An Old Man Running: R' Shimon b. Yochai Part IX

Continued from Intro, I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII

[I couldn’t let Parshat Yitro get too far away without explaining this next installment of this ongoing series, which includes a discussion of the relationship between Shamor and Zachor.But it turns out that I won't even get that far in this installment.]

On the eve of the Sabbath before sunset they saw an old man holding two bundles of myrtle and running at twilight. What are these for?' they asked him. 'They are in honour of the Sabbath,' he replied. 'But one should suffice you'? — One is for 'Zachor (Commemorate)' and one for 'Shamor (Observe – these two terms appear in the Decalogue of Shemot and Devarim, and are understood as the two major categories of Shabbat observance).' Said he to his son, 'See how precious the commandments are to Israel.' Thereupon their minds were appeased.

On the Eve of Shabbat, it becomes difficult to distinguish between the holy and the mundane. It is the moment when the sacred and profane meet, where the ordinary meets the extraordinary.

At that moment, R’ Shimon sees an old man running. What a strange sight, the sun sinking beneath the horizon as an old man sprints – to where exactly? – while holding two myrtle branches. One is insufficient; two captures both elements of Shabbat. And this appeases our heroes. Who is this old man? Why is he running? Why is it so important that he carry two myrtles, not one? The strangeness of this scene hides the fact that it contains the central symbol and climax of the entire narrative.

Old men don’t typically run very well. They tend to be infirm, plodding, and generally slow. There are exceptions to the rule, though. Psalms 92:15, for example, speaks of the righteous, who will ‘remain fruitful in old age; cleansed and fresh they will be’. Not to sound trite, but Mark Twain’s famous line about the Jew comes to mind here:

The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal, but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains.

-Mark Twain, "Concerning the Jews," Harper's Magazine, 1897

Indeed, what is Israel if not an old man running? Who else is so ancient yet exhibits such vigor? Is this old man not Yisrael Saba, ‘Old Man Israel’, the personification of ‘the Jew’?

And isn’t Israel’s mission to prepare the world for Shabbat? Doesn’t the Jew remain perennially in that twilight, between the sacred and the profane, already caressed by the embrace and moved by the vision of eternal Sabbath, yet tethered to the world, pulling it along with him toward that sacred time? And isn’t running, at its core, a rebellion against time itself, an attempt to make time stand still, to capture an eternity within a temporal moment (see Pachad Yitzchak on Pesach, #1)? Doesn’t the Jew bear that message as well, that eternity is already here?

Myrtle branches, a fragrant plant, move us in that direction as well. The sense of smell, in the vision of Chaza”l, is understood and the most sublime and spiritual of the senses. It takes us back to the primordial moment when God made man by blowing into his nostrils. ‘Breath’ and ‘Spirit’ are interchangeable in so many languages (all three Hebrew terms for ‘soul’ – Nefesh, Ru’ach, and Neshama – have connotations of ‘breathing’, the Latin-derives ‘spirit’ means ‘breath’, as in ‘respiration’, and the Germanic ‘ghost’ and ‘gust’ carry the same dual connotation). The nose, the sense of smell, by which God invested of Himself in man, remains a point of contact between the ordinary and the extraordinary. It, too, lives in the twilight between Shabbat and the week. Indeed, the sense of smell remains the way that Shabbat is carried over into the week.

R’ Shimon sees this Jew, and remains perplexed. Why does he need two myrtle branches? Is not one sufficient? If this scene represents the eternal Jew and his mission, then R’ Shimon, having just spent years connecting specifically with that which is most timeless, who is unencumbered by any of the shackles of temporality, who couldn’t countenance any investment in temporal ‘chayei sha’ah’, is asking about more than superfluous scented twigs.

R’ Shimon’s question and the Old Man’s answer lie within meaning of the ‘Zachor/Shamor’ duality of Shabbat.

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