The Torah of Ko'h
A Chanukah Teaching from Gershon...
The Hebraic word "Chanukah" [חנוכה] divides into two words: חנו cha'nu and כה ko'h. Cha'nu means "set up camp" (Numbers 31:19 and Jeremiah 50:29). Ko'h means "thus," as in "like so," or "this is how." So, altogether, the word chanu'kah tells us to "set up camp like this," which would then beckon the question: "Set up camp like what, exactly?"
During one of those moments when Abraham questioned God about God's promise that he would have many descendants who would carry on his ideals and his lineage, God nudged him outside and asked him to look up at the star-studded night sky: "And [God] took [Abraham] outside and said,: 'Please gaze up toward the heavens and count the stars, if you can count them. Ko'h -- this is how -- your descendants shall become'" (Genesis 15:5). Years later, when Abraham was about to ascend Mount Moriah with his son Isaac for the purpose of sacrificing him, Abraham said to his two attendants: "Remain here with the donkey, and I and the lad will journey until ko'h, and there we will kneel [in worship], and then we shall return to you" (Genesis 22:5). Most if not all translations render ko'h as "the place," when it means no such thing. Again, it means simply "thus," or "like so." Whenever translators of our sacred writ can't make any sense out of a word because of its context, they simply alter the meaning to fit the context. Therefore, everywhere else in the Hebrew scriptural text where ko'h is mentioned, you will find ko'h correctly translated as "like so," or "thus," except here.
So, again, Abraham told his two attendants: "Remain here with the donkey, and I and the lad will journey until ko'h, and there we will kneel [in worship], and then we shall return to you." Comment the ancient rabbis: "'I and the lad will journey till ko'h' -- as in 'We will go and see what is to be the outcome of ko'h'" -- of the promise God had made earlier to Abraham that his descendants would become ko'h - "like this" - meaning like the stars in the heavens (presumably in immeasurable numbers). Because, on the one hand, it seems like God did promise Abraham a lineage to be intended through Isaac, and on the other hand, God now tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, to slaughter the very person through whose loins those very descendants were supposed to emerge. And so, Abraham heads up the mountain with Isaac, wondering as follows: "If I am indeed supposed to sacrifice my son, what will become of the promise associated with ko'h?!" This is why Abraham tells his attendants: "We will journey until we reach [the elusive meaning behind this seemingly-ambiguous promise of] ko'h."
Most of us presume that the ko'h in the wording of God's promise is referring to numbers, as in "count the stars, if you can, for this is how [ko'h] numerous your descendants will become." But maybe it means something far more sublime?
The word כה is also related to the word כההkay'hah, which means "dimly lit," "murky," "not very clear," even "doubtful." Re-translated differently, we could read Abraham's wording this way: "I and the lad will journey until we reach ko'h - as in, the dimly-lit, not very clear. We will cast off all of our finite mortal assumptions, travel past the boundaries of Reason-and-Rhyme, and cross the chasm of Doubt-and-Uncertainty, for we cannot know the Providential Truth behind this journey unless we take it to its very edges. And once we do, it will all become clear and you can rest assured that both of us will then be returning to you."
Abraham trusts in the promise so unquestionably that he defies all logic. Because if he indeed does sacrifice Isaac, there won't be any kids coming through him as promised. But such a conclusion, he realizes now, is an outcome predicated on his finite mortal understanding of how things work in the world, like if you're dead you can't date a nice Jewish girl, let alone talk to her about marriage and kids. Yet, walking up Mount Moriah, Abraham is determined to take it as far as it will go and is confident that the promise is real and that he and Isaac will return back down the mountain even if he has to kill him to do so.
This is the test. How far will you boldly go before you reach the point where you can't go any further and you break down and override God's will in favor of your own? Or, can you take it all the way to the brink of the Abyss and then dive, like Abraham did when he lifted the knife and swung it within inches of his son's throat before God cried "Uncle!" We are all too often all too quick to judge and critique Abraham for that episode, without taking nearly as much time to delve into it as he did. For thousands of years thereafter, my friends, the descendants of Abraham via Isaac and Jacob have done exactly that, taken it to the edges of the Great Void and dove, even though in so doing they couldn't figure out how the promise of ko'h would ever come to pass if the children of that particular promise keep getting wiped out. We went to our deaths over and over and over again, our final words absent of question and filled instead with the unfathomable meaning of ko'h. Rather than "Why hast thou forsaken us?" our motto was "The seeming death of The Promise is the very contraction of its birth." Our dying words were the Shema, for which an alternative translation in times of doubt and dismay would go something like this: "Ado'nai our God hears, O Israel, [for in] Ado'nai [all of what to us appears as fragmented] is actually One."
The ancient sages tell us that when Moses reached the top of Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, he found God busily adding some finishing touches to the letters of the text. Days went by, ten, twenty, thirty.... Finally, as the fortieth day approached, Moses grew impatient and asked God what was taking so long.
"Oh. Sorry to keep you waiting, Moses. I've been busy adding all these codes and symbolisms to the text as delineated by a great teacher of Torah. His name is Akiva. He will walk the earth well over a thousand years from now, and he will render interpretations of the Torah that will baffle even you."
Moses rolled his eyes. "Really? Can I see him?"
God then told Moses to turn around, and when he did, he found himself way in the future, seated amid a sea of disciples who were gathered at the feet of the second-century Rabbi Akiva. Wow, Moses thought, listening with bated breath to the deep wisdom emanating from Akiva's lips, What a master. "What exactly is he teaching about?" he asked one of the disciples. "Why, he's expounding upon the Torah of Moses!" replied the disciple. Moses was both dumbfounded and awestruck. He recognized none of it. He was about to purchase a copy of Judaism for Dummies when God brought him back to the past atop the holy mountain.
"What do you think about Akiva now?" asked God.
"What an amazing master!" Moses replied. "You weren't kidding. But I don't understand. Why give the Torah through me? Why not through Akiva?"
Said God: "Silence! Ko'h [like so] it arose in [my] Thought."
"Okay, then," said Moses. "I would be curious to see what amazing reward awaits him." And God showed Moses the end of Akiva's illustrious and inspirational life, crucified alive while two Roman soldiers slowly scraped him to death with steel combs. And Moses protested: "What?! This is his Torah, and this is his reward????!!!!" And God replied: "Silence! Ko'h [like so] it arose in [my] Thought" (Talmud Bav'li, Menachot 29b). The word in the Talmudic story is actually כךkach, but it means the same as כהko'h, so don't give me a hard time.
We are all on a journey, as they say, a journey to destinations unknown. Every now and then, as with any trip, we need to set up camp and sit around the campfire of ko'h. To camp-out in ko'h means to embrace the unknown of "like so" - or, in Yiddish: "ahzoy!" -- to be at home in not knowing, in not understanding, in not grasping, in not presuming, in not fathoming; it means to hear God's response to the tumultuousness of our over-active minds as follows: "Silence! Ko'h [like so] it arose in [my] Thought." As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said: "It is not in our power to force the beyond to become here; but we can transport the here into the beyond" (Man is Not Alone, p. 131).
Every now and then we need to take a breather from the seemingly-endless ascent up the mountain of mo'ree'yah, which translates as "God will clue you in...eventually." Underlying our journey, regardless of how much meaning and purpose we each assign it, is the seemingly pointless daily humdrum of eating, sleeping, working, texting, reading, watching, believing, doubting, laughing, crying, living, dying, loving, hating, suffering, celebrating...and facing the inescapable fact that nothing is certain and that life offers us no guarantees other than the guarantee that there aren't any. Guarantees, that is. And at night, when all is still, the cries of Doubt emerge from out of those recesses of our consciousness into which we have managed to neatly tuck it away so that we might continue with the least disturbance along the illusory pathways toward imaginary somewheres.
If all this sounds depressing to you, then be comforted by the knowledge that you are more than half way toward understanding the deeper meaning of Chanu'kah.
Let's tune in to Abraham again. For we cannot fully comprehend our lives without first studying those of our ancestors. This is a fundamental principle in Judaism: "The story of the ancestors is an omen for the descendants" (13th-century Rabbi Moshe ben Nachmon on Genesis 12:6, drawing from Midrash Tanchuma, Lech-Lecha, No. 9).
"If I can count the stars?" Abraham laughed. "Of course I can't. There are far too many for me to possibly be able to count them all in a single lifetime."
"Well, it's not like that, Abraham," said God. "You cannot count the number of stars in the sky not because there are far too many of them but because they come and go. They sparkle and blow out. No sooner would you have counted your first million stars when seven thousand of them would have vanished. Many of them are dying and many new ones are being born, so it would take an eternity to keep track of them all. And you don't have an eternity in the world of counting."
"So my descendants will be ko'h? Like this? Like the stars? In that they will be uncountable because they will come and go, absent any consistency?"
"Exactly. For my ways are not like your ways; my thoughts are not like your thoughts (Isaiah 55:8). Have you already forgotten the innocence of your earlier years when I first appeared to you? Do you recall what I said to you way back then?"
"You told me to leave everything and go (Genesis 12:1)."
"And where did I tell you to go?"
"To some land that you would show me."
"And did I ever show you?"
"So what are you doing here in Canaan?"
"I got tired. We kept walking and walking for months and you never said 'Stop! Here it is!' and it was just getting sparser and scarcer, so we figured we'd better stop while there was still a blade of grass in sight and a distant tree, and maybe a well or two. Then you told me that you would grant me and my descendants all of the land around me, as far as I could see, in all directions. And you even told me to walk the length and breadth of the land! Those are your words. So, I figured this must be the place you had in mind."
"I said all that because I honored your choice to go to Canaan."
"You mean Canaan was not the place you were going to show me?"
"That's right. It was your father's dream (Genesis 11:31) and your choice (Genesis 12:5). You see, originally you started out following me toward nowhere, but then you settled on somewhere"
"How can I possibly teach this to my descendants?"
"Model it. Eventually, they will indeed understand it and live it. It will in fact become their distinct wisdom among the nations (Deuteronomy 4:6). And there will come a time far into the future when they will celebrate a festival of their own making, one that is not written, not etched on tablets of stone, one not instructed or inspired by me or by any of the prophets that I will send them. They will call it chanu ko'h, for they will have learned to settle in the land of uncertainty and doubt, in the realm of the unclear. They will gradually learn the real meaning of the ko'h you heard me promise you. They will rejoice in the Living God with their Dying Breath; they will sing about Jerusalem even when they will never have seen her; they will thank me for the yield of the Holy Land even while they languish far from her shores; they will sing prayers of hope even with the passing of thousands of years of absolutely no hope in sight; they will prolifically discuss the rites of the altar even after the Temple is long gone; they will willingly die for a Torah that implores them to live; they will continue to follow me to 'the land that I will show them,' even though they will not have any semblance of any sense that they are getting anywhere closer to wherever that might be. They will live with certainty the journey of uncertainty, the journey of ko'h; they will set-up camp in the unknowable, which is where I dwell, for I am unknowable and my ways are unpredictable. They will chanu ko'h. They will camp-out in the place of 'like this.' Like what? Like whatever, like wherever. They will set up camp in a fashion that enables them to let go of vying for a certainty that isn't."
"Can I ever experience what that is like?"
"Yes. I will give you the opportunity to experience it one day."
And so, many years went by. And Sarah gave birth to Isaac, and Isaac grew into a wholesome young man, and Abraham was happy, for this was the promise. For sure. After all, God had assured him that it would be through Isaac that the promise of sustained progeny would be realized.
Then, one day, out of the blue, God asked Abraham to go to the Land of Moriah and take Isaac up one of the mountains and offer him as a sacrifice.
"On one of the mountains that I will tell you" (Genesis 22:2).
And Abraham got it. He did not question any further, and kept walking for hours, then days. After three days, "he saw the place from afar" (Genesis 22:4), the place God said he would show him. He saw it in the distance, in the ungraspable, in the always out of reach, in the undefinable and immeasurable "distance." And he told his aides, "Remain here with the donkey, and I and the lad will journey all the way to ko'h" -- all the way to the elusive and the unknown, all the way to the mirage of destiny and fate, in the heart of which is concealed that which God has chosen to reveal. And then, somehow or another, Abraham continued, "both of us will be returning to you." Because, the events of today have no bearing on the promise of tomorrow. Tomorrow will happen in spite of today. The sun never sets, you see, it is always coming, only coming, which is why sunset in biblical Hebrew is מבא השמשme'vo ha'shemesh, literally: "The Coming of the Sun."
"And so, Abraham took the wood for the offering and he placed it on Isaac his son; and then he took into his hands the fire and the ritual knife, and both of them walked off together" (Genesis 22:6). What is meant by "both"? Both -- the promise and its dissolution. Both -- the carriers of the promise (Abraham and Isaac), and all of the varied forces which for all intents and purposes appeared in the moment to serve as that which would terminate the promise (the wood, the fire, and the knife), but which in the end didn't, and instead bypassed the promise keepers and went straight for the ram that suddenly appeared from out of - Nowhere -- tangled, ensnared, attached. Only when we are willing to sacrifice our attachments can we begin to fathom the mystery of the promise, of the "land that I will show you." Only when we are willing to let go of our assumptions about God can we begin to know God.
Chanukah is then about how the very obstacles that come our way can in turn become the very means by which they are overcome. Abraham finally grasped The Promise when he finally let go of his attachment to it. Akiva's Torah shone as brilliant as it did by virtue of what he was willing to suffer on her behalf, by virtue of how far he was willing to go in the proverbial climb up Mountain Moriah, the staircase to nowhere - that is, to nowhere that we can fathom - namely, "to the land that I will show you," to the ladder of ko'h that ascends all the way to "Thought," embedded in the known of Earthly existence while reaching for the un known of Heavenly Thought, as would be borne-out in the dream of Isaac's son, Jacob (Genesis 7:12), and played-out in the long and dramatic history of his descendants, who would come and go, come and go, but always be.
The lesson of Chanukah is not only about how a little light can go a long way. It's deeper than that. Think about it: What exactly do we do when we perform the ritual of Chanukah? How do we make camp along our sojourn in this life? Chanu ko'h - "we camp-out like this" -- for every light that goes out, we add one more. The darker it gets, the more lights we kindle, and those lights shine brighter with each kindling, with each passing night of increasing darkness and because of the increasing darkness! If it were not too dark, the brilliance of the lights would be kay'hah, dim, uncertain, unclear, less defined, doubtful, which is why the laws of Chanukah dictate that the lights may not be kindled until way after sundown when it's gotten really really dark. It is not our way to allow the Dark to supersede the Light. Rather, it is our way to allow the Dark to increase the Light.
And that is the real miracle of Chanu' ko'h.
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