The Secret Jew

Ira Goldberg was heading out of the synagogue on Yom Kippur. 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. “You need to join the Army of G‑d!” he urged.

Ira replied, “I’m already in the Army of G‑d, 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 First Levirate Marriage

This week’s Parshah relates the story of Judah, the fourth of Jacob’s sons, entering into a marriage which brought forth three sons, Er, Onan and Shelah.1

The oldest son, Er, married a woman named Tamar, but died prematurely without children. His bereft father, Judah, suggested to his second son, Onan, “Consort with your brother’s wife and enter into levirate marriage with her, and establish offspring for your brother.”2

Here we are introduced for the first time to the concept of levirate marriage, discussed later in the book of Deuteronomy:

“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 levirate marriage.

“The firstborn son whom she bears will then perpetuate the name of the dead brother, so that his name will not be obliterated from Israel.”3

One of the great biblical commentators, Nachmanides, writes that this mitzvah embodies “one of the great mysteries of the Torah,” and that even before the Torah was given, people knew of the spiritual benefits of a levirate marriage.4 The biblical commentators explain 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.5 Moreover, the Kabbalists suggest that the firstborn child of the levirate marriage is a reincarnation of the soul of its mother’s first husband,6 bringing the deceased man, as it were, back to life.7

Judah and Tamar

Who was the first human being to introduce this practice of levirate marriage? It was, according to the Midrash,8 Judah, who suggested to his son to marry his brother’s widow and perpetuate the legacy of the deceased brother.

The continuation of the story is both strange and tragic. Judah’s second son also died prematurely without having any children. Now, Nachmanides explains, during those early times prior to the giving of the Torah, other relatives in addition to brothers used to carry out this obligation of levirate marriages.9 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 and the entire Davidic dynasty, including Moshiach (the Messiah), who according to the Jewish tradition will be a descendant of David.10

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

Yet the interesting question is: what is the significance behind the fact that Judah was the first to introduce the mitzvah of levirate marriage? 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 Midrash12 presents a moving insight into this biblical “interruption”:

“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 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 Moshiach.

This midrashic insight leads us to conclude that the strange levirate relationship between Judah and Tamar was also part of G‑d’s 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 marriage.

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 marriage, known in Hebrew as yibbum. The body of this mitzvah, the physical union between a widow and her brother-in-law, is impractical 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 3,500 years ago, when Tamar married Judah. Perhaps even more.

Two Types of Emotions

In midrashic and Kabbalistic literature, “parents” symbolize intellect and awareness, while “children” and “siblings” represent emotions and feelings.

Therefore, when the Bible 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 man’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 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 conscious emotional landscape.

So a situation of “brothers living together,” one of them marrying and having children, metaphorically represents 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.

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 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 and despair, and the first victims of our 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 levirate marriage.”

“The wife of the deceased man” alludes to the soul of the human being14 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, 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”—your higher, super-conscious, infinite powers—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 an emotional abyss, ready to fall 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 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: “She has fallen, the virgin of Israel, and will no longer rise.”15 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 Schneur Zalman of Liadi. “After she has fallen she can no longer rise—for right now, in the depth of her abyss, she has reached the greatest heights.”16

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. Until the fall, you rely on the more external 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 depths, 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 firstborn 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 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 the 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.

The answer is: 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 too long to provoke 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.

Whatever the circumstances, he is in the “secret service” of G‑d’s army.

Thus, the prophet Isaiah 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.”17

What is Isaiah saying?

In Jewish mysticism, Abraham and Jacob (“Israel”) 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’s abovementioned words about the time of Jewish destruction resonate very deeply. “She has fallen, the virgin of Israel, and will no longer rise.” Says Rabbi Schneur 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, 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 keep 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.

Oy Chanukah!

This truth is also reflected in the festival of Chanukah, which coincides with the Torah reading of this Judah-Tamar story.

The menorah (candelabrum) that was kindled in the Temple in Jerusalem contained only seven branches and lamps. Yet the Chanukah menorah, which is kindled even during exile times, and only in commemoration of the Temple menorah, contains eight branches and flames! If anything, it should have been the other way around.

Yet it all comes back to the same point. The number seven in Kabbalah represents the structured seven days of the week, and the structured seven emotions professed by each soul.18 The number eight, on the other hand, symbolizes the super-conscious singular spark of the soul that transcends the structured and organized components of the seven-branched psyche.

During the Temple days, the Jewish people accessed the seven luminescent flames burning within their souls. Yet the heroism displayed during the Chanukah period, at a time of horrific darkness and despair, elicited from within the Jewish soul the eighth and super-conscious dimension, that infinite and immutable divine dignity, that transcends even the spiritual light pervading the Holy Temple.19

This deeper light is what sustained us through the darkest of nights, in our turbulent journey toward redemption.20