Wednesday morning, 3 a.m.
Holiday weekend

Zohar lesson from erev Shavuot

The lesson I taught the other night at our tikkun leyl Shavuot was called "Zohar and the Hidden Light: Creation, Moses, and Late-Night Learning." I based it on a teaching from Daniel Matt's 1983 translation of the Zohar (the "Book of Splendor" -- there's a bilingual version of the Zohar online here), the germinal work of Jewish mysticism.

The packet I handed out included several texts: a passage that Matt calls "The Hidden Light" (you can read the very beginning of it online here, but that's hardly satisfying, so I'll append the whole passage to the end of this post -- it's about 570 words and is really worthwhile), three excerpts from Torah which are cited in the Zohar piece (the birth of Moses in Exodus 2, the description of Moses "irradiated" and glowing in Exodus 34:29-34, and the first three days of creation as described in Genesis 1), and the footnotes to the Zohar piece (which are extensive and fascinating.)

One of the things I really like about this translation of Zohar is that it is formatted like poetry, and the visual prosody shapes the way the text reads. It's allusive, rich, and strange -- qualities I think are less daunting in poetry than in prose. We talked some about that, and about the origins of the Zohar (both the traditional understanding that it dates back to the 2nd century C.E., and the contemporary scholarly understanding that it was written by Moses de Leon in the 13th century) -- and then we read "The Hidden Light" and the Biblical pieces I had attached to it, and talked about what questions and issues they raise for us.

Since we were studying this together at a late-night tikkun, I opened the conversation by noting the part of the passage which talks about studying Torah at night. Maybe we're more sensitive to a particular kind of light, the light of wisdom and insight and real illumination, when we're not engaged in looking at visible light. When there's sunlight, we're caught up in what ordinary light allows our eyes to see, but at night maybe our eyes are opened in a different way.

The passage begins, "This is the light that the Blessed Holy One created at first." What is the Zohar talking about? For a clue, we read Genesis 1 again, noting that the sun and the moon and the stars, the lights in the expanse of the sky, aren't created until day four -- though light of some kind is the first thing created on the very first day. So arguably that first light isn't literal light. It's light of some other kind.

The first direct quote in "The Hidden Light" is from Psalm 31, talking about God's great goodness; the next is from the story of Moses' mother concealing him for three months (read that passage here.) When Moses was born, his mother looked at him and saw that he was "good." Kind of an odd thing for her to say, don't you think? But one of the hermeneutic tools available to us is the understanding that Biblical verses work in terms of coded language. If the same word appears in two verses, one verse illuminates the other...and the first time a word appears in Torah tells us something about its nature. So both the quote from psalms, and the quote from Exodus, point us back to the first instance of the word tov, "good," in Torah.

And where is that first instance? Genesis 1:4, when God sees how good the light is. So when Moses' mother calls him "good," she's linking his being with the spiritual light of the first day. (The footnotes to Matt's edition note that according to one midrashic tradition, Moses was born three months premature and that "she concealed him for three months" refers to the last trimester; there's also a teaching in Talmud that when Moses was born the whole house filled with light.)

We talked some about the three figures mentioned early in the passage -- not the traditional patriarch trio of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but rather Adam, David, and Moses. The text seems to assume that they have a special relationship to this light -- but why these three, and why are they mentioned out of chronological order? We talked about our associations with each: Adam, the first creature; Moses who reaches the greatest heights of prophecy; David, who composed the psalms and who is understood as a progenitor of the messiah. (I also mentioned that their three names, taken together in this order, make an acronym for Adam, which links all three of them back with the beginning of human history in some way.)

And we talked about the light itself and why it matters. It's hidden away, but it's not completely hidden or else the world wouldn't exist! The whole substance of reality as we know it is this light. This light "plays a vital role in the world, renewing every day the act of creation." Look at the verbs: it sustains, it renews. It keeps everything alive. This isn't a Big Bang that happened once and then was over; this is a new light that's refreshed every day, and when we study Torah at night we do our part in bringing some of it down to revivify creation.

The Hidden Light


God said, "Let there be light!" And there was light. (Genesis 1:3)

This is the light that the Blessed Holy one created at first.
It is the light of the eye.
It is the light that the Blessed Holy one showed the first Adam;
with it he saw from one end of the world to the other.

It is the light that the Blessed Holy One showed David;
he sang its praise:
"How great is Your good that You have concealed for those who fear You!" (Psalms 31:20)
It is the light that the Blessed Holy One showed Moses;
with it he saw from Gilead to Dan.
But when the Blessed Holy One saw
that three wicked generations would arise:
   the generation of Enosh, the generation of the Flood,
   the generation of the Tower of Babel,
He hid the light away so they would not make use of it.
The Blessed Holy One gave it to Moses
and he used it for the three unused months of his gestation,
as it is said:
"She concealed him for three months." (Exodus 2:2)
When three months had passed, he was brought before Pharaoh
and the Blessed Holy One took it away from him
until he stood at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah.
Then He gave him back that light;
he wielded it his whole life long
and the children of Israel could not come near him
until he put a veil over his face,
as it is said:
"They were afraid to come near him" (Exodus 34:30)

He wrapped himself in it as in a tallit,
as it is written:
He wraps Himself in light as in a garment" (Psalms 104:2)

"'Let there be light!' And there was light."
Every subject of the phrase "And there was"
exists in this world and in the world that is coming.

Rabbi Isaac said
"The light created by the Blessed Holy One in the act of Creation
flared from one end of the world to the other
and was hidden away.
Why was it hidden away?
So the wicked of the world would not enjoy it
and the worlds would not enjoy it because of them.
It is stored away for the righteous,
for the Righteous One!
As it is written,
"Light is sown for the righteous one,
joy for the upright in heart." (Psalms 97:11)
Then the worlds will be fragrant, and all will be one.
But until the day when the world that is coming arrives,
it is stored and hidden away..."

Rabbi Judah said
"If it were completely hidden
the world would not exist for even a moment!
Rather it is hidden and sown like a seed
that gives birth to seeds and fruit.
Thereby the world is sustained.
Every single day, a ray of that light shines into the world
and keeps everything alive,
for with that ray the Blessed Holy One feeds the world.
And everywhere that Torah is studied at night
one thread-thin ray appears from that hidden light
and flows down upon those absorbed in her,
as it is written:
"By day YHVH will enjoin His love,
in the night His song is with me" (Psalms 42:9)
as we have already established....

Since the first day, it has never been fully revealed,
but it plays a vital role in the world,
renewing every day the act of Creation!"

(Reprinted from Daniel Matt's translation of Zohar: The Book of Enlightenment, Paulist Press, 1983.)

Technorati tags: , , .