Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Keruvim and Fear of Heaven

Aside from the k'ruvim that were formed upon the holy ark, there were another set found in the mishkan. On the screen that seperated between the heichal and the holy of holies, exquisitely woven images of k'ruvim faced outwards, towards the ark, menorah and shulchan, comprising Man's domain within the house of God. What is the significance of these k'ruvim? Whereas the golden k'ruvim intently protect the aron (as discussed in a previous essay, they represent the Jewish people bearing and guarding the Law throughout history), the woven ones do not. Why do they direct their gaze outward instead of in, towards the holy of holies? Finally, the tapestry is made of the high cloths that are common in the mishkan: White, red, purple and sky blue. However, the gold thread that is so common in the clothes of the Kohen Gadol is missing. Why?

Rav Hirsch provides the key to the secret of these k'ruvim. If one were to stand within the heichal, he would see the table of show-bread to the north. This symbolizes the material success that arises naturally for a nation which, with brotherly love and care for one another, faithfully keep the laws of God. On the south, the menorah casts the light of Torah and intellectual success. In the direct center, the holy ark contains the source of these national and individual benefits, the word of God. When the Jewish people take the lesson of the golden k'ruvim seriously, truly bearing and preserving the word of God throughout the generations, they find themselves possessing all the spiritual and material blessings that flow from it. It is over all this good that the woven k'ruvim guard.

The colors of thread that are used in the weaving of the tapestry are also meaningful. The white is the pure vegetative element of the world. The red wool, dyed from the blood of worms, represents the animal element, while the regal purple wool represents the highest callings and elements of mankind as humans. The sky blue wool represents as it does in the tzitzit the Godly spark that was placed in humanity. Man contains all of these elements within his personality, and their use together represents the harmonious use of all our faculties for the higher purpose within the ark. When humanity uses its strengths thus, Heaven showers upon it the riches of the menorah and the table, the spiritual and physical successes. Thus, these k'ruvim which look out over Man's domain within the heichal represent Divine Providence, the hashgacha of God, bestowing the multi-faceted reward upon a nation that uses all its faculties for Divine commands.

However, one golden thread is left out. Heaven showers all blessings forth, including the blessing of continued use of vegetative, animal, human and Godly facets in God's service. The only thing left out is the golden thread, that most noble moral force of Man: fear of Heaven. "All is in the hands of Heaven, except fear of Heaven." The grace of God leaves this fear of God and awe of his commands as a constant test, a constant labor, left only for Man. This constant free-willed re-affirmation to this foundation of foundations ensures that Man continues to reap reward for a task that is still in his domain alone to choose.

And so, the k'ruvim, the heavenly bestowers of grace and kindness upon this earth, leave the final touch, the golden thread, constanly in our hands. Our success or failure is our decision, to enter the house of God on earth, or to turn away at the last minute. This missing gold thread is that which we constantly, each day anew, provide.

Is Spiritual Height a Measure of Piety?

It is second nature for most religious people to assume that when one does G-d's will, he becomes more spiritual, i.e., he rises in spiritual attainment (מדרגה). We usually assume that spiritual height is a measure of our closeness to G-d, and thus, of our fulfillment of His will. This seems to hold in many areas of life. However, in the extremes, this thesis seems to unravel, and our tasks in this world become uncomfortably subjective.

In Megilla 16b, the talmud relates two conflicting enumerations of those men who left Bavel to found the second state of Israel. In the first, Mordechai is counted fifth. Twenty-four years later, he is mentioned sixth in the list. The talmud finds this puzzling, and Rav Yosef posits the reason for Mordechai's demotion: "the study of torah is greater than life-saving..."

This passage does not sit right. Mordechai was seen as less spiritually complete because he occupied himslef with protecting Jewish lives while he could have been learning? We know that anyone who saves a Jewish life, is as if he saved an entire world (Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:9). Also, we are commanded not to stand by our brother's blood (Lev. 19:16). So how can it be that Mordechai was lower spiritually after seemingly fulfilling G-d's will on a large scale?

On this troubling passage, Rashi says that "...because of this [his work on behalf of the Jewish People], Mordechai's status was lowered in the eyes of the sages." (Emphasis mine.) Perhaps this is the key. In the eyes of the sages, in the eyes of Man, Mordechai was on a lower spiritual level1. In the simplistic calculus of humanity, he spent less time concerning himself with the study of torah (which, after all, is כנגד כולם), and dealt with the nitty gritty aspects of the world around us. He dealt, in the parlance of the בית מדרש, with חיי שעה, temporal concerns, and neglected חיי עולם, the eternal torah (see Shabbos 10a). Thus he lost ground to his study partners, who did not leave the study hall, and who thus reached high spiritual levels.

A person, it turns out, can be a צדיק חוטא. One can constantly concern himself with the spiritual climax of Torah, and while developing himself spiritually, miss (חטא) his actual job in this world. To use an analogy, one can cheat on his taxes, and become more wealthy. Similarly, one can cheat on his tasks in this world (for example, by not saving lives when he can), and dishonestly gather for himself higher spiritual attainment (by studying torah during the time he saved).

In Pesachim 50a, (the same?) Rav Yosef visits the next world. When he returns, his father asks him to describe what he saw. He answers, "I saw an upside-down world, those who are high here, are low there, and vice-versa." His father said, "You saw the true world, and this one is inverted." Perhaps his statement from Megilla is an example of what Rav Yosef saw in Pesachim. Not only are the rich here sometimes lowly there, and the poor here, on a high level there, but Rav Yosef is making a deeper point, as well. Spiritual giants that we see in our world, may have gained their spiritual height deceitfully, and thus, they will be made low in the world of truth. That is a world where G-d, who insight and knowledge is perfect, judges people not only by how much spiritual currency they have, but, more importantly, by how (and why) they attained it.

(This idea is further supported by the Talmud (Menachos 98b) where Reish Lakish derives from Moshe's breaking of the לוחות that, "פעמים שביטולה של תורה זוהי קיומה", sometimes in order to uphold the Torah, we must neglect it.)

It is relatively simple to know what G-d wants us not to do. סור מרע, keep from evil, is pretty straightforward. It is the עשה טוב, the 'actively do good' that is so tricky. We must be self aware and cognizant of the totality of our situation in this world, in order to choose the right action instead of simply a good action. We must realize that right is subjective, and what is right for everyone else may not be right for me. We must not allow herd mentality to affect our service of G-d in this world. May we resolve to follow the path of Mordechai and do right, not just good.

Update (18 April 2010): See the Maharal in Derech Chaim page 66, where he says something very similar: Derech Chaim.

Update (24/12/2012): See the final paragraph here.


1 See Taz, YD 251, note 6.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Between the Rationalist and Mystical Viewpoints

After a regularly scheduled study session on דרשות הר"ן this past Saturday night, I felt the need to clarify my positions regarding the spiritual world. First, of course, I believe there is one. I believe that there is a God, and that we are all possessed of a soul. This is not the discussion. However, as a tangent to our discussion that night regarding prayer to dead souls, one of our group touched on the question: do I believe that the souls of dead people can hear or see or relate to the goings on earth-side. The answer that I may not have made clear enough is: "I do not know."

Allow me to explain in just a few lines what I mean. There are real philosophical issues that, throughout history, have been brought up, and different streams of philosophical thought answer them in various ways. There is the more rationalistic stream, and the more mystical, kabbalistic one. I see great benefit to aspects of each stream, and also drawbacks to each stream. I see questions that are answered more satisfactorily by the rationalists, and some that are more acceptable when answered by the mystics. To paraphrase Rabbi Carmy in class regarding something completely different, each pathway must overcome different obstacles. Some issues will be answered apologetically by one stream, and other issues will seem to flow naturally, while the opposite will be true for the other stream. Neither flows perfectly, and I do not even know if that is a deficiency. Often-times, the tension between the two may uncover or even catalyze ideas and dualities of phenomenal beauty and truth.

I am able to see the merits in the Rambam's view, just as I can hear the view of Abulafia and other Kabalists. I know that Jewish thought lately may tend towards one extreme. However, I do not feel confident enough in the issues to decide definitively about the issue. Perhaps the nature of these issues precludes anyone's really deciding the question.

In Halacha, the questions flow from the text; there is a halachik reality which imposes itself on the world, and we use our texts and minds to decide how it will be applied. Therefore, for example, I can be very sure as to how Rabbeinu Tam explains the passage in the Talmud discussing the length of the wait between milk and meat. I can feel confident enough about the issue to decide definitively, because I have all the facts before me. However, the question of philosophy is often one of reality, of fact. Unless you choose (as I often do) to read the chassidut, kabbala, and other sources metaphorically, it often comes down to a simple question, to wit: "does olam han'shamot function in such a way that the souls of the dead are intimitely interested in the goings on on earth, or are they in spiritual rapture with God such that the temporal, mundane world below is of no interest to them (or perhaps they have no way of relating)? I can easily see both sides of this question, and feel that it is simply a question of fact, of מציאות, one which I can appreciate on both sides, but do not have the tools to decide definitively.

As another of our study group noticed, often I lean to one side or the other. When studying something academically (including "learning"), I may tend towards the rational explanation, or the explanation which requires less assumptions to be complete (think Occam's Razor). However, on an emotional level, I often tend towards the other pole. Perhaps this is really why the range of views exists!

One personal example: the question of theodicy is one which I may feel is easier answered by the more rationalistic approach sometimes. However, after personal brushes with tragedy, I have found myself only comforted by extremely mystical explanations. The concept of gilgul may not appeal to me so much when learning the Ramban or Rambam on Iyov, but when tragedy strikes, it is the only thing that I found to assuage the pain. So, far different than not knowing which is true, I find invaluable benefit in both views.

This is what I meant when I said, "I can entertain the possibility of souls praying to God on our behalf, but don't feel it is true at this point." I think everyone fluctuates, to some extent, between these poles throughout their religious lives.