Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Tisha b'Av (Zohar)

For more teachings on Tisha b’Av, see the archives to my blog at July 2006, and see the second entry for Devarim, below. There will probably be no HY for Vaethanan, but my previous teachings may be viewed at the archives for August 2006.

Appeal for Blood Donations

July 29 2009. My infant grandson must undergo a major life-saving medical procedure—bone-marrow transplant—in the coming days, and there is urgent need for blood donations, from which short-lived white blood cells will be extracted. Healthy donors with types A+, A-, O+ and O- are asked to report in person at the Blood Bank at Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikvah: Sun-Thurs: 8 am – 7pm; Fri: 8 am – 1 pm. The initial visit is to give a blood sample for screening and testing; those found suitable will be asked to return one evening for an injection to stimulate production of white blood cells, and will return the following morning. Important: please tell the nurse on duty that the blood is for Erez Chipman.

For further information, please call the Blood Bank at Beilinson, 03-937-7023; Sivan, the contact person on behalf of the family, 054-467-6144; Ika, Erez’s father, 054-536-6101. Unfortunately, for technical-administrative reasons all samples and blood donations must be made at Beilinson; my apologies to all my Jerusalem friends for the inconvenience, and my deepest thanks in advance to all those who make the effort to contribute.

Please forward this message to anyone you know who can help.

Tisha b’Av in the Zohar

While there is no extensive discussion of Tisha b’Av as such in the Zohar, the motifs of Exile and Redemption, and particularly the figure of the Shekhinah in exile, play an important part therein. My friend and teacher, Avraham Leader, guided me to what is perhaps the only place in the Zohar where there is an explicit, if brief, reference to Tisha b’Av. In Zohar I:170b (Vayishlah), in the course of a discussion of Yaakov’s wrestling with the angel, the prohibition against eating the sinew of the hip, gid hanasheh. In Zohar I:170b, we read:

For in every person there are 248 limbs, corresponding to the 248 commandments that were given to be done, and the 248 angels which are embodied in the Shekhinah, and whose name is like the name of their Master. And every person has 365 sinews, corresponding to the 365 negative commandments that ought not to be done, and corresponding to the 365 days of the year. And Tisha b’Av is one of them, for it corresponds to Samael, who is one of those 365 angels [other reading: days]. Hence the Torah says, “the children of Israel must not eat the sinew of the hip” (Gen 32:32). And you may say that this [verse] comes to include Tisha b’Av, when one does not eat and does not drink. And for that reason, the Holy One blessed be He saw all, and there is an allusion therein to Jacob. “And a man wrestled with him” (ibid., v. 24). On all the days of the year, and in all the limbs of Jacob, there was not found any [weak spot] but that sinew. Immediately Jacob’s strength waned; and among the days of the year there is found Tisha b’Av, on which he was attacked and judgment was declared upon him, and the Temple was destroyed therein. Thus, whoever eats on Tisha b’Av is as if he ate the sinew of the thigh.

This is part of a broader idea that mitzvot correspond to the human body; the interesting point here is the connection between Tisha b’Av and the sinew, as points of weakness. There is much material, in various Jewish sources, in which the 9th of Av is a day that was “set apart for disaster,” hearkening back to that night in the wilderness when the Israelites wept in their tents upon receiving the pessimistic report of the Spies. Here, gid ha-nashe as weak spot in Jacob’s body (vulnerable point in human body generally; one often here if athletes and other people who use their muscles strenuously becoming “hamstrung”—suffering strain and pain in the “ham” or hip muscle). Since Yaakov is a paradigmatic character, symbolizing the Jewish people, there is a close relation between his physical travail and the catastrophes that will befall the Jewish people as a whole in the future.

Leader also pointed out to me, but without any specific references, that the Zohar interprets the phrase חרבן הבית, hurban ha-bayit, in a hyper-literal manner: חורבן, “destruction,” is read as if a homonym for חריבה, “dried out.” The Shekhinah is often portrayed in Zoharic symbolism as a body of water—a pool or lake or gushing river, providing life-giving water to its surroundings. When the Shekhinah withdraws from the world, all that dries up—and hurban, “dry-destruction,” ensues.

And, indeed, images of water as blessing appear in a number of places in connection with the eschatological visions of ultimate redemption. In Ezekiel 47:1-12 (quoted and elaborated at length in Tosefta Sukkah Ch 2; cf. Joel 4:18) we read of a spring emerging from the House of the Lord, from underneath the altar, which will flow east (in the direction of the arid desert!)—first ankle deep, then knee deep, then hip deep, and finally a torrential flood, too deep for any man to cross—a sweet river, filled with fish, irrigating the countryside all around, with fruit trees on its banks and colorful birds singing from their branches—a veritable Eden!

In Zohar III: 197a-b (Balak), we have the following “poignant conversation between God and the Shekhinah”:

Come And see: The Congregation of Israel first said [at the beginning of the Exile}: “I am black and I am comely” (Song 1:5). She made herself small before the supernal king. Then She [the Shekhinah] asks Him, saying: “Tell me, you whom my heart loves; where [or: how] do you pasture [your flock], where do you make it lie down at noon” (1:7) Two times: Eikha… Eikha. Why? This alludes to the two destructions of the two Temples, for which we read Eikha… Eikha. “How do you pasture,” at the First Temple; “How do you make to lie down,” at the destruction of the Second Temple. For that reason it says twice Eikha… Eikha. “Pasture … make to lie down.” The one is not like the other. Of the Babylonian Exile, which lasted only a brief time, it says “How do you pasture.” But of the exile of Edom, which was a lengthy time, it says “How do you make to lie down.” For that reason, it says two times, Eikha….Eikha.

The word Eikha, “How” or “wherefore” is not only the title of the Book of Lamentations, but also a leitmotif for Tisha b’Av and for the entire period. Eikha is the opening word of three of its five chapters; it also appears as a leitmotif of Shabbat Hazon, appearing in the Torah portion (איכה אשא לבדי; “How can I carry alone…”—Deut 1:12) read and the haftarah (איכה היתה לזונה: “how is she become as a harlot”—Iaa 1:21). Thus, together with the scroll of Eikha itself, one finds eikha repeated in the liturgy of this season in each of the three sections of the Tanakh. The midrash, too, engages in wordplay on this theme; thus, when God calls to Adam in the Garden after the latter had partaken of the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, He calls to him “where are you” —ayeka (Gen 3:9), a word which, without vocalization, may be read as eikha (see, for example, Genesis Rabbah 19.9). It was thus a natural move for the Zohar to interpret the repetition of eikha in Song of Songs as connected with this darker, tragic side of Jewish existence.

And again, “She shall pasture… she shall make lie down.” [Might it not be better] understood as “he shall pasture”; read as “he shall make to lie down”? But then it would be said of Israel. Rather, She [the Shekhinah] said it about Herself. “How can she [the bride] pasture” her children in exile, scattered among the other nations. “How shall you make them to lie down?” How shall she drop upon them dew and water in the heat of noon? “Lest I be like one who wanders [or: sits veiled]“ (ibid.)—when Israel calls out in her trouble and distress, and all the other nations curse and taunt them: When shall you go out of exile? How is it that your god does not make miracles for you? And they all praise the blessed Holy One and thank him for all their troubles and the lengthiness of Exile, and say “So did You pasture us” in early days; “so shall You make us lie down” with us in Exile, and take us out in the latter days. All these are His praises and His faithfulness [that Israel are desirous of], and I sit like a wanderer [one who is veiled] and I cannot perform for them miracles or vengeances.

The Shekhinah feels helpless to do anything, in light of the magnitude of their suffering in Exile; hence, God encourages her in this final section to take courage and an example from her children, the Jews themselves:

And He answers Her, “If you do not know, O most beautiful of women” (Song 1:8). This verse must be read thusly: “If you do not know.” Why “You”? Rather, if you do not know how to gather strength in Exile and to protect your children. “Go out.” Go out and become strong through “the footsteps of the flock.” These are the young children who learn Torah. “and feed your kids.” These are those who were snatched away from the breasts [i.e., killed in infancy], when they were taken from this world and brought up to dwell in the Supernal Yeshiva, “upon the tents of the shepherds.” “Upon,” specifically. It does not say “in the tents of the shepherds” but “upon the tents of the shepherds.” That is the Academy of Metatron, where are all the powerful ones and the children of the world and the leaders of Torah in this world [who taught] what is prohibited and was permitted, everything needed by people of this world, for the “footsteps of the flock” are the children, as we said.

Here, Eikha is read almost as if it were a love song addressed by Israel to God. Despite all the suffering, the exile—and perhaps also the Kiddush Hashem, the martyrdom of entire families, including innocent children, during the Middle Ages, Israel remains loyal and devoted to its Lover/God.


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