The Book of Radiance: Tales from the Zohar
By Rabbi Yaakov Feldman
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the sage behind most of the teachings of the Zohar, once offered a remarkable statement there about the Torah … and about the holy Zohar itself (3:152a).
“Woe to those who say that the Torah only came to relate simple stories and foolish tales!” he warned. For, “if that were so, why, then even we ourselves could create a ‘Torah’ with foolish tales — and even better ones!”
What an astounding thing to say! But how could he ever say that about the Torah, which “existed 974 generations before the world was created” (Zevachim 116a), which “G-d took council (with) before He created the world” (Pirkei d’Rebbe Eliezer 3), which is “one of the three things thanks to which the world is sustained” (Pirkei Avot 1:2), and without which “heaven and earth couldn’t continue to exist” (Petachim 68b)?
Rabbi Shimon didn’t stop there, though. He went on to say that “if (the Torah only came) to address material matters” as it sometimes seems to, “then our leaders would have better stories to tell, so we should follow their example and produce (such) a ‘Torah’”.
He ended his point there, though, and offered the following insight.
“The truth of the matter is that all the words of the Torah are exalted and (contain) arcane mysteries.” They aren’t at all what they seem to be. And his point is that it’s the job of the Zohar to reveal those secrets.
All kinds of mysteries and secrets are discussed in the Zohar: the secret details about creation, about the ways of the angels and the tzaddikim, about the meaning of life, about the purpose of this mitzvah and that one, about the Jewish Holydays, as well as about birth and death, happiness and sadness, and much more.
“Come and see,” Rabbi Shimon goes on …. “It’s said of the angels (that G-d) ‘formed His angels (as pure) spirits’ (Psalms 104:4), yet when they descend down here the angels don earthly clothing”. Why — “because if they wouldn’t, they couldn’t function in this world, and the world couldn’t endure them”. That is, seeing them in their native clothes of bright, celestial light would be too intense to bear, so they have to “dress down”, as the expression goes.
“Now, if that’s true of angels,” he says, “then how much more so is it true of the Torah … which all the worlds exist thanks to!” Shouldn’t it “don earthly clothing”, too? After all, who could stare straight ahead at the Torah in all its celestial light?
So in fact “the Torah did do that when it was conveyed to this world, (because) if it didn’t don worldly garments, the world couldn’t bear it.” The point is that “the Torah’s stories are its ‘garments’” and the Torah has to don them so that we can handle it.
And so, for example, when the Torah speaks about the various goings-on of our ancestors or about the sights and sounds it depicts in one story or another, it isn’t just passing information on to us and trying to catch our interest — it’s stowing away a clue here and there about the secrets of the universe.
Rabbi Shimon goes on to offer this parable about our naiveté when it comes to this.
“Come and see!” he says, “when simple folks see someone dressed beautifully they (look at his garment alright, but they) don’t look any further. In fact, they look at his outfit as if it was his body, and they look at his body as if it were his soul”.
That’s to say, when some people see someone’s clothes they look at it as if they were actually catching sight of the person behind it, when they’re really not. After all, they think they’re looking right at a person’s soul when they look at him face to face.
“It’s the same thing when it comes to the Torah” Rabbi Shimon says. “For it (too) has a ‘body’ … (which) wears (different) garments, and they’re the Torah’s stories” that cover-over the Torah’s “body”.
“Simple folk only look at that garment, which is the stories in the Torah, and are oblivious to everything else. They don’t consider what’s beneath it”.
“Those who know a thing or two” on the other hand, “don’t (just) look at the garment — they look at the body beneath”, which is far more splendid.
“But the wise — those who are servants of the great King and who stood at Mount Sinai (when the Torah was given, and thus know what they’re looking at) look at the (Torah’s) soul …” to be sure, which is stupendous. But it’s not the ultimate.
For “in times to come, (these same people) will actually be able to look at the soul of the Torah’s soul”, which is to say, at its inner essence.
And so we learn that the Torah is alive, that it wears splendid clothes that are rich in texture, and that somewhere deep within the seams and pockets, along the edges, and along its contours the Torah itself calls out to us!
“Woe to the wrongful who say that the Torah is just (a collection of) stories!” says Rabbi Shimon in the end. ”For they only look at the garment and no further”.
“Praised are the righteous,” on the other hand, “who see the Torah as it should be seen”.
May we ourselves be counted among the righteous!
(c) 2010 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman
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Rabbi Yaakov Feldman has also translated and commented upon “The Path of the Just” and “The Duties of the Heart” (Jason Aronson Publishers).