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An Ambidextrous Theology

Posted on | May 29, 2014 | By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz | 9 Comments

Why is the Sotah’s case adjudicated through trial by watery potion?

Why do kohanim put their hands together when bestowing the priestly blessing?

He [the kohen] will then make the [suspected adulteress] woman drink the bitter curse-bearing waters and they will begin to take effect. ~BeMidbar 5:24

Speak to Ahron and his sons, saying: This is how you must bless the Bnei Yisrael-the Nation of Israel.  Say to them … ~BeMidbar 6:23

Your right Hand O HaShem is awe-inspiring in strength, Your right Hand O HaShem pounds the enemy … You stretched out Your right Hand the earth swallowed them. ~Shemos15:7,12  

Another interpretation (of the repetition of “Your right Hand) When the Bnei Yisrael perform the Will of G-d they transform the left into the right. But when they don’t, they transform the right to left as the pasuk (Eichah 2:3) says “He has drawn back His right Hand from before the enemy” ~Mechilta on Shirah Parshah 5

And he said: … I saw HaShem sitting on His throne, and all the host of heaven standing by Him on His right Hand and on his Left. ~Melachim  I 22:19

Does G-d have a left Hand/Side? [How could this be] when the pasuk states “HaShem’s right hand is exalted; the right hand of HaShem performs valiantly.” (Tehillim 118:16) [implying that, kivyachol -as it were; there are two Divine right Hands but no left Hand at all]. Rather [the meaning is] those Angels that advocate for clemency and mercy are described as being on the Right while those angels that prosecute and demand retribution are described as being on the Left.  ~Rashi ibid

Rabi Shmuel bar Nachman said “Woe to the wicked who transform the right into left ….and the righteous who transform left to right are commendable ~Bereshis Rabbah 73:2

[Do not divert from the ruling of the Judges] either right or left: Even if this judge tells you that right is left, and that left is right [believe them]! ~Rashi to Devarim 17:10,11 from Sifri

For the vast majority of human beings (estimates range from 70-95% of the population) who are right-handed, their left hand is the weaker and less nimble of their two hands. This statistic is reflected in our traditional Theology. In Jewish thought the middah-Divine trait for administration of creation; of Chessed- lovingkindness; is identified with the right side/ arm while the middah of Gevurah-rigor/ justice- untempered-by-mercy/retribution; is identified with the left side/ arm.   This is because the middah of Chessed is relatively stronger, kivyachol-as it were; than the middah of GevurahChessed is, kivyachol, HaShem’s “original” intent and antedates His administration of His creation, it is the middah that informs His very Creative process itself.  In the words of the psalmist “For I have said: ‘For the olam- cosmos; is built through Chessed” (Tehillim 89:3)

Gevurah is sometimes viewed as Chessed’s handmaiden; meant to add traction and heft to Chessed. The principle of nahama d’kisufa-“the bread of shame”; teaches that were Gevurah not even a possibility then the unearned gifts of Chessed heaped upon the recipients would humiliate them.

Alternatively, Gevurah is deemed to be obstructed, frustrated Chessed. One great late-twentieth century thinker explained the relationship between the two middos allegorically. When one throws a ball in a certain direction the throwers expectation is that the ball will run its course in the same direction that he threw it.  If a sudden impediment, e.g. a wall, springs up in the balls path the ball will not merely fall to the ground, it will boomerang back in the opposite direction, but with less force and velocity.  Our own misdeeds (or sinful thoughts or words) are barriers to the Divine “plan A” kivyachol of bestowing favor and blessing. The frustrated, impeded Chessed that could not run its course and reach its target ricochets and manifests itself as Rigor and Retributive Justice.

The disciples of the Izhbitzer school taught that our sidrah provide examples of the right “becoming” left, i.e. of Chessed and Rachamim-mercy; becoming Gevurah and Din-justice and vice versa.

There are infinite possibilities for miracles. In TeNaK”h we find miraculous Divine retributions as diverse as the 10 plagues, a gaping orifice in the earth’s crust, incendiary fire-and-brimstone carpet-bombing and tumbling city walls; to name but a few. Rav Tzadok, the Lubliner Kohen, addresses an unarticulated question about the sotah-the suspected adulteress: As she is tried and, if found guilty, punished, by miraculous means why is the medium of her punishment water, davka-in particular?

To understand the Lubliner Kohen’s answer we must first examine the deeper insights that he offers into the symbolism of water and dehydration and into the antithetical natures of Chessed and Gevurah.

Water is the source of all enjoyment and pleasure. The Gan Eiden-the Garden of Pampering Pleasures; is identified with the four great rivers whose headwaters originate there and with the rain-giving cloud that rises from it.  Idiomatically things that are pleasure giving are often described as juicy, zaftig-full of sap; or having lachluchis-moisture. Conversely, the most austere and pleasureless of all terrains are deserts. The great desert to the south of Eretz Yisrael-the land of Israel; is known as the Negev.  Literally, this means the dehydrated place. In modern Ivrit the word for a towel is magevet as it is meant to dry out and dehydrate the surface it is drawn over.

And so, when  pursuits of pleasure are perverted and exploited by the wicked and sinful it is considered an abuse of the very nature of water. It has often been said that we are not punished for our sins — but by them, and, as such, middah k’neged middah-quid pro quo; those whose sins are derived from ta’avah-lusty, sinful hedonism; are punished via water. The generation of the Great Flood (all flesh has perverted its way upon the earth) and Egyptian civilization (the nakedness of the earth/ land) at the Sea of Reeds were both annihilated via water.  These are case histories of the wicked transforming right of Chessed-waters into left.

In stark contrast, the Bnei Yisrael, whose kedushah-holiness; derives in great part from their chaste moderation in the pursuit of pleasure, merited having the Sea of Reeds “tear” i.e. part to let them past.  This hearkens back to the Genesis narrative when Gevurah cleaved the waters for the first time as HaShem decreed: “there shall be a firmament (rekeea) in the middle of the waters that will divide between waters and waters.” (Bereshis 1:6) [Maimonides, in his commentary to mishnayos, (Avos 5:8 ) opines that the miracle of the tearing of the Sea of Reeds was, in fact, rooted in the natural order as the Divine pronouncement of “there shall be a rekeea” established the natural capacity for waters to divide.]

The Lubliner Kohen goes on to explain the reason that the tearing of the Sea of Reeds became a Talmudic metaphor for kivyachol a “hard” or “tough” Divine piece of work.  It is because that which is wrought with Gevurah requires power and might and is not soft, warm and fuzzy.  Yet when, the Bnei Yisrael sang the “Song of the Sea” they praised HaShem [the Divine name of Mercy] as having two right hands. This is a case history of the virtuous transforming the arid,dehydrated left of Gevurah into right.

The medium of capital punishment for the sotah is water. Why water?  Because if guilty, she too abused the power of water; source for all Chessed and it’s dark underbelly, taavah, to pursue forbidden pleasure with her paramour.

Of the three patriarchs, the one identified with Gevurah and, consequently, with the tearing of the Sea of Reeds, is Yitzchok.  Like his Rebbe, the Izhbitzer before him, the Lubliner Kohen interprets the pasuk  “And he (Yitzchok) dwelled in the Land of the Negev”(Bereshis 24:62) to mean that through Gevurah, antithetical to Chessed, Yitzchok had dehydrated himself of all taavah and bequeathed this spiritual capacity for ascetic kedushah to the Bnei Yisrael, especially at the tearing of the Sea of Reeds. Yitzchok is described in the gemara (Shabbos 89B) as displaying G-d to the  Bnei Yisrael  to see with their own eyes. Sure enough, Chazal teach us that at the tearing of the Sea of Reeds the lowest starta of the Bnei Yisrael saw HaShem with a prophetic clarity unmatched even by the navee- prophet; Yechezkal in his “work of the Chariot” such that they could point with their fingers and declare “This is my G-d and I will exalt Him.”

When kohanim confer Birkas Kohanim-the Priestly Blessing; they manipulate their hands in a way that A.  two adjacent fingers “fuse” as if they were one broader finger and B. as if an ox could bring the horns from either side of his head to converge and then to protrude out of the center of his forehead to approximate a unicorn bovine, the kohanim bring their two arms together as if they were reducing two hands into a single hand with bulkier fingers.

Rav Leibeleh Eiger explains that Birkas Kohanim  is intended to transform the two hands into one “right” hand, evoking a Divine Emanation of pure, unadulterated Mercy with no admixture of Rigor and Retributive Justice . He bases this on a passage in the Zohar that points out that in the Hebrew original of the pasuk describing the first priestly blessing ever: “And Ahron lifted his hand(s) up toward the people, and blessed them” (Vayikra 9:22) the word is spelled yado not yadav and would translate as the singular “hand”  rather than as the plural “hands”.

Toras Emes Naso D”H Hinei Ikar
Kunteris Kedushas Shabbos 7 D”H v’Chol Ahmahl page 49
Mei HaShiloach I Chayei Sara D”H v’Yitzchok

Comments

9 Responses to “An Ambidextrous Theology”

  1. micha
    May 29th, 2014 @ 3:27 pm

    Speaking as a lefty…

    The question comes up pragmatically: Is a mitzvah supposed to be performed with the right hand because it is more respectful to use one’s skilled hand? Or is it because the sefirah of chessed is associated with the right hand?

    Assuming the “respect” answer makes it easier to understand why someone who is stronger in their left hand but writes with their right would wear tefillin, associated with writing, as per a righty, and all the other mitzvos as per a lefty. (Let’s assume his right hand us naturally more coordinated; those who write righty because their first grade teachers forced them into the habit raise a whole set of questions.)

    And assuming the “sefirah” answer then raises a second question: Why do we picture chessed on the right? Is is something that links the metaphysics to physical space that makes it more rightward in an objective sense? Is it subjective — we’re saying that Hashem dispenses more chessed than din, the way most people can do more with their right hand? (As R’ Chanina b Dosa learned the hard way when he alienated his wayward student — “push [them] away with the left, but [them] draw close with the right”.) And if subjective, does it go by most people, or should I, a lefty, picture a mirror-image Tree of Life?

    A ferinstance… How should a lefty pick up lulav and esrog? The “kavod” argument would say that since 3 of the 4 species (lulav, hadassim, and aravos) go in the same hand, a lefty should use his left hand for the lulav. But would he switch the sides for the hadassim and aravos? Is it better to have the aravos next to the esrog, or are the aravos on the left anyway? The kavod argument doesn’t give another reason to switch sides (other than touching the esrog), but the sefirah argument might…

  2. Rabbi Dovid Schwartz
    May 29th, 2014 @ 8:08 pm

    These are very deep and complex questions but as far as pragmatic practicum the framework for consideration of the questions must be poskim and responsa literature.

    As for self-image I’d say that any lefty performing mitzvos, in particularly if he is doing them in a way that can be described as a mischased im kono, is among “the righteous who transform left to right and are commendable”

    is this Micha from Nachlaot?

  3. Rabbi Dovid Schwartz
    May 29th, 2014 @ 8:29 pm

    kavod or sefiros…hmmm there may be a third possibility. I once heard (IIRC from one of the baalei mussar) that the reason Chessed is associated with the right side is because when we do chessed we face one another so we want to direct that which is strongest in us to help and bestow kindness on that which is weakest in our fellows.

  4. SoMeHoW Frum
    June 1st, 2014 @ 8:03 am

    Wouldn’t it make sense to punish the Sotah with an absense of water?

    As for Duchaning, one might ask as well that if the two hands join, what makes it 2 right hands more than 2 left hands? Although in reality, one is supposed to place the right thumb on top of the left thumb as the hands meet, perhaps just for this reason.

  5. Rabbi Dovid Schwartz
    June 1st, 2014 @ 10:13 am

    Hey Pey kushya…Why ask on Sotah and not on Dor hamabul and the Mitzriyim at Yam Suf?

    I think the answer to all the kushyos is the same, if they had been punished with dryness it would have been Gevurah asserting itself. Being punished via water means that Chessed had been co-opted and was punishing them; that they had turned right into left as is the way of the reshaim…

    Rabi Shmuel bar Nachman said “Woe to the wicked who transform the right into left ….and the righteous who transform left to right are commendable ~Bereshis Rabbah 73:2

    As for duchening your point about the thumbs is well taken but this is a geder of אם קבלה היא נקבל . If you saw the source sheet then you know that Rav Leibeleh wrote (no doubt quoting or paraphrasing a Zohar and/ or kisvei Arizal) לאתכללא שמאלא בימינא -to subsume the left within the right ….NOT the other way around.

  6. Bob Miller
    June 1st, 2014 @ 3:32 pm

    If the “Sefirot array” was a mirror image of what we see in texts, would the visible or invisible workings of our world look any different to us?

  7. Rabbi Dovid Schwartz
    June 1st, 2014 @ 8:53 pm

    I’m not sure that I understand the question

  8. Bob Miller
    June 2nd, 2014 @ 2:05 pm

    In the conventional diagrams, some Sefirot line up on the right and some others on the left. If this was reversed (I don’t mean in the diagram, but in reality!) would we sense any change?

  9. Rabbi Dovid Schwartz
    June 2nd, 2014 @ 5:24 pm

    per the Izhbitzer school insight cited in this post it would radically change everything. It would mean that the primary intent kivyachol, of HaShem, His “stronger, primary side would be din and gevurah.

    it would result in a bizzarro topsy-turvy world in which our entire value system would be inverted. Furthermore per the paradigm of the cosmos as we know it such s Creation would be unsustainable.

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