by: Mark Kirschbaum on August 30th, 2012 | Comments Off
This week’s text presents a commandment that at first glance seems to be a straight ahead safety regulation, a precept not necessitating elaborate theological discourse:
(Devarim 22:8) If you build a new house, you must build a maakeh, a parapet or guard rail for your roof, lest you bring blood upon your house should someone fall off.
The midrashic and medieval commentators discuss some interesting points regarding predestination and punishment , (debating whether the person who fell was meant to fall, but even if he was doomed, don’t let it be your house that is the cause of death…), but today, I really want to think about roofs, what they mean and symbolize.
Bachelard, in his “The Poetics of Space”, contrasts
“the rationality of the roof to the irrationality of the cellar. A roof tells its raison d’etre right away; it gives mankind shelter from the rain and sun he fears…We “understand” the slant of a roof. Even a dreamer dreams rationally; for him, a pointed roof averts rain clouds. Up near the roof all our thoughts are clear.”
In contrast to the dark mystery of the cellar, where even now in the world of electric lights, as in all spooky movies, we go down to the cellar with a candle, the roof is a symbol of intellectual clarity and reason.
After all, if there is one thing even the deconstructivist architects haven’t been able to remove, it is the roof. You can put a post in the middle of the bedroom preventing the entry of the bed, as Eisenman did in his celebrated House VI, but you can’t remove the roof. In fact, two well-known contemporary works over emphasize the role of the roof. Zaha Hadid’s Vitra Fire Station (1992-3) in Weil am Rhein has a huge accessory roof that serves no function, while COOP Himmelblau’s roof conversion for a legal practice in Vienna (1983) has an elongated arch which menaces the street underneath, looking like some sort of hostile space organism, in counterpoint to the more sedate older buildings underneath.
In short, the roof remains above, and retains its function of sheltering; if anything, the sheltering aspect of the roof modality might be overblown to make statements about dwelling and interiority:exteriority.
Among the early Hassidic thinkers, however, there is a very plastic approach to issues of space and time. Up can be down, inside can be outside, and the future is readily accessible to the present. The Beer Mayim Hayim, in both his commentary to the Torah, as well as his freestanding work, Siduro Shel Shabbat, argues that the building of a house must not be subordinated to its function merely as shelter or habitation. Rather, the construction of physical or spiritual space must be primarily viewed as a vehicle enabling implementation of the mitzvot. Thus, the critical aspect of building a house is in order to facilitate the actualization of mezuzah and the maakeh. (He does not, however, elaborate on what the meaning of the maakeh/guard rail itself might be in either of his works.)
I would like to present two teachings that invert the relationship between walls and roof. The Kedushat Levi reads our text as follows: Anytime you have the experience of a new spiritual achievement (when you build a new experiential home), you should add a “guard rail” to this experience, with this guard rail consisting of the act of putting this rarified experience into words, words of joy and praise. Without the protection of translation into language, the experience runs the risk of being lost; it cannot be translated or shared. The textual trigger for the teaching is that the maakeh, the supplementary guard rail, points “upward upward” from the heights of your gagecha, your roof, the word gagecha in Hebrew letter numerology adds up to 26, the numerical value of Gd’s name YHVH. This name infuses all words and speech, much like the roof is the base for the guard rail, but without this “supplement”, there is no safe access to the roof; there’s no meaningful experience without the reinforcement of language/spirituality, which the Kedushat Levi equates in this teaching. I would say, if you imagine the house as representing this transformational experience, then the roof plus maakeh is like you with your arms raised in song. There is no way to go upward without this essential supplement; the roof, as it were, supports the walls. What appears to be the supplement becomes foundational.
The Noam Elimelech inverts this relationship. He begins by presenting a lovely prologue which deals with the light of the moment of creation and where it remains hidden at this time. What is important in our context, is his use of our verse and the resultant ‘placement’ of the roof. He understands the building discussed in our verse as referring to a person’s spiritual reconstruction of his self. If a person is rebuilding his “abode”, that is, transforming his interiority (the word used is penimiyut) by means of novel holy thinking (thus bayit hadash, a new house), then, what do you do with your roof, which symbolizes one’s gavhut , one’s self-loftiness,? You must make a maakeh for it, and here, he derives the word maakeh from the term “mimaakim“, from the depths. In other words, you must invert the usual structure and push the roof ‘down down down’, at which point “the house will be constructed with righteousness”. To the Noam Elimelech, then, what appears to need to be up really needs to be down underneath. In the perfected state, the roof supports the walls, but this time, from below…
Perhaps in our time we are beginning to understand how these inversions of space and time are more than simply fanciful readings, but actually tell us something about our experience. In his essay, “The Overexposed City”, Paul Virilio argues that just as our assimilation of new forms of communication and information has brought about challenges to the concept of legitimating narratives, it has brought about a crisis of our relations to stability of space and image. As a result of electronic communication, in particular the internet,
…deprived of objective boundaries, the architectonic element begins to drift and float in an electronic ether, devoid of spatial dimensions, but inscribed in the singular temporality of an instantaneous diffusion. From here on, people can’t be separated by physical obstacles of by temporal distances. With the interfacing of computer terminals and video monitors, distinctions of here and there no longer mean anything…the sound of gates gives way to the clatter of data banks…instead of operating in the space of a constructed social fabric, the intersecting and connecting grid of highway and service systems now occurs in the sequences of an imperceptible organization of time in which the man/machine interface replaces the facades of buildings…
In our world the limitations of space are increasingly being replaced by those of time, the time it takes for digital information to flow and be processed. Our doorways and social spaces no longer form the boundaries of our interactions, we now enter in and out of social spaces via our computer screens. These are our primary portals now, and would it be too absurd to suggest that in some way, we might consider maakot and mezzuzot for our monitors. This reevaluation of space and time still seems novel to us, although the stress it creates in modern life is palpable, but it would not have surprised the classic Hasidic thinkers, who were already operating out of an alternative conception of time and place (who I suspect would supported more creative adaptive coping mechanisms than did their much less creative and more conservative later leadership).
While bending time and space, I’d like to leap over to next week’s perasha, Perashat Ki Tavo, for a supporting reference regarding the plasticity and overcoming even of time. Ki Tavo begins with the commandment to bring the first fruit of the year’s produce up to the Temple as an offering. Verse 26:3 states that you should bring this fruit up to the priest “that shall be in those days”. The Tiferet Shelomo finds this phrase superfluous, for after all, does anyone think one could bring the offering to a priest from some other time period? He answers with the following teaching: The verse in Hebrew reads, bring the offering to the priest asher yihiyeh which literally means ‘that will be’ in those times. According to the mystics, in the future days, the name of God will be spelled YHYH, (as opposed to the current YHVH) which is twice the simple name Jah, as taught in the verse Ps. 118:5- ‘Out of my distress I call onto YH, YH answered me with liberation (Koren translation)’. Thus. the phrase “asher yihye”, alludes to a future Messianic happiness, which will be a time in which our relationship with Gd “will be“, it will be an actualizable totality, the end, not the telos of history (to borrow a phrase from Walter Benjamin)- and an appropriate priest is defined as one who can transcend the limitations of contemporary time, deriving his or her essence from the spirituality defined by YHYH, from that messianic time of total liberation in the future. This spiritual leader might be living in the contemporary world but in reality would ‘be alive’, deriving spiritual strength, across time and transcending space, ‘ in that time’, from the perfected future world.
Given the contemporary situation, let us view this ability to live in a perfected world, as a mediation and prayer. One who sees the nastiness and mendacity coming out of our TV sets (or more likely, our computer monitors and smartphones) could become depressed, unable to maintain hope for a better world. Perhaps the only way to cope with the contemporary world is to continue to ‘be alive’ with, to dream of the possibilities of a different kind of world, that “asher yihye” time, a time of peace and understanding. Perhaps if we maintain the image of life in a better world, we may find ourselves all together under a welcoming great spiritual roof, inhabiting that better world we ourselves created with our dreams.