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The Invention of the Super-Conscious

When Your Passion Dies, It’s Time to Access Your Unconscious Self

    Rabbi YY Jacobson

  • August 23, 2015
  • |
  • 8 Elul 5775
  • Comment

Class Summary:

This week's Torah portion relates a fascinating and enigmatic mitzvah—the mitzvah of “yibum,” or levirate marriages. This Essay explores the psychological and spiritual aspect of this mitzvah and how it applies today.

Dedicated by David and Eda Schottenstien in the loving memory of Alta Shula bas Yosef Yitzchak Swerdlov

The secret Jew

Ira Goldberg was heading out of the Synagogue on Yom Kippur and, as always, the rabbi was standing at the door shaking hands as the congregation departed.

The rabbi grabbed Ira by the hand and pulled him aside.

The rabbi lunged these words at him, "You need to join the Army of G-d!"

Ira replied, "I'm already in the Army of God, Rabbi."

Rabbi questioned, "How come I don't see you in Synagogue except for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?

He whispered back, "I'm in the secret service."

The Levirate Marriage

This week's Torah portion tells the story of a fascinating and enigmatic mitzvah—the mitzvah of “yibum,” or levirate marriages, which would be recorded as a law later in the portion of Ki Seitzei. (1).

"When brothers live together, and one of them dies childless, the wife of the deceased man shall not marry outside to a strange man; her brother-in-law shall come to her, and take her to himself as a wife, and perform a levirate marriage.

"The first-born son whom she bears will then perpetuate the name of the dead brother, so that his name will not be obliterated from Israel."

One of the great biblical commentators, Nachmanides, writes (2) that this mitzvah embodies "one of the great mysteries of the Torah" and that even before the Torah was given at Sinai, people knew of the spiritual benefits of a levirate marriage. The biblical commentators explain (3) that the child born of the union between the brother of the dead man and his former wife -- both of whom are intimately connected with the deceased man -- is considered the spiritual son of the deceased. Moreover, the Kabbalists suggest (4) that the first-born child of the levirate marriage is a reincarnation of the soul of its mother's first husband, bringing the deceased man, as it were, back to life.

This mitzvah applies only if the widow and her brother-in-law wish to marry each other. If either of them declines, the Torah instructs (5) the performance of a process known as chalitzah, which severs the bond between them. Till this severance process, the two are bound to each other. During the past 1,500 years, since Talmudic times, the universal custom of Ashkenazic communities is to prefer chalitzah to levirate marriage.

Judah and Tamar

Who was the first human being to introduce this practice of levirate marriage? It was Judah, who suggested to his son to marry his brother's widow and perpetuate the legacy of the deceased brother (6).

Genesis tells the story of Judah, the fourth of Jacob's sons, entering into a marriage that brought forth three sons, Er, Onan, and Shelah (7). The oldest son, Er, married a woman named Tamar, but died prematurely, without children. His bereft father, Judah, suggested to his second son, Onan (8): "Consort with your brother's wife and enter into levirate marriage with her, and establish offspring for your brother."

The continuation of the story is strange and tragic. Judah's second son also died prematurely without having any children. Judah refused to allow Tamar to marry his third son, which put her in a bind, since she could not move on, nor could she marry her brother-in-law. She thus did something out of the ordinary.

During those early times prior to the giving of Torah, Nachmanides explains (2), other relatives, in addition to brothers, used to carry out this obligation of levirate marriages. Thus, following the death of both of Tamar's husbands, she went and lured her former father-in-law, Judah, into a relationship with her which impregnated her and brought forth twin brothers, Peretz and Zerach. Peretz was the ancestor of King David (9) and the entire Davidic dynasty, including the Moshiach (Messiah), who, according to the Jewish tradition (10), will be a descendant of David.

Judah and Tamar ended up marrying each other, in fulfillment of this mitzvah of levirate marriages (11).

Why was Judah the first human being to introduce the mitzvah of levirate marriages? And why will Moshiach, the greatest leader of history who will inspire the world to embrace a life of goodness and holiness and usher in the Messianic age, emerge from an irregular levirate marriage?

Paving a Road in History's Jungle

One of the significant things about the Judah-Tamar drama is the place it is situated in the biblical text, interrupting the story of Joseph's sale to Egypt by his own brothers.

The Midrash presents a moving insight into this biblical "interruption" (12):

"The sons of Jacob," says the Midrash, "were engaged in selling Joseph; Joseph was busy with his sackcloth and fasting; Jacob was taken up with his sackcloth and fasting; Reuben was engaged in his sackcloth and fasting; Judah was busy taking a wife."

And G-d? What was G-d doing at that time? asks the Midrash. "The Holy One, blessed be He, was engaged in creating the light of the Moshiach" (Peretz, born of Judah and Tamar, is the ancestor of King David and the Messiah, as stated above).

In other words, amidst the turmoil and politics pervading the small Jewish tribe at the time; in the middle of Joseph being sold into Egyptian slavery, the event which ultimately brought about the first exile of the Jewish people in Egypt -- G-d was planting within history the seeds for the ultimate Messianic redemption, by orchestrating a relationship which brought forth to the world the seed of the Moshiach.

Thus, the strange levirate relationship between Judah and Tamar was also part of G-d paving the road through the jungle of history for redemption and Moshiach.

What is the relevance?

To understand this, we must first explore the deeper meaning behind the mitzvah of levirate marriages.

Every mitzvah in Judaism contains a "body" and a "soul (13)." The body constitutes the tangible and physical act of the mitzvah, while its soul embodies the psychological and spiritual meaning behind the mitzvah. The body of a particular mitzvah may be inapplicable at certain times, but the soul of a mitzvah remains timelessly relevant.

The same is true concerning the mitzvah of levirate marriages, known in Hebrew as yibum. The body of this mitzvah, the physical union between a widow and her brother-in-law, is usually not practiced today. But the metaphysical counterpart of this mitzvah, the symbolic marriage between a spiritual widow and a spiritual brother-in-law, is as timely today as it was 3500 years ago when Tamar married Judah. Perhaps even more.

Two Types of Emotions

In Midrashic and Kabbalistic literature (14), parents symbolize intellect and awareness while children and siblings represent emotions and feelings. Just as parents bring forth children, our awareness is what creates and fuels our emotions. To emote about anyone or anything you must have first awareness of what it is.

Therefore, when the Torah describes a situation of "brothers living together," it is also referring to two forms of human emotions, represented by the two siblings.

The first category of emotions, symbolized by one of the "brothers," is described in the Kabbalah as conscious emotions born from a person’s awareness and cognition. These are the emotions and feelings that we experience on a daily basis that cover the entire spectrum of our lives.

The second and far more mysterious category of emotions, symbolized by the second of the "brothers," is described in Kabbalah as super-conscious feelings, stemming from the primal formations of the human psyche, transcending our conscious awareness and cognition.

The emotions experienced in our conscious personality often originate within the super-conscious but are strictly contracted and filtered by our brain prior to their emerging in our conscious heart. There is, however, a much deeper and primal level in which each of us professes incredibly profound, paradoxical, and rich yearnings, cravings, and experiences that may never make their way to the fore of our exposed landscape. 

So a situation of "brothers living together," one of them marrying and having children, represents, metaphorically, the healthy and functional individual whose super-conscious emotions fuel and give birth to his more structured conscious experiences and interactions. These, in turn, allow this person to form relationships with people outside of himself, represented by marriage, and together create fruits that can impact the world and its future, represented by children and grandchildren. When you are at peace with yourself, when your emotions are balanced, you are capable of creating space for the other and creating something larger than yourself.

A Heart Dies

But sometimes a situation occurs "When brothers live together, and one of them dies childless." The Torah is referring to the death of the conscious heart of man, describing the tragedy of a human being whose burning blaze of love, inspiration, enthusiasm, and caring has been extinguished. In lieu of a vibrant, passionate, sparkling spirit who knows how to cry and laugh, how to embrace and let go, this person turns into a numb and frozen creature, paralyzed and shut off. The first "brother," the feelings and emotions that give life its twinkle and passion, is dead.

During such moments we often succumb to emptiness, despair, and addiction, and the first victims of the depression are those with whom we built relationships. When our flow of inspiration dries up, we tend to withdraw into a cocoon, isolating ourselves from the world, from our loved ones, and from ourselves. We feel depressed and childless, unmotivated to have an impact that might outlast our physical lives.

Accessing the higher emotions

Comes the Torah and declares, "The wife of the deceased man shall not marry outside to a strange man; her brother-in-law shall come to her, and take her to himself as a wife, and perform a levirate marriage."

"The wife of the deceased man," alludes to the soul of the human being (15) whose emotions (the first brother) have died. In such an instance, The Torah instructs you not to sell your destiny to the devil of depression or addiction, allowing for the death of your marriage and your dreams. Now that all of your conscious passions are lost, it is time to call in the "second brother," the higher, super-conscious, infinite powers of the human being to fill the shoes of the first brother and perpetuate the relationships that the first brother began.

What this means on a practical level is that when you are standing at the abyss, ready to be consumed into oblivion, you must know that deeply embedded within your spirit lies an incredibly profound and heroic spark. You may not be able to fully comprehend it, but if you believe in it and embrace it, it will carry you through the times of emotional desolation.

The lowest and highest moment

This is how one of the great masters of Jewish spirituality interpreted the heart-wrenching lament of the prophet Amos (16): "She has fallen, the virgin of Israel, and will no longer rise." On a literal level this is the ultimate cry about the death of hope. Amos is describing here a sense of absolute destruction and ruin, a condition when you fall so low that you can never rise again.

But there is another way to look at these very words, says Rabbi Schnuer Zalman of Liadi (17). "After she has fallen she can no longer rise, for right now, in the depth of her abyss, she has reached the greatest heights."

Once you have truly fallen, you are capable of accessing the most profound part of your soul, that super-conscious spark of infinity that embodies the endless light of G-d implanted within the human condition. Till the fall, you rely on the more superficial dynamics of your personality, since they are functioning nicely. But when these parts of your identity go "out of commission," you are compelled to dig deeper and touch the depth of depth, the quantum level of your consciousness.

So, paradoxically, your lowest moment, is essentially your highest moment.

And when you do embrace this level of self and allow it to emerge in the time of crisis, "The first-born son whom she bears will then perpetuate the name of the dead brother, so that his name will not be obliterated from Israel." This means that as time goes on you will regain "the name of the dead brother." In other words, your conscious passions and emotions will be resurrected. 

The Kabbalah of Jewish history

This perspective will grant us a psycho-historical understanding into the drama of Jewish history.

The prophets and the sages describe the Temple days, when the presence of G-d was far more manifest in the world, as a time of a passionate and zestful marriage between G-d and Israel. The Jewish people either loved G-d or they despised Him, but they could not be indifferent to Him. They were in a creative and profound relationship with each other; the reality of G-d evoked a very tangible switch in the Jewish psyche.

Then, the marriage hit an extremely low point. The passion of Israel toward G-d faded into oblivion, and G-d concealed His face from His beloved bride. The "couple" separated. G-d had His home in Jerusalem - the center of the relationship -- destroyed and the Jewish people exiled, physically and mentally.

Since then, we have craved redemption and intimacy with G-d, but our yearnings have been denied. Instead of finding G-d, we found evil and darkness. Instead of encountering the divine, we encountered Auschwitz. Instead of discovering peace, we discovered Arafat and the Hamas.

So here is the big question: How long can a couple remain separated, without getting divorced? Do we still profess a unique relationship with G-d? If we are not fully married to G-d, why not just end it completely, so that we can both be set "free?" What is the purpose of hanging in limbo for 2,000 years, not really married, but neither truly divorced?

Two forms of marriage 

Ah! This is perhaps the most important question of our history and destiny. The way in which you answer this question defines what being Jewish means to you.

Indeed, throughout history, many Jews reached the conclusion that “marriage” has reached its end. New movements have emerged, from the bundists to the secular Zionists, which each in their own way have advocated a new path for the Jewish people divorced from their covenant with G-d, yet none of them managed to normalize our people and put an end to its unique destiny. The Divine-Israel relationship seems to at the core of our existence. But what exactly is the nature of our connection?

The answer is—and it is the answer best articulated by the Chassidic movement, which sprung up while the Enlightenment challenged Judaism starkly: When our passion toward G-d died, and the romantic intimacy between us faded away, our regular marriage was supplanted by the levirate marriage. In exile, we might no longer be married to G-d with our conscious emotions; yet, we are bound to G-d with our super-conscious spirit.

The lowest and highest point of Israel

Many Jews today feel very little -- if any -- full-fledged emotions toward G-d. He has been gone for to long to evoke within us conscious passions. But if you would attempt to rob these "apathetic" Jews from their super-conscious bond with G-d, they would fight till their last breath. If you were to demand from a Jew today to cease calling himself a Jew, he would be perturbed to the core of his soul. Why? His conscious heart may feel totally detached from G-d, but on a deeper, super-conscious level, he and G-d are absolutely one.

Take Israel. Often you will have an American Jew living the dream comfortably, thinking he is apathetic. Suddenly, he heard of events in Israel and he becomes restless. Who he thought he was turns out not to be the real he, who he thought he was not turns out to be the real he. We each have many layers of emotions, some of them we are unaware of and they emerge at moments of crisis. It is the lesson from Sukkos: when you shake up the Jews, all four species are suddenly united and one.

Whatever the circumstances, he is in the "secret service" of G-d's army.

Thus, the prophet Isaiah (18) quotes the Jewish people as declaring the following words during exile times: "Though Abraham may not know us, and Israel may not recognize us, you G-d are our father."

What is Isaiah saying?

In Jewish mysticism, Abraham and Jacob represent the spiritual emotions of love and compassion. However, during the physically and morally dark times of exile, many an average Jew is not in touch with these spiritual experiences and feelings. We have become estranged from Abraham and Jacob.

So when all of our spiritual inspiration is lost, what are we left with? When Abraham and Jacob are gone from our life, what remains?

"You are our father"! On a conscious level, we may feel absolutely nothing; but beneath all of the layers, there exists an intrinsic, immutable bond between man and G-d.

Amos' above mentioned words about the time of Jewish destruction resonate very deeply. "She has fallen, the virgin of Israel, and will no longer rise." Says Rabbi Schnuer Zalman: "After she has fallen she can no longer rise, for right now, in the depth of her abyss, she has reached the greatest heights." For it is precisely during the time of the fall, that the intimacy between G-d and the Jew reaches its most profound point.

The Road to Redemption

This is the deeper reason why it was Judah who was the first person to engage in levirate marriage and that the child born of this marriage was Peretz. This child, we will recall, became the great-grandfather of King David, from whose descendants will emerge Moshiach (messiah), the leader who will usher in the Messianic age.

The significance of this drama is that it is precisely the enduring power of the "levirate marriage" that allows the Jew to endure his faith, courage and dignity throughout the darkness of the exile, and through which, with the coming of Moshiach, he can ultimately reclaim the passion that faded away.

Therefore, Judah, the father of Moshiach, was chosen to teach us how to remember that the deepest fall can contain the most profound heights.

(This essay is based on a discourse by the Tzemach Tzedek, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, (1789-1876) (21)).

1) Deuteronomy 25:5-6.
2) Rambam to Genesis 38:8.
3) See Rabenu Bachya Deuteronomy 25:6.
4) Zohar Parshas Mishpatim p. 480. Commentaries to Ramban ibid. Shalah end of Parshas Ki Seitzei.
5) Deuteronomy 25:7-9.
6) Midrash Rabah Bereishis 85:5. Quoted in Ramban ibid.
7) Genesis chapter 38.
8) Genesis 38:8.
9) The end of the book of Ruth.
10) See Rambam Hilchos Melachim chapter 11.
11) See Ramban to Genesis 38:27.
12) Midrash Rabah Bereishis 85:1.
13) See Zohar vol. 3 p. 53b.
14) Sefer Yetzirah chapter 1, as interpreted in Tanya chapter 3.
15) In the teachings of Kabbalah, the mention of a woman in the Bible usually represents the human soul.  See Maamarei Admur Hazalan Haktzarim pp. 136-138. Cf. Song of Songs and many of the commentaries to the book. Rambam Hilchos Teshuvah chapter 10.
16) Amos 5:2.
17) Torah Or Migelas Esther p. 93:3.
18) 63:16.
19) The source for the following explanation about Chanukah is Sefer Hamaamarim Melukat vol. 2 pp. 17-24.
20) See Tanya chapter 3.
21) Or Haftorah Ki Seitzie p. 1012; 1014; 1065.

Please leave your comment below!

  • M

    MBW -8 years ago

    I said this essay at my birthday farbrengen this past Shabbos and the ladies really appreciated it.
    What I really want to know is what is the hebrew terminology for the superconscious source of the higher/deeper emotions represented by the second brother?
    Thank you

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

Essay Vayeishev/Chanukah/Ki Seitzei

Rabbi YY Jacobson
  • August 23, 2015
  • |
  • 8 Elul 5775
  • |
  • Comment

Dedicated by David and Eda Schottenstien in the loving memory of Alta Shula bas Yosef Yitzchak Swerdlov

Class Summary:

This week's Torah portion relates a fascinating and enigmatic mitzvah—the mitzvah of “yibum,” or levirate marriages. This Essay explores the psychological and spiritual aspect of this mitzvah and how it applies today.

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