Friday, June 19, 2009

Korah (Zohar)

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

Korah’s Sin

Korah, in both biblical and midrashic image, was the arch rival and antithesis of Moses; the demagogue who tried to incite the people to rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron (which was really a charismatic instrument for the direct rule of God), so as to displace them in both their “kingly” and priestly roles. What was Korah’s offense according to the Zohar? Zohar III:176a-b:

“And Korah son of Yitzhar son of Kehath son of Levi took” (Num 16:1). Rabbi Abba began: “They are more pleasant than gold, than much fine gold; they are sweeter than honey and drippings of honeycomb” (Ps 19:11). How exalted are the words of Torah! How precious they are! They are desired above, they are desired by all, as they are the Holy Name. Whoever engages in Torah engages in the Holy Name, and is saved from all things: he is saved in this world and is saved in the World to Come. Come and see: Whoever engages in Torah is united with the Tree of Life. And when he is united with that, he is united with all, as is written: “It is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it” (Prov 3:18).

Rabbi Yitzhak began: Whoever engages in Torah is free from all things. He enjoys freedom from death, as he have said, for freedom rests upon it and is united therein. Were Israel crowned with Torah (or: to observe Torah), they would be saved from all things and would not be forgotten in Exile. And this is what is written, “’Inscribed upon the tablets’ (Exod 32:16). Do not read ‘inscribed’ (harut) but ‘freedom’ (herut)” (M. Avot 6.2). And this freedom is [found] in the Torah. Torah is thus the strength of the right hand, as is said “At His right hand a fiery law for them” (Deut 33:2), and the left is included within the right. But he who confounds right with left and left with right is as if he destroyed the world.

Like many weekly portions (I bracket here the question as to whether the parashah is a basic literary unit in the arrangement and editing of the Zohar), this week’s parshah of the Zohar begins by praising the Torah and celebrating the great merits of those who engage in Torah study (understood, primarily, those who study the secrets of Torah—the most sublime level of Torah); and, by implication, the harm caused by those who neglect the study of Torah. It is only in the final sentence if this introductory passage that Korah’s sin is alluded to.

The concept of Torah in Zohar is very sublime and elevated; it is almost an apotheosis of God. Indeed, it states here explicitly that the importance of Torah study derives from concept that it is “the Holy Name”—the manifestation / vessel / embodiment of God’s holiness and glory within this world, no less so than the Shekhinah. Other expressions of this attitude: the description in Vayakhel of the opening of the ark, and the reciting of the prayer Breikh Shmeih, as a high point of the prayer rite, as if the very appearance of the Torah scroll is a very special and pivotal moment. Or compare the passage we presented here two weeks ago (Beha’alotkha) about the foolishness of those who don’t understand the multi-leveled depth of Torah. Torah is not just the garment of the king, but his very body, his soul, and even “the soul of his soul.” Torah study is thus the portal to mystical experience, the “Tree of Life”; the source of all blessings:

Come and see: Aaron is right; Levi is left. Korah sought to exchange right with left. Hence he was punished; moreover, he had an evil tongue, and was punished for all. Rabbi Judah said: The left is always included in the right. Korah wished to switch about the ordering of above and below. For that reason he was lost to both above and below.

As noted earlier, Aaron (and the Aaronide priests) represent the forces of Hesed, of grace and loving-kindness (the “right” side of the Sefirotic tree), whereas the Levites correspond to stern judgment and limitation (”Left”). (Compare the passage we brought and analyzed in HY X: Shemini, in which there was a typology of kohanim=water and Levites=wine/fire/music.) Moe broadly, the idea here is that there is a certain order to the social universe, as there is to the cosmos (at least in this world; some suggest that in messianic times these differentiated will be lifted.

“And Korah took” (Num 16:1). What is meant by “took”? He took bad advice for himself. Whoever pursues that which is not his, it escapes him; moreover, that which is his, he loses. Korah pursued that which was not his; he lost that which was his own, and did not benefit from the other. Korah entered into a dispute (mahloket). What is “dispute”? Division. Division of above and below. And one who seeks to upset the fixing [i.e., order] of the world is lost from all the worlds. Controversy is a dividing of peace. And one who “divides” peace causes a division in the Holy Name, for the Holy Name is called peace.

Korah sowed discord and dissension—but discord is here a cosmic concept: “discord above and below.” Elsewhere in Kabbalah we have the concept of “uprooting the plantings”—i.e., removing the sefirot, the building blocks of the cosmic structure and of the inner psychic structure of the human being, from their roots. The Zohar’s world-view is one which sees a certain order to the world, a certain balance among disparate forces and elements, so that one who upsets this delicate balance performs a seriously disruptive act. World is laid out, organized in a certain way, in which person has a certain destiny, a certain place. Moshe and Aharon were leaders of a certain type; Korah also came from a prestigious family of Levites—but he wanted more, and ended with less.

Come and see: The world only exists by virtue of peace. When the blessed Holy One created the world, it could not be sustained until He came and imbued it with peace. And what was that? Shabbat, which is the completion, the wholeness of above and below, and thus the world was sustained. And one who divides it is lost from the world. Zelophehad made a division [i.e., divisive act] against the Shabbat, for he gathered wood [on the Sabbath day]. [see Num 15:32 ff., read by the Midrash as referring to Zelophehad, whose daughters approached Moses about their inheritance in Num 27:1 ff.]

And what were those pieces of wood? They were the other trees [i.e., in contrast with the Tree of Life mentioned earlier], as we have said: these are the words (trees) of mundane matters, for the mundane cannot dwell with the holy [From now on in, words of secular matters are certainly forbidden on the Shabbat], for they cause division in the peace of the world.

Rabbi Yossi said: It is written “There is great peace for those that love your Torah…” (Ps 119:165). The Torah is peace, as is written, “and all of her paths are peace” (Prov 3:17). But Korah came in order to divide the peace, above and below. Hence, he was punished both above and below.

Our passage concludes with a celebration panegyric to the theme of peace, which is associated both with Torah and with Shabbat. There is one interesting new idea here: that Shabbat=peace was in some sense a necessary completion to the world—not only a commemoration of Creation, as stated in the Kiddush and in various prayers, but in some metaphysical sense an element needed to sustain the world per se.

Buber’s Good and Evil and the Rebellions of in the Desert

Two weeks ago, Friday 13th Sivan, marked the 44th Yahrzeit of Martin Buber, one of the most creative, original and significant Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century. Continuing a tradition I introduced here last year (see HY IX: Shelah lekha), in wake of my dear departed friend Moshe Klibanov, I wish to dedicate part of this week’s page to some thoughts based on Buber’s teaching.

In his book, Good and Evil, Buber develops an analysis of the nature of human evil. At this point in the Torah cycle, we have been reading a series of chapters describing the various pitfalls, trials and temptations undergone by the children of Israel during their years in the desert. I like to think of this section as a catalogue of the varieties of human sin, shortcoming, and failure. In what follows, I wish to apply some of Buber’s insights concerning the structure of good and evil to these chapters.

Buber distinguishes between two kinds of evil; he begins by stating that evil is not simply the polar opposite of good, its antithesis. It is differently structured: whereas in performing good, all of a person’s forces are integrated, focused towards the path he has chosen in life, the more usual variety of evil originates in what Buber calls the vortex, the whirlpool of temptation, which in turn is born of the imagination. It is rooted in the multiplicity of possibilities afforded by life, among which the person refuses to choose, flitting from one thing to another. (The Don Juan, who pursues and “conquers” many women, but never loves any single woman, is a paradigm of this malaise.) In short, evil is a lack of integration of the personality, allowing one to spend an entire life pursuing ephemeral temptations of one sort or another.

Buber illustrates this idea in his exegesis of three biblical stories: the eating of the fruit of the tree in the Garden on Eden; Kain’s murder of his brother Abel; and the generation of the Flood. The motto of the latter is found in God’s final verdict, after the flood, that “the imaginations of man’s heart are evil from his youth” (Gen 8:21). In a chapter entitled “Imagination and Impulse,” Buber discusses the role of the imagination, of the possible, in leading the generation of the Flood astray. “Imagery… is play with possibility… Like the deed of the first humans, [it] does not proceed from a decision; the place of the real, perceived fruit has been taken by a possible, devised, fabricated one which, however, can be made… into a real one. This imagery of the possible, is called evil.” (Good and Evil, p. 91)

This concept bears more than a little similarity to that alluded by Levinas in his concept of ”the temptation of temptation”—that is, that the temptation of various bodily sins—e.g., those involving sexuality, gluttony, the pursuit of “highs” of various sorts through drink or drugs—lies not so much in the actual pleasure afforded, but in the imagination of and fascination with the possibilities these afford. As Levinas puts it, modern man wants the availability of the thing desired more than the thing itself.

But there is a more radical form of evil, which Buber describes in light of certain ancient Iranian myths of the Avesta (but which is also present in the Bible), in which the person’s energies are focused and integrated—but upon the choice of evil, upon transforming him/herself to the level of a substitute God, making himself into the center and aim of all things, what Buber calls “the lie against being.” (Thus Pharaoh, who said “I am my Nile, and I made it”; Ezek 29:3.)

Returning now to the sequence of Torah readings: Immediately following the two verses in Numbers 9 marked off by inverted nuns—what some commentators see as the beginning of a new book, the would-have-been entry into the Land, which was quickly squashed by the people’s complaints and rebellions—we read of the Israelites’ voracious desire for flesh, their being fed up with the bland manna (“heavenly bread) which, while it satisfied their need for sustenance, did not have the sharp, pungent flavors of the food they remembered from Egypt. “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks and onions and garlic” (Num 11:5). The essence of the temptation here is their “remembrance of things past,” and the giving over of oneself wholly to its temptation (doubtless enhanced in memory).

At the end of the parashah, we have Aaron and Miriam gossiping about their brother Moses. Once again, the essence of gossip lies in imagining the life of the other person in comparison to oneself.

In Parashat Shelah Lekha, the people are disheartened when the spies return from the Land of Israel, bringing a report of the frightening and awesome stature of the indigenous inhabitants of the land. The people are frightened and want to return to Egypt; but then, at almost the next moment, undergo a 180–degree turnabout and, with bravado, want to storm the mountain and go up right way.

What is fear? Ultimately, it is a product of the imagination; like temptation, which draws its power from imagined pleasure, here the imagination is turned in a negative direction, to the imagination of all those things which might go wrong—as in all the jokes about the proverbially anxious Jewish mother.

In the final portion of this series, Korah, many of the people fall prey to the demagogue of Korah, who challenged the leadership of Moses and Aaron, ridicules them, and proposes an alternative model. The demagogue builds an imaginary world, built upon the resentments and frustrations of the masses; his appeal, once again, is based upon the imagination, the hypothetical, better alternative world he creates with his craftily woven words—not upon anything real.

But the demagogue’s evil is of a different kind . He is not merely caught in the vortex of imagination, but sees himself as the center, and his own desire for fame, glory and power as the only objects of any importance in life. His challenge to Moses is based entirely upon ego, without any true framework of values or fear of God (as opposed to his artificial arguments which use human sympathy, ethical feeling or common-sense) within which leadership functions.

As an “anti-Moses,” Korah’s end was also diametrically opposed to that of Moses. Whereas Moses climbed the mountain, where he encountered God—a place, symbolically, midway between Heaven and Earth, between the human and the transcendent, the finite and the infinite—Korah was swallowed up and descended to the bowels of the earth, a place as far as possible from the mountain of God, the epitome, or rather nadir, of fixation upon the mortal, earthly self alone.

Shelah Lekha (Zohar)

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

The Zohar on Tzitzit

This week I shall depart from our regular framework this year, in which I have presented translations from what is referred to by scholars as guf ha-Zohar, “the main body of the Zohar”; instead, I shall bring a passage from Ra’ya Mehemna (lit, “the Faithful Shepherd,” an appellation for Moshe Rabbenu), a section or stratum of the Zohar which, while traditionally printed in standard editions of the Zohar (going back to the earliest printed editions in Mantua and Cremona around 1558), is generally agreed to be from another hand. Many think that it is by the same author, or in even event from the same milieu, as Tikkunei ha-Zohar, a separate book with seventy tikkunim, chapters based on combinations of the opening word of the Torah, Bereshit. Ra’ya Mehemna is especially interested in the subject of ta’amei ha-mitzvot, the rationales and explanations for the mitzvot of the Torah. Hence, we shall present here a selection from its discussion of tzitzit, a mitzvah which forms a familiar part of daily Jewish practice that appears in the concluding section of this week’s parashah. Zohar III:174b-175a:

Tzitzit. This commandment is so as to remember all the commandments of the Torah on its account, as it says, “and you shall see it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them” (Num 15:39). And this is the sign of the king, to remember and to serve Him. It is written, “and you shall make a golden frontlet (tzitz)” (Exod 28:36). And we have learned that the secret of the tzitz is to adorn the high priest, and that certainly it [is called] tzitz, that the eyes may gaze upon it, as it is a sign of the Upper World with which the high priest is adorned. And for that reason, gazing upon it atones for arrogance (azut panim), for before Him there can only be a truthful face, the secret of all those supernal faces that are faces of truth, included in “the truth of Jacob.

Ra’ya Mehemna opens by noting a generally overlooked linguistic similarity between the word ציצית, the fringes tied onto the four corners of the garment, and ציץ, tzitz, the golden frontlet engraved with the words קודש לה' (“holy to the Lord”), which was part of the golden vestments worn by the High Priest. The similarity in names betrays an analogous function, according to this passage: they are both meant to be looked at. And, indeed, the verb צ[ו]ץ means “to blossom” (i.e., to suddenly be visible), “to flash” (e.g., like lightning), or “to gaze” (in modern Hebrew a voyeur is called a מציץ; a famous Israeli film about girl-watchers is called Metzitzanim).

Unlike the tzitzit, meant to be worn by all males, the tzitz was a unique item, worn by only one person in the entire world, the High Priest. One of its function was to atone for sin: this is inferred, both from its biblical source—through means of the tzitz, Aaron carries avon hakodashim, “the transgressions of sacred things… always upon his shoulders” (i.e., opposite the miter that is on his head); it is also described as being לרצון להם לפני ה' (“to appease for them before the Lord”)—and from the Rabbinic statement that הציץ מרצה, the frontlet appeases between God and Israel. Here, looking at the tzitz is seen as a kind of segulah or cure for “arrogance of the face.”

This is also reminiscent of the tefillin, worn on the forehead of every Jew, which like the priest’s frontlet also bear God’s Name, to which there has been applied the verse “And all the nations of the world shall see that God’s Name is called upon you, and shall fear you” (Deut 28:10). Thus, too, Rambam sees the wearing of tefillin as having an invisible moral effect on the individual wearing them: “so long as he wears the tefillin… he is modest and God-fearing and is not drawn to mirth and idle talk, nor does he think wicked thoughts, but tursn his heart to words of truth and righteousness”—Hilkhot Tefillin 4.25)

Tzitzit correspond to the female, the secret of the lower world, whose looking upon is for remembrance. The frontlet is male, the fringes are female—and it is for all people. The tzitz is [only] for the priest. And we have been taught: It is forbidden to gaze upon the Shekhinah. For that reason there is the azure [thread] therein, for all of it is the throne of the Davidic House. And its raiment is so that one may fear before God, to be in awe of that place. Concerning that it says, “And you shall see it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord”—certainly, that is the seat of those that judge capital cases. As we have learned: “All colors are good for dreams, except for blue” (b. Berakhot 57b), for that is the Throne, which is removed in capital cases. It is written, “and you shall place upon the tzitzit a blue thread.” It is not written, “you shall place upon the corner,” but “you shall place upon the fringes a blue thread”—for it covers all the other threads.

This passage is pregnant with meaning, but I cannot unravel the threads of its meaning. Why is the tzitz male, and the tzitzit female? And where does the Davidic house fit in, and the relation to capital crimes? In any event, this section introduces the theme developed later, in which the blue or azure thread symbolizes Judgment.

“And you shall see them and remember” (ibid.), and it is written “Remember what Amalek did to you” (Deut 25:17). What is the reason for this? Rather, it may be compared to a son, who broke through the fence and was bitten by a dog. Whenever the father wishes to rebuke his son, he says to him: Remember how the dog bit you! Here too, “you shall see them and remember,” for that is the place where souls go to be judged. Likewise, “and whoever was bitten and saw it, and lived” (Num 21:8). Why? Rather, when he is taken for affliction, and sees the image of that which bit him, he is fearful and prays before God, and he knows that this is his punishment because of his guilt.

So long as the son sees the whip of his father, he is afraid of his father. Once he is saved from the whip, he is saved from everything. What caused him to be saved? That in his suffering he saw the whip. That whip caused him to be saved. And for this it is written, “and saw it, and lived.” He saw the whip with which he was beaten, and it was his salvation. Here too, “and you shall see it, and remember… and do.” Certainly! For that whip causes him to return to His service constantly.

Here, the purpose of the tzitzit is to serve as a reminder, specifically, of Divine judgment and punishment: “fear of God” in the simplest, most elemental sense. On the concrete level, as illustrated in one colorful aggadah, its function is to turn a person back on the very brink of (sexual) transgression. It belongs to the world of hard discipline and fear of punishment, not that of mystical love and longing. That is the point of the parable of the dog, as well as that of the brazen serpent in the wilderness, at which the Israelites who had been bitten by snakes as punishment for murmuring against God, were cured by looking at the representation of the snake. This was a kind of curative inoculation: a small dose or reminder of what was in the past a harrowing experience is meant to bring a person back “to his senses”; as the person doesn’t wish to repeat what happened, he will do whatever needed to avoid it. (I’m reminded of the story of Alfred Hitchcock’s father throwing him in jail for a night at age five! It certainly traumatized him about crime, and also about the horror of innocent people being wrongly punished!)

Thus, “you shall do” and “you shall not go astray after your hearts” will certainly prevent you from going on other, bad paths. “You shall not go astray” and not do evil. And for that reason it has the color blue, for blue is like the Throne of Glory [an abbreviated allusion to the Rabbinic midrash in b. Menahot 43b: “the blue is like the sea, and the sea is like the sky, and the heavens are like the Throne of Glory”]. Just as the Throne of Glory makes human beings to walk in the straight path so as to be purified, so does the blue thread make human beings certainly return to the right path, for all need to fear that place, to walk uprightly. …..

This commandment of tzitzit incorporates blue and white, judgment and mercy. In a flame, the white fire does not consume, but the blue fire consumes completely—“and it consumed the burnt offering” (2 Chronicles 7:1—the verse describes fire coming down from Heaven at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple). White on the right, blue on the left, and the middle column, which unifies between the two, is green. And for that reason, the masters of the Mishnah taught: “From whence does one read the Shema in the morning? From the time one can distinguish between blue and white” (m. Berakhot 1.2). And for that reason they instituted that one should read the passage of tzitzit then, particularly [an allusion to the original Rabbinic halakhah, that Parshat Tzitzit is not read at night; see j. Berakhot 1.5; b. Berakhot 14b]

This final section (I have skipped the end of the preceding section) sets on a new tack, in which the tzitzit themselves, with their combination of two elements, of blue and white, are seen as combining disparate elements: Judgment and Compassion, the right side and the left side of the sefirotic tree. There are of course no green threads in the tzitzit; hence, it seems to me that the “middle column” here is simply part of the general tendency of the Zohar to reconcile and harmonize opposites by means of a third element, reconciling and combining both: in sefirotic terms Tiferet, the sign of Jacob, the central bar or spine of the sefirotic scheme.

Beha'alotkha (Zohar)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to my blog, at June 2006.

How To Look at Torah

This week’s Zohar includes a lively parable about the nature of Torah and the reason for its often deceptively simple surface. Zohar III. 152a:

Rabbi Shimon said: Woe to the human being who says that Torah presents mere stories and ordinary words! If it were so, we could compose a Torah right now with ordinary words, and better than all of them. And if it is [written] to present worldly matters? Even the rulers of the world possess words more sublime. If so, let us follow them and make a Torah out of them! But rather, all the words of Torah are sublime words, sublime secrets!

Come and see: The world above and the world below are perfectly balanced. Israel below, the angels above. Of the angels it is written, “He makes his angels spirits” (Ps 104:4). But when they descend, they assume the garment of this world. For if they were not to assume a garment befitting this world, they could not endure in this world, and the world could not endure them.

If this is so with the angels, how much more so with Torah, who created them and all the worlds, and for whose sake they all exist. In descending to this world, if she did not on the garments of this world, the world could not endure. Hence, the story of the Torah is the [external] garment of Torah. Whoever thinks that the garment is the real Torah and not something else—may his spirit deflate! He will have no portion in the World to Come. That is why David said: “Open my eyes, so I can see wonders from your Torah” (Ps 119:18)—what is beneath the garment of Torah.

Come and see: There is a garment that is visible to all, and when those fools see someone in a garment that seems superior, they look no further. But the essence of the garment is the body; and the essence of the body is the soul. So it is with Torah. She has a body: the commandments of Torah, that are called “the body of Torah” [gufei Torah]. This body is clothed in garments, which are the stories of this world. Fools of the world only look at that garment, the story of Torah, and they know nothing more, and do not look at what is beneath that garment.

Those who know more do not look at the garment, but rather at the body under that garment. The wise ones, servants of the King on high, those who stood at Mount Sinai, look only to the soul, the root of all, the real Torah. In the time to come, they are destined to look at the soul of the soul of Torah.

Come and see: so it is above. There is garment, body, soul, and soul of soul. The heavens and their host are the garment; the Communion of Israel is the body, who receives the soul, the Beauty of Israel [i.e., Tiferet], So she is the body to the soul. The soul we have mentioned is the Beauty of Israel, the real Torah. The soul of the soul is the Holy Ancient One. All are connected to one another.

Woe to the wicked who say that Torah is merely a story. They look at this garment and no further. Happy are the righteous who look at Torah properly! Just as wine must be in a container, so must the Torah be within this garment. So look only at what is under the garment. All those words and all those stories are garments.

—Translation based on that of Daniel C. Matt in The Essential Kabbalah (San Francisco Harper, 1996), 135-137

The central point of this parable is that Torah must be read in a subtle, symbolic or metaphorical manner; reading it only on the peshat level, that of its literal meaning, is not only superficial, but is wrong; the external, literal meanng is no more than a garment for a deeper and more complex level.

This passage draws two comparisons. First, it compares the Torah to angels, who take on the guise of ordinary human beings in order to speak to men—this was the case of the three messengers who came to Abraham, and even partook of the meal he prepared (yogurt/cream and beef and all); or, more interestingly, Manoah and his wife regarding the angel who came to herald the birth of Samson. (Manoah was particularly thick-headed and slow to understand whom the angel was; until he did clearly supernatural things, such as ascending in the fire, he didn’t realize there was anything out of the ordinary. James Kugel has discussed this issue in his God of the Fathers: that there are many scenes in the Bible where mysterious characters slide between being an ordinary human being, an angel, and God himself.)

All this is necessary, because human beings don’t ordinarily perceive spiritual things. Hence, the angel (or even the Divine Presence?) must dress himself in something that can be comprehended. Ultimately, all Torah may be understood that way. Even the most subtle, esoteric teachings must be embodied in human language—its level, to be sure, is higher and more complex than laymen’s language, but ultimately it is still not “the essence,” the Thing itself—because no man can understand God as He is. Theologians and philosophers are just a bit more sophisticated in their non-comprehension.

Unfortunately, our culture is one that is particularly plagued by superficiality—by physical appearance, by popularity or “rating” (a current example: the sad story of Dudu Topaz), or even judging people by titles or university degrees. (One of the wisest, most learned and insightful people I know, a teacher of others, recently told me that he does not even have a high school diploma. Many people would, at first blush, doubt that such a thing could be possible.) People have a far shorter attention span than in earlier times; indeed, may people have criticized my writings here because they are “too long.” Yet Torah study, almost by definition, involves complexity, the slow, gradual and thorough development of ideas; it cannot be broken into 30-second or 3-minute “sound bites” or slogans.

Another interesting point in this passage: that Torah is seen as higher than the angels; it is an apotheosis of God Himself: that which created the world or through which the world was created. The Zoharic concept would seem to be that Torah is part of the Divinity, or perhaps the Name of God. (This is an important point of disagreement with certain streams in Judaism)

The second comparison drawn here is the analogy to a garment: to the garment clothing the human body, where the body is the essence (lovers wish to touch the beloved’s uncovered body—and not only for sexual reasons, but because the nude body as such is the essential physical being of the person; cf. the centrality of the nude in the plastic arts); but the body is in turn the home of the soul—and beyond that there is the “soul of the soul.”…

Naso (Zohar)

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

The Idra Rabba

Although the parashah whose name appears above has already passed here in Israel, outside of the Land, where the Torah readings are one week behind those here (due to the Second Day of Shavuot that fell last Shabbat), it still remains to be read. In any event, Parashat Naso contains one of the deepest sections of the Zohar, known as the Idra Rabba (III: 127b-145a). Along with the Idra Zuta, or “Smaller Idra” (Ha’azinu; III: 287b-296b), and the Safra de-Tzeniuta (Terumah; II:176b-179a), these sections constitute the core of the Zohar’s teaching on the nature of the Godhead. The name Idra (or Idrot, in the plural, used to refer to both these sections) is the Aramaic word for “threshing floor,” referring to the place where Rabbi Shimon gathered together his disciples, the Hevraya or “Companions” who appear throughout the Zohar, to reveal especially profound secrets.

I will not go into the actual contents of this section in any depth. Regarding these sections, at least, it seems wisest to exercise some of the traditional reserve and discretion which states that one ought not to reveal esoteric matters in an open, public manner (“One does not reveal Ma’aseh Merkavah, the secrets of the ‘Divine Chariot’ [literally, the esoteric meaning of Ezekiel’s vision in Chapter 1 of his book] to even one person, unless he is wise and understands by himself”—and even in that case one only tells him rashei perakim, ‘chapter headings’—Mishnah Hagiggah 2.1). This is particularly so, given that I am myself something of a novice, far from understanding these more esoteric teachings with any great clarity. Suffice it to say that, whereas most of the Zohar is concerned with the Sefirot—the various emanations or vessels or instruments utilized by God in creating the world and in acting within it, and the interactions among them—this section focuses on the nature of the Godhead Itself. (I should add that the precise nature of the Sefirot is itself a subject of some controversy. Some later Kabbalistic theologians, who attempted to create a coherent, lucid and consistent system out of the vast body of homily, myth and symbolism that makes up the Zohar, say that the Sefirot are themselves part of the atzmut, the substance of the Godhead, while others say that they are kelim, instruments used by God, created entities, and as such not part of His own Self.)

More specifically, the Idra Rabba is an attempt to delineate or even in some sense create the image of the “face” and “beard” of the Atika Kaddisha, and thereafter the “face” and “beard” of the Ze’ir Anpin. ‘Atika Kaddisha, “the Holy Ancient One,” an expression based on the Divine epithet used in the Book of Daniel, ‘Atik Yomin, “the Ancient One of Days” (7:9, 13, 22), whose garments and beard are “white as snow.” In the Zohar this phrase is used to refer to God’s most hidden aspects, that which dwells in the recesses of the Infinite, beyond any human description, to which we can perhaps refer but of which we can essentially say nothing. Some have suggested that this is best described by the paradoxical term Ayin, the “Nothing,” perhaps not unlike the Buddhist concept of the Infinite Nothingness.

But through the very act of describing His “face” and “beard,” the Infinite Hidden God begins to assume shape and form, which may be imagined as possessing a will and desiring to create a universe. The beard, specifically, corresponds in some sense to the stream of energy flowing down from the Infinite into this world. (The notion of God as having a body, with a face and beard, was of course seen as scandalous by many philosophically minded Jews. Indeed, in standard editions of the Zohar a redactor or proofreader named Avraham introduces the Idra Rabba with the disclaimer that none of these matters are to be taken in the literal sense, but must be understood as metaphors, as ways of speaking of God, Who is transcendent and beyond all corporeality. But did the author of the Zohar think thus? The court is still out, to say the least.)

The familiar scheme of ten sefirot is barely present in the Idrot. There are only Atika Kadisha, or Arikh Anpin, the “Long Face,” Who transcends even Keter, not to mention the supernal pair known as Abba/Imma = Hokhmah/Binah; Ze’ir Anpin, the “Little Face,” identified with the entire realm of sefirot, or especially with the six central sefirot; and, Nukva, the Female Principle, corresponding to Malkhut/Shekhinah, with whom ‘Atika Kadisha ecstatically unites at the end of the Idra Rabba. These terms, which hardly appear in the main body of the Zohar, are extensively used and elaborated in Lurianic Kabbalah, some two and a half centuries later, in the doctrine of the Divine partzufim, or “faces.”

Having said that, we now present the opening passages of the Idra Rabba, to give readers some feeling of the nature of this text, and in passing we shall dwell upon one or two more ideas. Zohar III:127b:

The Holy Great Idra

They taught: Rabbi Shimon said to the Companions: How long shall we dwell in the place of the one pillar? It is written, “It is time to act for the Lord, they have abrogated your Torah” (Ps 119:126). The time is short, the creditors press, the proclamation is read out every day, and those reaping the field are few—and only at the edge of the vineyard. And they do not see and do not know where they are going, as is fitting.

Between the lines, one gains a feeling of great urgency here. These are not mystics who live in some sort of trans-historic calm, detached from the world surrounding them; their theosophic concerns, which to the modern reader seem abstruse and esoteric, somehow embody knowledge which is of vital importance to the entire world. There is an atmosphere of pre-Messianic crisis, of crucial events about to occur.

Enter, O Companions, the House of the Idra, garbed in armor, carrying swords and spears in your hands. Be zealous and quick in your preparations—in counsel, wisdom, intellect, knowledge, sight, with strength of hands and feet. Coronate upon yourselves He [the King] in whose domain is life and death; to declare words of truth, words to which the supreme Holy Ones hearken and are joyful to hear and know them.

Rabbi Shimon sat and wept. He said: Woe if I reveal it, and woe if I do not reveal it! The Companions who were there were silent. Rabbi Abba rose and said to him: It is fitting before our Teacher to reveal it, for it is said “the Lord’s secret is with those who fear him” (Ps 25:14), and all these Companions fear the Holy One blessed be He. And they have already ascended during the Convocation (Idra) of the House of the Sanctuary, when some entered and some left.

They taught: The companions were numbered before Rabbi Shimon, and there were present there R. Eleazar his son, R. Abba, Rabbi Judah, R. Yossi b. Yaakov, R. Yitzhak, R. Hizkiyah b. Rav, R. Hiyya, R. Yossi, and R. Yisa. They gave their hands to R. Shimon, raised their fingers aloft, went into the field between the trees, and sat down. Rabbi Shimon rose up and prayed his prayer. And he sat down by them and said: Let each one place his hands on my breast; they placed their hands and he took them, and began to teach the deepest secrets.

An important aside: The Companions and their social interaction play an important role in the Zohar. In Western culture, we are used to thinking of mysticism as a solitary concern—such figure as Trappist monks, silent for their whole lives; or certain Church fathers, who lived lives of extreme isolation, in caves in the desert or atop a pillar for twenty years; or the proverbial Buddhist masters on mountain tops in Tibet or Nepal, spending their lives meditating in splendid solitude; or even contemporary Buddhist retreats, where people sit in silence for entire days, readily come to mind. With some rare exceptions, this is not the case of Jewish mysticism, and certainly not of the Zohar. We see the Companions constantly talking to one another (in the best tradition of New York Jews!), walking together on the road, stopping here and there, sharing thoughts, homilies and Torah teachings they’ve heard.

We also know that the actual history of the Kabbalah revolves around social groupings and circles: Yitzhak Baer has written of the circle of the Raya Mehemna; recent Zohar research speaks of a circle of authors associated with the main body of the Zohar; the Ari’s teaching in Tzfat was conveyed through a group of disciples; among the precursors of Hasidism was the circle in the ”Klaus” in Brod; in early Hasidism there was the circle around the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid, while later on this was institutionalized in circles of Hasidim centered upon the charismatic figure of the Rebbe–Tzaddik. In general, the circle of the Companions, with the charismatic figure of Rabbi Shimon, may be seen as a paradigm for later Jewish mystics, almost always organized in circles of disciples and teacher.

It is also significant that the Companions listed here, including Rabbi Shimon, are exactly ten in number—a minyan. Possibly, besides the obvious significance of a minyan in Judaism generally, this also corresponds to the ten sefirot; perhaps they even sat in an arrangement corresponding to the different sefirot.

When R. Shimon began to recite most secret things, the place shook, and the Companions quaked. He revealed secrets and began by saying: It is written, “These are the kings who reigned in the land, before a king reigned in Israel” (Gen 36:31). Happy are you, O righteous ones, that there are revealed to you the secret secrets of the Torah, that have not been revealed to the highest holy ones. Who shall see this, and who shall merit this, which is witness to the faith of all. May my prayer be [accepted] with Will, that I not be held guilty for revealing this. And what shall the Companions say, for this is a difficult verse, that human beings cannot know and listen and feel it in their knowledge.

They taught: The most ancient of ancients, hidden of hiddenness, before the royal garments and the adornment of the crowns were ready—there was no beginning and no end, and He would engrave and estimate in Himself. And he spread a partition before Himself, in which He shaped and chiseled the kings, but their tikkunim were not sustained, as is written, “And these are the kings who lived in the land of Edom before a king reigned for the children of Israel.” The primeval king, of the primeval children of Israel. And all that were chiseled (but could not be sustained) were called by their names. And they did not exist for long, but He placed them and hid them away. And after some time He ascended to [or: looked upon] that partition, and was dressed in His garments. And they taught: When it arouse in His will to create, the Torah ws hidden for two thousand years [an allusion to the Talmudic aggadah: “The Torah preceded the world by two thousand years”], and then she came out, and immediately she said before Him: He who wishes to garb and to create must first put on His own garments.

The “death of the kings” is a profound and major subject of the Idrot in its own right, in which the Zohar projects a routine, historic genealogy referring to the early kings of Edom back into a kind of mythical prehistory of the universe, reading the names of these kings as entities that preceded the Creation of the universe, and that were ultimately destroyed because of the lack of balance among the various sefirot (note also the Talmudic aggadah that God created and destroyed 974 worlds before our own). This may also be read is a kind of prefiguring or earlier version of the story of Shevirat hakelim, the pre-Creation catastrophe that figures so prominently in Lurianic Kabbalah, and which may be read as a kind of source for the chaos, disorder and general imperfection of our universe.

Shavuot (Zohar)

For more teachings on Shavuot, see the archives to the blog at May 2006.

Tikkun Leil Shavuot

We continue here the teaching we began three weeks ago (HY X: Emor), the first part of which concerned the Counting of the Omer, in which the forty-nine days or seven weeks are compared to the seven pure days a woman must count prior to reuniting with her husband. In the next section of that teaching, Shavuot night is compared to the night prior to the wedding, in which the bridesmaids and the companions, and the bridegroom’s mother, prepare each of the partners for their joyous and festive uniting. This is seen as the inner, mystical meaning of the Torah study vigil conducted on Shavuot night. Zohar III: 97b-98b:

And one who reaches that day in purity and did not lose count, when he comes to that night it behooves him to labor in Torah and be connected therewith and to preserve the elevated purity he has attained on that night and to be pure. And we have learned that the Torah one ought to study on that night is the Oral Torah [seen in Zohar as the feminine principle], so as to be purified (cleave) from the flowing waters of that deep stream.

Thereafter, during that day the Written Torah comes and is connected to it, and they are one in a supernal unity [of “Abba” and “Imma”—i.e., Hokhmah and Binah]. Then it is declared above concerning him: “And as for me, this is my covenant with them, says the Lord: My spirit, which is upon you, and my words which I have placed in your mouth [shall not depart from you, nor from your children, nor from your children’s children, from now on and for ever more]” [Isa 59:21].” For that reason, the pious ones of old would not sleep on that night, but would labor in Torah, saying, Let us acquire a holy inheritance for ourselves and for our children in both worlds. And on that night the Congregation of Israel is crowned above, and comes to be united with the Holy King, and both of them have crowns upon their heads—may we merit to this.

Rabbi Shimon used to say, at that hour that the companions gathered together on that night: Let us go and prepare the adornments of the bride, so that she may be ready to appear before the king with her jewels and adornments as is proper. Happy is the share of the Companions when the king asks his Lady (Matrona) who has prepared her beautiful adornments, and made her crown radiant, and done all her preparations. For there is no one in the entire world who knows how to arrange the adornments of the bride like the Companions. Happy is their share in this world and in the world to come!

Come and see: On that night the companions prepare the adornments for the bride, and crown her with her crown to go to the king. Who prepares the king on that night, that he may be with the bride, to unite with the Lady? The deep holy Stream, deeper than all streams, the Supernal Mother [I am uncertain whether this is Imma=Binah or Shekhianh=Malkhut]. Of her it is written: “Come out and see, O daughters of Zion, the King Solomon [with the crown that his mother crowned him on his wedding day, and on the day of his heart’s joy]” (Song 3:11).

After she has prepared the King and crowned him, she goes to purify the Lady and those who are with her. [This may be compared to] a king who had a single son, whom he united in marriage with a noble lady. What did his mother do? She spent that entire night in her storeroom, and she took out a splendid crown adorned with seventy precious stones with which to crown him, and she took robes of silk and dressed him, and prepared him in royal fashion. Then she went up to the house of the bride, and saw how her maidens were preparing her crown and garments and adornments.

She said to them: I have prepared a house for her to bathe, a place of flowing waters and fragrant smells and perfumes to purify my daughter-in-law. May my son’s bride and her maidens come and be purified in that place of flowing waters, and afterwards they may afix her adornments and dress her with her garments and crown her with her diadem. Then let my son come and unite with his Lady. And a palace has been prepared for the bride, and let them live there as one.

When the Holy King and the Lady and the Companions are in this way, and the Supernal Mother has prepared everything, we find that the Supernal King and the Lady and the Companions dwell together, and do not separate for ever…

Rav Hiyya said: If we had not merited to come to this world except to hear these words, it would have been enough. Happy is the portion of those who labor in Torah and know the pathways of the Holy King, those whose desire is in the Torah….

Thus, Tikkun Leil Shavuot, the widespread custom of studying Torah on Shavuot night until dawn, has its origins in Kabbalah, in this Zohar passage. The words of Torah studied by Israel are all crowns and adornments of the Bride. The earliest historical account of such a vigil concerns one held in the 1520’s or early 1530’s, involving several personalities from what was later to become the mystical circle of R. Yitzkak Luria in Tzfat, such as R. Yosef Caro and R. Shlomo Alkabetz. This occurred before they came up to the Land of Israel—somewhere in the Greek islands, or perhaps in Bulgaria. This account is best known from its citation in Shenei Luhot ha-Berit, the great compendium of Kabbalistic practice and homily by R. Yeshayahu Horowitz written in the early 17th century. The group—which did not include a full minyan—studied Mishnah. At a certain point during the night a Heavenly voice, a Maggid personifying the Mishnah, such as R. Caro was often wont to hear, spoke to them, praising their activity and stating the great joy it caused in Heaven. May our involvement in Torah be a source of joy and renewed vitality, both above and below.

Why Do We Eat Dairy on Shavuot?

It is an almost universal custom among Ashkenazic Jews, to eat milkhikh—i.e., dairy food—on Shavuot: blintzes, cheese cake, quiches, every conceivable kind of cheese. Weeks before the holiday, Israeli newspapers are filled with dairy recipes. Indeed, some mothers tell their children, “If you count Sefirat ha-Omer every night like good children, you’ll get cheese cake on Shavuot!” But why?

Interestingly, one of the best known Talmudic texts about the celebration of festival days emphasizes the earthly side of Shavuot, specifically. Even those who assert that festival days should be wholly devoted to God (כולו לה') acknowledge that Shavuot, precisely because its focus is on something as spiritual as Torah, is to be celebrated in a carnal way, with the pleasures of the table taking a prominent place. Thus, Rav Yosef used to make a point of eating the choicest calf on Shavuot, to celebrate (see b. Pesahim 68b).

One of the explanations offered for the custom is that, when the Israelites received the Torah with its laws of separating milk and meat, they did not have immediately at hand the cooking vessels needed to cook meat, and to perform hagalat kelim would take time and effort, so they ate dairy, which is simpler and more ready to hand, and may be eaten uncooked. But I must admit that this explanation does not make a great deal of sense to me.

The Shulhan Arukh (Rama at Orah Hayyim 494.3) states that “It is customary in some places to eat dairy food on the first day of Shavuot, and it seems to me that the reason for this is similar to that for the two cooked dishes [on the Seder plate] on Pesah night… One eats dairy foods and then meat foods, and hence needs to place two [loaves] of bread on the table, which is in place of the altar, and this is reminiscent of the two loaves of bread that were offered [in the Temple] on the day of First Fruits.”

Yet other explanations see this custom as based on the verse in Song of Songs, “honey and milk beneath your tongue” (4:11). A third, anthropological explanation, based in the two-fold repetition of the verse “The first fruits of your land you shall bring to the house of the Lord your God; do not seethe a kid in its mother’s milks” (Exod 23:19; 34:26) suggests that the pagan Canaanites used to eat milk and meat together at their first-fruit festival; we cannot do so, but to approximate this we eat dairy, followed by meat.

Given that minhag (customary practice) is a form of mythic or symbolic language, I believe that it must carry its meaning in a manner that is intuitively grasped. If an explanation is too round-about, complicated, or sounds far-fetched, it was probably invented after the fact, to explain it. The most obvious thing about milk is that it is the most elemental food, that with which mothers suckle their children at the breast. I would conjecture that eating dairy on Shavuot symbolizes a connection to the Torah as a maternal figure, much as the figure of the Supernal Mother found in the Zohar passage we brought for Shavuot. Perhaps Israel at Sinai are compared to infants suckling at their mother’s breast (do the two tablets correspond to the two breasts?).

After writing the above I came across a passage in R. Nahum of Chernobol’s Me’or Einayim on Parshat Hukat which expresses a similar idea: he begins by speaking about that level of Torah which transcends any type of rational of or subject-object understanding, which he calls Ayin: that which derives from the Divine “Nothingness.” He then goes on to say that this aspect is called parah, “cow,” being connected, not only to the red heifer which is the subject of that parashah, but also to the mother cow, as in the Rabbinic saying, “More than the calf wishes to suck, the cow wishes to suckle” (Pesahim 112a)—i.e., the act of the Divine in giving Torah is seen as analogous to that of a mother sustaining her young.

Two Images of Revelation: Exodus 19 and Exodus 24

The following is based on a shiur I delivered at Kehillat Yedidyah on Shavuot night.

On the Festival of Shavuot we read in the synagogue Exodus 19 and 20, the account of the Divine Revelation at Mount Sinai, with thunder and lightning, and God hidden behind dark clouds: Moses ascends the mountain, and the people hear the voice of God declaiming the Ten Commandments. But a few pages later, in Exodus 24, there is another chapter that seems to describe the events at Sinai in a very different manner. What is the function of this chapter, and what is its relationship to the account in Chapters 19 and 20? In what follows, I wish to explore this chapter, and draw a comparison between the two readings.

But I must begin with a methodological comment. The late Rabbi Mordechai Breuer had a unique method of studying the Torah. As we know, 19th-century Biblical critics claimed that the Torah is composed of a number of different documents or strands written by different authors, identified by them as P, E, D and J. Breuer’s had a unique response to this challenge to traditional Jewish faith. He accepted the critics’ observations about the text as correct, but added that the reason why the Torah, for example, tells the story of the Creation twice—once in Genesis 1 and a second time in Genesis 2—was in order to provide a full picture of these complex events, which could not possibly be recounted in a single linear account. The Creation of the Universe, the creation of man, the questions about what it means to be a human being—all these are issues that can only be dealt with in an allusive, indirect manner. Moreover, Breuer saw these differing accounts as stemming from different Kabbalistic sefirot.

For example: are man and woman more similar to one another or more different? How central is gender in determining the identity of the individual? (In current jargon: is biology destiny or not? Are gender differences “essential” or not?) The answer given by the Bible, according to Breuer, is both “yes” and “no.” Man and woman are simultaneously created as two similar, equal beings—“male and female He created them”; and are created in a manner which involves mutual dependence in relationship and profound importance to sexuality: i.e., the creation of Eve from Adam and “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they shall be one flesh.”

I would like to suggest a similar manner of reading Exodus 19 and Exodus 24 in juxtaposition with one another. The classical commentators differ in their readings of these chapters. Rashi reads the first part of Chapter 24 (vv. 1-4), in which Moses goes up to speak to God and asks the people whether they will do all the things that God has commanded, as a kind of reiteration of the events that preceded the Revelation itself, on the sixth day of Sivan,. Likewise, the covenant ceremony involving the slaughtering of animals, the sprinkling of the blood on the people and on the twelve altars, and the vision of the Divine figure seated upon a throne all occurred prior to the epiphany (vv. 5-11). On the other hand, that which is recounted in the last seven verses of the chapter, in which Moses goes up and disappears behind “the cloud where God was” for forty days and nights, happened thereafter. Ramban (R. Moses Nahmanides) differs from this view. Consistent with his own well-known approach that the Torah always presents events in chronological order, he insists that everything related in Chapter 24 took place after the Revelation, perhaps during the afternoon of the day, and indicates a kind of a transition to Moses’ ascent of the mountain a second time to receive the detailed laws and regulations of the Torah.

I would like to suggest another way of reading, in which Exodus 24 is read as a parallel, even alternative account of the Revelation; both chapters are in fact an account of the same events. Just as the Creation cannot be adequately described in a single, linear account, so too God’s Revelation to humanity through the people of Israel—surely the greatest, most significant event in history next to Creation—can only be conveyed by means of symbols, of hints, of allusions, of metaphor, whose full complexity and subtlety is better grasped through two different accounts. These two chapters thus represent two different approaches to the Divine epiphany, which together provide a total picture.

In Exodus 19 and 20 one is struck, first of all, by the sheer pyrotechnics of the event: kolot u-verakim, loud sounds, thunder and lightning, thick cloud—all convey an overwhelming sense of God’s frightening and awesome presence. So much so, that after it is done the people turn to Moses, saying: “Speak with us and we will hear, but do not let God speak with us, lest we die” (Exod 20:16). In other words, God’s Otherness, His uncanniness, the overwhelming nature of the experience. As Maimonides puts it, the thick cloud behind which God is hidden represents the ontic distance between ordinary human beings and the Godhead. But the Sinai experience is not only an epiphany of the Divine, but also, and perhaps primarily, a direct revelation of at least the quintessence of the Torah: the entire people (at least in a literal reading of the text) hear the Ten Commandments, the most basic principles upon which all the rest is based. Interestingly, too—at least as I read peshat—during the Revelation Moses is not at the top of the mountain, where God as-it-were dwells, is manifest in His fiery Presence; rather, he is down below, with the people. As if to say: the holiest, purest, most spiritual-developed human being, namely Moses, and the ordinary person are in some sense on the same level.

The description in Exodus 24 is more matter-of-fact, and more narrowly focused on Moses alone. The people are not described as hearing God’s voice at all. Everything they know or are told about the Revelation is through the medium of Moses. God commands Moses to ascend to the mountain, and the latter tells the people that God will give them commandments, to which they answer “Everything that God has said, we will listen and we will do”: na’aseh ve-nishma. Thus, they do not really experience the Revelation at all. Moses functions here as the prophet, as God’s emissary. There is then a ceremony of making a covenant, in which the priests and the elders, “the nobles of Israel,” act as surrogates for the people per se. They slaughter animals, they pour the blood into a container, they set up twelve stones to symbolize the twelve tribes: half the blood is sprinkled on the people, and half on the altar—but God himself does not manifest His Presence to the entire people. Only later, a small élite group ascend partway up the mountain: Moses, Joshua, Aaron and his children, and the elders. We then read an astonishing thing: they see the God of Israel, literally, as a figure enthroned upon a seat, while beneath Him is a sapphire stone, whose color is like the the pure blue of the sky (suggestive of the azure of tzitzit?). Moreover, “they saw God and they ate and they drank.” They were somehow able to combine together the most exalted experience of Presence, with their physical lives as human beings, with the activity of eating and drinking.

The final section of Chapter 24 also presents difficulties. It states that Moses ventured up in the mountain near the cloud, where he was for seven days, and thereafter he was there for forty days and forty nights. When exactly were these seven days? If they are distinct from the 40 days, then there were not 40 but 47 days between the Revelation and the event of the Breaking of the Tablets, when Moses came down from the mountain—which would inter alia completely upset the traditional calendar in which the 17th of Tammuz, Rosh Hodesh Elul, and Yom Kippur are forty-day landmarks in the process of Moses’ receiving Torah, seeking forgiveness for the sin of the Golden Calf, and receiving the second tablets. Rashi suggest that these may have been the seven days between the New Moon of Sivan and the day of the Revelation—but that presents its own difficulties. Or perhaps the seven days are counted within the 40 days. Whatever way you slice it, it is a rather difficult passage.

Finally, it seems to me that the scene at the very end of the Account of the Golden Calf (Exod 34:27-35), in which Moses descends the mountain with the second set of tablets, is a kind of rounding off of this chapter, reiterating many of the same themes. Here, Moses is radiant, in the literal sense: his face shines (perhaps like the blue stones beneath the Divine throne in 24:10?) with the reflected radiance of the Divine, so that the people cannot bear to gaze upon him, and he must wear a veil. What are we to make of all this? What is the essential difference between these two accounts of Revelation? I would suggest that the central issue that exercises the Tanakh is the nature of revelation: is it, in essence, a democratic experience, undergone in at least some minimal way by the entire people, or is it an elitist one, accessible only to those with a higher kind of consciousness. In Ch. 19 it is essentially an overwhelming experience of the entire people; in Ch. 24 it is, in the final analysis, is limited to prophecy to one individual—perhaps with a certain limited involvement of the priests and the elders. Moses alone is able to go beyond the cloud and speak with God, because he is a unique human being with radically different capabilities and of a radically different nature.

In several major non-Jewish religions, the focus is on the prophecy of one particular individual; the holy texts are revealed through the belief and inspiration of the prophet. Thus in Buddhism (albeit the Buddha was more a wise man than a prophet—albeit in later, popular Buddhism, he was effectively deified), in Islam, and in Mormon. (Christianity is not in its essence a religion of revelation and text, but is built around the mystery of the life of a single individual, Jesus, whose life in its belief bridges the Divine and the human.) In Judaism, the experiencing of the revelation by the entire people is crucial. Indeed, Yehudah Halevi argues in Sefer ha-Kuzari (I.87) that the strongest testimony to the truth of Judaism is the fact of revelation, witnessed by the 600,000 people who were at Sinai. And yet, it would seem that Judaism holds by this idea and at the same time does not. On another level, Moses alone received the entire Torah from God and conveyed it to the people; hence it is known as Torat Moshe.

This motif is particularly central in Rambam’s teaching. In no less than three separate places (Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 8; Guide II.33; Hakdamah le-Perek Helek, Yesod ha-shevi’i), Maimonides dwells at length upon the difference between Moses and the rest of the people. He talks about the uniqueness of Moses’ prophecy and explains that the revelation was primarily intended for the people to know that Moses was the chosen prophet of God, and that those things which he would tell them afterwards—the laws and commandments and admonitions and the interpretation of what they had experiences and what they had undergone and the prophecy of what was to come in the future—were all true and had come from God. (See what I wrote about this in HY I: Shavuot). On the other hand, as noted above, Yehudah ha-Levi has a different view, emphasizing the more popular aspect of Sinai, as experienced specifically by the entire people.

Comparison of these two chapters, and the schools in Jewish thought that emphasize one or another of them, open up a whole series of questions about the nature of the encounter between man and God. To what extent are special preparations or innate qualities and faculties needed to receive even an inkling of the Divine Presence? Or may one say that, since the whole notion of revelation is a miracle, a breaking through of what are ordinarily impenetrable barriers (“A handmaiden at the Sea saw more than Ezekiel at the River Perath”), all stand equal at Sinai? Moreover, since the contents of the Revelation—practical commandments pertaining to ordinary life—relate to all human beings, or at least all Israelites, did all needed to receive them directly? But these questions take us far beyond the boundaries of our present discussion.