Thursday, September 17, 2009

Rosh Hashanah (Zohar)

For more teachings on Rosh Hashana and this season, see the archives to my blog at September 2006.
After three months of incessant and intense struggle to live, filled with alternating hope and despair, prayer, and intensive medical examination, analysis and treatment, and with the help of very many people, our grandson Erez returned his pure soul to its Maker last Sunday evening. His death has deeply shaken us, together with the rest of the family, and most especially the bereaved parents, Ika and Leeza. May this New Year mark an end to all suffering and curses and misfortune, and the beginning of a New Year of blessing—for all of us, for Beit Yisrael, and for the world in general.

Short Thoughts for Rosh Hashana

1. Why does Rosh Hashana fall in the autumn and not the spring? There is a well-known Rabbinic dispute as to whether the world was created in the month of Nissan or Tishrei. What is this dispute really about? Offhand, springtime would seem to be more fitting. Spring is a time of newness: first buds and blossoms, and all of nature awakening. Artist David Moss, in an ornate Passover Haggadah he created some years ago, has a full page near the beginning showing seeds: spring is a time of emergence of new life from its most basic beginnings. Whatever growth there was until then had been dormant, underground, hidden, like a woman’s pregnancy—or like the Israelites in Egypt, who were slaves, as yet unshaped, without their own culture or sense of self.

Tishrei, by contrast, comes at the end of an entire spring and summer of growth, of warmth, of fruitfulness, of the fulness of life, culminating in the ingathering of fruit. In the cycle of human life: if spring is birth, and Shavuot is maturity, autumn is the approaching end of life. It is the turning point; “the summing up” (to quote the title of Somerset Maugham’s autobiography).

And perhaps that is precisely the point. The renewal of Tishrei is not that of total freshness, of new creation, but the newness that comes after fulness, after experience. The two poles represent hiddush vs. hithadshut: absolute newness vs. renewal—if you like, they are William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Tishrei is a time for discovering inner powers of rebirth, of change, of new direction, built upon the experience of life already lived. Tishrei is the renewal of teshuvah—of turning, of repentance, of the difficult inner work of confronting that which has become stale, even rotten, within oneself, and preparing a new path; it is the acceptance of Torah, not with the youthful enthusiasm of Sinai, but of what I once called the “Covenant of the Cleft of the Rock”—after the sin of the Calf, after the people had discovered their capacity for indifference, for forgetting the covenant, for sin. An adult is no longer a tabula rosa, but he/she may still make a new beginning (what some have called “second innocence” or “second naivete”), but it is a dialectical process, based upon self-knowledge, including knowledge of failure and stumbling and of the obstacles on the way.

2. Shabbat and Rosh Hashana. Once again, this year the first day of Rosh Hashana falls on Shabbat, so we will not blow the shofar on that day. There are two reasons for this omission. One is technical: gezerah de-Rava—the ordinance of the amora Rava that one not perform mitzvot involving a physical object on Shabbat, lest one carry it through the public domain. But there is another view, invoked in the Jerusalem Talmud, that infers this law from the verses yom teru’ah and zikhron teru’ah—that there is a day of Horn-blowing and a day for “remembering” the horn blowing. This latter is associated with Shabbat, when we do not actually sound the shofar blast, but recite the prayers and blessings and biblical verses of the three additional blessings added to Musaf on Rosh Hashana.

There are two kinds of prayer: shirah & tze’akah—“song” and “crying-out.” The former is prayer as melody, as celebration, as music, filled with joy and harmony; the latter is the cry of a soul in pain and distress, in torment, calling for urgent help and relief. The blessings of Musaf, even if written in prose, are a form of shirah—a glorious poem of exaltation, acknowledging God as King, as He who remembers, as Creator and Lawgiver and ultimate Redeemer; it is a well-ordered, systematic presentation of the basic ideas of Jewish faith, illustrated by Biblical texts whose selection is itself a sort of artistry. By contrast, the raw, primitive sounds of the shofar may be likened to a person crying out or weeping in pain, alternatively moaning and sobbing; a pre-verbal, elemental sound.

Interestingly, there is a close parallel between the two: the blowing of the shofar basically consists of thirty notes: three sets of 3 sets of 3 or 4 notes. Similarly, the blessings of Musaf contain a total of thirty biblical verses, distributed among three blessings, each one of which has three verses from each of the three sections of the Tanakh, plus a concluding verse from the Torah, making a total of 3 x (3 x 3 + 1) = 30.

On Shabbat, we engage in shirah alone; somehow, beyond the technical halakhic reason, there is a fundamental incompatibility between the sprit of Shabbat—a spirit of peace and harmony, of inner calm and restfulness of the soul—and that represented by the painful crying out of the Shofar. We thus stand before God, declaring Him king, in a poetic song of love—but without the urgency of the shofar blasts to punctuate and reinforce it.

But, in truth, the shofar itself is more complex. In Psalm 150, the shofar is the very first musical instrument mentioned as used to praise God, immediately after the two introductory verses that speak of praising God in His holy place, for His greatness and strength. In reading the blessing of shofarot, one gets a sense of the full panoply of associations and meanings of the shofar—from Mount Sinai, through the instruments used in the Temple service, down to the shofar heralding Messiah. (For further discussion of this, see HY I: Rosh Hashanah)

3. Yaknahaz. On the Second Night of Rosh Hashana this year, Saturday night, we recite an unusual form of Kiddush—a total of five blessings, weaving together Havdalah and Kiddush, distinguishing between Shabbat and festival day, between the different kinds or degrees of holy time. This form of Kiddush is known as Yaknahaz, an acronym derived from the names of its five blessings: יין קידוש, נר, הבדלה, זמן (שהחיינו) — wine, Kiddush, candle (of havdalah), Havdalah, and “time” (Sheheheyanu).

In many medieval Passover haggadot, this text is illustrated by a picture of a hare hunt—an image based upon an elaborate pun: the German word Jagenhaz means “hare hunt.” But there may be a symbolic meaning as well, the poor rabbit being chased by mounted hunters and ferocious foxes serving as an allegory for the Jews, a people perpetually persecuted and pursued (see on this The Schechter Haggadah: Art, History and Commentary [2009], edited by David Golinkin). Some have compared this to the figure of B’rer Rabbit, who symbolized the black slaves of the ante bellum South outwitting their heavy and slow-witted masters.

What is the connection between Motza’ei Shabbat and these feelings? Traditionally, the end of Shabbat is associated with Elijah the prophet and the hopes for imminent redemption. On Shabbat, the Jew enjoys a small taste of eternity, a period of time somehow isolated from the often harsh reality of the outside world; after Havdalah, as he returns to earth, so to speak, and to the reality of mundane life, longings for redemption within history emerge.

Two Sides to Rosh Hashana: Harsh Judgment and Softened Judgment

The central theme in Zohar III: 231a-b (Pinhas) is hamtakat ha-dinim, the “sweetening (i.e., mediation) of judgment.” Rosh Hashana is seen as dominated by harsh judgment, by Din or Gevurah, symbolized by the stern, unrelenting figure of Yitzhak. If a person, if the Jewish people, if the world, were to be judged by Din alone; were God to judge us with an absolutely objective yardstick, the world could not stand; nobody would be found deserving of life. Hence, there are various ways of mitigating this harshness. One is through the two days of Rosh Hashana per se (NB: this is the only holiday for which there is a second day even in the Land of Israel): in the Zohar, the two days represent, respectively, Din Kasheh & Din Rafeh, harsh judgment and softened judgment. A second means is through the two different forms of the teru’ah sound of the shofar: the harsh, warbling sound of the teru’ah, like a battle cry, or like yelala, uncontrolled sobbing; and the moaning, groaning sound of the shevarim.

A third way —and I find this most fascinating—is through the sinner confessing his sin directly to God. Once he has done so, he is no longer subject to the Heavenly Court, a Sanhedrin-like tribunal, but is judged by God Himself. It is as if to say: there are powers of harshness and of judgment that are abroad in the world, that God Himself cannot entirely rein in. But once one throws oneself upon Gods mercies, by confessing one’s sin, this somehow mitigates the harshness of Judgment:

Rabbi Judah said: Let our master say some fine words about Rosh Hashanah. Rabbi Shimon opened and said: “Behold, it was the day.” Wherever it is written, “and it was” (va-yehi) this signifies trouble; “Behold, in the days of…” (va-yehi beyemei; e.g. as in Ruth 1:1) clearly signifies trouble. “And behold, it was the day”—a day on which there is trouble: this is Rosh Hashanah, a day on which there is harsh judgment over the entire world. “And behold, on that day, and Elisha went to Shunem” (2 Kgs 4:5)—that was the day of Rosh Hashanah. And wherever it says “And behold, it was the day” that refers to Rosh Hashanah.

The Zohar’s discussion begins with a well-known Rabbinic homily about the word vayehi signifying trouble, difficulty, some untoward sequence of events. This introduction establishes the central motif of the entire passage: namely, that Rosh Hashana, even though it is a day of Divine-initiated judgment, is a time of harsh judgment, one that requires “sweetening” or “softening”—i.e., mitigation—for the world to bear it.

“Now behold that day, and the sons of God came…” (Job 1:6; 2:1). That was the day of Rosh Hashanah, which is always two days. What is the reason? So that Isaac may incorporate both judgment and mercy, [it must be] two days and not one, for were it to be one, by itself, the world would be destroyed. And for that reason it is written twice, ”Now behold that day… now behold that day” (ibid.).

“Now the sons of God came” (ibid.). This refers to the Great Court, the sons of God, the sons of the king who draw close to Him; these are the seventy who constantly surround Him, and who pass judgment over the world. “To stand before the Lord.” And do they indeed stand before the Lord? Rather, at the hour that they pass judgment, for judgment precedes all else. He who does not honor the name of the Holy One blessed be He, and who does not honor the Torah and those that serve Him; or here too, whoever does not heed the honor of the Holy Name, that it not be profaned in the world, and is not sensitive to the honor of the Holy One blessed be He, and does not give honor to that Name.

“And Satan also came among them” (ibid.)—“also” includes his female consort [i.e. Lilith]; here too, “to stand upon the Lord”—that she too felt the honor of God, and the holy one.

The world and all the individuals within it cannot stand the scrutiny of Harsh Judgment—Middat ha-Din. I understand this as meaning: absolute, uncompromising, severe moral standards; the objective scrutiny of each and every action, word and thought. It would seem (and here I am speaking from my own intuition) that the Zohar accepts and recognizes the essential weakness of the human being, the complexity of his life, his feelings, his motivations, and sees some degree of leniency as a sine qua non of any sort of human existence. In truth, the Zohar is caught here on the horns of a dilemma, which is inherent in the very nature of normative Judaism generally: Judgment—meaning: rules, standards, laws, halakhah, normative expectations and demands of human beings—is essential for any society, and al the more so for a religious system that has as its very heart the ideal, at least, or goal of human holiness. Yet alongside that, it knows that this ideal is unrealizable; that allowance must be made for simple human weakness. Hence, “harsh: judgment” must be paired off with “weakened judgment”—a term that is never precisely defined, but implies judgment with some degree of built-in lenience. This drama, this tension between harsh moral and normative demands and mother-like compassion, between judgment and forgiveness, is at the heart of the Ten Days of Awe.

Rosh Hashana is the only festival day of the Torah that is observed for two days even in the Land of Israel. The reason for this is is a technical, halakhic one, related to the fact that it falls on the New Moon, making it impossible to know in advance which of the two prospective dates will be “sanctified.” The Zohar, instead, gives a Kabbalistic reason for this: that the two days allow for the “doubling over” of harsh judgment and softened judgment.

Also interesting in this passage is the notion that it is the supernal court that renders judgment, not God himself (although presumably they do so as God’s agents, not as an autonomous, additional heavenly force)—a difficult theological concept, of the sort that opened Kabbalah to charges of being defective in its monotheism—but we cannot discuss this here. The important point made here is that they are harsher than God Himself and, as we shall see below, one who turns himself over to God’s direct judgment by voluntarily confessing his sins enjoys the advantage of benefiting from Divine mercy.

Concerning [this point] the ancient “pillars of the world” disagree. One said, Job was among the pious of the nations of the world. And one said he was one of the pious ones of Israel, and he was stricken to atone for entire world. One day it happened that Rav Hamnuna met Elijah. He [Elijah] said to him: Certainly, we have taught that there is a righteous man to whom there befalls evil, and an evil man who enjoys goodness (based on b. Berakhot 7a). He [Rav Hamnuna] replied: a righteous man, who has but few sins, is given his punishment in this world, and thus he is called “a righteous whom there befalls evil.” But whoever has many sins and few merits is given his reward in this world—that is the “evildoer who enjoys goodness.

He [Elijah] replied: The judgments of the Master of the World are very deep. Rather, [it is thus]: when the blessed Holy One wishes to atone for the sins of the world, he strikes their forearm [i.e., that of the righteous] and heals all. This may be compared to a physician who strikes [amputates?] the forearm to heal all the organs of the body, as is written, “and he was wounded because of our transgressions” (Isa 53:5), as is said.

Here we encounter the concept of vicarious suffering and atonement: the “forearm,” the righteous man who suffers on behalf of the collectivity, and who atones on their behalf through his suffering (a concept already known in the Talmudic aggadah on the theme of yissurim, suffering, in the opening pages of Berakhot). The similarity to Christian doctrine is striking; even the proof text used here, from the chapter of the “Suffering Servant” in Isaiah 53, is the same as used by Christians in support of their doctrines. Here, of course, the “suffering servant” is either the Jewish people, or more likely the tzaddikim among them (foreshadowing the central role to be played later by the Tzaddik in Hasidic thought). In the spirit of Israel Jacob Yuval, Yehudah Liebes, and other scholars, I would suggest that there is a covert dialogue/polemic going on here with Christianity (certainly a familiar presence on 13th century Castile), emphasizing that it is the archetypal Jewish tzaddik, rather than Jesus, who in fact accomplishes the true vicarious atonement for others.

On the day of Rosh Hashanah, there are seventy thrones [i.e., heavenly princes] who stand up to pass judgment over the world. How many armed warriors there are up above! Some turn to the right for merit, and some to the left, to remember the accountability of the world, the guilt of each and every one. Therefore a person needs to present his sins [before God], each one as they are. For if one explicates his sins, his judgment is given over to the blessed Holy King alone—and if one is judged by the blessed Holy One, it is good for him. For that reason David asked, “Judge me, O God” (Ps 43:1)—You and no other. Likewise Solomon said, “to do the judgment of His servant” (1 Kgs 8:59)—He and no other; and then all courts stay away from him. Therefore one must spread out the sins of each and every organ and of everything he did in detail. Concerning this it says: “I will make my sin known to You” {Ps 32:8), and thereafter, “and you have lifted the guilt of my transgression, Selah” (ibid.)…

What is the reason that one who presents his sins, the Court avoids him? Because the person has presented himself, he is not judged by them, and the prosecutor is longer allowed to teach his guilt. For the person’s fault comes first, and allows no room for others to speak against him. Then the blessed Holy One forgives him, as is said, “He who admits and abandons [sin] is shown mercy” (Prov 28:13)

This passage stresses the power of God’s direct forgiveness, and that by confessing one “removes” ones case from the concern of the heavenly tribunal (a personification of the powers of Din kasheh?). This is reminiscent of the allocution made by a criminal who has struck a plea bargain with the prosecution: in exchange for saving the State the bother and risk of a jury trial, he is given a mitigated sentence—but he must confess, fully and truthfully, everything that he has done.

On the day of Rosh Hashanah, the heavenly Court sets out a throne for the King to judge the entire world, and Israel ascend before him first in judgment, so they may enjoy His great mercy before His great anger. We have taught: “and the judgment of His people Israel, each an every day” (1 Kgs 8:59). What is meant by “each and every day” [literally: day in its day]? These are the two days of Rosh Hashanah. Why? There are two days, corresponding to the two courts that are joined together: the supernal judgment, which is harsh; and the lower judgment, which is lenient. And both of them are found.

For that reason, the Babylonians do not know the secret of the moaning and the weeping [i.e., the two kinds of shofar blasts sounded on Rosh Hashana: terua’h and shevarim, corresponding to weeping/yelala and moaning/groaning/yebava], and do not know that both of them are necessary. The weeping is harsh judgment, while the three broken notes are mitigated judgment, groaning that is weak. They do not know, and therefore they do both of them [see b. Rosh Hashana 34a]; but we know and do both of them—and all fulfill their obligation in the true way.

After reiterating the notion that the two days of Rosh Hashana correspond to the two aspects of “harsh” and “mitigated” judgment, the Zohar applies the same duality to the two kinds of sounds made by the shofar: teru’ah and shevarim. But here there is another interesting facet: we have here a direct confrontation, so to speak, between Talmudic legalism and Kabbalah. The Talmud, in Rosh Hashana 34a, states that we blow both types of blast because we are uncertain to which of the two the Torah’s term teru’ah refers. The Zohar provides a Kabbalistic explanation for the two, as described above, and berides the “foolishness” of the Babylonians for attributing it merely to a technical lack of knowledge. The Zohar thus emphasizes the superiority of their own esoteric knowledge, that of the “secrets of Torah,” as against the more formal, legalistic, “external” knowledge of the Talmudist. This is a rift that runs throughout Jewish intellectual history, on which we may elaborate another time.

This section concludes with a passage that reiterates the above themes—both that of Din Kasheh and Din Rafeh, and the importance of esoteric knowledge, especially of the secret of the shofar:

He began and said: “Blow the shofar on the new moon ; on the day of covering for our festival day” (Ps 81:4). “Blow the shofar on the new moon.” What is meant by “on the new moon”? This is the lenient court, which is called “new.” “On the day of covering”—this is harsh judgment, the Fear of Isaac. Judgment that is always concealed, not judgment in its revealed state. "For it is statute”—that is lenient judgment. “Law”—that is (harsh) judgment [admixed] with mercy; and the two of them are as one, and for that reason there are two days, and the two of them are in the secret of oneness.

“Happy is the people who know the horn-blowing” (Ps 89:16). It does not say, “who hear” or “who sound the shofar sound,” but rather “who know the shofar sound.” Like the wise men who live in the air of the Holy Land, they know the shofar sound: i.e., the secret of the shofar sound, as is written, “you shall smite them (tero’em) with a bar of iron” (Ps 2:9). What people is there like the people of Israel, who know the sublime secrets of their Master, to go up before him and to be connected with him. And all those who know the secret of the shofar sound will draw near to bask in the light of the face of the blessed Holy One, the primal light that the blessed Holy One hid for the righteous [since Creation]. And for this reason is one needs to know it. (In translating and interpreting this passage, I made use of Tishby’s Mishnat Hazohar, II: 550-554.)

There is much more to be said, but I must end here. I will conclude with wishes for a Good, Blessed year to all of my readers; to all my friends whom I have been able to contact personally, please see this as addressed to you personally. תכלה שנה וקללותיה, תחל שנה וברכותיה.


Blogger rbarenblat said...

Dear Reb Yehonatan -- I am so sorry to hear of your loss, and your family's loss. Baruch dayan emet. May the Source of Peace bring you comfort along with all who mourn, speedily and soon.

Thank you for your teachings -- not only in this blog post but throughout the year. I don't comment often but I am a regular reader and I am grateful to be learning from and with you.

6:47 AM  

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