Question: The writings of Kabbalah and Chassidism speak of four worlds—Atzilut, Beriah, Yetzirah and Asiyah. Where are these “worlds”? Why haven’t any of them been discovered yet?
Response: When I try to relate to these worlds, I picture each of them as another lens through which we can view reality. The higher the world, the sharper and clearer the lens—so that everything in that world is a harmonious expression of G‑d’s simple oneness. The lower the world, the more it feels otherness—as though it never had a creator to begin with. Things become fragmented, discordant, even downright ugly, as that sublime oneness is lost.
We live in the bottom-level, physical world of Asiyah—meaning “actuality”—a reality in which G‑dliness is completely hidden. Our lenses allow us to see nothing more than the end-product of all the processes that came before it. We see a table—not the divine energy that keeps it in existence. We marvel over a sunset—as though it were just another natural phenomenon, rather than a masterpiece of a Master Artist. We attribute financial success to smart business tactics—not to the blessings of G‑d. It’s no coincidence that the word for “world” in Hebrew, olam, shares the same root as he’elem, meaning “hidden.” Everything but the most outer façade is hidden from our view.
What keeps our prescription so low?
-Rabbi Yisroel Cotlar
“Where Are All the ‘Worlds’?”
I know Kabbalah isn’t for everyone and mysticism gives most Christians the nervous “shakes,” but for me, it explores the answers to certain questions that we otherwise must avoid completely. It also allows me to put into perspective the things in this world (and the next) that drive me crazy.
We live in the bottom-level, physical world…in which G‑dliness is completely hidden.
Exactly. And yet often we behave as if our “bargain basement world” has all the answers we’ll ever need to understand God and who we are in Him. I’m not suggesting that we all start taking “mystic trips” into the upper regions of reality and attempt to experience God in His own realm, but we should consider that we don’t know as much as we think we know.
I don’t think that the Bible has all the answers, either. I do think, however, that it has sufficient answers for us. If it had all the answers, humanity (or at least Christianity and Judaism) wouldn’t have such a thing as a mystic tradition.
Some would say that the “worlds” Rabbi Cotlar is discussing have an objective reality on other planes of existence, and others, most others probably, believe that these “worlds” are just mental abstractions we use to discuss what otherwise couldn’t be discussed because we have no language and no conceptualization of what it is to exist beyond what our five senses can detect.
I know I’ll be criticized for even mentioning the “K” (Kabbalah) word, but think about it. If you are a religious Jew or Christian, by definition, you’ve taken on board certain beliefs about the spiritual and supernatural worlds. You believe in angels, and archangels, and (if you’re Christian) God being able to manifest Himself in human form (though that is not His totality according to Derek Leman).
We attribute financial success to smart business tactics—not to the blessings of G‑d.
I bet you never thought that was a “mystic” statement, did you? Most of us, even those of us who are “religious,” tend to pat ourselves on the back when we do well in business, get a raise, start and run a successful business, or pump up the number of “zeros” in our annual income. And yet, every morsel of food we consume, every breath we take, every beat of our heart, every day that dawns, would never occur apart from the will of our Father.
How can we not believe in other realms beyond our own?
But then again, it isn’t the belief in other mystic realms that’s the problem, but the thought that any human being should know anything about them, aside from what we read in the Bible. That’s typically what hangs most people up.
The basics of the teachings of the kabbalah – upon which all these texts expound and elaborate – were not invented by the human mind. They are teachings that were orally passed down through the generations, from teacher to disciple, dating back to Moses himself.
And Moses did go there and back. He spent months on Mount Sinai wandering through the various spiritual worlds and then communicated his findings back to us. That which he didn’t personally experience was revealed to him by the Creator of all these spiritual worlds—together with the rest of the Written and Oral Torah. Even after he descended the mountain, he continued to learn directly from G‑d for the next forty years.
-Rabbi Menachem Posner
“How can any human claim to know of ‘other worlds’?”
That won’t be very convincing to most Christians not to mention a lot of Jews. But how about this?
Moses entered the cloud and went up on the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights.
So he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights. He neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.
That might not be convincing either if you just think Moses and God sat together for forty days and forty nights around a really big campfire on the top of a mountain. But did God come down or Moses go up…or something in between? Whatever it was, Moses entered into the presence of the living God, His Divine Presence, and was not consumed by fire and could live in God’s presence and not die, and could do without either food or water for well over a month.
If you believe that actually happened and isn’t just some metaphor or fable, then you believe in the spiritual, the supernatural, the mystic encounter of man with God.
In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the Chebar canal, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.
Daniel declared, “I saw in my vision by night, and behold, the four winds of heaven were stirring up the great sea. And four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another.
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.
–2 Corinthians 12:2-4
I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet…Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me…and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.
When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.
–Revelation 1:9-10, 12, 13-17
Each of these experiences stretches, pushes, pulls, and distorts the experience of “reality” of each of the human beings involved beyond what we would consider “normal.” Moses, Ezekiel, Paul, and John each had their own mystic encounters with the realm of Heaven in ways that could not be fully explained to the rest of us who have (presumably) not shared such experiences.
If such is recorded in the Bible we know (as well as we can know the Bible, that is), what mystic experiences have human beings encountered that have not been recorded or that have been recorded in what we consider less than reliable texts?
My point is not to sell you on mysticism. I’m hardly a mystic. I make no claim to otherworldly journeys. I’m only suggesting that no matter what you have learned, no matter how well you are educated, no matter how much you pat yourself on the back for your erudite understanding of the Scriptures, and no matter what sort of “Holy Spirit high” you believe you are on, you really don’t know as much as you think you do. I know I don’t.
To reduce God down to what we can read in the Bible, even if we believe that the Holy Spirit is giving us personal instruction and whispering little “secrets” of interpretation in our ears, is arrogant in the extreme.
It’s understandable that in feeling small before God and probably in the midst of other people, we should want to exalt ourselves. But this reductionist thinking also makes God small, like we are, and all but eliminates any sense of awe, wonder, and majesty at even the contemplation of the awesome, wonderful, infinite, exalted, measureless, Ein Sof, Radically One, creative God.
The Ancient of Days is above all things and beyond human sight and comprehension. But the One like a Son of Man shares his nature fully, being One with him. The Ancient of Days sends the Son of Man into created things to rule from within. The Ancient of Days is transcendent completely but the Son of Man is immanent and is with us. The unity of the Father and Son is absolute, so we cannot say the Son is “part of God,” for God has no parts.
Trying to discuss the Divinity of Jesus “is like trying to hit a bullet with a smaller bullet whilst wearing a blindfold, riding a horse,” to quote a certain Scottish engineer from the twenty-third century. In other words, it’s at least extremely difficult if not darn near impossible.
And yet, how can we not try to talk about and even to comprehend that which surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds us together with Him?
Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. As he was saying these things, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.
What do you do, as a simple fisherman who is learning from a rural, itinerant teacher, when your teacher suddenly starts glowing bright white and mysteriously is joined by the two greatest Prophets in the history of your people (and you have no idea how you recognize these two men who lived many centuries before you were born…and there are no photos or paintings of them anywhere), and these two great men start speaking to your teacher in a close and intimate manner….and then a voice from Heaven tells you that your teacher is the Son of God and commands you to listen to him?
What do you do when your reality experiences a direct intersection with the mystic realm of God?
I don’t know. But one thing I do know. If you have any sort of sense at all, you realize just how small you are and that, in fact, you don’t know anything close to what you thought you did.
I don’t either.
When’s the last time you were sitting in the midst of the flaming God on a mountain?
8 thoughts on “In the Midst of the Flaming God”
Thanks for the reminder that we oft times create for ourselves a ‘little’ world…and because of its smallness our faith and imagination are also little.
You’re welcome, Pat. I find it ironic though, that the people who probably need this reminder the most are the ones who will never apply it to themselves. More’s the pity.
Pay attention to the comments. Also read the first part.
@Dan: Speaking of paying attention, here’s what I said in the body of the blog post above:
Today’s “meditation” is less about mysticism and more about putting our own intelligence and wisdom in perspective when considering the infinite vastness of God and our complete inability to “know” His nature.
I checked out your old blog post, and I don’t think any of my comments there regarding mysticism are in conflict with what I’ve written here.
James….for your pleasure!
The Ascent of Moses: Gabriel’s Palace..Jewish Mystical Tales : Howard Schwartz
When the children of Israel assembled at the foot of Mount Sinai, Moses ascended the mountain, and when he reached the top he saw that a cloud was floating there. As he came closer the cloud opened, and Moses stepped inside. There he found himself in the presence of a great light, like that he had witnessed at the burning bush, and as the cloud started to ascend, Moses knew that he was being borne up by G-d’s blessing.
As the cloud rose up toward heaven, Moses lost track of time, so filled was he with awe. Then all at once he reached the gates of the firmament and the cloud opened, so that Moses could step out. The angel Kemuel, who guards the gate, rebuked him for seeking to enter heaven. But when Moses replied “I have come to receive the Torah,” the gate opened of its own accord. And when the angel saw this, he knew that it was G-d’s wish that Moses should enter there, and he made way for him to pass.
After that Moses reached the river Rigyon, a river of fire whose waves can consume angels as well as men. There he was met by angels of destruction, who sought to burn him with their fiery breath. And Moses cried out: “Master of the Universe, I fear they will consume me with their fire.” And at that moment a great fiery wave rose up from the river and washed over the angels of destruction, and they were all consumed. But not a spark of fire touched Moses, who learned, in this way, that all things exist by the mercy of the Hoy One and that every life is in His hands.
Now when the angels saw Moses there, they cried out to the Holy One, “Master of the Universe, what is this man doing here?” And the Holy One, Blessed Be He, replied: “He has come to receive the Torah.” And the angels said: “You created the Torah before You created the world. How can such a precious treasure pass into the hands of a mere man? And the Holy One replied: “It was created for that very purpose.”
Then the Holy One reached down and pulled Moses up to Paradise. There Moses saw the Holy One seated on His Throne of Glory, and behind him was an angel so large that Moses shook with terror. And when the Holy One saw this, He stepped down from His throne of Glory to comfort him. After that Moses found his strength again, and he grew calm in that high place.
Whe he had recovered, Moses asked to know the identity of that angel, and the Holy One replied: “That angel is Sandalphon, who weaves garlands out of prayers of Israel.” Just then Sandalphon completed one of these garlands, and it rose up of its own accord and came to rest on the head of the Holy One, blessed be He, as He sat on his throne of Glory. And at that moment all the hosts on high shook with awe, and the wheels of the throne revolved, and the creatures of the Chariot, who had been silent, began to roar like lions, all of them crying out “Holy, Holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.” (Isa. 6:3) That is when Moses saw G-d was weaving something. He asked Him what it was, and the Holy One replied: “These are the crowns of the letters of the Torah. I have been weaving them since the time of creation, so that a time will come when Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph will interpret every crown and letter of the Torah. And Moses said: “I would like to see him.” And G-d said: “Turn around.” And when Moses did, he found himself seated in the back of the class room of Rabbi Akiba, a thousand years in the future, and he listened to R. Akiba explain one of the laws of Torah, but try as he might, Moses could not understand, for he had not yet received Torah. Then one of the students asked R. Akiba where he had learned this, and R.Akiba said: “From Moses, at Mount Sinai.” And when Moses heard this, Moses understood that the words of Torah would take root and flourish in the days to come.
At that moment Moses heard someone call his name, and when he looked up he found himself back in Paradise, standing before the Holy One, blessed be He, who said: “The time has come for you to receive the Torah. Take hold of my Throne of Glory.”
This Moses did, and all at once the Holy One opened the seven firmaments and showed Moses the Sanctuary on high. Then He opened the portals of the seven firmaments and appeared over Israel, in all His fullness and splendor.
And when the Children of Israel heard the words, “I AM THE LORD YOUR G-D” (Ex. 20:2) they fell down on their knees in fear and their souls departed. Then the Holy One caused the dew of Ressurection, which will receive the souls of righteousness at the End of Days, to fall upon them. And every one of them were revived.
After that the Holy One sent one hundrd twenty myriad angels to earth. There were two angels for each of the Children of Israel, one to put its hand over each of their hearts, so that they would not stop beating, and the other to raise their heads, so they could gaze at the Holy One, Blessed be He, in that moment of Glory! And so they did.
Then while the portals were still open, the Holy One transmitted the Torah to Moses, while every word echoed among the people gathered below. For forty days and nights the Holy One spoke the words of the Torah to Moses during the day, and at night He explained it to him. And that which he wrote down during the day is the Written Law, and that which he learned at night is the Oral Law, which reveals, the seventy meanings of every word of the Torah like the many facets of a perfect jewel.
And the end of forty days and nights the cloud returned, and Moses decended to Mount Sinai. And there he proclaimed the sovereignty of the Lord over all Israel and declared that THE LORD WILL REIGN FOREVER, THY G-D, O ZION, UNTO ALL GENERATIONS. (Ps.146:10) Palestine: Nineth Century
Thanks, Pat. I’ve read portions of this before but never the entire narrative. I just hope someone doesn’t come by, read it, and get the wrong idea. 😉
It’s reading material…….not unlike Super Man! Perhaps we all need to lighten up once in a while! Shalom
It’s reading material…….not unlike Super Man! Perhaps we all need to lighten up once in a while!