September 24, 2018

The Curtain and the Veil — Commentary on Torah Portion Toldot – Rabbi Mordecai Finley

The Curtain and the Veil
Rebecca goes to inquire of God when she does not know what is happening inside of her. The text does not say that she sat and prayed. Upon experiencing unusual pain in her pregnancy, she says, “If this is so, why do I exist,” and then “she went to inquire of God.”
The text does not say where she went, but the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 63:6) explains that she went to the Beit Midrash (House of Study) of Shem and Eber. The Midrash then adds, “This comes to teach that to visit a Zaken (a wise elder) is like visiting the Shechinah (the Divine Presence). The great commentary on the Midrash Maharzu (Moreinu HaRav Ze’ev Wolf) explains, “The Holy Divine Presence appears upon a Tzadik (Righteous One). In one’s approaching a Tzadik, the Holy Spirit (ru’ach ha’kodesh) cleaves a bit (on to the one who approaches).
To review:  Rebecca does not seek out God in her own tribal camp. The Midrash tells us that she went to the place where Jerusalem would eventually be, where the House of Study of Shem and Eber existed. Once she arrives, she approaches one of them, it seems, and thus comes into close contact with the Divine Presence. From there, she inquires of God and receives the prophecy concerning her pregnancy.
This is very deep. First, that before and parallel to God’s establishing the covenant with Abraham and his descendants (and those who join them), there exists another spiritual tradition that grounds the Divine Presence into this world. Shem was the son of Noach, and Eber was the great grandson of Shem. This House of Study is referred to in many places in the Midrash, always as a place of spiritual guidance for the patriarchs and matriarchs. In other words, this House of Study was not seen as a different religious path from the covenant of Abraham, but rather as a spiritual resource. The Midrash of the Talmudic period seems to insist that there is a universal spiritual wisdom that nourished our ancestors.
Second, when they would go to the House of Study of Shem and Eber, God would not speak through these Sages, but in proximity to them. These two sages might have had the gift of prophecy (speaking the word and will of God), but in the Midrash we are referring to, they drew the Divine Presence to them. It surrounded them, like an aura. The ubiquity of the Divine condensed. When near one of the Sages, Rebecca was able to receive the word of God.
The Celtic tradition speaks of Thin Places, where the substance that separates our world from the Divine world is less a heavy drapery and more a diaphanous veil. (I heard about this listening to Krista Tippet’s “On Being”).
Thin Places make us pause. Our hearing becomes more acute. We can hear beyond the noise of this world. Even when we are very still, we can still hear that almost silent sibilation. Imagine that the faint buzz turns into a murmur. Or that our body senses that the spiritual atmosphere has shifted. We are poised.
In Thin Places, an essential self that is buried beneath the drives and fancies of this world becomes present. We desire nothing more than to be present, to hear.
The Midrash seems to tell us that some people can establish a Thin Place. Perhaps as these people tune their consciousness to the Divine Presence, others nearby can hear the tone, and are drawn in. These lightning rods of the Divine Presence know that the earth’s topography favors some places. Maybe something happened there. Maybe something will happen there. Maybe the place is inhabited. Perhaps inhabited by us.
Around those people – unique people, or any of us at a precious moment – and in those places, truth is more apparent and the hidden becomes manifest.
Perhaps holy dwellings, like a synagogue, draw down the Divine Presence, move aside the curtain, and we can touch the Divine with our souls through that delicate veil. And we are prepared for what comes next.