Torah in the hills
This week's portion: Choice and change

More tidbits from Zohar

As previously noted, in the Zohar class I'm taking we've been moving through a series of Zohar teachings relating to parshiyot (Torah portions) in the book of Bereshit (Genesis.) Our homework for this week was to go to and identify (and learn) an interesting passage that relates to parashat Toldot. I found myself drawn to this section, and thought I'd share 3 snippets of it here. (Actually, this is a passage from Midrash Ha-Ne'elam, "The Obscure Commentary," which is often included in editions of the Zohar although it is technically an extra-Zoharic text.)

Our jumping-off-point is the first verse of the portion: V'eleh tol'dot Yitzchak ben Avraham; Avraham holid et-Yitzchak. "This is the story of Isaac, son of Abraham. Abraham begot Isaac." (That's the JPS translation, though translates tol'dot more literally, as "generations.")

"And these are the generations of Yitzchak, Avraham's son: Avraham begot Yitzchak" (Bereshit 25:19). Rabbi Yitzchak began the discussion with the verse: "The mandrakes give a fragrance..." (Shir Hashirim 7:14). The sages taught that in the future, the Holy One, blessed be He, will raise the dead and shake the dust off them. As a result, they will no longer be made of dust, as they were when first created from dust, which does not endure, as it is written, "And Hashem Elohim formed man of the dust of the ground" (Bereshit 2:7).

Rabbi Yitzchak begins the discussion of this verse by leaping to a verse from Song of Songs. He's going to move us from "Avraham begot Yitzchak" to a teaching about resurrection, body, and soul, and the first move he makes is, he cites the Song of Songs. (This kind of exegesis feels to me like playing a hand of cards, one at a time. At the end of the hand, the cards should make a bridge between one text and another.)

This reminds me of the Zohar passage that Matt calls "Jacob's Garment of Days," which explores the idea that when we leave this world our days are stitched into radiant garments. When Adam and Eve were exiled from Eden, God stitched garments for them -- garments of or (עור), which means "skin." The simplest reading is that God made garments out of animal skins, but some kabbalists take this to mean that God actually gave them skin, which they hadn't had before. In Eden, they'd had garments of or spelled with an aleph (אור), which means light. In life, we wear garments of skin (bodies which clothe our true essence) but in the world to come we will wear garments made out of our days, which reveal our true nature -- not dust, but light.

Rabbi Yitzchak said: Do not pronounce it dudaim ('mandrakes'), but rather dodim ('lovers'). They are the body and the soul, who are lovers and friends to each other. Rav Nachman said: They are real mandrakes. As the mandrakes bring love into the world, so they create love in the world. And they give off a fragrance, which is how they know and recognize their Creator.

This passage begins with a pun. "The mandrakes yield their fragrance" becomes "The lovers yield their fragrance" -- and the lovers aren't simply the two characters in Song of Songs, but also body and soul, the duality in which we all live. Rabbi Nachman argues that body and soul aren't merely metaphorical mandrakes, but are real, because just as mandrakes give rise to love, body and soul together create love in the world. And the union of body and soul gives off fragrance, which links them with God. (Fragrance, in Zohar, often represents Shekhinah, the immanent / indwelling Presence of God in creation.)

From there, the text links the "gates" in the Song of Songs passage to the gates of heaven, through which souls will pass when they re-enter human bodies (at the time of the resurrection of the dead, which is to say, at the dawn of the messianic age.) Mandrakes are likened to angels, and the text tells us that in the future God will rejoice with the righteous and that the Shekhinah will dwell among us. Then, the text continues:

At that time, the Righteous will attain complete knowledge, for as Rabbi Yosi said: When "Hashem rejoices in His works," then the Righteous are destined to grasp the Holy One, blessed be He, in their hearts. And wisdom will abound in their hearts, as if they are seeing Him with their eyes. This is the meaning of the verse: "And it shall be said on that day, this is our Elohim" (Yeshayah 25:9). And for their existence together, the soul shall delight in the body more than anything, and that they shall have knowledge and perception of their Master, and shall have the enjoyment of the splendor of the Shechinah. This is the goodness hidden for the Righteous in the future to come. Thus, "And these are the generations of Yitzchak, Avraham's son," refers to the generations of gladness and laughter that will exist at that time. Avraham's son is the soul worthy of it and is perfect in its ascent; "Avraham begot Yitzchak," means that the soul sires joy and laughter in the world.

In the days to come, the righteous will really grasp God. That's a radical statement, especially in a tradition that so prizes apophatic discourse! It will be as though the righteous were really seeing God. Vision of God is a quintessential Zoharic image (the text is peppered with the phrase ta hazei, "come and see") so this is a significant metaphor. At that time, the soul will delight in the body -- the binarism that places body and soul in opposition will fade away, and the relationship of soul to body will be one of joy.

And that brings us back around to the beginning of the parsha, "And these are the generations of Yitzchak, son of Abraham." The generations aren't just generations as we understand them in genealogical terms. Instead, this verse is really hinting at the generations of gladness and laughter that will exist in the world to come. "Abraham" represents the soul, who fathers Yitzchak (laughter), bringing joy into the world.

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