I am going to occasionally blog on the Zohar in conjunction with the Zohar Haburah I am running here in Boston. If you are interested in joining the group, feel free to reach out to me. Text available here and here.
Oft cited by crazy Mussar guys like the Shomer Emunim and Reshit Hokhmah, Zohar 3:126 details the process of dying. The attendant judgment and “beating in the grave” is the kind of stuff they used to scare school children with (except in Lakewood). It also lies behind many of the customs of the final moments and the funeral. I hope to talk about that graphic, scary stuff another time, but for now I’d like to talk about a how the angel of death does his work. The Zohar describes the culmination of the deathbed “trial” each and every human experiences at death. In this case, the man turns out to be guilty, he hasn’t done a single good deed to create a single intercessory angel!
To use the Zohar.com translation with modifications:
the person lifts his eyes and sees the house walls radiant with fire. At the same time, he sees him, full with eyes, dressed in burning fire standing in front of the man. Though others do not see his presence, it is certainly so. People see an angel in the marketplace and stand before him, but the rest do not perceive him.
The Zohar always uses these play of perception; some people seeing what’s occluded to others, some people seeing secrets of Torah. But here the special cognition isn’t granted to the elite, but to the dying.
“Filled with eyes” (a traditional locution for the demonic, later appropriated by K. Tzetnik) the angel of death takes pride of place in the play of perspectives. He sees what’s really going on. This in contrast to the guilty man, who didactically gets to see a cinematic end of life rendition of the truth. His perspective having heretofore been judged deficient. The Zohar describes the confident stride of the sinner “walking about in this world and thinking it belongs to him forever.” The upright gait is an act of insouciance.
For the Zohar movies are terrible. This is because the movie, the “eye filler” if not eye candy, just plays back all the terrible crap of our lives. You need to be literally “chained” to watch the truth. The Zohar riffs off another famous scene of chained people watching the truth. Unlike in the allegory of the cave, the light/truth here has no redeeming values. The truth is, you messed up and now you’ve got to watch this horrible thing happen.
So far, so scary. We can understand how guys like Arele Roth and de Vidas wanted to deploy this piece of Zohar to scare people. But the Zohar is going one step further. By identifying the angel of death as “Filled with eyes” or “eye filler” and by making punishment into a private screening, the Zohar talks about all the seeing we ever do.
Ecclesiastes reminds us that “the eye is not filled with seeing.” This lack of spectatorial satiety is just another way of saying that we want a spectacle. We’ve never seen enough.
In a way, this piece exemplifies what I’d call bad Zohar. The crazy folktales of punishment for minor sins that populate crazier books meant to dissuade masturbation. Was the author just out of material? Is he having fun with the gory details? Is this boilerplate? My theory is none of the above.
Instead, I think the piece comments on the difficulty of revealing secrets. Who is the Angel of Death? Eye filler. What happens in the allegory of the cave? They all die and everyone’s screwed. “The eye is not filled with seeing” nor the revealer with revealing. But on the other hand, sometimes the spectacle and the secret gets to be a bit much. The Zohar is just bored.
“People” may “see an angel in the marketplace and stand before him, but the rest do not perceive him.” That’s true. But on the other hand why would you even bother looking? Who cares about an angel? Who even wants to know supernal secrets? Some people think revealing and concealing is erotic, and sometimes it is. But here the Zohar has so much ennui and boredom and self doubt that it starts, despite the florid violence of the context, to feel relatable. Next time you read a long passage of boilerplate Zohar and get bored, realize that its ok. The Zohar beat you there.
The passage bores you because you live in a society where death is hidden away from everyday life and sanitized. I don’t the the passage would be boring for someone who actually saw people dying on a fairly regular basis. The Zohar is giving a metaphysical play by play that often accompanies the physical process of dying such as the far away stare, the death rattle and rigor mortis. Seems to me that’s something people who were confronted by death frequently would want to understand.