Rosh Hashanah (Aggadah)
For more teachings on Rosh Hashanah, as well as on Teshuvah / Shabbat Shuvah, see the archives to this blog at 2006_08_25_archive.html, as well as for September 2006, September 2007, 2008-09-15, and September 2009.
The Tale of the Portrait
The year which begins tonight will be marked by the two-hundredth anniversary of the death of R. Nahman of Braslav (4th day of Sukkot), one of the most interesting and striking figures in the Hasidic world, whose school has enjoyed an unexpected and not inconsiderable revival in recent years; this Rosh Hashanah, as every year, tens of thousands of his followers will celebrate the holiday at his gravesite in the Ukrainian town of Uman. During the last years of his life R. Nahman, in addition to his ”regular” Hasidic homilies upon the Torah and other sacred texts, told a series of tales—in modern jargon, short stories—as a medium for conveying his ideas. These stories, unique in the Judaic landscape, thirteen in number, are gathered in a volume entitled Sippurei Ma’asiyot.
One of the shortest and most enigmatic of these tales—which, in traditional editions, has neither a number nor a title at its heading—is the sixth tale, often known as “The Tale of the Portrait.” The gist of it is as follows:
Once there was a king who had a collection of all the portraits of all the kings in the world—save one, a certain king who signed himself as “mighty, a man of truth and humility.” The king asked his trusted advisor, a sage, to travel to that country and bring back a portrait of this king, who was known to be a recluse. He added: I know that he is mighty, for his country is well fortified; it is surrounded by the sea, and by a great swamp, and there is but one narrow path leading to the city—and all this is protected by soldiers and cannons. But what is meant by his description of himself as “a man of truth and humility”?
So the sage journeyed to that country. At this point in the narrative there is a digression, in which we are told that one can know the essence of each country by its humor—which the sage proceeds to do. We are also told that there is a certain country which contains within itself the essence of all other countries, and a city that contains the essence of all the cities in all the countries, and a house that contains the essence of all the houses in all the cities in all the countries. And in the middle of that house there is a man who is laughing, who knows the humor of all the countries.
The sage arrives at the country, and soon realizes that it is filled with corruption, lies and bribery. He brings a lot of money, which he quickly discovers is needed to bribe all the officials he encounters, Even the highest officials, even the judges, are corrupt and dishonest. They are not even honest in their thievery, for one day he gives someone a bribe, and the next day that person acts as though he dooes not know him.
He finally gets to see the king, and tells him everything he has seen. The officials standing about try to stop him, but they cannot do so out of fear of the king. At first, he says, he thought the king was corrupt and dishonest like everyone else—for what else would one expect of the king of a corrupt land like this?—but from his reaction to what he tells him he understands that he, the king, is indeed a man of truth, and for that reason cannot bear to see the lies and corruption all about him, and prefers to hide behind a curtain. The sage continues to praise the king more and more, and the king leans forward to hear him. But the more he praises the king, the king, being a truly humble person, becomes smaller and smaller, for “In the place of his greatness, there is his modesty” [a direct quote of the Talmudic adage, b. Megillah 31a, referring to God]. At last, he can hold back no longer, and the king pushes aside the curtain to see the sage, and he sees his face, and brings the portrait home to his king.
Who is the king in this story? Clearly, he is God. But the picture of God and His way of being in the world is very bleak and pessimistic: the world is so full of corruption and lies, that God Himself cannot stand dwelling in it or having anything to do with it, and withdraws from the world and hides Himself. (The motif is somewhat reminiscent of Agnon’s Sefer ha-Medinah, but more cynical—and of course R Nahman knew nothing of the attempts of the Jews to set up their own state; at times, the morning headlines in Ha-Aretz seem taken directly from this tale.) This is a unique interpretation of the reason for hester panim, the “concealment of God’s face” (a concept alluded to in last week’s parsha; see Deut 31:18).
Who is the sage? Some have suggested a complex mirror identity, on which more later. At first blush, I would suggest, quite simply, that he is the zaddik: the righteous man, the person who is honest, sincere, and does not allow his sense of judgment or his perception of reality to be distorted by social convention or pressures. He is a wise man, who knows how to find “the king,” and how to communicate with him even in this situation, when most people are content to believe that all is well with the world.
I see this story as particularly apt for Rosh Hashanah. There is an idea, particularly emphasized in Hasidism, that Rosh Hashanah is the day of God’s coronation as king. One might think of such an event in terms of pomp and circumstance, solemnity and ornate ritual. And, indeed, there is a solemn tone to the prayers of Rosh Hashanah, well expressed in its musical motifs, and coupled with the elaborate language of the many piyyutim (liturgical poems) that celebrate God’s majesty in lofty phrases.
But the essential point here is that He is remote. His kingship is not at all visible. Accepting the rule of the king in this story, hidden behind a curtain, involves a kind of ifkha mistabra, a kind of paradoxical thinking: even though He is concealed and withdrawn from the universe, and is not really in control in nay actuve way, He is nevertheless God, the God who embodies truth and humility.
I would compare this tale to a certain story by Isaac Bashevis Singer in which the rabbi of a small shteitl, at a certain turning-point in his life, preaches a sermon that goes something like this:
Why is the moon concealed on Rosh Hashanah? The other major festival days—Pesah, Sukkot, even Purim—fall on the full moon. But the concealment of the moon symbolizes the hiddenness of God. If God were in the marketplace for everyone to see, it would be no trick to have faith in Him; it would be a matter of simple, everyday knowledge. But God is hidden, because He desires a faith of af-al-pi-khen (my own words: roughly speaking--“despite all appearances, and in the face of contradictory evidence”). That is, notwithstanding the way the world appears to be, as if it is ruled by chance, or worse yet, by wicked men who are triumphant, in truth He is King, and it is our eschatological faith that, in the End, “You O Lord shall rule alone over all Your creatures; on Mount Zion the dwelling place of Your glory, and in Jerusalem your holy city…”
But there is yet another aspect to this story. Several scholars whose judgment I respect have suggested a kind of reflective, mirror-like reading of the identity of the king. According to this, both the first king, who initially sends the sage to get the portrait, and the second king, whom he meets at the end, are both in fact God.
How does this work? Jerome (Yehudah) Gellman explains that the sage may be seen as Abraham, who was sent by God to “the land which I shall show you”—in other words, the journey to find the king who is “a man of truth and humility,” including the numerous encounters with corruption and evil met on the way, symbolize the religious quest itself. The end of the story, in which the king shrinks away to “literally nothing,” signifies the final result of this quest: in the end, man cannot know God; the portrait which the sage brings back is empty! Man does not and cannot experience any ultimate revelation, in which he perhaps sees an overwhelming figure surrounded by dazzling light and hosts of angels, as portrayed in various apocalyptic and mystical sources. Rather, he simply comes to understand the unbridgeable gap between himself and God; because God is transcendent, he can know no more at the end than he does at the beginning. In terms of the symbolism of Abraham’s journey, this final stage corresponds to the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, the last and ultimate test undergone by Avraham. But unlike traditional readings, which see this as the proof of Abraham’s unqualified devotion, or those who puzzle over the paradoxical nature of this demand and its innate contradiction with morality, the real point of the Akedah comes in the revocation of the command and in the substitution of the ram for Yitzhak. As if to say: no matter how great and heroic one’s deed—e.g. sacrificing one’s only son—one cannot approach closeness to God. There is an unbridgeable gap between the Infinitude of God and any conceivable act of finite man.
This idea is expressed in another aspect of the story, in the digression about the role of humor and jokes, and the house in the center of the city: namely, that all avodah, any attempt at Divine service, is ultimately absurd, a “joke.” The “house” in the center of the city which is in the center of the world seems an obvious reference to the Temple in Jerusalem, and the “jokester” in its very center is the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest. (Thus, this seeming digression, which is not needed for the progress of story, actually contains an important message consistent with that of the story as a whole,). Of course, this does not mean that R. Nahman advocated abandoning the path of the mitzvot, but rather that its efficaciousness as a means of approaching God must be viewed with considerable scepticism.
Perhaps, in a peculiar way, he reaches the same conclusion as the late Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz: that the path of traditional Jewish piety, of obedience to the halakhah, is in some sense gratuitous, and that its importance lies, not in brining man any closer to God as such, but as an expression of the human “will and yearning” to do so, despite the its inherent impossibility! So it is with this difficult, almost absurd perspective, that we enter the New Year—rededicating ourselves, inter alia, to the somewhat absurd and lonely task of living as religious human beings in an often aggressively secular world.
NOTE: See Arthur Green, Seek My Face, Speak My Name. Northvale NJ: Jason Aaronson, 1994. Introduction, xiii-xvi; Zvi Mark, Mysticism and Madness in the Work of R. Nachman of Bratslav [Hebrew] (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 2003), Chapter 12; Jerome Gellman, “Wellhausen and the Hasidim,” Modern Judaism 26 (2006), 193-207; idem., Abraham! Abraham! Kierkegaard and the Hasidim on the Binding of Isaac (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003), chapter on “The Akedah as Divine Comedy.” Prof. Gellman also elaborated upon this in personal conversation with me, for which my thanks, and also referred me to Braslav sources quoted by Mark, which provided much of the basis for his own understanding. Rhese ideas are also stated explicitly by R. Nahman, as brought in the notes following the story, which allude to “Zion”; cf. Sihot ha-Ran (Jerusalem, 1986), pp. 34-35; Nathan of Nemirov, Likkutei Halakhot, Hoshen Mishpat (Jerusalem, 1963), Dinei Arevot 3.1.