Tag Archives: Kabbalah

Sefirat haOmer: The Inner Journey of Liberation


Taking steps daily on our journey towards freedom

We now find ourselves in Chol haMoed Pesach – the intermediate days of Passover, the middle days of this ongoing eight-day holiday. After a gruelling week of preparation and a very energetic first two festival days, we are all physically spent, ready to relax and enjoy the rest of the week to come.

MITZRAYIM TO HAR SINAI: Mark Hurvitz wrote: "Rabbi Amy Scheinerman's father (Andrew Ross z"l, a graphic artist) arranged the squares in a spiral. If you look at it in three-dimensional space we begin at the foot of Sinai and climb up to the summit in time for Shavuot!"

MITZRAYIM TO HAR SINAI: In this Sefirat haOmer chart one envisions themselves taking 49-steps up the summit of Sinai in time for Shavuot. Designed by Aharon Varady, a realization of a concept envision by Andrew Ross z”l.

Still for many people the joy of the festival and that sense of momentum in our souls remains with us. As we each work through own personal exodus during this season. Now that we have determined to become free people, naturally there is a new passion to experience and actualize that freedom. And to continue this spiritual journey to become more liberated. A desire to push forward in this march of freedom still inspiring many of us.

So who do we do that? How do we become freer and more liberated people?

And how do we satisfy this expansive drive aroused in our souls, while also being amidst an exhaustingly vigorous season?

Our tradition responds to this with the mitzvah of the Sefirat haOmer – the commandment of counting of the Omer. And through this tradition we learn how everyday we can do a little bit of work on improving ourselves. That’s all it really requires to pursue freedom within yourself, just taking a small step each day out of whatever has held us back in our life’s journey.

In the procession of the Jewish year, we are on a journey from Pesach to Shavuot. A journey which takes us from freedom in Egypt, and brings us to celebration at Sinai.

We’ve talked before about the biblical commandment, to count seven weeks of harvest gladness in which our ancestors were to offer up their coarse barley growth. And how on the fiftieth day the ancient Israelites would offer up an offering of their finest wheat in the Temple,  in order to bring great culmination to this spring season on the holiday of Shavuot – the festival of weeks, celebrated on the 50th day from Pesach. (see “The Sefirat haOmer: Making The Days Count“)

These two holidays of Pesach and Shavuot, along with a third agricultural festival of Sukkot in the fall, they are called the Shelosh Regalim. These were the three pilgrimage festivals of the Torah, which in ancient times required people to journey all the way up to the capital of Jerusalem every year for these holidays.

This holiday of Shavuot has no fixed date, it occurs after 49 + 1 days after Pesach. Nor did this holiday historically have any fixed religious significance until the rabbis of the Mishna began to relate this holiday with the giving of Torah at Har Sinai.

The rabbis therefore understood these 49 days as a time of personal preparation for receiving Torah. A period which would come to be characterized by personal reflection and ethical introspection. In this way the rabbis made this period an inner journey for us. They helped us appreciate this extensive mitzvah of Sefrat haOmer as a process on a path to become worthy of receiving this revelation of Torah. In order to stand dignified at Shavuot and receive this Torah anew.

In this way we also come to appreciate the sefirah period as a way for refining and cleaning ourselves up along the way – as we shed our slave characteristics –  on our way to the reception of the Torah at Sinai.

This sense of devotion became even more stressed by the kabbalistic masters of the 16th century in Tzfat, and then later by the chassidic masters who followed them. These mystics also decided take the journey inward, but in a much deeper and more profound way.

According to their custom of meditating upon the prayers of their highly mystical siddurim, they gave practical application to the Sefirat haOmer for making it engage a personal tikkun – a correction, a repair in one’s nature. And to do so systematically and with motivated intention.

The mystics broke the sefirah period into seven cycles of seven weeks, seven being the number of completion and wholeness (i.e. number of days in a week; creation). Each of the seven weeks were set to correspond to one of the seven sefirot (Divine forces) which active in the physical world. Likewise each day of the week was set to correspond to a sefirah as well, making us look even deeper into each of these characteristics within ourselves.

This form of meditation reflects upon seven essential characteristics, and then makes us further consider how we operate those creative drives. We learn to focus on specific points of our character.

Let me give you a few examples of how this line of meditation works, and also demonstrate how one can reflect on these (with a few off-the-cuff meditative suggestions that come to mind for me during my personal reflection at this time, those are in quotes; to give us examples of how to work through these thoughts):

Day 1 of the Omer:

חֶסֶד שֶׁבְּחֶסֶד

Kindness within Kindness

“Do I display my kindness with acts of truly pure kindness?”

Day 2 of the Omer:

גְּבוּרָה שֶׁבְּחֶסֶד

Discipline/Judgment within Kindness

“Is my sense of discipline in-line with my sense of kindness?”

Day 3 of the Omer:

תִּפְאֶרֶת שֶׁבְּחֶסֶד

Beauty/Harmony within Kindness

“Do I use my expansive kindness for bringing harmony and balance?”

Day 4 of the Omer:

נֶצַח שֶׁבְּחֶסֶד

Endurance/Victory within Kindness

“Is my sense of kindness in-line with a love that is long-lasting and able to overcome the challenges?”

During the first week we start in Chesed (Kindness), which is an accessible point of reference for the soul as we continue on with the joy of celebrating Pesach and as are just starting out on our sefirah count. Then in the second week we move into Gevurah (Discipline/Judgement). The third week Tiferet (Beauty/Harmony), etc.

Each week we look at one part of our Divinely inspired nature, and then systematically examine how we can bring balance to it. Looking at each level of our consciousness, realizing there are elements of each impulse mixed-in with the others. Our challenge is to bring balance within ourselves so that none of these are in conflict, and so that we can achieve a sense of freedom within ourselves.

This might also be helpful for beginners of this form of meditation: Think of the daily sefirah as representing one aspect of your divinely inspired inner drives or ambitions, and the sefirah for the week as representing how you go about achieving that in your actions. There is certain ways we feel inside, but its all about bringing our outward displays in-line with that.

The kabbalists weaved other meditative elements into their counting of the Omer. They also assigned certain meditative words from psalms and letters to each day. As well as pieces of the highly mystical Aramaic prayer Ana Bekoach. All these textual overlays, to further inspire an inner journey.

Now there is a reason that I keep referring to the Sefirat haOmer as a journey. This mitzvah is one with many steps in order to fulfill it.  It requires us making the effort everyday for 49 days, taking many small steps everyday. We cannot move forward if we stop at any point. Which is what makes this mitzvah so much of a discipline to keep. However, it is a deeply rewarding journey of self-exploration and refinement for those who follow all the way through!

Modern Meditative Aids for the Sefirat haOmer

colorfulomerchart KOL ALEPH MINIOne of the best ways to help one remember the daily Omer count is to use a chart. Over the years many charts have been devised to help people remember and stay accurate with their count. Many communities and homes have unique ones which people festively display and refer to.

These clever charts are also very useful for helping people visualize this path and process. One contemporary chart posted by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat of the ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal is a personal favorite. See her entry at Kol Aleph:

This not only a great way to keep count, it is also a great way to meditate upon the Omer. To think of it as a journey moving inward, to examine ourselves in our deepest core. Or we can also see this as a path around a mountain, moving upward with a step each day until we reach the peak of Sinai. This lovely chart is also overlaid with other meditative elements which color and desktop formatting today allow.

Over the years I have made the case that the rabbis made intentional use of specific words, letters and sounds to deliver imagery. As they were limited in their means of presenting these ideas in a black-and-white world in which they produced their manuscripts,  the mystics used other schemas. I have always believed that had the mystics of old lived today they would layer meaning in color, which would also aid in showing relationships of one thing to another.

I’m glad to see that several scholars and rabbis of the modern age are utilizing color to expressed concepts in their works and materials. To help people visualize the lesson and their inner journey.

Aharon-Varady-Sefirot-HaOmer-ChartOne the finest examples of this is the Sefirat HaOmer Chart of Lieba B. Ruth (aka, Lauren Deutsch), which was originally created according to her own color scheme.

Aharon Varady also notes:

“Lauren Deutsch’s system of color correspondences for the sefirot mainly follows the light spectrum from red to deep blue, then black and purple. Her systems accords well with that of Mark Hurvitz’s 7×7 Color Grid for the Omer.”

My friend and colleague Aharon Varady of the Open Siddur Project, was able formulate a meditative chart which would alternatively correspond to the color schema innovated by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.

She has generously shared this Kabbalistic Sefirat HaOmer chart as free and redistributable resource through the Open Siddur Project. Please re-distribute!

DOWNLOAD: SVG (source) | PNG

Please also refer to the original post by Aharon Varady and Lauren Deutsch at Open Siddur Project:

This chart expresses how the sefirot – both for the corresponding week and day of the sefirah count – how they come together. Causing us to conceptualize and consider the relationship of one characteristic to the other, and helping us visualize the balance we are trying to achieve between these powerful forces inside us.

In like manner, Aharon Varady also created a variation of the meditative circles chart utilizing a classical and historically inspired color schema. A schema which was presented in Reb Seidenberg’s Omer Counter widget (Neohasid.org). Aharon noted that this color system corresponds closely with that of the colors suggested by the RAMAK in Pardes Rimonim,Aharon-Varady_-_Omer-Circles-(David-Seidenberg's-Color-schema) as cited in Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s book, “Meditation & Kabbalah” (p. 181)  in the chapter titled “Colors.”

Having also taken personal interest in the color correspondences within classic kabbalistic literature, I had also tried to imagine this. To perceive how the mystics would have conceived of this. So this additional contribution has helped bring that to life for me. This color schema is very useful and meaningful to both Chassidic and Sephardic followers of the mystical disciplines.

The meaning of all this is also presented for us by Aharon in his detailed comments of the aforementioned post. The entry also wonderfully included the prayers, blessings, meditations, and even an updating counting widget… in addition to the helping you identify and visualize the interacting sefirot as you observe this special mitzvah!

Conclusion:

Many of us modern people don’t have the time or space in our lives make a religious pilgrimage like ancients used to during this time of year, therefore we have a long tradition of focusing on how to take this journey inward. We should utilize the many ways of teaching and thinking which helps take us on a journey for the soul.

Want to personalize your own journey? Here is a Do-It-Yourself help for making your own Sefirat haOmer Chart.

We have been learning about this inward journey through the soul we engage in during the sefirah period. One of the best ways is to visualize that journey as path up a mountain, as previously mentioned regarding another chart.

Aharon Varady also provides us with a subtle adaptation of a chart concept envisioned by Andrew Ross z”l. As noted by Aharon elsewhere:

 “Mark Hurvitz wrote: “Rabbi Amy Scheinerman‘s father (Andrew Ross z”l, a graphic artist) arranged the squares in a spiral. If you look at it in three-dimensional space we begin at the foot of Sinai and climb up to the summit in time for Shavuot!” (Please see: http://www.scheinerman.net/judaism/shavuot/omer4.html)

This wonderful chart is designed by Aharon Varady, a realization of a concept envision by Andrew Ross z”l.

The chart image shown at the top is a Creative Commons document, editable and redistributable design. Showing a spiral starting from the upper right, and moving counter-clockwise on its way inward. Indeed, all the items presented by Open Siddur are open-source licensed to edit and share! Feel free to personalize it with numbers or meditative thoughts.

What are you making your exodus from this year? Are you trying to leave bad traits behind? Are you making a journey out of addiction? Are you finding liberation from the effects of unhealthy relationships? Or are you just stepping forward in order to leave a sense of apathy behind? Personalize this chart and meditation for your goals. Whatever helps you visualize your journey inward to the soul and upward to Sinai!

Related articles:


Tu biShvat: The active, virile energies it addresses in nature and us


The development of the seder, and what we can learn about our will for assertion from this tradition

Tu biShvat – the New Year for the Trees – is probably one of the most enjoyable, and yet one of the least understood, holidays in the Jewish calendar. It is a highly mystical holiday, and also deeply connected to nature. And because us moderns tend to be quite detached from both the mystical and the natural world, it’s hard for us to connect with this frame of mind. It’s often hard – especially for those of us who are primarily urban business people – to connect with the land and do it in a most spiritual way.

Just in time for Tu biShvat, we have sprouting etrog (Israeli citron) trees breaking soil!

Just in time for Tu biShvat, we have sprouting etrog trees breaking soil! This is a very virile holiday, it is not so much about embracing mother nature. It’s more about becoming aware and mindful of how we assert ourselves over nature, and then taking those lessons inward.

This is especially more so for us Jews outside of the land of Israel, where the agricultural issues of how to manage the crops of Eretz Yisrael and where observing the related halacha isn’t something we really experience.

This holiday marks the agricultural fiscal year in the land of Israel. This is when all the trees are accounted for in the land, allowing the growers to know when it was appropriate to harvest from a tree. This accounting made it possible to know when to observe the many agricultural related Torah mitzvot; such as to give first-fruit offerings from a new tree, and when to mark for the agricultural sabbatical years (shemitah) in the land, and from what point to give tithes from ones crops. (see Leviticus 19:23-25)

Notice that this year is the shemitah year in Israel, where we don’t plant or harvest in Israel. We let the land rest and lay fallow in the holy land. But here in the diaspora most people are unaware of it. Like I said, it’s hard to connect to this outside of the Land of Israel. Where the seasons might not jive and the cycle doesn’t apply. This makes it difficult to grasp and appreciate, this cycle of life in Isreael. And this can even be unnerving to some, who do not hold Israel dear. As indeed, this holiday does ask us to consider the nature and produce of the Land of Israel. And it also calls us out to actively connect with this very land.

But this holiday which we know today comes down to us today as an outgrowth of both spiritual and secular reinterpretation. Ones which have greatly shaped the holiday and the way we celebrate it today.

The kabbalists of the middle-ages – those Jewish masters of mysticism and the esoteric – they were deeply connected to the land of Israel after their expulsion from Spain in 1492 and upon their arrival in the holy city of Tzfat (Safed). There the symbolisms of this holiday came alive for them as they began to renew the land. And there they were also able to discover deeper spiritual meanings to this observance and to the traditions surrounding this holiday.

Out of this tradition we received the seder for this holiday, as documented in the “The Pri Etz Hadar: Fruit of the Majestic Tree seder for Tu biShvat by Rabbi Natan Binyamin Ghazzati (ca. 17th c.),” a deeply mystical text intended to help people take a spiritual accounting of their growth and produce on a soul level. This text first documented the customs for the Tu biShvat seder we know today. A source text made popular among Sephardic and Chassidic masters, being close adherents of the mystical schools.

Of course, as the age of enlightenment arose many people began to neglect the deeply mystical practices. And intern this holiday of Tu biShvat fell into neglect by many in the next couple centuries.

However, another huge revival and re-envisioning of this holiday – this time a secular one – would come about as the result of another direct encounter with Jews and the land of Israel. Actualized as part of the Zionist dream during the 19th and 20th century, during the rebirth of the land of Israel and the formation of the modern, secular State of Israel. This holiday would take on the role akin to Arbor Day, and focus upon the restoration of the land of Israel. Planting trees and restoring the wildlife of Israel, which had been stripped bare in the many wars, crusades and occupations.

For many Jews in diaspora, Tu biShvat would thus also come to hold significance. A day in which we direct our focus towards Israel. To try to connect with eretz Yisrael in the most direct ways possible. Many contributing to the restoration and preservation of the land. The world over, Jewish progressives and religious Zionists would come to observe this day by giving tzedakah (charity) for planting trees in Israel. This day noticeably marked with the passing around of the Jewish National Fund pushka.

Believe it or not, especially for Orthodox Jews in America, the giving of tzedakah for planting trees is one of the only ways most of us remember observing the holiday as kids. I was talking about this with my friends who were former yeshiva bochurs as we planned for the holiday this year. Except for obtaining from fasting, which isn’t necessarily an observance in and of itself, that was about it. Raising money in diaspora and physically planting trees in Israel was the most pronounced observance any of us remembers. One which was less likely if you were haredi, and therefore not Zionist leaning.

In the orthodox world I remember we would all do a little learning, but few people held a full Tu biShvat seder in those days. Most likely, because few people knew exactly how to perform it well enough. Which is quite sad because the seder is dripping in symbolism which should be most meaningful for those who are fully immersed in the verbiage of kabbalah and chassidus. And yet, we admit we have often been lacking in our application and enthusiasm.

Of course since then, a lot has changed. Newer siddurim and the advent of online resources, more people are finding the seder more accessible. But the reviving observance is also greatly motivated by a growing interest in kabbalah in society today. An interest which many traditional movements are thrilled to be meeting, so today there is a lot more promotion of this holiday more than ever to address this interest.

However, for the most part the most success in incorporating this holiday into the consciousness of diaspora Jews has come during the latter part of the 20th century and during the turn of the 21st century has been made by progressive Jews. By diaspora Jews who have brought the lessons learned in modern-day Israel to the rest of the world. Who have witnessed the melded of the secular with the spiritual in the modern-day State of Israel. And who have in this model taken the holiday and made it more socially conscious in our own lands. And who have also come to mark this day as an opportunity for their communities to become socially and politically active regarding the environment and nature. Realizing that we wont bear fruit until we break ground through social action.

In this spirit the holiday of Tu biShvat has come to be embraced the world over as a Jewish Earth Day Celebration of sorts. Where people not just celebrate nature, but actively show their green thumb and their social activism. A time when one gets to show their love for nature and vow to preserve it.

The latter reason is probably another factor for why this holiday of Tu biShvat is more well observed among progressives and less so among conservatives in America. Be it personal discomfort with being called a tree-hugger, one’s dissociation with nature… or even worse, ones troubling environmental politics. What ever the reason, many religious Jews in the Americas show neglect towards our observance because of our personal sentiments we need to correct.

Today I want us to take the time to focus on a tikkun atzmi – a correction and repair within ourselves. So intern we can be more effective in making a tikkun olam – a correction and repair in the world! We need to have both.

A Peek into the Mystical Aspects of the Tu biShvat Seder

And that is precisely what this holiday is about according to our kabbalistic tradition. Making a tikkun (a correction) within ourselves.

And more specifically making a correction within our male energies and over our sense of assertion. This is a very virile holiday, it is not so much about embracing mother nature. It’s more about becoming aware and mindful of how we assert ourselves over nature, and then taking those lessons inward.

And this is where I fear I might lose readers, both nervous males and bashful females. I’ve noticed I can talk as much as I want about the feminine aspects of G-d’s shechinah these days, but talking about masculine things is something many are becoming less accustomed to! Men and women, both equally, show discomfort at times. However, I think that whatever our gender is we can all learn a very important lesson by looking at the very masculine and assertive essence of this holiday of Tu biShvat.

I don’t want to make it weird so let me explain what I mean, and use the paralleling examples we can draw from. At this time of year we are approaching the spring harvest two months from now, which is the biblical new year; that is something most of us know little about. So instead let us look at the opposite side of the calendar, and compare it to the coming of the civil and religious new year – to Rosh haShanah; that is something we seem to all naturally know more about. I’m sure many of you will immediate recognize the polar distinctions between these two seasons in our tradition.

When we think of the season of Rosh haShanah we think of it as a season with female spiritual correspondences. The season of Elul and Tishrei are often regarded as a feminine and receptive time of year. This month of Elul, its kabbalistic Zodiac sign is the Beitulah; the virgin which corresponds to Virgo, explained as the same virgin (beitulah) of Libra with the scales of justice (moznayim) in hand. This symbolizes the receptive nature of the virgin earth, during the season of plowing of the land. It also represents Din – or judgment, which is also seen as a feminine aspect of the Divine. As we know, we are making selichot in that month of Elul, in preparation towards being judged in Tisherei. That season is characterized by judgment and restriction.

But at the same time the season of fall is an intimate season, in which we are to mystically mirror a young virgin longing for marriage and intimacy. When we want to mirror that longing in our relationship to G-d. That is why we also consider Rosh haShanah our wedding day to G-d. From that point of spiritual reference, we focus upon our receptivity.

See, that wasn’t so hard. Not too difficult to talk about. And even if we are not kabbalistically learned, most of us recognize these themes. Now let’s see if we can grasp the other end of this.

In contrast, at this time of year we are supposed to be focusing on the more masculine correspondences displayed in these upcoming months. Now during Shevat we do not consider this season barren, this is now the time of the almond blossoms breaking forth. The ground will soon start to break forth with life, and with the hopes of budding of fruits to come.

We are now going into the fertile months. Two months from this night, we will be looking up at a full-moon like this and celebrating Pesach; we will be eating the produce of the spring wheat harvest, and counting towards the barley harvest until Shavout. This is a seminal and groundbreaking time of year. A very virile and fertile time of year!

We aren’t the only people who see this, consider how strong the theme of fertility is present in the cultures around us as this season approaches. As the common culture will soon find their celebrations also entrenched in symbols of fertility; as they decorate everything in eggs and bunnies. This theme is starting to be in the air for many cultures the world over, not just for us alone. It’s not hard to recognize and understand this seasonal contrast.

In contrast to the feminine and receptive nature of Rosh haShanah (and Beitulah), the spiritual new year of Pesach is a strikingly masculine holiday. And so is Tu biShvat. The Fall nature is barren and receptive, the Spring is asserting and springs forth. We know what we are talking about here, as traditionally cultures have often binarily called this “masculine initiative,” so we get what this means. I don’t need to be too explicit, I think we all get this.

Notice how the kabbalistic zodiac sign Taleh, the lamb in our tradition or a ram, it corresponds to the spring month of Aires (the month of aviv, spring; Nissan); it displays the masculine spiritual forces par-excellence. It represents an active and domineering partner in its spiritual attributes. It displays the Divine aspects of Chesed – that passionate and ever-expansive type of love. That fiery and lusty energy is what takes center stage as this time of fertility draws close.

Now we really need to pay special attention to this point. And I think if we examine our own drives we can clearly connect to these points in every person. That what this side of the Divine essence represents is that power of assertion we have inside us. That drive to want to assert ourselves in life and in our relationship to other things. It signifies that ever-expansive desire to aggressively assert ourselves over nature and life itself. To take whats barren and make life spring erect from it.

These are the words and themes mystically woven together in this Tu biShvat seder. For those who are attuned to kabbalah and chassidut we know that part of the this tikkun we are making is within our own personal will and drive to assert ourselves; and to bring balance to an ever-expansive type of chesed in us, as displayed by masculine aspects of the spiritual forces used in the text of the seder. (Abba, Tzedek, Yesod, etc.) It calls us to consider and make tikkun (correction) for an expansive love and passion on overdrive.

Take a look at the Pri Etz Hadar when you get a chance. Notice that the seder wording clearly makes those parallels in how it speaks about making a correction in Yesod (the phallus), and by means of this expressing how our over expansive drives are so seen as a form of unchastity. As we are embracing the virile energy at this time of year, we are also asked to be equally mindful in using that power responsibly. It calls us to make a correction in ourselves, related to bring balance to our own carnal desires and actions. Instead of giving completely over to this virile drive we are called to bring balance to it. Asking men in the traditional text to be mindful that they might be over-expansive in their carnal passions, and to make a tikkun (a correction inside ones self) for that.

This is a lesson which was learned though nature, and which needs to be applied back in our relationship with nature. At the heart of the Tu biShvat seder, under all the layers of mysticism, that is what it is doing by calling us to on all levels overcome a base-level drive inside of ourselves to assert ourselves over nature and be more responsible with the power we assert over the earth.

At Rosh Hashanah in Fall we are called to be mindful of being receptive and properly submissive in our nature. But in this coming season of Spring, we are asked to be mindful of our will to assert ourselves and to expansively spring forth.

For those who are brave and honest with themselves, we need to be asking ourselves some questions deep inside our souls at this time. Privately ask oneself:

  • Am I over-asserting myself over the earth in a damaging and disrespectful manner? Am I being over-expansive in respect to the earth?
  • Am I over-asserting myself sexually, using it in a damaging and disrespecting manner? Am I being over-asserting in my sexuality?

The Seder and the Four Worlds

Now the structure of the Tu biShvat seder shows us how to apply this vigorous expansiveness, how to properly apply all this Chesed. And addresses how to become more effective in this aspect, both in our passions and actions. It does this by taking us on a journey up the scale of the kabbalistic Four Worlds of ABiYA:

Assiyah: The world of Action

Yetzirah: The world of Formation

Beriah: The world of Creation

Atzilut the world of Emanation (actualization)

In this seder we start our frame of reference grounded in the physical world of action, and we are moving towards pure thought which we perceive as being in the fiery heavens (where the sun and stars burn in the sky) as the mystics perceive of this path. We are moving upwards, elevating our senses and drives and thoughts to even loftier heights.

tree labeled four worlds kabbalahBut it all starts with activity, this process begins with us starting within the world of action. It starts with us putting our hands into action. And then as we begin to act, we can then better perceive of how to form and inspire creation in this world.

This holiday orients us and points us forward, and up. Directing us to strive on for a higher level of thought and passion which is beyond constriction, understood as the world of Emanation (Atzilut). Where G-d is One and the world is one. At this highest level of consciousness, we are trying to actualize a world without striving, restriction, disunity and lack; where there is completeness and wholeness.

Now I’ve said a mouthful, and I know very well that most of us aren’t mystics. I know not many of you consider yourselves too spiritual or mystical. Many of us are moderns and progressives, people who are not wrapped up in a world of mystical symbolisms as others. I understand this.

But that is the beautify of this holiday, it doesn’t require us to be at a place of lofty spirituality. The spiritual exercises of this holiday starts us firmly on the earth, in the natural world and in this very realm of physical action. All we need to do is focus on how to bring our actions better in line with our most loftier thoughts.

This tradition of ours doesn’t tell us we need to attain great spiritual heights. It just tells us to start with our actions, and to elevate our thoughts which inspire our actions. We don’t need to be concerned if we reach Atzilut, really. We aren’t literally trying to reach perfection, but what is important is that we are striving towards bettering and perfecting this world towards that more ideal reality. And doing a tikkun, making a correction, for those defects we recognize in this world.

In both our actions and with our passions as previously discussed, we are asked to become more conscious about our sense of assertiveness. That is what I want us to keep in mind as we make our way through the Tu biShvat seder this year. How to make a tikkun in that area of our lives as well.

Reflection: Now I don’t really think that traditional Jews are less observant than progressive Jews in respect to this holiday, just less enthusiastic about it sometimes in diaspora. As it is noticeable that progressives have started to do more visible activism during this holiday in the west. And that’s a chesed, it’s a really great thing!

In actually, I don’t believe one side is necessarily more observant or correct than the other. But that traditional Jews and the progressives Jews today are often approaching this holiday from different sides, but for the same goal:

  • In the orthodox circles, people are and often have been more attuned to their tikkun atzmi – a correction and repair in oneself.
  • And in the progressive circles, people are generally more attuned towards a tikkun olam – a correction and repair in the world.

However, the reality is that all of us need to be working towards a tikkun in both these areas, and do so more seriously during this season. Our tradition actually calls us to deal with both. We can’t really achieve one without the other, so we need to bring balance to both.

Tu biShvat Seder Resources:


Prayer for Peace by Rebbe Nachman of Beslov


A chassidic prayer of intention for peace and an end to war

Breslov Chassidim Singing

“Let there be a truly great peace between every person and their fellow…”

All over the world, our eyes are turned towards Israel as the region is once again thrown into war. This tense situation also having tragic repercussions in diaspora, with violent protests erupting on the streets of cities worldwide as people take sides in this dispute.

I must admit, I am overwhelmed with the crisis of the past few weeks. Everyone wants to debate who is right, and who is wrong. But I am already past that point. It is not that I do not stand with my people. It’s not that I’m not appalled by the violence. But all these recent events together, this is just not something that I can wrap my head around. It’s all too much. This is not something I can ever rationalize or even apologize for. I’m at a loss for words, and my mind is worn.

Do you feel the same way? Then I think it is time that we step away from trying to over-think it, and start doing some soul-work on this issue. As we all know that on a heart level every one of us wants all this crazy violence to end. Not just between Israel and the Palestinians, but also between all the fighting groups in the middle-east as I.S.I.S. militias push through the region. As well as in the Ukraine and Russia, where the situation is further escalating there as well. Our world needs peace!

At times like this, when I feel like I really need to do some deep soul-searching and when my emotions are pushed to the limit, I sometimes find that even my normal “rational” faculties to be insufficient or even broken. My familiar Chabad chassidut learning which focuses on higher intellect, it needs to be augmented. So then I step down from the lofty realms of Chachman, Binah, and Daat (Wisdom, Insight, and Knowledge, respectively); together refereed to by the acronym ChaBaD, which all relate to levels of higher understanding. Then I dig deeper – going down the kabbalistic tree, down from the head to the heart.

The Central Sefirot: Chesed, Gevurah, Tiferet (ChaGaT)It’s at irrational moments like this when I focus on the basic principles of ChaGaT chassidut. Refocusing on the basics which look to the center of our being. I begin to look into the realms of Chesed, Gevurah and Tiferet; which are respectively described as Kindness, Severity, and Harmony. In doing this we look at our basic emotive tendencies and try to bring balance between the extremes. Neither being too kind or permissive, wantonly expressing Chesed. Neither being too strong and severe, which is an excessive expression of Gevurah. But instead work to attain balance and to be in harmony; as expressed by Tiferet, also refereed to a Rachamim, meaning Mercy. In this approach, the goal is to find the golden middle path between the extremes.

At this time I would like us all to let ourselves dig deep emotionally. Not just focus on the wars in this outside world, but also deal with the battles raging inside our hearts as a result of these conflicts. So that we can bring balance inside ourselves. And in order to not get dragged into the common tendencies of extremism. To overcome the reactive nature of the soul. So that we be nether driven by fanaticism nor cynicism, but instead be compelled by compassion.

Breslov Chassidim, doing Kiruv (outreach)Probably the most notorious of the ChaGaT schools are the Breslov chassidim. Followers of the legacy and teachings of Rebbe Nachman z”l (1773-1810), of Bratslav, Ukraine. He was the son of Feiga; the meritorious granddaughter of the Baal Shem Tov, the very founder of chassidut. The movement Rebbe Nachman headed, today it has thousands of emissaries and youth active in kiruv. Worldwide they are known for their joyous outreach campaigns, often cutely summed up by observers as the hippie chassidim. (see Breslov.org and Breslev.co.il)

Breslov Street OutreachThe following is a widely distributed prayer, attributed to Rebbe Nachman of Beslov. This prayer is so well-loved that versions of it have made its way into prayerbooks and services everywhere. Not just in chassidic and orthodox Jewish circles, but also in progressive Jewish siddurim and interfaith services (UNESCO, Vatican, etc).

This version is the widely recognized Hebrew text. The English text closely follows the common translation, though slightly modified. The frequently missing first stanza (אדון השלום) is included here. I also added a free-translation for the fourth stanza (ויהיה כל אדם), which has been curiously missing from all previous translations to date.

תפילה לשלום

Prayer for peace

“Lord of Peace, Divine Ruler, to whom peace belongs. Master of Peace, Creator of all things:

אדון השלום, מלך שהשלום שלו עושה שלום ובורא את הכל:

“May it be thy will to put an end to war and bloodshed on earth, and to spread a great and wonderful peace over the whole world, ‘so that nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.’ (Isaiah 2:4)

יהי רצון מלפניך, שתבטל מלחמות ושפיכות דמים מן העולם ותמשיך שלום גדול ונפלא בעולם ולא ישא גוי אל גוי חרב ולא ילמדו עוד מלחמה“:

“Help us and save us all, and let us cling tightly to the virtue of peace. Let there be a truly great peace between every person and their fellow, and between husband and wife, and let there be no discord between any people even in their hearts.

עזרנו והושיענו כולנו שניזכה תמיד לאחוז במידת השלום, ויהיה שלום גדול באמת בין כל אדם לחברו, ובין איש לאשתו ולא יהיה שום מחלוקת אפילו בלב בין כל בני אדם:

“And may it be that all people love peace and pursue peace, always in truth and with wholeheartedness, without holding on to any disputes ever again which would divide us against each other.

ויהיה כל אדם אוהב שלום ורודף שלום תמיד באמת ובלב שלם, ולא נחזיק במחלוקת כלל לעולם ואפילו נגד החולקים עלינו:

“Let us never shame any person on earth, great or small. May it be granted unto us to fulfill Thy Commandment to, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ (Leviticus 19:18) with all our hearts and souls and bodies and possessions.

ולא נבייש שום אדם בעולם מקטן ועד גדול ונזכה לקיים באמת מצוות ואהבת לרעך כמוך“, בכל לב וגוף ונפש וממון:

“And let it come to pass in our time as it is written, ‘And I will give peace in the land, and you shall lie down and none shall make you afraid. I will drive the wild beasts from the land, and neither shall the sword go through your land.’ (Leviticus 26:6)

ויקוים בנו מקרא שכתוב ונתתי שלום בארץ ושכבתם ואין מחריד והשבתי חיה רעה מן הארץ וחרב לא תעבור בארצכם:

“Hashem who is peace, bless us with peace!”

יי שלום, ברכנו בשלום.

Attributed to Rabbi Nachman ben Feiga of Breslov, 1773-1810

רבי נחמן בן פיגא מברסלב

Text edited and partially translated by Shmuel Gonzales, July 2014. 
This is free and open-source to distribute, under Creative Commons Zero (CCO) licensing, no rights reserved.

 

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Parshat Bamidbar (5774)


Numbers 1:1 – 4:20

Nationalism: How do you feel about flag waving?

 A Mexican-American student (left) is bullied by nationalist students for carrying the American flag while showing support of immigrant rights. When do you feel that use of national flags and symbolisms become excessive and unsavory? Have you ever felt “anti-flag?”

A Mexican-American student (left) is bullied by Chicano nationalist students for carrying the American flag while showing support of immigrant’s rights. When do you feel that use of national flags and symbolisms become excessive and unsavory? Have you ever felt “anti-flag?”

What do flags mean to you? Are flags uniting symbols, or are they emblems of division? It is obvious to us all that most often, to the people who hoist them, flags embody a symbol of nationalism. How do you feel about that? Because, as for myself, I’m not so sure sometimes.

Even when not used in the context of the actual nation-state, people often utilize state flags for other nationalistic reasons, such as ethnic and cultural nationalism. Can you think of some examples where these symbols are used well, and examples of when they are used poorly?

It is not that I am against people showing pride in their homeland and culture, but I do not believe in using these symbols as weapons. Furthermore, I do not believe in utilizing them in a way which does not call attention to a diverse fabric in that flag. As I completely stand against ethnic nationalism.

This is a topic that comes to mind in relation to current events, and upon reading our parsha for this week. First, let’s take a look at the text here:

‘The children of Israel shall encamp with each person near the banner which has his paternal family’s insignia; a good way off shall they pitch round about the tent of meeting.”

אִישׁ עַל דִּגְלוֹ בְאֹתֹת לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם יַחֲנוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִנֶּגֶד סָבִיב לְאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד יַחֲנוּ:

Ish al-diglo ve’otot leveit avotam yachanu benei Yisra’el mineged saviv le’ohel-mo’ed yachanu.

Deuteronomy 2:2

I don’t want to overwhelm us with commentery this week, but I want us to just quickly discuss the interesting points made by Rashi, the master commentary. But it’s essential we first connect to the discussion of the ages.

Rashi in his commentary makes sure we know what we are talking about, these otot – these signs, these symbols – he understands them to clearly mean flags. Notice how Rashi also describes these flags, pointing at their construction, he referred to them in Hebrew as mapa – meaning a tablecloth. This is what these “standards” were. Colored banners of cloth with symbols embroidered into them, hoisted on polls.

Rashi describes the background of the flags, saying that the color and hue of each was inspired after the color of their corresponding stone in the Breastplate of the High Priest. Thus each flag had distinctive colors, according to their distinct tribal identity. As each of these twelve stones were different, so too were each of the flags.

12 Shevatim Flags, MosaicThen Rashi gives us further details as to the appearance of the flags, and why they are called otot here – why they are to be understood as signs, and what the symbols mean. Rashi explains that each of the flags had a symbol placed on them. What type of symbol? Rashi says it was a symbol given to each tribe by Yaakov Avinu (באות שמסר להם יעקב), before his death in Egypt at the end of Genesis. (see Genesis chapters 49-50)

I was recently reminded of this lesson after a friend asked me to review some pictures of the historic Breed Street Shul, in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, California. Some have noticed that around the interior of the main sanctuary there are 12 symbols circling the entire sanctuary. Upon first glance, one cannot help but notice that most appear to be zodiac symbols, yet some figures do not seem to exactly fit this theme. This is not a unique depiction in this shul, it is actually quite common in classical synagogues as well.

Midrash based on this week’s Torah reading sheds some light on this subject. Our traditional folklore credits Avraham Avinu – Abraham our Father – as being among the first to assign symbolism to the zodiac. He, and Yakkov his grandson, are said to have correlated the symbols of the classical zodiac with the descriptions of these 12 tribal patriarchs given at their time of blessing. This is something that is reaffirmed as a long-held belief even in the classical age, as accounted by 2nd century Hellenistic writer Vettius Valens.

However, these signs are not all so obviously connected to the heavenly constellations they correspond to today. Instead the midrash explains them slightly different at times. For example, Zevulen is symbolized by a ship, Naftali an olive tree, Binyamin a wolf, etc. Each of these were to symbols useful to describe something about the nature of those tribes and what they were good at. As with Zevulen whose tribe is understood to have become great sea merchants, thus the ship.

And then at the center there was the flag of the Levites, whose ensign was a depiction of the multicolored breastplate which represented the 12 tribes of Israel. Their multifaceted emblem understood to be a symbolic representation of all the many colors of the Israelites.

Even today, in synagogues like the Breed Street, you will see depictions of the Twelve Tribes in the form of these traditional symbols which are only loosely related to the Zodiac. Instead what they really are present for, is to symbolize the balance and harmony of the tribes of Israel, each dwelling peaceably with their own clan as described here in this week’s parsha. (see diagram at the bottom)

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Inside the historic Breed Street Shul, Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, California. The symbols of the Twelve Tribes still remain. In fact, the round Star of David stained glass pieces are just place holders for 12 original pieces depicting the 12 Tribes of Israel. They are being kept in storage for safekeeping during the restoration. Please see more images and a correspondence chart below.

As described in Rashi’s commentary for this verse, Yehudah leads in the east, along with Issachar and Zevulen. The tribes are further laid out in orders of three. Three tribes in the east, three south, three west, three north. With the Levites then leaning towards the middle. This symbolizes each dwelling harmoniously in their camp, each tribe at peace with each other. The flags they originated from are a thing of the past, but their symbols remain enshrined in Jewish art and architecture.

Before we move on from addressing the actual text here, I would like us to take notice of one other important point that cannot be missed. We need to understand why these groups and tribes did not fall into isolation.

The answer is found in explaining why the tribes were matched with each other, three tribes placed at each side of the Israelite encampments. The tribes were purposely made to dwell with other tribes as part of a local community and unit. Sometimes the matches were clearly ideal, like Issachar and Zevulen – who according to Jewish tradition were historical partners in enterprise and learning (see “The Torah-Business Partnership” at Chabad.org). So at times we can see the tribes paired together according to their natural alliances.

Sure these groupings were often based on fraternal feelings, in the most literal sense. Example, the tribes born to mother Leah are all placed in the east and the south. Those tribes alloted inheritance through Yosef – including Ephraim and Menasheh – were encamped together, thus all the descendants of Rachel were placed in the west. As we can see, the tribes most often – but not always – were grouped to camp with those they were most related to.

But like all nations and communities, the people of Israel were not just a grouping of like people and families. No, they were a composite of naturally distinct people who were expected to come together as a unified people.

This is a good thought to have in mind as we consider the often sung words of the psalms, “Hineh mah tov umah naim, shevet achim gam yachad / Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1)

Though the individual tribes of Israel had their own distinct characteristics and autonomous camps, they were still united as one people. They dwelt not just as brothers among themselves in completely isolated communities, but also as extended brothers in unity as one complete nation – one united people. They are thus named Am Yisrael – the nation, or literally, the people of Israel.

So now that we got all the smart stuff out of the way, what does this all mean? And how do we actually feel about this?

Let’s really think about this here, and vent some of the natural criticism that us Jews have for this text.

We see the tribes abiding by their flags. Camped and grouped according to paternal line – but also by maternal lineage in division, each person and family among their own clan. Sure we agree that they dwelt harmoniously, thus enabling them to not just encamp in their formations but also move forward in their desert migration as a cohesive unit. But nonetheless, for most of us modern people, today most have a problem with a description of people dwelling in such communities, that by todays standards are quite restrictive. We have a problem with the appearance of segregation.

And even more so, many people have a problem with the suggestion of the scriptures and midrashic tradition praising vexillophilia – which is just a long word for the love of collecting and studying flags. Yet our texts seemingly does. Indeed our texts call the tribes to fashion them, after their own identity. And then to dwell by them, encamped by tribe underneath them. This does not sit well with many, be they progressive or orthodox.

Actually it’s interesting that I bring up the Breed Street Shul, mostly because I recently had an argument with a lifelong friend of mine after he started bemoaning the presence of the American and Israeli flags in that complex, which is today being used as a cultural center. It should be noted that the Breed Street Shul was the first location in Los Angeles to hoist the flag of the newly recognized State of Israel, upon the UN recognition of the Jewish state. The connection to the Zionist cause historically runs deep in this community. I felt the symbols to be wholly appropriate and historically accurate, in face of objections.

I heard what he was saying though. The arguments he made were familiar ones which are quite common among many young Jewish people today. His arguments were slightly modified versions of anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism, mixed with his own theoretical sense of universalism – as opposed to restrictive nationalism.

Of course, our conversation came to an impasse when I could not condone the disparaging of the democratic tradition of America and the State of Israel. And more specifically when I would not trash the flag, nor be bullied into decrying the local custom of showing such symbols in public meeting halls and houses of worship.

But I’ll tell you the truth, the conversation set off a different journey of self-exploration on how I feel about flags and nationalism. Being challenged on this topic by someone I know very well, he appealed to my natural character to be opposed to nationalism. As I have always been a most aggressive opponents to ethnic nationalism and racism. Often finding myself verbally and physically opposing racial discrimination wrapped in a flag. He had a point that has been pricking in my side ever since.

Especially in the past few weeks. My own conflict on how I feel about nationalistic symbolism and their appropriateness was displayed in my feelings over recent communal celebrations in the area, such as Cinco de Mayo and the Israel Day Festival. On one had, I feel cynical regarding the celebrating Cinco de Mayo here in the USA. [It could be possible that my ill sentiments of Cinco de Mayo festivals are most derived from my childhood experiences, from before the city shut them down because of the violence at places like Lincoln Park, events which were often marred by the venting of racist nationalism of the worst nature.] Yet at the same time I do tend to feel somewhat welcoming to the recognition of Israeli Independence Day when it comes around. You would think as a Mexican-American I would feel the other way around. Or at least be consistent, and be completely opposed to the recognition of either celebration in diaspora.

I’ll admit, the inconstancy is something that has perplexed even myself. Even as I waved my little Israeli flag at the festival. I really thought about what it meant to me, and how it might also appear to outsiders who cannot internalize my love and support for the Jewish state. How can I seem to essentially promote Jewish nationalism? Does this not appear to compromise my core values which oppose exclusivity, racism and xenophobia?

I let my mind and heart wrestle with this, in hopes of coming to peace with this. Hopefully before the Fourth of July rolled around and I found myself struggling with this topic yet again. Before I unfurl the American flag and again begin to struggle with similar nationalistic sentiments and conflicts.

There is no way to avoid a certain truth about employing such symbolisms. When people begin to wave flags, most often they are making clear nationalistic statements. And nationalism seems to almost naturally have a tendency to result in chauvinism, which further leads to racism and xenophobia.

Nationalism, while it’s aims seem honorable in seeking to establishing people-hood and the building up of sound nation-states, it can also be a used as a very dangerous force. Nationalism can become a divisive and restrictive force. Often setting up barriers between regions and peoples. This is because nationalism is concerned with my people and my country – mine and not yours. Nationalism most often displays itself through regional struggles for resources, and even in senseless expansionism. And in senseless exclusion and persecution of others, simply for not being part of your tribe or people. Because your needs don’t really matter as much as mine, I can’t help you if I can’t help myself. That is how nationalism translates in the minds of many.

So how do I intellectually justify my own feelings of nationalism? How do I justify my own pride in and love for my country? Why not decry these structures all together?

I justify my support of the state in the same manner everyone else before me has, simply because that is the way things are. For now, this is the only way things can be. And like most citizens, I identify with the values and virtues of my country. I also accept the fact that at times nations must rise up to give life to their unique virtues. Nations and people seem naturally intended to rise to prominence to actualize a dream, and once accomplished they fade into the background. Disappearing into the larger fabric of history. That is how most of us understand the nature of nationalism.

Simply put, I support and identify with the western democratic tradition of American and the State of Israel because their vision and dream is still in the making. They are both young counties, who have yet to accomplish their goals before retiring themselves to the history books.

But even this intellectual justification does not completely set my mind at ease. Because I cannot deny the reality that nationalism can be a harmful force in any country or people.

On the walls of the public housing near the entrance of the parking lot, facing Lorena near the corner of Olympic Blvd. Estrada Courts.

On the walls of the public housing near the entrance of the parking lot, facing Lorena near the corner of Olympic Blvd. Estrada Courts.

And this is probably where I’m going to upset everyone, but I must be honest. My own life experience, especially in light of the history of my community, makes me leery of nationalism.

Its well-known that I’ve traditionally been known to be an aggressive opponent of white nationalists – a.k.a. “skinheads,” but more precisely “white power” Nazi punks. Living my life in the punk rock scene it has been something that I have always had pushed in my face, naturally I’ve resisted and fought against such forces in the scene. In light of this it seems logical why I would so strongly oppose such things as ethnic nationalism. Because it’s an obvious offense to minorities such as myself.

But my opposition towards nationalism actually comes from somewhere closer to home. It is formed from my observations of nationalism gone awry in my own community – in the Latino community of Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles; with “brown power” neo-nationalism. This is how I can say any type of nationalism can go wrong, even among disadvantaged minorities. My distaste for nationalism comes from seeing its divisive employment in my own minority community – among Latinos.

This topic comes to mind again, as recently racial and nationalistic tensions are once again begun to surface within this predominately Latino community (demographically, the area is 98.9% Latino). Most recently in the firebombing of four pubic housing units occupied by African-American families. (for details, also see: “Ramona Gardens Firebombing has some black residents fleeing the area,” LA Times)

I’m also finding it hard to ignore the obvious racism and chauvinism that is also being shown even more increasingly in the way people discuss the topic of gentrification and urban-renewal, along with the “white people” and minorities this is expected to attract to our communities. In the face of a perceived threat, some Latino people are once again trying to rebuild 1970s style nationalist protest movements to show dominance in this area.

ChakaArtist

Here we are talking about tribal and national symbols. Let us reflected on the growing tensions in Boyle Heights, and really consider how intentionally divisive and racially charged ways art, murals and nationalist symbols have been utilized in the eastside. How they are purposely employed to intimidate others out other races and nationalties out of our vicinity. We really need to reflect on how and why we need to move beyond this racial extremism, exclusivity and cultural hegemony. Notice it didn’t take long for this most infamous of the local graffiti inspired artists to validate my claims and understanding of this rhetoric for all of us.

As people of other races move in to the area one can’t help notice the rush to cover everything with a Mexican flag, armed revolutionaries or the Virgin of Guadalupe increases. Joining outdated slogans like, “Viva la raza” (meaning, long live our race) and the like which still theme this area. This all sits really badly with me, and I’m not at all quiet about it.

I challenge people on this. How can we attempt at being an open community in Boyle Heights when we cover our public housing in those areas exclusively in nationalistic and racially charged Chicano art? And by constantly covering everything with a Mexican flag? It’s not that I’m opposed to our ethnic art and cultural symbols being expressed in public. But I ask my people to consider if we are not being foolish in hollowing throwbacks from the most radical points of the civil rights movement. Could it be that nationalistic excesses in this art is sending a message that all other races and nationalities are not welcome here? Would it not be better for us as we grow as a community to mature into more inclusive tones? Is it not time that our nationalistic sentiments finally retire themselves, as the greater society moves beyond the ethnic divisions?

I must begin to speak up, not just for my own community. But also out of concern and communal solidarity with the African-American communities who are being violently targeted and squeezed out of their historic neighborhoods in Los Angeles by nationalist Latino gangs. (see “Racial Hate Feeds a Gang War’s Senseless Killing” and “Attack on family in Compton latest incident in wave of anti-black violence”) On behalf of the concerned members of the Latino community, I challenge the embedding of nationalism into our communities, because it’s unwise and divisive.

This is especially relevant for our community here in Boyle Heights, just as much as it is in most other inner-city communities. In fact, the way our racial and ethnic problems is being played out on the eastside is being modeled elsewhere, as the gang lifestyle and themes export themselves from our neighborhoods to build syndicate gang franchises in the inner-cities across the country. Its essential we tackle this issue here, and now. (see “Ramona Gardens Overcomes Past,” for some background on local racist sentiments and those who are working to overcome it.)

I think it is also important for us Latinos to employ new symbols of pride, which are sensitive. As us Latino quickly become the majority by sheer demographic growth in this country many among us are talking about what the future of the country will look like in generations to come. But we need to do some really good thinking. We need to decide if we are going to embrace people-hood with the other tribes of this country, or if we are going pursue cultural chauvinism and dominion.

This is what is running through my mind as I read these words in the Torah portion for this week, “The children of Israel shall encamp with each person near the banner which has his paternal family’s insignia.” (Deut. 2:3)

When we read about this topic of each tribe camping under their flags and tribal symbols in the Torah, I don’t see it as just majestic and lovely. On paper it looks nice. But I can also see where in the practical world, this can all go very wrong. When the use of flags and symbols is used to divide and distinguish, and not just as a mere symbol of pride. But can we tell the difference? I think that’s the problem, that sometimes people cannot.

Yes, I have a problem with the way some people in my community brandish the Mexican flag. Furthermore, I don’t just passively accept people reviving talk of a Mexican-American claim to the southwest and the expectation of social entitlement. This is the view which is most often paired with Mexican neo-nationalism. Along with a message for outsiders to stay out because this is ours, we should not have to share resources. This is the message being sent by many who aggressively embed the Mexican flag in our area. For me, this is wholly inappropriate, I just cannot do it. I cannot promote this type chauvinism in my community. From this, I feel I must have to abstain.

So how do I find it possible to raise other kinds of flags? Is this not hypocritical of me?

One of the reasons I can hold the American flag high is because I am an American. It is right for me to show my love for my own country, and in my own land. I see no problem with nationalism when properly expressed within the context of that nation. And because I stand proud in my identity as an American, which is not defined by any one color. We are all immigrant people, a nation of mixed heritage. A patchwork of cultures is sewn into the fabric of this nation. This flag does not just represent a sole nation built through the pooling of people of the same culture regionally, but of the gathering of people of many different traditions and origins to become a more perfect union. It is a country build upon the coming together of many people who value liberty, freedom and the pursuit of happiness.

Likewise I can also proudly hold high the flag of the State of Israel. Because that flag is a symbol of the national aspirations of the Jewish people, who are not one color or specific race either. It is the flag of a state which is a refuge and home to Jews of many origins and ethnic backgrounds. It is the historic homeland and the modern refuge for many Jews, established through democratic and political realities. I can support and defend the fineness of that vision. I can show solidarity with this civilization grounded both in faith and culture; all of which is above color, race and national origins. A country which also promises full civil rights to all the various non-Jewish minorities – the people of the historic Arab, Muslim, Christian, Armenian, Druze communities – who also take shelter in her.

In their own merit, I feel both the flags of the United State of American and the State of Israel are two symbols, which when used in their proper spirit and place, can be used as symbols of inclusivity and diversity. I sincerely believe that these symbols still speak of national hopes which are above race and ethnicity. If only people would aspire to fulfill those values embodied therein.

Discussion: When do you feel that use of national flags and symbolisms become excessive and unsavory? Have you ever felt “anti-flag?”

Pictures of art from the Breed Street Shul, with correspondence chart:

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The_Breed_Street_Shul_in_Boyle_Heights,_Los_Angeles

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breed-street-shul-in-boyle-heights

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The following chart is an original creation, for a study I made on Jewish mysticism relating to the tribes and months. This at displays the corresponding meditative thoughts and sequences, taught by Lurianic Kabbalah. It also lays out the exact order for the different signs displayed on the walls of the shul:

This chart is an original creation, designed for a study I once did many years ago on Jewish mysticism – relating to the traditional meditations (kavannot) upon the tribes and months. This displays the corresponding meditative thoughts and sequences, taught by Lurianic Kabbalah (mysticism as explained by the Ari z”l). It conveniently lays out the exact order for the different symbols displayed on the walls of the shul, and the meditative elements which relate to them.

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Parshat Beshalach (5774)


Exodus 13:17 – 17:16

Moses, why are you still praying? Go forward!

Jewish Woman Praying at KotelAre you a person who is inclined to prayer and meditation? Do you find your spiritual devotion through prayer to be meaningful? Many people today like to discuss the benefits of prayer. Most often we talk about how doctors notice the benefit prayer has on the outlook of a patient so inclined.

I’m one of these people that is so inclined. I don’t base my belief in prayer off of pseudo-science or because polls tell me it should matter. I find the act of prayer to be very meaningful and comforting to me. And I’m not even a supernatural minded person, but I benefit very much from prayer. So much do I love prayer that I dedicate most of my time to transcribing and translating siddurim – Hebrew prayerbooks. I find the way the way that humans make a song of their pains and hopes to be very powerful and captivating. It also gives me personal strength.

Even as much as I love prayer, I have come to realize one needs to have more than just that in our lives. Our Torah seems to suggest that there are times when people may be spending too much time praying and too little time doing.

Let me put this weeks Torah reading and this discussion in context. The children of Israel are with their backs up against the wall for the first time. Quite literally, when they are being pursued by Pharaoh and they are locked in by the Sea of Reeds on the other end. The people immediately begin to complain and consider breaking ranks. They lament to the tune of: We told you so, Moses. We wanted to just be left alone. We are okay with being slaves to the Egyptians. But now we are going to die in the wilderness. (Exodus 14:10-13)

We will pick up the text with this next verse. We will start with our Hebrew text, and then later I will transliterate our key verse for the benefit of all students. Our text reads:

“And Moses said to the people |

don’t be afraid! Stand firm and see |

the salvation of Hashem |

which He shall work for you today |

For the way you see the Egyptians is only for today. |

But you shall no longer continue to see them this way |

for eternity. |

Hashem will fight for you, |

but you shall remain silent.” |

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶלהָעָם

אַלתִּירָאוּהִתְיַצְּבוּ וּרְאוּ

אֶתיְשׁוּעַת יְיָ,

אֲשֶׁריַעֲשֶׂה לָכֶם הַיּוֹם:

כִּי, אֲשֶׁר רְאִיתֶם אֶתמִצְרַיִם הַיּוֹם

לֹא תֹסִפוּ לִרְאֹתָם עוֹד,

עַדעוֹלָם.

יְיָ, יִלָּחֵם לָכֶם;

וְאַתֶּם, תַּחֲרִשׁוּן

Exodus 14:13-14

I could simmer on so many points here in this text. The murmuring. The disappointing lack of faith even after all they had previously experienced. The fact that people were so complacent and defeatist that they professed to preferred a life of slavery, as that was something they understood. Faced with freedom and the consequences of it, they react with fear. This was more than they expected, so the children of Israel panic and complain.

However I would like to bring out attention to how Moses challenges them with this statement. He calls them to not be afraid; stand firm and watch G-d work a salvation for them. G-d is going to save them, He is going to rescue them from this danger.

However, before Moses begins to explore their options and talk about G-d “fighting” for His people, Moses beings to address the harder issue. The bigger obstacle for them to overcome was in themselves, even before they could face the enormity of their threat by the Egyptian army. Their own lack of self-determination and belief in themselves was their issue. They didn’t feel worthy of freedom, however they did understand their former roles as beaten-down slaves to a master.

But then Moses tells them, the way that they see the Egyptians is just for today (ha-yom). That is their reality today. That might be the way that they see their masters today, as strong and overwhelming. Though that is just today’s reality. Even though one might feel that way to-day (ha-yom), tomorrow they wont.

Rashi focuses on some key words here, and directs his attention to the way the Hebrews see the Egyptians. Rashi interprets this phrase to focus on, “Mah sheritah otam / on how you perceive them.” To Rashi this phrase is more than just saying that G-d is going to magically pull off a now-you-seem-them now-you-don’t routine by magically getting rid of the Egyptians. Moses had to struggle with the Hebrew’s perceptions that crippled them in fear. The way they understood their masters (asher reitem) and in-tern themselves, it was debilitating to them.

Here Moses performs the effective role of a good and concerned leader. He comforts his people through this. He assures them that they are not always going to feel this way. And as for this threat, this too will also pass, he assures them. But more so, Rashi seems to focus on the idea that the people had always seen their Egyptian masters this way, but now it was going to be over.

In contrast, Ibn Ezra takes a different approach. He is of the opinion that we should emphasize the word “ha-yom” (today), because what they were seeing of the Egyptians that actual day was actually unprecedented. Never had the Egyptians been so fierce and threatening. Ibn Ezra has has Moses saying they have never seen anything quite like that before, but that it should be of no consequences because they will never see it ever again.

The people are pushed up against the water now, and the Egyptians are coming at them with everything they’ve got. Moses tells the people to not fear, and to be quiet. He says tichrashu – be quiet, Not just to be quiet and stop their complaining. To restrain oneself. The root word implying to act as though deaf and dumb. Almost like a parent Moses seems to push the people to the side like children, as though telling them to put their fingers in the ears and hum out world as he faces this problem coming at them. G-d will fight for them.

However much comfort and assurance Moses gave the people, it seems that he doesn’t seem to take his own advice to heart. He appears to begin to freak out over the situation himself, while still trying to calm their fears.

How can I assert this? Look the next statement, in our key verse for today. This next verse begins at the top of our fourth reading:

“And Hashem said to Moses:

What are you crying out to Me?

Speak to the children of Israel,

and have them go forward!”

| Vayomer Hashem el Moshe

| mah titz’ak elai

| daber el benei Yisrael

| veyisa’u

Exodus 14:15

What do we have Hashem saying to Moses? Immediately after Moses tells the people to hold ranks and to be quiet, the next thing we hear is G-d asking Moses, “Mah titzak elai / why are you crying out to Me?” Moses silences the people, but then in the next sentence G-d is asking Moses why he is shouting at Him. Why are you yelling, why are you complaining at Me? Mah titzak elai?

Whereas Moses tells the people to hold their peace and await G-d’s salvation, he does not stand by quietly. We learn by way of G-d’s response, that Moses is desperately and fiercely crying out to G-d for help. As a leader, Moses cannot just sit back silently. These people are looking to him for a solution.

Now how does Rashi understand this part of the text? Our master’s cometary for this verse reads:

Why do you cry out to Me: [This verse] teaches us that Moses was standing and praying. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, ‘This is no time to pray at length, when Israel is in distress.’

Another explanation [of God’s question (Why do you cry out to me?) implies]: “The matter depends on Me and not on you,” as it is said further [in Scripture]: “Concerning My children and the work of My hands do you command Me?” (Isa. 45:11). — [from Mechilta, Exod. Rabbah 21:8]”

מה תצעק אלי: למדנו שהיה משה עומד ומתפלל, אמר לו הקבה לא עת עתה להאריך בתפלה שישראל נתונין בצרה.

דבר אחר מה תצעק אלי עלי הדבר תלוי ולא עליך, כמו שנאמר להלן על בני ועל פועל ידי תצוני” (ישעיה מה יא):

Rashi to Exodus 14:15

I include the second explanation here as well. In these latter lines Rashi goes on to give us another interpretation that is key as well. In it he acknowledges that Moses is using a tone that is reprimanding of G-d. The other meaning of the work tzak.

However, as a master rabbi he first tempers the tones a bit. He provides a bit more of a dignified and reverencing tone for our dear Moses. He wants to show Moses as being respectful to G-d. And in doing so he actually accuses Moses of doing something that is just as terrible, if not more so in our eyes.

Rashi says Moses was too busy praying to act. Moses was standing there saying lengthy prayers. Though these actions on the part of Moses would on one hand seem honorable, they are also obviously misguided. And that is the lesson that Rashi delivers to us today.

This isn’t the only place that we have this type of example of “crying out” being related to prayer in the Torah. In Parshat Pinchas was also have a case where the people were literally crying out. In Numbers 25:6, we are told that when rebellion and a plague broke out the elders were too busy “bochim / crying” to do anything about what they were witnessing. There we are told by our rabbis that the leaders were too busy praying there as well. But in that case, in sorrow and wailing. Crying with tears.

However here, Moses’ crying out was one of protest and and desperation. He calms the people as they look to him, but now he demands that G-d answer him. And G-d instead turns the situation back on to Moses.

In the alternative interpretation Rashi has G-d acknowledging that He is indeed responsible for this people. G-d doesn’t need to be told who is really in charge of the entire universe, and therefore responsible for this situation as well.

Though from G-d’s perspective, what is really needed is for Moses and the people to take ownership of their situation and move forward for themselves. G-d assures them that He will help them, but they need to nasa, the Hebrew root for veyisa’u they need to push forward, the need to move ahead, they need to travel, they need to drive on.

And therefore in our next verses of the parsha, we have the most famous moment in all of Jewish history presented.We read of the command of Hashem for Moses to hold out the staff and part the Sea of Reeds. And then they cross over on dry land.

Almost all people have strong feelings about the phrase, “G-d helps those who help themselves.” I think we can all see some truth in this, and yet also recognize the cruel oversimplification of personal hardship made by these words. But in this parsha our scriptures and tradition comes close to making this statement. It’s not as judgmental, yet it is even more personally demanding.

Instead of standing put in prayer and meditation, we need to move forward. We need to drive on, and out of our situation. Why do I throw meditating into that mix there? It may seem out of place to make such a charge, but it is less so for the student of Kabbalah who practices meditation as an active form of mysticism.

You see the power of the splitting of the Sea of Reeds is one of the most revered displays of the Divine in all of human history. To the student of the mystical tradition, this is a key moment in the Torah to study as it displays how a direct intervention of G-d works. So sacred is this moment that we have many kavvanot and piyyutim – guided meditations and liturgical songs – based on this very moment in the Torah. That seek to connect us to the mystical power of that miracle.

The 72-Letter Name of G-dKavvanot and piyyutim – these meditations and liturgical songs, they are detailed and focused forms of prayer and concentration. They take real mental energy, and often take some time to get to know well. They are a beautiful way of centering oneself, but it takes time and effort. Not so much action, but they are very time consuming and engrossing. And for the deeper mystics, some even meditate upon the 72-Names, a mystical prayer form that some Kabbalsists say helped part the Sea of Reeds. There are some that contend that the people meditated upon the 72 Names of G-d; hidden in cypher in the words of Exodus 14:19-21. And upon doing this G-d parted the Sea of Reeds.

One might think that the Kabbalists – who actually embellished and extended prayers more than any other group, who added layer after layer of meditation to our prayerbooks, created pauses in the prayers to direct your thoughts, and further added a heavy wealth of liturgical poems – that they would disagree with Rashi’s harsh rebuke.

Yet even our mystical tradition challenges us, that when we are pushed up against a body of water – when our backs are against the wall – we need to move forward. Our Kabbalists don’t tell us to just chant and pray, and wait for everything to turn out all right.

They would bring to our attention back to our Midrashic tradition. Our inherited wisdom through folklore, which tells us that Nachshon, a prince from the tribe of Yehudah (Judah) was the first to lead his men into the waters. The midrash stresses that not until he had immersed himself into the problem, this being the Sea holding them back, did G-d intervene and split the waters before them all. (see “Split Your Sea” at Chabad.org; Midrash Tehillim 114:8; Bamidbar Rabbah 13:7)

Our tradition, both in the basics and in the advanced practice, teaches us that we need to do more than just pray about our problems. We need to do more than think about how we are going to be saved. We need to even do more than just get our feet wet, we need to be bold like Nachshon and jump into the problem. It’s not enough to just sit by the banks and consider what to do next. It’s not enough to just wait for G-d to rescue us.

Whereas our Torah only superficially reveals a command for Moses to compose himself and extend his staff over the waters as our call out of complacency, our deeper tradition even goes further and says we should be willing jump into the problem up to our nostrils before we start expecting that G-d has to help us out of our troubles.

It is not commendable to just pray and hope for the best. Our prayers are not supposed to distract us and release us of the responsibility to make as much progress on our own behalf as we can. To have to face the real problem for ourselves. Our prayers and meditations are supposed to give us strength. Strength to help us move forward. And to direct the focus of our hopes. Not to keep us stuck ascetically in one spot, mystically waiting to be saved from our problems. If we do our part, then we instantly enable ourselves with the opportunity to further see how G-d can help us work a salvation in our lives.

About the Author: Welcome to Hardcore Mesorah! My name is Shmueli Gonzales, and I am an author and translator from Los Angeles, California. As a blog writer, I enjoy talking about the challenging topics of Torah and Jewish life. I also tackle topics of personal struggle as learned through my current struggle with HIV/AIDS. Among my various projects I also produce classical liturgical and halachic texts for free and open-source redistribution.

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Parshat Noach (2013)


Genesis 6:9 – 11:32

The Time the Earth Got Dipped In the Mikvah

Last week when we discussed the Torah portion we explored how across many cultures there are certain stories that are almost universally recognized among the epic myths of the ancient world. We also explored how these stories often charge natural elements with symbolic meaning. (see Parshat Bereishit 2013) The story of The Great Flood is probably one of the best examples of that.

Let’s great right into it, and let the text lead us. We will start at the top of the third aliya. Our text reads:

“And there was a flood

forty days

upon the earth.

And the waters increased

raising the ark,

so that it was lifted up from the earth.”

| Vayehi hamabul

| arba’im yom

| al-ha’aretz

| vayirbu hamayim

| vayis’u et-hatevah

| vataram me’al ha’aretz

Genesis 7:17

One of the things that we have to notice about our Torah readings, is that in the last two weeks water has taken a large role in the narrative. (see Parshat Bereishit 2013) We began the scriptures by walking into the story right at the point of creation. The first thing we see come into existence is a water-world; the entire surface of the world is covered with water and the spirit of G-d hovers over it. In our tradition we are taught that water is the essential primordial element, our mystical tradition tells us all physical things are essential formed through water.

Did you know there are only two ways to become Jewish. One is by birth. The other is through conversion. The act of conversion is usually finalized with immersing in the mikveh, the ritual bath. It contains 40 seah of natural water, symbolizing like the 40 weeks of human gestation. By dunking in the water, as naked as they were born, one becomes reborn and emerges to a new life as a new person.

Did you know there are only two ways to become Jewish? One is by birth. The other is through conversion. The act of conversion is usually finalized with immersing in the mikveh, the ritual bath. It contains 40 seah of natural water, symbolizing like the 40 weeks of human gestation. By dunking in the water, as naked as they were born, one becomes reborn and emerges to a new life as a new person.

In many cultures water is considered a symbol of birth and rebirth, a child emerges from the womb which is filled with water. And of course water is also considered a symbol of purity, washing is thus looked at as a form of renewal in the eastern religions. Water offers purity. It is also able to quench our thirst, it is an essential element necessary for our life. But at the same time with the majority of our planet covered in harsh waters, it’s also something that people hold a deeply reverent fear for. Water is highly symbolic on many levels.

For a while I would like us to focus on this topic of birth and rebirth, because it also offers us a connection to other symbolic elements of this story.

When Jewish people look at the story of the flood we cannot help but become almost overwhelmed by the amount of connections that we can mentally make regarding the symbolic nature of water.

Likewise the number forty also brings to remembrance many points of ancient wisdom. The ancients noticed that the human gestation period, the time it takes for the development of a baby in the womb, is approximately forty weeks long. Thus forty was always considered a number of fertility. They often saw it useful to personify female fertility in the planet Venus as it takes forty days to retrograde from it’s place as evening star into a position of being the morning star. Interestingly, the pre-embryo of an infant according to the Talmud is said to form in the first forty days. (Talmud Bavli, Yevamot 69b) The number forty seems to hold special significance in the Jewish tradition as much as it does among the world cultures, and it is generally connected to birth and rebirth.

In the Torah the number forty reminds of us of the forty-year journey of the exodus (Numbers 14:33-34). We should also take notice that Moses fasted and communed with G-d for forty days before receiving the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:28) and again a second time later in the exodus story (Exodus 34:28). The spies scouted out the promised land for forty days (Numbers 13:25). Sometimes the use of forty is a thing of good cheer, such as Kind David and Solomon ruled for forty years each (2 Samuel 5:4, 1 Kings 2:11; 1 Kings 11:42). Other times it is a negative thing, Goliath taunted Israel for forty days (1 Samuel 17:16), Egypt is prophesied to lay waste for forty years (Ezekiel 29:11-12), G-d tells Jonah to warn Nineveh they have forty days to repent or face destruction (Jonah 3:4). Sometimes it is a symbol of rest and renewal, such as when G-d gives the land a period of rest for forty years at a times (Judges 3:11; Judges 5:31; Judges 8:28). Other times it’s a symbol of judgment, during the early kingdom the people of Israel did evil and G-d gave them an advisory in the Philistines to contend with for forty years (Judges 13:1), drawing parallels to the punishment of the forty-year exodus journey.

One of the most obvious symbolism that stands out to us religious Jews is the fact that the mikvah – the ritual immersion pool, holds forty measured seah of water. For ritual purity Jews immerse themselves fully in a ritual bath filled with mayim chayim – living waters, or natural flowing water. A person dips into the pool fully nude and immerses themselves completely in order to purify themselves. When one does this they become like a new-born person, being surrounded on all sides in a pool of natural water one emerges pure like the day they were born.

Old Mikvah

Steps to an ancient Israeli mikvah. Though any natural pool of water can be used, the mikvah is specially made to provide the spiritual space to ritually dip even when a natural body of water like an ocean or lake is not nearby. Diverted and filtered rainwater and snow are used to fill it.

For this reason it is the common custom for newly religious Jews and converts to immerse in a mikvah. To symbolize their rebirth and emergence as a new and whole person.

Mikvah is a big deal in our tradition. It is something essential for religious Jews, immersing before taking upon ourselves special religious duties; this ritual takes us back to the temple period where the priest immersed themselves. Many orthodox Jews immerse before shabbat or high holidays. Others that are more mystical such as chassidim immerse themselves in a mikvah everyday before praying in the morning.

Of course today most primarily consider the mikvah as an essential for taharat hamisphacha – family purity. Men and women immerse themselves in preparation for their coming together in marriage. Women purify themselves after every menstruation and child-birth before becoming intimate again.

As we see the symbols of water and cyclical cycles of forty are numerous and overlapping, but they bring us all back to the same place. Forty and the element of water are both symbolic of renewal and rebirth. In ancient customs this is seen as an obvious biological reality that applies to all the world.

When we look at this story of the flood we see that for forty days the world was subject to a purge because of the great sins of humanity. Waters covered the face of the earth, purifying it in a measured and purposeful way. The earth had been throughly corrupted and polluted, it needed to be washed and renewed. So that after forty days man and nature could start over again pure and reborn.

Through Jewish eyes we see the story of The Great Flood as being something more purposeful that just utter destruction and punishment. We see the flood as a symbol of renewal and rebirth, not simply a simple tool of death and vengeance. It’s like the earth is being dipped in a mikvah.

However, make no mistake about it, we cannot avoid the fact that this story is indeed about judgment. Though the Torah has been no cake-walk up until now, the major theme of our Torah studies up to now have been about the creative acts. The expansive goodness of G-d. Now we are finding out in full force the judgment of G-d. Mystically we understand this as a natural reality. Kabbalistically we understand that Parshat Bereishit was about the fire of chesed (kindness) – G-d said let their be light, creating the world out of a sheer act of undeserved kindness. However Parshat Noach is about gevurah (greatness, understood as judgment), interestingly we see that gevurah is connected to the female spiritual aspect and the element of water. Kabbalistically we understand that in natural reality existence moves from a state of transmission and expansiveness, to shifting towards constriction and engulfment. (see Parshat Bereishit 2013)

Or simply put, its like how hot love eventually turns cold after a while. With any partners the initial spark of passion fades over time, and eventually your love is tempered by the bad habits that annoy you. At first you had no major issues with your spouse, but the judgments sneak themselves into the mix over time. It’s easy to understand what is going on here in the flood story. The honeymoon is over, and now the world is drowning in problems and destruction.

In spoken Hebrew the word mabul (flood) also takes on special meaning, it means to be confused and even mixed-up (like the word balbal). To be in mabul is to be in a state of confusion and disorder. I think that is the term that most of us can best appreciate. At one time or another we all have experienced a state of confusedness and disarray that is caused by negative living.

Maybe some of you are experiencing that right now. Do you feel the waters rising in a flood of negativity? The great news is that you don’t need to drown in it. We can save ourselves from it. This is all possible by us making a simple shift in thinking and actions, by making our destructive deluge a purifying mivkah for us. We decide that instead of just bobbing around in our problems until they overwhelm us, to take the plunge and immerse ourselves in our self-development.

Our Jewish tradition offers us ways to help turn these waters of negativity into a refreshing rebirth. The Torah is often described in our tradition as pure water. It refreshed the soul and also purifies one’s being. By engaging ourselves in self-reflection through Torah study we can begin to turn the waters of negativity into a source of gevurah (strength) for us. We can also engage in prayer and fasting. And of course, we can also use the ultimate symbol of rebirth by immersing ourselves in a natural pool. Mivkah offers us a way to make a mental break with the past and all it’s ties that hold us back.

Pardes: “Water, Water!”

Over the last few weeks we have been talking about mysticism, about Kabbalah. I cannot help but think of one story that comes to mind when considering the symbolic and mystical nature of water in the Jewish tradition.

Almost all people know the story from Talmud Hagigah (see Talmud Bavli 16b, Talmud Yerushalmi 2) of the Four Rabbis of Pardes. The four rabbis that go up to the sacred orchard, the grove of supernal wisdom. We understand this as them acquiring hidden truth, the secret of the hidden Torah; the Kabbalah. The text reads as follows:

“The Rabbis taught: Four entered the Pardes. They were Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher and Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva said to them, ‘When you come to the place of pure marble stones, do not say, “Water! Water!” for it is said, “He who speaks untruths shall not stand before My eyes” (Psalms 101:7)’. Ben Azzai gazed and died. Regarding him the verse states, “Precious in the eyes of G-d is the death of His pious ones” (Psalms 116:15). Ben Zoma gazed and was harmed. Regarding him the verse states, “Did you find honey? Eat as only much as you need, lest you be overfilled and vomit it” (Proverbs 25:16). Acher cut down the plantings. Rabbi Akiva entered in peace and left in peace”

תר ארבעה נכנסו בפרדס ואלו הן בן עזאי ובן זומא אחר ורבי עקיבא אמר להם רע כשאתם מגיעין אצל אבני שיש טהור אל תאמרו מים מים משום שנאמר (תהילים קא) דובר שקרים לא יכון לנגד עיני בן עזאי הציץ ומת עליו הכתוב אומר (תהילים קטז) יקר בעיני ההמותה לחסידיו בן זומא הציץ ונפגע ועליו הכתוב אומר (משלי כה) דבש מצאת אכול דייך פן תשבענו והקאתו אחר קיצץ בנטיעות רבי עקיבא יצא בשלום.

Talmud Bavli, Hagigah 14b

This is probably one of the most famous stories of the Chazal. Our sages told this story many different ways, so it peppers many great works. It is also one of the starting places for people who take up the study of kabbalah. One of the reasons is because this story offers us some warnings about taking on mystical interpretation.

We are told initially that when one ascends to a place of pure marble, which is understood to be the throne of G-d, one is not to begin to spastically blabber, “Water! Water!”

What are the connections to water here and the mystical experience? One cannot be exactly sure, but we do understand this as meaning to ascend to a spiritual realm that is somewhere between the lower and upper waters of the heavens (see Genesis 1:6). The marble throne is often said to be symbolic of the effects of water too, as our tradition tells us marble is formed by the pressure of the great waters again rocks. It hints to the primordial state of the spiritual universe, between the physical and the realm of pure energy.

Most every Jewish child knows the story summed-up this way: “One was harmed, one died, one cut his clippings, and only one went away in peace.” But how are we to understand the story?

Of Ben Azzai it is said that he merely peered upon the spiritual realm and he died. He was so overwhelmed by the experience that he could not contain himself. He engages a purely aesthetic approach. His desire was to do the ultimate spiritual act in the mind of many mystics, to leave the matters of earth and join with the spiritual. To give up the ghost and merge with the One. Thus he left his body behind and died.

Ben Zoma is said to have been harmed. We understand this to mean that he went mad. When faced with the spiritual reality of the upper realms he became overwhelmed like a person that eats too much honey. It made him sick. However, this sickness was of the mind. He became insane. The kabbalists teach us that when he saw the spiritual world laid-out and displayed for him all he saw was the connectedness of everything. It started with the element of water, he saw how it is an underlying element in everything. He fried his brain on seeing the connections of all things one to another, until all he was left muttering nothing more than, “Water! Water!”

And then there is Acher – which means “the other,” this is the term used of the heretic Rabbi Elisha ben Avuyah. He stands out in our tradition as the ultimate example of an apikores – a heretic, derived from the term “epicurean,” he became some sort of pleasure-seeking gnostic. It is said that he descended to cutting clippings, which our sages say means he cut herbs in order to offer them to idols. Instead of seeing the oneness in everything and being overwhelmed that way, he saw the distinctness and an unconnected nature in things to the point each became a living deity to him. He was permanently harmed spiritually and ethically.

Only one rabbi comes back unharmed, Rabbi Akiva. He alone is able to come and go into this realm in peace. Thus he comes back with his warning for the others, even before they attempt to go there. Do not get overwhelmed, do not cry out, “Water! Water!”

Though Rabbi Akiva’s advice is a bit curious, he doesn’t leave us without an indication as to what it means. He says that when faced with the Divine one should not speak falsehoods. To cry out, “Mayim, mayim / Water, water” he says is a lie. How so? Though not stated, it is hinted by the word itself. Maya means illusion in Hebrew. We thus mystically understand that just like light shimmers and shines off of the surface of water, so too our perception of reality is like an illusion reflected off the ripples of a pond. We don’t really see a true form, just the few distorted pieces of light that catch our eye. Thus the verse Akiva provided tell us not to be dishonest as we stand before G-d, even as he urges us not to follow after illusions.

For these rabbis it can be said that though all of them were well learned in Torah, not all of them had settled their philosophical issues before going off into the deep end. Instead of finding peace like Rabbi Akiva, the others instead followed a path of illusion that hurt them physically, mentally and spiritually.

As we talk about mysticism I want us to remember that true kabbalah challenges us from its earliest textual sources to be mindful to not fall into a trap of illusions. That we don’t get stuck in a loop of irrelevance. That we don’t become distracted by the sparkle of a false reality. To realize that the truth of Torah is indeed like water, it can only mold and bend to the state of the vessel in which it is poured into. So our first challenge is to find wholeness and rest in ourselves. It is our goal to understand that the more whole and at peace we are, the better we can reflect the Light.


Parshat Bereishit (2013)


Genesis 1 – 6:8

How We Kabbalistically Bring Thoughts Into Reality

sephirot4pngbbbOver the past few years this Torah portion has been a starting place for me to discuss aspects of Kabbalah, the basics of Jewish mysticism. It is nearly impossible for me to discuss the topic of creative process without doing so through the eyes of received wisdom. In Hebrew to mitkabel means to receive. Our received Jewish mystical tradition is thus called Kabbalah, it is the studying of received truth as documented in the Torah and it’s wealth of commentary.

One of the reasons that I feel I must take this approach is because the allegorical and spiritual essence of this story is intentional and central to the creation narrative. It’s not a cop-out that was invented by modern apologist. The Torah uses seemingly esoteric use of symbolism that richly color this narrative like none other in the scriptures.

Generally when we are looking for mystical truth from the Torah we turn to books like the Zohar, the book of enlightenment that is a commentary to the Torah. The Zohar is broken down in basic discussions and parashot (sections) that match up with cycle of parashiyot (our weekly Torah readings). It’s not the only text of kabbalah, but it is the most exhaustive and essential of the primary works of Torah commentary. Though most scholars can only date this text back as far as the middle ages, it is written in the language and tone as that of the Talmud. It features the same sages and presents the same form of discourses as Talmudic literature. Jews receive this text as being among the many mesoretic inheritances handed down to us, one that was once oral but has since been written down for posterity.

I present some commentary from the Zohar in order to offer us some guidance of how we should look at the Torah, for how we should be reading it as we go along. This is probably a good discussion to have now, as we are renewing our cycle of Torah reading for another year. Our text reads as follows:

“Says Rabbi Shimon: Woe to the man who says that the Torah came to merely relate stories and ordinary words. For if this was so, even in this present day we could make a Torah from ordinary tales; and ones probably nicer than those [in the scriptures]. If it came to present earthly matters, then even the [present] rulers of the world have among themselves works which are superior. If this is the case, let us follow their example and compose some sort of Torah of our own…

…Woe to the wicked that say that the Torah consists of stories and nothing more, for they look at the [outer] garment and no further. Praiseworthy are the righteous, who look at the Torah the proper way. Just as wine must be in a container to hold it, the Torah does not endure unless in its mantle. So therefore only look at what is under the garment. All those words and stories are garments.”

רש אמר ווי לההוא בנ דאמר דהא אורייתא אתא לאחזאה ספורין בעלמא ומלין דהדיוטי. דאי הכי אפילו בזמנא דא אנן יכלין למעבד אורייתא במלין דהדיוטי ובשבחא יתיר מכלהו אי לאחזאה מלה דעלמא אפילו אינון קפסירי דעלמא אית בינייהו מלין עלאין יתיר. אי הכי נזיל אבתרייהו ונעביד מנייהו אורייתא כהאי גוונא אלא כל מלין דאורייתא מלין עלאין אינון ורזין עלאין.

ווי לאינון חייביא דאמרי דאורייתא לאו איהי אלא ספורא בעלמא ואינון מסתכלי בלבושא דא לא יתיר זכאין אינון צדיקייא דמסתכלי באורייתא כדקא יאות. חמרא לא יתיב אלא בקנקן כך אורייתא לא יתיב אלא בלבושא דא. ועד לא בעי לאסתכלא אלא במה דאית תחות לבושא ועד כל אינון מלין וכל אינון ספורין לבושין אינון:

Zohar: Parshat Behaaolatecha 58; 64

One of the reasons that many traditional, orthodox Jews find it fairly easy to exist in a world of deep religious conviction while still excelling in science and reason is because the two are not mutually exclusive. Nor is one called to compromise one for the other. Our Torah presents our truths, our reason produces our facts.

Though we look to this Torah for truth, we don’t presume that all that is true about the world is written here in the Torah. It is the truth, but it does not demand that we see it as necessarily factually or chronologically true. The Torah is the essential truth that G-d has revealed into this world, but it cannot be used as a history book or as a primer in physical science.

Interestingly, this Zohar text is redacted in the middle-ages, when knowledge was lost and they looked back to a more glorious and well documented past. But in his tone the author suggests that even in their dark-ages a contemporary historian could have come up with something more profound if one tried. If this Torah is about fact, then wise and important men have libraries of books that do a better job at that than our Torah. The Torah cannot have been given to us for that purpose or else it is obsolete and antiquated. Surely today in an age of science and empirical evidence this is even more true. We need to read the text deeper, in fact according to the “right way,” which is through allegory and symbolism.

Most people who come from other religious experiences tend to find this position mighty progressive, and maybe even a bit irreverent. But for the person of reason, this tends to come across as refreshing. The only people who tend to get irritated by this approach are those who intend to mock Torah, who need biblical literalism to stand as their straw-man to kick over.

It’s not just atheists that tend dislike this approach, even co-religionists tend to get upset with me for stating this. For instance once I sat in a class and heard a very liberal rabbi poking fun at our ancestors for not understanding how the world worked. His reason was to in like fashion characterize present orthodox Jews as handicapped by an almost magical view of creation and history.

When I later pulled him aside and asked how he felt his reduction to absurdity was intellectually honest he got upset. I posed that if you considering it, the more orthodox the person the more they tend to revere this mystical and allegorical mentality as found in the Zohar, it’s not theory for light-weights. In response he made issue with the authority of the Zohar and challenged that kabbalah is not universally appreciated. However I contended that this approach was a well documented and accepted concept in Judaism much prior to the Renaissance and Enlightenment, it is not a product of modern religious movements. Elements of kabbalah permeate much of our established Jewish customs and liturgy, it is a shared heritage. It is not a marginal philosophy, therefore it is dishonest to mis-characterize what it means to be a Torah believing person by slighting this approach.

One of the points I have to make to people like this when discussing the creation story of Genesis, is that we need to not just recognize the similarities that exist among the various myths and legends (example: the great flood). We also need to look at stories more multi-layered, the way we clearly know to do for the texts of other well documented societies; the Egyptians, Hindus, Greeks, Persians, Romans, etc. We know that their equivalent of the genesis narratives are made not as much to describe the literal composition of the world, but to present their perceived architecture of existence. Their philosophy surrounding the formation of the world and living souls presented in their stories was for the purpose of displaying the structure of the soul and the creative process. For these societies their sacred texts were discussion points that encouraged an almost early attempt at the philosophy of psychology. It not just said how the souls were formed, but also to exhibited what motivates them.

Now it’s not just defense of traditional Judaism that motivates me to engage people, like the previously mentioned rabbi, to dig further into our tradition to reveal a deeper kernel of truth in these stories. It’s because as people who represent Judaism to others we need to get beyond the claim that Torah is primarily concerned with mere history, because that approach does not offer us any reason for why one should personally seek out G-d or spirituality.

The Zohar, in the name of Rabbi Shimon, instead says it’s not just beneficial for us to look beyond the surface level meaning of the Torah, but it calls anyone that does not do so a sinner. The Zohar insists that we consider another way, it demands that we look for the soul of the Torah.

And this is that path that we will take as we begin to explore the Torah this year. Not that allegory is only present in the Zohar, it is present in all forms of rabbinic literature, however it is a central focus of the Zohar. Our starting off place this year is with the Zohar, as it offers us one of the best descriptions of how allegory and mystical interpretation of the scriptures works.

The Zohar contends that the Torah is wrapped in a mantle, but underneath there is a living soul to it. It’s like a person, when we look at someone generally the first thing that we see is their appearance. We judge their demeanor, how well they are dressed-up and how they present themselves. But the Zohar contends that just as foolish as it would be for us to judge a person based on their outer appearance, it is so when consider only the surface level of the Torah. (Zohar, ff. 61)

The Zohar tell us that the Torah is not just an abstract thing, there is a real substance to it. There is a solid body of truth to it. The Zohar calls the Torah mitzvot (the laws and commandments, good and holy deeds) “gufei Torah / the Body of the Torah” in Aramaic (the Talmudic language of rabbinic Judaism). It is the frame that holds us up. And on this frame hang our “levushin / garments,” the stories of the Torah are thus like the clothing one wears, that dress one up but at the same time conceal hidden person underneath.

The rabbis here challenges us to be wise, to not just look at the surface oblivious that of the anything else might existing beneath it all. If it was a person we would want to see the body underneath. Even more so we should want to get to know the person that is even deeper than that, so intimately so that we can almost touch their soul. The Zohar states that we are to look as deep as we can. Stating that the sages and our ancestors who stood at Sinai were so wise that, “la mis’taklei ela b’nishmata, d’i’hi ikara dchola oraita mamash / they only looked at the soul of the Torah, which is the essential root of everything, the real Torah.” We are told that in the future, in the world to come, all will see the soul of the Torah. (Zohar. ff. 62)

So why do we consider the Torah and its commands (mitzvot) at all? What do we have to learn from them? What importance does this Torah have to us? And why should we practice Torah mitzvot?

The Torah is the physical body that houses the soul of Essential Truth, clothed in the beauty of a story. It tells us how to bring the Divine Will into physicality, we do this by causing our soul to meet up with a physical action as mitzvot – doing the will of G-d in performing good deeds and spiritual acts.

But why does this kabbalah, the essence of all that is, have to be revealed through the Torah? The Zohar explains because it needs to be revealed in a form that we can understand. The Zohar brings forward an idea of the spiritual realm that we already understand to show as an example, it uses angels and their taking on a physical form. In order for us to perceive of them they take on a physical appearance. It is not just to see them, but also because their raw energy would be overwhelming if we came in direct contact with it. So too, this essential truth needs to be presented in a form we can understand, and in a fashion in which we can approach. (Zohar ff. 59)

The Zohar further contends that the “true Torah” (which we can call kabbalah) cannot be separated from its mantle, from the stories and it’s discussions in the scriptures. If we tried to separate them it could not last, anymore than wine could if you removed it from its flask. It needs to be held and preserved in this fashion.

However, just like with wine, we are really interested in what is on the inside. We should continue to seek to reach the sweet and sometimes intoxicating center of Divine reality hidden in these scriptures.

As we move forward in our Torah learning over this next year, I would hope that we begin to look at the scriptures as a guide to bringing our abstract feelings of faith and potential that is in our souls into reality. To utilize the Torah as our muscle to move us forward, so that we can labor in producing mitzvot that correct ourselves (tikkun atzmi) and repair our world (tikkun olam).

Continuing Discussion Regarding Applied Kabbalah

Last time we discussed this parsha we began to talk about basics of kabbalah. We started off with the primary concepts of the Three Pillars, the three modalities. They are symbolized by the variables ש for Fire, מ for Water, and א for Air. (see Parshat Bereishit 2012) When we discuss these aspects we must understand we are not talking about true elements. We are merely using these descriptions in order to best display the nature of the modalities. We are using these things to express how they react towards each other. It’s like talking about electromagnetic states; positive, negative and neutral. We began to discuss how we need to bring balance to our nature; to not be too much of a hot wire, nor should we bone cold, but we should find a golden middle path. We should bring balance to our thoughts and actions.

Now the reason we started out with the sefirah of Chesed – the Divine aspect of Kindness (also called Gedulah, or “greatness”) – is because that is the first real manifestation of G-d in the world that we can experience, according to kabbalah. It is a great and expansive form of kindness which is displayed in the scriptures as the first of the Seven Lower Sefirot – the seven Divine aspects that we display in this physical world (they are drawn from 1 Chronicles 29:11).

upperthreesefirotbThey are not the only aspects of G-d that exist. Indeed there are higher aspects of the Divine that transcend physical form, so they take the form of consciousness. They are understood as Chochmah (wisdom), Binah (discernment) and Daat (understanding, also displayed as Keter, the Crown). These are the Three Upper Sefirot. Though we understand that physical forms begin to take shape with Chesed, the scriptures tell us that very foundations of the physical world are first laid in Chochmah, in wisdom. (“Hashem b’chochma yasad-aretz,” see Proverbs 3:20) And that is what we are learning about today, creation and the creative process. How it goes from thought to physicality. We do so through the story of how a purposeful thought became ha-aretz, the Earth.

Our Torah text reads as follows:

“At the beginning

G-d created the heavens

and the earth.

Now the earth was desolate and

formless,

and darkness covered the face the deep.

And the wind of G-d hovered

upon the face of the waters.

And G-d said:

Let there be light!

And then there was light.”

| Bereshit

| bara Elohim et hashamayim

| ve’et ha’aretz

| Veha’aretz hayetah tohu

| vavohu

| vechoshech al-penei tehom

| veruach Elohim merachefet

| al-penei hamayim.

| Vayomer Elohim

| yehi-or v

| ayehi-or.

Genesis 1:1

In our kabbalistic understanding there are Ten Sefirot – ten aspects that manifest the Divine. Our sages first tell us in the Talmud that there are ten creative acts, that we call the Ten Utterances. (see Talmud, Rosh haShanah 32a) They point to here in the scriptures, where G-d says “Let there be…” Now the Talmud notes the fact that we only see nine actual spoken commands to accounts for. There is at least one unspoken act, and that is the actual creation of the world itself. If we look at our text we see a primordial world spring into existence at the beginning (bereshit). One that is formless and in chaos, with bodies of water and winds blowing over the surface of them. From this perspective the whole first sentence of Torah becomes one creative act.

From the Talmudic perspective we see how will and intention – pure thought (as expressed through the Upper Three Sefirot) – must precede action (as expressed by the Lower Seven Sefirot). Creation comes down from a higher consciousness, in the same manner that impulses from our brains manifest in the actions of our body.

The Zohar however has a slightly different take on things. It shifts the focus even more metaphysically. It agrees that there was something before this start, that is yet undescribed in the scriptures. Though it begins to count the Ten Utterances from the words, “Let there be light.” This is the first true act of creation, the Zohar contends. It starts with light, understanding that G-d needed to create a way in which to relate to us. A divine manifestation to permeate the universe that we can understand, which we perceive that as Light. The Zohar takes us to the very moments near the big bang, when the universe seems to inflate from an infinitesimally minuscule point and it is yet flooded with light.

The Zohar teaches that this overwhelming light which is displayed at the top of our kabbalistic tree, in Keter (the Crown, the highest level of consciousness), is what we can perceive of as G-d, the creator. He is manifested as a stream of pure and all-encompassing light that is without form, Ohr (אור). It is the highest aspect of the modality of synthesis, the type of state we spoke of in Tiferet (harmony); everything is in balance. There is no lack of anything, there is nothing but an endless amount of potential energy in this universe for us to draw from there. G-d is one, and nothing else exists aside from His being. In His highest form we understand G-d as being Ohr Ein Sof – the Light (ohr) that is without (ain) end (sof). G-d is everything, and yet not one thing at all.

G-d needed a place to display this power so He created a void space, The universe was thus created as an empty canvas for G-d to work with. A blank screen on which he could project His light. Into this space the Divine takes all this energy and projects it out of pure will. This is a positive force, akin to a masculine drive; this is displayed as Chochmah, which is the higher manifestation of Chesed.

tree-emptyIt takes root in Binah, in a constrictive and yet receptive form of consciousness; we understand it as being akin to a feminine aspect. Binah we understand to mean “understanding,” but it is more like receiving a spark of intuition. It is a consciousness achieved through receptivity. From here all creative things are birth. This is the upper aspect akin to Gevurah.

Thus in this structure, the crowing truth is that G-d Consciousness is pure thought, intellect and understanding (The Upper Three). When it is synthesized to be translatable into the mortal world it take the form of Daat, which is Knowledge. The world cannot contain all of the “ultimate truth,” but it is discernible through knowledge.

And at the heart of us people are our emotional drives, the first three of the Lower Seven, which is the second level of this cosmic modality (Chesed, Gevurah and Tiferet). But what we need to understand and be knowledgeable regarding is the reality that we are more than just the sum of our emotions and drives. These drives are reflections of a higher consciousness and state of mindfulness that we drawing down from a higher spiritual place.

The reason why we need to get into control of our thoughts and emotions, is because eventually they transform into actions. Our emotions replicate themselves as Netzach (Endurance), Hod (Glory), and Yesod (Foundation). This is the realm of action, where our thoughts result in work to produce what we only vision in an abstract way; in our thoughts and emotions.

These levels of the grouped sefirot are called partzufim (configurations); they are gradations of truth and existence. So far we have seen three levels of this emanation. Partzufim are described as almost separate realms, understood as distinct “worlds.” In this form of mystical teaching we state that the creative power of the Divine trickled down through levels of formation and actualization until it results in producing this world, the earth. We are told earth is created in Malchut, the lowest of the ten sefirot. It is displayed in the fourth and lowest level of the partzufim. This is the realm of the physical world, were intent, drive and actions come into true form. It is not just potential and intent anymore. Malchut in the fourth patzuf is the realm where one’s will become a true products – a solid form through action. (assiyah)

During creation in this realm we see the primordial states ש (Fire), מ (Water) and א (Air) take form to become a new elemental state never existed before – haAretz, the Earth. Unlike the mysticism of the occult schools, we understand the earth is not eternal, earth is not a natural state on its own. It is formed out of the combination of three primordial states.

The Three Mother letters thus take their place standing over the Three Pillars, they best exemplify the first three sefirot (Keter, Chochman and Binah; and alternatively in different instances Chochmah, Binah, and Daat). These three do not directly touch this world, as it cannot contain them; they are transcendent.

worldscharts2Now to I must quickly bring us up to speed how this affects our understanding of the Etz Chaim – the Tree of Life – the form that sefirot take as they descend into our reality. The Three Mother elements spawn the creation of the physical world. The Lower Seven Lower sefirot thus become expressed by Seven Letters (ב, ג, ד, כ, פ, ר, ת) that correspond to the physical world. They are clearly representative of a shift in reality to a consciousness of space and time. These Seven Letters also correspond to the seven days of the week, and the seven planets of the classical world (Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn).

Thus the Three Mothers are the mochin (the brains), and the Seven Lower are the middot (characteristics) in which we manifest these thoughts and impulses through (such as emotions).

So what does this have to do with you and I? Why should this matter at all to any of us? This is all very psychedelic, but what is the usefulness of considering this?

One of the things that we learn here in Parshat Bereishit is that man (adam) was created b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of G-d. That does not mean that we were made to look physiologically like G-d Almighty. We are made in His image, but not as a duplicate of Him. We are not photocopies of G-d, however we do exhibit more like a traced shadow copy of G-d’s nature as though made in a camera obscura. Still the blueprint form we see in the spiritual realms for His general workings are also displayed in us. The order we see spiritually displayed in G-d’s emanations are nearly the same in principle as that of the working of our souls.

Many kabbalists understand man to be almost a microcosm of G-d, and even of the Universe itself. We have G-d given creativity and ability to shape a destiny for this universe. We do this by actualizing things we perceive in our higher intellect and imagination, and continue to work with something until all our effort begins to take a true and functioning form. And above our own intellect is an inspiration that we can also learn to draw down from a higher realms of spiritual consciousness.

In conclusion I want to remind us that we are talking about creation and the creative process. We naturally have in us the ability to create what we conceive of in our minds and dream of in our hearts. But a lot of the struggle in making that possible is learning to first let our heads rule our hearts. To be mindful and follow the cues of the wise inspiration that G-d has placed in our hearts. If so then we can be people who are not just creative, but also profoundly artistic and productive. Like the craftsman Bezalel who build the Mishkan (tabernacle) and temple instruments, for whom it is said:

And I have filled him with the Spirit of G-d, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship…

וָאֲמַלֵּא אֹתוֹ, רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים, בְּחָכְמָה וּבִתְבוּנָה וּבְדַעַת, וּבְכָלמְלָאכָה

Exodus 31:3

Tips: We learned today that the commandments and the spiritual acts that we do are the gufei Torah – the Body of the Torah, because this is how we embody the Light and the true fullness of the Torah consciousness. But just like any body, if we exercise our various parts we strengthen our greater body. We become stronger and more nimble at doing the things we challenge ourselves with. Likewise in order for us to build up our creative skills and ability we need to work-out spiritually. We engage all the various parts of our intellect and desires in doing mitzvot – good deeds, spiritual acts.

The Torah mitzvot are tried and true ways to help us develop our skills and strengths. For every little good deed we do we also grown in a sense of accomplishment and pride.

It doesn’t take much to spark mindfulness and the creative process. Chant a beautiful prayer, learning a little Torah, give a tad of charity, or volunteer in the community.


Parshat Bereishit (2012)


Parshat Bereishit (2012)
Genesis 1:1–6:8

Are you mad that G-d isn’t a vegetarian? When moralizing turns ugly

I must admit that I’m only half-kidding with the title of this piece. I say only half, because as a young punk I was a vegan for many years. That’s right, in the early 90s at a time when it was almost unthinkable in the middle of the steak-and-potato suburbs I was one of the first people to take up the animal-free lifestyle, and boy was it difficult to do. Also quite costly. Luckily the food industry has been subjected to the better nutritional guidelines and forced to use dietary substitutions for the everyday products we enjoy today, and by virtue of that we have no problem finding meat-free food products on our plates everyday. This advance in the industry also has an added benefit for those of us keep kashrut, long gone are the days when you could find yourself falling off the derech because you ate an Oreo Cookie, with the realization that it was very likely that creamy center might actually be rendered beef fat; today they are certified kosher and use vegetable shortening instead. We all hold by a generally accepted truth that less animal fat is better for us, up against an over saturated existence.

What does this all have to do with the Torah? Many people who want to get back to a purer existence take a good look at what life was like here in Parshat Bereishit, in the Genesis story, in order to see what life was really like in paradise. To get a glimpse of a life without disease and cruelty we look back to the Garden of Eden. One of the points made by the moral-driven vegetarian is that in this paradise G-d caused the plants, trees and herbage to sprout up and be food for us. The ground did not need to be tilled by man. There was no farming of anything, neither plant nor animal. There was an abundance of fruit that man lived off of until the ground was cursed by G-d for man’s sin. (see Genesis 3:17-19)

Actually we don’t really seem to have to consider the concept of meat eating until the story of Noah; only after the earth is further decimated by the deluge, and coming forth from the ark on to this changed environment does our story even begin to concern itself with the issues of what is a clean and unclean animal for human consumption. It is safe to assume, as most midrash does, that before this time people were vegetarian. (see Genesis 9:3)

sephirot4pngbbbCan we assume that this was also so for that animal world as well? No, I doubt it. For the animal, if it was not already so, our tradition points out that their descent began with the first curse of the ground after the sin of Adam and Eve. Rashi tells us that the consequence of the ground being cursed on man’s account was also consequential for the snake that tricked them, when the ground was cursed it now also brought up insects, flees and ticks that harmed the animals of the field that the serpent would live upon. According to our rabbinic sources, this seems to be the point at which the sanguine circle of life gets complicated. All of nature turns on itself.

So why am I not a vegetarian any more? The real reason can almost be summed up because I became more religiously observant. How can this be when I present all these ideas supported by Torah? Mostly, because I found I really liked meat. And it all happened on Shabbat. I can even tell you what stripped the “Meat Is Murder” patch right off me, it was a Buffalo Chicken Wing. My friends would invite me for Shabbat meals week after week. In honor of the sabbath the meals are greatly involved and time-consuming, stretching on for many courses; salad, fish, soup, chicken and/or meats, some sides and kugels, a few drinks and then desert. Everyone brings out the best that they have and presents it honor of Shabbat; the crown of the week. Every week my meal would pretty much end at the first course and I would linger. I didn’t drink alcohol or eat animal products so almost nothing was left. After a while people started feeling sorry for me, and the Jewish mothers would start in, “But you’re still hungry, I think you would like one. In honor of Shabbat try just one…” That was it, all of a sudden I remembered that I really did like it. I’ve been eating tasty little kosher treats ever since.

It wasn’t an issue of people forcing their ways upon me or brow-beating me. Quiet to the contrary. To be honest I’m sure that I judged people more for their “indulgence” than they did me. Aside from the common ethical concerns that I had about meat, it just wasn’t something that I personally liked. And in my experience, traveling the world, I knew very well that meat was not something that was a daily staple for most cultures. It was something that I was less accustomed to having regularly, therefore it was only incidental that it was something I hadn’t acquired a taste for it. But in these ultra-orthodox friends I found that their old-world experience was very much the same as mine. They had all the same ethical concerns, and even more than I had considered. And they also weren’t accustomed to eating obnoxious amounts of meat, so it was reserved for special occasions. And there is no more special of an occasional than Shabbat and Yom Tov (holidays). In this spirit people would follow the common custom of Judaism to have wine, fish and meat as symbols of joy and celebration. They would save all the best of their provisions for the end of the week; for Shabbat. They would honor G-d with the best of the produce of their labor. They honor G-d with the best of their foods, these are what most of us feel are the best of our best.

Most certainly we can look in our Jewish tradition and see many examples that idealize vegetarianism though out our midrashic and mystical tradition. Aside from that, for many it seems to simplify kashrut issues to abstain from meat (this is also another reason cited by the less accustomed to Jewish observance, to believe kashrut is merely a meat issue, which is far from true). Most of us live in a culture which already overdose it when it comes to meat, and can agree that we no longer have the need in the modern world to consume meat the way we did in the past because of a wider variety of foods available to us. Being less meat dependent seems like a natural humanitarian progression for many, as they see the benefits it has upon the body and environment. It is sensible and is animal sensitive. Even in the most orthodox of homes I’ve seen many families only have mere symbolic amounts of meat and fish; even if only the meat is a mixed in ingredient for a main dish, or the fish only found in the paste made for the salad dressing. We honor our traditions, but think it wise sometimes to not go overboard.

The problem I most often had to deal with in my own character and now in other people, is that the people who go overboard tend to be the vegetarians. I understand their feelings, but I also very much recognize how inappropriately people judge others for not being as “progressive” about their eating as they are. Today I don’t mind saying that I like to eat meat. At one time I didn’t, because my ethical concerns were not appropriately met; now with that satisfied for me in my convictions, the choice of eating meat comes down to an issue of my own satisfaction. I take joy in it, so it is the right choice for me. Furthermore, for health reasons being a vegetarian is not appropriate for me. And some people do deeply judge me for that, making all the sideways statements and giving me all the glaring. No really, people are that way, no matter what the case is; that is because it is disgusting to them so it should also be so for you; they even get angry when you don’t comply to their mores.

What started out in the relationship as “I love animals so don’t eat them” for some immature people ends up leading to slurred statements like “Your a murder for eating that.” Sure, its rare that it goes that far, but more and more I see people acting that way. What started out as a kindness, turned to negativity; somehow that is a natural tendency in this universe so we need to beware of it. And that is what we are going to talk about today. Where that comes from and how to grow beyond letting our values turn sour.

Believe or not this davar Torah really has little to do with vegetarianism, that’s just a bonus in a way; okay so I merely jest. I only use this example because it is something that I can relate to in my own life, and because in a lot of ways the elements of this example are very similar to a tragic situation pointed out here in this parsha with the story of Cain and Abel.

One of the horrors of the story of Cain and Able is the emergence of anger, and in tern violence in the world. We all know the story very well, because it ends with murder.

Our parsha relates the story as such, that the two sons of Adam and Eve grow up to become men. We see their story begin with them both picking a trade for themselves. Cain raises animals (tzoan; sheep and goats), and Abel tills the ground; they are both partners in farming, just two different aspects of it. When it comes time for them to thank G-d and worship each gives according to their own produce. Cain of his produce of the ground, and Abel from his animal stock. One is accepted, the other offering is not. In then end this leads to such a feeling of being slighted that Cain murders his brother Abel over it.

Even before we can get to the issue of the sickening sin of homicide, many of us who are of a gentle nature first find ourselves stumbling over this part of the narrative first. What is it about this offering that is different that G-d would lift His eyes to recognize one, and the other he doesn’t take the time to count?

For the most part, people stumble over the issue of what the type of sacrifice it was. In a world that because of idolatry is so used to sacrifice, which typically holds animal sacrifice higher than any other because of its costliness and rarity, we tend to sometimes miss the point and think there was something better about the meat over the fruits. I have literally seen illustrations in picture books with Abel happy and his smoke rising high, and then a sad and skinny Cain whose fruits just smolder down. This odd and gross view is more prevalent in the mindset of those who follow blood atonement heresies. We know this is not true by the simple fact that the Torah demands both meat and grain offerings all through out it, and more often incense of herbage. There is nothing more sacred or more binding about a meat offering over a meal offering, they both found their place in our tradition. We cannot jump to the absurd conclusion that G-d can only take pleasure in bloody sacrifice.

Instead we are forced to find another reason. It is very apparent to us if we just take a simple look at the text, the only distinction between the offerings aside from their substance, was the maturity of the substance. It seems to be more an issue of timing for that substance. We see that Cain offered after many days, at the end of days he took from his fruits and offered. Instead we see that Abel instead took from the first-born of his flock, he didn’t wait for them to mature even, he gave immediately. It is not a matter of what type of offering, but when it was offered. This is pointed out when the mitzvah was spelled out to the children of Israel in the Torah later on, “v’lakach’ta may’reishit kol pri ha-adama/ you shall bring the first fruits of all the land…” (Deut. 26:2) Cain brought his leftovers, Abel enthusiastically gave the first of his produce. G-d regarded the one that had given with the spirit of eagerness.

We need to dismiss from our minds the idea that G-d is caught up on the issue of meat and blood. If anything our tradition suggests to us the only person caught up with this issue is Cain. Our sages widely suggest that one person hung-up on it was Cain. Our midrash tells us that Cain did not think it right that his brother should kill animals to offer in sacrifice. If we think about it, only animals killed and consumed each other, humans apparently did not. It would be natural for Cain to see something that was not natural or desirable to them as people to be barbarism, and therefore felt that Abel was acting impulsively like an animal. Some midrashim even suggested Cain thought it better for Abel to instead wait and buy grains from him by trading from his animal products with him when there was more hearty produce to sustain them with, suggesting that his way was matured as well as more humane.

The problem with Cain’s attitude is he cannot get beyond the fact that he finds someone’s practice disgusting and unbecoming. This was not their way, only animals and G-d had ever slaughtered in such a way (when G-d made garments for Adam and Eve out of animals skins; see Genesis 3:21). Sure this offering was for the worship of G-d, it was not for their consumption, but our rabbis say that even this became a stumbling block for Cain. If it was not allowed for them as humans ordinarily to slaughter, he reckoned that if it was forbidden for them then it should also be forbidden of G-d. He is not just irritated with his brother, Cain is also disgusted with G-d for this.

Our parsha describes Cain’s reaction to G-d dismissing his offering as follows:

“…and Cain became very angry,

and depressed.”

| Vayicharah le-Kayin me’od

| vayiplu panav

Genesis 4:5

And herein lies the tragedy, his attitude of disdain for cruelty, which in itself is a chesed – a kindness – got turned around and lead to negativity and even extreme anger. For as progressive and idealistic Cain’s values for life is, his inability to see his own fault and instead become more concerned with the actions of others leads him to become annoyed – another meaning of the word charah. He becomes enraged over the killing of an animal and it’s acceptance by G-d as barbaric, do much that he doesn’t seem to notice the rising coldness that eventually drives him to murder his human brother. He respects the animals, but murders a man.

I want to sum it up this way, we need to keep in mind that people who are more concerned with other’s actions than their own; people who moralize heavily upon narrow pet causes tend to cause harm to others through their negativity. More often than not descending into judgmental speech and treatment of people. And as we know, to cause to bring shame or embarrassment upon a person is also counted as a form of bloodshed in our tradition; its not just causing blushing, its spiritually more harmful than most recognize.

Three Season Kabbalistic Wheel of MonthsAnd so it is for many people, for some reason it is natural in the universe that what starts out as concept of warm chesed (kindness), often finds a way of turning into cold gevurah (judgment) over time. And that is really the topic really at hand today. How is it that such a thing happens to people over time?

Kabbalistically, it is quite easy to understand. In fact before we can begin to understand anything else about Kabbalah it is essential that people learn this principle. It is presented to us in the Sefer Yitzerah that there are three “mother letters.” They are three archetypal letters and corresponding energies. Shin (ש), Mem (מ) and Alef (א); the Shin we are told represents fire, Mem represents water, Alef represents air. They are three positions in time we are told, meaning lengths in a journey; when we apply them to a year calendar (like in the Israel, which has only three distinguishable seasons) they correspond to Shin being the heat of summer, Mem being the coldness of winter, and Alef as Spring that is the temperate and airy balance between those two extremes.

In Kabbala, and indeed strongly stressed in Chassidut, learning is held up on the foundation of these three pillars. For those who study the ChaBaD school of thought it is important for one to work out their path of maturing the higher intellect (as presented in the upper three sefirot), they correspond like our letters above in a descending pattern; Chochmah is wisdom, Binah is discernment, but the balance of them both is the understanding called Daat. It’s more simply explained through the human emotions by the Breslov Chassidim and the GR”A (Gaon of Vilna) by placing the example par-excellence in the center of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. We begin with sefirot of Chesed (Kindness), Gevurah (Judgment) and work our way to the central balance of Tiferet (Harmony, understood as mercy); the ChaGaT school. In these mystical teachings of these great schools of thought the goal is to balance out our human flaws by coming to a harmony between extremities inside of us.

This pattern is something that we need to understand because it tends to play out in the minds and lives of people even if we aren’t aware of this; it is a natural principle in the universe. Sadly it is most often seen in the lives of religious people, and we as people of faith need to recognize this. People often start out in their religious or ethical journey out a creative spark of kindness. They are motived by love and kindness and warmth, but then as we tend to cool down as time goes on and often fizzle towards judgmental coldness. Now gevurah is not a bad thing, it actually means to become more mighty and strong; it is not mere negativity, the problem is that as some of us cool down as we “mature” in our understanding we tend to become as judgmental as we are knowledgeable. We often tend to start out less understanding but burning with passion like wild youth, but then as we become more mature and wise we tend to cool down and sadly manifest all the things we have come to know in judgementalism if we aren’t careful. Somehow we think we know better, so everyone else should as well. Our expansive kindness (chesed) can turn cold if we aren’t careful, and we can get stuck in the moralizing rut of being the frozen-chosen though our unchecked judgment (gevurah).

Our goal should be to find the balance between the two, the harmony of tiferet. It is the maturity beyond any one extreme, it is not the hot high road, nor the cold low road, it is the golden middle path between them both. It is neither overwhelmed with endless permissiveness seen in the example of chesed as being the essential drive of expansiveness present in the world and the personal character, nor is it trapped in the constrictiveness and desolate coldness of strong opinion and judgments as with gevurah, instead it is the beauty (another meaning of tiferet) that is found in the balance between the two that allows us to show mercy to others in self-control. In this Kabbalah and Torah challenge us to move beyond being thoughtless do-gooders or judgmental smart people, and become beautiful people of true mercy and harmony and understanding; in the balance of tiferet. We need to find that centered spirit of joy in our souls.


Breaking Down Elitism In Kabbalah Study


Breaking Down Elitism In Kabbalah Study
Guidance from the Talmud

This piece comes together after me considering the Talmud while studying the parashiot of Devarim (Deuteronomy), specifically concerning how the people have and should cleave to G-d. This is a major topic in Parshat Va’etchanan, Parshat Eikev, and Parshat Nitzavim. Considering the text, I felt the need to explain how based on this teaching I am burying the hatchet with pop-kabbalism in pursuit of equal access to truth for all.

Recently I got a bit critical of non-Jewish groups for misusing mysticism and spirituality in order to attract Jewish converts. Some have asked where I stand with certain Jewish groups and those that are closely associated with Jewish roots. In fairness I have to to respond to this. This is not about any one group, so I hope no one gets any hurt feelings and receives the message in the spirit in which it is given.

What are People’s Concerns With “Fad” Kabbalah Groups?

Everyone talks about Kabbalah these days. As a teenager when I started studying it, no one really knew what the heck I was talking about. I live in Los Angeles, where Kabbalah has become a big trend with many groups teaching Jewish mysticism.

But course everyone is going to throw out the name of the Kabbalah Centre. The Centre has been criticized for many things over the years, so people like to scandalize over them. Like many major religious organizations they are chastised for shadiness in fund raising, cult-like dedication, etc. But they aren’t the only show in town, they aren’t alone in this criticism. I am not a defender of these groups, if anything people know that my personal relationship has been more one of criticism of the organizations than anything else. I will not answer for them as I’m not their business manager, nor a forensic accountant. I won’t answer for their ethics. But truth be told, I agree with some of the concerns that are pointed out by leaders of the Jewish community at large.

With that said, my main objection has been to certain group’s teaching style, which can be summarized as a “dumbing down” of mysticism to the point that people don’t walk away able to practice on their own. One cannot learn without being led by the hand. This creates a dependency on leadership and leaves one without the ability to explore on their own; unable to check the traditional sources in a transparent and egalitarian way. People will often laugh at groups like this that are so unsophisticated that people aren’t even taught Hebrew well enough for basic reading of the letters, so people “scan” the lines of Hebrew text with their eyes to take in it’s essence.

We all know that kabbalah is traditionally at the apex of learning for the advanced Talmudic scholar. When so many talmidei chachamim (wise scholars) can barely make sense of most of the mystical concepts, some wonder if Kabbalah can truly be appreciated by those who are in most cases completely illiterate.

What it all comes down to is people are going to ask how relevant teaching from a group is when they do no promote basic literacy of Judaism. How then can someone gain the skills they need to feed their own Jewish soul. I say it this way because I do not answer for the needs of non-Jewish people, they have the right to seek out their needs as they see fit; but I do believe that there are many non-Jews who connect to Kabbalah that have needs that can be met in the same manner as us Jews.

Kabbalists are receiving truths that are laid out in their fullness in the Torah; the written Torah, we call that the Scriptures; and the oral Torah, which is Talmud and all the learning of the rabbis though out the ages. This we all agree on. But let’s kick this old-school and use the big boy, the Talmud.

The Talmudic Response to Elitism

In the Talmud we find an interesting discussion taking place that I believe really gets to the heart of the issues. We need to turn back to the 1st and 2nd centuries CE. The Holy Temple (may it be rebuild speedily in our days!) is no more, the land is completely conquered and subjugated by the Romans. But truth be told, the Hebrew language has been forgotten by the masses for centuries and replaced with Aramaic long before Latin and Greek came on the scene. This subjugation of the people was just another historical problem that made it difficult for the rabbis to communicate message of Torah. It become apparent to Rabbi Eliezer, like many rabbis, that the Torah which has sustained the Jewish people all this time is at risk of being even more obscured to them. They see their lives, even people’s “eternal life” in jeopardy. So Rabbi Eliezer begins to lament before the sages, among those present is Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. If you have a Gemara handy you can follow along at Talmud Bavli Ketubot 111b, I will attempt to give the most intelligible rendering of the Hebrew-Aramaic text:

“Said Rabbi Eliezer:

The illiterate (amei ha-artzot)

will not live [fut. meaning: be resurrected].

As it is said: The dead live not, etc (Is. 26:14)

So it was also taught: The dead will not live.

As this might [be assumed to refer] to all,

it was specifically stated, ‘The lax’

written about [actually refers to] a person who is

lazy in the words of Torah.”

אמר ר׳ אלעזר |

עמי הארצות |

אינן חייב |

שנאמר מתים בל‬ ‫יחיו וגו׳ |

תניא נמי חכי מתים בל יחיו |

יכול לכל |

ת״ל רפאים |

בל יקומו במרפח‬ ‫עצמו |

מדברי תורה הכתוב |

Rabbi Eliezer in his own right is a great mystic. His teaching was received from Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, one of the last of the holy rabbis to witness the glory of the Temple. Because of this they are close to the light of the Divine Presence, the Shechina, that dwelt there. But it can already be seen that from generation to generation the torch they passed on seemed to dim a bit. Rabbi Eliezer was quiet an exception though, he was considered very conservative and known to defer strictly to the ruling of those who came before him. But even Rabbi Eliezer, being born a decade after the destruction of the Temple, knew that the average person could barely connect to Torah that they needed to keep their spirit alive in their current state of foreign living.

Now I need to give a crash course into the terminology, for those who are new to talmudic study. In the Talmud there are generally two types of person discussed. First is the talmid chacham, the wise student; the scholar. This is the class of person that Rabbi Eliezer is. The other is the am ha-aretz; literally it means a person of the land. Though this term can sometimes be seen used almost derogatorily in the Talmud as these scholars discuss among themselves, it is not a humiliating term. In an agrarian society most of the people worked as farmers, these were the common people. They by and large were busy working and didn’t have the luxury to spend time with extensive study. These working class were generally illiterate.

What Rabbi Eliezar is saying is that the people are too illiterate to understand Torah, what is going to sustain their spiritual living? What is going to resuscitate the fallen society of Israel? He used the prophetic book of Isaiah and points out a verse that discusses the aftermath of punishment and destruction, where the memory of the judged is obliterated in that example. He seems to be saying to the crowd we don’t need to get to spooky about some future age, it can apply to the situation at hand. The people are dead and do not live in Torah, they are just a shadows of their selves from being lazy regarding the Torah. If we don’t do something all is going to be lost and forgotten.

Now remember Rabbi Eliezar is a hard working student, and scrupulous in the smallest detail. He puts a lot of work into his dedication. But what he said caught the attention of his own teacher:

“Rabbi Yochanan spoke to him saying:

It is not pleasing, or proper to their Master

to be that way towards them.

It specifically refers

to one who makes himself relaxed

regarding idolatry [lit. star working/worship],

this is the one of who it is written of.”

מדבר א״ל ר׳ יוחנן |

״לא ניחא למרייחו דאמרת‬ |

להו הכי תתוא |

במרפת עצמו |

לעבודת כוכבים |

תוא דכתיב |

א״ל מקרא ‫אהד |

Now who is the Master that is being spoken of? It means G-d. Rabbi Eliezer is rebuked by his teacher who says that his attitude and presentation is displeasing and wrong in the eyes of G-d! It’s not okay for him to have this attitude towards the illiterate.

Now, let me step back for a second again to point out something about the people he is discussing, the amei ha-artzot. Remember I said this literally means people of the land. In a way this is like our term heathen, which also means a person on the land. The designation am ha-aretz is the closest thing once can get to calling someone a heathen, without calling them a gentile. This is a unlearned person, which means they are often prone to superstition. Especially in this society, in the agrarian society everything comes down to getting the season right. They do this by watching the heavens, and because its concentrically complex some people come up with all kinds of superstitions surrounding it. Don’t call them dumb, the rest of the ancients went so far as to deify and worship these pieces of clockwork in the sky.

That’s right, the people who created science, mathematics, philosophy, democracy, the pyramids of Egypt and the Pantheon of Athens all worshiped the heavily bodies. They were smart people, but they noticed things moved around a lot and came up with only one explanation. The bodies were gods, at times one would go this way and another one would rise that way, as they were battling it out in the heavens. For instance, from our perspective planets would even go backwards and do loops, and the people would go wild that was a bad omen because that god was retreating. So the people would chant, and pray and sacrifice to help out these gods; worship them to give them strength. This is magic, and sorcery. In the Talmud, before near-monotheisms like Christianity and Islam, the only other style of religion on the block was was this type of celestial body related worship. So the term for designating something as idolatrous in the Talmudic literature is to say it is of the AKUM; avdei kohavim u’mazalot, worshipers of the stars and zodiac. Who are the AKUM? Namely gentiles. But being that the people of Israel were not in a bubble, they tended to be influenced by this simple world-view that pervaded the entire earth. Though by tSephirot and Mazalothis time in history Jews weren’t prone to overt worships of idols, instead the real problem was adoption of superstitious practices based on foreign religion.

Now the mystical understanding of the world by these holy Rabbis, these Kabbalists if you will, was different from the general world view. They too saw that the heavenly bodies had influence on the world around us. The sun shinning according to the seasons, the moon has its pull on the tides, and they even seemed to understand how the other planets helped keep us in a steady and predictable orbit. Though they understood these were just creations of G-d, if they had any influence it was just as agents of G-d’s order. Instead being gods that are blessing people, the heavenly bodies and zodiac signs (mazalot; meaning drips from above) were understood as a natural occurrence. The heavenly bodies were as natural in the clouds in the sky that give dew to the earth, the effects of the planets and stars are like dew that also trickles down upon us in its proper time.

To sum it up, it appears to me that Rabbi Yochanan is disappointed that Rabbi Eliezer generalized a whole class of people. Notice Rabbi Eliezer used the not as often occurrence of am ha-aretz in the plural, amei ha-artzot; but Rabbi Yochanan brings it back to being a discussion of a single hypothetical person, we are talking about the actions of an individual. What he is saying is that this doesn’t apply to a class of people, but to the person that becomes tolerant of superstition. This superstition is actually idolatry, rooted in revering the lights of the heavens. His position is these type of people are the “lax” spoken of that are shadows of themselves; they are the spiritually dead.

But the discussion continues, in the general rule of going back and forth. One person speaking, the other responding.

“I [Rabbi Eliezar] interpret likewise,

it is written:

For Thy dew is as the dew of light,

and the land shall drip life to the lax. (Is. 26:19)

All who make use of the light of Torah,

the light of Torah will revive.

And all who do not utilize the light of Torah,

the light of Torah will not revive.”

אני דורש |

דכתיב |

כ יטל אורות טליך |

וארץ רפאים תפיל |

כל‬ ‫המשתמש באור תורה |

אור תורה מהייהו |

וכל שאין משתמש באור תורה‬ |

אין אור תורה מהייהו כיון דהזייה |

Rabbi Eliezer, concedes and agrees with his teacher. However, he points out that his understanding of the Scriptures based on a verse in the very same chapter of Isaiah is that that not only is one to avoid misappropriating the lights in the heaven, it is important that people connect to the true light. Now here in this context we are not talking about the Ohr Ain Sof – the Infinite Light, the loftiest description of the all encompassing and transcendent G-d. This light spoken of is the closest thing we can get to G-d; meaning the light of Torah. We can call it what ever we want, the DNA of the universe and all kinds of things, but the Torah is the closest we can get to G-d. G-d is the Father of all, the Torah is the DNA that connects us and all things to Him, in it we find the clues to who He and we are.

The Torah cannot ever be separated from the Light, the Torah so symbolizes the essence of the Divine that the Kabbalists teach that even higher than the Name of 72 or any other mystical name is one name; its a big name that is symbolic of the Ain Sof, it contains 304,805 letters; it is every letter of the Torah (the Chumash, Pentateuch) strung together as a single word.

The light is Torah, Rabbi Eliezer contends. Those who utilize it will be revived by it, but those who don’t utilize it will not benefit from it and remain dead – presumably both in this life and in the world to come.

Interestingly enough Rabbi Yochanan seems to concede to this point, as he doesn’t have a response. It doesn’t explicitly say, but we can assume by one of the speakers calling the other rabbi (my master), that it is literal and thus the student Rabbi Eliezer is speaking to his teacher Rabbi Yochanan in this next section as well. Rabbi Yochanan now too begins to despair seeing the truth of this point. Of course Rabbi Eliezer is right, it’s not enough to not be ignorant. It is important to make use of the truth, which is the light of Torah. So Rabbi Eliezer sits there and considers everything until he can find a solution to the problem: how can the illiterate connect to the Torah? Our text continues:

“Because he was in despair he said to him:

Master [lit. rabbi] I have found

for them a remedy [a tikkun’]

from the Torah [the Chumash, Pentateuch]:

For you who did cleave to

Hashem your G-d,

everyone of you is alive today. (Deut. 4:4)

Now is it possible to cleave

to the Shechinah [the Divine Presence]?

As it is written: For Hashem your G-d

is a devouring fire. (Deut. 4:24)

Any man who marries his daughter

to a scholar (talmid hacham),

or carries on a trade on behalf of

scholars,

or benefits scholars from his estate

is regarded by Scripture

as if he had cleaved to the Shechinah.”

דקמצטער א״ל |

רבי מצאהי |

להן תקנה‬ |

מן התורה |

ואתם הדבקים |

בה׳ אלהיכם |

היים כולכם היום |

וכי אפשר לדבוקי‬ |

בשכינה |

והכתיב כ י ה׳ אלהיך |

אש אוכלה |

אלא כל המשיא בתו |

לתלמיד‬ ‫הכם |

והעושת פרקמטיא |

לתלמידי הכמים |

״והמהנה תלמידי הכמים מנכסיו‬ |

מעלה עליו הכתוב |

כאילו מדבק בשכינה |

Now this is where its going to get intense, I hope that everyone will try to follow through what can seem very complicated, but it isn’t really. We are just a bit culturally removed from the situation to see it sometimes.

Rabbi Eliezer says he actually found a good remedy to their problem found in the actual Torah (the Chumash, Books of Moses; which is holds more weight than the books of the Writings or the Prophets). After the Children of Israel suffered the annihilation of the entire first generation from the exodus Moses spoke to the survivors right before they went in to establish the homeland of Israel. Moses seems to praise the people, that all of them that are alive are the faithful that “cleaved” to G-d. Now at this time in history, deveikut is not yet understood as the Chassidic concept of connecting to G-d through communing in nature and meditation. Deveikut means literally to be glued; meaning to be attached, to be connected to something. We understand this as holding fast to G-d.

The subtext understood here is that we cannot touch G-d. If G-d were even a tangible thing and we tried “gluing” ourselves to Him, being all powerful and “a consuming fire” we would be destroyed. We cleave to G-d through connecting to Torah.

But what does this have to do with providing a scholar a wife, and a share in the business, etc? Earlier in the Talmud, in fact quite often throughout Talmud Sanhedrin, we discuss the topic of people connecting through the talmid chacham by partnering with him. One might not be able to study the Torah themselves, but they can enable ones who are able to study Torah to do so. Now when you married off your daughter to someone in those days you gave them a dowry to help them along, and they became beneficiaries of the family. Though dowry is not widely known today, there are certain traditions that still remain for many pious to this day. It is common for the brides family to give seforim (sacred Hebrew books) and income in order to study Torah in a kollel (a yeshiva for the married; akin to a seminary). It was established as a precedent that people can partner with the scholars by making them part of their family, by opening up their home, sharing their business by making a student a silent partner, or by leaving them a share of inheritance in order to aid the pursuit of Torah learning. This is how the mitzvah of Deut 10:20, to “cleave to G-d” is going to be understood when enumerated as part of the 613 mitzvot; that one needs to connect to Torah people (in addition to connecting to G-d by swearing by his Name, which is another mitzvah all together).

Now how does he come up with this? I don’t believe he is just remembering case law. I believe a sense of humility came over him that he took at good look at his life. Like I said Rabbi Eliezer was a great sage, and being wise and promising he was married to the daughter of the great Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel (father of Gamliel II), the Nasi (prince, president) of the Sanhedrin at end of the second Temple period. His wife, known as Imma Shalom, had a few sheckles to rub together herself; she was so well off her and her brother once sued a judge just to cause him grief. They were very well off people. He had all the advantages to begin with being an exceptional intellectual and then was fortunate to marry into the very elite. It appears to me he begins to realize that had it not been for that he would not have been able to dedicate his life to exclusive Torah study.

And so he sees that just as people were able to cleave to one another; attaching themselves contractually to each other through marriage, business and patronage; so they could cleave to each other in pursuit of Torah. The scholar is partner in the business the benefactor works himself, but the scholar receives profits from it. And the benefactor is also a partner in scholarship, that the benefactor receives spiritual reward from studies he enabled the scholar to engage in. Ordinary a scholar is not able to making a living, and a person making a living cannot be a scholar; but here they can partner with each other toward the same goal of advancing the light of Torah.

So Rabbi Eliezer ends his discourse with this ruling that goes unchallenged:

“Likewise based on this case,

one may say of:

To love Hashem your G-d…

…and to cleave to Him etc.

(Deut. 30:20, truncated);

is it possible for a human being

to cleave to the Shechinah?

But [what this can means is that:]

Any man who marries his daughter

to a scholar,

or carries on a trade

for scholars,

or benefits scholars from his estate

is regarded by Scripture

as if he had cleaved to the Shechinah.”

כיוצא בדבר |

אתה אומר |

לאהבה ‫את ה׳ אלהיך |

ולדבקה בו וכי |

אפשר לאדם |

לידבק בשכינה |

אלא |

כל המשיא‬ בתו |

להלמיד הכם |

והעושה פרקמטיא |

להלמידי הבמים |

והמהנה תלמידי‬ |

הכמים מנכסיו מעלה

עליו תכתוב |

כאילו מדבק בשכינה |

He basically gives us all the point that he had before, except this time he is referring to another observation based on the words of Deut. 30:20. He speaks of the verse in short, the Rabbis knew the scriptures by heart so they all saw what he was alluding to. For those of who are not as well versed let me paraphrase; that which will keep the people alive and extend their days would be the people loving G-d, listening to His voice and cleaving to Him. If they did this it would sustain the people until they would settle the land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Rabbi Eliezer, based on the former precedent relating to cleaving, says its appropriate to apply the same to this verse here. He comes to the conclusion that a person could show their love for G-d, obedience to uphold Torah, and cleave to G-d all by connecting to the people of Torah, the scholars. If they loved G-d, they would love those that labor in the advancement of Torah. Rabbi Eliezer has become humbled to the point that he sees his place of privileged in Torah knowledge and now comprehends the people’s patronage of this as an act of love. The common man, and the scholar in relationship with each united on account of how much they both love G-d and His Torah.

It’s a beautiful concept. We cannot cleave to an all-powerful, incorporeal G-d; so we cleave to His Torah; if one cannot cleave to the words of Torah themselves, they cleave to the people who can give them the worlds of Torah. It’s a beautiful idea, an ideal marriage. I say that because this cleaving is like a marriage, a wife cleaves to her husband and as we read “the two become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24) thus she is also the recipient of all his earnings as they share everything; they share and share a like. Thats the relationship here.

 Bringing It Back to the Modern Age: What does this mean for us?

As we look back we can see that Rabbi Eliezer was correct. This way of partnering through philanthropy and scholarship did in fact keep the light of Torah alive in the lives of people. The settlement of The Land has begun again, the holy language has been renewed and true national culture has been regained.

Not everyone is a scholar, this is a fact. Not everyone has the ability or capacity to be a scholar, some people are worker bees. This is a fact of life and nature, there is nothing special or degrading about any one position though. We all have our place. But the scholars work is just as hard as the laborer, the talmid chacham merely labors in another strenuous fashion that takes all his strength. Sephardic Jews still use the term chacham for designating a wise authority in Judaism, the Rav; in the west we more often use the term rabbi; Chassidim, we connect through our own personal teacher, our rebbe. We love to learn from all the people of Torah and all shluchim (agents, ambassadors, representatives of Judaism), one of the ways we can show our love back and appreciation of this teaching is to support them so this mechanism of Torah learning continues.

Bottom line for me, is we need to stop scoffing at people who give money to organizations and teachers to instruct them in Torah and mysticism. It’s wrong for people to look down and say “So they think they are doing something so special by giving all that money? They can’t even say a proper kiddush…

On the other hand, we have jumped forward into the future. The world surroundings have also changed in 1900 years. Literacy is now common in the world, we hold literacy so high that now it is considered a basic human right. And as I have already said, The Land and the holy language has been revived. There are not as many obstacles as people faced during the 1st and 2nd century to literacy and knowledge. I personally, want the best for people; to have a fair and egalitarian society where people of all backgrounds are uninhibited in understanding because of lack of knowledge. As cheesy as it sounds, for those who are seekers of truth I want “No Child Left Behind” (sans George W. Bush, of course).

As I consider all this I cannot avoid having at the forefront of my mind the words of G-d through the prophet Hosea, the prophet that speaks to us of destruction and redemption. We all know this scripture:

“My people perish for lack of knowledge.”

| Nid’mu ami, mib’li ha-da’at

Hosea 4:6

Interesting, this scripture. Because it does not exactly means that a person dies. Yes it does mean that in the figurative sense. But literally it means to be silenced, to be quieted. In the flowery sense we understand it means to destroy, snuff out, or to smother a person. Its a fitting symbolism because a person that can not speak up, a person that has lost their voice, a person that can no longer question is as good as dead. It’s my hope that we all find our voice, not just for ourselves but so we can also communicate this message of hope to others.

Yes, it is well and good to connect to Torah and show devotion towards G-d through aiding the scholars. But let us remember that the scriptures still call us to serve G-d with all our heart, soul and strength. (Deut. 6:5) With everything we can do well, all our strengths, we should utilize in our pursuit of the light of truth. Those of us who have intellect, we should utilize it. And those of us who are limited in understanding, and I consider myself one of those people, let us then enable others to actualize those things for us as a posterity of truth that will bring a tikkun, a correction to this world.

There are two questions we need to ask ourselves today:

  1. Am I utilizing the light to my full potential?

  2. Those who I connect to for the light of Torah, are they giving me something authentic that I can utilize or is it just a lot of talk?

Only you can can take that inventory and answer that for yourselves, my friend.


The Menorah Psalm – Meditative Paths


Introduction to the Menorah Shiviti  (Newly Edited June 2012)

Earlier this year with the coming of the Sefirat haOmer when I released the sections of the Nusach haAri-z”l relating to the blessings of the count I also felt the odd urge to muse concerning the kavanah (Heb. “intention;” meditation) of Psalm 67 as instructed by the Baal haTanya. Little did I know that would become one of the most well read blogs I’ve written. It was later followed up by introducing to the morning prayers the kavanah of Shiviti Hashem, as an example of meditative liturgy; this post is also one the most requested to date. In both blogs I made mention of the kavanah of the Menorat L’MaNatzeach – commonly known as the Menorah Psalm – but did not explain the actual practice of saying these menorah kavanot. But it was a good start because we got to see how to do a kavanah and then how to Shiviti, before we work on putting both practices together today. It is due to the high interest regarding this topic I will now be explaining these practices for the first time, we will start simple and continue to work our way up one level of understanding as we go. I would encourage you to read the other two blogs to get an idea of the background of such traditions, and the meaning of the Psalms itself. Here we go….

The History of this Practice

Menorah Sheviti Milim Corrected (June 2012)No one is certain how far back the tradition of saying the kavanah of the menorah goes. What we do know is that the custom of reading Psalm 67 in the form of the menorah was encouraged by great mystics such as Rabbi David ben Yosef Avudraham as far back as 14th century Spain. That is the same country and around the time in which the first siddurim (Hebrew prayerbooks) were created. But even before siddurim it was the custom of some to say this psalm from a written parchment, akin the the custom of the pious to read the ketoret from a handwritten parchment that some still practice to this day.

Judaism has never been inclined toward using images or iconography, lest these be misconstrued with idolatry. Instead, in the near-eastern tradition art is often made of the written word. If images are use, they are generally of items which relate to the elements of the Holy Temple. In a blending of these traditions comes forth the Shiviti of the Menorah, in which the words of Psalm 67 are depicted in the form of the seven branched menorah of the Temple. Though this is often depicted in the siddurim of the orient and of mystical schools, this is more widely known for being hung in holy shrines and in synagogues in front of the place from which the chazzan lead prayers, and in sight of all to see.

Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, the Ari z”l, instituted this practice and instructed that we should say Psalm 67 at certain times during our davening. First is during the morning Pekudei D’Zemirah – the introductory psalms of the Shacharit; then after the Vidui confession, and for the closing of Shabbat1.  It is also included along with prayers for certain mitzvot such as Sefirat haOmer and the lighting of the Chanukah candles. Some say it after the close of the Amidah. Others say it in preparation for or during a journey. It may be said at any time.2  The custom is to read Psalms 67 in the form of the menorah whenever it is said.

The Purpose of This Meditation

The purpose of this kavanah is to ready the mind and purify ones thoughts. As we do this we are putting aside all distractions. For this reason the shviti first charges us:

Know before whom you stand,

before the King who reigns over kings,

the Holy One, blessed be He.”

דע ליפני מי אתה עומד |

לפי מלך מלכי המלכים |

בקבה |

Then the shviti opens up with the words of Psalm 16:8, the main thought of the kavanah:

I have set YHVH before me at all times”

שִׁוִּיתִי יְהוָה לְנֶגְדִּי תָמִיד

Shiviti YHVH l’negdi tamid

We begin to place G-d before us. We recognize that G-d is watching over us, so we take on a solemness of being before the King. Not only that, we focus on the placing the name of G-d before us. Not just figuratively, in its form as literally done in a artistic shviti. We mean to make a conscious choice to connect to G-d through the meaning of His Four-Letter Name, Havayah (יהוה); havaya (הֲוָיָה), as the name is refereed to among the kabbalists means being, existence or experience. In everything we encounter though out our day we make a choice to experience G-d in it.

We wish to draw the light of righteousness and truth to shine over the face of the earth. We do this by meditating on this happening and connecting to the holy Name of Havayah (יהוה), to seek Hashem so that He “ya’air panav itanu / shine His face towards us” as described in verse 2. Ya’air means to enlighten, to brighten, to illuminate, and to kindle.

How To Say this Meditation

As we focus on this psalm we consider ourselves as though we are lighting the actual menorah of the Temple. But we should not think that our devotion in any way kindles the Light of G-d, meaning to set His glory ablaze. No, the light of G-d is eternal. It is like the ner tamid, the light of the center shaft that is always kept lit day and night; unlike the six branches of the menorah of the Temple which was only kept alight at night. The center light is the Shechinah, the presence of G-d that is eternal, with no beginning nor end. It has no correspondence to anything as it is a manifestation of the Ohr Ain Sof, the Infinite Light that is transcendent; we only know it through the familiar Name of Havayah (יהוה). Thus the name of Hashem stands in the center of the Shiviti, in the place of the center light. 

Menorah Sheviti in ColorFrom that eternal life of G-d’s whole and holy light we seek to light our own flame. The Torah tells us how the lamps of the menorah are to be aligned and lit. What do I mean by aligned? When the menorah was created it was made so that “v’he’ehlah et nairoteh’ha v’hay’ir al ay’ver paneh’ha / they shall light the lamps so that it lights the face of it.” (Exodus 25:37) And this is exactly how it happened when Aharon (Aaron) the High Priest went about it, as instructed by G-d through Mosheh (Moses), “Behalotecha et-ha-neirot / when you light the lamps / el mol pnei menorah / toward the face of the menorah / yairu shivat hanerot / shall the seven lamps be lit.” (Numbers 8:2) The lights are lit and are turned in order to shine towards the center light, which symbolizes the Shechinah (Presence of G-d), in order to accentuate and aggrandize it. And being turned in this way the lamps also shine off the body of the menorah as well, so that the very face of its body reflects this light and floods the whole sanctuary with light. The body of the menorah has seven branches which relate the seven lower sefirot – the mystical manifestations of Divine action in the physical world – from Chesed to Malchut.3 First we focus our minds toward G-d. Then we make the intention to take every element of our physical lives and reflect the Light of G-d’s goodness on to it, bringing the light of His presence to all parts of our mundane existence; then shinning it into our entire world.

The first line consists of the first four words of Psalm 67, this is not considered actually part of the psalm but the header to it. These four words of verse 1, “L’MaNatzeach b’neginot mizmor shir4 / For the conductor, on the neginot (an instrument); a psalm, a song,” span across the six flames and the additional ornamental bowl that tops the menorah. These words help us set up the psalm. From right to left these words are set up, just like we set up our candles on Chanukah. This order of right to left is also the direction in which Hebrew is read. The letters of the phrase are almost evenly divided, to span all the branches.

Now one will notice that the seven branches contain verses which are set on their side. The words of each verse span from top to bottom. It is the custom that as the words begin to bend and turn we keep the Shiviti upright, focusing in order be able (to read the verses without turning it in any way. Of course, as one reads it they should consider the meaning and significance each line.

There are 49 words of the Psalm that relate to parts of the menorah body. These words begin with verse 2, “Elohim yachanainu viybaracheinu / May G-d be gracious to us and bless us…” It is common tradition for the next seven verse to go from left to right. One verse for each of the branches, including the center shaft. This is candle-lighting order, the same order that candles are to be lit on Chanukah. Though the verses can be said in any order, the only requirement of our custom is to say it in the form of the menorah.

Further Contemplation: Considering Our Core

There are also other ways we can further contemplate upon the menorah when lined up in this progressive fashion. Let us take a look at two more quick kavanot to further fine-tune our minds and focus, ones that can be done while saying the psalm.

As we say the psalm we make notice that the verses concerning the benefit of Israel, and the well being of all the nations intertwined through out the chapter. Now notice that the 3rd and 5th branches, the innermost spanning arm contains a unique occurrence of mirroring verses. The two arms bear the words “Yoducha amim Elohim / G-d, may the peoples give thanks to You / yoduch elohim kulam / let the peoples, all of them, give thanks to You.” At our core we should be aware and intend that our actions bring godliness to all parts or our lives, so that we can show people the goodness of life for which one can be grateful. First we can start considering all the reasons we have to be grateful. Then we think about sharing this attitude of gratitude. Why is this represented on the right arm and the left arm of the menorah? Its like a person that shares a loaf of bread with a friend, he tears it in half, this is your share and this is mine; however, like a good friend, the pieces in both hands are equal.

Keeping Ones Self Grounded

Other wonderful thought is to consider the center shaft of the menorah. It contains 49 letters, just like our Psalm contains 49 words that associate with the body of menorah. This psalm can be thought of a summary of the whole chapter, the nature of the chapter condensed down and concentrated in this one verse. Also the center shaft is where the menorah meets the ground, and upon which all the other branches rely. This is what we should hang out hopes on. Understanding our goal here is what keeps us “grounded.” This is the central reason for our devotion, to make this possible, that…

The nations will be gland and sing for joy.

For You will judge the nations fairly,

and the peoples of the earth will rejoice.

Selah.”

| Yismauchu viyarnenu, l’amim.

| Ki tishpot amim mishor:

| ul’amim ba’aretz tan’chaim

| Selah.

Psalm 67:5

We are desire and intend to draw godliness in the world so that not only will we be singing and praying songs of gladness, so too will the entire world. Let let all the nations of the world sing for joy! We desire and intend to help spread equality, fairness and justice across the entire face of the earth.

Also, feel like your are in a situation where an unfair judgment is hanging over you? This is a perfect time to open one’s heart and feel the light of G-d’s truth illuminating the situation so that the darkness of confusion dissipates.

Download the Liturgy Aids!

It is with great excitement that I release the two shivit shown above that I have created. They are according to traditional texts and created after carefully comparing many traditional sources.

As this is a liturgy based project I am keeping my commitment to partner with the Open Siddur Project, and release traditional materials with a Creative Commons Zero licensing. Using free and open source material that are free of copyright helps enriches the entire Jewish community! You may download, print, copy and redistribute this material as much as you want. These items are now liberated and the property of the entire Jewish community!

I owe a special thank you to my friend Aharon Varady, founding director of Open Siddur, for guiding me through the design of these graphics.

Included in the following packet are the two full paged shviti presented above, and a new translation of Psalm 67 with brief instructions to help you focus on each branch of this kavanah.

To download click on the image below. As usual, this is a work in progress. Do keep a look out for future updates and additions that are sure to come!

 

Footnotes:

1 – It is not the case for Ashkenazim to say it motzei shabbat, as expressed by the Rema in the Shulchan Aruch. Nor is it the custom after the Vidui, which is a Sephardic custom.

2 – In an informative paper titled “Seven Branches of the Menorah” Rabbi Dovid Sears presents the following wonderful leads that confirm its varied placement in various siddurim: “For example, the popular Sefardic Siddur Tefilat Yesharim arranged by Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad presents this Menorah facing the “Baruch she-amar” prayer. Among the editions of the Siddur ha-ARI, in the 1972 reprint of the Siddur Kol Ya’akov (Slavita 1804) it appears immediately following the Author’s Introduction, while in the 18th century ms. Siddur ha-ARI of Rabbi Avraham Shimshon of Rashkov (facsimile ed. Bnei Brak 1995), it follows the passage of Ketoret.”

3 – 1 Chronicles 29:11

4 – however, here it includes a Vav, coming from the use of a holamוֹ“, thus a silent letter for the sake of implying a vowel. However, the Vav is intentional, as it represents a dividing line of one side from the other.


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