The Torah of Radical Amazement
Paradoxes, Provocations, and the Portal to Revelation
I never thought of my father (may he rest in peace) as a great intellectual. He was not a scholar. He quit high school in the tenth grade, and sold liquor all his life. When I was six years old, my father brought me to a Purim party at Rabbi Shloime Twerski's shul. When I was there, Rabbi Twerski put a cookie in my mouth. Although this was a pre-cognitive experience, I never forgot it. It had a profound, deep effect on me. When I was twenty-two years old, I experienced a great yearning to return to Rabbi Twerski, because of that cookie. I did return, and I became his student for twelve years.
In his commentary on Parshat Bo (January 24, 1942), the Esh Kodesh distills the methodology of how mysteries in the Torah are uncovered.
The whole idea is based on the ability to take a story like the rape of the Pilegesh b'Giv'ah (see previous chapter) and focus on the provocations in this story, for it is in from these provocations that the mystery emerges. The provocation - whether it be paradox, discrepancy, or contradiction - is really the portal to revelation.
Like the Esh Kodesh, the Rebbe of Ishbitz is very aware of this. When he writes Torah, he is writing in order to provoke mystery, by looking for the confusion in the text, and zeroing in on it.
For example, in Parshat VeEthChanan, Moshe knows that God has already sworn not to let Moshe into the Land of Israel, yet only the Ishbitzer zeroes in on this and asks, how can Moshe beg over and over for something he knows God has already sworn not to do?
This is a discrepancy, a blatant contradiction, and it is the releasing mechanism for the genius of the Ishbitzer.
This process is identical to that of the Esh Kodesh in his commentary on Parshat Bo. Here, the Esh Kodesh zeroes in on Rashi's commentary on Exodus 17:7, where the Jewish people, finding no drinking water, ask; "Is God among us or not?"
Rashi, citing a Midrash (Exodus Rabbah 25:2), contends that the Jews brought Amalek down upon them, by asking the question, "Is there a compassionate God in our midst, or is there really nothing?" This is why the following verse begins, 'Amalek arrived and attacked Israel there in Rephidim. According to this Midrash, the Jews brought Amalek down with an existential question.
The Esh Kodesh (for whom 'Amalek' is synonymous with 'Nazis') goes on to cite a different Midrash (Tanchuma, B'Shalach 25) which gives a totally different reason for the arrival of Amalek. This Midrash, pointing out that the root of the word rediphim is rapha-weak, says, "Because their hands were weakened from neglecting the Torah, Amalek came and attacked them."
From this discrepancy, the question arises; was Amalek brought down by the 'soft hands' of the Jewish people, or by their existential question?
The first part of the process of uncovering the mystery is to be radically amazed by the contradiction. First, the Esh Kodesh must note the discrepancy and ask the question. Then, through making the connection where there appears to be none, his genius can emerge. His genius emerges from within the confusion brought about by the contradiction between these two texts.
This is the fountain of a teacher's creativity. His creativity will be lost unless he feels the sense of mystery that can only come from within a contradiction. This is symbolized by the cloud that settled over the Mishkan (Exodus 40:34). This sense of mystery, this radical amazement, is described by the Esh Kodesh as an invitation to revelation.
Those who have been trained in the Greek system of education, where a person is tested for the answers rather than the questions, find this process of finding the mystery extremely difficult to comprehend. The more educated people are, the more their minds are trained to look for the answers, and to fear fai lure. With this fear of failure comes fear of the confusion, and yet it is in this confusion that the mystery and the revelation reside. If our minds are trained to look for results, to look for answers, we miss the moment of radical amazement, which, coupled with faith in the intrinsic value of the text, reveals the mystery.
In the 'sun world', which is the Greek model, we are looking for obvious connections and results, knowing that we will need to know the answers in order to earn a good grade. The 'invitation to revelation', modeled by the Esh Kodesh and the Mei Hashiloach, embraces a completely different paradigm - where the revelation is in the question, in the provocative sense of mystery, and not in the answer. This is the paradigm of Rosh Hodesh, when we celebrate the darkness, knowing that the moon is there.
Herein is the difference between the sterile womb and the fertile womb. In any devastating situation, whether in the Warsaw Ghetto, or in the story of the rape of the Pilegesh b'Giv'ah, the issue is whether or not the devastation produces sperm, and fertilizes. This fertility is the great light of the Jewish people. As the Esh Kodesh notes, the Jews are skilled in suffering. When they learn to touch God's suffering, the cloud surrounding the Mishkan bursts, and the light is revealed. The task of the Jewish people is to teach themselves how to turn suffering into a fertile womb, and then to teach this to the whole world. This teaching is the Torah of the Mashiach.
The Esh Kodesh highlights the discrepancy between the two Midrashim on Exodus 17:8, and then attempts to reconcile them by explaining, "their hands were weak from neglecting Torah, "because although they studied Torah, they never got a 'handle' on it; it never reached 'their hands'." His emphasis, however, remains with the question, with the mystery, and not with the answer. He says that because they were not firmly attached to the Torah, they could not merge with it, and enter into its mysteries. They had turned the Torah into a book of answers, instead of appreciating it as a book of amazing questions. For the Esh Kodesh, the goal - the depth of the teaching - is to find some harmony in the tension within the question, "is there a God of compassion in our midst, or is there nothing?"
From this question, we can extrapolate another - whether through faith in the void, in the nothingness, we can feel the God of compassion. In this text in Exodus, Amalek attacks the Jewish people at Rephidim, as they begin their journey into the desert, into the void, which seems even emptier because it comes right after the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea. The expectation of a miracle has been set up, and so they are shocked when they find that they don't have water. Here, however, the people are not being saved by a miracle, they are being tested, and Amalek is an important part of this process.
The process is one of maturation. The Esh Kodesh can keep his composure in the Warsaw Ghetto because of his maturity. In 'Man's Search for Meaning,' Victor Frankl makes the phenomenal observation that in the camps, those who regretted their loss of comfort, comparing their current situation with what they had enjoyed before the war, were unlikely to survive, because hope abandoned them. Those who survived, survived because they asked one simple question. They asked, 'What is the question that Hashem is asking me in this situation?" By asking this question they ignited hope in the world, and were able to face challenges without quick solutions. They affirmed that the darkness that engulfed them was not Darwinian, that there is compassion in the world.
This is the opposite of Amalek. Amalek also poses a question - the gematria of Amalek is safek/doubt - but this question is cynical, and its implication is that it can never be answered, because there is really nothing out there.
The Piacezna Rebbe recognized the value of a question-centered life. He was able to maintain the delicate tension between yearning for the Mashiach and not pushing the end. He understood that not pushing the end involves the patient process of working through the test, because he realized that this is what gives birth to the Mashiach. While holding onto the hope for salvation, he was able to distil the test of the Warsaw Ghetto, just as he distils and models the methodology by which the mysteries in the Torah are uncovered. It is this same delicate tension that connects the horror of the Pilegesh b'Giv'ah with the salvation of Tu b'Av.
In wanting us, his readers, to feel this tension, the Esh Kodesh's methodology and his teaching become one. Although the tendency is to jump ahead and see what his answer is, the answer is in fact vague and less revealing than the question, the mystery. Through connecting with the mystery, we are invited to figure out what his answer is, instead of just reading it in black and white. The Esh Kodesh's radical amazement, aroused by focusing on contradictions and discrepancies, is his handle on the Torah. The whole depth of genius emerges from the provocation, from the tension and the contradiction between the two texts, showing us that unless the reader is provoked, no learning or revelation can occur, because it is the mystery that gives us our handle on the Torah.
The discrepancy between the two midrashim is resolved in the mystery of the question, not in the solution of the answer.
This is what makes the Rebbe of Piacezna a good teacher, and it is also what makes the Esh Kodesh a very difficult text. Whether we engage in a five-minute study session or in a two-week study session, each one of us has to find our own amazement and mystery inside the text. To touch the mystery, the student must work to become actively engaged and amazed, instead of just reading the facts and answering the test questions.
To get our own handle on the Torah, however, we need to understand the methodology behind this process. Otherwise, a text like the Pilegesh b'Giv'ah, in which the murderous rape of a concubine-wife and a genocidal war are seen to contain the seeds of Moshiach, or a text like that of the Esh Kodesh cited above, claiming the Jews brought Amalek/Nazis down upon themselves, are just gratuitously provocative.
This methodology - which could be described as 'the process of astonishment' - is demonstrated in the Talmud (Hagigah 3a). Rabbi Yehoshua asks his students, what hiddush (new teaching) did you learn in the study hall today? His students deferentially reply, "we are your students, and your waters do we drink", meaning, we would not presume to teach our teacher. This concept of the utterly passive student is a respected and time-honored precept of Torah, and yet, the whole thrust of Parshat VaEthChanan, and a tradition handed down from Moshe Rabbenu, is that the priority of the teacher is the empowerment of the student. The question posed by the Book of Deuteronomy is, do you spend the last three weeks of your life trying to hold on to what you have accomplished, or trying to empower the people who come after you?
Rabbi Yehoshua is aware of this principle of empowering the student. He knows that this very concept of hithadshut/newness is fundamental to Torah and to the process of being a Jew in the world. It is only through hithadshut - 'the process of astonishment' - that we can tackle a text as provocative as the rape of the Pilegesh b'Giv'ahi, and understand how it is possible for the Talmud to link this atrocity with the messianic hope. Furthermore, without an understanding of this process, it is impossible to get a handle on the Esh Kodesh. Without this depth of understanding, the Esh Kodesh is likely to be dismissed as offensive and insulting. And so, Rabbi Yehoshua says to his students, your respect for me as your teacher notwithstanding, you cannot go into the study hall without learning something new, and my desire to acquire that novel teaching must outweigh all other considerations, even the students' demonstration of respect towards the teacher. This is exactly the teaching of the Esh Kodesh.
Rabbi Yehoshua then asks, whose week was it to lecture in the study hall? The students reply, it was the week of Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah, and R. Yehoshua asks, what was the theme of his Haggadic discourse?
The use of the word "Haggadah" here is an atypical choice, and yet it is perfect in this context, as it is obviously a buzz-word, implying that the asking of the question is the greatest priority of all. The reference to R. Eleazer b. Azariah takes us back to the story of the five rabbis in the Hagaddah, and the great novel teaching of the Haggadah, according to the Gemara, is that there can be no Pessach Seder if there is no question asked. This is the purpose of all the provocative contrasts and paradoxes in Torah.
The Gemara continues: The Students answered, R. Eleazer spoke on Parshat 'VaYakhel'. And what exposition did he give thereon? asked Rabbi Yehoshua. On the verse, Assemble the people, the men and the women and the little ones, R. Eleazer expounded; If the men came to learn, the women came to hear, but why must the small children come? They are too young to learn, or even to hear.
For Rabbi Eleazer, this is a discrepancy. It is astonishing.
He continues, it is in order to bring a reward to those that bring them.
The Rebbe of Ishbitz, in his commentary on this Talmudic passage, explains that from it we learn that all the defects we inherit from our own parents and from our upbringing can be corrected by the parent bringing the child to hear the Torah of Moshe. This 'serving the Torah', says the Ishbitzer, is greater even than the study of Torah.
The Gemara concludes: Said (Rabbi Yehoshua) to them: There was a precious jewel in your hand, and you sought to withhold it from me!
The Ben Ish Chai, on reading this Talmudic passage, comments; Now I understand what a gift my mother gave me, when she brought me to the Beit Hamidrash in my youth.
As for me, upon learning this Torah, the most astonishing thing happened to me. I once read a study of American Jewish mothers, where the overwhelming majority of respondents claimed that their most meaningful Jewish activity was driving their children to Hebrew school. When I first heard this, my response was dismay at the spiritually impoverished state of American Jewry. I thought, no wonder Judaism is dying in America, if this is the most meaningful thing these women can do.
Yet when I studied this Gemara, and the commentaries of the Ishbitzer and the Ben Ish Chai, my entire attitude changed. In a single moment, I learned to value my mother's shlepping me to Hebrew school, in a way that I never had before. Until that moment, shlepping seemed like a waste of time. I had always valued teaching, and education, and intellectual prowess, but I had never really valued the simple act of shlepping.
Then, along comes the Ishbitzer to explain that shimush haTorah/serving the Torah is greater even than limmud haTorah/learning the Torah. Slepping is in the category of shimush haTorah.
The Talmudic sage Rebbe Yehoshua was a great genius. How could he value something that was not even cognitive (mothers bringing their small children) over cognitive learning? How could he call this a precious jewel?
First, we need to understand the drama of the story. This drama is, Rabbi Yehoshua, the great Talmudic sage, the genius teacher, asks two of his students, what did you learn? The students respond with two lines of what seems to be a fairly insignificant commentary, and Rabbi Yehoshua exclaims, 'this is like a diamond! This is the pearl!'
In that moment, Rabbi Yehoshua simply learned to appreciate his own mother's shlepping. In the Midrash on this Gemara, he said, until this moment, I never understood why my mother took me as a small child to listen to the discussion i n the study hall.
His utterly non-intellectual, non-cognitive, spontaneous response was the most precious jewel of all. He was able enter into the Parsha of VaYakhel, to ent er into the circle of Moshe, where as the Ishbitze points out, each person was placed opposite the one he or she had most to learn from. The heads of the tribes stood opposite the women, the elders stood opposite the converts, and the wise men stood opposite the infants. Moshe created the radical amazement experienced by Rabbi Yehoshua at that moment, by placing the wise men opposite the infants.
In that moment, Rabbi Yehoshua experienced the intimacy of the circle. He stood opposite the infants, and learned from them the gift of being present, the treasure of radical amazement. By seeing the value of the children's pre-cognitive apprehension, he was able to go back and value a portion of his life that he had never understood.
Three quarters of cognitive learning occurs before the age of three, yet how many college professors really appreciate the gift that small children can give them?
The infant embodies radical amazement, as it is through this process that we all become human. This is the hiddush, the mystery, the astonishment in this Torah - the fact that this great intellectual - Rebbi Yehoshua - could call mothers shlepping their small children a precious gem. His response astonished his students, and it astonishes us, the readers of this Gemara.
This one little, brief story is a tremendous insight into methodology. Rabbi Yehoshua's question - what did you learn today? - is the key question, and yet unless the process and the methodology is understood, the question most often engenders resentment, because it is considered condescending, just as the Torah of the Esh Kodesh, unless it is understood, is considered gratuitous and insulting.
This is the Torah of Radical Amazement. In order to grasp it, each student, and each reader of this book, must go through exactly the same process as that experienced by Rabbi Yehoshua when he saw the preciousness in the gift of the small children. It has allowed me to understand the term shlepp in a totally new and positive way. This is a pre-cognitive response - it is pure astonishment.
The hiddush of this Gemara is connected to the teaching elsewhere in Hagigah (14b), where 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'. In saying he can't teach someone something unless they already know it, Rabbi Yohanan is saying explaining that this process of entering into the mystery, into the astonishment, must be grasped if anything new is to be revealed.
I always regarded my father as a person who was unknowledgeable, unobservant and unversed in Torah. The moment I was able to grasp this process, through learning this Torah, I experienced a tremendous moment of grace, and love of my father. Just like Rabbi Yehoshua when he recalled his mother taking him to stand and listen, pre-cognitively, outside the study hall, I also could feel my father's love and commitment to my growth, and value him in a way I had never done before. I was able to appreciate my father shlepping me to Rabbi Twerski's Purim Party when I was six years old. In all the intervening years, I had never valued this.
Serving the Torah is greater even than learning the Torah because it comes from a much deeper, intuitive place. It comes from love. It comes from commitment. When Moshe places the infants opposite the intellectuals, he punctures the ivory tower. He punctures the complacency of intellectualism. Without serving the Torah, the intellectualism that is the fountain of the Gemara becomes a wall that blocks revelation.
With this new insight, we can now return to the story of the Pilegesh b'Giv'ah, and find the astonishment, the mysteries in it. The first astonishment is that the text never tells us explicitly that the concubine has died. All it tell us is that when her master said, 'come on, let us go', there was no reply. He was so blind to her that he could not even see that she was dead. Instead of reporting that she was dead, the next thing we hear in the Gemara is that he was cutting her body up into twelve pieces. The effect on the reader is shock, and astonishment. Another astonishing aspect of the story is that the man who instigates the genocidal war against the Tribe of Benjamin is never mentioned again. When everyone becomes caught up in the war, the perpetrators are forgotten, the husband is forgotten, and we never hear from the woman at all. Even though when each tribe received a body part, everyone was obviously provoked, the instigation of the war is never examined.
For me, the most dramatic astonishment of all in this story is in the discrepancy between the woman, who has no voice, and the men, who are constantly talking and negotiating. The woman's voice is literally lost. Contrasted to this, and intrinsically connected to it is the festival of Tu b'Av, when the tribes were given permission to intermarry, and women go out into the vineyards to find husbands. Tu b'Av heals the rift between the tribes, and the rift between husbands and wives, both of which reached their low point in the story of the Pilegesh b'Giv'ah.
The Gemara (Ta'anit 31a), explains that on Tu b'Av, 'the daughter of the king borrows garments from the daughter of the High Priest, the daughter of the High Priest from the daughter of the deputy High Priest, the daughter of the deputy High Priest from the daughter of the Anointed for Battle and the daughter of the Anointed for Battle from the daughter of an ordinary priest, and all Israel borrow from one another, so as not to put to shame any one who may not possess new garments. All garments were immersed in the mikve, including new garments (which do not require ritual immersion) so as not to embarrass those who could not afford new garments.
The first part of the process of healing from the devastation of the Pilegesh b'Giv'ah is in addressing the way the women look at themselves. This is why they trade their clothes.
The key theme of this Torah is no embarrassment. The Gemara then goes on to describe the celebration of Tu b'Av, in which all the maidens danced in circles in the vineyards, and the men looking for wives found them there.
Each woman instructed the men to focus on the essence of the individual woman, and not to compare her with other women: 'The beautiful amongst them called out, Set your eyes on beauty….those of them who came of noble familiies called out, Look for a good family….the ugly ones amongst them called out, Carry off your purchase in the name of Heaven, only on one condition that you adorn us with jewels of gold.
In this Gemara, the women act as if they are in a Greek chorus. We hear their voice. They speak, and the men are silent. In learning how to look at a women's essence, the men become the outer garment of the tikkun/healing of the Pilegesh b'Giv'ah.
The first step in the healing of this wound, which was caused by women being victimized by the way men look at them, is to not take anything for granted. The concubine's husband and her father viewed her as the lowest form of chattel - as a piece of meat to be carved. Once they change the way they look at themselves, the women can change the way the men look at them, and this is what brings Meshiach into the world.
Each woman is saying, 'I am different from them. Value me for who I am.' The 'dancing circle' of these women is the antidote to judging oneself by comparison, and it is the harbinger of the 'dancing circle' of Mashiach, of which the Ishbitzer says, everyone is equidistant from God, and everyone is also unequal.
The Tractate Ta'anith ends with a great Messianic vision, tying Tisha b'Av to the Meshiach: 'Ulla Bira'ah said in the name of R. Eleazer: In the days to come the Holy One, blessed be He, will hold a dancing circle for the righteous and He will sit in their midst in the Garden of Eden and every one of them will point with his finger towards Him, as it is said (Isaiah 15:9) And it shall be said in that day, Lo, this is our God, for whom we waited, that He might save us; this is the Lord for whom we waited, we will be glad and rejoice in His salvation.