Demons go to Yeshiva: Embracing the negative
|A teacher in inner-city Philadelphia took ninety problem black kids, any five of whom could have totally destroyed him as a teacher. Between them, these ninety kids had killed over 36 others with shotguns during the course of a single summer. With a box of Leggo, in the basement of a school, this teacher was able to raise the reading levels of each of these kids by three years. He did this by getting them to build a Leggo city, and the key to his success was in knowing how to challenge their minds through the mystery. He knew how to provoke a sense of mystery inside a child. It was truly brilliant.|
In the Talmud (Hagigah 14b), R. Eliezer ben 'Arak begs his teacher R. Yohanan ben Zakkai to teach him a chapter from the 'Work of the Chariot' (Kabbalah). Rabbi Yohanan responds by reminding him that this work cannot be expounded 'in the presence of one, unless he is a Sage, and understands of his own knowledge'. (Hagigah 11b).
Rabbi Yohanan is saying that nothing can be taught to a person, unless that person already knows it to begin with. The passage ends with Rabbi Eliezer teaching his teacher Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, instead of learning from him.
This midrash connects with the Gemara directly preceding it (Hagigah 14a), which teaches that the person of faith is the person who says, "I don't know", in the context of a passage asserting that Jerusalem was destroyed because there were no businessmen of integrity left in it. Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai and Rabbi Eleazar ben Arak were journeying away from Jerusalem, because with not one honest businessman left in the city, they could not learn Torah there.
The juxtaposition of these two stories implies that one cannot study Kabbalah in a place devoid of even one honest businessman. In his commentary on Parshat Bo (1942), the Esh Kodesh says we brought Amalek down upon us with our "soft hands" - Redifim - Solomon control his demons or not?ng, does King rol, the Jew gives hope to the world. out the use of iron tools.ore his teacher meaning, our "hands were weakened from neglecting the Torah, because although they studied Torah, they never got a 'handle' on it." When we equate the Nazis with Amalek, the Esh Kodesh here is saying that we brought the Nazis down upon ourselves.
The Esh Kodesh was able to be in the Warsaw Ghetto without being a victim. He understood that if he perceived himself as a victim, he would inevitably become depressed, and depression precludes revelation and prophecy. When a person is depressed, he cannot connect with the mystery.
This is the story of the Talmudic sage Nachum Ish Gam Zu, who could become a cripple and yet increase his Simcha/joy. This is the process the Esh Kodesh is teaching in the Warsaw Ghetto.
The 'handle' on the Torah is finding the mystery, the 'radical amazement' in the text. Depth of understanding in this sense is connected to the quality of the questions that are asked, because it is the mystery in the text that makes it revelatory. This is why the person of faith is the person who says, 'I don't know'.
The two important teachings from the story cited above from Hagigah are firstly, that a student must know something already before his teacher can teach it, and secondly, that teacher and student exchange roles. Although Eleazar ben Arak asks Yohanan ben Zakkai to teach him, he winds up teaching Yohanan ben Zakkai.
Another Gemara (Gittin 68b), in a larger discussion about demons, deals with the issue of making space for mystery by relating the story of King Solomon (Shlomo) and the 'shamir worm'. The shamir - a fabulous worm that could cut through the sharpest stone - was needed by Shlomo in order to build the Temple, which he was required to construct without the use of iron tools (metal being a source of Tumah). Shlomo was told that in the wilderness Moshe had brought the shamir to engrave the stones of the ephod (the breastplate of the High Priest), and that he too could find a shamir by bringing together a male and a female demon and applying pressure to them.
Shlomo did this, only to be told that the demons did not know the whereabouts of the shamir. They did, however, suggest that Ashmedai, king of the demons, might know. Ashmedai, they said, studies in the Academy of the sky and in the Academy of the earth, and drinks water from a pit in the mountain in which he lives.
Shlomo's servant Benaiahu son of Jehoiada captured Ashmedai by substituting the water in the pit for wine, and when he was drunk, binding him with a chain on which was engraved the Name of God.
When Shlomo finally confronts Ashmedai, he is told that the shamir is in the hands of the Prince of the Sea, who gives it only to the 'cock of the prairie...who takes it to a mountain where there is no cultivation and puts it on the edge of a rock which thereupon splits, and he there takes seeds from trees and brings them and throws them into the opening and things grow there.'
Nonetheless, Shlomo keeps Ashmedai with him until he has finished building the Temple. During this time, he challenges Ashmedai to prove the superiority of demons over humans. Ashmedai replies; 'Take the chain off me and give me your ring, and I will show you.' When Shlomo does this, Ashmedai swallows him, 'and placing one wing on the earth and one in the heavens he hurled him four hundred parasangs.' It was regarding this incident that Shlomo said 'What profit is there to a man in all his labor wherein he labors under the sun?' (Kohelet 1:3)
Though this, Shlomo became a beggar, saying wherever he went, "I, Kohelet, was king over Israel in Jerusalem'. (Ibid 1:12) (The entire Book of Kohelet emerged from this experience). Finally, he returns to the Sanhedrin, whose Rabbis become convinced of his identity after enquiring after his behaviour with women. ('He visits them in the time of their separation and he also calls for Bathsheba his mother'.) The chain and the ring on which were engraved the Name of God were returned to Shlomo, and when Ashmedai saw him, he flew away in fear. Nevertheless, Shlomo was always in fear of Ashmedai.
The story ends with King Solomon and Ashmedai, king of the demons, in respectful fear of each other. This is a compelling metaphor for the process of negotiating our demons, just as the entire story is a profound commentary on the nature and effects of addiction.
The shamir worm in these writings represents the "guarded mouth", which means being awake to life, being able to be a guardian and a shepherd of one's own energy. Its ability to cut through rock represents its redemptive capacity to cut through the stony heart to find the heart of flesh and blood.
The Midrash explains that the shamir Solomon control his demons or not?ng, does King rol, the Jew gives hope to the world. out the use of iron tools.ore his teacherchews through rock, converting it into wheat-growing soil that sustains mountain chickens, thus converting sterile pain into the fruitful birthing womb.
This role of the shamir is the role of the Jew in the world - to be a "guarded mouth" - using the mouth to convert the heart of stone to a heart of flesh and blood. Through his deep understanding of guardianship and control, the Jew thus gives hope to the world.
With this story of the shamir worm, the Gemara in Gittin is asking, does King Solomon control his demons (his addictions) or not? Is he able to become a guardian and to shepherd his own energy from being a vehicle for self-indulgence to being a vehicle for worshipping God? (In a parallel text in Sanhedrin 70b, Shlomo's mother Bathsheba berates him for being an alcoholic and a womanizer, and not using the gifts she procured for him in the service of Hashem. Through his addictions, he destroys the beautiful Temple that he has built.)
Ashmedai king of the demons is Shlomo's alter ego. He looks just like Shlomo. The pit he drinks from is the pit of Malchut - the void, and the womb, which can either give birth to fruitful transformation, or to sterility, bitterness and futility. The root of the name Ashemdai is shmad - destruction. When he detains Ashmedai and keeps him with him, Shlomo learns to talk to his demons, modelling the methodology of changing one's attitude towards the negative - creating the dialectic rather than the dichotomy.
Fighting our addictions and our demons brings us to the razor's edge, as we can easily overdo indulgence, and we can also easily overdo discipline. What is needed is a careful balance of Chessed and Gevurah.
In Mei HaShiloach (Book 2, Korach, first Torah), the Rebbe of Ishbitz, picks up this theme of the "guarded mouth." Quoting Shlomo in Mishle (Proverbs 12:19) 'Truthful speech abides forever, A lying tongue for but a moment', the Mei HaShiloach explains that truth is engraved in the words of Torah forever, while lies are nullified immediately. According to this understanding, words are the equivalent of action, and words themselves are "true seeds" that build universes (see Peleh Yoetz). True words are the seeds dropped by the shamir into the broken stone, whereas lies are sterile, and immediately nullified. In this context, every word is a neder/vow. We need to guard every word that comes out of our mouths, because with our words, we each make our own Torah.
The Mei Hashiloach goes on to quote Nahum 2:1, 'Celebrate your festivals, O Judah, fulfil your vows. Never again shall scoundrels invade you. They have totally vanished.' Here, he explains, the word bli'al-scoundral, also means 'without a yoke', which is why they are totally lost.
The Mei Hashiloach identifies 'seven failures' (corresponding to the seven levels of Ze'er Anpin) in the Book of Numbers, leading up to Parshat Korach.
1. The complainers, from whom emerges a 'black bitterness'. (Numbers 11) (Chessed).
2. The people wanting meat. (Ibid) (Gevurah)
3. The sin of Miriam and Aaron, who spoke against Moses. (Numbers 12:2) (Tiferet)
4. The sin of the spies (Numbers 13). (Netzach)
5. The Jewish people's lack of faith in God's forgiveness - their desire to retract and go into the Land after God punishes them for accepting the account of the spies. (Hod)
6. The man gathering sticks on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36). (Yesod)
7. The rebellion of Korach and his community. (Malchut).
The failures described by the Ishbitzer were not in the mistakes themselves, but in people's failure to overcome their shame by conversing with their demons. Without this dialogue, there is only the 'sterile womb', and no birth comes out of the mistake. If, however, we can embrace the mistake and start talking to our demons, then a great birth can emerge. This birth - the birth of self - is called 'tshuva'. Hence, the shofar is in the shape of the birth canal. Like the sand in the oyster, the mistake is the agent of change, the key to transformation.
Although the failures listed seem like huge, dramatic errors, the Ishbitzer describes them as subtle, elegant, 'delicate clarifications', according to which every human being must clarify him- or herself.
In Kohelet, this is called "under the sun", because these things, says the Ishbitzer, are not explicitly manifest to the naked eye. Only with great wisdom does the specific, individual soul know how to conduct itself. In Proverbs (Mishle 9:10) Shlomo says, 'The beginning of wisdom is the fear of Hashem', and the awareness of holy people is intuition (Binah)'. Each one of the situations listed above was intended by Hashem as a test for every person in the camp. On the basis of theses tests, they could clarify their actions, and so they are very thin, delicate clarifications.
Nothing is clear-cut until it is clarified by Hashem. With the issue of Korach, until God stated the law clearly, the situation was not clear at all. The Jewish people did not know which side was just - the side of Moses or the side of Korach, because Moshe Rabbeinu was also a human being, clothed in the garments of this world. In fact, in all of the worlds there was doubt regarding which side God adhered to. Moshe, however, had the help of heaven, as it is written in Targum Yonatan - the chosen-ness and preciousness of Moshe and Aaron in Hashem's mind was revealed before the entire people.
Corresponding to these seven failures, the Gemara in Pessachim (54b) states: 'Seven things are hidden from men: the day of death, and the day of comfort, the depth of judgment; and a man does not know what is in his neighbour's heart; and a man does not know from what he will earn; and when the Davidic dynasty will return; and when the wicked kingdom will come to an end.'
The seventh, corresponding to the argument Korach, refers to when the kingdom of Persia will fall. The personality of the King of Persia is that of the 'narrow eye'.
Each nation has a special shell, and it is the task of the Jewish people to find all the goodness inside these shells, in order to raise them into kedusha/holiness.
In this world-view the Jewish people, like the shamir, is a neutral entity, without its own attributes. Our job is to take the positive attributes of the society in which we find ourselves, and introduce it into Kedusha, by connecting it with Torah and making it holy.
For example, Babylonia had the klipa/shell of pride, yet by taking the goodness from this pride, and introducing it into Kedusha, the Talmud was drawn out of Babylon so that when it came into Israel it was full of holiness.
All arguments, concludes the Ishbitzer, come from a 'narrow eye', and require great clarity. Only when a person is very clear regarding both sides, can he enter into an argument. Until he has clarified where his criticism is coming from, he should not become involved in an argument. If he has this clarity then Hashem can illuminate the truth for him, even if the law is with his opponent.
With this degree of clarification, the argument becomes a situation of 'helpful opposition' - the fruitful womb.
The world was created for the person who levels himself at the time of argument, who conquers his yetzer/inclination, and avoids becoming involved in arguments. On this, the world is established.
A person must 'crack' himself open, like the shamir and the stone, in order to conquer his yetzer. This is the story of Shlomo's struggle with his addictions and the building of the Beit Hamikdash, just as in one way or another, it is the story of every person.
Every mistake in a person's life is a variation on a theme, and all human stories are variations on the first stories of Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel. If we achieve dialogue with our demons and overcome our shame, our mistakes give birth to transformation instead of failure, and as we move forwards in life we are able to distance ourselves from repeating them, little by little. This is how we learn to overcome the tyranny of habit.
The journey of the Jewish people through the desert is one big spiral, starting at the Yam Suf (the "Sea of the End"). The journey is a complex tapestry comprising a series of delicate, subtle clarifications, incorporating the process of taking insights gained from expansive venturing forth and applying them to the old habits of contractive daily life.
The dialectics and paradoxes of journeying are confusing - so confusing that by the time of Korach's rebellion (Numbers 16) no one knows who is right - Moshe or Korach. The only way to clarify the situation is through clarification of the 'narrow eye'.
What does it take to become involved in an argument? In Torah, people argue, and from their arguing a wonderful dialogue emerges, yet some inter-personal arguments are sterile and destructive.
In the context of Eugene O'Neill's play, 'The Iceman Cometh', Torah is the ice. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin (of Efrat) points out that the Book of BaMidbar (Numbers) is tragic, because it starts out with Moshe, after building the Mishkan, at the pinnacle of his powers - a magnificent leader, and throughout Sefer BeMidbar, time after time, he falls on his face, being challenged, or undermined, until by the end of the book, he is unsure of what to do in a number of situations, for instance, with Kozbi and Zimri (Numbers 25). When Korach delivers his powerful, magnificent speech (Numbers 16), Moshe can't really answer him. All he can do is fall on his face.
And yet, the irony is that in the following book, Sefer Devarim (Deuteronomy), this response constitutes Moshe's greatest victory, because his greatest challenge was to know how to pull back. At the pinnacle of his power, Moshe was great, but he wasn't the teacher of the Jewish people until he passed through BeMidbar.