Perashat Beha’alotcha I

A Perfect Circle, Like a Ring

What do we understand about desire? Other than being led around most of our life by desire, we have a hard time attempting to understand it, and harness it. A popular teacher has built an entire career around explaining and analyzing it; students of all sorts gathered around him to perhaps get a handle on “desire”, the “holy erotic”, etc, until this teacher himself entirely self destructed (taking some victims along with him down an ugly path). It is no wonder then, that Hassidic teachings on desire are found where one might least expect them, perhaps its an area that must always be approached by sneak attack. We too will begin with a classical teaching and then move carefully towards a more direct encounter with the subject, in two essays that grapple with the concept from different angles.

There is an often cited teaching of the Magid of Mezeritch, in teaching 32 of the Magid Devarim L’Yaakov. Verse 10:2 presents a command to Moshe, in which he should forge two horns, hatzoterot, made of silver, for various communicative purposes, such as calling the leadership together, or moving the camps, during the Israelite’s sojourn in the desert. The Magid presents an entire teaching based on three words in this verse that appear to be totally removed from any connection to the actual narrative.

He suggests that the term hatzotzerot is derived from the phrase “hatzi tzurot”, which means “half forms”-man alone, material man, is only half formed, only half actualized, is only “dam”, blood, physicality. However, with the introduction of Gd consciousness into one’s life, symbolized by the Hebrew letter “aleph”, which is commonly read to stand for the term “alufo shel olam”, meaning leader or teacher of the world, the word adam is formed (as opposed to simply dam), thus formulating a fully formed form. Thus, it is in the coming together of these two halves (dam and aleph) in themselves lacking, that a much greater unity is created. This, the Maggid explains, is achieved through “kesef”, silver, (the hatzotzrot are made of silver), the word kessef being derived from the term kissuf, desire; a properly directed desire towards Gd leads to a union, a state of oneness and wholeness, a mutual resolution of the yearning by both sides of the relationship.

This theme, of the unity being formed as the balanced encounter of two disparate elements which need one another, is developed in another section of the perasha by the Kedushat Levi in his discussion of the manna (I adopt the anglicised form rather than the Hebrew term man, due to its confusing homonymity). The manna is described in the text as having the taste of the “Gad” seed, “Gad” to the Kedushat Levi being an acrostic for Gomel Dalim (redeeming the poor): The manna is described by Talmud in Yoma 75. as bearing any flavor the eater desired for, thus, to the Kedushat Levi the manna was an meeting of a physical object, the raw substrate of the manna, in encounter with the desire of the Israelite eating it; one side provides the physical, one side the spiritual, just like in the interaction of the rich man and the poor man- the rich man gives a physical item, and receives spiritual quanta in return. So the manna is like the redemption of the poor, which is actually mutually constructive to all parties involved.

The problem is, that the awakening of desire can lead to unforseen results-in English the phrase “awakening of desire” can be rephrased using the term “arousal”, which suggests a whole other class of wants. “Desire” is a central concept to Lacanian analysis, in which “desire” is defined as a want that can never be fully satiated, as opposed to a “need”.

“Desire” is a complex phenomena which arises out of the eternal insufficiency of post castration development, with the remnants of the presymbolic Desire for the Mother manifesting themselves as eternally unfulfilled desire, after the process Lacan labels “the Name of the Father” has symbolized amorphous baby existence into the construct and constraints associated with Language. The “symptom”, the unfulfilled desire manifested, is to some degree a manifestation, an overflow, of elements of this presymbolic desire, which can, by definition, never be fulfilled. In other words, the early baby period, in which the baby sees the world and the mother and food and itself all as one big unseparated unit, is left behind once the infant learns to see itself as an individuated autonomous entity, a process that involves language and a recognition that being part of the world means seeing one’s self as one might be seen in a mirror, from “without” rather than “within”. Yearnings for the earlier predifferentiated state are manifested as “desire”.

An interesting application of this concept of “desire” and its relation to the realm of general culture is found in Zizek’s “The Sublime Object of Ideology”. In his discussion of Lacan’s neologism for the symptom, sinthome, (which is defined by Zizek as “a certain signifying formation penetrated with enjoyment: it is a signifier as a bearer of jouis-sense, enjoyment-in-sense”), Zizek discusses antisemitism as being a result of the failure of society to live up to the people’s desires. In other words, all sorts of people have all sorts of demands on society, in terms of how it should function and what it should accomplish. When “society” fails to provide that which everyone wants from it, for the real can never adequately fulfill all the contradictory demands that desire demands of it, then a “reason” for this failure must be created, that reason historically frequently being “the Jew”, guilty of whatever inadequacy causes the given society to “not work”. Currently, we can see this in the ways that certain failures in Israeli society are frequently blamed on the “Haredim”, or conversely, “Seculars” or “the internet”, or “women”, etc.

At any rate, the idea is that once desire was awakened within the manna itself given that the manna could support any taste format “desired”, this “desire” aroused all sorts of other more problematic and eventually even lurid desires, as the BT Shabbat 130. and Yoma 75. inform us- suddenly the people had (probably false) memories of fish as described later in 11:5, which led, as derived by the Talmud from verse 11:10 describing the crying over families , to the people yearning for incest! It was prescient of the Noam Elimelech to point to this latent message in the otherwise straightforward sounding demand (in other words, why would the Talmud insinuate a yearning for incest when the text specifically tells us what it was the people seemed to be clamoring for) as a trace evoked in Moshe’s prayer reflecting off their demands, an early example of transference.

So what we have here is an example of a poor balance or match between the two hatzi tzurot, the twin aspects of reality and desire, ruchani and gashmi, that need to be coordinated. Where can we see a proper alignment to serve as a positive example? Right at the beginning of the perasha.

The Meor Eynaim begins his exposition on the first verse of the perasha, dealing with commandment to Aharon to light up the menorah, by explaining the meaning of the teaching in Avot 4:2: The reward for doing a mitzvah is a mitzvah. What this means, he explains, in anticipation of Franz Rozenzweig, is that by perfoming any “mitzvah” one achieves a state of “tzavta” (same root to the two words in Hebrew), which means “communion” with Gd who commanded. In fact, the word “mitzvah” itself, contains the last two letters of the name of Gd overtly (vav, heh), and the first two letters (yud, heh) as well covertly-if you flip the mem and tzadi of the word mitzvah, via the gematria function called “atbash” (aleph= tav, bet= shin, etc), you get yod and heh, which together with the vav and he originally at the end of the word “mitzvah” spells out the Tetragrammaton. The need for this message to be stated in a reading requiring an overt and a covert deciphering is to teach us that true fulfillment of every action requires this same linkage of overt action and covert intention. This is linked to the opening statement of our perasha- Behaalotcha et hanerot: When you light up the nerot, (mitzvot are called nerot in Mishle 6:23), you must strive toward the pnei hamenorah, that is, to the penimiyut, the inner essence of the mitzvah, which is ultimately establishment of tzavta, of communion, between Gd and man. When praxis and ideology are in proper alignment, then world transformation can be effected. When desire is still subject to fantasy, the symptom is unleashed. The Zera Kodesh (R. Naftali of Ropschitz) points out that those who clamored for meat are labeled asafsuf, rabble. He explains that these people griping must have been rabble and not good citizens, because people of faith do not have false desires, as their faith they would lead them to recognize the superfluity of unnecessary desires (the man of faith would think “if I’m lacking something, it must be part of a greater plan and I probably don’t have this now for a reason”).

Once “desire” is aroused in an uncontrollable manner, then even the leadership is at risk-the Tiferet Shelomo reads the final episode of this perasha, wherein Miriam and Aharon accuse Moshe of improper family life and are then punished, as also being a result of the awakening of desires by the manna failure. According to his reading, the fact that there was an awakening among the people of a desire for forbidden sexual activity implies that there was an equivalent failure in Moshe’s home life, for had Moshe, as the leader and tzaddik, had a perfected home life then that desire would have been quarantined and deleted, thus neutralizing the desire so that it would not be possible for the people to yearn for it! Of interest, being a unique reading of the word “anav”, humble, The Tiferet Shelomo reads into the Torah’s defense of Moshe, which states that Moshe was “anav meod mekol ha’adam”, humble beyond any person, was meant to suggest that Moshe’s home life was correct with respect to “onah”, familial obligations, (which contains the same letters as anav’).

Perhaps, recognition of the theme of properly directed desire running through several segments of this perasha, is involved in the Zohar’s beginning its teachings on this perasha with the quote from Psalm 19:6, describing the sun as being “like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber”. The Zohar describes the sefira of Tiferet, core sefira of the supernal worlds, as the “groom”, signified by the sun, as emerging with enlightenment from transmitted from the higher sefira of Binah. Having been elevated to this high spiritual state, Tiferet brings about a correct alignment of all the divine emanations and thus achieves unity with the lower worlds, the Shekhina, the “bride”. This alignment of upper and lower, inner and outer, is the goal of the Cohen when he lights the menorah in the proper conjunction of outer practice and inner feeling.

Properly channeled desire must be coupled with transformative human practice, like the bride and groom. Perhaps this is reflected in the verse’s astronomical image, of the perfect sphere arced by the sun. The perfect sphere is the fulfillment of the coming together of the two half spheres, creating a mathematically perfect whole, a circle. Is this not, as well, the symbolism behind’ the wedding ring?

Perashat Beha’alotcha II

Trumpets revisited

(in which I reread similar teachings in a different manner)

Among the many options upon which one could build a shiur, I have chosen to return to the same verse in this week’s perasha, 10:2, in which Moshe is commanded to make for himself a set of hatzotzerot, usually translated as trumpets, of silver, with which he could communicate with the people and the leadership when necessary.

As I noted in the previous shiur, this verse is the occasion for an important teaching by the Maggid of Mezeritch, presented in the “Maggid Devarim L’Yaakov” chapter 33, widely cited in the later Hasidic texts. The Maggid’s innovation is to split the word “hatzotzerot”, which is the word used for trumpets, in two, resulting in “hatzi tzurot”, which means “half forms”. Last year I read the teaching in terms of the “desire” and the two incomplete aspects of the individual, everyone is composed of “hazi tzurot” which when aligned create a unity which is greater than the individual elements; and read that theme into several other episodes in the perasha.

In the history of Hassidic thought, the phrase “hatzi tzurot” struck a nerve, and led to further readings in a different direction. The Ohev Yisrael of Apt states that he heard this teaching of the Maggid, regarding the hatzi tzurot, but did not hear the full explanation of what the Maggid meant by this, and thus he offers his own reading of this radical reading. According to the Ohev Yisrael, every soul, but particularly a great soul such as Moshe’s has within it two aspects, a masculine and a feminine one (as suggested by Kabbalistic teaching). Thus, in order for the soul to be maximally theurgically effective, these two elements must yearn for one another, which is why the text specifies that they must be made of “kesef”, silver, which is also the root of the word “kissuf”, longing. As a result of this unity, built upon spiritual yearning, the individual will manifest a unified spiritual front capable of overcoming all the challenges presented by improper desires, etc. Thus, according to this reading, the conflicting elements, the two halves, are within each individual psyche and must be reconciled by every person to enable greater spiritual achievement.

In the previous essay I read “desire” according to the lines of Lacanian theory, as a reflection of drives within the individual. In this essay, I would like to reread this teaching in terms of the relation to the “other”, as reflected in the teachings of Sartre, Levinas, and Nancy.

Sartre, as opposed to the psychologists and behaviourists, believes that “desire” is a central and conscious element in the human existence, not some alienated unconscious activity that requires third person apprehension and translation. Desire is at the core of human freedom, it is the motivation behind the choices that define the individual as such. We act because we want, and acting upon our wants is the freedom which defines us. This operates in three ways:

1. every desire reflects a core “original choice” to be alive and in the world.

2. every desire reflects an underlying central “mode of being”, a way in which we choose to define ourselves as free individuals.

3. the little desires and everyday choices we make reflect the first two elements of individual desire.

This desire is in essence the will to transform all that is given to our experience into something of importance for the self; this is the route to freedom, the transformation of the in-itself to the for-itself, from something outside that exists independently of the self to something that means something, is useful to the self (for example, Mt. Rainier was a sacred imposing forbidden space to the Northwest First Nations, an in-itself, whereas for the contemporary Seattleite it is a recreational park for climbing, bicycling, etc- a for-itself).

Freedom is based on this transcendent but negating desire, negating in that it nihilates the objects independent being as it is not of use for me. In this way, in a well known passage, Sartre argues that “to be man means to reach toward being God. Or, if you prefer, man fundamentally is the desire to be God”. Being God to Sartre means transcending and overcoming the limiting reality, the reality which presents impediments to the self’s desire to be entirely autonomous and self-defined. Even the existence of other people is a threat to this autonomy, because even the taking of them into account causes one to not act freely, but to act in response to the others.

The Maggid in chapter 33 states that the human being as corporeal being alone is only “dam”, blood (the Hebrew letters Daled and Mem). However, the individual who desires unity with Gd, Gd being symbolized by the letter Aleph, “alufo shel olam”, then becomes a complete individual, an “adam” (letters aleph, daled, and mem). Achieving this state, according to the Maggid, requires a transcendence of all this world’s inhibitions, as itemized in the verse in Ezekiel 1:4, these inhibitions being the great fog and the burning fire (akin to the Buddhist “maya”) which blind the seeking soul. Once these inhibitions are negated, explains the Maggid, one sees (Ez. 1:26) an image of an adam, that is, a state of reciprocating unity between the soul and Gd. At this point, the soul’s desire equals Gd’s desire, as evidenced by the fact that even the loves and wants of the patriarchs make up the text of the Torah. Interestingly, the Maggid quotes Ben Zoma in BT Berachot 58., who was wealthy and used to bless Gd “who created the whole world to serve me (that is, Ben Zoma)”, reflecting Ben Zoma’s total alignment of his drives with those of Gd! This unity of the soul and Gd is the meaning of our verse, Bamidbar 10:2, “make yourself two hatzotzerot of kesef, that is two hatzi tzurot, incomplete elements, of desire for completion”, unify the “dam” of the corporeal person with the “aleph” of Gd, to produce a full adam, a complete individual.

To Sartre, though, the desire to “be God” represents a desire on the part of the individual to subjugate all phenomena, the in-itself, to the freedom of the self, to transform it to the for-itself. For this reason, ultimately, the idea of a merciful beneficent caring God to Sartre is the ultimate example of “bad faith’. What a person really wants is total freedom, yet we posit a fictional higher power to whom we delude ourselves into thinking we submit to. As I mentioned earlier, even the mere presence of other people is cause for discomfort to Sartre. “Hell is other people” because their simple existence hinders our total autonomy in that we must in some way respond to them, we cannot define ourselves purely by our selves.

As we have pointed out in earlier shiurim, in Levinas this conception is reversed. The defining characteristic of our “being” is the recognition and concern for the Other. This reversal is taken to its fullest possibilities in Jean-Luc Nancy’s “Being Singular Plural”, in which the constitution of the concept of Self is in the first place dependent on alterity (otherness).

As we’ve discussed at more length in other weeks, our own identity is the result of many social and societal forces, which are prior to us (for example, we are born into language, and do not create it all over again for ourselves), against and with which we create our own identity. To put it succinctly, we ourselves are constituted out of difference.

On the other hand, what is yearned for in the Maggid is quite different. By transcending those inhibitory forces, and achieving unity with the Divine Will, we then transform ourselves into the adam as agent for positive change. We can then interact with the world in such a way that even our personal relationships can become Torah, as the Maggid explains. This theme may tie together other parts of Perashat Beha’alotcha as well.

In the manna episode, we are told that this food from heaven had the taste of the “Gad seed”. What is this gad whose seed was like the manna? The Kedushat Levi offers a unique reading, citing the Midrash in which the taste of the Manna reflected the desire of the person eating it. The manna represented a reciprocal, or dialectical relationship between the individual and the surrounding world. The manna would provide the physical substrate, upon which the spiritual yearning of the individual could become actualized. Thus, the Kedushat Levi explains, the “taste” is compared to the Gad seed, “Gad” read as the acronym for “Gomel Dalim”, which is a Hebrew phrase meaning charitable action. The world is the substrate upon which positive praxis can be effected, as symbolized by charity, read as a reciprocal activity between the donor and the recipient, which consequently transforms the entire universe towards the good.

So then, it is true that “man is fundamentally the desire to be Gd”. However, we mean this not in the negating and narcissistic manner of Sartre, rather, our desire to be like Gd means that we are prepared to assume ultimate responsibility for our fellow living beings, to use all of our strength and spiritual energy to alleviate suffering, help those in need, to be Gomel Dalim, actively striving for a world of unity, peace, and social justice.


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