Sunday, June 03, 2012

Naso (Wanderings)

On Fear and Love

Last week we discussed the concept of love: God’s love of Israel, Israel’s love of Torah, love as a guiding principle in human relations, etc. But there is another, no less important pole in Jewish thought: that of yirah, usually translated fear, but a far more complex, including the sense of awe, of reticence upon confronting the holy.

It is difficult to speak of any unified theme to this week’s parashah, which among other things contains a variety of laws which, according to tradition, were given at the time of the erection of the Sanctuary in the desert. However, two of its longer sections deal with two extremes of the potential of human personality. On the one hand, we have the sotah (Num 5:11-31)—the “trail by ordeal” of the woman suspected of adultery—i.e., one who has who has surrendered to the desire for sexual adventure (an impulse which exists in every human being and which, like the religious impulse, involves a quest for transcendence of the ordinary, but one which is normally, or normatively, kept under tight rein; the loss of these restraints, in the name of a dubious “freeing oneself of inhibitions,” is one of the problems of contemporary culture). On the other hand, we have the nazir or Nazirite (6:1-21)—an individual who assumes upon himself various restrictions (against wine, against impurity, against cutting his hair) not required by the Torah. We are not told what his motivations are, but we may assume that the Nazir was one who on some level sought a more intense religious life.

On the eve of Shavuot, Rabbi Benny Lau gave a talk at Yedidyah entitled “We Wish to See our King’: On the Desire to Experience God’s Presence and the Fear which Pulls Away.” Due to limitations of time, he barely touched upon the heart of the topic, prompting me to speculations as to some things he might have said.

Maimonides, in Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 2.1, speaks of the twin mitzvot of love and fear of God, and the contradictory impulses involved therein. On the one hand, when a person contemplates the wonder, the grandeur, the mystery of God’s Creation, of the infinite universe in which we live, he is filled with a desire to know God, to draw close to Him, to love Him. But, simultaneously, he is filled with fear and trembling and humility and, when reflecting upon his own insignificance as a human being, the limits imposed both by his mortality and by the limits of his perceptions, he draws back.

This is the essential paradox of all religious life, particularly of the mystical impulse. The religious person desires communion with God; the mystic is one who seeks this with greater intensity, delving into esoteric teachings, perhaps engaging in various kinds of meditation and, ultimately, seeking some sort of knowledge and even vision of God. But, simultaneously, the fulfillment of this quest is frightening. “No man can see Me and live.” The Bible contains numerous accounts of how Moses, and others, upon being granted epiphanies of God, fall upon their faces.
The Talmud, at Hagigah 14b ff. and parallels, tells the story of “four who entered Pardes”—of four great sages (Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Elisha ben Abuyah, and Rabbi Akiva) who engaged in the mystical quest, attempting to transcend their human limitations and ascend to Heaven, to gain knowledge of the Divine. One of them died (of shock on beholding the Godhead?}; one went crazy; one “uprooted the plantings”—i.e., became a heretic and left the path of Judaism; and only one, Rabbi Akiva, “entered in peace and left in peace.” This story has been taken as a warning against engaging in mystical exercises. Earlier in the same chapter we are told that one may not convey the “secrets of the Merkavah”—the heavenly chariot, i.e., the inner meaning of the vision of the chariot in Ezekiel 1, read as haftarah on Shavuot (considered the festival most suited to mystical revelations)—except to a mature student, and even then only by way of hints and “chapter headings.”

In brief, there are dangers accompanying the religious mystical enterprise. I wonder to what extent the contemporary devotees of mysticism, who flock to classes in Kabbalah and mystical teaching, are aware of this numinous, dangerous aspect, or whether they think of it as merely another kind of “high.” The old-time tradition stated that one ought not to delve into these matters until one had reached the age of forty and “filled his belly with Shas and poskim”—that is, achieved a certain degree of maturity and stability in life (which perhaps comes at a later age in modern culture than it did in a more traditional world), and achieved some degree of mastery of the exoteric part of the tradition.

The theme of danger upon approaching the Divine is alluded to in certain recent Torah readings. Note, first of all, the strange story of the sudden deaths of Nadav and Avihu for offering ”strange fire,” and the account in 2 Samuel about that of Uzzah, who accidentally touched the ark of the covenant (see HY XIII: Shemini). In the final verses of Bamidbar (Num 4:17-20), we read “And they should not come to see when the holy things are swallowed up, lest they die”—as if the very sight of the holy artifacts on which the Shekhinah rests being packed up like ordinary things was somehow taboo. Finally, an enigmatic passage in Hagigah 16a says that one ought not to gaze at the rainbow, the hands of priests when they recite Priestly blessing, or a Prince of Israel—because all of these somehow reflect, however dimly or indirectly, the glory of God, and are too awesome, overwhelming for a human being to look upon them.

There is, indeed, a tension in Judaism between the mystical strands and the more down-to-earth approaches, corresponding in part to that between Hasidism and Mitnaggedism. On the one hand, there is the quest for knowledge of God, also in Jewish philosophy; thus Rambam, in Hilkhot Melakhm 12 and Teshuvah 8-9 speaks of the intellectual quest to perceive and understand God, insofar as a human being is capable of such, as the ultimate aim of humanity in messianic times. On the other hand, there is a trend which says—in a manner that represents, so to speak, the religious counterpart of Alexander Pope’s aphorism that “The proper study of Mankind is Man”—that the proper concern, the central subject of Torah, is human life, and how Jewish human beings ought to live in all aspects of their life in this world. (See, e.g., Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man, esp. pp. 45-63).

Yotzer Or and Ahavah Rabbah

Continuing our earlier discussions of prayer, I would like to relate this tension between ahavah and yirah to the first two blessings of Shema recited in the daily Morning Service—Yotzer Or and Ahavah Rabbah.

Yotzer Or thanks God for the renewal of the sun’s light every morning and, by extension, celebrates Him as God of the cosmos; as, first and foremost, God the Creator. Notwithstanding that our telescopes can penetrate to the depths of the universe and observe stars and galaxies at distance of millions of light years, the human mind cannot begin to grasp God’s infinite power and wisdom.

A central motif of Yotzer is the angelic Kedushah, the description of the angels’ proclamation of God’s holiness through the threefold doxology, “Holy Holy Holy is HWYH, Lord of Hosts, the whole world is filled with His Glory” (Isa 6:3). Interestingly, the very recitation of these words proclaiming God’s holiness is seen as a holy act, hedged in by various restrictions. In ancient times, as has been demonstrated by Dead Sea Scrolls scholar Bilha Nitzan, these verses were considered too holy to be recited by human beings; they were recited by the ministering angels alone. Later, when introduced into the liturgy, it was limited to special circumstances: either as a description of what the angels do (in Yotzer); as quotation of a full Biblical verse, complete with Aramaic translation (in Uva le-Zion); or in the presence of a minyan, as davar shebe-kedushah. It is never recited as praise by an individual as such.

A second intriguing feature of Yotzer is the presenc therein of alphabetical acrostic: on weekdays, the words El Barukh Gadol De’ah, etc.; on Shabbat, the liturgical poem El Adon with its alphabetically arranged verses. I believe that this reflects the notion that the letters of the Hebrew alphabet served as the instrument used by God in creating the universe (Creation as an act of Divine Speech; asarah ma’amarot). By the way, an interesting question: What is the relation of this idea to the reverse alphabet in Musaf for Shabbat, immediately following Kedushat Keter, considered by the Kabbalah as the high point of the Shabbat prayers? A gradual coming back into the world from the “coronation” of God by “the multitude of angels on high” together with “your people Israel, clustered below”? This point deserves further reflection.

Yotzer concludes with an enumeration of God’s powers in a variety of areas, not only as Creator, but that “He alone does mighty deeds, creates new things, is Master of battles, sows righteousness, causes salvation to grow, creates healing” and, finally, “renews the works of Creation, day after day” (J. Sacks translation). In brief, a portrait of God’s awe-inspiring power and might.

By contrast, the second blessing, Ahavah Rabbah, is all about God’s love and compassion, as we discussed not long ago (HY XIII: Bamidbar-Shabbat Kallah). In many ways, these two blessings parallel the two halves of Psalm 19, which opens with “the heavens declare the Glory of God” and continues with praises for “God’s perfect Torah.” Taken in tandem, these two blessings portray both the contrast and the complementary relation between Divine power and Divine love; between God as Creator and God as Giver of the Torah; between the natural order and the ethical order; between the cosmic and the human; between an attitude of awe and one of love.


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