A Brief Yom Kippur Reflection

 

close up of paper against black background
Photo by John-Mark Smith on Pexels.com

Today I was invited to lead two reflections at Or Shalom, the East Vancouver shul I am a member of but attend somewhat irregularly. Rabbi Hannah Dresner, the congregation’s amazing leader, was very kind in honoring me so. I offered a reflection and exercise for the congregation which was based in the following thoughts, some of which I shared with the congregation, and which I’d like to share in full here:

Seeing God Face To Face

Emanuel Levinas, the great French-Jewish philosopher (1906-1995), once wrote that “the face of the other is the irruption of God into being.” What I understand him to have meant is that the call that emanates from the face of the other (which summons us to love them) is the presence of God in this world. In Levinas’ parlance, “being” refers to my own experience, my “being” which is closed in on itself as its own reality. The face of the other is thus the disruption of my own being by the appearance of God. The call which emanates from the face of the other is the commandment of God.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, a Ukrainian Hasidic master who lived almost two centuries previous (c. 1785-1807), once remarked that when we come to the other in love we reveal “the shining of the face of God in this world.” For Rebbe Nachman, then, the “irruption of God into being” is not the call from the face of the other, but the kindness of our gaze extended to the other when received by them. There may be important differences between these two perspectives. Yet what happens when we put them in dialogue?

Combining the insights of these two Jewish masters, we see that God both appears in the call of the face into our world, and in the appearance of our loving face in the world of the other. As opposed to Levinas’ view, which sees God’s appearance purely as demand,  Rebbe Nachman’s view, which at least as represented in this particular metaphor sees God’s appearance in the gift, we can see God’s appearance in both demand and gift, in both the ethical call that disrupts a world of selfish pre-occupation and in the loving care that disrupts a world of grief and isolation.

Above the ark in the Temple sat two keruvim (“angels”). According to Jewish tradition, the two keruvim did not face outwards, or upwards, but rather towards each other, as though on the verge of uniting in a kiss.

 

 

A Hasidic Teaching About Hanukkah For This Divisive Holiday Season

lit-menorah

The notion that Hanukkah conveys an urgent message about diminishing one’s anger, being compassionate to the lost, wicked, and alienated, and abandoning judgementalism might seem surprising. After all, isn’t this the holiday that celebrates the triumph of the righteous and a military victory against the oppressive other? A holiday that celebrates lines drawn in the sand and a vivid sense of black and white? Well, that fails to take into consideration the Rabbinic transformation of the holiday- first at the hands of the Talmudic Rabbis, and then at the hands of Chasidic mystics like Reb Nosson of Nemirov (R’ Nathan Sternhartz, 1780-1844).

 

Reb Nosson was the amenuensis of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810), his closest disciple and secretary, and single handedly responsible for the preservation of Rebbe Nachman’s mystical writings and famed stories. Reb Nosson was also a brilliant teacher and writer in his own right, and his letters and commentaries are studied to this day by Hasidim. Among the works he left behind is a massive, ingenious commentary on the Shulchan Aruch. This commentary, called “Likutey Halachot” (Collected Writings on Jewish Laws) is a penetrating, kaleidoscopic meditation on the spiritual and psychological implications of Jewish legal rulings, using his master Rebbe Nachman’s teachings as the theological lodestone.  It is here that we see Reb Nosson’s perennially relevant insights into Hanukkah.

 

Light

When the Seleucid Greek Empire attempted to suppress Jewish religious practices, the Maccabees, led by Matityahu and his son Yehuda, defeated the Greeks. The Temple, which had been intentionally profaned by the Greek army, was restored and rededicated. This was established as a holiday early on, and the rededication of the Temple was celebrated by no less of a Jewish celebrity than Jesus less than than two hundred years later, according to the book of John.

Some time later the Rabbis canonized a story about a tiny amount of pure oil in the Temple burning miraculously for eight days (in Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 21b). The Rabbis chose to put the miracle of burning oil and the imagery of light at the centre of Hanukkah. To quote Malka Simkovitch, a Jewish scholar:

From a historical vantage point, there is no doubt that the origin of the holiday lies in the Hasmonean military victory. However, the rabbis effectively rebranded the holiday so that instead of glorifying Hasmonean military prowess, the holiday instead glorifies the unconditional and miraculous divine light that Jews can depend on, even in the gloomiest of darkness.

In the Talmud (Shabbat 21b) Hillel and Shammai, eternal sparring partners in the transcendent realm of Jewish archetypes, have an argument about the way the Hanukkah lights should be kindled. Shammai says the light should be reduced every day (from 8 to 1) and Hillel says they should be increased every day (from 1 to 8). In Likutey Halakhot 4.11, Reb Nosson writes that this debate highlights Shammai’s strictness and Hillel’s kindness. Both agree that the spiritual light of the holiday increases day by day. Hillel thus argues that we should add another candle each day. Yet this is very reason Shammai thinks we should reduce the candles- if we make so much spiritual light accessible, the “wicked and the distant (from Torah)” may make use of it!

 

This debate reflects a deeper rift between the houses of Shammai and the houses of Hillel, Reb Nosson writes. Hillel generally believes, as is shown in the famous Torah story about his patient response to the potential convert who impertinently asked him to explain the whole Torah on one foot, that spiritual light should be given out freely without fear or judgementalism. Shammai disagrees, as shown by his chasing that same convert out of his house angrily brandishing a tool he had been using. Though Jewish tradition historically and officially favoured Hillel, it is sad to see how much contemporary Ultra-Orthodoxy has defected to the school of Shammai, both with regards to converts and much else. The house of Hillel, Reb Nosson explains, believed that the more light was available, the more “we need to shine this light into the world, to illuminate the entire world, to being closer even the most distant people, to enlighten the smallest and lowest, to heal the most spiritually ill.”

 

“How could anyone think we should decrease holiness?”, Reb Nosson asks, and then answers: “There are tzaddikim (righteous ones) who are truly great….due to the intensity of their holiness, they distance people and decrease holiness, for people become angry with them for being unable to accept their behaviour. But this is not what God desires. God always desires lovingkindness, and that the tzaddikim should always have compassion….even when God himself is in great anger with them on account of their conduct, He wants the tzaddikim to pray for them and elevate them. As our sages said on the verse, “Moses took the tent and pitched it outside the camp, far from the camp” (Exodus 33:56): Rashi’s commentary adds that God says, ‘If I am angry and you are angry, who will bring them close?’.

 

Reb Nosson goes on to enumerate other examples from the books of the Prophets showing God’s desire that tzaddikim take the side of the people, not the side of God’s holiness and judgement. He then goes on to assert that the greater the holiness one attains, the more careful on should be not to be angry or judgemental to those “lesser” than yourself, but rather the more you should exert yourself to “cleverly come up with new strategies and “constrictions” (tzimtzumim, which here means bringing things down to their level) to bring more and more souls closer and to heal even the worst and the sickest.”

The point here is not to be a clever salesman, but rather something more akin to Vygotsky’s “zones of proximity”- one needs to empathetically understand where these others are and then modify one’s message in whatever way needed to reach them and bring them authentic healing.

 

“All this is represented by the Chanukkah candles”, finishes Reb Nosson brilliantly, “which are lit below ten handbreadths, and this is why they must be lit in an increasing number.” In other words, the ritual of the menorah teaches us that unbounded light must be freely given, restricted and shaped so it can reach who it needs to be reached; that it must be at our level; and that it should slowly increase. Hanukkah, says Reb Nosson, is a lesson in generosity and pedagogy. It is also important to recognize that what makes the light shareable in the first place is the righteous one’s abandonment of anger, judgement and fear. This lesson couldn’t be more needed as we go into our Hanukkah festival in a world of divisions with vast gulfs of mis-understanding, anger, judgement and fear.

 

I am not suggesting that those reading (or writing) this article are tzaddikim, but Rebbe Nachman taught that everyone has a good point- a point of messianic light, or tzaddik-ness, that might shine towards a friend in a certain situation when the friend needs it (Likutey Moharan 34). We may find ourselves in that situation this holiday season in any number of ways. If we regard the impure other, rendered so by any number of things, perhaps by pro-Trump (or anti-Trump) comments, with fear, anger or judgement, then we miss what Reb Nosson says is a fundamental lesson of Hanukkah.

 

Reb Nosson’s lesson would first suggest that we need to abandon anger, fear and holier-than-thou judgement before we engage with our challenging friend or relative. We need to think about where they are at and why, and try to share what light we can. We should not go for broke. Maybe we can win a small victory, a little “a-ha” or a tiny concession and be happy with that. Maybe not- maybe all we can accomplish is to draw that person close and keep them in relationship to us. That might be the smallest reali light we can manage, but it might be something we can build on in the future, step by step, light by light.

 

 

Rivka and the Ratzon L’ Hashpia

According to the brilliant Kabbalistic theology of Rav Yehuda Lev Ashlag, z'l, the purpose of Creation is for human beings to become “like” Hashem through affinity of form. This is the ultimate good, the pleasure and delight, that Hashem wished to bestow on us, and is the reason for Creation. The “affinity of form” Rav Ashlag is referring to consists of developing the ratzon l' hashpia, or “desire to give benefit”. Hashem, needing nothing, has only a ratzon l' hashpia, and he has created us with a ratzon l' kabel, a desire to receive. By developing our own ratzon l' hashpia we attain greater affinity of form with HaKadosh Baruch Hu until finally we are able to receive in order to give- a state in which we are both givers of benefit to others, and thus like Hashem, and receivers of the “delight and goodness” which Hashem intended to give us. This is outlined in Rav Ashlag's Introduction to the Perush HaSulam, his commentary on the Zohar, and other works.

 

Rav Ashlag states further, in Matan Torah, that the Avot (and logically the Imahot) did not recieve the practical Torah (the actual mitzvot) but rather warranted the ruchniyut of the Torah, the spirituality of the Torah, because of their loftiness of soul. This loftiness of soul consisted, of course, in the ratzon l' hashpia, the desire to give benefit. The R”H is known also as “Ve'ahavta L' Reacha Kamocha”, loving your neighbour as yourself, which Rav Ashlag affirms is the klal gadol b' Torah, which he interprets to mean the one mitzvah which the entire Torah comes to bring into being and complete. The Avot and Imahot, while not possessing the practical mizvot of the Torah, did possess this one mitzvah as an expression of “the loftiness of their neshamot (souls)”. It was this loftiness which led Hashem to choose them and bless them to be the parents of Israel, and it was on its account that Israel warranted to receive the Torah, whose whole purpose is to purify Israel so they can develop the R”H, and thus attain d'vekut with Hashem (affinity of form, as the Gemarra also defines d' vekut).

 

This is reflected strongly in the chesed (kindness) of Avraham, and is also reflected this week in the detailed narrative of Eleazar and Rivka. Avraham, on his death bed, tells Eleazar, his servant, to leave Canaan and travel to Avraham's relatives, to see if he can find a wife for Yitzhak there. In the view of the Torah, the customs of the Canaanites are not those of Avraham's family, and he wants a wife from his people and their way of life. Eleazar chooses, as his sign, that the woman should spontaneously offer him and his camels water to drink. In other words, she will practice the Hesed of Avraham. Despite being “merely” the servant of Avraham, Eleazar seems to understand his ways well. He knows that Avraham is not merely interested in a relative, but rather a relative who embodies the code of his family- a code of chesed and righteousness. Eleazar finds that person in Rivka.

 

The Purpose of Humanity: Parshat Bereishit

The story of the creation of humanity, as presented in the opening verses of Genesis, is luminous and profound. Its profundity is sometimes overshadowed by cryptic elements, by the Torah's concise and understated manner of expression (by our standards), and by inherited cliches about its meaning. Studying the comments of the meforshim (traditional exegetes) goes along away to cure us of our assumptions, mistaken familiarity and inattention to subtle detail. For me another great curative has been the study of other near eastern creation narratives, as anthologized and/or discussed in such books as “Old Testament Parallels” (Matthews and Benjamin), “Created Equal” (Joshua Berman) and “Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament” (Walton). Below I'll take a look at one aspect of the narrative of the creation of The human being from this perspective.

 

Why Was Humanity Created?

 

We are fortunate to possess records of the creation of humanity as conceived in the Egyptian Hymn to Atum (2500-2100 BCE in origin though our version dates from 400 BCE); the Enuma Elish cycle (compiled in Mesopatamia 1100 BCE from Sumerian and Amorite sources in order to glorify the rulers of Babylon, the Mesopotamian capital); and the Atrahasis Cycle (18th century BCE; Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian). The Genesis stories date from as old as 2300 BCE-1400 BCE and were likely written down in their current form around 400 BCE (these dates are hotly contested, of course).

My contention is that the narrative of anthrogenesis in Bereishit is a remarkably humanistic one (it is also remarkably earth-positive, or nature affirming, but that's a subject for another time). According to Genesis 1:26: “And Elokim said, “Let us make the human in our image, as our likeness. They shall rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, over the animals, the whole earth, and every thing that creeps upon it. And Elokim created the human in his image; in the image of Elokim he created them; male and female he created them. Elokim blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and rule…And Elokim saw all that he had made, and behold! It was very good.”

Later on we read (Genesis 2:7; 15): “Hashem Elokim formed the human of soil from the earth, and blew into his nostrils a living soul, and the man became a living soul. Hashem Elokim planted a garden in Eden, to the east, and place there the human he had formed….Hashem Elokim took the human and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to serve it/work it (l'avodah) and to look after it (l'shomrah).”

The vision here is of the human as a being independent from God, created to “rule the earth” and to tend and take care of God's garden. The strong implication here is that the human is created for its own sake. God does not say, “I will make me a servant”, or “one to glorify me”, or even “one to know me” (later Jewish and non-Jewish theistic traditions often envision God's purpose as one of these). The later Jewish idea that God created “because he needed to have someone to give to” comes closest to the vision of Edenic life. The Human is created for no other purpose then to enjoy the nourishment and beauty of God's creation, to grow in numbers (be fruitful and multiply) and exercise a benevolent sovereignty (“serve and look after”). In a sense the human is created as an ideal benevolent King below, ruling by the decree, grace, and beneficience of the true Ruler above.

The vision of Genesis, and its radical implications, are highlighted by comparison with other Near Eastern creation myths. Whereas Genesis pictures the human being as formed of earth and divine breath, the Hymn to Atum takes a much more existentialist position. Says Atum (after masturbating into his own mouth and spitting and sneezing out gods):

“I wept, and human beings arose from my tears….”

Surely we can hear the hardships and arbitrariness of poor Agrarian life in this Egyptian hymn (especially in a totalitarian state where most of the populace were worker-slaves). The hymn to Atum doesn't state a purpose for human life. It appears as a result of Atum's fervent desire to create, a desire which is presented as sexual, almost riotous, and without particular purpose.

The Enuma Elish, by contrast, does state a purpose for the creation of humanity: After a protracted battle for rulership of the Divine Assembly, Marduk, god of Babylon, wins. He dismembers his rival, Tiamat, and uses her corpse to create heaven and earth. Having won the fealty of the Divine Assemby by defeating her, he then creates human beings as slaves to work for the gods and “set the divine assembly free.” Marduk forms humans from the blood of another Divine rival, Kingu, after killing him. In contrast to the riotous creativity of the Hymn of Atum, the Enuma Elish conceives of the world as created out of death and conquest- military prowess- expressions of the power of Marduk.

The Atrahasis cycle posits a purpose for the creation of human beings similar to that of the Enuma Elish. When the Divine servant class refuses to work for the Divine Elders, the gods create human beings to work for the Gods as irrigators and farmers of the earth instead. Eventually they multiply too greatly for the gods comfort, and their noise disturbs the sleep of the great god Enlil, who thus conspires to have the Divine Assembly control their numbers with plagues and famines. When this doesn't reduce the numbers of their human slaves effectively enough the gods unleash the flood and eliminate them save for a Noah-like survivor, who is saved by a god who is partial to him for unstated reasons (because of his good service?). As is perhaps needless to point out, this flood narrative is also in meaningful contrast to the Genesis narrative, which has Hashem bringing the flood because human culture is filled with aggressive thievery and violence (“chamas”).

In both the Enuma Elish and the Atrahasis Cycle, then, humans exist to serve their divine masters. As Joshua Berman has masterfully argued (“Created Equal”), this narrative seems to echo the political structure of Mesopatamia, Egypt, and Assyria, structures the narratives and laws of the Torah were in rebellion against (also see Yoram Hazony, “The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture”).

In Genesis the human being is not created to serve the Divine, and is not made of tears, semen, or a dismembered enemy. The human being is made of the good earth and the breath of God, and our proliferation is not a threat- it is an expression of divine blessing. Last but far from least, the human is made ” b'tselem Elokim”. The word “tselem”, when it occurs elsewhere in the Tanakh, is used most often to refer to idols used in the worship of false gods (Amos 5:26, 2 Kings 11:18; 2 Chronicles 23:17; Ezekiel 7:20, 16:17, Numbers 33:52 ). This common usage should not be overlooked: as shocking as it may seem, the Genesis narrative goes so far as to imagine human beings as representations of God, formed in God's likeness and serving as the only legitimate clay idol. The leap in sensibility required to go from imagining human beings as slaves of the gods or random expressions of divine fecundity to imagining them as sacred images of God created to enjoy the divine garden of earth and to rule over it benevolently is surely an awe inspiring moment in the literature of humanity.

 

Letting Go of Hate | Britain’s Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks | Orthodox Union

Letting Go of Hate | Britain’s Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks | Orthodox Union.

Excellent essay. I’m assuming this was inspired by the recent tragic attack on Palestinians by a group of Israeli teenagers.

The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture

I'm currently reading Yoram Hazony's recent book, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. I am not done yet, but at the half-way point I think this is one of a handful of the most important Jewish books of the modern era. Even if the second half is tripe I'd say so. Anyone interested in in the true structure and message of the foundational text of Judaism, the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) should read this book without delay. Whether you love the Tanakh or struggle with it, or even hate it, read this book.

A Poem of Eleazar ben Kallir

I translated this poem from the Hebrew with the help of T. Carmi's version. It is by the Jewish devotional poet Eleazar ben Kallir, who lived in the 6th century. I'll let it's merits speak for itself.

 

The King Who Speaks to the Ocean (Melech Ha'omer LaYam)

 

Yours, YHVH, is the dominion and you are above all.

 

A king who says to the oceans: “Up to here only!”

He shall rule as King!

A King of filth, who comes from a putrid drop

and ends at the grave-

why should he rule as King?

 

A King who builds in the heavens his chambers

in the heavens his chariot-throne

He shall rule as King!

A King who returns to the dust

like a candle blown out

why should he rule as King?

 

A King who rescues from all harm

all who trust in Him-

he shall rule as King!

A King who flees like a driven leaf

from the fears of his heart-

why should he rule as King?

 

A King above multitudes of powers

who makes thousands and thousands of angels-

he shall rule as King!

A King who fears and worries

before the judgement of his Master

why should he rule as King?

 

A King who was and will be

in his kindness and his goodness-

he shall rule as King!