Thursday, January 9, 2014

Metatron: Anomalous Angel of the Countenance

Metatron: Anomalous Angel of the Countenance

[Rahab of Jericho confronted by the Sar Tzevaot, a figure sometimes identified as Metatron. An illustration by E.M. Lilien]

Metatron is a Sar (Princely Angel) who features prominently in Jewish esoteric literature. The name “Metatron” itself is a puzzle, being a Greek derived word meaning either meta-thronos, “beyond the throne,” metator, “guide,” or meta-tetra, “beyond the four [Angels of the Countenance].”

Reflecting the varied ways in which he appears in Jewish literature, Metatron has many other names and titles. Among the most common are Sar ha-Panim (Prince of the Countenance), Sar ha-Olam (Prince of the World), ha-Naar (the Youth), Marei de-Gadpei, (Master of Wings), and Yahoel. In the Merkavah traditions we learn that Metatron has twelve names, corresponding to the twelve tribes. This may account for the overlapping names and titles in the Metatron traditions (Sanh. 38b; Zohar I:21a).
Metatron’s place in the angelic host is anomalous for several reasons. So exalted is his status that in some sources he is referred to as the “Lesser YHWH” (Yev. 16b; Sanh. 38b). He is also unique in that he alone among the angels sits upon a throne, as does God. Because of this, Elisha ben Abuyah mistook him for a god and concludes there are “two powers in heaven” (Chag. 15a). Equally remarkable about Metatron is that, according to some traditions, he was once human – the antediluvian hero Enoch (Gen. 5; Jubilees 4:23; Sefer Hechalot 12:5). In III Enoch, Metatron describes to Rabbi Ishmael how he was transubstantiated from mortal to angelic form: Under the direction of Michael and Gabriel he grew in size until his body filled the whole universe (signaling a reversal of the “fall” of Adam Kadmon). He sprouted 72 wings (for each of the 72 names of God), grew 365,000 luminous eyes (indicating he had became omniscient, symbolized by acquiring 1000 eyes for each day of the year), and his material body burned away to be replace with a form of pure fire. Finally, he is given a crown resembling the crown worn by God. At times Metatron is described as the High Priest in the heavenly Temple, a role ascribed to Michael in other texts:

When the Holy Blessed One told Israel to set up the Mishkan [the portal sanctuary] He indicated to the ministering angels that they also should make a Mishkan, and when the one below was erected the other was erected on high. The latter was the tabernacle of the Naar (Youth) whose name was Metatron, and there he offers up the souls of the righteous to atone for Israel in the days of their exile. The reason then why it is written et ha-Mishkan, [The direct object marker et is read as "with", implying that there is something else unstated that was built with the desert sanctuary] is because another Mishkan was erected simultaneously with it. In the same way it says, The place, Adonai, which You have made for You to dwell in, the Sanctuary, O Lord, which Your hands have established [the parallelism of "place" and "sanctuary" is interpreted to mean two sanctuaries] (Ex. 25:17). (Num. R. 12:12)
In Sefer Zerubbabel, he is explicitly identified with Michael. He also functions as the heavenly scribe, writing 366 books. He teaches Torah to the righteous dead in the Yeshiva on High (A.V. 3b; Seder Gan Eden).

He is involved in events on earth as well as in heaven. He led Abraham through Canaan, delivered Isaac from his father’s knife, Wrestled with Jacob, led the Israelites in the desert, rallied Joshua before Jericho, and revealed the End of Times to Zerubbabel (Sefer Zerubbabel). Abraham Abulafia identifies him with the yetzer ha-tov, the human altruistic impulse.

In the Zohar, Metatron receives his most complex treatment. I am not completely confident I fully understand De Leon's multivalent and allusive teachings regarding Metatron, but I am clear he teaches Metatron is the first “offspring” of the supernal union of God’s feminine and masculine aspects (I: 143a, 162a-b). As such he is the personification of the lower sefirot, an idea obliquely alluded to in this description of Metatron as the "staff" of Moses [i.e., the instrument he uses to deliver the people]:

Similarly of Moses it is written, "And the staff of God was in his hand" [the staff that delivered the Israelites and smote the Egyptians]. This rod is Metatron, from one side of whom comes life and from the other death." [life and salvation flows from the "right" side of the sefirot, death and severity from the "left" side] (Zohar 1:27a).
The figure of Metatron fades in importance after the Zohar, but continues to appear in less prominent roles in later Kabbalism, sometimes in his older guises but more commonly as the angel of devekut [mystical union] (Sefer ha-Hezyanot I:23; Otzer Chayyim folio 111a).

Five Angry Angels - Moses, the Golden Calf, and Zombie Angels

Five Angry Angels - Moses, the Golden Calf, and Zombie Angels

Many people are familiar with the episode in Ex. 32:11-13 where God wants to wipe out Israel in response to the egel zahav, the golden calf incident. Moses, according to the biblical version, talks God down and persuades the Holy One not to wipe out the people and make him, Moses, the new Abraham.

Less may be aware of the "zombie-fighting" Moses who appears in various midrashim. In these re-tellings, Moses again puts himself on the line for Israel, But in a much more dramatic way. According to this tale (variants appear in Exodus Rabbah (41.7; 44:8), Tanhuma (Ki Tissa 20), PdRE 45, and Deut. Rabbah (3.11), God unleashes five "destroying angels" (Af [or Haron-Af], Ketzaf, Mashchit [the three names are derived from Ps. 78], Chaimah [Deut. 9.19], and Hashmed [alt. M'lachah) against the people. Moses uses his lifeline to the amudei ha-olam, the meritorious ancestors (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the three names in invokes in verse 13) to neutralize three of the angels with their powers of love, but Moses is left to dispatch the other two himself. Being a prayer-warrior, the son of Amram slays them with his sincere bakasha (supplication).
One of the intriguing features of this story is how God's anger is understood to become personified (or angelified, to be more specific), reflecting the rising medieval belief that God interacts with the world less directly and more through intermediaries.

It's also interesting how differently each source treats the role of the ancestral helpers. In several versions, the mere mention of the names deflect God's irritable messengers, but in one version, Abe, Izzy, and Jake actually rise from the grave, like a righteous zombie army! Then, just to round out the story, Moses buried the two ?corpses? of the angels he personally defeats and seals them in their graves using God's name (PdRE). Still, these zombie angels are a continuing threat to Israel, trying to rise up from their dual graves whenever the people sin. So to ensure they stay put, Moses is in turn buried opposite them (at Peor, as described in the Torah, Deut. 34.6) as a kind of spirit sentinel, keeping watch over Israel even in death. This is why it is called Beit Peor ("House of Peor," but literally, "two mouths" - get it?)

Here again we see angels used to created a mythologized theology - that the zechut avot, the merit of our ancestors, protects us and graciously shields us from divine wrath, even if we deserve it.

Torah Study vs. Earning a Livelihood, Part I

Torah Study vs. Earning a Livelihood, Part I

Chapter 2, Mishna 2(a)

By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld

"Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Yehuda the Prince said: Good is Torah study together with a worldly occupation, for the exertion in both makes one forget sin. All Torah study without work will result in waste and will cause sinfulness. Anyone who works for the community should work for the sake of Heaven, for the merit of their [the community members'] forefathers will help him, and their righteousness endures forever. And as for you, [says G-d], I will grant you much reward as if you accomplished it on your own."
The first section of this mishna discusses the importance of self-sufficiency and earning a living. In spite of the primacy of Torah study in Jewish life, we are obligated to pursue the "ways of the land." (This is the literal translation of the Hebrew expression used in our mishna -- "derech eretz." The term is often used in reference to a worldly occupation -- and this is how the vast majority of the commentators understand it here. Sometimes the term more generally refers to all forms of proper and healthy interaction among men.)

Our mishna offers two reasons why we must support ourselves. The first is that Torah study combined with work causes one to "forget" sin. The simple meaning, as some commentators understand (Rabbeinu Yonah, Bartenura, R. Hirsch), is that if one holds down a full-time job and studies Torah in his remaining time, he will be too busy (as well as exhausted) to think about sinning. Idle time leads to wandering minds, fantasizing, and cooking up all sorts of wild schemes (Mishna Kesuvos 5:5). (As I once heard R. Noach Orlowek of Jerusalem observe, Pharaoh was actually the first one to point this out. When Moses and Aaron first approached him asking that he grant the Jews a few days off, Pharaoh's immediate reaction was: Make them work harder; they must have too much time to daydream. See Exodus 5.)
Another explanation of "forgetting" sin (Rashi, Meiri, see also Ruach Chaim) is that the combination of Torah study and self-sufficiency will safeguard a person from temptation. If we earn enough to make ends meet, we will have no overpowering temptation to steal from others. Further, if at the same time we study Torah, we will have the moral bearings to protect ourselves from temptation. We will develop a stronger sense of right and wrong, and we will incorporate the Torah's dictate of being happy with one's lot. Finally, the mere fact that we are not pursuing our careers relentlessly but are dividing our time between that and Torah study will stay the often insatiable drive for money and prestige.
The second reason offered by our mishna is that Torah study alone will result in "waste" and "sinfulness". The meaning is clear. One might think he is "saving" himself time by studying Torah without interruption. Money, however, is a problem which does not go away (does go away?), and such a person will soon be reduced to poverty and want. He will then have to start running around looking for some alternate means of support -- and the search will likely be frustrating and ongoing. He will be tempted to beg, cut ethical and legal corners, accept handouts, or outright steal in his desperation, all of which will lower his integrity and self-respect -- and all because he was too "holy" to be responsible for himself in the first place. And so, as R. Gamliel concludes, the end result will be "waste": Rather than his full-time study saving him time, such a person will become so occupied with the pursuit of money -- both mentally and emotionally -- that he will have neither time nor composure to study very much at all -- certainly far less than had he put in the necessary time into his profession and then devoted his remaining worry-free hours to the study of Torah.
The Sages state this even more clearly later in Pirkei Avos: "If there is no flour (dough?), there is no Torah; if there is no Torah, there is no flour" (3:21). Without a steady means of support -- not of wealth or extravagance, but of support -- there is not only "waste": there is no Torah whatsoever. There is simply no other way about it.
The commentator Rabbeinu Yonah (of 13th Century Spain) adds yet another important angle to this discussion. The psychological effects of not supporting oneself can as well be devastating. Even if one theoretically could subsist on handouts, it would destroy his self-esteem. Living off of others is antithetical to practically all of human virtue. King Solomon wrote: "One who hates gifts will live" (Proverbs 15:27). If one gets by without a sense of being productive himself, he does not have true life. Life is accomplishment and productivity. Sitting back expecting to be handed a welfare check destroys a person and his will to make something of himself. Such a person may feel he's pulling a fast one, getting something for nothing, but -- to invoke a cliche you haven't heard since grade school -- he isn't cheating anyone but himself. (Not that anyone took it very seriously back then, but perhaps we've all matured a little since.) We learned earlier: "Love work and despise high position" (1:10). We should want to work and make something of ourselves. And our agenda should be our own productivity, not our prestige or position on the totem pole. The Talmud writes: "One should flay carcasses in the marketplace and earn a living. He should not say I am a Priest, I am a great man and such work is beneath me" (Pesachim 113a). There is no such thing as being beneath one's dignity to put in an honest day's work. Work is what *gives* us our dignity, as well as our sense of self-worth.
sThe Sages thus view earning a living as a binding obligation, not so different from the many other mitzvos (commandments) of the Torah. (Or at least as an obligation upon one member of the family. In the kesuvah (or ketubah), the marriage contract between husband and wife, the husband assumes responsibility for the financial support of the family.) Likewise, the Talmud teaches us that a father is obligated to teach his son a profession, just as he is obligated to teach his son Torah (and to swim for that matter) (Kiddushin 29a).
There is, however, perhaps a single issue far more critical than everything we have written thus far. Maimonides (Mishne Torah, Talmud Torah 3:10) writes as follows: "Whoever thinks he will study Torah and not work and will be supported from charity, profanes G-d's Name, shames the Torah, darkens the light of knowledge, causes harm to himself, and takes his life from this world. For it is forbidden to derive benefit from the Torah in this world." (Anyone who has studied the works of Maimonides knows that he very rarely waxes poetic. His Hebrew is elegant in its simplicity and clarity of style, but he virtually never wastes his words or gets carried away. The above-quoted passage is practically one of a kind.) One who thrusts himself and the burden of his support upon others is not only harming himself in all the ways we discussed above. He is desecrating the Name of G-d. Of all people, it will be the Torah scholar who is degraded, who appears to the masses as the nuisance and pathetic beggar. He will disgrace not only himself but the Torah he represents. And this is a desecration of G-d's Name of the highest degree. Rather than the scholar's Torah study earning him the respect and admiration of the masses, he will be scorned and derided -- and it will so reflect on the Torah he is supposed to uphold. (For that matter, R. Berel Wein has observed that it was a far better arrangement in the days when the community rabbi did not draw a salary from his congregation. (We'll talk about such exceptions to the rule next week, G-d willing.) Once the rabbi is beholden to his constituents -- even for a well-deserved paycheck -- he will not be able to wield authority and speak his piece in the manner he sometimes must. The laymen hold the purse strings and run the board. The rabbi must answer to them rather than they to him.)
Thus far we have made a strong case against Torah study without sufficient means of support. Everyone without exception, it seems, should be earning his keep. However, as with most things in Judaism (and life), there are two sides to every issue. G-d willing next week we will explore some of the exceptions to this principle and their practical applications.