Monday, February 16, 2009

Yitro (Zohar)

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

Anokhi —“I am the Lord…”

This week’s parasha is one of the richest in the entire Zohar—and hardly surprisingly, as it relates the Sinai Revelation, that great and mysterious moment, the focal point in the Jewish experience of God, in which heaven and earth met. The Zohar attempts here to express the inexpressible, to convey in word images and symbols the ineffable.

There is so much here that one hardly knows where to start or what to choose. I bring here the Zohar’s reflections on the very first word of the Ten Commandments: Anokhi — “I am the Lord your God.” This one word is perhaps the most meaningful single word in the entire Torah (matched only by בראשית, “In the Beginning”—the mystery of Creation). This opening word of revelation is seen as all-inclusive, encapsulating within itself all teachings, all polarities, all dualities that seek union.

What follows is a series of interpretations, a kind of theme and variations on Anokhi. I cannot expound each line fully—one could devote a complete essay to each line, but will offer a few brief comments. However, the words themselves, the images they conjure, even without a full exposition of their sefirotic and other allusions, are powerful in themselves, serving to arouse the imagination, the sense of mystery and wonder at the great epiphany, the most singular event in the history of humankind. So we bring Zohar 90b-91a:

“God spoke all these words” (Exod 20:1). “All these words”—this totality is entirety of all, entirety of above and below.

In Jewish mysticism, the Torah is not a finite book, confined to a limited canon, even if an extensive one (e.g., the five books; or the books of Tanakh; or even the canonical texts of the Oral Torah—the Mishnah, Talmud, and tannaitic and perhaps later midrash), but is infinite, as broad and all encompassing as God Himself.

אנכי Anokhi — I. Mystery of the upper world, in mystery of the Holy Name יהו (YHV).

In various places in this passage, the four Hebrew letters of the name Anokhi are seen in counterpoint to the four letters of the Holy Name YHVH; here, it is seen specifically in relation to the first three letters of that name, which constitute the “mystery of the Upper World.” Yod is the quintessential point, the most concentrated essence of the Godhead, so to speak, from which it emanates into the created worlds; the first Heh is Binah, the realm of extension and expansion; while Vav corresponds to the six central sefirot, through which the Divine energies descend into the world. But two sentences later Anokhi is the lower Throne —i.e., Malkhut or Shekhinah, the feminine, receptive element within the concrete world, the “final heh” of the Divine name.

Anokhi — I. Revealed and hidden. Revealed in holy mystery of the Throne, for the moon waxes full, as one, when the sun prevails and the moon is illumined. Her only praise is that of the light shining upon her.

An alternative image of complementariness: the moon and the sun as the revealed and the hidden or, as in the next phrase, the Husband and his Bride.

Anokhi — I. Consummating mysteries of perfection of the Throne below, and holy living beings (hayot) ascend and She is arrayed in Her adornments. When She is beautiful to look upon and Her Husband approaches Her, She is called Anokhi, I.

Anokhi — I. Mystery of all as one, in totality of all letters, in paths of Torah radiating from supernal mystery. Upon this depend upper and lower mysteries.

But even in its textual sense the Torah is considered the totality of all. All the letters of the Torah make up a kind of summum bonum of the universe, a blueprint, a map of Creation (see the very opening of Genesis Rabbah). But also: the entire Torah is somehow condensed or contained within the Ten Words revealed at Sinai, which are in turn all contained within the single word Anokhi.

Anokhi — I. Mystery of giving a fine reward to the righteous, who wait and observe the commandments of Torah. Through this, they have proper faith in the world that is coming. Your mnemonic is: אני פרעה — “I am Pharaoh” (Gen 41:44).

Anokhi — “I” and “You shall have no other [gods beside Me]” (Exod 20:3) were spoken in the mystery of Torah, and this is “Remember” (v. 8) and “Observe” (Deut 5:12).

“I am the Lord” and “you shall have no other gods before Me” are the two primal, most essential commandments of the Torah, containing within themselves the quintessence, respectively, of the positive and negative mitzvot of the Torah. But these two are themselves really one, spoken in one breath, in a manner that “the [human] mouth cannot speak and the [human] ear cannot comprehend.” The same holds true for Zakhor and Shamor (“Remember” and “Observe”), the two Shabbat commandments familiar to all synagogue-goers from the hymn Lekha Dodi as being “spoken in one word.”

Anokhi — I. Sealed, hidden mystery of all those rungs of the supernal world in a single totality. As soon as Anokhi, I, was uttered, all united as one in one mystery.

Anokhi — I. Mystery of two thrones: אני (ani), כ (kaf ) of another throne.

Anokhi — I. For the Sanctuary was purified and no stranger approached it; the Sanctuary shone alone, for at that moment the Evil Impulse was abolished from the world, and their blessed Holy One alone was exalted in glory. Then was uttered Anokhi: “I am YHVH your God”—complete mystery in the Holy Name.

Here we have an interesting inversion of a central biblical theme. The Sanctuary was built as a kind of permanent embodiment of the revelation of the Divine Presence at Sinai, a fixed home for the Presence that was revealed there (hence the parallel motif of the cloud at Exod 24:16-18 and 40:34-38). Here, Sinai is the Sanctuary which was purified and where no stranger was allowed to approach.

א Aleph. Mystery of unifying the Holy Name in its rungs to become one, so that it will be ו, vav.

נ Nun. Mystery of revering the blessed Holy One and knowing that there is Judgment and a Judge, a fine reward for the righteous and retribution for the wicked; for its mystery is lower ה (heh).

כ Kaf. To sanctify the Holy Name every day, to sanctify oneself on holy rungs, to offer prayer to Him at all times, so that the supernal crown, mystery of the upper Throne, may be raised above the supernal living beings fittingly. Its mystery is upper ה (heh).

י Yod. To engage in Torah day and night, to perform circumcision in mystery on the eighth day, to sanctify the firstborn, to don tefillin and tzitzit, to place a mezuzah, to surrender one’s soul to the blessed Holy One, to cleave to Him.

These are twelve supernal commandments, encompassing two hundred thirty-six other commandments, inhering in the mystery of Anokhi, I —totality of “Remember.” This letter is not permuted in this place, for it is Yod —supernal mystery, totality of Torah. In these twelve are twelve attributes of Compassion, depending on them, and one presiding, making thirteen….

In this section, the name Anokhi is broken down into its four letters, each one of which is read as the source of various key commandments of the Torah—twelve in all. Once again, we find the entire Torah condensed into a single word, as these twelve in turn contain or allude to another 236 (totaling 248: i.e., all of the positive mitzvot of the Torah). A similar idea is expressed in some of the medieval piyyutim known as Azharot, recited on Shavuot, in which all of the commandments of the Torah are presented as branches or offshoots of the Ten Words said at Sinai.

In this passage, the four letters of Anokhi correspond to the name YHVH, but not in its proper order. Rather, aleph, nun, and kaf correspond to vav, the latter heh, and the former heh of the Divine Name; while the final Yod is the initial yod of that Name.

The mitzvot listed here are all particularly central to the service of God, in one of two ways. Some are basic beliefs or attitudes of the soul—to fear God and know there is reward and punishment; to unite His name (which may also allude to the practical mitzvah of reciting Shema ); to sanctify God’s name; to cleave to Him and to (be willing to) surrender one’s soul to Him. Others are basic rituals expressing love of God and allegiance to Him: daily prayer, Torah study, circumcision, tzitzit, tefillin, and mezuzah. All these, interestingly, closely correspond to those mitzvot listed by Rambam at the very beginning of Sefer ha-Mitzvot.

(Translated by Daniel Matt, The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, IV: 518-522)

A Homily on the Negative Precepts

Daniel Matt called my attention to the following brief but pungent homily on the negative precepts that constitute the second group of five commandments. The central idea articulated here is the paradoxical nature of these prohibitions—that even those acts most stringently forbidden by the Ten Words are, under certain circumstances, permitted, for if not society could not exist: in the Zohar’s words, the prohibitions contain within themselves the permission. But the application of this principle is itself rather far-fetched and almost bizarre. Zohar II:93b-94a:

Lo tirtzah. “You shall not murder.” Lo tinaf. “You shall not commit adultery.” Lo tignov. “You shall not steal.” Lo —“not”: interrupted by an accent in all these three. Otherwise, there would never be social order and we would be forbidden to kill anyone in the world, even if he transgressed the Torah. But, being interrupted by an accent, it is [both] forbidden and permitted.

Murder, the taking of the life of a human being created in the Divine image, is prima facie the gravest imaginable crime—yet at times it is necessary, for the greater good of society, to execute a criminal who has committed an act that undermines the foundations of society. To this one might add (particularly in the present situation of the aftermath of the War in Gaza, when the ethics of warfare are much discussed) that the Torah permits making war, taking lives of others in self-defense or to protect an entire population against enemy attack—but the entire question is a complex one that demands a separate discussion.

The Zohar derives this argument from the taamei ha-mikra, the cantillation notes used when chanting the Torah text in synagogue. In Commandments 6, 7 and 8, the word lo (“do not.. ”) and the verb that follows are read with a tiphah and sof-pasuk: two notes that separate the words from one another. In Commandments 9 & 10, by contrast, the word lo leads directly into what follows, as we shall see presently.

Lo tinaf. “You shall not commit adultery.” Were it not interrupted by an accent, it would be forbidden even to procreate or to delight with one’s wife in the joy of the mitzvah. Yet being interrupted by an accent, it is forbidden and permitted.

This passage is extremely puzzling. The verb נאף clearly refers, whenever it appears in Scripture, to what is known in the ordinary sense of the word as adultery. (True, Ibn Ezra does read it as a kind of “heading” incorporating all those forbidden sexual acts included in Leviticus 18, but he certainly does not extend it beyond that.) From whence then does the Zohar derive the premise implicit here, that ordinary sexual life within marriage could fall under this category?

Perhaps it is starting from the fact that the physical nature of the act itself is the same in both cases. Perhaps the premise is that sexual desire by its nature is so powerful, the experience during the act so overwhelming, that sexuality per se has the potential to lead one to the brink of chaos. I sometimes think of sex as the “joker in the deck”—the unpredictable, “centrifugal” force in human life, turning people away from the motifs of value, reason, self-control and faith in God, and towards self-pleasure.

It is well known that there are many religious traditions—certainly including medieval Christianity—in which sexuality per se is seen as somehow dirty, wicked, tainted with immorality, permitted only as a stopgap against greater sin. As the NT says: “It is better to marry than to burn [i.e., with lust].” Perhaps these ideas penetrated into certain Jewish circles, including those close to the Zohar.

“Forbidden and permitted.” This motif is reminiscent of a saying in Hullin 109b, attributed to Yalta, wife of Rav Nahman, that “Everything which the Torah prohibited, the Merciful One created its counterpart that is permitted.” Some examples given are: Pork, which is forbidden, and the brain of a fish called shibuta (mullet?), which has a similar taste; blood and liver, which is permitted even though it has something of the taste of the blood with which it was filled; milk and meat and the flesh of the udder; and, most significant for our passage, the forbidden relations with a married woman, as against the permission to be with a divorced woman in her husband’s lifetime—as if the latter has something of the aura of adultery to it. The author of the Zohar doubtless knew this passage. (By the way, the maverick rabbi Shmuel Boteach wrote a book entitled Kosher Adultery, in which he advocates rejuvenating marriages by introducing some of the stealth and excitement of adultery into overly-domesticated sex.)

Lo tignov. “You shall not steal.” Were it not interrupted by an accent, it would be forbidden even to appropriate the mind of one’s teacher in Torah or the mind of a scholar by gazing upon him—or for a judge who adjudicates by listening to claims, who must trick a deceiver or trick both disputants in order to elucidate the judgment. Yet being interrupted by an accent, it is forbidden and permitted.

Here, too, theft or stealing are interpreted in the broadest conceivable terms—and then some. Not only stealing money or property, but even appropriating the ideas or mind of a scholar (anticipating the modern notion of intellectual property) are seen as “theft” of a sort, requiring special permission. Certainly, a judge who imposes a fine or orders a litigant to pay damages or some other claim might be perceived as “stealing” from the defendant—but this is clearly a necessary societal function.

Lo ta’aneh. “You shall not bear false witness against your fellow.” Here the accent does not interrupt, since this is totally forbidden.

Interestingly, bearing true witness, telling the truth under oath, is an absolute imperative—more so than the three weighty proscriptions that precede it. Bearing true witness is somehow linked to God’s own holy name.

In all words of Torah, the blessed Holy One has placed supernal mysteries, teaching human beings how to follow the path to perfection, as is said: “I am the Lord your God, instructing you for your benefit, guiding you in the way you should go” (Isa 48:17).

So, too, Lo tahmod, “You shall not covet” (Exod 20:14)—not interrupted at all. Now you might say: even desiring Torah is forbidden, since the accent does not interrupt. Well, come and see: In all of them, Torah spoke generally, while here specifically, “your neighbor’s house, his field, or his servant…” (Deut 5:18)—all things of the world. But Torah is precious constantly, a delight, hidden treasures of life, length of days in this world and in the world that is coming.

Finally, lo tahmod is not qualified by the placement of the cantillation sign—but, being a transitive verb, is limited to things of this world, such as those listed in the verse (but in those situations it is absolute, precisely because it is an inner attitude of the soul and not an action). But desiring knowledge of Torah, even coveting another’s knowledge, is not only permitted, but is seen as a catalyst to learn more oneself.

The passage concludes with a festive peroration:

These ten utterances of Torah are the totality of commandments of Torah, entirety of above and below, entirety of ten utterances of Creation. These were engraved on tablets of stone, and all the treasures hidden within them were seen by the eyes of all—to know and gaze upon the mystery of 613 commandments of Torah, contained within them. All revealed to the eye; all through understanding, contemplated by the heart of all Israel. All illumined their eyes at that moment; no mysteries of Torah, no higher or lower mysteries, were withheld from them, for they saw eye-to-eye the splendor of the glory of their Lord. Nothing like that day has ever occurred since the day that the world was created, for the blessed Holy One appears in His glory upon Mount Sinai.

Matt, The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, IV: 532-534

Friday, February 06, 2009

Beshalah (Zohar)

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

On Manna —and the Sustenance of the Righteous

This week’s Torah portion includes the story of the manna, the supernal food with which the Israelites were fed for forty years in the desert, beginning shortly after the Crossing of the Sea. This unique food serves as a symbol for direct Divine involvement in human life, as well as a paradigm for life lived on a special spiritual level, as we shall see in the following passage. This includes reflections on the meaning of food and on eating generally in human life, some of which will be sent later, in a special supplement for Tu Bishevat. Indeed, this subject is singularly appropriate for that festival, which falls this Sunday night and Monday, and is devoted to trees and to a festive meal with the fruits of the trees. Zohar II:61b-62a:

The Section of the Manna. “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Look, I am about to rain down bread for you from heaven” (Exod 16:4) …… Come and see: Every single day dew trickles from the Holy Ancient One to the Short-Tempered One, and the whole Orchard of Holy Apples is blessed. Some of that dew is drawn to those below, and holy angels are nourished by it, each and every one according to his diet, as is written: “Man ate the bread of the mighty” (Ps 78:25), for of that food Israel ate in the wilderness. Rabbi Shimon said: Some people are nourished by it now. And who are they? These Companions, engaging in Torah day and night. Now, would you imagine, from that very food? Rather, resembling that food, two balancing one. Come and see: When Israel entered and cleaved to the King by revealing the holy insignia [or: seal], they became worthy eating other, higher bread—higher than at first, when they went out of Egypt, eating the bread called matzah. Now they entered and proved worthy of eating other, higher bread from a high place, as is written: “Look, I am about to rain down bread for you from heaven” (Exod 16:4)—“from heaven, really / literally! At that time it appeared to Israel from this place! Companions engaging in Torah are nourished from another, higher place. What is it? As is written: “Wisdom gives life to its possessors” (Eccles 7:12)—a higher place. Rabbi Eleazar said to him: If so, why are they weaker than other inhabitants of the world? They should be stronger and more powerful! He replied: You have asked well! Come and see: All food of the inhabitants of the world derives from above. The food that comes from heaven and earth is food for the whole world; it is coarse and dense. Food coming from higher above is food that comes in Judgment, from a place where Judgment prevails; it is finer food. The food that appeared for Israel at that time—from a high place called “heaven”—is finer food, entering the soul most deeply, dissociated ever more from the body, called ”ethereal bread” (Num 21:5). Highest food of all is food of the Companions, those engaging in Torah, who eat food of spirit and soul-breath—not easting food of the body at all—namely, from a high place, precious beyond all, called Wisdom. Therefore the body of the Companions is weaker than inhabitants of the world, for they do not eat food of the body at all. They eat food of spirit and soul-breath, from a distant, supernal place, most precious of all. So that food is refined of the refined, finest of all. Happy is their portion, as is written: “Wisdom gives life to its possessors” (Eccles 7:12). Happy is the share of the body that can be nourished by food of the soul!

First, some comments on difficult phrases in this passage: (1) The “dew” trickling from the “Ancient One” (Atika Kaddisha) to the “Short-Tempered One” (ze’ir anpin), and from there to the “Holy Apple Garden” (hakal tapuhin kaddishin) refers to the devolving down of Divine energy and blessing from the highest parts of the sephirotic realms, to the group of sefirot clustered around Tiferet, down to Malkhut, “the Apple Orchard.” These three faces or aspects of God, developed further in Lurianic Kabbalah, are especially celebrated in the three Shabbat meals; (2) The “bread of the mighty ones” eaten by a “man” is understood by the midrash as referring to the angelic company, whose ordinary food is manna; hence, its consumption in the desert indicates that the Israelites were privileged to exist on a level transcending their usual earthbound one (see Yoma 75b); (3) “Two balancing one.” This refers to the Companions, i.e., the mystical circle of R. Shimon, who are, as it were, sustained, even in the bodily sense, by Wisdom—a realm even higher than the manna; hence, twice as holy; (4) “Revealing the holy insignia.” This is understood as referring to circumcision; though this covenant was introduced by Abraham, it was neglected in Egypt, and only renewed just before the Exodus. In circumcision, the corona or crown of the male organ is uncovered; this is seen as resembling the Hebrew letter yod, the first and most sublime letter of the Divine name; hence it is called the “holy insignia” or “seal.” Only after they were circumcised were they allowed to eat this supernal, angelic bread, the manna.

The basic idea discussed here is the contrast between sustenance based on gross corporeal food as opposed to that rooted in higher, more spiritual realms; higher spiritual activity must be sustained by more rarified food (and those engaged in such activity, living in the spirit, are weaker in terms of simple bodily strength—see the old stereotype of the weak, slight, non-aggressive, pale yeshiva bokhur). The paradigm of this is the manna, called in midrash the “food of the angels.” Interestingly, matzah, mentioned here, is seen by many commentators as a spiritual kind of food, because of its very simplicity. It is called lehem oni, “the bread of poverty” or “poor bread” because it cannot be baked mixed with any rich additives, such as wine, eggs, oil, honey, etc., even if unleavened. The Maharal of Prague speaks of it as symbolizing simplicity and humility, thus the most essential and most perfect food.

Rabbi Eleazar said to him: Certainly so! But how can these foods be found now? He replied: You have certainly asked well! Come and see: This is the clarity of the matter. The first food is food of the whole world, that which derives from heaven and earth, food for all. Food that is higher—that which is finer, deriving from a place where Judgment prevails, called tzedeq, “Justice.” This is food of the poor. Mystery of the matter: One who fulfills [or: satiates] a poor person adds one letter to it, transforming it into Tzedakah, “Charity.” This is: “A man of kindness benefits his soul” (Prov 11:17)—implying rendering kindness, for it dwells in Judgment and is fulfilled by kindness, becoming Compassion. Food higher than these is a supernal, precious food, from a place called “heaven.” This is finer than all of them, and it is food of the sick, as is written, “the Lord will sustain him on the bed of illness” (Ps 41:4). The Lord (YHWH), specifically! Why? Because the sick are only nourished by the actual food of the blessed Holy One. And what is that? Fat and blood, as is written: “to offer Me fat and blood” (Ezek 44:15). This is food from the place called ”heaven”—supernal, precious, finest of all. Supernal, holy, precious food—food of spirit and soul-breath—is food from a supernal distant place. This is food of the Companions engaging in Torah, food coming from supernal Wisdom. Why? Because Torah issues from supernal Wisdom, and those who engage in Torah enter the essence of her roots; so their food derives from that supernal holy place. Rabbi Eleazar came and kissed his hands. He said: Happy is my portion, that I understand these words! Happy is the portion of the righteous, who engage in Torah day and night, rendering them worthy In this world and in the world that is coming, “for she is your life and the length of your days” (Deut 30:20). (—Translation by Daniel C. Matt, The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, IV: 328-334

I cannot explain in detail all the allusions here: the meaning of food coming from a place pf “justice”; the special appropriateness of such food for the ill; etc. What is striking here is the emphasis on food coming from a higher, more spiritual, “heavenly” place. This seems to contrast greatly with Hasidism and its emphasis on “service in corporeality” (avodah begashmiut): that is, elevating mundane activities in the real world through holy intention alone. The Zohar here seems to express an ambivalence about us humans being bodily, carnal beings; the ideal would be were we to be like angels, sustained by “spiritual food,” as the Zohar sees manna.

It occurs to me that the same problematic that exists regarding sexuality—how to reconcile the powerful call of the body with our aspirations for the spiritual, the transcendent, for uninterrupted God-consciousness. In sexuality, because of the particularly intense, all-consuming nature of sexual desire and of the sexual act, the problem is even stronger (albeit I once saw a very amusing piece arguing the relative virtues of the pleasures of chocolate and sexual orgasm), the essence of the problem is much the same. In general, it seems to me that there are three basic ways of relating to the physical—not only in Judaism, but in spiritual religion generally: denial or mortification of the body (like those early Christian ascetics, such as Simon of the Desert, who rejected not only sexuality, but also tried to minimize any pleasure from food to absolute minimum; or certain extreme Hindu sects); spiritualization of the bodily, as in the passage discussed here; and unitive acceptance of the worldly as part of the holy.

In our own days, I sometimes feel a similar spirit, in a secular or non-organized-religious context, in vegetarianism, which at times can be a kind of asceticism or puritanism about the body—especially in the vegan school (which allows no animal products whatsoever, including eggs and dairy products, no coffee, alcohol, stimulants, etc.), which seeks a kind of pristine simplicity and purity of diet. I might add that elsewhere in the Zohar we find different moods. For example, in next week’s sedrah there is a passage read by many people before the Friday night dinner that speaks of laying the table for Shabbat as creating a kind of conduit by which to bring down supernal blessing, “for blessing does not rest on an empty table.” (See the teaching beginning with “R Yitzhak began…” in Zohar, Yitro, II: 88a-89a; Matt, IV: 497-504.)

The ultimate issue is one that I have sometimes referred to as the conflict between dualistic vs. unitary spirituality—but I cannot elaborate on this here.


This Shabbat is also, perhaps best known, as Shabbat Shirah, the “Sabbath of Song,” for the reading of the Song of the Sea: This coming week Israel will be going to the polls. I will refrain from engaging in partisan politics on these pages, both because my purpose is to teach Torah, and because in nay event this time around I find it difficult to get passionate about any party, large or small, including the one I’ll probably vote for in the end. But, one can say for sure whom the blessed Holy One will vote for: at the end of Yishtabah He is called by the epithet, הבוחר בשירי זמרה, “He who chooses [or: elects; or even: takes delight in] melodic songs of praise.”

So, if He takes pleasure from our songs of praise; especially, from this context, from the daily portion of “hallelujahs” in Pesukei de-Zimra, which some rush through ir skip merely because it is not, strictly speaking, an “halakhically required” portion of the davening. Take five minutes to read three or four of these psalms slowly, meditatively, melodically, as sweet songs of praise, and the whole prayer experience will be different.

Further Teachings on the Manna

The Zohar’s section on manna is so rich in ideas on the significance of food and eating that I thought it fitting, particularly in light of Tu Bishevat, to share another brief passage—this one dealing, not with transcendent, angelic food, but with a certain approach to the concrete, down-to-earth act of eating. Zohar II:62a-b:

“Look, I am about to rain down bread for you from heaven” (Exod 16:4). Rabbi Yossi began: “You open Your hand and satisfy every living thing with favor” (Ps 145:16). What is written above [this verse]? “The eyes of all wait for You [and You give them food at its proper time]” (ibid., 15). All the inhabitants of the world await, lifting their eyes to the blessed Holy One. Therefore, every single day all those scions of faith should request their food from the blessed Holy One, offering their prayers for it. Why? Because whoever offers his prayer to the Blessed Holy One for his nourishment causes that tree containing all nourishment to be blessed every day through Him. The meaning of the matter is: “Blessed be the Lord day by day” (Ps 68:20). Even if one has it, he should make a request before the blessed Holy One, offering his prayer for food each day, so that blessings will prevail every single day above.

Two main ideas are interwoven here. First, there is the ethical-religious idea that a person should pray for his food every day, thereby expressing his dependence upon God for this, the most basic of all human needs. But, secondly, there is also a kind of sacred symbiosis between man and God: God somehow needs our prayer; our prayers somehow affect things within the Divine economy. (One is reminded here of the midrashic idea that God caused such as Sarah, Rivkah and Hannah, to be barren because He “desired their prayer”—He wanted them to beseech Him for children.) We have here an important Kabbalistic theme: that human prayer, and other actions, have a kind of a theurgic affect: our prayer somehow causes the divine mechanism of blessing (“that tree containing all nourishment…”) to get moving. There is a reciprocal movement here, expressed in the proximity of the two verses—“the eyes of all wait upon You” and “You open Your hand…”—which indeed indicates a causal link. Man prays for the food that He needs in order to live, while God, in response to that prayer, provides. We continue:

Therefore, a person should not cook food on one day for another day, prolonging a day to another day, as is written: “The people shall go out, and gather each day’s share on its day” (Exod 16:4)—“each day’s share on its day,” specifically! Except on Sabbath eve for the Sabbath, as we have established. Consequently, the blessed Holy One is full of blessings every single day. Thus it is written, “You open your hand and satisfy every living thing with favor [or: will].” What is “favor”? That which appears from the Holy Ancient One, “favor” (or “will”) issuing from Him so that food will be available for all. Whoever requests food every single day is called “son of faith,” a son through whom blessings are found above.

Here we find a more radical view, a picture of life lived with an attitude of total trust and “waiting upon God.” Taken literally, the Zohar is saying that one should never prepare food in advance, beyond that day; that is, to take each day as it comes. The ideal here is that ordinary, mundane life ought to be patterned after the life of the Israelites in the desert, when the people went out and gathered manna every single day, thereby expressing in a concrete way their dependence upon the ongoing Divine fulness. Needless to say, this approach is in no wise required by the halakhah—with the exception of the half-dozen or so festival days during the year, when one is only permitted to cook for the immediate day—but is a kind of supererogatory piety. In the continuum between bitahon and hishtadlut, i.e., faith in God vs. human effort, this passage seems to represent that of bitahon.

For me, this passage conjures up an image of certain of Shlomo Carlebach’s hippie Hasidim whom I met in the early 1970’s. One day, while visiting Israel, I went to see a small colony—at that time, only two couples and a bunch of small children, who were trying to set up a community near the shores of the Kinneret. I asked one of them: “What is your everyday life like? What do you do every day? What work do you do?” He answered: “We take each day as it comes, and do whatever Hashem sends us that particular day. For example, today He sent us YOU.” The ground attitude is a complete rejection of routine, of security, of concern with such things as retirement funds and insurance, and a sense that our lives are totally in God’s hands. I don’t know whether this approach can be taken literally in our culture as a life plan, or seen as a kind of unrealized ideal, which cannot be realized in practical life (certainly not in a religion like Judaism, which eschews celibacy and calls on its faithful to bear and raise children—small creatures who have a strange way of making their parents want things like a roof over their heads, some food in the refrigerator, a dresser with a few changes of clothing, and if possible a few dollars in their pockets).

The figure of the man who lives with a naïve, utter trust in God reappears in R. Nahman of Braslav’s tale of the Hakham ve-Tam, “The Wise Man and the Simple One,” or in the genre of holy fool stories Shlomo used to tell, about rebbes who worked an hour or two to earn what they would need for their family for that day, and then would give everything else away. The hero is a footloose “holy beggar”: a person who travels light and has only the loosest attachments to place, things and even to “hearth and home.”

Rabbi Yeisa Sava would not prepare a meal each day until he offered his prayer before the blessed Holy One for food. He said “I will prepare the meal when it is provided from the house of the King.” After offering his prayer, he would wait one hour and then say, “The time has offered arrived for it to be provided from the house of the King. From this moment on, prepare the meal!” This is the way of those in awe of the blessed Holy One, those who fear sin. —Translation from Daniel C. Matt, The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, IV: 335-336

I have omitted one passage of a more technical-exegetical nature. Here we are shown a picture of a pious man, Rav Yeisa Sava (I wonder whether there is any relation between him and Yeiva Sava, the hero of Saba de-Mishpatim) who every day asked for his food and quite literally waited upon God to provide him, seeing himself eating at the Table of the King. Did food miraculously arrive on his table each day? In any event, I am remind here of a pious custom among some to recite Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd…”) and other biblical passages and prayers before eating—not only on Shabbat, but every day. I used to think of this as a Hasidic custom until one day when, while visiting my late friend Rav Feist (see my blog archives at May 2005) at the Lakewood Yeshiva, we sat down to lunch in the yeshiva dining room, and I noticed the a middle-aged man sitting opposite us, dressed in the austere garb of the Lithuanian-style talmid hakham, reciting Mizmor le-David before he began eating.

Bo (Zohar)

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

More on the Exile of the Word

I begin with an apology: in our last issue we brought a teaching for Parshat Shemot concerning the absence of God’s name in the first two chapters of Exodus, and the depressed and alienated state of the Jews in Egypt. I somehow neglected to mention that this was largely based upon ideas I heard from Mordechai Goldberg in a talk he gave at his synagogue on that parasha—a talk which was in turn based upon Mei ha-Shiloah, Vol. 2, on Shemot; and Sefat Emet, Shemot 5631, s.v. Amar avi zekeni.

My good friend and mentor in Zohar, Avraham Leader, guided me to the relevant passage in Zohar regarding the “exile of the voice” and the “exile of speech,” which I present here. Zohar II: 25b:

“Moses spoke thus to the children of Israel, but they did not listen to Moses out of shortness of breath and harsh bondage” (Exod 6:9). What does this mean: “out of shortness of ruah [breath]”? Rabbi Yehudah said: That they could not relax or take a deep breath. Rabbi Shimon said: “Out of shortness of spirit”—that the Jubilee had not yet released the soul [having not yet been legislated! - YC] , and final spirit did not yet prevail, executing its judgments; so there was constriction of spirit. For whom? Final spirit, as we mentioned.

Come and see: “Look, the Children of Israel did not listen to me, and will Pharaoh listen to me, and I am uncircumcised of lips.” (Exod 6:12). But it is previously written: “No man of words am I… for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue: (4:10), and the blessed Holy One replied to him, “Who gives a mouth to a human being? Who makes him mute?...” (ibid., v. 11). And He said, “I myself will be with your mouth” (v. 12). Might you imagine that it was not so? Yet now he [still] says, “I am uncircumcised of lips”! If so, where is the word that the blessed Holy One promised him previously?

However, it is a mystery. Moses is voice, and speech, which is his word, was in exile; so he was “uncircumcised”— obstructed from expressing words. He said, “How will Pharaoh listen to me,” when my word is in exile? For I have no word! I am voice; word will be lacking, for She is in exile. Consequently, the blessed Holy One made Aaron his partner.

Our passage begins with a hyper-literal reading of the idiom קוצר רוח, “impatience,” which literally means “shortness of breath.” The Israelites in Egypt were impatient because they were either unable to breath regularly or, on a deeper level, constricted in spirit. But then the Zohar discusses Moses: the leader of the people was known to be inarticulate and “heavy of speech.” Yet God had promised that He would help him with this. Here the Zohar turns to a mystical explanation: this was no ordinary speech impediment, but Moses’ ”word” was in exile. Moreover, “Moses is voice”—Moses’ essence was somehow associated with “voice,” whereas “speech” was a quality that was somehow added to him. (We shall discuss the meaning of these terms further on.)

Come and see: As long as speech was in exile, voice withdrew from it, and the word was obstructed, voiceless. When Moses appeared, voice appeared. Moses was voice without word, which was in exile; as long as speech was in exile, Moses proceeded as speechless voice. And so it continued until they approached Mount Sinai and the Torah was given, whereupon voice united with speech, and then the word spoke, as is written: “Elohim spoke all these words” (Exod 20:1). Then Moses became complete with the word fittingly—voice and speech as in one consummation. Therefore Moses complained that he lacked the word—except for the time when it spoke in complaint against him, as is written: “Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, [he has done evil to this people, and You surely have not rescued Your people!] (Exod 5:23). Immediately, “Elohim spoke to Moses” (Exod 6:2). Come and see that it was so! The word began to speak—and was interrupted, for the time had not yet arrived, as is written: “Elohim spoke,” and stopped, and another completed the word, as is written: “He said to him: ‘I am YHVH’” (ibid.). For speech was in exile, and the time to speak had not yet arrived.

Moses’ inarticulateness is read here as a spiritual phenomenon: “voice without word”—kol without dibbur—as an external manifestation of a deeper phenomenon—the “exile” of the word. It was only at the epiphany at Sinai that there took place the reunification of what had been separated—for Moses, and by extension for the people as a whole: voice and speech. The Sinai event was thus not only a revelation of a teaching, of Torah, but also a redemption of speech itself.

Come and see: Therefore Moses was incomplete at first—appropriately, because he is voice, coming for the sake of speech, to bring it out of exile. As soon as it came out of exile, and voice and speech united as one at Mount Sinai, Moses was completed and healed; voice and speech became as one in consummation. Come and see: All the days that Moses was in Egypt, seeking to bring the word out of exile, the word did not speak. As soon as it came out of exile, that word—who is speech—led and guided Israel, but did not speak until they approached Mount Sinai, when it opened with Torah fittingly. Now, you might say, “For Elohim said (amar): Lest the people regret when they see battle, and go back to Egypt” (Exod 13:17). However, it is not written “For Elohim spoke (dibber)” but rather “For Elohim said (amar)” which is silent intention of the heart, as we have already established. (translated by Daniel C. Matt, The Zohar, Pritzker Edition IV: 90-93)

What is voice, and what is speech? In traditional Kabbalistic teaching, the two are identified, respectively, with the sefirot of Tiferet, and of Malkhut. On the face of it, this seems somewhat surprising, for “voice,” which seems more primitive and elemental, less complex or sophisticated than “speech,” which is the lowest sefirah. But on another level dibbur is that force which animates the entire world; godliness connects with the concrete world through speech.

Kol, “Voice,” represents the pre-verbal level, the intuitive grasp of things, the level of simple attachment to God (“beyond reason or knowledge”). Kol is the shofar—the sound of Rosh Hashanah, of beginnings, of turning, of pleading with God like a baby. It is, if you like, the “primal scream,” or the sounds made by a baby to its mother and vice versa. “Voice” comes from the inner self, from that which is most authentic, whereas much of our speech is disconnected from that level; it is that to which the Zohar refers when it speaks of “speech without (true, inner) voice,” just as there can be voice without speech. Moses also had a preverbal connection to God; he was chosen to be the “Father of the Prophets,” not so much for his brains or wisdom, but for his bittul, his self-abnegation and humility. Moses was also a kind of “mother” to the people, who carried them in his bosom “as a nursemaid carries an infant.”

Speech, by contrast, is clear, distinct. One speaks in Hebrew of hitukh hadibbur, of the manner of “cutting” speech. Speech is cited, most notably by Onkelos, as the paramount sign of human superiority over the beast; it belongs to the world of havdalah, of distinctions, of separation. Kol, by contrast, belongs to the realm of pure unity, prior to speech as an instrument of thought and communication. There is much more to be said about this, but I shall suffice at present with these terse and almost telegraphic associations.

A Very Short Feminist Devar Torah

Has anyone noticed that the first person to see prayer and worship of God as an exclusively male concern is …. Pharaoh! Near the beginning of this week’s parashah we read: “No! Let the men [alone] go and serve the Lord” (Exod 10:11). This, in response to Moses’ earlier statement: “With our old people and youth shall we go, with our sons and our daughters, with our flocks and our herds, for it is a festival to the Lord!” (v. 9). Food for thought!

Some Notes on Religion and Social Behavior

University of Miami psychologist Michael McCullough and Brian Willoughby, after reviewing eight decades of research, have concluded that religious belief and piety promote self-control. A report on their study will appear in the upcoming issue of the Psychological Bulletin. (NYTimes, 30-12-08) On this astonishing finding, the immortal Homer Simpson would say, “Duh!” That is, what religious person (certainly any pious Jew!) hasn’t been aware of this fact, on some level, his whole life! Long live science!

Another interesting finding in the US: That there is a correlation between conservative political orientation (Republicans and the like) and generosity in terms of actual contributions to charity. This, notwithstanding that liberals are supposedly more concerned about issues of poverty and social justice. The explanation of this seeming paradox is that conservative political views, certainly in the US context, tend to coincide with religiosity—among evangelical Christians, traditional Roman Catholics, Orthodox Jews, although not among the black churches— and thus with charity as a religious duty. (An ironic aside: gay activists in California were disappointed that many African-American leaders in that state did not support them in the recent referendum on legalizing/recognizing homosexual marriages in that state. Evidently, the “liberal” alliance doesn’t cross lines from racial to gender issues). This observation is confirmed by my own experience viz. things like home hospitality for Shabbat meals—Orthodox Jews, and the more pious the more so, are incomparably more open to opening their home to strangers than are others.