Torah Commentary: Bereishit- Being and Prayer


…the Word is the Word,
the Word shows the extent of our
Verbal incapacity,
Cut off from reality,
The sound of these words serving us deceptively.
Yet the value of imagery,
What we put into these words… Antonin Artaud
The message of the opening passages of the Torah is a message about being.
As Rashi points out with his very first comment, the narration of the creation is meant to teach us not basic lessons in science and cosmology, but rather something about our being in the world. As this question of “Being” is so fundamental an aspect of contemporary discourse, it is worth addressing, right at the Beginning.
Heidegger posed the question most influentially when he asked, following Schelling: Why is there Being rather than nothing? To him, the most urgent and overlooked question was what does it mean to “be” in the world, what does our existence mean, this recognition of nothingness, of our own impending non-being, our personal sense of uniqueness in the face of a world of mute and unconcerned objects?
Heidegger posited that disconnection from this Being, which he labelled Dasein, was at the core of our angst, of our disconnection from our ‘authenticity’ in the universe to which we are thrown. This semi- mystical conception, which has a powerful hold on the imagination because it addresses that sense that we innately have, that there is something bigger and greater to our existence than a mere biological accident, became a full blown theological position in Heidegger’s later years, after the “Kehre”, the turn in his philosophy, where Being becomes described as an independent existing thing, that attempts to speak to us and through us (in Eco’s wonderful phrase: “this intensionally slippery being becomes a massive subject, albeit in the form of an obscure borborygmus wandering about in the bowels of the entities. It wants to speak and reveal itself”).
To Heidegger, this mystical sense of Being has been concealed by conventional metaphysics, which wishes to make an object out of Being, rather than revealing Being as a vital living force, whereas Being is only recognized by the Poets, who with their ability to name things as they are, reveal the truth of Being. It is in the naming, the revelation of Being in words, through which Being is experienced.
(As a bonus aside, there is a teaching attributed to Rav Soloveitchik on naming, which I heard second hand from his grandson, in which the episode in which Adam names the animals, and then suddenly senses loneliness and is given Chava as his mate, is directly a result of the recognition by Adam that objective zoological terms do not satisfactorily relate to the Being that Adam senses that he is. He attempts to give them “names”, that is, personal names, but realizes rapidly that calling a cow “Betsy” does not mean anything to the cow, as far as we can tell they do not see themselves as individual beings to whom a “name” would matter. Thus he recognizes that he is alone without a partner, and is then ready for a mate, a human consciousness, who he can appropriately call Chava.)
In my essay of Pershat Vayera, we shall address one major set of problems with Heidegger’s approach (and which may be related to deeper problems with Heidegger as a human being, his horrible politics), as recognized by Levinas and Derrida, when we discuss the text regarding the Binding of Isaac. For now, however, in the context of reading a teaching of the Kedushat Levi, I will present a different response to Heidegger’s view of Being.
Umberto Eco’s recent work “Kant and the Platypus” begins with a long essay entitled “On Being,” which suggests convincingly that all the problems Heidegger solves by summoning up Being can be explained more fundamentally as a result of language, or more exactly our built in failure of language.
In order to represent the world as it appears to us, we use language, which essentially works as a shorthand set of signs so that we can communicate in some way the objects we are presented with. We use the word “man” to cover the infinite variations and subtypes in genus, age, disposition, etc, in other words, all our words are very abstracted ciphers, the use of which immediately robs the universe in front of us from all its variability. We impoverish our perceptions when we choose words, sacrificing all the elements presented to us in order to communicate. Technically, every object in every state would require a bundle of words to adequately be communicated, encompassing their reality, our emotional response to them, etc. (Nowadays, the widespread use of emoticons in textual communication vividly demonstrates this failure of words alone).
Thus, contra Aristotle and Plato, there are no essences at the core of being (neither subsistent nor derived), that can be fully described with words, just hard choices. We are unable to factor in changes in our mental states when using ordinary descriptive terms (say, the happiness we experience in smelling flowers when in that sort of mood, as opposed to how we see flowers when we aren’t in that sort of mood).
This is why poetry works, it causes us to desist momentarily from what Vattimo calls the “suspension and shirking” of the perceived world that we are forced into in order to use language. Here is Eco:

…the language of the Poets seems to occupy a free zone. Liars by vocation, they are not those who say what being is but seem to be those who instead often permit themselves (and us) to deny its resistances- because for them tortoises can fly, and there can even be creatures that elude death. But their discourse, in telling us sometimes that even the impossibilia are possible, brings us face to face with the immoderate nature of our desire: by letting us glimpse what could be beyond the limit…

Thus, the world we create with our words is based on the choice of words we use to describe our world. Since our world is contingent on choices that we make in language, and there are infinite ways to present and represent, who can privilege and legitimate one approach to another, one’s world over another’s? Midrash works in this manner. There are, in Midrash, many possible ways to read every text, every word, even the shapes and forms of the letters. (In the medieval period, the concept of “peshat” a so-called literal meaning of the text, was privileged for apologetic reasons, hence Midrash was not appreciated; it seems to have required the Hassidic hermeneutic to unleash Midrash again.) This Midrashic approach to reading is continued in the Zohar and the Tikkunei Zohar.
The Tikkunei Zohar is built around a set of readings of the first few words of the Torah, in which the letters of the word “Bereishit” (In the Beginning, as is traditionally translated) are scrambled and broken down to reveal multiple possibilities and meanings. The Kedushat Levi (R. Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev) borrows one of these readings, where Bereishit, in the Beginning, is read as Bet Reishit, that is, “two beginnings.”
This reading recognizes that existence is composed of a split at its core. The plenitude of God, which are experienced as all the possible meanings and intentions encoded in creation, undergo a zimzum, a constriction, through the vehicle of language, which is how they are perceived by us. Kol, raw sound, that is, our most reflexive response to the world around us, is constricted through speech, language, through choices of words that filter reality, “kol ehad lefi haratzon shelo“, everyone’s choices of words corresponding to the choices and dictates of their personal will. The Kedushat Levi suggests that our choice of words must be from our prayers.
On Rosh Hashana, which is the day of prayer related to creation, we choose to create our world, so to speak, through the language of Malchuyot, Zichronot, and Shofarot. The first act of creation, as signified by the word Bereishit, which is read as a Ma’amar, a speech act that is prior to speech. It is a speech act, parallel to the pure undifferentiated voice, that represents the infinite set of possibilities of existence prior to their limitation by speech. This is the message of the shofar, which represents that raw undifferentiated voice, prior to its limitation by language. From that point on, R. Levi Yitzhak explains, existence is carved out from the plenitude of being by the restriction and channel of language. This living language, which continuously grapples with reality, is the second, “corresponding” Torah, Torah sheb’al peh, the Oral Law, the Torah of human language, our words, the set of readings that we as human beings, choose and legitimize. Our choices in language determine our choice of shefa, of divine efflux; we create of the “routes and funnels” by which we experience God’s presence in our world and meaning in our lives.
Our prayer is thus action, a parallel creation by us of how we experience the world, a creation anew of the modes by which we communicate with the world, and at the same time it is through prayer that we become conscious and capable of these acts of creation. R. Pinchas of Koretz, one of the earliest Hassidic masters, used to say that just as Oral Law is considered Torah, and as such at its core, an aspect of the Divine, then it follows that prayer is a form of the Oral Law, and thus is also an aspect of the Divine.
This creative aspect of prayer (recognizing that the texts about the ancient sacrifices have become transvalued, and sublated, into prayer) is clearly expressed in the Jerusalem Talmud, Rosh Hashana (chapt 4, halacha 8). The Talmud notes that the sacrifice of the day of Rosh Hashana is commanded with a unique choice of verb. In all other sacrificial offerings the texts say “you shall sacrifice“, in this one it commands “you shall make it”. Thus, the Talmud continues, by virtue of the prayers of Rosh Hashana it is as if you have made yourself, created yourself anew. This concept of personal re-creation through language is at play in BT Sanhedrin 99:, in which teaching another person Torah is described alternately as re-creating the student, re-creating Torah, and re-creating yourself. Thus, every creative act is more than a Heidegger’s passive expression of Being acting through us, it is rather an act of Creation, a creation of a new world of a new and unique form of Being in which all of humanity is enriched by participating and sharing in dialogue and language.
If the language of prayer brings about creation of new worlds, then now, more than ever, we must pray for peace, in all of our languages.

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