ta’arog [i.e., using the feminine form in the future/indefinite tense] and does not say ya’arog [i.e., the masculine form]. For it is all one.

Ayelet ha-shahar. “The doe of the dawn” (Ps 22:1). What is meant by “the doe of the dawn”? There is a certain creature that is compassionate; there is no other creature in all the world who is as compassionate as she. For at a time of want, when she needs food for herself and for all the creatures, she goes far off, on a distant way, and she goes and brings food. And she does not eat until she has returned and come back to her place. Why? So that the other creatures may gather around her and she may divide the food among them. And when she comes, all the other creatures gather around her, and she stands in the middle and gives to each and every one. And the sign of this is “And she rises while it is yet night, and gives food to her household…” (Proverbs 31:15). And from that which she divides among them, she is satiated, as if she had eaten more food than all of them.

And when morning comes, which is called dawn, the travails of exile come to her. And for that reason she is called ayelet ha-shahar, “the doe of dawn”—because of the darkness [just before] dawn. For she suffers pangs like one giving birth, as is written, “like a woman with child whose time draws near, she writhes and cries out in her birthpangs” (Isa 26:17). When does she divide the food among them? When dawn is about to come, when it is still night, and darkness retreats before the light. As we say, “and she rises while it is yet night and gives food to her household.” Once dawn breaks, all are satisfied / satiated with her food.

Then one voice is heard in the middle of the sky, calling with strength, saying: “Those who are close, come up to your place! Those who are distant, go away!” Each one enters the place suitable to it. Once the sun shines, each one enters into its place, as is written, ”The sun rises, they are gathered [and return to their places]” (Ps 104:22). And she goes about during the daytime, and is revealed at night, and divides [food] at dawn. For that reason she is called, “The doe of dawn.”

Thereafter she strengthens herself like a man, and when she goes out she is called ayal (hart). Where does she go? She goes sixty parsangs from that place, ascending the mountain of darkness (and from there she brings the food). She goes up that mountain of darkness, a tortuous serpent twists around her feet, and she goes out from there to the mountain of light. And once she arrives there, the blessed Holy One causes another serpent to come, and they struggle with one another, and she is saved. And from there she takes food and returns to her place in the middle of the night. And from midnight, she is allowed to divide it, until the darkness of dawn dispels. And once day breaks, she goes away and is not seen, as we have said.

But at a time that the world needs rain, all the other creatures gather to her, and she goes to the top of a high mountain and places her head between her knees. And she moans and cries bitterly, moan after moan; and the blessed Holy One hears her voice and is filled with compassion and takes pity on His world. And she comes down from the top of the mountain and hides herself, and all the other creatures run after her and do not find her. Concerning this it is written, “Like a heart yearnings for flowing streams.” What is meant by “flowing streams”? Those streams that have dried up, and the world is parched for water—for these “she longs.”

But when she is with child, she is sealed up. And when her time comes to give birth, she cries out and lifts her voice, cry after cry, up to seventy cries, like the number of words in “The Lord shall answer you on a day of trouble” (Psalm 20), which is the song of the pregnant women. And the blessed Holy One hears her cry and prepares for her near that stream a great serpent from the mountains of darkness, and he comes from between the mountains, his mouth licking the dust until it comes to that hind; and it comes and bites her twice in that place. The first time blood comes out and he licks it up. The second time, water comes out, and all those creatures that are at the mountain drink it; and she opens up and gives birth. And the sign of this is “And he hit the rock twice with his staff” (Num 20:11), and it says “and he gave to the congregation to drink and to their animals” (ibid.). At that time the blessed Holy One has compassion upon her offspring. And this is what is written, “The voice of the Lord makes does to give birth, and strips forests bare (Ps 29: 9). “he voice of God makes the does give birth.” These are the pangs and travails that arouse those seventy voices. Immediately, “and he strips the forests”—to get rid of that snake, and to reveal that creature among them. “And in His palace” (ibid.). What is meant by “in His palace”—in the palace of the blessed Holy One. All those myriads open their mouths and say glory. And what is “glory”? “Blessed be the glory of the Lord from His place” (Ezek 3:12). (In preparing this translation, I made use of I. Tishby’s Mishnat ha-Zohar, Vol. I: 237-239)

Standard Kabbalistic commentaries interpret ayalet ha-shahar as symbolizing the Shekhinah—the female Presence of the Divine within the world, who serves as a channel or reservoir for collecting and distributing Divine blessing and plentitude. On another level, she is Eternal Feminine or the Great Mother—the embodiment of the maternal principle. Mother, whether human or animal, cares for her young to the point of self-sacrifice; certainly, the figure of the ayalah going hungry and being satisfied by her young being satisfied rings true to life, even on the non-symbolic level.

The idea that “male and female are one” (based on the female declension of the verb ערג used in Psalm 42 in reference to a male) is often interpreted as alluding to the zivvug, the intra-Divine union of Tiferet and Malkhut, sefirot taken as symbolizing male and female, respectively. But perhaps one can read it differently: as representing the presence of male and female within the psyche of each individual, what Jungians call the anima and animus within man and woman, respectively. Or again, if the Kabbalistic zivvugim occur within Adam Kadmon, the sefirot as archetypal of the human soul and personality, then perhaps the union of male and female may be read as the inner integration of male and female elements within the personality.

The snakes, the dark mountain, which the ayalah conquers, may be seen as overcoming the Other Side, the demonic forces in the universe, as does t5he snake which curls around her feet, and which later bites her in “that place” (in Hazal, a euphemism for the female genital; that place from which she bears new life, and from which there emerge first blood—symbol of impurity—and than water—symbol of purity). Again, the ayalah’s poignant experiencing of Exile, her birth pangs “just before the dawn,” when it is darkest, are suggestive of the Shekhinah, who is simultaneously the Divine Presence in this world, who is “with you in your troubles” (and who is at times elusive, disappearing and suddenly reappearing), as well as the Jewish people, Knesset Yisrael, the “Congregation of Israel.”

BALAK–Postscript: Magic. Mysticism and Kabbalah

Last week’s parashah described the attempt by Balak attempt to curse the people of Israel through means of the wizard Balaam. Interestingly, the Zohar devotes its opening section to a description of Balak as himself being a practitioner of the magical arts. I present here a brief section from that passage—this time without the Aramaic—at Zohar III: 184b–185a:

“The son of Zippor” (Num 23:2). He was literally “the son of Zippor”—i.e., of a bird—for he practiced magic using various birds. Zippor would take a bird plucking a herb or flying through the air, would perform certain rites and incantations, and that bird would come to him with that grass in its mouth; he would chirp to it and place it in a cage. He would tie knots before it, and it would tell him certain things, and he would perform his magic, and the bird would chirp and fly away to the “Open Eyed” one [i.e., Balaam; see Num 24:4] and inform him, and then return. And everything he did was with that bird.

One day that bird flew away but was delayed… When it came back he saw a fiery flame that flew after it and singed its wings. Then he saw what he saw and greatly feared Israel. What was the name of that bird? “Known.” And all those who used and knew to use that bird [for magic arts] knew…

In the [descriptions] of magic of the primordial Kasdiel [or: Kasriel], we find that they used to make this bird from silver mixed with gold. Its head was of gold, its mouth of silver, its wings of polished copper mixed with silver, its body of gold, the dots on its wings of silver, and its legs of gold. And they placed in its mouth a tongue from that bird called Known, and they set that bird in a window which was opened facing the sun, and at night facing the moon—and thus they would do for seven days. From then on the tongue of that bird would quiver in its mouth, and they would prick its tongue with a needle of gold, and it would utter wonderful things by itself…. and because of that he [Balak] saw what no other human being could know or see. (Translation partially based on Soncino Zohar, Vol. V: pp. 250-251)

In the current popular understanding of such things, mysticism and magic are all rolled together into a single entity, at times identified in turn with what is (mistakenly) called “spirituality” (ruhaniut)—i.e., the belief in an invisible world of spiritual forces and entities of all sorts, which those learned in the occult sciences—Kabbalists , magicians, wizards, and teachers of all sorts—can direct and manipulate for their own benefit or for that of those who ask (and often pay!) for their help.

At the risk of being thought a pedant, I must reiterate here the classical definition of mysticism as a feeling of “intimate communion with God”—which as such has virtually nothing to do with the belief that one can manipulate unseen forces. To make matters more complicated, I would add that Kabbalah, the central stream of what is usually called “Jewish mysticism,” is perhaps better described as “Jewish esoteric teaching”— in Hebrew, hokhmat ha-nistar. This is a certain teaching or school of ideas—traditionally passed down orally from master to disciple, when the latter was considered sufficiently mature and deserving and fit to receive them—about the nature of Godhead and the means He uses (i.e., the Sefirot) to bridge the gap between the Infinite within which He, so to speak, dwells, and the finite cosmos, the material realm within which we all live. In principle, a person can be deeply learned in the Zohar and other Kabbalistic literature without ever having had a mystical or ecstatic experience!

What, then, is the relationship between Kabbalah and magical or “theurgic” practices (i.e., practices aimed at influencing or causing God to behave in certain ways)? The Zohar clearly believed that these powers exist, and that they can be used by those with knowledge of the techniques required to do so. Thus, in the text we brought in last week’s HY, the Yanuka–Wonder Child knew that the two visitors had not recited Shema through certain supernatural or “paranormal” or means of perception he possessed; hence their reaction, “It seems to me his lad is not a human being!” But it is not the main focus of the Zohar’s interest, and at times it seems to me that it even mocks such things—e.g., in the above passage, neither Balak nor Bilam are held up as models for positive emulation, notwithstanding their magical powers.

There is such a thing as “practical Kabbalah”—that is, the use of Kabbalah to manipulate unseen forces in the upper worlds for one’s own benefit—but it, again, is not Zoharuc as such, and even Kabbalists, let alone mainstream Rabbinic authorities, are divided as to its legitimacy. The odd and rather disturbing thing is that there is a resurgence of such beliefs in the contemporary scene—and invariably, so it would seem, exploited by its practitioners for financial gain. There are those who exploit people’s credulity and the universal human desire for power, wealth, and love to get rich through Kabbalah. One international Kabbalistic organization lures people into its Kabbalistic orbit with the promise that it will “unlock the source of joy and fulfillment.” They sell the “Kabbalah Red String” (an ordinary red string that has supposedly been tied around Rachel’s Tomb) to provide protection from the evil eye, all for a mere $26. Scores of home-grown “Kabbalists” take generous sums of money for amulets and other quasi-magical cures and remedies for all the travails of humankind—whether ill health, financial troubles, marital difficulties, “unmarital” difficulties (i.e., the quest for mates for oneself or one’s children), barrenness, etc., etc. Some even threaten the gullible with curses if one does not pay vats sums, or even use promises of blessing if one votes for the right Knesset candidate. Then there is the Kabbalist-rabbi known as the “Roentgen,” so-called for his ability to read people’s innermost thoughts like an X-ray machine, and who, at a mass hilula honoring his father’s Yahrzeit, throws hundreds of packets of candles into a burning inferno. Prominent figures from the world of politics, business, and media are alleged to be avid devotees of this holy man—who, as far as I know, has no particular religious or ethical teaching. A strange country, Israel!

The strange thing, as I said, is that all this has gained a new lease on life from the current intellectual climate of post-modernism and “New Age,” with its disenchantment and disgruntlement with modernist rationality, and the multi-cultural ethos of tolerance, the idea that all beliefs are equally valid. Thus, last week I saw a program about this subject on Israeli television in which a professor of something-or-other argued that it’s wrong for Judaism to impose its own religious exclusivity and to condemn certain phenomena as pagan or idolatrous. Declaring his credo, “Let each man live by his own faith,” the learned professor proudly showed his interviewer an amulet written for him by the late Rav Kaduri. In other words, it is anti-PC to criticize someone for his belief—including belief in rank superstition. The prophet Habakkuk, who coined the phrase “The righteous shall live by his faith,” must surely be turning over in his grave.


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