by: Mark Kirschbaum on December 28th, 2012 | Comments Off
I’ve chosen to repost this particular essay for its uncanny relevance to the recent tragedy at Newtown, particularly the final teaching by the Aish Kodesh, prefaced by an additional teaching not in the original, that resonates with the tragedy. One of the points made in the essay, which deals with a textual hint of silence on the part of Jacob when blessing his sons, is that there are times when language is not adequate to the task at hand, but rather there are times when action, not words, is the necessary response. Clearly this is one of those times. Interestingly, the relevant addition to this reading is also based on a lacuna, in this case a missing letter:
Rabbenu Bachye, a late medieval mystic and commentator, notes that in the blessing given to Judah, the blessing that most hints at a transformative “end” to history, all of the letters of the alphabet are present except for the seventh letter, zayin. According to Rabbenu Bachye, the reason is to hint that the world order of Judah will be one that will not seek its victory from tools of violence; in Hebrew the term for “weapons” is “kli zayin“, weapons will not be needed, because the ultimate society is to be one free of violence, based on spiritual and intellectual understanding, thus it will be a society of “Yehuda”, where the tools of violence are absent, but the letters forming the name of God are present (the Hebrew spelling of Judah, Yehuda, contains the four letters of the biblical name of God). It is time for us to act, to bring about the end of a gun society, and thus directly replacing a society of violence, and its daily body counts, with a society of peace, where children can grow free and with love. (MK)
“Disclosure, however, does not simply result in something disclosed as unclosed. Instead, the dis-closure is at the same time an en-closure…. Disclosure- that now means to bring into a sheltering enclosure….” Heidegger, Parmenides pp133.
Nothing regarding Torah goes unnoticed and unexamined by the commentators, not even spacing on the written line. This week’s Perasha (Torah reading) begins, “Vayehi Yaakov B’eretz Mitzrayim“; And Yaakov (Jacob) dwelled (lit., “lived”) in the land of Egypt. The authors of the Midrash note that normally there are nine letters between the end of one perasha introducing the perasha that follows, whereas here there are no extra spaces at all. This perasha is thus “setuma”, closed off, oblique, which is unique, usually there is some form of spacing in the written text that marks off the beginning of a new portion, here there is none. Is this lack of indentation itself a commentary, does it signify a silence or hidden-ness within the context of the story of the death of Jacob and the beginning of the enslavement of a people?
The Midrashists notice this lack of a gap and give several explanations. First, is that in this perasha the period of the enslavement of the sons of Israel begins, with the death of Yaakov, and therefore, this perasha begins at “half-mast”, as a sign of mourning. A second approach in the Midrash links the non-caesura at the opening of Vayehi with a curious passage that appears later in the perasha, one so discordant with the usual tone and content of our Book that one would almost think it a later interpolation. Here is the verse (49:1):
“And Yaakov called his sons over, saying gather round (heasfu) and I shall tell you (v’agida) what shall befall you at the end of days”.
The Midrash explains this passage as a furtive attempt by Yaakov to reveal the “end of days”, that period when the trials and travails of history finally end. This eschatalogical enlightening that Yaakov attempted was “nistam mimenu” that is, “suppressed”, or “closed off from him”. So there are two problematic non-closures here, one of the entire Perasha and one specific to Yaakov. What then does this mean? What message did Yaakov wish to transmit, for what reason, and what would a lesson of suppression mean to us later readers?
One approach, that which is most literal to the Midrash’s reading, is that the ‘message is the suppression’. Some things are best said in their not being said. Rav Tzadok Hacohen in his Pri Zaddik indeed reads here a message of ineffability. There are some issues that are so paradoxical, so sublime, that the only approach is to recognize their indecipherability. The problem is as follows: Avraham was so dedicated to the Land, Yitzchak was forbidden to leave it even during a famine, yet Yaakov, continuously exclaimed as greatest of the Patriarchs, only achieves ‘vitality’, as our perasha begins, “vayehi Yaakov“, in the most degraded of all nations, where women are taken from their husbands, etc. Paradoxically, it is in this most corrupt version of Egypt that the Jewish nation is formed. This paradox recurs throughout Jewish history- it is specifically outside of Israel, the only land where true prophecy can occur, that the Talmud, the central text of Jewish living, is enunciated. This paradox, R. Tzadok explains, is “closed off” to our understanding, but the knowledge of this reality has redemptive value in that even in the darkest moments of exile we can be reassured of total redemption, even as we feel so distant from the holy (there’s a wonderful quote from the Pryschischer that although we say that every generation is less than the previous one, on the whole the people are more purified with each succeeding generation. It is a quote worthy of note, since the general thinking is that the more ancient, the deeper the wisdom, the closer to the truth, etc. Here we have a Hasidic counterpart of Vico). The obliqueness of the two “closing offs” is meant to register an innate inability to enunciate certain paradoxes. Setuma then means closed off -to understanding. Yet recognition of this closure is itself a valuable bit of information.
However, there are alternatives to understanding why this segment is “closed off”, other ways to situate the meaning of non-disclosure, as a sublime form of disclosure. I would like to submit several possible readings whereby the non-enunciation is itself the successful enunciation. The message that Yaakov wished to deliver is understood to have been transmitted more profoundly in this non-verbal manner; that the transmission is in fact accomplished through the nontransmission signified by the textual “closing off”. This is the approach first taken by the Zohar, in I, 234: -
“If you state, that Yaakov did not reveal that which he set out to reveal, then why would the Torah relate a failed communication? Rather, he did complete his intended message, and all that he wanted to relate he revealed and concealed….he was not deficient in even one letter that he intended to reveal….”
Well, if the message isn’t explicit, then what is the implicit message? The Kedushat Levi locates the hidden message in the verse cited above. He reads the verse as follows: Gather, and you shall hear- that you are the sons of Yaakov. This message can be understood as a response to what Zornberg would call “blankness”, the loss of direction or meaning in society; the message is that of the meaningfulness of our being a part of society. Our meaning is in our interrelatedness. It is our living together that will enable us to hear Gd’s beseeching call in search of man.
An interesting variant of the Kedushat Levi’s approach is found in the Daat Moshe. After citing the Kedushat Levi’s approach, the Daat Moshe alters two words in the verse- he rereads the word “Heasfu“, gather, as “heafsu“, meaning “make yourself nothing, negate yourselves” (from the word “efes”, which means zero). He then translates the word “v’agidah“, which we translated above as “I shall tell you”, as instead being derived from the Aramaic verb “draw down” (see Targum Unkelus Bereishit 37:28). Thus, reading Yaakov in a proto-Buddhist reading, he explains our verse as suggesting: Through the technique of “heafsut“, of self-annihilation, of ego-overcoming, “v’agidah lachem” you will be enabled to draw down spiritual sustenance from the supernal realms, as will be the case universally at the “End of Days”.
The Baal Shem Tov is quoted as teaching that the word “yiqra“, will transpire (the root of the Hebrew term carries the connotation of something happening that is unexpected, something that befalls one), is the critical term in this verse. The Baal Shem Tov said that redemption, the Messianic era will “chance” upon us, it will take us by surprise, we won’t see it coming. The eschatological message transmitted by Yaakov is that of being stunned. All of a sudden, all suffering will end, and the world will become entirely beautiful and meaningful.
The Tiferet Shelomo, following the Baal Shem Tov’s reading, urges us to become the cause of this sudden unexpected transformation of the world. The word “yiqra“, he explains, also has a legal reference, as one of the forms of the legal acquisition known as “meshicha“. Legal possession, title to an animal’s ownership, is transferred from buyer to seller, after payment, in one of two ways, according to Talmudic law. You can strike the animal, causing it to move forward, or you can call to it, causing the animal to come towards you (“kor’a lah v’hee ba’ah“). This, explains the Tiferet Shelomo, is what Yaakov wanted to impart to future generations. World transformation can be brought about in two ways, a negative process, and a positive one. The negative route is very familiar to us today from simply reading the news. A sickness brought upon us by the experience of terror and horror from crimes against peoples, a feeling of disgust with the existing situation, can drive people to attempt to bring an end to the proximate cause of suffering. However, world transformation and betterment can be initiated as a result of a positive desire for human improvement, by wills aimed towards the alleviation of world poverty and strife, by those who hear the call of a better existence, even without an immediate cause of discontent. This, Yaakov reminds us, is the call that we must hear to bring about the end of suffering, the end of alienation, the call towards a just and more beautiful world.
In a sense the sets of readings presented thus far deny the “satum”, the closed-off nature of a seemingly aborted transmission, in other words, the message was transmitted, we just have to look for it. An alternative understanding of this “closed” passage is presented by the Sefat Emet, who locates the successful message exactly within the “satum”, in that aspect of speech which is not-speech, which is “closed off” to speech, which is beyond speech. The Sefat Emet explains that Yaakov was teaching us, in this “closed off speech”, both the nature of Exile and the means by which to deal with exile, which is means exile from God’s immediacy, from the immediacy of meaning. While it might appear at dark times that meaning, that God is hidden, teaches the Sefat Emet, God’s presence is still constant, however, it is God’s presence-as-hidden that allows human history as such to proceed (for if God were fully present and revealed there would be no state of exile, exile being defined a alienation of humanity from God) . So, first of all, just the use of the term “aharit hayamim“, “end of history”, reminds us that there will also be an end to this dark time.
How then to deal with this seeming divine anomie, these historical dark days of being cut off from meaning? The way to deal with exile is implicit in the initial non-caesura, the first satum, the lack of indentation before that first verse that opens the perasha, Vayehi Yaakov B’Eretz Mitzrayim- reading it not literally regarding Yaakov and his journey to Egypt, but read more universally- as the Sefat Emet reads it: In each person’s personal Mitzrayim, in the midst of their darkest challenge (The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim read as metzarim, dire straits), the way to Life, to “hiyyut“, to vitality and a sense of purpose, is to learn to see beyond the apparent existential darkness and emptiness, to learn how to sense that there is a deeper and greater meaning and truth beyond… This is the way of Yaakov, known as the man of truth (“give truth unto Yaakov” -Micah 7:20), truth which is obtained by total faith in the meaningfulness of being. Learn to recognize how the darkness and silence of displacement is just a veil “blocking off” a greater and truer revelation, learn how to see an end to human suffering and indignity. Do not deny the reality of the current condition, but learn to look deeper, find the meaning behind the silence. Ultimately, believe that the silence will be revealed as illusion, as a temporary condition, one which can be brought to an end; this darkness can be surmounted if one learns to see beyond the immediate reality. “Live” even when that is not compatible with the surrounding situation, and thus, become the agent of change that brings about the alternative situation! (In fact, according to R. Zadok, the reason that the term “Veyehi“, “and he lived” is paradoxically attributed to Yaakov regarding his years in Egypt, as opposed to his years in Canaan, is because to create the ability for his offspring to survive in hostile environments, he chose to live, in an active manner, rather than simply exist in dreary acceptance of the situation. His “living” in Egypt was activist and conscious, as we must live in our contemporary unjust world).
The Yismach Yisrael recognizes this lesson, of active conscious living, within the Midrashic approach to this text. In the midrashic version of the death of Yaakov and his final words to his sons, as presented in BT Pesahim 56., when Yaakov was ready to reveal the events that will transpire at the end of history, Yaakov goes blank, and thus fails to transmit his message. Afterwards, Yaakov is perplexed, thinking that his failure to reveal the message was brought about due to a flaw in the intended recipients of his message, that his sons, the future tribes of Israel, were not worthy to receive the message and thus the message was blocked. The tribes, however, according to the Midrash, respond “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” signaling to Yaakov that in fact, they understood the message, that wherever the journey takes them, whatever fate history has in store for them and for the generations to come, they knew that the appropriate response to historical travail, is to recognize the presence of God behind it, of a meaning beyond the immediate reality of a historical situation. Perhaps redemption at that moment in time might have been premature; there was more history that needed to be achieved, but all impending darkness can be faced when one maintains a recognition that even when all sense and meaning seems to be lost, the recognition that there is a deeper current of truth underneath what appears to be mundane or necessary events; that recognition alone will itself be transformational.
The Yismach Yisrael saw the beginnings of a deep utter historical darkness taking shape in his lifetime, but the Aish Kodesh, murdered by the Nazis, unfortunately experienced the most utter darnkness (and saw his son die ahead of him). The Aish Kodesh, writing in the Warsaw Ghetto, was enveloped by a reality of horror and meaninglessness, of a divine silence that no other generation before or after should have to envision. He taught that the lesson of this closed passage, that Yaakov’s message was precisely the closed-ness, the wordlessness of the “end of days”. Yaakov’s “satum-ness” was a relational comment to a future he sensed; Yaakov’s failure of speech is itself precisely the message:
“When we perceive that the suffering has reached the level where Torah and the Study Halls are shut up, and this suffering has reached all levels of the people, young and old, then we must strengthen our faith in Gd that the ‘end of days’ is really near”.
In summary, I would like to refer back to the quotation at the beginning of this piece. The deepest disclosure may in fact require for its disclosure its enclosure, disclosure may be inadquate to the message being transmitted, which could only be disclosed- in its non-disclosure. The fact that it is an inversion of Heidegger’s conception (where disclosure becomes enclosure) is appropriate, since Heidegger was a collaborator to the most horrific and unspeakable “enclosures” of all time, the silencing of millions of innocent voices as a member of the Nazi party. George Steiner argues that language itself was a collaborator, an accessory to the crimes of the Nazi era, and it is a commonplace that at the same time, language is frequently inadequate to deal with or respond to the enormity of evil that was so large a part of the twentieth century. The cry of the Aish Kodesh is still heard over the odious words of the haters. The non-disclosure in the face of the human situation may remind us that what is required is world transformation by a recognition of truths beyond mere words, manifested by positive change, by praxis, by an activist tikkun olam. So many tears require our attention!