the anxiety of indolence

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.

The Zohar isn’t terribly concerned with class. Instead, hierarchies are intensive, focusing as they do on differentiation within the circle surrounding R. Shimon. The bifurcation of the Hevrayah from normal society is taken for granted. Reading Daniel Frisch’s (d.2004) commentary and translation Matok Midvash, though, you get a portrait of Haredi class anxieties. Frisch uses the Demasek Eliezer of the Komarno Rebbe to interpret an enigmatic piece of Zohar. I want to show how Frisch’s exegetical imagination goes well beyond the Demasek Eliezer and gives us a sense of his own contemporary preoccupations.


This piece of Zohar is in a section of Bereshit generally ascribed to the tikkunim, so keep in mind that it may be a different textual strata as we proceed.
In Genesis 49, Jacob was about to reveal the “end of days” on his deathbed. But he held back for some reason. This incident is the topic of the Zohar’s exegesis.

Because Jacob saw through the Holy Spirit the oppression of the last exile, in the end of days, it is said of him, “Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed” (Genesis 32:8). As a result, he divided the holy nation in exile into three parts, as it is written: “And he put the handmaids and their children foremost” (Genesis 33:2). This means at first in the exile of Edom, “and Leah and her children after, and Rachel and Joseph last of all.” Because he saw their eventual poverty and suffering, He prayed for them: “So that I come back to my father’s house in peace” (Genesis 28:21). He said : “And will give me bread to eat, and clothing to wear” (Ibid.)

Jacob had split up the Jewish people when he met Esau in Genesis 32. This strategic move will be  somehow repeated in the end of days, according to the Zohar. The order of Rachel, Leah and the concubines is puzzling.
We can think about this a few different ways. Rachel is always a synecdoche for Shekhina. So maybe she is last because Shekhina is last. Another way to think about it is just that the Jews are generally spread out in galut. Or its just a general gesture towards “the deeds of the fathers” being a “sign for the sons.”
In Divrei Yoel, Joel Teitelbaum takes the third approach, citing the Zohar in his commentary on Genesis 28 to say that it’s all generally referring to the final exile and redemption. In general, for Divrei Yoel, the passage is about contemporary events, and maybe justifies some kind of separatism, though he doesn’t say as much. For Teitelbaum, the upshot of the Zohar is that Genesis 28 is about current events and the deeds of the fathers” are a “sign for the sons.” In the later years of Exile (here he refers to the Holocaust) stuff gets very bad. So Jacob was afraid. The separation of Rachel, Leah and the concubines isn’t discussed.
The Sulam interprets the passage as referring to sefirot. In his rendering, the concubines are the lowest eg Shekhina. Even though usually Rachel is Shekhina, here it’s the concubines. “The end of days” refers to the Sefirot, which are called days. He also says that there’s a tripartite division of Nefesh, Ruah, Neshamah at work parallel to the sefirotic division, and that the “husks” are more powerful the lower down you go (concubines) and effect Rachel the least.
The interpretation of Demasek Eliezer is the first one to identify Rachel, Leah and the concubines with discrete real life groups of people. The children of the concubines are the “regular Joes” of the Jewish people, who work for a living. These people work so hard that they have no time to really pray. Jacob was scared for their spiritual well being.
The second group, the children of Leah, are those who learn the revealed, but not the hidden Torah. It’s hard for them to make a living too, Demasek Eliezer tells us. But they’re a little better off because they get “life” from the Torah.
Finally, the smallest group is the children of Rachel. These are the elite who learn the secrets of Torah. Of course, they have us all in mind when they do this. But the exile isn’t as bad for them. They can’t make a living but the Torah is so great, so who cares?
We can understand why Jacob was afraid for the children of Leah and the concubines. They need money. And they are in spiritual danger. The exile sucks for them. But why was Jacob afraid for this last group if they’re just chugging along, learning Zohar? Demasek Eliezer answers cleverly that this is the secret of “my soul yearns for you” in Psalm 63. The children of Rachel have unrequited spiritual desires that can’t be fulfilled in exile.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe uses this same Demasek Eliezer in a sicha but comes up with a different answer. Why was Jacob afraid for the Rachel people? Because, the Rebbe says, the burden of bittul, self nullification, falls on them. The spiritual tasks they need to perform are really hard and in their own way, as hard as the challenges of the other groups. I don’t know why the Rebbe doesn’t use the answer provided by Demasek Eliezer, but I don’t think the two answers are exclusive, either.
In any case, Daniel Frisch uses Demasek Eliezer to translate the Zohar, but he adds the Sulam’s idea that the lower groups are more effected by the “husks.” So metaphysically, people who work are more husky than people who learn Talmud, who in turn are inferior to the people who learn the secrets of Torah. It seems to me that there are two motivations for Frisch’s combination of Demasek Eliezer and Sulam. First, Frisch often combines mefarshim like Demasek Eliezer or Gra with Sulam. Second, it seemed obvious to Frisch that there’s an ontological difference between Baalebatim, Yungeleit and Tzaddikim. People who work (and perhaps secular Israelis) are lower level Jews than people who learn, who in turn rely on a few select people of incredible holiness who sustain the world.
Whatever the passage means, it’s clear that Joel Teitelbaum was right. It’s not about Jacob, Esau and the concubine’s kids. Its about current events.

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