Maybe she will come to our town.
Who. The Shekhinah?
Or: Tracking the Language of the Sefat Emet
I learned to consult with the Sefat Emet while studying with Avivah Zornberg in Jerusalem. I was a regular attendee at one of her weekly classes on the portion of the week, especially the sessions at the New Age Yeshivah where I had become comfortable attending.
My friend Moshe lived just down the street from the Yeshivah, and that’s how I found it, one summer when I was staying with him and studying the oud.
Avivah was teaching at the New Age Yeshivah. She had acquired a good following and her teachings were always something wonderful. She handed out source sheets that were numbered, usually beginning with Rashi then some of the other classical commentators and often ending with one of the radical English psychoanalysts or Kafka or D.H. Lawrence and then the Sefat Emet. The Sefat Emet was near the culmination of the lesson and something equally surprising or exceeding Kafka or R.D. Laing as applied to Torah.
I figured I should get to know the Sefat Emet; I found the material that Avivah brought down of his stunning.
The Sefat Emet is actually the name of his book, it’s not uncommon to be known by the name of your book, this one the Language of Truth. Yehudah Leib Alter was the rebbe of Ger (near Warsaw). He died in 1905. Avivah had deepened herself in his work and his commentary often appeared in her teachings on the parashiot.
I also used to pray in the synagogue of the New Age Yeshivah on Shabbes, and there Avivah and I were accustomed to nod to each other. I don’t think we ever exchanged words, but we exchanged greetings as if we knew each other. It was a spirited minyan in those days, many of the tunes were tunes from the Shlomo nusach (melody style) that was excellent for the mix of voices in the room.
Avivah began to recognize me at her teachings as a regular, and one evening when her husband who usually took the money was not present she gave me the cash box and asked if I would collect the money.
So I sat at the front table and took the money. There were books for sale, and questions to respond to, and schedules of her teachings to quote. Of course I knew nothing but I scrambled around and figured it out. From that evening on and for the months remaining of my sabbatical in Jerusalem, I sat up front and took the money, sold the books, quoted her schedule. Are you related? Someone asked me. Well, yes, in an elected sort of sense.
Ten years or so passed. I had not been back to Jerusalem. Avivah had written another book. She was on a book tour of the States, and the rabbis in my town were invited for a private session with her as she came right from the airport. We were to meet on the campus of the University, at the Hillel house.
I wouldn’t have expected her to remember me, we had never even exchanged names. I arrived a little late at the Hillel. Just as I got out of my car, she got out of the car of whoever picked her up at the airport and so we were walking across the parking lot towards the building at the same time.
She stopped when she saw me, as if in amazement and said, what are you doing here?
I live here, I said.
She looked confused. I wondered what had happened to you, she said. You live here? Since when?
This confused her even more.
There’s an expression in the Midrash, jumping the road, k’fitzat ha-derekh. The midrash is often a mythic literature, a character may jump the road as if the intervening time and space do not exist. I never did explain it to her. After all, we really didn’t know each other, but we knew each other. I offered to take the money at the Hillel house too, but they had someone for that. Her driver by the way was a big shot in our community who until that day had paid no attention to me in twenty years. I never explained it to him either.
Sefat Emet on Genesis
There’s a vocabulary in the Sefat Emet that he returns to throughout his work. It appears in the first portion of Genesis, in a teaching about the holy Sabbath, and quoting one of the Friday evening prayers — God spreads out the sukkat shalom, the sukkah of peace – over us. This verb for spreads out is elastic, pores, it can mean several things.
Everything has its root in heaven, the Sefat Emet opens with, then quotes a Midrash: there isn’t a blade of grass that doesn’t have a star in the sky that strikes it and says: grow (Genesis Rabbah 10:6).
This Midrash often appears in what I call my mind with the verse from Micah: what does God require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).
The Sefat Emet then quotes the verse, God separated the waters that were below the heavens from the waters that were above the heavens (Gen.1:7). The Sefat Emet is setting up a foundation of all mystical thought: there is a correspondence between here and There, so to speak, as it is among human beings, so it is in some cosmic sense.
Each creation below has a corresponding creation above. So on the holy Shabbat, the upper root descends and unites the two forces. This is the meaning of spreading the sukkat shalom, it is a unifying integrating concept, and so when we welcome the angels — the spiritual energies — we are awakening and integrating with the spiritual energies within and we are spreading that integrating notion not only horizontally all over the world, but vertically. As it is There, so it is here. Shalom, shleimut, wholeness in the sense of some grand spiritualized materialized integrative notion, the upper root and the lower root join in a spiritual sense, the upper nature and the lower nature join in a physical sense, and we have the celebration of integratives.
I love this language and it feels like the same notion that we encounter in the Raza deShabbat: the integrative power of upper and lower, the twos that find their way into One.
I wrote the following poem once I picked up the pieces of my mind and spent a while thinking through the implications of that idea.
Everywhere God Dwells Is Whole
I see the workers in the upper and lower waters
gathering the streams into their arms.
Once the divine integration was made in my presence,
delirious you said I love the world,
did you mean all of it or some of it?
I track the ascents and descents,
the upper root and the lower root will find each other
but don’t leave me alone. If the ends have been calculated,
I have not seen them. All my broken bones are whole,
my broken heart too, every shard complete.
I love the partial, the broken, individual, incomplete,
the fragment, the wounded,
I love the separate, you said,
because it integrates,
and even if not,
it is whole.