I often wonder at the popularity of Kabbala and the attraction to and practice of mystical things…things that make no sense. This is certainly not in the vein of Moses’ and the Prophets’ teachings, which all ring true with pleasant reason.
A friend of mine is currently working on a new book. In it, he will retell his conversation with a Rabbi who has passed away, but had the opportunity to view works of the Rishonim – the Sages – stored in the Vatican. This Rabbi told my friend that he saw in the Rishonim’s writings the rejection of Kabbala (Zohar) as a forgery. I am not surprised, as there has long been a debate concerning Rav Shimom ben Yochai’s authorship. But regardless of the authenticity, I continue to hear ideas quoted from Zohar that contradict Torah verses. We must measure all ideas against the barometer of the Torah, whose authority is unchallenged: first from the standpoint of God’s undeniable authorship, and second, from the standpoint of reason. We must also realize that what is popularized today in the name of Kabbala and Zohar are ideas opposing Moses and the Prophets.
The Rabbis teach that one must not “walk in the garden” until he has had his main course. This refers to not indulging in metaphysics until one has perfected his Talmudic and Halachik studies. I wish to share with you an example of how much beauty and reason we can find in the Talmud, if we allow our intelligent minds to rule over our mystical fantasies.
Talmud Brachos 4b cites a debate between Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi whether the Shema should be recited before, or after prayer (Shmoneh Essray) at night. Both agree that in the morning Shema is recited first. This is to satisfy the principle of “Aligning Redemption with Prayer” (Somech Geulah l’Tefilah). Why must we make this alignment?
A Rabbi once taught a beautiful idea on this. Once we recite the idea of God’s redemption from Egypt highlighted by the Shema’s conclusion, we must then demonstrate our conviction in God alone as the One who can answer our needs. So we pray following the Shema. We must not live theoretically, but our actions are the true barometer of our convictions. If we merely state God redeemed us, but we do not pray to Him with our current needs, then we are not truly convinced of His capabilities, of His role as the only Granter of Prayers. Rashi says this would be akin to a subject knocking on the King’s door, and the King answers, only to find his subject has already departed. The King too departs. Thus, subsequent to reciting God’s redemption of us from Egypt, we ask God our requests in the Shmoneh Essray to substantiate our convictions in His capabilities.
Redemption was finalized in the morning following the first Passover, so in the morning, no debate exists regarding the recital of Shema first. The debate is concerning the nighttime prayers. Rabbi Yochanan says that although the redemption was not complete until the following morning, nonetheless, redemption had begun the night before. Therefore, we again place the Shema before the Shmoneh Essray at night. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi offers a different position. He states we recite the Shmoneh first at night, and then say the Shema afterwards. His reasoning is this: just as in the morning Shema is “closest to the bed” (recited closer in time to waking from bed) so too at night, Shema is “closest to the bed”; it must be recited closer to sleeping (the bed) than the Shmoneh Essray. On the surface, we wonder what Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi is saying. But here, we have a marvelous opportunity to think, to use reason, and arrive at the ideals our Sages intended…long before the existence or debate of Kabbala. The Rabbis cloaked ideas so we might train our minds to unravel human knowledge, and ultimately, God’s deep wisdom. In contrast to Kabbala, which leaves the student bewildered even after the “explanation”, Talmud and Halacha reveal sensible ideas once we follow the intelligent path of the author.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said Shema must always be “closer to the bed”. Our first step then, is to define the Shema, and then “bed”. Well, we understand that Shema contains the Torah’s fundamentals, making it so vital that we repeat the Shema daily, as it says, “when you lie down and when you rise up”. In the Shema, is the very prescription of this twice-daily repetition. Shema contains the ideas of God’s unity, total love of God, teaching Torah, learning Torah, Mezuzah, Tefillin, Tzitzis, Reward and Punishment, idolatry, and recalling the Egyptian Exodus.
Now, what is lying down to, and rising from “bed”? These are not simple events. These two acts are fundamental. When we lie down, we are about to relinquish self-control, our souls are handed over to God, and perhaps we will not rise the next morning. And when we awake, we recite “Modeh Ani”, “I thank you”, which states, “that You returned my soul to me…” We acknowledge the truth that we have no certainty that each day we will receive back our souls.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi teaches that at these two extraordinary moments – lying down and waking up – we have a an opportunity to reflect on our mortality, our temporal existence, and remind ourselves through Shema for what exactly God created us. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi saw sleep and waking as the single events each day through which we might filter out all the clutter, all the noise of daily requirements and distractions, and reflect at these two moments upon our very existence. It is temporary. God gave it to us for the purposes outlined in the Shema. Therefore says Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, just before you sleep, and as soon as you rise, recite the Shema. Let the experience of sleeping and waking that echo the detachment of your soul, be aligned with the purposes of our lives. Realize that your soul is in God’s hand, as He created it, and controls it. We must allow these two moments to penetrate us with these realizations. We will then loosen our grip on temporal, Earthly life, and pursue with greater passion the life of the soul…which ultimately will leave our bodies not for a night, but forever in our ultimate state of existence.