Thursday, November 22, 2012

Working Through Banishment: “And Yaakov Left Beer Sheva”

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Bronfman Fellowships | Text and the City | VaYetze 2012

Have Ithaka always in your mind.
Your arrival there is what you are destined for.
But don't in the least hurry the journey…
Ithaka gave you a splendid journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She hasn't anything else to give you.
(Ithaka, Constantine P. Cavafy 1863-1933, Alexandria)
There are some weeks I’d rather the parsha wouldn’t mimic life quite so closely.
וַיֵּצֵא יַעֲקֹב מִבְּאֵר שָׁבַע; וַיֵּלֶךְ חָרָנָה  – “And Yaakov went out from Beer Sheva, walking towards Haran”.
As I think of Yaakov, banished from his home, fleeing a murderous brother, it seems that all around me banishment has taken place these past few weeks.
My sister left her home in Beer Sheva last week as missiles were being shot at her hometown, her three children in tow. Leaving for what they thought would be a brief respite in Jerusalem, they watched as the IDF retaliated and 1500 missiles were shot by Hamas at everywhere from Beer Sheva to Tel Aviv.
From the safety of my home on the Upper West Side, I finally reconnected this week with our building’s doorman, Van, who was banished from his home in Coney Island by an 11-foot wall of water. His elderly mom and he take refuge in Long Island as they figure out if their wet and rotting home is still livable.
From Coney Island to Beer Sheva, from Kiryat Malachi to Gaza City, people have been banished from their homes or found their homes under attack these past few weeks. Without comparing suffering or drawing moral equivalencies, it has undoubtedly been a month of too many Yaakov’s banished from their homes and regular routines, wondering how they will ever return.
As Yaakov goes to bed on that first night of banishment, he is doubtful that he will ever be able to return. But as Prof. Vanessa Ochs pointed out this summer, Yaakov curiously collects stones, marking his spot and turning his forced destiny into a stage for symbolic action. That night, in Yaakov’s moment of trauma and tragedy, revelation happens. Having lost the horizontal relationships of his family, Yaakov receives the option of a vertical relationship, in the image of the angels ascending and descending from a ladder. The trauma becomes a source of creativity; the banishment gives birth to revelation; his ritual creates the space for inspiration.

400 years ago two crazy Kabbalists decided to go on a self-imposed banishment. They began taking walks outside the city, rambling through the hillsides of Tsfat, in search of the Shekhina. Refugees from Spain’s 1492 expulsion of the Jews, they were working through their own trauma by connecting to a metaphysical one. Inspired by the idea that the Shekhina, God’s spiritual feminine presence in this world, is herself in exile, they attempted to channel her banishment in their own bodies.
What is most fascinating about this strange ritual of theirs is that they were not seeking psychological health – they were seeking revelation. Not grand revelation, but rather the elusive taste of the “hidush” – that moment of intellectual and spiritual innovation so craved by creative minds the world over. They recorded their hidushim (innovations) in a book they called “The Book of Banishment”, Sefer Gerushin. The entries start like this:
“On the year of 5308, Friday the 6th of Shvat, we banished ourselves in the banishment of the King and Queen, rambling until the abandoned Beit Midrash in Navoria, and there I innovated this thought…”
“On the 15 of Shvat, we banished ourselves, my teacher and I on our own. And the words of Torah were shining forth from us, and the words spilled forth of their own accord, and we were discussing the verse “I will show you wonders as grand as on the days of the exodus from Egypt (Micah 7).”
“These and other innovations we said there, too many to put to print, all gifts of her Majesty to those who are banished and staggering with her.”

The friends were Rabbi Moshe Kordovero (author of the definitive introduction to Kabbalah), and Rabbi Shlomo Elkabetz (the author of L’cha Dodi among others). Where political action was not at hand, these Kabbalists developed spiritual rituals that allowed them to redeem themselves from being passive pawns of history. In the face of trauma, they created contained rituals of self-imposed trauma, as a method of transcending their earthly bonds, seeking inspiration and connection in an alienated world.
As Prof. Haviva Pedaya, who wrote a book on these rituals of banishment, points out, the original ritual of Kabbalat Shabbat is in itself a ritual of self-banishment. Elkabetz and his friends would leave town before Shabbat, banishing themselves in order to find the banished Shekhina in the fields. They would there “receive her face” – Kabbalat Shabbat – and invite her in: בואי כלה, בואי כלה – “Come bride!” Bringing her in requires banishing ourselves for a moment.
Turning the tables on history, Kabbalists saw their own exile merely as the human reflection of a far greater reality: the Shekhina – mother – has been banished from her home. Since she is in exile, the whole world is in exile. But their real innovation was that human beings have a role to play in this divine drama: We – her children – most follow mother in her banishment. In so doing, we become privy to that “grand connection” of divinity which is the source of all inspiration:

And permission was granted to those souls who were banished from their place, following the Blessed Holy One and his Shekhina, to nest in this connection; for of this it is said: “As a bird wanders from her nest - so a person wanders from his place” – and there is no bird but the Shekhina, and the person who wanders is the righteous one who is banished and wandering like the Shekhina, of which it is said “And the Dove found no place to rest”. (Tiqqunei Zohar, Introduction)

Like Noah’s dove after the deluge, those who survive trauma have no dry land on which to rest their feet. While the logical thing to do would be to wait for dry land to appear, some in fact seek out the banishment, imposing it upon themselves. Psychologically it is a way of “working through” trauma. But where psychologists seek the water of health, Kabbalists seek the fire of hidush. The Ari called it: “connection within exile” להתחבר בגלות. Trauma itself becomes the gateway for inspiration.
We live in a very different world today. Our psychological “working through” seems far removed from spiritual innovation. We have political means to change history, and physical means to fight our destiny. We no longer need to flee physics for metaphysics. But brokenness still abounds, and whether it is be because of the woes of war and natural disaster, or the pain of personal tragedy and loss, we still often find ourselves like Noah’s dove, like the Shekhina, flapping our tired wings with no place to rest. In those moments, the image of two friends rambling through the hills of Tsfat, embodying the tragedy of the world on one hand, and seeking innovation therein at the same time, might seem a meager consolation. But the sparks of one of their hidushim might one day redeem the world.