There are some sefarim (books) and rebbaim (rabbis/teachers) who remain closed off to me for years, but suddenly they come alive and shimmer with the brightest light I can imagine. When this happens, I feel a sense of real urgency to understand what messages they have for me, what lessons I surely was not ready for in the past, but suddenly find so important. It literally took decades of urging by one friend until Rav Kook began to shine so brightly to me. Another is Mei HaShiloach by the Ishbitzer, advocated to me by another friend and teacher. If there is a common thread between the two, it’s that they don’t ask simple questions designed to elicit a predictable, preprogrammed response. Rather the questions they ask force me to think, to confront eveything I thought I already knew, to challenge my long-accepted frames of reference. A reminder that Judaism isn’t a catechism religion.
Especially with Ishbitz, there’s not only no guarantee that he will leave me on safe ground, bouyed up by “what everyone knows”, rather, he’s much more likely to leave me filled with questions, wondering if anything I thought I knew can be maintained.
Of course, that’s how Torah should be. If Torah, the blueprint the Infinite Creator uses to bring reality into existence, “U-VaTuvo Michadesh B’Chol Yom Tamid Ma’aseh Bereishit“, In His Beneficence, in His pure goodness, renews every day, the very act of Creation, and also represents the Infinite Mind of The Creator, it’s impervious to a “one and done” understanding. In fact, it also implicitly and simultaneously contains possibility and impossibility, the inescapable conclusion that it’s both true and untrue at the same time.
The Ishbitzer writes about Parshat Emor, which begins by prohibiting Kohenim, hereditary members of the priestly sect, from our normal mourning practices. These mourning practices accompany us through the complex psychological stages of mourning, beginning with the acceptance of death, our most painful life experience. It’s natural for most of us to experience it as pain and loss with nothing positive at all about it. A Kohen is held to a higher standard. As one whose entire service is directly addressed to The Creator, he must keep in mind that nothing that occurs in this world is random, but everything is under the hashgacha, supervision, of God. And since God’s intention, as far as we’re able to understand (i.e. at the very limit of our understanding) is only l’heytiv, to benefit. An ordinary person, in the midst of devestation and loss, perhaps as part of a psychological emergency reaction, cannot entertain such complexity, that there are more than a single aspect to God’s treatment.
A Kohen, we are often reminded in many other places, lives at a heightened level of love, and also of awareness. Aaron, the first and prototypical Kohen, is Ohev Shalom and Rodef Shalom, loves peace and actively persues it (Mishna Avot 1:12). He is the quintessential Ish Chesed, man of Chesed, loving-kindness.It might be impossible for a true Kohen to fully engage with the other side which we call Gevura, “strength” if one oversimplifies one’s world view and sees Chesed and Gevurah as “opposites” rather than as complementary.
Kaballah, our “mystical” tradition, can, and should, lead us to understand that the world is not created in stark black-and-white. Rather, it’s infinitely shaded and complex. Unfortunately, perhaps because of the over-emphasis of the legal aspects of Torah, Halacha, even those who don’t feel caught up with or obligated to fulfill Halacha have adopted the radical misconception that Torah is authoritarian, confusing that with authoritative, which is much closer to the true nature of Torah. Thus, they’ll look at the infinitely complicated and complex world of Sefirot, a type of divine energy underlying all physical reality, literally and as mutually exclusive. Rather than seeing ten distinct, but interrelated forces as separate and, somehow, unique and independent forces. Thus, they want to see Aaron’s central trait of Chesed as excluding Gevurah, continuing this over-simplification until is somehow monotonally exists without any trace of any more subtle shade to what they want to simply label as Chesed, “Loving Kindness”.
Seen this way, a Kohen should literally be excluded from mourning practices except, as a concession to human weakness, for his immediate relavites. Halacha l’ma’aseh, practical halacha, the normative rule that’s chosen, almost always only one of several or more opinions, might seem simple, but the process from which it is derived is anything but. Thus Halacha forces us to see even Aharon, the Kohain, to contain competing inner forces, living both as a symbol and also, just as importantly, living human.
Rather, we’re forced to see that overly-easy answers imply overly-easy questions and that the entire process leads us away from reality. Rather, we need to remember that God’s seal, Chotem Hashem, is Emet, Truth.