Bereishit

God Is Other People

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Yaakov Nagen

The Zohar, or the Book of Splendor, is named for the inner dimension of reality, which Kabbalah identifies with the divine. The book instructs its readers to encounter this hidden splendor and recognize God in it, a meeting that leads to enlightenment. One of the great contributions of the Zohar is the perception that the divine interpenetrates life itself, including individual people, in their relationships with the world and with others. Contrary to mystical modes of consciousness that seek to break with the world and transcend it, the Zohar proposes a relationship with the divine that connects the earthly and supernal realities. The journey to God, according to the Zohar, passes through interpersonal relationships: from a couple’s intimate bond to the mundane interactions between the individual and the community. Much of the book consists of conversations between friends, who encounter the Torah through studying, traveling, and generally spending time together. Quietist outlooks, by which one walls oneself off from the world, are foreign to Judaism – and particularly to the Zohar. The crucial point is that transcendence lies within life, not beyond it.

Shattered Vessels, Broken People

At the end of the parsha is the story of the Akedah (the binding of Isaac). The Torah does not say why God decides to test Abraham, and both the Midrash and the Zohar attempt to explain what transpired beforehand. The difference between the Midrash’s straightforward explanation and the Zohar’s esoteric approach can help elucidate the novel message of Kabbalah. Both interpretations explain the test of the Akedah, which ultimately brought Abraham closer to God, as a reaction to Abraham refraining from giving something to God and thus damaging his relationship with Him. Consequently, Abraham is tested with the ultimate demand – to give his only son. Let us look over the sources to see how they characterize Abraham’s earlier sin and the thing that he refrained from giving.

Here is the Midrash, as quoted by Rashi:

“After these things” (Genesis 22:1): Some of our sages say (Sanhedrin 89b) [that it happened] after the words of Satan, who was accusing and saying, “Of every feast that Abraham made, he did not sacrifice before You one bull or one ram!” [God] said to him, “Does he do anything but for his son? Yet, if I were to say to him, ‘Sacrifice him before Me,’ he would not withhold [him].”

According to the Midrash, Abraham celebrates Isaac’s weaning, but does not offer God a sacrifice of thanks. Abraham’s sin is forgetting to show gratitude to God. Satan seizes the opportunity and describes the error as the symptom of a rift between Abraham and God, who thus decides to test Abraham with the Akedah.

The Zohar has a different interpretation:

Rabbi Shimon opened, saying: Whoever rejoices on the festivals without giving the blessed Holy One His share – that evil-eyed Satan hates him and accuses him and removes him from this world…. The share of the blessed Holy One consists in gladdening the poor as best as one can. For on these days the blessed Holy One comes to see those broken vessels of His. Entering their company and seeing they have nothing to celebrate, He weeps over them – and then ascends to destroy the world! Many members of the Academy come before Him and plead: “Master of the universe! You are called Compassionate and Gracious. May Your compassion be aroused for Your children!” He answers them, “Do not the inhabitants of the world realize that I based the world solely on love? As it is written: I said, ‘The world shall be built on love (Psalms 89:3).’ By this the world endures.” (Zohar, Hakdamot 10b)

Later, according to the Zohar, Satan arrives at Abraham’s celebratory banquet disguised as a pauper. No one notices him, and he comes before the Lord to denounce Abraham: “Master of the universe, You called Abraham ‘My beloved’ (Isaiah 41:8)? He held a feast and gave me nothing, and nothing to the poor.” Abraham’s is a social transgression: he disregards the poor. Unlike the Midrash, which focuses on the direct dialogue between Abraham and his Maker, the Zohar takes in the entire human vista, where the encounter with the infinite God takes place.

Here, the idea of “shattered vessels” is described as the cause of all privation. Prior to it, everything was harmonious, and the vessels received direct divine light; however, a fault in the process of Creation caused the vessels to shatter, and their sparks to be strewn throughout the cosmos (thus turning the entire cosmos into a divine space). Humanity’s purpose is to repair the vessels, and to reveal and raise up the sparks. The shattered vessels are people; each contains a lost divine spark. The individual is repaired through contending with human want, which is in fact divine want. The Zohar explains that in giving to the poor one is not merely fulfilling an interpersonal mitzvah, but rather giving to God Himself. The human realm and its privations are part and parcel of the divine realm, and Abraham’s status as God’s beloved thus depends on his treatment of the other, of the poor.

The social implications of the myth of the shattering of the vessels are further elucidated in the thought of one of the preeminent kabbalists of the twentieth century, Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag. To him, the shattering of the vessels is an expression of the damage wrought by an unjust distribution of wealth, a reality that corrupts the world, including the rich. In 1958, then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion wrote to Yehuda Tzvi Brandwein, a close disciple of the rabbi: “[Rabbi Ashlag] asked me on many occasions after the establishment of the state whether we would institute a communist regime.” Later, when he learned of the atrocities perpetrated in the Soviet Union, he became disillusioned with communism and renounced his vision of a just distribution that could be effected through politics.[1]

Happiness and Wealth

It is relatively simple to give alms to the poor, but the Zohar’s demand extends further: one must bring them joy as well. According to the Zohar’s broader definition of social justice, social responsibility is not merely economic; it has to do with human interaction. As Douglas Adams put it in the foreword to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

Most of the people living on [the planet] were unhappy for pretty much all of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movement of small green pieces of paper, which was odd because on the whole it was not the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.[2]

A similar attitude emerges from the story of Satan disguising himself as a pauper who is ignored at Abraham’s party. In addition to railing at the food that he is denied, he fumes at the experience of alienation. The Talmud (Bava Batra 9b) says that it is preferable to comfort the poor with words than to give them alms.

Sadly, discussions of social justice, even when they stem from good intentions, tend to be reduced to questions of money and budgets, and end with the usual sigh over poverty reports. The question of happiness is missing from the economic equations, seemingly highlighting one of the great gaps in the communist idea: that in addition to a redistribution of wealth, there must be a redistribution of ha hippiness. Even some immensely wealthy people are profoundly unhappy, shattered vessels that must be repaired. To paraphrase the popular Israeli singer Muki, “Everybody talks about money, nobody talks about happiness.” A correct social outlook should seek a way to make all human resources, physical and spiritual alike, available throughout society. Spiritual resources in this context are intimacy with other people, inclusion of the other, happiness, responsibility, giving, and spiritual aspirations.

The key to happiness lies not only with heaven; we must not forget that we are responsible for the world. The verse “The world shall be built on love” is generally interpreted as a request that we make of God, but the Zohar interprets it as a statement about human responsibility. The existence of the world depends on us, on the kindness and compassion that we show to one another. Divine reality, the Zohar reminds us, is constructed by man.

Hospitality and God

Before the Torah tells of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, it relates the following:

Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him. For I have known him, to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice. (Genesis 18:18–19)

God chooses Abraham because he believes in his ability to raise his progeny in the way of the Lord, the way of righteousness and justice. But Abraham’s message to the world is that the benefits of righteousness and justice should extend to the other as well – not only to one’s family and friends. The novelty of that message is driven home by the context: the verse appears just before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and serves as an introduction of sorts to that episode. True to form, Abraham tries to convince God to commute the sentence (18:23–25): “And Abraham drew near, and said: ‘Wilt Thou indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?…shall not the judge of all the earth do justly?’” In his outcry, Abraham emphasizes that righteousness and justice are God’s paths, in which he, Abraham, treads and which he perpetuates in the world.

Abraham’s conception of the other stands in stark contrast to the prevailing attitudes in Sodom. In an earlier episode (14:21), the king of Sodom makes a proposal to Abraham that at first blush seems admirable: “And the king of Sodom said unto Abram: ‘Give me the persons, and take the goods to thyself.’” Ostensibly, he is a wonderful leader, ceding the money because people are more important. But his true meaning is deeply sinister: he does not consider himself responsible for non-citizens of Sodom, who, like Lot’s guests, are fair game for unthinkable savagery. The Beit HaLevi contrasts Lot’s hospitality with that practiced by Abraham. Lot, he writes, is prepared to forfeit his life for his guests, but only because he knows they are messengers of God. But Abraham is unaware of their identity; he is under the impression that they are wayfarers, and yet his tent remains open to them. Food is served, water is proffered to the parched vagabonds to drink and to wash their feet, and a true encounter ensues.

The Talmud (Shabbat 127a) makes the astounding assertion that “hospitality to wayfarers is greater than welcoming the presence of the Shekhina” – the human is placed above the divine. The Zohar teaches us that hospitality is itself a welcoming of the Shekhina.

Abraham’s turn toward the radically other resonates in the modern philosophies of Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas. Buber’s dialogic approach is founded on “I-thou,” rather than “I-it,” relations. I-thou relations facilitate a genuine connection between people based on the understanding that it is only through the other that one is constructed as a spiritual personality. Buber’s insight was sown by tragedy. At the turn of the twentieth century, he was engaged in the study – both academic and practical – of Eastern religions. One day, while Buber was meditating, one of his students approached and asked to speak to him. Buber ignored the student. On the next day, he learned that the man had taken his own life. Buber, who blamed the student’s death on his own aloofness and excessive pursuit of detachment from the world, decided to change, and began to develop his dialogic philosophy.

Levinas, a French-Jewish philosopher, sought to gaze into the face of the other and through it find himself. According to him, God is the “ultimate other,” that which is diametrically opposed to myself. The individual’s task is to open up to the human infinity before him.

The philosophy of Levinas is especially germane to the Israeli experience. The Israeli “other” is anyone who is not “us,” who does not look like “us” or speak “our” language. A glance at those who reside in Israel’s “backyard” is enough to drive home the extent of the country’s tribalism and social alienation. Our approach to other religions and nations outside Israel is equally lacking. The true challenge of our time is to look kindly upon those others who are lost in the Israeli public space.


[1] Micha Odenheimer, “Latter-day Luminary,” Haaretz, December 16, 2004, https://www.haaretz.com/latter-day-luminary-1.144149.

[2] Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (London: Pan Macmillan, 2009), 8.