Hukkat, Noam Elimelech and Levinas

Here is an interesting Dvar Torah by a classmate of mine from YU. In it, he juxtaposes Noam Elimelech and Levinas on distance bring one closer to God (and in the full version explians why it is different than Rabbi Soloveitchik who accepts distance as the normal state of things). This is clearly drush, in an oral style, in which I do not expect the details to sustain close scrutiny. But it would be nice to hear more derashot that attempt to bring in contemporary thought. Anyone has any good sermons to report? Can the community sustain such homiletic devices? My Christain readers- heard any good philosophic sermons lately?

Hukkat: The Red Heifer Ritual- Distance Bringing You Closer

The ceremony, in days when the Temple stood, involved the ashes of a red heifer, which were reconstituted by the priest with purified water and sprinkled upon the individual or object that needed purification.
This ceremony is uniquely bizarre and the Torah itself identifies it as such, in the opening verse of the section, labeling the ceremony as a Hukka, traditionally translated as a “law which is beyond any kind of sense or interpretation”

The early Hassidic master Noam Elimelech, R. Elimelech of Lizensk suggests that the word hukka does not mean a law that is inexplicable, as commonly translated, but in fact the term is derived from a different etymology entirely, from the homonymous verb, lahkok, which means to engrave; that is, performance of this ritual causes a message to be engraved upon ones heart. That message which must be engraved upon ones heart is not, however, specified in that particular teaching.

The NE notes that the phrase distance appears in other texts dealing with sublime spiritual moments, for example, in the episode of the binding of Isaac, we are told that at the third day, at the height of the spiritual challenge, Abraham sees the place from a distance. Thus there is implied a connection between distance and the spiritual.

The NE suggests that the red heifer text is really about teshuva, repentance, the coming closer to Gd. It is the nature of the dialectic of coming close, that nearness so often reveals distancing. When one makes the effort to come closer, to abrogate past spiritual failings (the contact with death signifying the ultimate cessation of the spiritual in this worldly affairs), then Gd draws the individual closer in a reciprocated move. However, once one attains such heights of spiritual insight one then realizes how far the individual is from Gd in every way. This distance does not imply a rebuff on the part of Gd, in fact, the opening of this divide is meant as an invitation to cross over to an even higher spiritual understanding, which by the nature of these things would lead to an even more humbling recognition of the chasm in between, which, one presumes, would continue infinitely, sort of like the differential in calculus.

I was startled by the similarity between the Hassidic paradox of distance and the summation of Levinas’ work Totality and Infinity. The “infinity” referred to in the title is the endless number of worlds, of possibilities one can achieve when one begins to perceive of the Other as entirely different from oneself. Levinas then defines:

This distance is then the route to which endless possibilities of human existence present themselves Distance with regard to being, by which the existent exists in truth, is produced as time and as consciousness, or again, as anticipation of the possible. The structure of consciousness or of temporality-of distance and truth-results from an elementary gesture of the being that refuses totalization. In fecundity (to Levinas, the ultimate Othering which is transformative of the self, when being open to all the possibilities one opens towards the future, is that of the relation of parent and child, which he labels fecundity) distance with regard to being is not only provided in the real; it consists in a distance with regard to the present itself. The discontinuous time of fecundity makes possible an absolute youth and recommencement. This recommencement of the instant, this triumph of the time of fecundity over the beginning of the mortal and aging being, is a pardon, the very work of time.

Note the introduction of the concept of pardon, which plays a role similar to that of teshuva in the Noam Elimelech. Pardon acts as a retroaction, an ability to redetermine the meaning of the past in such a way as to open whole new futures. In fact, contra Heidegger, death is not the finitude of being that constitutes the essence of time but rather is an unknown, which is, in a sense, transcended by fecundity-
…the fact and the justification of time consist in the recommencement it makes possible in the resurrection, across fecundity, of all the compossibles sacrificed in the present.
Thus we see a structural similarity, whereby the act of achieving pardon, helps transcends the gap of Otherness which in turn opens up a whole realm of new possibilities of being. It is the experience of the distances themselves which bring about this transformation. What appears to be a distance actually grounds the closest truth to ones own being, in Levinas labelled “fecundity”.
These are the hukkot, the inexplicable distances, reehuk, we experience, that leave their traces at the most intimate, the most close, or in the words of Chazel, that chakaku, engrave themselves upon our hearts.
Mark H. Kirschbaum, MD, Dept of Hematology and Stem Cell Transplantation, City of Hope National Cancer Center, Duarte, CA,
Read the whole version here.

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