Friday, October 30, 2009

Lekh Lekha (Aggadah)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to my blog, at November 2005, as well as 2006, 2007, and 2008. For teachings on Shlomo, see all of the above, as well as the archives for October 2004.

Avraham and Honoring Parents

I find that I must already depart from what I said just last week about focusing here on aggadah from the Talmud. I find the following passage from the Midrash Rabbah sufficiently interesting and highly pregnant with meaning, that I decided to make it my first text for this week. Genesis Rabbah 39.7:

“Go thee forth” [Gen 12:1]. Because Avraham our father was afraid, saying: I will go out and people will profane the name of Heaven on my account, saying: He left his father in his old age and went off. The Holy One blessed be He said to him: “You shall go forth”—you I exempt from honoring your father and mother, but I do not exempt others from honoring father and mother.

The problem faced by Avraham, according to this aggadah, is a perennial one. It often happens, in various historical settings, that individuals who set out to do something new, radical and different need to leave their parents or other family members behind. The halutzim who established the first settlements in Eretz Yisrael at the beginning of the Zionist enterprise came, by and large, by themselves, as young people unfettered by family responsibilities, establishing new communities that played the role of extended families (and in due time, by and large, also established their own nuclear families). The same holds true for the young Jewish immigrants to America at the beginning of the last century, who saw that there was no future for them in Europe—and, unknowingly, helped to establish what was to become the largest and one of the most important Jewish centers in the new world; political radicals and revolutionaries who broke with their parents to follow a path intended to create a better society for mankind at large; those who blazed new paths in religious life, often involving bitter confrontations with parents and community, as in the conflict between Hasidim and Mitnaggedim; or, in contemporary life, those who return to traditional observance from secular or assimilated homes—and many other examples could be brought. Almost anything new, innovative, valuable in human civilization may involve a certain break with the older generation. Does the Torah categorically prohibit any action which will take one away from one’s parents?

Nevertheless, we are told here, Avraham was troubled by the consequences of leaving his elderly parents behind. Kibbud horim, the principle of honoring and caring for one’s parents, is a central command of the Torah—and one that applies, primarily, when children become adults and parents are in their declining years. It is, more than anything else, a concrete embodiment of the idea of hakarat hatov, of recognizing the kindnesses that have been done to one in the past—of the hundreds and thousands of hours parents devote to their children during their growing years—and attempting to repay in kind. This point is particularly important in contemporary society, which tends to emphasize the individual and at times derides extended family ties as “old-fashioned” and needless burdens on the individual. Here in Israel, one can find elderly people who are more-or-less neglected and abandoned by their children, even if the latter may be at least moderately comfortable individuals. In traditional religious families, at least in theory, care for parents is still regarded as a central value, and those devoted to their elderly parents—even if busy, high-status professionals—are admired. Such models, unfortunately, seem to be becoming fewer in number as time progresses.

In truth, many halakhic questions in Judaism are ones of hierarchy: not a choice between good and evil, between that which is permitted and that which is prohibited, but rather between two goods, two imperatives, to determine which one takes precedence. Both options may involve central values, but due to the exigencies of time or place or other circumstances, a person can only do one of them. In that case, the task of the halakhah is difficult: deciding which of the two takes precedence.

God’s answer to Avraham here is interesting: As if to say, in your particular case aliyah to Eretz Yisrael is a greater mitzvah than kibbud av. This may not be the case of every person contemplating aliyah, but in the specific circumstance of Avraham—the first Hebrew to establish a foothold in Eretz Yisrael, to establish through his own action that Eretz Yisrael was to be the site of the life of the ”household of Israel” and eventually of the “people of Israel,” an integral element in the covenant between God and Abraham and his offspring—“you shall go forth” was clearly the greater imperative.

“Leave your Constellation”

“And he took him outside…” (Gen 15:5). What is meant by “And he took him outside”? Rabbi Yehudah said in the name of Rav: Avraham said before the Holy One blessed be He: I have looked at my constellation and I am not deserving to have a son. He said to him: Leave your astrological speculations, for Israel are not under astrological signs [lit, “There is no mazal over Israel). —b. Shabbat 156a

The context here is what is known as Berit bein ha-Betarim, the “Covenant Between the Pieces.” The two Abrahamic Torah portions —Lekh lekha and Vayera—may be read as a series of calls to Abraham to a new kind of faith and destiny, a new kind of religious consciousness, a new way of being in the world and of being with God. As is the way of the Tanakh, this way is not presented in a discursive manner or in a systematic theoretical scheme, but is taught by implication, through the description of various events and encounters. Interwoven with incidents and interactions within the family and with neighboring tribes, we have a number of “theological” high points, of direct encounters with God. These are: the call to leave his home and fatherland (Ch. 12); the Covenant Between the Pieces with its Divine revelation and prophecy concerning the future (Ch. 15); the covenant of circumcision and its associated promises (Ch. 17); the dialogue with God about the destruction of Sodom, in which Avraham takes daring initiative to dissuade God from this action (Ch. 18); and the climax in the Binding of Isaac, Avraham’s final test, in which a seemingly inhuman demand is imposed upon him (Ch. 22).

In this context, our midrash adds a significant new religious dimension to our chapter, which is already one of the turning points in the Avraham sequence. Exegetically, this passage is based upon a metaphorical reading of the verse “Go outside.” The aggadic author so-to-speak says to himself: It would be trivial for God to tell Avraham to go outside in the literal sense of looking at the stars; surely, this must refer to him going to someplace that is “outside” figuratively; outside of his conventional way of looking at things, outside of the conventional wisdom and habits of thought of society.

The famous phrase with which this saying ends, “There is no mazal for Israel,” is often misinterpreted as if it meant “Israel has no luck.” But the point is the exact opposite: Israel (i.e., the Jewish people) transcends the world of causality and determinism represented here by astrology and involvement in heavenly signs and portents. The nations of the world, at least according to some medieval authorities, may be governed by such things (which is at times explained as the One God’s means of ruling over His world indirectly), but such is not the case for Israel. Avraham’s direct relationship with God excludes any magical, external elements.

Shlomo Carlebach, ztz”l

This coming Tuesday, 16th Marheshvan, will mark 15 years since the death of Reb Shlomo Carlebach, one of the unique teachers of our generation, the enigma of whose life I find a perennial subject of thought and reflection. This year’s memorial essay will be presented here next week.

Meanwhile, I call reader’s attention to two events marking the Yahrzeit. On Tuesday, November 3, at 2:00 in the afternoon, there will be the annual aliyah lakever at the Har ha-Menuhot Cemetery in Jerusalem. From the main parking lot, follow the right-hand road about 100 meters uphill, and you will see the gathering of scores of his disciples in the grove of trees to the left, adjacent to his final resting place. Then, on Tuesday evening at 7:30, there will be an evening of story-telling, teaching, reminiscence and music devoted to Shlomo’s memory at Yakar, 10 Lamed-Heh Street, Old Katamon, Jerusalem. Strongly recommended.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Noah (Aggadah)

The Raven and the Dove

Two denizens of the heavens—the raven and the dove—play a crucial part in the Flood story. When the waters stopped falling, Noah sent forth, first the raven, who flew around and returned to the ark (Gen 8:7), and then the dove, on two separate occasions a week apart; it was he who returned with the olive branch, symbol of renewed vegetative life (8:8-11), and in time symbol of peace.

The Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin has a number of interesting things to say about these two birds. These stories appear in the tenth chapter of Tractate Sanhedrin, known as Perek Helek, a particularly important source of Talmudic aggadah. The opening mishnah of this chapter is perhaps the only one in the Mishnah to deal with theological issues and to establish halakhic categories of those who fail to accept certain cardinal doctrines. Hence, Rambam’s commentary on this chapter, or more particularly the Introduction to that chapter, is very important, serving as the locus for his Thirteen Principles of Faith. The aggadah on this chapter is also particularly rich, filled with aggadot about many well-known biblical stories, discussions of Messiah and the limitations on messianic speculation. b. Sanhedrin 108b:

“And he sent forth the raven” (Gen 8:7). Resh Lakish said: The raven answered Noah with sharp answers. He said to him: Your Master hates me, and you hate me. Your Master [i.e., God] hates me, [because he said to take] seven of each pure species, and [only] two of the impure species. You hate me: for you have left those species of which there are seven pairs, and sent [me], from a species of which there are only two. Should I be harmed by the demon of heat or of cold, will not the world be lacking in an entire species? Or perhaps it is my wife that you need [i.e. desire]? He said to him: Wicked one! She who is permitted to me [i.e. my own wife] has been prohibited to me [alluding to the well-known Rabbinic idea, inferred from comparison of the wording in 7:7 with 8:16, that sexual intercourse was forbidden aboard the ark the entire period of the Flood], she who is forbidden to me all the more so….

There are two interesting lessons here. First, the raven quite rightly accuses Noah, by sending him out on this dangerous mission, of ignoring the risk of rendering an entire species extinct! By sending out the only male raven in the entire ark, should he suffer some injury his entire species would be wiped out! The raven is the first advocate of wildlife conservation!

Second, he is portrayed as a jealous and suspicious husband: perhaps you want me out of the way because you want my female for yourself! (Rashi says that he circled around close to the ark to keep an eye on Noah!) Noah responds with insulted indignation: here I am living celibate because such is God’s command, with respect to normal relations with my wife from my own species, and you accuse me of perverted and unnatural desires! Perhaps he calls the raven “Wicked one” because those who accuse others of improper sexual thoughts are often those who are themselves most obsessed with sexual misconduct, because they secretly desire it themselves! The frequency of prurient puritans, so to speak.

“And he sent forth the dove from him” (Gen 8:8). Rabbi Yirmiyah said: From this [i.e., from the addition of the word “from him”] we infer that the pure birds dwelt with the righteous. “And behold, an olive leaf torn in its mouth” (v. 11). Rabbi Eleazar said: The dove said before the Holy One blessed be he: Master of the Universe, may my food be bitter like an olive, and from Your hand, and not sweet as honey, but dependent upon flesh and blood. From whence do we know that the word teref (here translated “torn”) refers to food? As is written: “Provide me (הטריפני) with my daily bread” (Prov 30: 8).

The dove, labeled here as “righteous,” is described here as being satisfied with little; more precisely, as having Spartan taste, or simply an iron self-discipline that has long since learned to do without any sort of pampering: better something bitter, but my own (i.e., directly from God) rather than that delicacies, but with strings attached—i.e., dependence upon other people.

Of course, the raven and the dove are not only birds. We can imagine them as representing human types: the brash, suspicious type, who constantly argues, challenges authority and suspects others of ulterior motives; and the righteous, modest person, who lives more harmoniously with the scheme of things. But in the end the raven also has his day. In the Elijah story, it is the ravens who befriend the prophet, bringing him food when he has to go “underground” at the Brook Kerith, near the Jordan Valley (1 Kings 17:4).

BERESHIT: Postscripts

Several interesting and valuable reader comments:

1. Mark Kirschbaum questioned my comment that the “educated Jew” in 19th century Europe knew Talmud, Midrash and Zohar, inferring from R. Zaddok ha-Kohen’s use of these sources with out foot-noting, as if his readers would infer from three words of a Zohar passage exactly what and where he was quoting. He was, admittedly, a genius, and quite probably more than a little eccentric, who wrote for himself and a small coterie of learned colleagues. But certainly at least his Rabbinic colleagues must have known what he was referring to.

2. David Greenstein: notes that the best English translation of Bialik-Ravnitsky’s Sefer ha-Aggadah is that of William Braude, The Book of Legends: Sefer ha-Aggadah; Legends from the Talmud and Midrash (New York: Schocken, 1992), 920 pp.; Chaim Pearl’s translation is a selection. I must admit being biased towards the memory of Rabbi Pearl, who was a regular study partner at one stage of my life; in any event, I didn’t know about the Braude translation.

3. Susan Marx mentions that there is a midrashic opinion that the etrog was the fruit eaten by Adam and Eve in the Garden. She is correct: it appears in Genesis Rabbah 15.7 along with the three I mentioned, as well as, of all things, turnip. But I have chosen this year to focus on aggadah brought in the Talmud and not in other sources, since I have to limit myself in some way and cannot talk about everything.

I also mentioned that, apart from the fact that the apple/tapuah is not mentioned at all in the Biblical story, it’s not clear what tapuah meant in ancient Hebrew. This past week I had an opportunity to glance at two modern translations of Song of Songs. Chana and Ariel Bloch render תפוח as apricot—a full-bodied, luscious, moist fruit, quite possibly indigenous to Eretz Yisrael since ancient times. Marcia Falk translates it as “quince.”

4. About the verse זכר ונקבה בראם... ויקרא את שמם אדם (“Male and female He created tem… and he called their name ‘man’”; Gen 5:2). It has become de rigueur in politically correct circles to use the supposedly more “gender-inclusive” terms “human” and “humankind” rather than “man” or “mankind.” But it occurred to me on Shabbat Bereshit when hearing this verse that Adam is specifically the name of the species to which man and woman both belong. (Adam is not the personal name of the first man, except in a borrowed sense, but a generic term.)

I must admit that I find myself increasingly fed up with the PC language police, especially because for some reason they always seem to prefer longer and more awkward terms in place of simple ones: e.g., “African-American” rather than “black” or “Negro”: 7 syllables as against 1 or 2; 16 key strokes as against 5. For clumsy typists like myself, this is particularly irksome. Perhaps we Jews should insist on calling ourselves “Hebreo-Israelites” or even “Sisjordanian Hebreo-Israelites” and denounce anyone who refuses to use this term as a bigot and anti-Semite! (Sisjordan refers to the land west of the Jordan River”—i.e., the classical Eretz Yisrael)

Bereshit (Aggadah)

Hadran Alakh

Before beginning the new year of Torah and a new series of studies, a few concluding words on our Zohar series, beyond the few short words I penned hastily late in the afternoon last Erev Shabbat.

First and foremost, I owe a special debt of gratitude for the Zohar series to two individuals: first, to Daniel Matt, who graciously allowed me to use his translation of The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, including as-yet-unpublished material, up to the point that he has reached in his own work on this massive project. We look forward to the appearance of further volumes, and anticipate that the Pritzker Zohar, once completed, will become a staple addition to the English reader’s library of Judaica (as the existing volumes already have become). Danny was also helpful from time to time in answering various queries, and providing information, bibliography, suggested readings, etc.

Secondly, to Avraham Leader, a true talmid-hakham and unsung hero of scholarship. Working totally outside of any institutional framework, whether academic or yeshiva, he has a wealth of knowledge and insight into the Zohar and other Kabbalistic works; he is a living example of what an auto-didact can accomplish if he approaches his field with enough devotion and passion. Avraham was always there, a phone call away, and helped me in innumerable times in understanding arcane and difficult passages. His aim, like my own, was to understand the peshat of the text; in this, he helped me to separate between the Zoharic world-view from the overlay of Lurianic Kabbalah, through whose lenses is automatically seen by so many people.

One more thought: Avraham and Danny are both living proof that something wonderful has happened: Jewry has renewed itself, like the legendary Phoenix, from the ashes of destroyed European Jewry, and produced, not only a new generation devoted to continuing Jewish life, but among them learned, scholarly Jews, masters of our ancient tradition. Each of these men started as “regular American kids” (albeit admittedly both are sons of rabbis), who somewhere in early adulthood discovered a love of Jewish learning, and in time mastered one of the seemingly most obscure and difficult branches of Jewish literature.

Finally, I can also bless myself, and my readers, with the traditional blessing upon competing the study of any Jewish book: hadran alakh zohar ha-kodesh, vehadrakh alan— “May we return to you, O Holy Zohar, and you return to us.” In ages past, Zohar was part of the daily bread of any educated Jew: reading, for example, the teachings of R. Zaddok ha-Kohen of Lublin, one finds that he assumes literacy in and familiarity with Talmud, midrashim and Zohar as the background of his readers. I am well aware that I have hardly begun to scratch the surface of this amazing compendium library of Jewish thought and mysticism. If, at the beginning of the year, the Zohar was terra incognita to me, it is only somewhat less so at its end. Hence, this is hardly a siyyum in any real sense, but merely a small taste. May we merit to return to its study in ever more comprehensive and deeper ways.

Aggadah: An Introduction

After a year of grappling with the often difficult and obscure texts of the Zohar, I have decided to “take a rest” (relatively speaking) this year and to devote Hitzei Yehonatan to what is, at least on the face of it (and I emphasis these words) a simpler and more straightforward genre—Rabbinic aggadah. (And, in response to feedback from some quarters, to confine each issue to two or at most three pages, to make things a bit easier on the reader.) But in truth, it is simpler only in the sense that the units of text to be studied are much shorter: many aggadot occupy only a few lines in the Talmudic text, or less. But, as we shall soon see, what lies beneath the surface of the aggadah is no simple matter. We shall do our best to understand and explain this, with the hope and prayer that “He who graces man with knowledge” will grant me wisdom, understanding, and strength.

Rambam, in the Introduction to Perek Helek (=Mishnah Commentary, Sanhedrin Ch. 10), portrays three ways in which people understand aggadah (his son, R. Abraham Maimonides, reiterates many of these ideas in his own Introduction to Ein Ya’akov). There are those who read it in a naive manner and believe, with all the force of their emunah in Torah, the literal truth of ever word of aggadah: that Rabba bar bar Hanna and his shipmates literally landed on an island that turned out to be the back of a gigantic tortoise; that the various conversations recorded between God and various biblical personalities are verbatim transcripts of actual dialogues; etc. This often leads to absurdities which, moreover, give religion a bad name as demanding that people to totally suspend their reason. And indeed, the second group agrees that aggadot are meant to be taken literally but, seeing the positions to which this position may lead, reject it all as nonsense and, so to speak, throw out the baby with the bath water. The third and smallest group understands aggadah to contain truth, but couched in allegorical or symbolic language. The task of the intelligent reader is to “decode” this language. I see my task this year in these latter terms.

To begin with a few elementary definitions: Rabbinic literature—the two Talmuds, the Mishnah, the midrashim, etc —is divided into two basic genres: halakhah, meaning discussion of the Law; and aggadah, which means, basically, everything else—usually translated “legends,” it includes philosophy, speculation, linguistics, stories of the lives of the Sages, and, perhaps most important, reconstruction or “filling in the gaps” of the Biblical narrative (a friend of mine who is an aggadic scholar, Joshua Levinson, has written a book, in Hebrew, entitled The Twice-Told Tale, around precisely this theme). For our purposes, we will focus upon those aggadot that deal in some way with the text of the weekly parasha, and attempt to “read between the lines”—i.e., to answer these questions that are not answered by the biblical text itself. (As Erich Auerbach has written in his classic book on literary interpretation, Mimesis, the Biblical narrative is famous for its extreme brevity and laconic style, leaving much room for commentators and storytellers alike to attempt to reconstruct the gaps.)

I shall mention a few helpful tools for studying aggadah. First, Bialik and Rawnitzky’s classical topically-arranged compendium, Sefer ha-Aggadah, which attempts to bring the riches of the Jewish tradition to a new kind of Hebrew-reading public which no longer swims in the sea of the Talmud. (available in English in the excellent translation of Chaim Pearl, z”l, entitled The Book of Legends), Second, Torah Temimah, by Barukh Halevi Epstein. This work, in the format of a traditional Humash in five volumes, contains the text, Onkelos, and Rashi and, at the bottom of the page, every Rabbinic saying that quotes the verse in question, plus the compiler’s very illuminating commentary on almost every passage that he brings. Another such work, albeit far less known and less comprehensive, is Yalkut Yehudah, by an early 20th century Orthodox rabbi from Denver, Colorado, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Ginsburg, who specifically chose those passages with moral and ethical relevance.

Finally, another valuable tool is Toldot Aharon: a system of cross-references to the aggadah, printed in standard editions Mikraot Gedolot, giving, for each verse in Torah, the page numbers where discussions thereof appear in the Talmud. This is particularly useful in finding the clusters of aggadot on a given topic that are often concentrated in a particular place in the Talmud.

So without further ado, we shall turn to this week’s opening portion of the Torah: Bereshit, the chapter of Beginnings.

What Was the Tree of Knowledge?

What was the fruit that Eve and Adam ate, with disastrous consequences? Many of us, raised in Western culture steeped in Christianity, with its rich visual iconography, will automatically answer “the apple.” It is an apple that appears in many of the medieval and early Renaissance paintings of this scene, hanging in art galleries throughout Europe and North America. If my memory serves me right, John Milton in Paradise Lost names the fruit as an apple.

But the apple is really not indigenous to the Bible lands. Apples hardly grow in Western Eretz Yisrael; the apples sold here are by and large from the Golan Heights, a region with a rather different climate and sort of soil, more hospitable to this fruit. The tapuah mentioned in Song of Songs (2:3, 5; 7:9; 8:4) and elsewhere is quite possibly a different fruit than that which we know as an apple (perhaps an apricot?). In any event, there is no particular prima facie reason to identify it as such.

The Talmud, at Sanhedrin 70a-b, gives three answers:

Rav Hasda said in the name of Rav Uqba, and some say, Mar Uqba in the name of Rav Zakkai: The Holy One blessed be He said to Noah: Noah, oughtn’t you to have learned from Adam, whose [downfall] was caused by wine? As is said: The tree from which Adam ate was the grapevine. As we taught: Rabbi Meir said: That tree from which Adam ate was a grapevine, for there is nothing which brings wailing to mankind but wine.

Rabbi Yehudah said: It was wheat, for an infant does not know how to call, “Mommy, Daddy,” until he tastes the taste of grain.

Rabbi Nehemiah said; It was a fig, for by the same thing by which they acted badly they were corrected. As is said, “And they sewed together fig leaves” (Gen 3:7).

The three answers given by the Talmud—grape, wheat, and fig—are all very different from one another.

Interestingly, although I don’t suggest that there as a one-to-one correspondence between them and the three suggestions offered for the identity of the fruit of the Tree, in a key verse the fruit of the tree is described using three distinct phrases: ותרא האשה כי טוב העץ למאכל, וכי תאוה הוא לעיניים, ונחמד העץ להשכיל – ותקח מפריו ותאכל, ותתן גם לאשה עמה ויאכל “And the woman saw that the tree was good to eat; and it was desirable to the eyes; and the tree was pleasant that one might know—and she took of its fruit and she ate, and she gave to her man with her, and he ate” (Gen 3:6). The three stages can be described as: the directly appetitive (“good to eat”); aesthetic/sensuous (desirable to the eyes”—an interesting turn of phrase, suggesting also that desire generally may start with the eyes); and intellective (“pleasing to know”).

Grapes—because wine leads to drunkenness, to loss of control, and from there to doing things which cause sorrow, weeping and wailing. This answer is preceded by an elaborate introduction: that Noah, the first drunkard, ought to have learned from Adam’s bitter experience.

Wheat—wheat and wheat products are associated with “knowledge” because the ability to digest wheat (i.e., bread, the staff of life”: the most basic foodstuff, at least in ancient tradition; one which has a central role in Jewish eating etiquette, in the halakhic definition of a meal, etc.) is taken as a sign that the infant has emerged from infancy into early childhood, and is now capable of learning, particularly of language. There is no change of causation connecting wheat with knowledge; rather, one is a symbol of the other.

Fig—the relation of this fruit to the Tree is also indirect. Our aggadah, based on a more general Rabbinic concept of middah keneged middah, of a certain moral balance in the world, asserts that “In that which they sinned, they were also corrected.” Thus, from the fact that they used fig leaves to cover their nakedness, we infer that the “Tree of Knowledge” was a fig tree.

The real question being asked here, I submit, is: What is Man? What is the nature of the human being, and what most tempts him or her?

Wine relates to drunkenness—in other words, oblivion. A state in which one escapes from mundane, possibly boring reality; from responsibility; from awareness, from consciousness, from conscience. To be fully human is a demanding, heavy burden, in which one is morally accountable for every action, every word spoken to another, possibly even every thought; for very deed of commission or omission. No wonder that there is something attractive, even seductive, about going on a drunken binge, taking a “moral holiday” in which one “doesn’t give a damn.”

Wheat, as mentioned, relates to knowledge. To be human means to want to know, to be curious—at times insatiably so—to wish to understand the universe. For hwo many modern people is knowledge—scientific knowledge, but also other kinds of knowledge as well—almost an alternative religion. And indeed, the ban on eating from the Tree is explained by the Serpent with the words “you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (3:5). To the ancients, Wisdom, Sophia, Logos, was a Divine quality, and too overbearing a desire for certain kinds of knowledge was seen as a dangerous form of hubris (see HY IX: Noah-Supplement)

And what of the fig? I would suggest here a certain connection to sexuality. Adam and Eve first became aware of their nakedness only after eating of the fruit (3:7); the Bible pointedly emphasizes, one verse before the fateful encounter of Eve with the serpent, that they were both naked and were not embarrassed (2:25). Hence, so it seems to imply, eating the fruit somehow made them aware of this, thus inviting the further question: what was it about this fruit that made them aware that they were “naked”?

Christian tradition associates the sin in the Garden with sexuality, with the dawning of sexual awareness, and sees the first sexual act as performed only when they were already in a “state of Sin.” Judaism decidedly rejects this approach (see HY X: Bereshit – Supplement, where I discuss this issue at some length).

Nevertheless, it seems that there was, inter alia, some connection between eating the fruit and sexuality. Did they perhaps learn, after eating the fruit, that sex can be lewd and “dirty.” At bottom, I would subject, lewd or dirty sex means: sex based on a subject-object relation to one’s sexual companion; from uninhibited, childlike play as friends and lovers, sex became part of a power relationship, of dominator and dominated (see, e.g., the curse placed on Eve in Gen 3:16). Or, to go the Buberian route: the basic word spoken turned from “I-Thou” to “I-It.” Perhaps by way of derush, can could interpret our aggadah as follows: the correction for out-of-control, “I-It” sexuality, is found in sexuality itself, but done in a loving manner, in aware of the other as a fellow person with consciousness and subjectivity—i.e., turning to the “I-Thou.”

Simhat Torah - Supplement (Erez Chipman)


Last Tuesday marked the sheloshim, thirty days since the passing of my infant grandson, Erez b. Yitzhak Meir and Leeza Sheina. In his memory, I would like to devote this (belated) supplement to several brief discussions relating to various aspects of the painful and difficult subject of infant death—in Mikra (Bible), halakhah, aggadah and Kabbalah. When a person has lived a full life, there is of course a feeling of sadness and loss, but there is also the sense that he has accomplished certain things, that one knew his/her personality, that there is a sense of “closure”—albeit the younger a person dies, the greater the sense of tragic loss and of something having been cruelly cut off before its time. In the case of Erez, or of any other infant who dies, there is a strong sense of injustice. If God is just; if in some sense, as we say on Rosh Hashana, continued life is the reward for goodness and death the punishment for evil—even if we do not comprehend how this works, and how it squares with everyday life experience—where then is His justice? An infant exemplifies purity, innocence; he is a person who has never in his life committed a single act that can even remotely be called sin or wrongdoing—indeed, one may question whether, in an infant of Erez’s age, one may speak of volitional action in any meaningful sense at all.

In Halakhic Man, Rav Soloveitchik tells that when his grandfather, R. Hayyim of Brisk, was overwhelmed by thoughts of death and the accompanying feelings of dread, he would counter them by studying the laws of Tumat Met, the impurity of dead bodies—that is, that part of the Torah which deals with death as an objective phenomenon. In the (belated) spirit of Simhat Torah, one might say that the Torah somehow contains within itself the power to comfort people. There is an idea that study is the most sublime possible form of joy. “The edicts of the Torah are upright, rejoicing the heart” (Ps 19:9). (For that very reason, Torah study is prohibited during mourning, and mitigated or limited to certain texts and subjects on Tisha b’Av.) It would seem to comfort, among other things, by placing individual life in a larger frame of meaning, that connects us with Netzah Yisrael, the Eternal Life Source of the People Israel.

We shall begin with two brief passages from Kabbalah and aggadah that attempt to deal with the issues of theodicy raised by the death of children.


Avraham Leader, in a condolence note he sent me following Erez’s death, drew my attention to a passage in the Zohar, Heikhalot Pekudei , which speaks of how, when the God can stand the world no longer, He unleashes His rage—but then He gazes at the souls of children who died too young, and has compassion on the world (my paraphrase–AL).” The text in Zohar II: 248b reads:

And at that hour when wrath dominates in the world, the blessed Holy One gazes upon it, and has pity on his world. And all those children who did not live to compete their years, until thirteen years and a day, all of them are given into his hand.

Interestingly, the Zohar offers no real explanation or justification for the death of children (NB: until the age of mitzvot, even those wicked deeds that children may commit, they aren’t held accountable for, as they are still before the age of moral judgment and responsibility). Somehow, (if I read this correctly), the fact that children die for no good reason arouses elicits God’s compassion., and His sense (?) that some of the things He does in this world aren’t so nice.

Avraham concluded: “May all suffering cease, and when it does occur, may it make us more sensitive and compassionate, may the soul of little Erez bring a smile to the face of Atiqa Kadisha…”


The Talmud at Berakhot 5a-b contains a lengthy discussion of the meaning of yesurim, “suffering”—which may include illness, physical displacement, poverty, or the loss of loved ones. The general tenor of the discussion is that suffering is a form of punishment for transgression, but also a kind of warning to the person to repent and mend his ways before it is too late: If suffering comes upon him, late him search out his deeds.” Even should e honestly search his acts and find no wrong-doing (which admittedly, may often be a matter of self-delusion—after all, who is really perfect?) he should attribute his suffering to neglect of Torah study), or perhaps they are even יסורין של אהבה, “chastisements of love.”

But then our passage runs up against a brick wall, so to speak: what about the suffering, and even death of children? (an issue in which the classic question of theodicy, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” is manifested in its most intense form). The only coherent answer our sugya can suggest is that their death somehow gratuitous—it is either a kind of vicarious atonement for its parents or, what is closely related, ייסורים של אהבה, “suffering of love”—a firm of suffering that is somehow meant to purify and refine the parents’ character. But in what way have the children deserved death? This question is left without answer.

Our passage concludes with the rather bizarre story of Rabbi Yohanan, who lost ten children in childhood, and used to carry around one of the bones of his last child (which, Rashi hastens to clarify, was too small to cause ritual impurity—ibid., s.v. bir). Whenever confronted by people who had themselves suffered greatly, he would produce this bone, saying דין גרמא דעשיראה ביר —“this is the bone of my tenth son”—as if to say: “If I have gone through what I have and somehow remained whole, so can you!” Beyond that there are no cut-and-dry answers.


The Bible contains a dramatic story of the death of a small child. In 2 Samuel 11, we read of David’s adultery with a woman named Bathsheba while her husband, Uriah the Hittite, was off fighting one of his (David’s) wars. This sin was compounded when, after an attempt to cover-up her illicit pregnancy failed, David arranged for Uriah to be killed, placing him in the thickest part of the battle. In due time, Bathsheba came to live with David as his wife, and delivered a baby boy.

In Chapter 12, Nathan the prophet takes David to task for the double sin of adultery and murder, using the famous parable of כבשת הרש, “the poor man’s lamb.” The latter immediately admits his guilt: חטאתי לה'—“I have sinned before God.” Nathan replies that, because David repented, the dire punishment prophesied in vv. 11-12 will not occur; nevertheless, the child born to this sinful union will die. We then read that the child or infant—it does not say how old he was, but I always imagine him as a very small child, perhaps still an infant; in any event, he is not given a name, but simply referred to as hayeled, “the child”—falls ill, and they fear for his life. David fasts and prays, sits on the ground, and is utterly distraught. When after seven days the child indeed dies, David’s servants are fearful of breaking the news to him: if he carried on so while the child was still alive, what might he do to himself upon hearing of his death? David hears them whispering, and understands what has happened.

At this point David does a strange and unexpected thing: he gets up from the floor, washes himself, changes his clothes, goes to the “House of the Lord” (a kind of pre-Temple building or tent that housed the ark of the covenant?) to worship God, and then sits down to eat a hearty meal. His entourage are puzzled: how is it that he is not even more distraught now that “the worst has happened”? His answer is very sage: so long as the child was alive, he still had hope; perhaps God would respond to his prayers, and to the fasting and weeping and mourning-like behavior that went with it, and spare the child’s life. But now אני הולך אליו והוא לא ישוב אלי—“I will go to him, but he will not return to me” (12:23). The story ends with David comforting Bathsheba, sleeping with her, and her conceiving and bearing a second child, Shlomo (Solomon), who in due course becomes the heir to the throne, the paradigm of wisdom, and God’s beloved king.

What does David’s response in v. 23 mean? I would like to suggest that this may be read as a kind of tzidduk hadin, albeit not in the conventional sense. Liturgically, the Tzidduk ha-din refers to a series of verses received at a funeral in which the mourner accepts or justifies God’s judgment: “The Rock, whose acts are perfect, for all his ways are just…” etc. I refer here to a more basic level: of accepting, emotionally, the facticity, the reality of the death that has just occurred—and its corollary, the inevitable reality of death in general: the fact that we are all mortal, that life is a “one-directional” stream, in which the living move towards death, but not vice versa.

At the sheloshim held in Erez’s honor last week at Ika’s home, my daughter Tanya read an aggadic passage (Avot de-Rabbi Nathan, A, Ch. 14) about how the sages tried to comfort Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai upon the death of one of his children. In its wake, the people present discussed what it means to comfort a mourner. Is it really possible to comfort a person who has lost a loved one? And indeed, the grieving young parents said that the stereotyped words of comfort so often heard during shivah tend to ring hollow and empty. I remember how I once made a shivah call to an elderly man whose wife—the love of his life, with whom he had lived for more than 60 years—had just died. The mourner addressed me, quite simply, with the words תנחם אותי!— “Comfort me!” I realized that any answer I could possibly give—the loving family they had built together; that God has his mysterious reasons; the life of Torah and mitzvot, that can be deeply satisfying—would not provide the answer he wanted. He had deeply loved and been loved by another person, and now it was ended. Ultimately, a person can only comfort himself, by accepting the bitter pill, because there is no other choice. The “comforters” who come to shivah do not really come to say any particular words of wisdom (although Hazal so speak of the obligation to say דברי כיבושין, things that “win over” the heart), but simply to be with their friend in his time of loss.

Perhaps this is the meaning of the strange words of comfort, the Birkat Avelim, “Blessing of the Mourners,” recorded in Ketubot 8b in the name of Hiyya bar Abba: “O, brethren who are worn out and depressed in this mourning. Turn your hearts to this, it is something that has been forever, a path from the Six Days of Creation. Many have drunk, many will drink; like the drinking of the former is the drinking of the latter. Brethren, may the Master of Comforting comfort you. Blessed are You, O God, who comforts the mourners.” What is the comfort in these words? Simply put: “This is how life is; everyone has to ‘drink’ of the cup of mourning sooner or later!” All one can do is accept it; and God, somehow, comforts, not by words, but by the healing process inherent in ongoing life itself.


One of the halakhot that was discussed in connection with Erez’s death relates to the minimum age that requires mourning. When an infant dies before the age of thirty days, his parents and other relatives are exempt from the usual obligations of shivah (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 374.8-9; Rambam, Hilkhot Evel 1.6-8; on the laws of burial for infants, see Y.D. 353.4). The essential idea underlying these halakhot is the presumption that such a baby was born prematurely—a nefel—was not completely formed in the womb, and hence died shortly after birth; the halakhah then brings various signs that may indicate that a given infant was an exception to this rule. After thirty days, whatever his medical condition, the child has a presumption (hazakah) of viability; hence one mourns him or her. The same criterion—which, like any fixed number, is by its nature somewhat arbitrary—underlies the rule that Pidyon Haben, the “redemption” of the first-born male from the kohen, is also performed at the age of thirty days, as his viability is then established. Some contemporary authorities demur, suggesting that in a case where the infant’s health and survival was uncertain throughout his lifetime—as was indeed the case with Erez—one doesn’t mourn even after thirty days. Rabbi Avraham Steinberg, one of the leading world experts in medicine and halakhah, explained to me that the latter approach is based upon the law of terefah—i.e., of an infant considered moribund and bound to die within twelve months. However, the dominant halakhic approach is to sit shivah even in such cases—at least where there are no conflicting issurim involved.

Interestingly, this halakhah is mentioned in Rambam’s Mishneh Torah in conjunction with two or three other categories of persons for whom one does not mourn: those executed by fiat of the rabbinic court, for violating certain cardinal laws of the Torah; הפורשים מדרכי צבור, those who “separate themselves from the ways of the community” by their actions, as well as evil-doers, heretics, etc.; and one who takes his own life. Rambam’s gloss to this rule sounds rather extreme to us: “his brothers and other relatives dress in white and enwrap themselves in white and eat and drink and rejoice [as on a festive day!], for [one of] the enemies of the blessed Holy One has gone.”

What are the underlying principles on these cases, and is there unifying thread connecting them all? It seems to me that the reason one does not mourn a nefel—a stillborn or premature infant who dies shortly after birth—is that he or she was never part of what one might call “the community of the living.” The fact of reaching a certain minimum age, and with it the halakhic presumption of viability, makes one part of the living human community, whose subsequent death is mourned. Those who separate themselves from the ways of the community, by definition, remove themselves from that community seen as relevant to the halakhah, the covenant community of the Jewish people; one who commits a cardinal crime for which he is executed does likewise. Finally, I would suggest that those who commit suicide are not mourned (at least according to the classical halakhic conception) because their action so-to-speak contradicts the “thrown-ness” of life: “Against your will you are born, against your will you live, and against your will you die” (m. Avot 4.29). Life and death are existential facts which, in the broadest sense, belong to God. Even if a person is murdered, or killed in an accidence that is clearly due to human carelessness, his death is in some sense a kind of Divine fiat. The suicide somehow “steals” his own death from מלך ממית ומחיה, the “King who gives Life and Death,” and—perhaps to stretch the point a bit—removes himself from those who are born and die at God’s will.

To this theoretical discussion, I must add a very important caveat: in terms of practical halakhah, all three of these categories are effectively interpreted out of existence. I once asked Rav Aharon Lichtenstein about the law of one who “departs from the ways of the community.” What does one do in a world in which assimilation and abandonment of Jewish religion, and even ethnicity, are rife? Practically everyone has, or at least knows of, a person, close or distant, who would fall into that category! His answer was, quite simply, that “we are not so judgmental as in the past.” The parents who sit shivah when their children intermarry these days are few and far between. And, Rav Lichtenstein added, w are more forgiving and understanding of the suicide; the halakhah goes out of its way to find rationales, at times far-fetched, to allow mourning any specific case of suicide: mitigating circumstances, last-minute regrets, temporary insanity, etc. I can testify that I have personally, in my own life, visited at least two shivah houses where Orthodox people mourned known suicides—and, in my opinion, they did so rightly.

As for death in infancy: On the one hand, modern medical science enables us to maintain life in situations that would have been impossible even a generation ago, possibly changing the definition of those who ought to be considered as nefel. On the other hand, in contemporary culture we are much more attached to children. Infant mortality, at least in developed countries, is regarded today an exception, an unusual and unexpected event, not the way things should be. As against that, both my parents reported that they had siblings who died in infancy, and this was more-or-less usual in their day, ca. 1900-1920. Parents feel a stronger bond even to very young children. Hence, the tendency of the halakhah (again, per Rabbi Steinberg), even in those cases where there is some doubt about the viability of a given infant, is to err in the direction of allowing the parents to mourn properly, as they would for an adult or an older child.

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)

Friday, October 02, 2009

Sukkot (Zohar)

For more teachings on Sukkot, see the archives to this blog at Octiber 2006. Readers: please note that I have belatedly posted more material on Rosh Hashana, Shabbat Shuvah and Yom Kippur, as well as a major essay at Ki Teitze. Please scroll down to read them.

Ushpizin: Inviting Supernal Guests into the Sukkah

One of the popular Jewish customs associated with Sukkot is the welcoming of supernal, spiritual guests into the sukkah. At the beginning of each meal, a special formula is recited, inviting one of the “seven shepherds” of Israel—the three patriarchs, Joseph, Moses and Aaron, and King David—as guests into the sukkah, a different one on each day. The origin of this practice is Kabbalistic, and is found in Zohar III: 103b–104a:

Rabbi Eleazar began: “Thus says the Lord: I have remember the kindness [or: devotion] of your youth” (Jer 2:2). This verse is said concerning the Congregation of Israel, at the time that the people of Israel were wandering in the wilderness. “I remembered your kindness”—this refers to the cloud of Aaron, who took five others that were connected with you and shined light upon you. “The love of your bridal time”—that were perfected for you, and crowned you, and adorned you like a bride who puts on her ornaments. And all this, why? Because “you walked after me in the wilderness, in an unsown land.”

Come and see: When a person sits in this dwelling, the shadow of faith, the Shekhinah spreads its wings above him, and Abraham and the five other righteous people who are with him make their dwelling with him.

Rabbi Abba said: Abraham and the five righteous men and King David share their dwelling together with him. Of this it is written: “In Sukkot you shall dwell seven days” (Lev 23:42). It is written “seven days” [alluding to the seven sefirot that correspond to these supernal “guests”] and not “for seven days.” In like manner it is written, “For six days the Lord made the heaven and the earth…” (Exod 31:17). And a person must rejoice in each and every day with a shining face with these guests who reside with him.

Thus far, the Zohar presents the metaphysical, symbolic dimension of this idea—that the souls of these archetypal figures—who are referred to almost interchangeably with “their” sefirot—descend to the sukkah. As if to say: the sukkah, notwithstanding its mundane, homey aspects, is a special, sacred place created by each Jew during the holiday, and as such a fitting dwelling place for these spiritual entities. There is an entire ritual and liturgy surrounding this idea.

An interesting small point: the first of the Ushpizin mentioned here is Aaron, who is clearly identified with Hesed; this, unlike the standard order, found in all the Siddurim, in which Abraham is the first of the seven, both as the earliest historically and as embodying Hesed. I do not know why this is so.

Rabbi Abba said: It is written, “you shall dwell in sukkot seven days” (op cit.) and thereafter “they shall dwell in sukkot”—first, “you shall dwell” and thereafter “they shall dwell.” The former refers to the [supernal] guests; the latter to the people of the household [lit, of the world]. The former refers to the guests, as in the teaching of Rav Hamnuna Sabba. When he would go up to the sukkah, he would rejoice and stand outside the doorway of his sukkah and say: Let us invite our guests; let us set out the bread. And he would stand on his feet and bless, saying [the verse]: “In sukkot you shall dwell for seven days.“ Be seated, supernal guests, be seated. Be seated, guests of faith, be seated. He lifted up [or: washed] his hands and rejoiced and said: Happy is your portion! Happy is the portion of Israel! Of whom it is written, “for the portion of the Lord is His people…” (Deut 32:9). And then he would sit.

The ritual described here as being performed by Rav Hamnuna Sabba (one of the “heroes” of the Zohar) is the basis for the Ushpizin ritual used today, whose language is based upon the words quoted here in his name. Following this, the Zohar turns to the ethical dimension:

The second phrase refers to the members of the house, for one who has a portion in his people and in the holy land dwells in the shadow of faith, to receive guests, to rejoice in this world and in the World to Come. And he must rejoice the unfortunate. What is the reason? For the portion of those [supernal] guests he has invited is that of the poor. And one who dwells in the shadow of faith and invites these supernal guests, these guests of faith, and does not give them their portion—they all stand up and say, “Do not eat the bread of the stingy” (Prov 23:6). For that bread which he has set out is his own, and not that of the blessed Holy One. Concerning him it is written, “And I shall spread dung upon your face, the dung of your festival-offerings” (Mal 2:3). “Your festivals” and not “My festival.” Woe to that man when these guests of faith rise from his table.

The supernal guests are of course spiritual presences, who do not literally partake of the food set out on the table. And here comes the important point: those who partake of the food in the name of Abraham, Isaac, etc. are the poor! Thus, one who goes through the ritual of inviting the supernal guests to his table, but does not invite the needy (or the lonely) to his table, has missed the point, and the Ushpizin will walk out in anger!

Interestingly, Rambam, in his very different style and world-view, says something very similar to this. He of course does not have supernatural guests who walk out quoting ominous verses, but he says that if one eats and drinks with ones family and friends alone, but locks the gate of his house to the poor and the unfortunate—this is not simhat mitzvah (“celebration of mitzvah”) but simhat kereso (“rejoicing his own stomach”—Hilkhot Yom Tov 6.18). He even quotes the same verse from Malachi as doers the Zohar! (scholars: is there influence here?)

In any event, hospitality and caring for the indigent is always a great mitzvah, and never more so than during festive days! (Sociologists and psychologists observe that depression among those living alone tends to be most rife around holiday times: around Christmas in the US; Pesah and Rosh Hashana in Israel).

Rabbi Abba said: All his days Abraham would stand at the crossroads to invite guests and to set bread before them. Now that he is invited, together with all the other righteous and with King David, and they are not given their portion, Abraham stands up from the table and calls out: “Go away from the tents of these wicked people” (Num 16: 26). And they all go away after him. Isaac says, “the belly of the wicked suffers want” (Prov 13:25). Jacobs says “the morsels you have eaten you shall vomit up” (Prov 23:8). And all the other righteous say: “for all the tables are filled with filth and muck, without the Omnipresent” (Isa 28:8)….

But our passage ends on a positive note, with the blessings that shall accrue to those who do what they are able in rejoicing the poor:

Rabbi Eleazar said: For that reason, The Torah did not demand of people more but what they are able. As is written, “each person according to the gift of his hand” (Deut 16:17). And a person should not say “I will eat and be satisfied and quench my thirst first, and from that which is left over I shall give to the poor”; but rather he must first of all give to the guests. And if he rejoices his guests and they are satiated, the blessed Holy One rejoices with him, and Abraham says of him, “then you shall rejoice upon the Lord” (Isa 58:14). And Isaac says of him, “every weapon that is made against you shall not succeed” (Isa 54:17).

Rabbi Shimon said: King David said, Because all the weapons of the kings, and the battles of the kings are all given over into the hands of David. But Isaac said: “A mighty man in the land shall be his seed… wealth and abundance in his house” (Ps 112:2-3). And Jacob says, “Then your light shall burst forth like the dawn” (Isa 58:8). And the other righteous say, “And the Lord shall guide you always, and satisfy you.” And King David said, “Every weapon made against shall not succeed” (ibid., 11). For he is appointed over all the weapons of the world. Happy is the portion of that man who has merited all these. Happy is the portion of the righteous in this world and the next. Of them it is written, “And your nation is completely / entirely righteous” (Isa 60:21). (this translation was made with the assistance of Mishnat Hazohar, II. 557-560)

Cyclical Time and Linear Time

Conventional wisdom has it that Judaism is a historical religion, celebrating the ever-forward progress of human history from the Creation of the Universe through the Revelation at Sinai, and anticipating the Final Redemption with the coming of the Righteous King Messiah, speedily in our days (albeit, with many stumbling blocks and obstacles along the way—certainly in the history of the Jewish people). This is contrasted invidiously with pagan cults, that see life as an endless series of cycles, constantly returning to the starting point without any real change: a kind of fatalistic, static view of human life and history.

Certainly, even a cursory look at many of the major and minor festivals of the Jewish year—Pesah ,Shavuot, Purim, Hanukkah, and, lehavdil, Tisha b’Av—suggests that they are solidly rooted in historical occasions and historical consciousness.

But an examination of Sukkot—and perhaps of all the festivals of Tishrei—suggests a different picture. True, Sukkot is seen in a general way as commemorating the forty years of wandering in the desert, and the Almighty’s protective hovering over the Jewish people, “leading you through this great and awful wilderness, [a place of] fiery serpents and scorpions, and thirst without water; He took for you out of the flint stone” [Deut 8:15]. Yet it is difficult to see it as commemorating a specific event in quite the same way as Pesah does the Exodus or Shavuot the Epiphany at Sinai. Indeed, in several Torah passages the emphasis is primarily on Sukkot as the festival of “gathering the produce from the field” concluding a natural annual cycle “when the year goes out” or “at the turning point of the year” (Exod 23:16; 34:22).

The puzzle grows deeper as we examine the rituals associated with Sukkot. The quintessential mitzvah of the Hag, from which it takes its name—dwelling in the Sukkah—is more a static state of simply being in a particular place, “sitting” in the festive booth, rather than requiring any specific action (albeit by way of analogy to Pesah, Hazal required one to eat a certain minimum quantity of bread, kezayit or kebaitzah, in the Sukkah on the first night). If you will, it celebrates “being” rather than “becoming.” Similarly, the na’anu’im, the taking of the fruit and branches of four species and shaking them in the six directions of the cosmos, seems to celebrate a certain orientation or relation to the world of space rather than any trans-natural, historical process in time. Finally, the Hakafot—the circular procession around the Bimah with lulav and etrog on each of the first six days, and seven times on Hoshana Rabbah—seems to express whatever is symbolized by the circle, a shape that forever returns to its beginning, as opposed to the line, the vector that is history. (This ritual already originated in the Temple, with processions around the altar; tannaim disagree as to whether it was performed while holding the Four Species, or with especially tall willow branches then used to adorn the altar; see Mishnah Sukkah 4.5; Bavli 43b).

This same ritual is repeated on Simhat Torah, in terms of its basic structure, but with Torah scrolls rather than with lulav and etrog. (The joyous dancing, the main “attraction” of the holiday today, is a kind of elaboration of the basic ritual: circling the synagogue seven times; in any event, it too involves the circle form). As Rav Soloveitchik ztz”l once commented: during Sukkot Jews march in a circle holding an object of mitzvah, with the Torah scroll in the center; on Simhat Torah, Jews carry the Torah scrolls with them along the circumference of the circle—it is God Himself who is in the center!

These things are reminiscent of the aggadah at the end of Ta’anit (31a):

Rabbi Eleazar said: In the future, The Holy One blessed be He shall make a dance for the righteous, and He will sit among them in the Garden of Eden, and each one will point with his finger, as is said: “And they shall say on that day: Behold, this is our God whom we have hoped for that he might save; this is the Lord for whom we have hoped; let us rejoice and be happy in His salvation” [Isa 25:9].

Incidentally, this verse is among those found in the series of verses known as Atah horeta with which the Hakafot open.

Indeed, the very etymology of the word hag which, while used to refer to all three pilgrimage festivals, is used in Rabbinic language to designate Sukkot in particular, is derived from the word for “dance”, “circle” or “circle dance.” (It is a close cognate to the word ‘ag עג, from which are derived such words as מעגל, “circle,” and עגול, “round,” and even the title of the miracle working Honi Ha-Ma’agel, “Honi the Circle Drawer.” Ugah means both “circle” and “cake,” from the fact that cakes were originally baked in round tins, such as the famous sir pele, wundertopft, found in every Israeli home during the early decades of the State. Much as kugel derives from the German for “circle” or “sphere.” (Contrary to popular belief, the children’s song, Ugah ugah ugah, bama’agal nahugah means “Let’s go dance round in a circle” and not “Oh boy, we’re getting cake! Let’s go dance to celebrate”—although an anthropologist could doubtless write a learned study on the ritual role of cake-eating in Israeli kindergartens.)

I once suggested, in a different context (HY X: Shevi’i shel Pesah), that the two kinds of Hallel found in our liturgy—Hallel ha-Mitzri recited on festival days, and the “Hallel” of Pesukei de-Zimra recited every day—reflect two paradigmatic moments in history, around which all biblical and Jewish thought revolve: the Creation and the Exodus. It seems to me that the same typology could be applied to the contrast or tension between Pesah and Sukkot, between the linear-historical and cyclical-eternal modes of thinking. To celebrate the Creation means: to recognize God’s presence in all places and all times, to see Him as the “ground of being” (to use the language of the Germanic theologians). To celebrate the Exodus means to see Him first and foremost as the God of History, and to see history itself as a process leading towards the third great moment: Redemption.

A Creation-oriented theology celebrates the regular, cyclical ordering of the universe, each year returning to the same point where it was in previous years: the regular cycles of day and night, the seven-day cycle of weekday and Shabbat, the phases of the moon, the rhythm of spring and autumn, summer heat and winter rain—and even the life cycle of the human being, from birth, through maturity, to death, repeated endlessly, with each new generation taking the place of its parents and continuing human—and Jewish—civilization and tradition through all eternity (this is one plausible reading of the imperative, “you shall tell them to your children,” which lies at the heart of the Seder). Indeed, the blessing given to Noah after the flood: “summer and winter, sowing and harvest, heat and cold seasons, day and night will not cease” (Gen 8:22) are no more than that simple promise: life will continue in its natural course, without dramatic disruptions and upheavals. A celebration of “the day of small things.”

The sub-text of this dispute, within the contemporary scene, relates to Zionism. Zionism has been seen as the exemplar par excellence of the Jewish return to history, and the attempt to achieve redemption of the Jewish nation in actual history (Gush Emunim and other post-’67 settler ideologies represent the fusion of this with traditional religious messianism). The alternative, more “a-historical” view, sees our historical moment more in terms of olam keminhago noheg, “the world goes on its usual way,” and our task as religious people as the same as it was 100 or 500 or 1000 years ago: to perceive the Divine presence within the seemingly mundane, secular world, dominated by human greed and passions and at times violent, Hobbesian struggle—and to somehow sanctify that world. Or perhaps Zionism itself, in another reading, may be seen as a “Creationist” typology: leaving the insecurity of Galut existence, to return to the “earthliness” of a people dwelling on its own land, living a life close to these same natural cycles.

Finally, a short thought about Sukkot and weddings, in light of my nephew's forthcoming nuptials: Perhaps Sukkot may be viewed, in continuity with the other festivals, as a kind of wedding celebration of the People of Israel and God. God betroths us to Him on Pesah; Shavuot is the wedding itself; while the seven days of rejoicing (which traditionally take place in the huppah, originally, the canopied bed of the bride and groom) correspond to Sukkot. Note: the words sukkah and huppah are cognates, belonging to the same linguistic field, meaning “to cover / hover over protectively”; see Isaiah 4:5-6.

Yom Kippur (Zohar)

Three Short Postscripts

1. In my Shabbat Shuvah essay, I referred to the tension between Din and Rahamim—which I defined, respectively, as Law, as normative ethical and behavioral expectations of human beings, and of their being judged accordingly; as against the principle of compassion, of forgiveness, ultimately rooted in awareness of human weakness and fallibility—as a central motif in Judaism’s treatment of these subjects. Reflecting on these further, I realized that this is the essential line of demarcation between Judaism and Christianity, at least in its classical Pauline form. Christianity despaired of human beings meeting the severe and demanding standards of the Law. Hence, the whole motif in Paul’s epistles of the Law bringing death; without the law, we would supposedly be free of sin. Hence, the need for Christology as an alternative path towards “salvation”—Jesus serving as an intercessor, the whole mystery of the Incarnation and Passion as a means of saving sinful humanity from itself, so to speak.

In Judaism, the tension between these two elements is maintained: on the one hand, the demands of the Torah, of the halakhah, are fundamental. Teshuvah is defined as real personal change; it may be a “simple” thing in the sense that it is an inner act that it can occur in a moment (as in the story of Eleazar ben Durdai), but it requires total authenticity and honesty with oneself. On the other hand, Yom Kippur is a day of atonement: a day when we receive forgiveness as a free gift from God, in recognition of our human weakness and vulnerability—acquired, inter alia, through the Yom Kippur ritual in Temple, the goat sent into the wilderness, as well as, today, by our fasting, confession of sins, etc. This is felt strongly, for example, in the Zohar passage we brought for Rosh Hashana speaking about the duality of Din Kasheh and Din Rafeh. But, as we have no doctrine of total and ineradicable sinfulness, like the Christian concept of original sin, we are able to maintain the delicate balance between the demands of justice and mercy.

Of course, there is also a moralistic strain in Christianity—especially in certain strains of Protestantism. Richard Rubenstein, in his essay on the Yom Kippur ritual (in his After Auschwitz, 93-111), speaks of two types of religion: one that is demanding, moralistic, uncompromising in standards, and censorious to those that don’t “make the grade.” On the other hand, there is a type (e.g., Roman Catholicism) that emphasizes collective ritual, which provides the possibility for purification, forgiveness, and acceptance of people as they are even without true repentance reform. Rubenstein sees Avodat Yom ha-Kippurim as representing the second moment—but surely Judaism as a whole walks a tightrope between what some call the “prophetic” and the “priestly” moment.

2. Someone asked the question: why is there no mitzvah of teshuvah among the 613 commandments? While Rambam devotes a whole section to the subject, it is clear upon closer reading that the actual mitzvah is Viddui, the act of verbal confession to be performed when a person does teshuvah, but not the act of teshuvah itself.

The truth is that teshuvah cannot be commanded as such, because it is not a volitional act, in the sense that the Torah can command one to do teshuvah and one knows what to do. The three classical stages of teshuvah—recognition of one’s sin; regret or shame over one’s sin; and accepting upon oneself not to repeat it in the future—are all in a sense spontaneous acts of the soul. One day I look at myself and think about a certain aspect of my life and say: what I did was not OK; I’m really fed up, even disgusted with myself for doing such things; I don’t want to live my life that way any more. It is a holistic decision of the soul; there is no preliminary stage at which one says to oneself, “I will now do teshuvah about X”; once one is there, one is already doing teshuvah. It is not even similar to the other hovot halevavot, the inner mitzvot of the soul, such as knowing God, loving God, knowing that He is one, etc., because here, the very context and nature of teshuvah is such that one doesn’t know it until one knows it. In brief: teshuvah is the most utterly personal mitzvah imaginable.

The most the Torah can command us is: a) to set aside time for heshbon nefesh, to examine one’s actions and habits and attitudes, in the hope that this may elicit awareness of one’s lacks. This is perhaps the real function of the Ten Days; b) to command us to say Viddui, to articulate our inchoate feelings of wrongdoing in words (this is so because man is a speaking being; the pre-verbal stage of human life, as we understand it, is one in which thought is not properly developed, because the small infant does not yet have the tool of language); c) to solidify the decision to do teshuvah by establishing new habits, new ways of behaving, etc.

I should mention here that teshuvah includes the failure to perform positive mitzvot: sins of omission as well as of commission. Translated into ordinary language: teshuvah for wasting time, for missed opportunities, for frittering away one’s time on trivial things when one could have been engaged in ennobling, serious pursuits.

3. Why do the blessings of Kiddush and Amidah on Rosh Hashana have a special conclusion? Why do we say מקדש ישראל ויום הזכרון (“He who sanctifies Israel and the Day of Remembrance”) rather than מקדש ישראל והזמנים (“He who sanctifies Israel and the seasons”)? After all, in terms of its halakhic character, Rosh Hashana is like any other Yom Tov, festival day, in terms of the forms of labor that are permitted or forbidden—unlike Shabbat, on the one hand, and Yom Kippur, on the other.

I have no clearcut answer to this question. All I can suggest is that Hazal, or more precisely the rishonim or kadmonim who formulated these blessings, had a sense that, formal halakhic categories notwithstanding, Rosh Hashana has a special spiritual character—it is the Day of Judgment, the day of renewing the world, a day of high solemnity and intensity—and as such deserving of this liturgical distinction.

Haazinu - Shabbat Shuvah (Zohar)

“For God Heard the Voice of the Lad Where He Was” (Gen 21:17): An Essay on Teshuvah

In loving memory of my grandson, Erez b. Yitzhak Meir and Leeza Sheina. This year I have been honored to deliver the Shabbat Shuvah lecture at Kehillat Yedidyah. The following is a précis of some of the ideas presented there.

At the heart of the idea of teshuvah, and specifically in the manner in which the Ten Days of Repentance are conceived, there is a paradox. On the one hand, we are told that these are days of judgment—yemei din—in which God judges the entire world in an absolutely objective, fair manner, judging each person—and each country, and the world as a whole—according to its deeds, and meting out recompense accordingly. Many of us are familiar with the aggadah in Rosh Hashana 16b portraying the three books that are opened in heaven—the Book of the Righteous, the Book of the Evildoers, and the Book of Those in-Between—in which the names of all human beings are inscribed for life or death.

Yet on the other hand, we are told that, for those in-between, who are doubtless the overwhelming majority of humanity, our actions during this brief period can change the divine judgment. The recitation of the prayer Unetenah Tokef, always one of the dramatic high points of the liturgy for these days, with its dramatic portrait of the heavenly tribunal and the angels trembling upon the approach of the judgment these days, ends with the entire congregation crying out ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רוע הגזירה—“Repentance, prayer, and charity can reverse the evil decree”—that is, the performance of good actions during the Days of Awe can change our “sentence.” The same idea is articulated by Rambam in Teshuvah 3.4, where he explains that this is the underlying purpose of three things that Jews do during these ten days: the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashana, seen as a call to wake up and cease living lives of spiritual slumber; to increase ones performance of good deeds and mitzvot during this period; and to rise at night and engage on prayers of pleading and beseeching until daybreak—what we know as Selihot (and which Rambam, unlike both Ashkenazic and Sephardic practice, limits to the Ten Days).

I find something strange here. How can the good deeds performed during a brief period of ten days cancel or outweigh the behavior of an entire year? If a person has lived a mediocre, egocentric, indifferent life for 51 or 50½ weeks of the year, how can these token acts—and the literature is full of exhortations to Jews to augment ones piety during these days—e.g., washing mayim aharonim even of one does not do so the rest of the year—change the Divine verdict? To put it bluntly: if God is really God, then He is clearly nobody’s fool, and He is the last One to be taken in by such short-lived acts, which surely seem like last-ditch attempts to curry favor with the Judge—and then, presumably, for the person to return to his merry old ways. Or ought one perhaps to look at matters differently?

In reviewing the opening clauses in Chapter 3 of Rambam’s Hilkhot Teshuvah—the classic text for this season, which Rav Soloveitchik used to teach every year in a new and eye-opening way—I noticed something interesting. In §3, Rambam discusses the notion of תוהה על הראשונות (a concept to which I was first introduced, back in our student days, by Beryl Septimus, now professor of Judaic studies at Harvard University)—a person who regrets the mitzvot he has done. The image that comes to mind is that of the classical apikorus, the Jew steeped in the religious tradition who at a certain point became irreligious—a type familiar in the annals of Jewry’s transition to modernity—and wishes that he’d never invested the time and effort involved in performing the mitzvot or studying Torah. Such an attitude, we are told here (and, as always, Rambam bases himself on Rabbinic sources—here, b. Kiddushin 40b), cancels out, so to speak, whatever merit he may have earned from their performance.

What is the idea here? Why should a person’s regrets of the mitzvot he has done cancel out their value? And why does Rambam bring this concept here anyway, in the middle of his discussion of teshuvah? After all, he did perform the good deeds; and, if they involved other people, as in acts of kindness or generosity, they even impacted positively upon other people’s lives. The conclusion I reached—and it seems to me that this is the only explanation that makes sense—is that God is interested, not in a mechanical summing up of a person’s good deeds and bad, like a supernal bookkeeper, but in his or her state of mind. He, as it were, wants people to love the good, to attach themselves to that which is holy, to live God-centered lives, to love Torah and mitzvot, etc. Hence, if a person abandons this path and says “It was all a great big waste of time; it is better to live a worldly-centered, pleasure-oriented , hedonistic life” (or even a life centered upon some ideal, but which involves the active rejection of Judaism), then whatever impact the mitzvot he has done in the past may have had on his personality is gone; nay, negated, refuted, nullified. "שביקין, שביתין בטילין ומבוטלין, לא שרירין ולא קיימין", to quote from another context.

But מכלל לאו אתה שומע הן —from the negative picture, you hear also the positive picture. The person who regrets his earlier mitzvot is in fact a precise mirror image of the authentic ba’al teshuvah. The former rejects his formerly pious life, and wishes he’d always enjoyed the “freedom” of the religiously uncommitted life; the latter rejects his past pattern of sin, of indifference to the good and the holy, and strives to cleave to the Almighty in whatever way possible. Thus, we are told in any number of sources, if a person returns in the fullest sense of the word, his erstwhile sins are transformed into mere errors, to mistakes or “youthful follies,” or are even somehow transformed into positive merits. God is not interested in a tit-for-tat rending of punishment for each and every sin (unlike teshuvat hamishkal of some medieval pietists), but in the great change, the redirection of life—assuming, of course, that it is genuine).

I am reminded here of a famous, rather extreme—some might even say, outrageous story in the Talmud. At Avodah Zarah 17a we are told the story of Eleazar ben Durdai, a well-known profligate, whose main interest in life was having sex with as many “ladies of the night” as possible. Once he heard of a woman living in one of the “cities of the sea,” the decadent Roman cities along the sea coast of Eretz Yisrael, which were inter alia centers for such vice, who took a whole bag of golden coins in exchange for her services for one night. (He doubtless thought to himself: if she asks so much money, she must really be something special!) During the course of the act she passed wind and, in a philosophical frame of mind, commented: “Just as this wind can never return to where it came from, so Eleazar ben Durdai will never be accepted back in teshuvah.”

Something about this passing comment affected Eleazar to the quick. It could be that somewhere deep inside himself there was the proverbial Jewish soul; perhaps he had thought to himself, somewhere in the back of his mind, that “When I’m old and can no longer enjoy myself anyway, I’ll return to the pious ways of my forebears.” Whatever it was, the prostitute’s casual words set in motion a deep inner process. He went and sat between two mountains, and there he invoked the mountains and the hills, the heavens and the earth, the sun and moon, the stars and constellations, to plead on his behalf. All of them answered in like fashion, each one citing a biblical prooftext: you may think that we are eternal (which we are in comparison with a mortal human being), but we too are finite and also must “plead for mercy”—we too will eventually disappear. And so he placed his head between his knees and wept bitterly until his soul departed; immediately, a heavenly voice was heard saying: Rabbi Eleazar ben Durdai is invited to the life of the World to Come.” The story ends with the rather rueful comment of Rabbi [i.e., R. Judah Hanasi]: “There is one who earns his World [i.e., the Afterlife] through many years of diligent work, and another who earns it in a single moment—and not only that, but he is called ‘Rabbi!’” In other words: such dramatic transformations are possible, and are authentic.

The conclusion to be drawn is that teshuvah bypasses the usual process of “Divine bookkeeping,” of God adding up each individuals virtues and faults and making some sort of balance-sheet or reckoning of which is predominant. This is the radical teaching of Judaism, seemingly simple and pithy as it may seem: that teshuvah is, on the one hand, a simple matter of turning, of an inner change of heart. But, on the other hand, for precisely that reason, it is in actuality the most difficult thing in the world. For the condition is that it must be absolutely sincere and genuine, not staged, not intended for Divine reward or other ulterior motivation, and certainly not to impress other people, but for God alone. And it must be utterly without any reservation.

A friend of mine with whom I studied some of these texts asked if everyone can do teshuvah. Are there not certain individuals—for example, a sadistic murderer who killed strangers in cold blood, apparently for the sheer thrill of it, whose story was on the front pages in Israeli papers some months ago—who cannot do teshuvah? My answer is, at least in theory, yes. Just as Pharaoh had gates of teshuvah and free will closed, only after he had hardened his own heart repeatedly, so too every person can, in principle, be accepted in teshuvah. In principle, I would have to say that Hitler himself could have, hypothetically, repented of his evil deeds and been accepted in love by his Creator (although, of course, whatever it was in his personality that made him who he was would have made the likelihood of such an event extraordinarily remote).

This conception of teshuvah is the key to understanding innumerable sources about it: why, for example, God “suspends” His verdict on the “In-Between” class of people and waits to see what they will do during the Ten Days; the almost lyrical celebration of the transformative power of teshuvah in Chapter 7 of Rambam’s work (see below); why “repentance, prayer, and charity “ can nullify the evil decree; etc.; etc.

I would like to conclude with a word about the theological underpinnings of this conception. If we started this essay by saying that these are days of judgment and rigor, of uncompromising standards and objective judgment, we end by seeing in them days of mercy and compassion. This, as I wrote in an essay during the very first year of Hitzei Yehonatan (HY I: Ki Tisa=Ki Tisa [Torah]), is the quintessential revelation of Yom Kippur, as counterpoised to Shavuot: that of the Thirteen Qualities of Compassion.

A few sources. In one midrash about Rosh Hashana (Lev. Rab. 29.3), God is shown as seated upon the Throne of Judgment, but when Israel blows their shofars he rises from the Throne of Judgment and moves over to the Throne of Compassion. Or in the above-mentioned 7th Chapter of Hilkhot Teshuvah: he who was hitherto rejected, despised, remote from God, is now beloved, close to God, even befriended by Him. Or the Zohar passage we brought for Rosh Hashana, in which the central motif, in a variety of expressions, is the softening or “sweetening” of the harshness of Divine judgment into something softer and more palatable.

I will conclude with one sentence about the behavioral and ethical implications of this conception: if God’s compassion and forgiveness is so central to teshuvah, it ought to be a lamp for our own behavior towards other people. I see too many people filled with anger, resentment, and even hatred towards others; storing up grudges and slights, real or imagined, as if they were gold and rubies, when in fact they are so much muck, stinking waste which we’d be best off getting rid of as quickly as possible. If we wish God to forgive us, we must, first and foremost, be ready to forgive and forget all but the most heinous crimes committed against us by others, making Yom Kippur a day of selihah and mehilah, of pardon and forgiveness, not only between man and God, but first and foremost towards the others in our lives—in our families, in our work=places, in our communities. Thus, hopefully, we may begin a truly sweet New Year.

Note: Unlike my usual practice, I have not included any Hebrew texts and translations in the body of this essay. For those interested, I have appended the major texts referred to, in Hebrew only, at the end of the sheet.

HAAZINU: Idra Zuta—The Small Assembly

I had originally intended including in this issue a discussion and some translation of the Idra Zuta—the Zohar’s account of Rabbi Shimon’s last day with his disciples, the great secrets he revealed on that occasion, and his death—which appears in the Zohar to Haazinu. But I realized that I had not the time to prepare this important subject properly, so I will present it towards Simhat Torah, as a fitting hadran to our study this year of the Zohar.