Saturday, August 22, 2009

Ekev (Zohar)

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

This week my grandson Erez is entering the critical stage of his treatment. The following is an expansion of a shiur I give in his honor at my son’s home. Friends and readers are asked to continue praying for refu’ah shelemah for Erez ben Liza Sheina.

Thoughts on the Amidah

This week’s parashah contains the phrase ולעבדו בכל לבבכם—“to serve Him with all your heart”—from which the Sages infer the obligation to pray daily. When we speak of prayer in Judaism, we refer particularly to the Shemonah Esreh or Amidah (which may be familiar to some English speakers as the “Silent Prayer”)—which, in classic sources, is always simply Tefillah: Prayer par excellence.

The above-mentioned phrase from which Hazal derive the mitzvah of prayer—avodah shebelav, “service of the heart”—entails a certain paradox. The word avodah, “service” or “labor,” is most often used in Biblical sources to avodat hakorbanot, the order of animal sacrifices, offered daily and on special occasions on the altar—in other words, a concrete, physical act of service. The word “service” (=”worship” or “homage”) implies physical acts involving concrete actual physical objects, which inter alia represent expenditure of wealth (sheep, goats, bullocks, etc). It is perhaps not far fetched to suggest that this notion is derived by analogy from the “service” a servant or subject offers to his master in a royal, feudal or other hierarchical system, the bringing of a gift symbolizing the deference due to one’s superior.

But how does one serve someone—whether a human being or that transcendent being called God—with one’s heart? Those of us who are halakhically observant— specifically men, but today, increasingly, many women as well—are habituated to ”davening” three times a day—that is, to stand up at certain fixed times and recite the prescribed text of the Amidah—at times, hopefully, with some degree of concentration and thought and identification with the words, but at others in a more-or-less rote manner. And yet, the very concept of tefillah as “service of the heart” implies that all the laws of prayer—washing one’s hands, for some people perhaps donning a jacket and hat and even prayer belt, standing up and facing a certain direction, the gestures of bowing and walking backwards towards the end, even the prescribed text with all its variations through the week and year—important as they may be, are merely external manifestations of the inner experience, the “service of the heart.”

Indeed, if one stops to think about it, prayer is an overwhelming, almost impossible spiritual challenge. Its essence, according to another definition, is עמידה לפני ה', “standing before God”: oneself, a puny, mortal human being of flesh and blood, standing before the infinite Creator of the vast cosmos. If one were to take it seriously—as one ought—one might well be terrified. Indeed, R. Yaakov Yosef of Polonoyye—author of the first Hasidic book ever published, one of the personal disciples of the Baal Shem Tov—used to say that it was easier for him to learn 8 pages of gemara than to recite a single Amidah; it is said that, while praying, beads of sweat appeared on his brow from the intense inner effort. Rav Uri of Strelisk, “the Angel,” used to say that it is a miracle that a person is still alive after davening, as each time he would pour every bit of his life energy and self into the words of tefillah. Similarly things appear in the teaching of the Besht and of many others.

The other parts of the Siddur: the psalms, Pesukei de-Zimra, the Shema and its setting, the miscellaneous blessings—are all, in a sense, talking about, around God; praising Him, speaking of His greatness, celebrating his great redemptive deeds in history, reading words of Torah that instruct us about and symbolize our acceptance of basic principles of the faith. It is only here, in the Amidah, that we stand before Him. Indeed, in some Kabbalistic and Hasidic texts, the order of the Morning Service—the longest, and in some sense paradigmatic prayer of the daily cycle (תפילת אריכתא)—is seen as a series of stages, in which one ascends to through the four cosmic worlds. The Amidah corresponds to the fourth and highest stage of this mystical ascent, Olam ha-Atzilut {the World of Emanation), the source from which the Infinite radiates His goodness and abundance to the lower worlds—and there, one cleaves to, and in some views even unites with, the Creator.

But what of prayer in the everyday, common-sense, conventional meaning of prayer as addressing God with one’s own personal requests, asking for one’s real, concrete, worldly needs? Indeed, many Hasidic note a certain paradox here. For them, the real goal of prayer is pure, selfless service of God; to offer our heart to God without any expectation or even thought of personal reward (corresponding, perhaps, to the Korban Olah, the burnt sacrifice that was consumed entirely on the fires of the altar, symbolizing total devotion and giving to God). Indeed, some go so far as to say that pray for one’s own needs is nearly tantamount to blasphemy.

Indeed, there is at one rather strange passage in the Talmud which states explicitly that “prayer” and “asking for one’s needs “ are two rather different things. At Berakhot 31a, we read: יכול ישאל אדם צרכיו ואחר כך יתפלל? כבר מפורש על-ידי שלמה, שנאמר "לשמוע אל הרנה ואל התפילה" (א מלכים ח, כה). רנה–זו תפלה; תפלה–זו בקשה.. “Can it be that a person would ask his needs and only then pray? Solomon already said explicitly: ‘[that You may] listen / hearken to the song and the prayer’—‘song’ (rinah) refers to prayer; ‘prayer’ (tefillah) refers to request” (cf. Avodah Zarah 7a). In other words, tefillah in its core sense means something other than requesting one’s needs: perhaps avodah in the sense of service, perhaps praise of God, while petitionary prayer in the narrow sense is something else again. Strangely, the major commentators on this page hardly relate to the strangeness and self-contradictory nature of this formulation.

How, then, does this basic tension in the nature of prayer—between prayer as avodah, as “service” of God—implying that its essence is an inner act of placing oneself in a psychological state of being in God’s presence, of “giving” Him one’s inner self, heart and soul and mind; and prayer as bakashat tzerakhim, in the simple, down-to earth sense of asking God for whatever it is that troubles one at the moment—play itself out in practice? The rabbis observe that prayer is divided into three parts: shevah, bakashat tserakim, and hodaah—praise, petition, and thanks. That is, before asking God for whatever it is that one needs, one must first praise God. This is rooted in the very spiritual conception of prayer described above or, on a more mundane level, may be compared to a petitioner who comes before a mighty king with some request or petition. It is simply ”bad form” to ask for what one wants before establishing a certain relation to the king, expressing the sense of awe and humility and self-abnegation with which one stands before him.

Hence, the first three blessings, known as Avot, Gevurot, and Kedushot, establish one’s position vis-à-vis God. The first blessing, in particular, speaks of our relation to God through the Patriarchs; of God’s basic attributes—“the great, mighty and awesome God” (also a phrase from this week’s portion, at Deut 10:17)—and His great mercy and compassion. The second blessing focuses on the sense of God’s awesomeness, majesty, and power, while the third blessing, “the Holy God,” functions as the climax of this section. Indeed, in public prayer, this is the locus of the Kedushah, in which the entire congregation praises God in language used by the angels.

Then, abruptly, one turns to the human condition. As if to say: the very act of thinking of God’s greatness and awesomeness reminds a person of where one stands as a huam being, This is rather reminiscent of the dialectic described by Rambam in Yesodei Hatorah 2.2, in which the love and fear of God, though intertwined, lead to opposite movements. As one approaches God, one is suddenly frightened by the very greatness and majesty that so attracted and fascinated one. Thus, too, the turning to asking one’s needs, far from an act of sacrilege, is an expression of a keen awareness of what it means to be a human being, in relation to God: awareness of one’s own “creatureliness,” one’s mortality and limitations; one’s dependence upon God for health and sustenance, indeed, for one’s very life.

Moreover, as a Jew one turns to God not only as an individual, but as part of the Jewish people, and as participating in its long history, Hence, the second half of the thirteen middle blessings address, so to speak, the “Jewish condition”: the various stages in the long-hoped-for process of Redemption—ingathering of the Exiles, restoration of a system of true justice and righteousness, rebuilding of Jerusalem, the restoration of the Davidic house—as well as blessings and curses for those classes of people to whom blessing and curses are appropriate.

The last three blessings, schematically referred to as hoda’ah, are actually a miscellany of concluding blessings, very different from one another. The first of these , retzeh, asks for ritzui, Divine acceptance of our prayer, tying it in to the sacrificial system with which it is connected; the next, Modim, is a kind of general thanksgiving, for God’s myriad blessings in everyday life; while the final blessing, whose central theme is peace, echoes the words of the Priestly Bkessing Birkat Kohanim, recited in its rubric.

* * * * *

A few concluding words about the situation that prompted the above-titled talk/study (HY X: Ekev). I would like to dwell particularly on two of the middle blessings: refa’enu—the prayer for healing; and da’at—at once thanks and a prayer for wisdom and understanding.

When oneself and one’s close family are all healthy, or reasonably so, one tends to take health more or less for granted. All four of my own children, and my two older grandchildren, were born sound and healthy, and came home within two or three days of birth to begin their lives as infants in a warm, loving parental home—and continued from there to grow into children and, in due time, into adolescents and young adults (the latter phrase meanwhile refers only to my children). Suddenly, as we discovered a day or two after birth, this grandchild was different; he was born without a healthy immune system, without the normal complement of white blood cells that enable all of us—infants, children, adults, and even the elderly—to resist the innumerable viruses, bacteria, end other organisms that surround us, usually without our even being aware of the invisible threat lurking in the very air we breathe. Gradually, we learned that Erez was suffering from a rare disease, one of which there have been less than 100 cases world-wide in medical history.

One occasionally reads in newspapers about rare diseases which hit one in tens or hundred of thousands, or even one in a million people—and one thinks, “this happens to other people.” Suddenly, it erupts into one’s own life; one’s everyday life is focused around phone calls from the young parents, from my other children, or my fellow grandparent, with reports about Erez’s latest blood counts. When such a thing happens, one realizes how contingent our lives are, We are not as omnipotent as we like to think; one becomes aware, quite simply, of our constant dependence upon God and the “small miracles” that constantly surround us. Or, to paraphrase the asher yatzar blessing: if the smallest organ of our physical body were to be altered, one could not stand before God for even one hour. Indeed, without the highly protected environment offered by a specially isolated ward of a modern hospital, Erez could not have possibly survived to the age of nearly three months that he has reached thus far.

On one level, assuming Erez’s situation is indeed secured by the radical measures performed this past week, he will owe his life to the “miracle” of modern medicine: to the devoted care of the staffs of Kaplan and of Schneider Children’s Hospital; to the expert analysis of Prof. Dr Hannah Tamari, head of Pediatric Hematology at Schneider, who identified Erez’s ailment and mapped out the necessary treatment; to the dozens of volunteers who volunteered blood donations; and many other people, too numerous to mention. All this is in turn the result of modern medical science and its understanding of the human body, a body of knowledge that jas accumulated gradually over centuries, making us “pygmies seated on the shoulders of giants.” But on another level this is not only a triumph of human ingenuity; as Parshat Ekev has it, we are warned not to think “my strength and the power of my hand has done this great deed.” Human intelligence is itself a gift from God—and that, I think, was the Sage’s intention in beginning the series of middle blessings with the blessing and prayer for wisdom. Wisdom—the power of sophisticated, complex, deep thought, enabling the individual human being, and human culture as the organic sum of the creation of many minds, to search out and understand the variegated phenomena of life and the world itself, is ultimately one of God’s gifts —both to the individual and to the species.

May it be God’s will that we in the Chipman family quickly move from the petitionary prayers of the middle blessings to the final section of the Amidah, that of thanksgiving (Modim), on that long-awaited day when Erez will at long last be able to enter his parent’s home. May Ika and Leeza soon merit to bring him into the covenant of the Patriarch Abraham, and in due time raise him to Torah, to marriage and to a life of good deeds.

Vaethanan (Zohar)

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

The Zohar and God’s Unity

Vaethanan features the Shema’, the declaration of God’s unity recited twice daily which stands at the very heart of Jewish liturgy. Through the ages, theological and philosophical criticism of Kabbalah and Zohar have focused on the notion that it somehow runs contrary to the idea of God’s unity. How can God be one if He, so to speak, contains within himself a system of ten sefirot? As one particularly vehement late-medieval critic put it: The Christians believe in three gods, but the Kabbalists believe in ten!

To a classical Maimunidean, a passage such as that from Zohar Balak which we presented here a few days ago (HY X: Tisha b’Av), in which God and the Shekhinah converse with one another, would seem at best absurd and childishly naïve and, at worse, sheer blasphemy. Shekhinah is the apotheosis of God’s presence, His Indwelling in the world, not an independent personality with a mind of its own who can argue back and forth with the Almighty!

The solution is to be found on the notion that God is ultimately ineffable, unknowable, far beyond human comprehension. We do not and cannot know Him as He is in Himself. Hence, everything we say about God is ultimately an image, a metaphor. Not only God’s voice, His mighty hand, His concealed face and the back that was revealed to Moses a figure of speech; not only His anger, His love, His will; but also Shekhinah, Hesed, Tiferet and all the rest, the supernal Father and Mother and their union, are all metaphors for things which we cannot ultimately grasp. The path of the rational intellect cannot prove the existence of God or bring a person to knowledge of Him (this is shown, I think, by the whole thrust of rationalist thinking and philosophizing over the past few centuries, which by-and-large rejected the medieval proofs of God). But a person whose life has been filled with deep reflection, mental and spiritual discipline, right action, and study of Torah over a long period, can perhaps to apprehend the Divine. But such apprehension must not be confused with a purely rational, intellectual apprehension; it is attained, not through the reasoning faculty of the mind, but with the mind, the soul and the entire being acting together. (Might this be a new peshat of בכל לבבך ובכל נפשך ובכל מאדיך?) This is the ultimate goal, purpose and path of the Kabbalah.

I would add that those who would present Kabbalah as a science, a rational systematic scheme of theosophic knowledge of the Divine, as a kind of alternative to the rational philosophical path, are also not on the ideal path.

On what does a Kabbalist meditate when he says Shema? My friend Stan Tenen has articulated this in a way that speaks to me deeply. On the verse “כי שמש ומגן ה' אלהים (“for HWYH God is a sun and a shield”; Ps 84:12), he notes that these two names express two salient aspects of the Divinity: absolute Singularity and all-inclusive Wholeness; His unique transcendence, and the all-inclusiveness of His immanence, the Divinity as source of our life, as flowing down into everything. Or: YHWH as the name of God as perfection in Itself, like the light of the sun, which is sufficient onto itself; and Elohim as He who interacts with the world, like a “shield.” Thus, the phrase in the Shema, ה' אלקינו, is not a mere tautology, but an important statement drawing an equation between two very different things The basic mystery addressed by the Kabbalah is that of unity and multiplicity: how can God be one, and at the same time be the Author and Being of the life of this universe, teeming with multiplicity: with varieties of living creatures, with far flung galaxies and stars, with life constantly emerging from the earth and sea and air?

This is the reason why, in my humble opinion, sexuality is such a central metaphor in Kabbalah: not only is it something which we, as human beings, experience as one of our most intensely-felt experiences—a focus of our own passion and desire as well as a source of intense (what in Kabbalistic lingo might well be equated with ענג and רצון). It is also the device, the mechanism, so to speak, that makes for multiplicity, for renewal of life, for diversity. Moreover, for us human beings—that unique form of sentient life that speaks and thinks and wills—the unpredictable vagaries of sexual attraction is the “dice” (contra Einstein’s famous remark) that leads to genetic scrambling and to the infinite permutations and combinations that creates the seed of individuality (for more on these ideas, see HY X: Bereshit = Bereshit [Zohar]).

In passing, a few words about a pet peeve. Some people, in a sincere attempt to daven in a deeper, more spiritual, meditative way, following mentors who have perhaps been influenced by Eastern models, recite the first verse of Shema as six separate, evenly emphasized words, in an even tone, as if it were a kind of mantra. This seems to me to incorrect: a casual examination of the ta’amei hamiqra shows that Shema is composed of three distinct phrases, whose words are connected with one another by subsidiary te’amim to make a statement: Shema Yisrael — HWYH Elohenu — HWYH Ehad. “Hear O Israel”: the call to listen or hearken; “HWYH is our God”: the identification of HWYH, God’s particular sacred name of Being as the supreme Lord and Ruler of the cosmos; “HWYH is One”: the declaration of His unity / singularity / uniqueness (which, in terms of universal human consciousness, is no more than an eschatological vision for the distant future).

POSTSCRIPT: Job and Tisha b’Av

This year I noticed something strange. As is well known, on Tisha b’Av one is forbidden to study Torah, which in the words of the Psalmist “rejoice the heart” (just as one is forbidden to do so during shivah, the week of personal mourning after the death of a loved one). The Talmud, however, gives a short list of texts of a sad character that one may study on this day: Kinot (lit., “elegies”; i.e., the book of Lamentations), Job and “the sad things in Jeremiah.” Later halakhah added to this the passage in Tractate Gittin about the Destruction (the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza), the medieval kinot which constitute the liturgy for Tisha b’Av morning, and a few other such items (see b. Ta’anit 30a; Rambam, Hil. Ta’aniyot 5.11; Shulkah Arukh, Orah Hayyim 554.1)

The question is: why Job? (I once saw a Sephardic Kinot in which the Book of Job is printed in its entirety, as the suggested, customary reading for the long hours between Shaharit and Minhah). Job is of course a melancholy book, one that deals with death, tragedy, and how its hero copes with his tragic situation. But beyond that, there are two anomalies in its choice as reading matter for Tisha b’Av.

First, it has nothing to do with the specific events commemorated by this day. There is absolutely no mention of Jerusalem, the Temple, the Land of Israel, or for that matter of Jews. Job himself is “Everyman”—a person of no particular nationality; a denizen of the land of Uz, which may be a district on the Arabian peninsula, or an ancient counterpart to James Barrie’s Never-Never Land or Frank Baum’s land of Oz; its protagonist, Job, may well be a fictional character invented by the author (whomever that may have been) to serve as a foil for his own theological reflections (thus Shmuel bar Nahmani in b. Baba Batra 15a).

More important, the Book of Job seems to run squarely against the implicit theology of Tisha b’Av: “because of our sins we were exiled from our land.” That is to say: that God runs His world in a just manner, and ultimately rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. To summarize the story of Job in two sentences: Job was a good, decent man who, out of nowhere, was visited by catastrophe: he lost his children, his property, and his own health. His wife suggests that he “curse God and die,” but he refuses: heroically, he attempts to maintain his faith in God and, simultaneously, his conviction of his own innocence, his own knowledge of the uprightness of his behavior. He is visited by three friends who, in beautiful poetic Hebrew, articulate the conventional theological stance of the day (which, inter alia, is that found in the Book of Deuteronomy and most other biblical books) and try to convince him that he is wrong: that he must have committed some grave offense against God, and that he should admit his own guilt. God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked, on both the micro level of the individual and the macro of the community, and to pretend otherwise is wrong, pig-headed and sacrilegious. But Job holds to his own, and is in the end vindicated when God speaks to him out of the whirlwind, even though He does not give him any clear alternative answers.

Why then is it read on Tisha b’Av? My impression is that the Rabbinic tradition is reminding us, on this day of stark tragedy, destruction and exile, that the whole question of theodicy is far more complex than we might think; that the simple answers of humble, submissive piety are problematic. That this day is in fact one on which, as Rav Soloveitchik repeatedly stressed in his famous Tisha b’Av shiurim, one is allowed to challenge God and to ask these difficult questions: Why did you make Your world in such a way that there is so much seemingly needless suffering? Why do the righteous suffer or, as in the title of a popular book, “why do bad things happen to good people”? Why does it feel, so often, that You have hidden behind a cloud, through which no prayer may penetrate (Lam 3:44)? In this reading, Eikha is best translated as “How can it be?!” or “Why?”—the classical question of theodicy. Rather than accepting the horrible events of Jewish history in humble, chastened silence, this view sees the Destruction as a template for later events (including the Shoah), and the believer who shakes his fist at Heaven as the true religious hero.