The Skin and the Flesh of the Leviathan
There is a dispute between Thomas Hobbes and the Vilna Gaon as it relates to a concept in Bereishit. This dispute reveals a fundamental difference in man’s role in the world and his relationship with God.
One summer I walked into a room in which my kids were watching a show and I instantly became mesmerized. They were watching a Discovery channel show about a giant shark named on the loose named, Megalodon.
The next day at the daily minyan I heard people talking about their upcoming visit to a beach. I told them to be careful because I had just seen a show about a giant shark on the loose named, Megalodon. That is when one of my friends at the minyan said: “Uhm, rabbi, you realize, that that is a myth.” I had no idea. But yes, now I have come to realize that Discovery channel gave me a show about a giant myth, and not a giant shark. I discovered that it was not a documentary, but a mockumentary. http://www.ibtimes.com/megalodon-shark-week-2015-update-will-fake-documentary-return-discovery-channel-1997209
On Shemini Atzeret, we all sat in our Sukkah and discussed another giant sea creature. The custom is to recite on Shemini Atzeret a special goodbye blessing to the sukkah.
The blessing is as follows:
“May it be your will Hashem that just as I fulfilled your commandment and sat in this sukkah, so next year may I have the privilege of sitting in the sukkah made of the skin of the Leviathan, Keyn ezkeh le-shanah habah leisheiv be-sukkat oro shel leviathan.”
In my sukkah I turned to my guest and said, “Doesn’t that sound amazing?” To sit in a sukkah made out of the skin of a Leviathan!
My poor guest did not share my enthusiasm. Instead he looked at me in the same way the person looked at me when I told him to be careful of Megalodon.
What is the Leviathan and why do we want to sit in a sukkah made out of its skin?
Before we go into this question in depth, let me be the first to admit that this question makes me a little uncomfortable.
We are living in the 21st century. And here we are talking in public with educated adults about a prayer to sit in a sukkah made out of the skin of a giant mythical sea creature. This is a little hard to understand rationally and it seems un-scientific.
How we deal with the Leviathan is really a larger question of how we deal with the opening chapters of the book of Bereishit. There are many references to events that seem difficult for us to comprehend. For example the opening chapters of the Torah discuss a talking snake, sons of gods coming down and taking the daughters of the land, and angels with swords standing outside the Garden of Eden. This is before we even delve into Rashi’s interpretation of the literal text that Adam and Eve were originally created as a creature with one body and two faces.
The Leviathan also makes an appearance in the opening chapter of our Torah as the Torah states: “Vayivrah Elokim et ha-taninim ha-gedolim, and God created the large taninim” (1:21).
The Leviathan is actually an opportunity to have a case study about the mythological concepts that appear in our opening chapters of the Torah. How can we understand them in a way that is both inspirational and makes sense?
Rashi offers two explanations of the taninim. First, he writes that they are large fish. Second, that this is the Leviathan and his mate.
Rashi is based entirely upon an early midrash that appears in Baba Basra, 74b-75a.
The Talmud explains that God first created both a male and female Leviathan. But then God was worried that if the Leviathans were allowed to reproduce at will they would be unchecked by any other species and that they would take over the world. So God castrated the male Leviathan and then to be absolutely certain that the animals would not reproduce, He also killed the female Leviathan. God then salted the female Leviathan’s meat and preserved it for a meal in the end of days that will be served to the great tzaddikim.
Just how powerful is this remaining male Leviathan?
The Talmud tells us that in the future the Leviathan will only be destroyed after the angel Gabriel leads a hunt for it. And even Gabriel will need the help of God in order to put down the Leviathan. As it states in the book of Job: “Can you draw out the leviathan with a fish-hook?” (40:25). In other words, we mortals can not draw out the Leviathan and kill it, but God can.
We also learn from the Talmud that the breath of the Leviathan is so powerful that it makes all the waters boil. So too, the Leviathan has such bad body odor that it would destroy the world with its smell, except for the fact that it inserts its head into the Garden of Eden, which acts as a deodorizer. When the Leviathan drinks from the sea the sea does not return to its original state for another 70 years! (See Baba Basra, 75a.)
In this context the Talmud says that God will take the skin of the defeated Leviathan and use it as the walls of a sukkah. The implication also is that inside that Sukkah there will be a feast for the tzaddikim with the meat of the Leviathan. The remainder of this Leviathan meat will be distributed amongst the markets of Jerusalem so that regular folk can also benefit from the blessing of the Leviathan meat. The symbolism of this is that the blessings of the World to Come will not be limited to the truly righteous, but will be shared by all of the rest of us.
There are many, many more questions about the Leviathan.
For example, what does the Leviathan look like?
The Talmud tells us that the male Leviathan was a straight snake. The commentators understand this to mean that it was so long that it went from one end of the world to another. The female Leviathan was a winding and twisted snake whose twists and turns also went around the entire world (see Rashbam, s.v. Akalaton, Bava Basra, 74b).
The bible itself understands the Leviathan as a symbol of a great power that God alone can destroy.
The prophet Isaiah discusses a battle that will come in the end of days. In this context the prophet says:
Bayom hahu yifkod Hashem becharbo hakashah…al livyatan nachash bariach ve-al livyatan nachash akalaton ve-harag hatanin asher bayam. In that day the Lord with His strong sword will punish the Leviathan, the straight serpent, and Leviathan, the winding and twisty serpent; and He will slay the tanin that is in the sea.
This verse is the source for the Talmud’s identification of the Leviathan with the taninim of Bereishit. The verse makes a parallel between the Leviathan and the taninim, so it is possible for the later Midrash also to equate them. We also see that the Leviathan is referred to as a straight snake and as a winding and twisty snake. Thus, we understand why the Talmud sees two types of Leviathans, a male and a female.
In Isaiah, the destruction of the Leviathan is a symbol of Hashem’s power and strength and Hashem’s ability to destroy the biggest threat to the Jewish people.
The Leviathan represented an existential fear of the people of the world. They feared that a Leviathan creature might come out of the sea and destroy the world. That is the why the Talmud makes a point of saying that God created the Leviathan and He keeps it as His pet and he will destroy it when He so desires. The threat of the Leviathan, while for us it is existential, it still does not scare Hashem.
Today we have our own existential threats. Think about a nuclear bomb and the great threat that that poses to innocent people. There are evil and wicked people in the world that want to destroy the world. The message of the Leviathan is that these wicked forces are not able to withstand the strength of God. In the end of days they, like the Leviathan, will be devoured.
The Leviathan is thus a symbol of a monstrous threat facing the world. In those days it was a Leviathan. Today it is a nuclear bomb in the hands of an evil person.
Hobbes uses the symbol of the Leviathan to make another point. In his work Leviathan, Hobbes writes of the need for society to create a state in order to limit the evil nature of man. Thus, for Hobbes, the Leviathan is necessary to control the natural and faulty spirit of man.
On the other hand, the Vilna Gaon takes a different approach. The Vilna Gaon focuses not on the strength of the Leviathan but on the fact that God destroys the Leviathan and will ultimately feed its neat to the righteous.
He understands the meal of Leviathan flesh that is consumed by the righteous to be a symbol of the secrets of the Torah.
In his view, the Leviathan represents Torah and mitzvoth. These two concepts encompass the whole world, just like the two Leviathans stretch from one end of the world to another. The female Leviathan represents the taamei hamitzvot, the reasons for each of the mitzvoth and the male represents the secrets of the Torah. These secrets and reasons needed to be hidden from us because if we knew them then it would destroy the foundations of our spiritual society. If we knew these secrets of the Torah then there would be no mystery to the world and we would not have the gift of having faith. With faith and mystery comes the freedom to choose our religious paths. All of this would disappear if all the answers were clearly in front of us. Thus, the Leviathan represents the secrets of the Torah which make up the spiritual foundation of the world. So God in His infinite kindness hid certain things from us so as not to destroy this foundation.
[His approach is discussed by R. Eliyahu Dessler, Mikhtav mei-Eliyahu, volume 1, s.v. leviathan).]
Thus, the Vilna Gaon sees the killing of the Leviathan as a necessary act to give man the concept of freedom of choice. In order for man to achieve spiritual greatness, God gives us the ability to choose.
Unlike Hobbes, who views man as a weak character with a propensity to evil, our tradition empowers us to reach divine heights by making the correct choices. God does not sublimate us by taking away our choice. The opening chapters of Genesis reinforce this point. We are created in God’s image so that we can achieve greatness. We all have it in us. To prove this God kills the Leviathan and lets us fend for ourselves.
The Vilna Gaon’s approach has great meaning not only with respect to the Leviathan but also with respect to many of the mysterious passages of Bereishit. Instead of focusing on their literalism we should focus on the symbolism. The symbolism is powerful. There is so much that is hidden from our world. But these hidden elements are not a challenge to our faith, but a necessary element.
The more that is hidden, the more we must appreciate that God has made room for us to have faith in Him.
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