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.

Devarim-Hazon (Zohar)

For more teachings on the parashah and on Tisha b’Av, see the archives to this blog at July 2009.

Winding Down

Even though an entire book of the Torah remains to be read, and it is nearly three months till Simhat Torah, we have at this point almost reached the end in our series on the Zohar. The Zohar, as I noted some time ago, is “top-heavy”: two of the three volumes in the standard editions, based on the first printing in Mantua in the mid-16th century (each 400 to 500 pages in length) are devoted respectively to Bereshit and Shemot, while the Zohar on the last three books of the Humash are crammed into one volume. Moreover, in that volume, the lion’s share goes to Vayikra and Bamidbar while, beginning with Matot & Masei, we encounter parshiyot in which there is no Zohar whatsoever (e.g, Mas’ei, Devarim, Re’eh, Ki Tavo, Nitzavim, Vezot Haberakha) or in which almost all of the material turns out, upon closer examination, to consist almost exclusively of Ra’ya Mehemna—a product of the Zoharic school devoted mostly to expounding ta’amei hamitzvot. The one great exception to this general rule is Ha’azinu (in the Torah, Moshe’s farewell visionary poem of warning), which contains Idra Rabba, the climax and culminating teaching of the Zohar, containing Rabbi Shimon’s teaching on his last day on earth.

Strangely, even the most learned Zohar scholars are puzzled, and can offer no more than hypothetical, very tentative conjectures. One scholar of whom I inquired suggested that the Zohar was somehow more interested in the narratives of the Torah found in the first two books, of the Patriarchs and the Exodus, culminating in Mount Sinai, then they were in the detailed legal sections of the Torah. But that’s only partially true, as the Zohar is deeply involved in the inner mystical meanings of ritual, whether those of the ancient sacrificial order or those practiced by Jews today. Art Green sent me the following informal, “off-the-cuff” reflections:

It's not about narrative. First, there is plenty of narrative, as well as plenty of mysterious material, in Bemidbar, and they don’t do that much with it. I have an idea the problem was more in the editing (whenever this took place!) than in the need for or lack of narrative. The parshiyot of the Mishkan got stuffed so full (especially Terumah and Vayakhel), so that the bulk of material in the collected teachings of the Zohar circle got used up there. Someone(s) realized that it was getting repetitious and was running out of steam, and decided—or was forced?—to cut it short. This of course may have to do with the death of an editor, the passing of a generation—we just don't know. We (or at least I) don't understand the relationship between the creative work of the Zohar circle from, say, 1270 to 1310, and the editing of the Zohar text. Did the Hevrayya not deal much, in their own wanderings, with all those wanderings “in the wilderness”? I somehow find that hard to imagine. But whoever was editing the materials into book form, and thus making or re-making the link of Zohar teachings to Torah texts (how much later did this take place?) was simply unable to keep it up. They got weary after Parashat Vayiqra, I think... After that you only have longer text where there are currently observed ritual halakhot (i.e., Aharei Mot, Emor).

I think we might also ask something about narrative (I mean the Torah narrative, not the Hevrayya tale) and ritual in the Zohar. Both types of passages are after all just pegs on which to hang the new narrative of Sefirot and hishtlashelut [devolution of Divine energy from above to below–JC]. But the Zoharic interest in the ritual, it seems to me, begins to win out. That’s why Terumah and Vayakhel can be so long: it’s as though they don’t need narrative any more...

We must remember that the Zohar was not written as a systematic, or even as a stream-of-consciousness, commentary on the Torah; one would be hard pressed to argue that the parashah is a significant unit in the Zohar. The Torah text, as Art put it, serves more as a “peg” on which to hang the Zohar’s mystical midrash, which is in turn presented in the framework of the wanderings and peripatetic conversations of the Hevrayya, the dozen or so members of the Zoharic circle whose “adventures” are recounted here.

Thus, even the halakhic material is not necessarily presented at the logical place. To mention one pithy but striking example: the section of Sabba de-Mishpatim, contains a major series of homilies on yibbum and halitzah, mitzvot that appear in Deut 25:8-10, presented under the rubric of Exodus 21:1ff., because the Old Man of Mishpatim interprets the “Hebrew slave” mentioned in that chapter as referring, symbolically, to the soul of the man who dies without offspring and who seeks rebirth through the levirate union of his brother and his widow. Once having presented these ideas there, the Zohar has no further need to return to them in their “proper” place in Ki Tetzei—and thus that parashah remains “barren,” so to speak.

In light of the sparse Zoharic material, during the coming weeks I will present Zohar passages only when feasible. In many places I will instead present various essays, short and long, which have been sitting on my hard desk far too long, begging to be shared with others. These will include: a new essay on the Amidah; “Shall Man Cleave Unto Man? Four Comments on Homosexuality and Judaism”; a major essay on Individual and Community, to honor my father’s 25th Yahrzeit; and more.

“Judge small and great alike”

This year, I understood an additional reason (besides the use of the word eikha in Deut 1:12) why Parashat Devarim is always read on the last Shabbat before Tisha b’Av. In this chapter, with which Moshe Rabbenu’s farewell address begins, he recounts the setting up of the court system shortly after Sinai. He then warns the judges, among other things, “You shall not prefer persons in judgment; hear great and small alike; de not fear any person” (Deut 1:17). A judge must avoid favoritism, must not allow himself to be influenced by the social status—or lack thereof—of the litigants standing before him. Some three and a half millennia before the framing of the American Constitution, and the familiar image of blindfolded justice that symbolically suggests this principle, the equality of all before the law was a fundamental principle in setting up ancient Hebraic society.

The basic idea is that the courts represent objective law, and as such are perhaps the most important component of government under traditional Jewish law. The Sages and prophets were well aware that society is often governed by power and interests and Hobbesian struggle among different forces and groups. Within this realistic awareness, judges and courts are meant to serve as a kind of last resort and sanctuary of truth, justice, and equality of persons, protecting the weak and powerless from his/her oppressors. Thus, if that process becomes corrupted, and judges may be bribed or swayed from the pursuit of truth (whether by money or more intangible goods, such as the promise of political support for a desired promotion, even if couched in high-sounding language), it bides ill for the state of society as a whole.

Perhaps that is one reason why one of the psalms read in the weekly cycle of psalms for the days of the week—Psalm 82, read on Tuesdays—is concerned with judges and judgment. The psalmist berates corrupt and dishonest judges who act as if they thought they are like gods. But, he says “you will die like men”—and God will ultimately vindicate the right when He comes to judge the world.

Unfortunately, these high ideals are not always carried out in the real world. In recent weeks the Israeli newspaper and media have been filled with discussion of a decision rendered some time ago by Judge Moshe Drori of the Jerusalem District Court. The case drew particular attention because his name had been bandied about as a candidate for one of the “religious” spots on the Supreme Court—and my own interest was attracted because I know Judge Drori from the days when I lived in Ramat Eshkol. Over a period of several years we davened in the same weekday morning minyan; moreover, his younger brother and his wife were next-door neighbors of myself and my ex-wife, and they had several daughters the same age as my own daughters, who were childhood friends and school-mates of them.

The case decision involved a young man, a kollel student, who refused to pay the toll at an underground parking lot. When the parking attendant, a young Ethiopian woman, trued to force him to pay by—in an act over and above the call of duty—lying down on the hood of his car, the driver zoomed off, throwing the parking-attendant off and causing her minor injuries. The judge decided not to convict the offending driver, for two reasons: first, so as not to spoil the young man’s chances of being appointed as judge in a Rabbinic court; second, in light of the fact that he had expressed regret for his ill-conceived act and offered apologies to his victim, who accepted them. Following the trial, the identity of the accused was expunged from the public record.

What became known over time was that he was son of a prominent rabbi, chief rabbi of the medium–sized Israeli city of Haderah. Moreover, it ensued that Drori had been subjected to pressure from various quarters, ranging from one of the leading rabbis of the Sephardi hazarah beteshuvah movement, to the chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, and including the Interior Minister and head of the Shas religious party, all of whom asked the judge to exercise “the quality of mercy.” The Supreme Court recently reviewed the case on appeal—an unusual move—and Justice Edmund Levi declared that the lower court judge’s decision made no sense to him in light of the facts; Drori’s ruling was reversed, and the errant driver was convicted—albeit he was given a suspended sentence.

What struck me, first and foremost, was the blatant favoritism and special consideration given to the accused because of his position and his family and other connections. If this is not the “favoring of persons” mentioned in our parashah, I don’t know what is. It is as if there is a certain elite of learning, professional status, and power—in this case centered on the Rabbinic world—that is subject to different rules and can get away with trampling, in this case quite literally, a person from a lower, more marginal position in society. The unspoken message that, as the son of an important rabbi, he was as-if born to be a Rabbinic judge. And all this cloaked in the language of “compassion” for the young man whose future Rabbinic career was likely to be ruined by a conviction—as if he didn’t deserve to have it ruined because of his own callous and irresponsible, if not downright criminal behavior, which surely revealed serious character flaws.

It was argued that “the public needs him” because he is supposedly learned. But if he shows such arrogance and disregard for another person, ought he to be a candidate for the post of judge, which according to Jewish tradition and halakhah is meant to be the preserve of those who have sterling character, and not just book-learning? If anything, Jewish law and tradition consistently hold leaders to a higher, more stringent standard than ordinary people. The classic example of this is Moshe Rabbenu and his hitting the rock—surely a misdemeanor but hardly a mortal crime—as a result of which he was denied entering the Promised Land.

Some cynics might say that it has always been thus. In Diaspora, too, Jewish society was ruled by an oligarchy, an alliance of wealth and Rabbinic families. (I am currently translating a book about the Rabbinate and communities in the Ottoman empire on the eve of modernity—Aharon Harel’s Intrigue and Revolution, forthcoming in Littman Library, 2010—filled with stories of dirty politics, nepotism, etc. in places like Aleppo and Damascus). Certainly, Jews, as part of the human race, have their fair share —and sometimes it seems more so—of the lust for power and honor and wealth. And at times, religion can be used an more avenue for gaining these things, as witnessed by the above story. For myself, I remain religious not because of the rabbis, certainly not those of the “official” Rabbinic establishment, but despite them. I have had the good fortune in my life to have known truly humble, decent teachers of Torah—as well as simple, God-fearing Jews—who serve as a model and a beacon.

On the subject of contrition: Does contrition exempt an offender from being punished for his crimes? And beyond that, how does one know that a particularly person is genuinely contrite and repentant, and is not engaged in mere lip service—particularly when made under the pressure of a court room? On occasion, I see a scene on American TV talk programs in which an offender—a philandering husband, an alcoholic wife, a violent teenager, a drug addict who has ruined his/her family’s life through their habit—saying “Oh, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry,” and perhaps even shedding a few tears. It may be good television, but is it authentic teshuvah?

Moreover, while Jewish tradition sees contrition and asking forgiveness of a wronged party as important elements of teshuvah, they are not sufficient unto themselves to restore the individual’s tarnished public reputation; e.g., if he is a shohet who has sold treif meat as kosher, he is not allowed to slaughter animals again until there is a dramatic public demonstration that he has altered his ways—e.g., is willing to lose money on a treif animal that he could have concealed (see Rav Soloveitchik’s chapter on this subject in his book Al ha-Teshuvah). Repentance affects Divine forgiveness, but that alone; the human community must suspend judgment unless there is concrete evidence of his change of heart.

This point sheds light on an interesting turn of phrase in Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuvah 2.1: "He who knows the secrets of men will testify that he will never again return to this sin.” I read this passage as implying that God alone, who knows the secrets of men’s hearts, can know for certain when teshuvah is sincere and when it is false—but a human being may easily be taken in by an act.

We are told that, whereas the First Temple was destroyed because of such grave sins as of idolatry, bloodshed and sexual licentiousness, whereas during the Second Temple period the people were meticulous about such things and were even pious and meticulous about ritual matters. But their relations were marked by “groundless hatred”—in other words, the society was rift by social distance and disharmony—and these were the things that ultimately broke up society, and led to the Destruction.

In terms of a Zionist theological perspective: The first stage of the ancient vision of Redemption was to a large extent realized in the early years of the State and thereafter in the massive ingathering of exiles from beleaguered Jewish communities in the newly-reborn Eretz Yisrael. The second stage of or redemption (following the order of the set of petitions for communal needs in the middle section of the weekday Amidah), the creation of a just, Jewish society in the land, has been dragging on far too long, and there are too many signs that the state of public morality and social cohesion and solidarity is if anything far worse than it was in those early years. Those who dream and speak in bombastic terms of “Mashiah now” or regaining Jewish presence on the Temple Mount, or over “Greater” Eretz Yisrael, would do well to focus their attention upon these concrete issues of social justice and ethics between man and his fellow. Perhaps it is this insight that is expressed in the closing words of the haftarah for Shabbat Hazon: ציון במשפט תפדה ושביה בצדקה: “Zion will be redeemed by justice, and its inhabitants with righteousness” (Isa 1: 27).

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Matot-Masei (Zohar)

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

Male and Female, Red and White

From this point on, the Zohar becomes sparser; there is less material in most of the parshiyoit. In Sefer Devarim (the Book of Deuteronomy), the final book of the Torah, which we begin reading next week, there are many parshiyot which have no Zohar at all, or in which the Zohar consists mostly of material from the Ra’ya Mehemna. More on this issue—what I referred to earlier in this series as the “top-heavy” nature of the Zohar—next week.

This week, notwithstanding the lengthy, double Torah reading, the Zohar is very short: less than one-half of one side of a page on Matot, and no Zohar whatsoever for Mas’ei. I present it here in its totality. Zohar III: 259b:

“These are the leaders of the tribes” (Num 30:2). “And all the children among the women who had not known man carnally…” (Num 31:18). It has been taught there: Rav Yehudah said: The world is conducted by means of two colors which come from the side of woman, for she is found to be wise of heart. This is what is written, “And every woman who was wise of heart spun with her hands; and they brought the spun stuff, azure and crimson…” (Exod 35: 26, 25). Why did they bring the azure and the crimson? Colors that include many colors. Of this it is written, “She sought out wool and linen, and made it with her hands” (Prov 31:13) And it is written, “with her hands she spun.” What is meant by “spun”? Rabbi Yehudah said: She spun mercy with judgment. Rabbi Yitzhak said: Why is she called “woman” (ishah)? Because she is made of judgment and is made of mercy [this possibly alludes to esh, “fire”; and the letter heh, which denotes Mercy]. Come and see: Rabbi Eleazar said: Every woman is called Judgment until she has tasted the taste of Mercy, as we have taught: From the side of men comes the color white, and from the side of the woman comes the color red. [When] the woman tastes of the white, the white is preferable.

The Torah describes here the battle of the Israelites against the Midianites, who had attempted to undermine them morally, and includes the command to utterly destroy all their menfolk, as well as those women who had been known carnally by men; only the young virgin girls were allowed to live. This verse—certainly problematic for most modern readers—is the starting point for a reflection on masculinity and femininity.

The Zohar begins with the women spinning threads for use in the Tabernacle in the desert. Woman, in and of herself, is seen as being related to the color red, which symbolizes Judgment (Din); but she also “spins” threads of various colors, thereby combining and intermingling the various attributes, especially the basic dichotomy of Hesed (Mercy/Compassion) and Din. As we shall see later, the sexual act, in which man and woman unite, is also seen interpreted in terms of mingling and combining of Din and Hesed—hence the crucial importance of sexuality in Kabbalistic thought as one of the central symbols of tikkun, of repairing the world through the reuniting of sundered opposites.

In the background here, one must remember that man and woman, male and female, initially came from the androgynous Adam Kadmon, the archetypal Human Being, who was at a later point severed into two to make man and woman as distinct beings. Thus, while in terms of the archetypal, polarized schema man is Hesed and woman is Din, man is white and woman is red, in reality each contains both their own attribute and that of the other sex; thus, in sexual union, the attributes of each are commingled once again.

Why is woman Din and redness, and man Hesed and whiteness? This idea seems counterintuitive: we usually think of woman as embodying love and compassion; through her natural role as mother, she is constantly foregoing her own needs and giving to her children. One explanation I heard which, if I remember correctly, I heard in the name of Yoram Jacobson (or perhaps in that of Ze’ev Gries?) is that woman, as mother, is focused on the individual, on the particular, on her own specific children, whereas the man is supposedly more universal and generalizing in his scope. But even if this is true, why does this make the woman Din and the man Hesed? Unless, perhaps, we translate these concepts into limitation / constriction vs. expansiveness.

The symbolism of red and white as corresponding to Din and Hesed, female and male, runs deep in the Zohar. The opening page of Bereshit refers to a primeval rose with red and white petals, as part of Creation. In the Lurianic ritual for Tu bi-Shevat, four cups of wine are drunk, beginning with red and ending with pure white, symbolizing the gradual “sweetening” of harsh Din by increasing admixtures of Hesed. And, of course, in the atonement ritual in the Temple in ancient times, the scarlet thread tied on the altar miraculously turned white once the scapegoat reached the wilderness, thereby symbolizing the purification of Israel (cf. Isaiah 1:18: “If your sins shall be red as scarlet, they shall be pure as snow…”).

On another, more concrete level, the whiteness of seminal fluid and the redness of menstrual blood, are emblematic of the two sexes,as in Niddah 31a.

Come and see: Why are those women of other nations who have known men carnally prohibited [i.e., not allowed to live]? Because we have taught: There is right, and there is left; Israel and the other nations; the Garden of Eden and Gehinnom; this world and the World to Come. Israel [leans towards] Mercy, and the other nations towards Judgment. And we have taught: a woman who has tasted the taste of mercy, the attribute of Mercy is uppermost within her. A woman who has tasted the taste of Judgment, judgment is attached to judgment. Concerning this it is written: “And the dogs are cruel of soul, they know not satiation” (Isa 56:11). And concerning this we have taught: one [i.e., a woman] who had relations with an idolator is connected to him like a dog. Just as a dog attacks with an arrogant spirit, so here judgment united with judgment arrogantly in all.

But concerning one who has had relations with an Israelite we have taught: It is written, “And you who are attached to the Lord your God are all living to this very day” (Deut 4:4). What is the reason? Because the soul of the Israelite comes from the spirit of the living God, as is written “for a spirit comes before me, wrapped up” (Isa 57:16). Meaning, it is written “before Me.” And for that reason, a woman who is a virgin and had been attached to the harsh Judgment of the other nations and is attached to an Israelite, Mercy is utmost and she has become fit (kosher).

Come and see: It is written “I have said, the world is built with mercy” (Ps 89:3). What is Mercy? Is one of the supernal crowns of the King, for the soul of Israel is called Mercy by the blessed Holy One, on condition that it be built and that Mercy not be chased away from the world; this is the meaning of the verse, ”shall be built.” For that reason we taught: One who chases Mercy away from the world, he is chased away from the World to Come. Concerning this it is written, “The wife of the dead one shall not marry outside [his family]” (Deut 25:5), so as to do Kindness with the dead one and to perform an act of building up [i.e., through yibbum, levirate marriage], as is written, “the world is built upon Mercy.”

I cannot discuss this entire passage, but will only focus upon one point. From a current perspective, this passage would be seen as highly politically incorrect, easily being read as both racist and sexist. We need to understand two axioms of the Zohar, which will doubtless be unacceptable to many contemporary people: first, that the sexual act is seen not only as a physical-biological act, or even in emotional-interpersonal terms, but as a metaphysical act: as one in which the essences of the parties involved are transferred from one to the other. In particular, the woman “tastes” the essence of the man whom she is receiving into her body—and thus receives and incorporates certain mystical qualities of that man. This is particularly true, in this context, of first intercourse. (By the way, for those readers to whom this seems sexist, it must be remembered that, in the Zohar, a man who has never been married, who has never been with a woman, is likewise seen as incomplete, and thus incapable of the same degree of spiritual ascent, of holiness, as one who is married. The presence of a flesh-and-blood woman somehow makes it possible for the Shekhinah to be present to him.). We must remember here that, in a number of Rabbinic sources, the man’s seed is seen as containing the essence of the future or potential child, as a kind of homunculus. Second, there is a belief that non-Jews are essentially different from Jews, again, in a metaphysical sense. Hence, if the woman, in whom Din is predominant, connects herself to a non-Jew, who is also seen as coming from the “side” of Din, that aspect becomes completely predominant. By contrast, through relations with a Jewish man, who “comes” from the realm of Hesed, that aspect thenceforth becomes predominant in the woman’s persona as well.

BALAK—Postscript: More Thoughts on Child Prodigies

Two weeks ago we presented part of the Zohar passage about the Yanuka, the wonder-child who overwhelmed his distinguished visitors, both with his knowledge and insight into of Torah and Kabbalah, and by his charismatic gifts. Reflecting on this passage prompted some unsystematic thoughts about child prodigies. What is it about such prodigies that so impresses us? Doubtless, if the Yanuka had been an adult, R. Yehudah and R. Yitzhak might still have been impressed by his erudition and creativity, but they would not have been “blown away,” and would not have said, “I don’t think he is a human being!”

The theme of the prodigy is common in many human cultures. In general cultural attainments, Mozart, the mathematician Gauss, and Picasso were among those who began to create significant works in childhood. In almost all religions, we find legends of holy men who behaved like adults, followed a strict religious discipline, and knew a great deal from an early age—in some cases, we are told this as an extension of birth legends. In Judaism, the ilui, the child genius, is a familiar type. There are tales of children who knew all of Talmud before their bar mitzvah or well before; some prodigies, shown a given page of Talmud through which a pin was stuck, could tell the exact word that appears ten or twenty pages on. (Such tales are told of Torah scholars who are among us today: Rav Aharon Lichtenstein and Prof. David Ha-Livni Weiss are two examples that come readily to mind.) Some of these grew up to be learned rabbis and teachers– but, no matter how notable they may be as adults, the sense of something totally outside of the realm of normal expectations, is no longer present. We expect a certain number of adults to be learned scholars, even to possess what we call “encyclopedic” knowledge in a certain area, whereas for a child to do so is somehow uncanny.

The old saw has it that the child is father to the man. It seems to me that the prodigy is particularly celebrated in traditional cultures, which celebrate adult culture above all else, or in excessively serious cultures, like that of Victorianism. The prodigy is a child who somehow surges ahead, becomes a little adult while yet young in years, who somehow bypasses the stage of childhood with its immature and “childish”—i.e., trivial—concerns.

By contrast, there are other kinds of culture that celebrate childhood per se. I jave in mind the romantic movement of early modernity, and its offshoots that are still with us, which celebrate the naivete, purity, innocence and innate spirituality of the child—or of the savage, the human being from a more primitive, less-developed culture: Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his “noble savage,” William Blake wit his “Songs of Innocence,” and all their latter-day descendants, with the various “back-to-nature” movements, like the Hippies. The man of simple faith, like R. Nahman of Bratslav’s tam, is another variant of this idea. In any event, I question whether such cultures would celebrate the prodigy or, to the contrary, might see him as someone who is somehow deprived or stunted of those qualities unique to the child, that are of value in themselves.

In the Zohar, the prodigy, such as the Yanuka of this chapter (who reappears in various places in the Zohar; it is not clear whether he is seen as literally the same person, or different manifestations of the same archetype) is interpreted in mystical terms. His soul is one that has undergone a process of birrur, of perfection, of sorting out and purifying the dross, and which came back to earth with the knowledge and insight from previous lifetimes—and who is somehow able, from the very start, to avoid the usual pitfall of human life and the inner struggle between the Yetzer Hara and Yetzer Hatov. In the Yanuka of our chapter, there is also a hint that the child somehow has some of the knowledge and perhaps other qualities of his father, Rav Hemnuna Sabba, a perfected man who died young.

Talmudic legend has it that the infant in the womb learns the entire Torah; then, at the moment of birth, an angel hits him on the upper lip and he forgets everything. Perhaps prodigies are those who did not forget tehri pre-natal lessons or experiences. (Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz once explained this idea by saying that the essential thing the infant learns in the womb is the existence of God: his basic experience is that of the Self and the Infinite Other, i. e. God.)

Or perhaps one may view it in a quasi-Jungian manner: the prodigy is one who is somehow “plugged in” to the collective mind of the Jewish people, so that his extraordinary knowledge is not really “his,” but that he somehow channels the eternal wisdom of the ages, to which he has access through special qualities of his soul.

The above has been a somewhat free-flowing associative reflection on the nature and meaning of the prodigy; my apologies if I have rambled somewhat.

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.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Balak (Zohar)

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

I have belatedly posted this year's teachings on Shavuot, which may now be found below in their proper place.

Rav Hemnuna Sabba’s Wunderkind

In this week’s parasha we encounter a figure seen in several places in the Zohar—the yanuka or child prodigy. This lad is remarkable, not only for his extraordinary knowledge of Torah (both revealed and esoteric—here, he delivers a series of off-the-cuff Kabbalistic homilies), not only for his meticulous piety, but also for his preternatural spiritual perceptions and powers—which include scathing criticism of the Companions themselves!—and an aura of mystery that surrounds him. Besides everything else, it’s a good story on the simple human level. Zohar III: 186a-187a:

Rabbi Isaac and Rabbi Yehudah were walking on the way. They came to the village of Sakhnin, where Rav Hemnuna Sabba had lived, and lodged at the home of his wife [i.e., widow], who had one small son who was in school all day. On that day he left school and came home. He saw these sages, and his mother said to him: Approach these holy men and get a blessing from them. He approached them, but before he came to them he turned back. He told his mother: I don’t want to approach them, because they did not read the Shema today, and I have been taught thusly: Whoever did not read Shema at the proper time is under a ban the entire day. They heard him and were astonished, so they lifted their hands and blessed him. They then said: Surely, that is how it was. Today we were involved in caring for a certain bride and groom who didn’t have their needs and had postponed their marriage, and there was nobody else to act on their behalf. Hence we acted on their behalf, and did not read the Shema in its proper time. For one who is engaged in a mitzvah is exempt from performing another mitzvah.

The unusual nature of this boy (child? lad? youth?) is shown straightaway in his reluctance to follow his mother’s instruction to show respect to these distinguished visitors, and is reinforced by his outspoken and unabashed criticism of their behavior, of which he could only know through supernatural means.

They said to him: My son, how did you know this? He said to them: From the smell of your clothing when I approached you. They were astonished; after that they sat down and washed their hands and broke bread. Rabbi Yehudah’s hands were soiled, but he washed his hands and said the blessing [this seems to refer to the Garce after Meals, as per below] without washing. He [the yanuka] said to him: If you are disciples of Rav Shemaya the Pious, you ought not to recite the blessing with soiled hands, for one who blesses with soiled hands is subject to the death penalty.

It is not clear whether the boy accepted R. Yehudah and R. Yitzhak’s earlier explanation for their failure to recite Shema (which was perfectly legitimate halakhically); in any event, here he catches one of them out in another ritual violation. This is exacerbated by their failure to respect the tradition they had received from their saintly teacher, Shemaya the Pious. (Incidentally, at this late date, well after the Destruction and the Hadrianic Persecutions [circa 135 CE], it’s difficult to imagine that this is the same Shemaya as is familiar from the zugot in Pirkei Avot—but who knows?) Meanwhile, the yanuka delivers the first of a series of Kabbalistic homilies:

The child began by saying: “When they enter into the Tent of Meeting, they shall wash their hands with water and not die” (Exod 30:20). We derive from this scriptural verse that one who is not careful about this and appears before the King with soiled hands is culpable of the death penalty. What is the reason? Because a person’s hands sit upon the heights of the world. There is one finger in a person’s hand which is the same finger that Moses lifted up. It is written, “And you shall make bars of acacia wood, five for the frame of the sanctuary on one side, and five for the frame of the sanctuary on the opposite side” (Exod 26:26-27). And it says “The middle bar shall span through, from one end to the other” (ibid., 28). Now, lest you think that that middle bar was not among those five, it is not so; rather, that middle bar was among the five: two on one side, two on the other, and one in the middle. And this was the central bar, the pillar of Jacob, the secret of Moses, like the five fingers of a human being. And this middle bar is in the center, greater and more sublime than the others, and through it all the others are sustained. And these five boards correspond to the five hundred years during which the Tree of Life goes out. And the holy covenant is awakened by the five fingers of the hand…

The five fingers of the hand, to which the practical rule of washing hands apply, opens up an entire world of associations: the five boards that held the Sanctuary together; and, in turn, the cluster of five sefirot found in the center of the Sefirotic “map”—Hesed, Gevurah, Netzah, and Hod, which surround Tiferet, ”the pillar of Jacob,” the central sefirah which harmonizes and mediates among the extremes: the “middle bar that spans from one end to the other.” In the imagery of the sefirot as Adam Kadmon, the archetypal human being, Tiferet is the torso, to which the four limbs are connected. Moses, who in some schemes is Nezah, is also part of the central column of the sefirot: Yaakov and Moshe, as Tiferet and Da’at, hold the entire structure together.

Hence, all the blessings of the priests depend upon the fingers, in the same manner as the spreading of Moses’ hand. Given all this, is it not proper that they ought to be clean when one blesses the Holy One, as it is through them and their like that the Holy Name is blessed? Given, therefore, that you are very wise, how is it that you were not careful about this? Have you not served R Shemaya the Pious, who said: All dirt and filth betake themselves to the Other Side, which derives sustenance from them. For that reason, the Latter Waters (mayim aharonim; i.e., before Grace After Meals) is an obligation. And they were astonished, and could not say anything.

Yet another mitzvah in which the hands play a symbolic role is the Priestly Blessing, in which the priests hands are joined at the thumbs, the other four fingers of each hand being divided into two groups of two—again, fitting the scheme outlined above.

He then goes on to introduce the notion of the Sitra Ahara—the “Other Side,” i.e., the powers of evil and impurity that exist in the world. The idea here is that the realm of evil must be given a certain minimum sustenance—in this case, the water which carries away filth attached to the hands—as otherwise it will seek to “feed” upon other places, and begin to swell and grow out of all proportion. This is an important psychological insight: there is never a total defeat of the Other Side; there is never (or hardly ever) a person who achieves absolute religious perfection, purity, holiness. There is always some small part that “belongs” to the Other Side—hence the idea of giving some small “table scraps,” so to speak, to the demonic forces, lest they grow and take over altogether everything. This is further elaborated below.

More generally, the Yanuka’s homilies are all focused on examples of specific halakhot or ritual practices and customs and their Kabbalistic rationales, showing himself, despite his youth, as a sage whose scope of knowledge and thought equally embrace halakhah and aggadah/Kabbalah. We continue here:

Rabbi Judah said: My son, what is your father’s name? The lad was silent for a moment; then he went over to his mother and kissed her. He said to her: Mother, they asked me about father…. His mother answered him: My son, have you examined them? He said: I have examined them, and have not found them fitting. His mother whispered to him, and he returned to them. He said: You asked me about father. Now, he has departed this world, but every day when sublime pious men come on the road, he follows after them as if he were a beggar. And if you are sublime holy people, how is it that you did not notice a beggar walking after you?! But before I saw you [i.e., as really are] and now too I see you, for father never sees [a wise man] without following him with his donkey, so as to carry the burden of Torah. Since you did not merit to see father going after you, I will not tell you who my father is. Rabbi Judah said to R Yitzhak: It seems to me that this lad is not a human being [an expression of astonishment; meant as hyperbole, not that he is literally not human].

In this brief exchange, we see the Yanuka imbued with a deep sense of belonging to a kind of spiritual elite—so much so that his very identity, the name of his father, is a secret that must be kept from all but the holiest and purest of men. Equally strange, R. Yitzhak and R. Yehudah seem to accept with grace and humility the insult implied by his telling them that they are not worthy of knwong his name!

They ate their meal, while the lad said new and wondrous words of Torah. Upon finishing they said: “Come, let us say Grace.” He said to them: You have spoken well, for the Holy Name is not to be blessed until the Invitation (i.e., Zimmun) is said.

He then quoted the verse: “I will bless the Lord at all times” (Ps 34:2). He said: the permissive form, “I will bless” (or: “let me bless”) is used, for when a man sits at the table, the Shekhinah is there, and the Other Side is also there. But when a man invites the company to bless the Holy One, the Shekhinah takes her place above to receive the blessings, and the Other Side is subdued. But if a man does not invite the company to bless, the Other Side hears and pushes in, so that he may have a share in that blessing.… [He then elaborates as to why this danger doesn’t exist in the case of other blessings, such as that over fruit. The scene then concludes:] Rabbi Judah said: Happy is our lot, for never until this moment have I heard these things. Assuredly, I say, this is no son of man…..

They again kiss him and give him blessings; the Yanuka presents several more Kabbalistic homilies on a variety of interwoven subjects, until they finally prepare to say Grace. The conclusion of the scene is particularly moving: Zohar III: 187b-188a:

They came and kissed him as before, and they said: “Come, let us say Grace.” He said: I shall say Grace, for all that you have heard thus far has been from me. I shall thereby fulfill in myself the verse, “He that has a bountiful eye shall be blessed” (Prov 22:9), which may be read as “shall bless.” Why? Because “he has given of his bread to the poor” (ibid.). You have eaten of the bread and food of my Torah.

R. Yehudah said: My son, beloved of the Lord, we have learned that “the host breaks bread and the guest says Grace” (sugyot in b. Berakhot Ch. 7). He replied: Neither am I host nor are you guests, but I have found a text which I will carry out. For I am certainly “bountiful of eye,” seeing that without being asked I have spoken till now, and you have eaten my bread and food. He took the cup of blessing and said Grace, and his hands could not support the cup and they trembled as he held it. When he came to [the blessing] “for the Land and for the food,” he exclaimed: “I will lift up the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord” (Ps 116:13). He put the cup down and took it up in his right hand and resumed. At the end he said: May it be God’s will that the life of one of these may be prolonged from the Tree of Life on which all life depends, and may the blessed Holy One be surety for him, and may he find surety for himself below with the help of the Holy King. He then closed his eyes for a moment, and when he opened them he said: Companions, peace to you from the Lord of goodness, to whom the whole world belongs. They wondered greatly; then they wept and blessed him, and they stayed there overnight, and in the morning they rose early and departed.

When they came to Rabbi Shimon, they told him all that had happened. R. Shimon was greatly astonished, and said: He is a mighty rock, and is worthy of this and even more than one can imagine. He is the son of Rav Hemnuna the Elder. R. Eleazar was very excited and said: I must go to see that Flaming Lamp. But R. Shimon said: His name will not be known in the world, because there is something very exceptional about him. It is the light of the anointing of his father which shines on him from the supernal light, and this secret is not to be divulged among the Companions. (Translation partially based upon the Soncino Zohar, V: 254-257, 259)

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.