Friday, October 23, 2009

Simhat Torah (Zohar)

Rabbi Shimon’s Ascent: Idra Zutta

We conclude our studies of the Zohar this year with selections from what is, for all practical purposes, the concluding section of the Zohar, the Idra Zutta. This passage describes the last day on earth of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai—the great teacher, the “Holy Spark”—during which he revealed hitherto unknown esoteric teachings to the Companions. The Zohar also describes the moments of his passing and what transpired then. We begin with Parshat Ha’azinu, Zohar III:287b-288a:


They taught: On the day that Rabbi Shimon was to depart the world, while he was arranging his affairs, the companions assembled at his house. Rabbi Eleazar his son, Rabbi Abba, and the other companions were present, and the house was full of people. Rabbi Shimon raised his eyes and saw that the house was filled. He cried and said: the other time I was ill, R. Pinhas b. Yair was with us in my presence, and while I was selecting my place in Paradise, my life was extended until now. When I returned, fire was whirling in front of me, and it has never gone out, and no person has entered without permission. And now I see that it has gone out, and the house is filled.

While they were sitting, Rabbi Shimon opened his eyes and saw what he saw; fire whirled through the House. Everyone left; Rabbi Eleazar his son and Rabbi Abba remained, but the other companions sat outside….

The Zohar itself does not specify the day on which this occurred. The dominant folk tradition has it that R. Shimon died on Lag ba-Omer; hence, the festivities at his putative burial site at Meron, in the Upper Galilee, attended by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, with all-night ecstatic singing and dancing, But some scholars question this, and suggest that it may have occurred on Shavuot—a day known as uniquely suited for mystical revelations.

The fire that used to fill the house presumably symbolizes the Divine Presence. One oral tradition (which I heard from the younger Rabbi Hamnick) has it that the reason people make bonfires on Lag ba-Omer is because of the association of Rabbi Shimon with fire (suggested also by his nickname, Botzina Kaddisha, “the Holy Spark”).

Rabbi Shimon rose and laughed in delight. He asked: “Where are the companions?!” Rabbi Eleazar rose and brought them in. They sat in front of him. Rabbi Shimon raised his hands and said a prayer, and he rejoiced and said: Those companions who were present at the threshing floor will convene here. Everyone went out; there remained Rabbi Eleazar his son, Rabbi Abba, Rabbi Judah, Rabbi Yossi, and Rabbi Hiyya remained… Rabbi Abba sat behind him and Rabbi Eleazar in front.

Rabbi Shimon said: Now is a time of favor. I wish to enter without shame into the world that is coming. I want to reveal holy words, until now unrevealed, in the presence of the Shekhinah, so it will not be said that I left the world deficiently. Until now they were hidden in my heart, that I might ascend to the world that is coming. I will arrange you thus: Rabbi Abba will write, Rabbi Eleazar my son will repeat, the other companions will meditate in their hearts….

Death as often seen as a moment of revelation: that point at which life and death, Heaven and earth, the spiritual and the corporeal meet in a tangible way, is a time at which a person—perhaps even an ordinary person?—is granted an insight into those things which he did not previously grasp. Hence a deathbed blessing is seen as uniquely powerful. Jacob, in his final blessing to his sons, began by saying “Gather, my sons, and I will tell you what will be in the Later Days” (Gen 49:1)—“he wished to reveal the End”—i.e., eschatological secrets. Albeit, we are told, he was immediately distracted and turned to other things, and the secrets remained hidden. Today’s reading, Vezot he-berakha, is likewise a sublime and content-ful deathbed blessing. Here, R. Shimon was not engaged in blessing the Companions, but wished to reveal secrets that he had already known for some time, but heretofore had not revealed.

Rabbi Shimon opened and said: “I am my beloved, his desire is upon me.” (Song of Songs 7:11). All the days that I have been bound to this world I have been bound in a single bond with the blessed Holy One; hence, now “His desire is upon me.” For he and his holy entourage had come to joyfully hear concealed words and praise of the Holy Ancient One, concealed of all concealed, separate, separated from all, yet not separate. For all is joined to Him, and He is joined to all: He is all! Ancient of all ancients, concealed of all concealed, arrayed and not arrayed, arrayed to sustain all, but not arrayed, for He is not to be found. When arrayed, nine lights radiate, blazing from it and from its arrays. Those lights, sparkling, flashing, emanate in every direction.

Here we have the beginning of R. Shimon’s actual teaching. “Separated from all, yet not separate…” In these few words, we have the paradox of transcendence and immanence: God wishes to be known by His creatures, but at the same time He is concealed, He withdraws from His universe and hides Himself in the recesses of Infinity. This is the paradox of mystical knowledge, and the root of the paradoxical language used by mysticism in speaking of the Godhead: on the one hand there is man’s longing to know, to experience (“show me Your glory”); and on the other God’s desire to be revealed, and His equally strong desire to remain hidden (“ He showed the know of his tefillin to his humble one”).

At this point the Idra Zutta turns to a presentation of the esoteric teaching per se—essentially, a continuation of the ideas in Idra Rabba (see HY X: Naso)—which deal with the nature of the Godhead as such: the Divine “Face,” the realm of Keter, the divine crown, and that which is beyond: Ayin, the holy “Nothing,” and the pure White of Infinity. At one point, he interrupts the exposition to say the following, at Zohar III:291a-6b:

Until now these words were concealed, for I was frightened to reveal them; now they have been revealed! And it is revealed before the Holy Ancient One, that I have not acted for my own honor, nor for the honor of my family, but rather so I will not enter his palace with shame. Furthermore, I see that the blessed Holy One and all these righteous ones approve. I see all of them rejoicing in this, my wedding celebration! All of them are invited, in that world, to my wedding celebration. Happy is my portion!

Rabbi Abba said: When the Holy Spark, the High Spark, finished this word, he raised his hands, cried and laughed. He wanted to reveal one word. He said: I have been troubled by this word all my days, and now they are not giving me permission!

The word hilula, translated here as “wedding celebration” is used here euphemistically, referring to the day of his death or, in later usage, the Yahrzeit, the anniversary of a Tzaddik’s death, which is seen as an occasion for celebration. But, really, it is not a euphemism at all: when the soul departs the body and is reunited with its Maker, that is in fact highest possible cause for celebration, a spiritual union to which the carnal union of marriage is a pale reflection.

Summoning up his courage, he sat and moved his lips and bowed three times. No one could look at his place, certainly not at him. He said: “Mouth, mouth, you have attained so much! Your spring has not dried up. Your spring flows endlessly. Of you it is written: “A river issues from Eden” (Gen 2:10). [a favorite verse of the Zohar, used to refer to esoteric teaching,often compared to Binah] “Like a spring whose waters do not fail” (Isa 58:11). Now I avow: All the days I have been alive, I have yearned to see this day. Now my desire is crowned with success. This day itself is crowned. Now I want to reveal words in the presence of the Blessed Holy One; all those words adorn my head like a crown. This day will not miss its mark like the other day, for this whole day is mine. I have now begun revealing words so I will not enter shamefully into the world that is coming. I have begun! I will speak!

I have seen that all those sparks flash from the High Spark, hidden of all hidden. All are levels of enlightenment. In the light of each and every level there is revealed what is revealed. All those lights are connected: this light to that light, that light to this light, one shining into the other, inseparable, one from the other. The light of each and every spark, called Adornments of the King, Crowns of the King—each one shines into, joins onto the light within, within, not separating without. So all rises to one level, all is crowned with one word; no separating one from the other. It and its name are one.

The light that is revealed is called the Garment of the King. The light within, within is a concealed light. In that light dwells the Ineffable One, the Unrevealed. All those sparks and all those lights sparkle from the Holy Ancient One. Concealed of all concealed, the High Spark. Upon reflecting, all those lights emanating—there is nothing but the High Spark, hidden and unrevealed….

We now turn to the concluding section, in which R. Shimon parts from his beloved disciples. Zohar III:296b:

“For there God commanded the blessing, eternal life” (Ps 133:3). Rabbi Abba said: Before the Holy Spark finished, his words subsided. I was still writing, intending to write more, but I heard nothing. I did not raise my head: the light was overwhelming, I could not look. Then I started trembling. I heard a voice calling: “length of days and years of light” (Prov 3:2). I heard another voice: “He asked you for life, and you granted it” (Ps 21:5).

All day long the fire in the house did not go out. No one reached him; no one could: light and fire surrounded him. All day long I lay on the ground and wailed. After the fire disappeared, I saw the Holy Spark, Holy of Holies, leaving the world, enwrapped, lying on his right, his face smiling.

The motif of fire is found in the death/Heavenward ascent of Elijah, which is perhaps the archetype for all death scenes in Judaism. The present scene is also in turn the topos for many later deathbed scenes. So, too, the death scene of Moshe Rabbenu, which is at the center of the Simhat Torah reading (see Midrash Aliyat Moshe, in Jellinek’s Batei Midrash, in which Moses persistently refuses to give up his life and argues with God every inch of the way). Two motifs are intertwined here: the revealing of secrets just before death, and fire, symbolic of heavenwards ascent.

Rabbi Eleazar his son rose, took his hands, and kissed them. As for me, I licked the dust from the bottom of his feet. The companions wanted to cry but could not utter a sound. Finally, they let out a cry, but Rabbi Eleazar his son fell three times, unable to open his mouth. Finally he opened and cried “Father! Father!”

The cry “Father! Father!” besides being an obvious thing for a son to say at such a moment, is in fact taken from 2 Kings 2:12, where Elijah ascends heavenwards on a fiery chariot, ad his disciple Elisha says, אבי אבי רכב ישראל ופרשיו “Father! Father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!”—a phrase that has become a standard peroration for all eulogies of great rabbis and spiritual figures.

Rabbi Hiyya rose to his feet and said: “Until now the holy Spark has looked after us; now is the time to engage in honoring him.” Rabbi Eleazar and Rabbi Abba rose. They carried him on a trundle made out of a gangplank—Who has seen the Companion’s confusion?—and the whole house was fragrant. They lifted him onto his bed, only Rabbi Eleazar and Rabbi Abba attended him. Truculent stingers and shield-bearing warriors [i.e., Torah scholars who wanted R. Shimon buried in their city] from Sepphori came and beset them. The people of Meron banded together and shouted, for they feared he would not be buried there.

After the bed emerged from the house, it rose into the air; fire blazed before it. They heard a voice: “Come and enter! Assemble for the wedding celebration of Rabbi Shimon. “He shall enter in piece, they shall rest on their couches“ (Isa 57:2) As he entered the cave, they heard a voice from inside: This is the man who shook the earth, who made kingdoms tremble! His Lord prides himself on him every day. Happy is his portion above and below! Many sublime treasures lie in store for him. “Go to the end and take your rest; you will rise for your reward at the end of days” (Dan 12:13).

(This translation was largely based upon Daniel Matt’s Essential Kabbalah, “The Wedding Celebration,” pp. 55-63)


Post a Comment

<< Home