Tag Archives: Kabbalah

The Primordial Serpent

SerpentWhen people saw the snake, they understood that in order to elicit this transcendent divinity and be healed, they had to transform their own, inner “snake” – their evil inclination – into a force of good…The evil inclination impels us to sin for comfort, pleasure, or excitement. When we convince it that the truest comfort, pleasure, and excitement lie in holiness, it plunges headlong into fulfilling G-d’s purpose on earth, endowing our drive toward divinity with much greater power than it could have had otherwise. Thus, the initially evil inclination becomes the source of merit and goodness. The snake is transformed from the source of death to the agent of life.

From the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe;
adapted by Rabbi Moshe Yaakov Wisnefsky
“Transforming the Primordial Snake”
[Based on Likutei Sichot vol. 13, pp. 75-77]
Kabbalah Online

This also alludes to the [Primordial] Snake. Originally, he was the tail and Adam was the head, but [because of the Primordial Sin] this was inverted and the snake became the head and Adam the tail.

From the teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria
adapted by Rabbi Moshe Yaakov Wisnefsky
“The Snake at the Sea’s End”

This is Part 2 in a 3-part series. Before reading this, see Part 1: Overcoming Evil.

The serpent of Eden isn’t quite what you expect him to be when you encounter him in Judaism, and particularly within the realm of Kabbalah. While not an entirely pleasant fellow, he doesn’t seem to be quite as bad as Christianity paints him. The “Transforming the Primordial Snake” article quoted above tells us that the serpent; the evil inclination within us, “impels us to sin for comfort, pleasure, or excitement”. The commentary goes on to explain that we can “convince” the evil inclination that the best way to meet its goal is to meet our goal of a life of holiness. Once the “serpent” is sold on this idea, the “snake is transformed from the source of death to the agent of life”.

Makes the snake sound almost reasonable, doesn’t it? However, the teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria paint a darker portrait:

In the Zohar, the imagery of the snake putting its tail in its mouth is used to illustrate the sin of “the evil tongue”, i.e. slander, a gross misuse of the power of speech. (Zohar III:205b) People commit this sin when material consciousness gets the better of them. As is explained in the Tanya (ch. 32), those who give their bodies preeminence over their souls see only the outer shell of their fellow man, which differentiates between people, and are oblivious to the inner souls. They thus fall into the sin of hatred, which leads to slander.

Rabbi Luria makes slander sound awful, but how bad can it be? I mean, it’s not as bad as say, murder, is it?

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of gehinnom. –Matthew 5:21-22

I guess it is that bad.

But who is the serpent? Is it some sort of talking animal, like Balaam’s donkey or is this Satan, the Adversary, in disguise? Let’s cut to the chase and look at him from a traditional Jewish perspective:

Satan in Judaism is a very different beast than satan in popular culture (pun intended)

The snake in the garden of Eden is identified as the personification of the “Yetzerh Harah” (Bad/evil will/desires/inclination) by the midrashim.

The Talmud also states that the Yetzer Harah, Satan, and the angel of death are one. (Some might understand this to mean that they are ‘bad things’ which really are good, and necessary.

In Judaism, the Satan is an angel commanded by Gd to accuse human beings of wrong things. In modern terms, you might call satan the heavenly prosecutor, who seeks to bring all people to court.

-from the Jewish Life and Learning discussion board

Eve and the SerpentThat would seem to mesh somewhat with the Christian interpretation, however, the person who made this post offered a follow up:

A strict reading of the bible would tell you just a snake, and nothing else. An interpreted reading of the bible based on Jewish sources would tell you its the Evil Inclination. An interpreted reading of the interpretation based on Jewish sources would tell you that the snake represents three things. (Which, could be seen as a reason for only the serpent to be mentioned in the first place)

This is consistent with other Jewish sources which state that Adam personified the Good Inclination while the serpent was the embodiment of the Evil Inclination. In Kabbalistic thought, the serpent wasn’t so much a personality as a force of nature, or at least a representation of other forces. The serpent was the external manifestation of the evil inclination which, once Adam and Eve sinned, became man’s internal inclination for evil.

However, as I’ve heard it said just recently, “let Scripture interpret Scripture”:

The great dragon was hurled down – that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him. –Revelation 12:9

And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. –Revelation 20:1-2

Now we have to assume that the “ancient serpent” being referred to in these verses is the same one we see tempting Eve in the Garden, but that’s an assumption Christianity takes for granted. It’s not one that Judaism would make for obvious reasons.

A recent CNN news story, which was critical of the ability of many Christians to read and remember the Bible correctly (that part seems sadly true) suggested that the serpent was just a serpent (albeit an intelligent and talking one) and that the Adversary (HaSatan) was never mentioned. While it is true, Genesis doesn’t go out of its way to say, “Hey! The snake is the devil!”, the passages from Revelation seem to be a “smoking gun”.

Judah Himango started a conversation about this topic on his Kineti L’Tziyon blog the other day, and from his point of view, the matter is settled. Still, looking at the serpent through the lens of Jewish mysticism, there’s more to his story than meets the eye. Part 3 of this series, Healing the Wounded, will cover that tale in the next “morning meditation”.

Gateway to Eden

Gateway to EdenNow the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”

“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”Genesis 3:1-4

We are all familiar with the story of Adam and Eve and their sin with the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge (Genesis 3). As the story goes, the Serpent, most “cunning” of all the animals, comes along and tempts Eve to taste of the fruit, promising that it would open the eyes of man, making her and Adam “as gods knowing good and evil” (v. 5). Eve decides that the Tree is tempting to behold and both eats of the fruit and gives her husband to eat.

This, however, presents a difficultly. If Adam and Eve themselves had no evil inclination, how could they have *wanted* to sin? How could they — entirely spiritual beings — desire anything other than goodness and closeness to G-d? Where could a desire to rebel against G-d stem from?

-Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
The Primordial Sin, Part I (2006)

Christianity and Judaism see “the Fall of Man” event in Genesis very differently, but there are obvious parallels. “In the beginning”, Adam and Eve are sinless beings, created by God and knowing an incredible intimacy with the Source as completely spiritual yet physical beings. In Judaism, people originally had no internal inclination toward evil but upon disobeying the one commandment given by God, the external temptation, represented by the Serpent, became internalized. Man separated himself from God and the nature of the world became broken.

Rabbi Rosenfeld goes on in Part III of the series to ask some difficult questions:

To this we explained that man sinned in order to make life more challenging. Before the Sin, man had only a single mitzvah (commandment) — not to partake of the fruit of the Tree. There was, it seemed, very little for him to accomplish. Now, as a physical being desiring evil, life would be so much more challenging. There would be so much more potential growth in store for man. Eventually mankind would require the rigorous and demanding 613 Commandments to curb the animal within and redirect him G-dward. Thus, man — *spiritual* man — *desired* the greater challenge that would now be in store for mankind.

This, however, still does not suffice. Why would man desire a greater challenge? So that he would have more opportunities for spiritual growth? But isn’t he basically just backing up in order to reach the same goal? The ultimate goal of life — self-evident to the spiritual person — is closeness to G-d. If man was created close to G-d, why not *stay* there — perform his single mitzvah and perfect himself? What was so enticing about making life more difficult?

From Christianity’s point of view, there was no justifiable reason for Adam and Eve to sin; to disobey God. It was a terrible, ghastly mistake that sent both humanity and the nature of Creation down a dark and dismal path, away from God and into the arms of darkness, requiring that God give “His one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Judaism says that, amidst what Christians can only view as a total spiritual disaster, there is something salvageable and even perhaps desirable to be gleaned:

The deepest, most profound desire a human soul has is to feel it exists — to feel it is not just a passive entity, acted upon and taken care of by others. A person needs to feel he is an independent being — what the Serpent called a “god” (and our mishna calls a “king”) — who can accomplish, grow and make a difference in the world. There is nothing more painful — *spiritually* painful — than feeling that one’s life makes no difference to anyone or anything, that he exists only as a person acted upon by others or by natural forces, and that he has done nothing to express his own existence.

This was man’s dilemma in the Garden of Eden. Man at first, as lofty as he was, was an almost entirely passive, “created” being. He was given existence by G-d. He was placed in the Garden of Eden with all his wants and needs satisfied and with only a single mitzvah to perform. Man wanted to feel he truly existed — that he was not just a plaything of the Almighty. He wanted to be a god himself. How could he do it? By forcing upon himself greater challenges. Adam and Eve would no longer be passive beings, practically created in G-d’s presence. They would now have to earn it. Spirituality would come only through the greatest of efforts — *their* efforts. It would be the challenge they would have to face to achieve their purpose — and in order to exist.

From what Rabbi Rosenfeld presents, man faced two options: live life close to God, obeying the single commandment provided by the Almighty, but never having the opportunity to truly carve out his own path and the ability to rise spiritually, or deliberately distancing himself from God, lowering his spiritual status, and then struggling back up the ladder, rung by rung, to drive himself ever closer to God and Eden.

I suppose a challenge like that would tempt the spiritual Sir Edmund Hillarys of the world, but for the rest of us, we see the “downside” to such a decision in terms of the pain, suffering, and anguished death of billions upon billions of human beings across the long march of millennia between the dawn of man and the current age.

And yet, here we are. “Our physical flesh (is) now a confused mixture of good and evil. We know the passing of the seasons as we age, and we know decay and death. We are separated from the infinite Spirit. The struggle against evil and the abyss is no longer an external enemy, but rather, it is part of who we are inside. Judaism longs for the coming of the Messiah and Tikkun Olam. Christianity looks to the day when Jesus will return and mankind will be redeemed from a fallen world.

But what if we don’t have to wait? Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh says that we don’t:

After the primordial sin, Adam and Eve heard “the voice of God” walking through the garden. They heard God, He spoke to them, and they answered. This is the consciousness of “hearing,” the height of our consciousness of Godliness (God and His Divine Providence) is our lives subsequent to the primordial sin, the consciousness of the weekdays, the workdays (“By the sweat of your brow…”).

But on Shabbat we return to the pristine state of consciousness of God as it was prior to the primordial sin (and as it will be universally in the future). In the terminology of Kabbalah, during the weekdays our consciousness is at the level of understanding (“hearing” in Hebrew means also “understanding”) whereas on Shabbat our consciousness rises to the level of wisdom (direct insight into the mysteries of creation hidden within reality, and into the “mystery of mysteries,” the Creator of reality, the true and absolute Reality).

Throughout the week everything that happens around us, all that we see and hear, “tells” us about God and His Providence. On Shabbat we don’t have to be told about God, we experience Him directly.

ShabbatOne of the mistakes of the early (non-Jewish) Christian church was to casually discard the commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” (Exodus 20:8). The church alternately says that Jesus did away with Sabbath observance with the rest of the Law or that the “Sabbath” was mysteriously moved over one day, to coincide with the “Day of the Lord” and the resurrection of the Master. I personally think that the 2nd and 3rd century church found it necessary to separate themselves from anything “too Jewish” and simply shifted the “Holy Day” over by 24 hours to achieve this, and then used specific points of Scripture to justify the decision.

Today, Christians miss out on an opportunity, however limited, to return to Eden. For contained in the Shabbat isn’t just a day to go to church or synagogue, but in fact, we discover an opportunity to remove oneself from the other six days of the week, of the toil, of the work, of the worries, of the laboring, and to totally devote ourselves as spiritual and physical beings to the God of the Universe and the King of Righteousness, as in days of old.

Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. –Exodus 20:9-11

Both Christians and Jews are going to disagree with me here, particularly since this mitzvot was directed at the Children of Israel, but I believe we Christians cheat ourselves terribly out of the experience to turn one-seventh of our lives into a time to walk personally with God. I think Rabbi Ginsburgh has a point to make, not only to Jews, but to Christians as well. But more gateways to Eden exist:

There are two exceptions to the above distinction between Shabbat and the weekdays, two times that we rise to the consciousness of Shabbat during the otherwise mundane time of the week. The Arizal teaches that our consciousness in the times of prayer, every day of the week three times a day, is at the level of Shabbat. The times of prayer, when we turn to God and address Him directly, are the Shabbat as its light shines into and permeates the week.

Also, a true Torah scholar is referred to in the Zohar as Shabbat. Continuously in communion with God through the means of His Torah (which ultimately in one with Himself) he experiences Shabbat-consciousness the entire week.

Whenever we immerse ourselves in the things of God, we are drawing closer. It happens when we pray, when we give to charity, when we help our neighbor with his yard work, when we hold a small child’s hand to cross the street, when we study the Bible, when we turn away from sin and turn, in obedience, to God.

While the mystic aspects of this process may be confusing or even a little frightening, it is clear that we are separated from God by the nature of humanity and the nature of the world, but we don’t have to be that way always. While waiting for the King of Kings to come to us, we do not have to wait helplessly. We can choose, whether commanded to or not, to observe a Shabbat where we are completely devoted to God. We can take one day of our week and separate it from the rest, separate it from the office, from phone calls, from the Internet, from worry, from work, from care. We can pray, study, speak of God and the Bible with others as we break bread together.

We can create isolated pockets of Eden in the Sabbath and even during the week when we pray and beg to come close to the Throne of Heaven. We can be like “little Messiahs”, helping to fix a broken world one dent and crack at a time by performing even one single act of kindness and humility.

Sin happened. Humanity fell. The world is a broken top spinning hopelessly off the table of existence. We can’t go back to fix it but we can choose to go forward toward God. We can choose to visit Eden on Shabbat. We can cross the threshold of the gates of Paradise every day, every time we pray. We can walk with God in the Garden every time we love our neighbor more than we love ourselves.

However you want to interpret these words, observe Shabbat, return to Eden, walk with God. You can never be lost as long as you are seeking God. You can never be lost as long as God wants you to find Him.

“Do not seek greatness for yourself and do not crave honor. Do more than you have studied and do not desire the ‘table’ of kings. For your table is greater than their table, and your crown is greater than their crown. And your Employer can be trusted to pay you the reward for your efforts.”
Pirkei Avot
Chapter 6, Mishna 5(a)

Beyond Reason

Out of the darknessA mind directed entirely by its own reasoning will never be sure of anything.

As good as the mind is at finding solutions and answers, it is even better at finding questions and doubts.

The path of Torah is to ponder its truths, so that your mind and heart will resonate with those truths, until all your deeds are guided by a voice that has no second thoughts.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman

How many of us ever take the time to stop and think about our theology, our deeply cherished and hard fought over arguments? Recently a popular blogger I know expressed a concern about even entertaining opposing arguments lest one lose one’s faith as a result of sown doubts – to him it wasn’t a good idea to engage the opposition in a non-polemic way, that is in a way that actually allows that other peoples arguments may, by some odd chance, hold water. And then I came across the following poignant remark that puts all this into better focus.

Gene Shlomovich
Ever thought you may be wrong about your cherished theology?
Daily Minyan blog

Questioning your own faith is a horrible thing. I know. I’ve been there. I spent an entire year, actually two, questioning the assumptions of my faith in virtually every detail. Eventually, I came to a crisis and fortunately passed through it with my faith in God intact. I recall the day I discovered what this person has just mentioned at Christian Forums:

wow, I never considered that 2 Peter was not written by Peter. Some say it was, some say it wasn’t. Hmff. Is there like a guarunteed listing of who wrote what or who didn’t write what?

Actually, most New Testament scholars acknowledge that not all of the Gospels and Epistles were written by the people to whom they are attributed. I discovered this reading Bart D. Ehrman’s Jesus, Interrupted (a challenging book which I highly recommend). Once I got past this, and the fact that there actually are inconsistencies in the Bible (compare the different Gospel versions of the day Jesus died and then try to figure out which day it was…the accounts conflict), I recovered my balance a bit. Then I realized that I didn’t have to depend on the Bible reading like a history book or a court deposition in order to gain wisdom and understanding from the stories the Bible tells us.

Questioning our assumptions isn’t a disaster and in my case, it resulted not only in a “course correction”, but in a greater zeal in returning to the Bible and seeing God in the writings of the Jewish prophets, apostles, and sages. However, in Judaism, the Torah isn’t simply a document or a way to try to grasp the essence of God through study. It is so much more and to understand this, we must step outside of what we consider a “rational reality”, for God doesn’t manifest in only the material world:

The answer depends on insight into the nature of the Torah. The Torah is one with G-d, an expression of His essential will. Therefore, just as His will is above intellectual comprehension, so too is the Torah. Nevertheless, G-d gave the Torah to mortals, not because He desires their obedience, but because He is concerned for their welfare. He wants man to develop a connection with Him, and for that connection to be internalized within man’s understanding, so that G-dly wisdom becomes part of his makeup. And with that intent, He enclothed the Torah in an intellectual framework.

This intellectual dimension is, however, merely an extension of the Torah. The Torah’s essence remains transcendent G-dliness, and cannot be contained within any limits even the limits of intellect. To relate to this essence, man must approach the Torah with a commitment that transcends wisdom or logic.

-Rabbi Eli Touger
“Beyond the Ken of Knowledge”
Parshas Chukas; Numbers 19:1-25:9
Adapted from
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XVIII, p. 229ff

Christianity doesn’t even imagine the Bible being more than the Bible; a book written under the Divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit and recorded by many different people across thousands of years. It’s hard for me to imagine that the church misses this, since it’s stated quite plainly here:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. –John 1:1-5

Path of TorahCertainly “the Word” is not just “the word” printed on a page in a book and in fact, this particular Word “became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). Of the four Gospels, John’s is considered the most “mystic” and it reads more like a chasidic story, which was a large part of what attracted a young Chasidic Jew named Feivel Levertoff at the end of the 19th century, to become a Chasid (a “devoted disciple”) of the “Maggid of Nazeret”, Jesus of Nazareth.

There’s a special depth in how Jews look at the Torah and find not only information about God but actually find God inhabiting the pages that are not just pages. There, they also find devotion and longing for the coming of the Moshiach (Messiah):

Yad HaChazakah is a book of laws, not a history book. What difference does it make from the perspective of Jewish law how many Parah Adumos were offered in previous generations? Moreover, why does the Rambam go on to add a prayer for the coming of Moshiach?

With regard to the obligation to believe in the coming of Moshiach, the Rambam states: “Whoever does not believe in him, or does not await his coming, denies not only [the statements of] the other prophets, but also [those of] the Torah and of Moshe, our teacher.” In other words, mere belief in Moshiach’s coming does not suffice, we are also obligated to hope for and await his arrival.

Moreover, this anticipation is to be in accordance with our thrice-daily recitation of the Amidah prayers: “Speedily cause the scion of David Your servant to flourish. for we hope for Your salvation all day.”

-Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson
A Commentary on Torah Portion Chukas

For those of us who have faith and trust in Jesus as the Moshiach, who came once and will come again, we should take even greater comfort and meaning in the insights the Rambam and Rabbi Schneerson share with us. If we depend on “knowing God” through a Bible that must be completely internally consistent and absolutely a record of historical fact, we will become confused and disappointed or we will be forced to “bend reality” and make the text to fit our needs and preconceptions. As Rabbi Freeman says, the purpose of Torah (and the Bible as a whole) is so that we can “ponder truths” (not facts), not the least of which is the truth of the Messiah in our lives, allowing God’s Word to become intertwined into the fabric of who we are and letting all our deeds become “guided by a voice that has no second thoughts”

Good Shabbos.

When the Heart is Still

A still nightIt is well known that the laws of Yoreh Dei’ah, especially those of shechitah, are very complex. The Pri Megadim, zt”l, wished to write a comprehensive explanation of the first part of Yoreh Dei’ah, and to ensure that he had the right understanding of the subject, he spent twenty years delving into maseches Chulin. Only afterward did he begin to write his essential commentary on the Shach and Taz in the first volume of Yoreh Dei’ah.

But some people lack this understanding and believe that these halachos are exceedingly easy. They breeze through them quickly and expect to receive semichah from the greatest halachic authorities. One such simpleton went to the famously sharp Rav Aizel Charif, zt”l, to be certified as a shochet. After a short time it was clear to Rav Aizel that the young man did not really understand the halachos. He had perhaps learned them through on a superficial level but had apparently felt that they would remain anchored in his mind with hardly any review.

Rav Aizel wanted to send him a message that he was not nearly ready for kabbalah. The gaon said, “I am afraid that it is impossible to give you kabbalah. You see, I am worried about shechutei chutz…”

Despite the rav’s well-earned reputation for acerbity, the young man could not leave well enough alone. Rather than retreating, he foolishly asked what exactly Rav Aizel meant by this. “How could I transgress shechutei chutz when today there is no Beis HaMikdash?”

Rav Aizel Charif retorted, “I am referring to the chutz in the first mishnah in Chulin: ‘All may slaughter and their slaughter is kosher —except for—a deaf mute, a lunatic and a minor…’”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories off the Daf
“Except for..”
Chullin 2

On the other hand, in Menachos (43a) the Beraisa declares that all are commanded about tzitzis and when the Beraisa enumerates the people obligated in the Mitzvah it includes women as part of that list. R’ Shimon, however, disagrees and exempts women from tzitzis, consistent with the Mishnah in Kiddushin, giving the reason that it is a positive time-bound mitzvah…

Rambam rules that women are exempt from the mitzvah of tzitzis. Ran, however, notes that according to some texts the Beraisa in the Gemara Kiddushin does not list tzitzis as an example of a positive time-bound mitzvah. The Tanna, following the Beraisa in Arachin, holds that the mitzvah of tzitzis applies even at night. Shulchan Aruch rules in accordance with Rambam that women are exempt from tzitzis because it is a positive time-bound mitzvah. Rema adds that a woman who wears tzitzis appears haughty; therefore a woman should not wear tzitzis.

Daf Yomi Digest
Halacha Highlight
“Women fulfilling the mitzvah of tzitzis”
Chullin 2

If you’re not religiously Jewish (or Jewish at all), you may not understand what is being said in the quotes above and may feel they are irrelevant or even a bit foolish in terms of a life of faith. However, the sages have much to say to both Jew and Christian if we will only quiet ourselves and listen.

I’m not trying to start a controversy about whether or not a woman appears “haughty” if she wears tzitzis, but you may ask yourself, so what is if a (Jewish) woman is or isn’t obligated to the commandment of tzitzis (Deuteronomy 22:12)? The “Story off the Daf” may make even less sense to you, except to the degree that you can read how a “simpleton” overstepped his bounds and arrogantly thought he could pass off a superficial level of learning as scholarly.

But what of it? What can we learn from these two stories; what do they have to do with us?

The human heart is beautiful.

The human heart can know secrets deeper than any mind could fathom.

The mind cannot contain G-d,
but deep inside the heart there is a place for Him.

Yet there is nothing more dysfunctional than a brain controlled by its heart. Indeed, the finest mind is capable of the most horrid crimes when under the management of the heart.

Let the heart be quiet and hear out the mind. In that quiet listening, she will discover her true beauty and her deepest secrets will awaken.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“A Quiet Heart”

Sometimes, in our passion to learn and our zeal to draw closer to God, we can start driving our journey of faith mainly with one part of our personality or another. While it’s easy to fool ourselves and believe that we can study and learn and thus truly conceive of God, Rabbi Freeman tells us that it is the heart and not the mind that contains the Divine Presence. The mind cannot conceive of infinity and the vastness of Ayn Sof, but the heart can choose to contain His love. However, passion cannot be the ruler, and the heart must in stillness, listen to the mind or there is no room for God.

He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.” –Psalm 46:10

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. –1 Kings 19:11-12

Where is God? He is a small, hot ember nestled in the ash of our lives waiting for the opporunity to burst into flames. He is a light radiating from us whenever we perform an act of faith and kindness. He is the Divine Spark inside of us striving to rise upward and rejoin God’s burning heart. He is the Torah in the night; our companion when fear and pain and anguish cause us to drench our beds with sweat and when sleep eludes us on a hot wind.

God is not in the haughty or the arrogant. God is not in our lofty thoughts nor in our unbridled passions. God is only there when we contract some part of ourselves and allow Him room to enter.

At the beginning of time, God’s presence filled the universe. When God decided to bring this world into being, to make room for creation, He first drew in His breath, contracting Himself. From that contraction darkness was created. And when God said, “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3), the light that came into being filled the darkness, and ten holy vessels came forth, each filled with primordial light. –Tikkun.org

Among the mystics, it is believed that to allow room for Creation, God, who occupied literally everything, voluntarily compressed Himself and willingly withdrew some portion of His essence so that enough space would exist for the Universe. All of Creation exists not for God’s benefit but for ours and it was for humanity and humanity alone that God chose to do this. If God, the Master of All, the Infinite, and the Radical and Unique One, who has no needs, chose to make room for us, how can we not reserve some portion of our hearts for Him?

You need only be still –Exodus 14:14

Starting to Walk

WalkingThe Torah is a living document, to be applied to all societies and all generations of history. Thus, the Almighty entrusted the sages and Torah authorities of each generation with the responsibility of interpreting the Torah and implementing it in the specific conditions and circumstances of their time and place.

-from the Chabad.org commentary for
Avot Pirkei (Ethics of our Fathers) Chapter 1
“Barrier and Gateway”

First put on your right shoe, then your left shoe, then bind your left shoe, and finally bind your right shoe. That’s the way Jews do it. The Torah was given to sanctify the mundane.

-Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh
Kabbalah and the Art of Tying Your Shoelaces

For the past several days, I’ve been blogging on topics related to the Torah and the meaning it has for not just the Jewish people, but for all of us. I’ve also been trying to describe that the Torah is more than just a document and in an almost mystic way, it transcends its own physical nature and becomes both the blueprint and container for Creation.

As the Chabad commentary I quoted above states, the Torah has an expansive mission to address all people everywhere and as Rabbi Ginsburgh suggests, part of that purpose is to help us understand that holiness and sanctity are infused in everything we encounter.

The Chabad.org commentary for Chapter 2 of Avot Pirkei introduces an additional mystery in how we are supposed to understand what the Torah, the book of instructions for living in a created world, is to be understood and lived out:

Rabbi [Judah HaNassi] would say: Which is the correct path for man to choose? Whatever is harmonious for the one who does it, and harmonious for mankind…
Ethics of the Fathers, 2:1

[Rabbon Gamliel the son of Rabbi Judah HaNassi] would say… Make that His will should be your will, so that He should make your will to be as His…
Ethics of the Fathers, 2:4

On the surface, Rabbi Judah HaNassi’s statement appears to go against the grain of the rest of the Ethics and, indeed, the essence of Judaism itself.

Simply stated, the basis of the Jewish faith is the belief that the Torah is G-d’s blueprint for existence. In the words of the Midrash, “An architect who builds a palace does not do so on his own. He has scrolls and notebooks which he consults how to place the rooms, where to set the doors. So it was with G-d: He looked into the Torah and created the world.”

So how can Rabbi Judah say that the “correct path” is defined by “whatever is harmonious for the one who does it, and harmonious for mankind”? Imagine the worker who consults the original state of his materials rather than the architect’s plan. “The blueprint calls for a square plank,” he muses, “but the log I have is round. Perhaps we can edit the plans a little?” This is what man is doing when he refers to the “way things are” in his own nature, in society or in the world at large for guidance as to how to live his life. Indeed, why labor to change the world if we can conform our moral vision to reflect it?

To the Jew, the “correct path for man to choose” is determined by the Divine revelation at Sinai, not by what is comfortable or what goes down well in the prevailing moral climate. To be a partner in creation means that one must, at times, contest the opinion polls as well as one’s own nature.

This is why the Ethics, which is the Talmud’s summarization of the Jew’s moral philosophy, opens with the words “Moses received the Torah at Sinai.” Morality, for the Jew, is not the product of man’s subjective thinking but of Divine revelation.

However, if “the Torah will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:3), then this teaching and the ethics attached cannot be limited to the Jewish people. All of humanity becomes God’s partner in Tikkun Olam; the repairing of a broken world, and in the mission to prepare existence itself, starting with our own lives, for the coming of the Messiah. This effort at once requires that we submit to the demands of the Torah but also to interweave the Torah’s fabric with our own, fusing its life with our soul, resulting in a life made holy by God.

Antignos of Socho received the tradition from Shimon the Righteous. He would say: Do not be as slaves, who serve their master for the sake of reward. Rather, be as slaves who serve their master not for the sake of reward. And the fear of Heaven should be upon you. –Avot Pirkei 1:3

Paul, a servant (or slave) of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God – the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David… –Romans 1:1-3

Here is a painting of “slaves” of God but not slaves who serve out of a desire for self-gain or reward, but out of “fear of Heaven”. This doesn’t necessarily mean fear of punishment but rather an intense awe of God, His Holiness, His purposes, and the immense task of which we are a part. An observant Jewish man wears a yarmulke or kippah on his head to cause him to be always aware of the One who is constantly over him. The Word of God reminds us of the God we serve and who we are in Him.

It’s that awareness that gives us the drive to learn how to serve God and then to devote our lives to that service. The renowned Torah sages Hillel and Shammai both commented on this:

Hillel would say: Be of the disciples of Aaron—a lover of peace, a pursuer of peace, one who loves the creatures and draws them close to Torah. –Avot Pirkei 1:12

Shammai would say: Make your Torah study a permanent fixture of your life. Say little and do much. And receive every man with a pleasant countenance. –Avot Pirkei 1:15

Many of the opinions recorded in the Mishnah seem inconsistent about whether or not it is praiseworthy to devote an entire life to Torah study. Is it better to study Torah, forsaking all other pursuits or should a person both study and practice the Torah, balancing life between student and “doer”? Torah scholars are still subsidized in Israel today and exempted from military duty and other societal responsibilities, but there is this principle to consider:

Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Judah HaNassi would say: Beautiful is the study of Torah with the way of the world, for the toil of them both causes sin to be forgotten. Ultimately, all Torah study that is not accompanied with work is destined to cease and to cause sin. –Pirkei Avot 2:2

It is very similar to lessons we find in Christianity:

For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” –2 Thessalonians 3:10

Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. –1 Timothy 5:8

A desire to serve God and to immerse oneself in His Word does not excuse a person from the mundane chores in life or the requirements of his family. In fact, it actually becomes a sin to study the Torah to the exclusion of all other activities and supposed acts of holiness can become an excuse for disobeying God:

But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God) – then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that. –Mark 7:11-13

That brings us back to Rabbi Ginsburg and the art of tying our shoes.

Shoes allow us to walk the face of the earth, to contact physicality and move around as we wish freely. More than any other material artifact that we possess and utilize daily, shoes symbolize our involvement with the mundane. As we walk forward to achieve our goals in life they protect our feet from the stones and thorns that cover the ground upon which we tread.

But so long as we have not sanctified the earth in its entirety to be a sanctuary for God we need shoes to protect our feet, while continuously on the move, doing our utmost to make this world a better place – a meeting ground for us and our Creator.

Tying ShoesThe world is a work in progress and so are we. Everything we do is a transition from the mundane to the holy. We constantly are on a quest to see the holy in every ordinary object, act, and person. Even getting out of bed in the morning and getting dressed is both common and sacred. People often “get into a rut” by doing the same things in the same way day-in and day-out. We can become bored, numb, burned-out, and tired of life. As Rabbi Ginsburgh says though, the “Torah was given to sanctify the mundane.” Studying and living out God’s Word, God’s blueprint, God’s plan, opens our eyes so that we can see beyond the surface appearance of the world and people around us, and it enables us to see beyond the surface of the Torah itself.

In stripping off the outer layers or reality, we see the mystical substance which makes up the “truer reality” of everything. The world was created through more-than-natural processes in a manner that transcends human understanding and what we think of as “the laws of the universe”. In the Torah, is the lens by which we can take brief glimpses of that reality and from it, gain the strength to get out of bed for another day, get dressed, put on our shoes, and find holiness in tying our shoelaces.

Then we begin to walk on whatever road God sets before us.

“Which is exactly what he will not concede. As he sees it, the Jewish people possesses a unique religious truth, an unsurpassable morality of peace, mercy, justice and human equality-all indispensible to a man’s salvation-and, in addition, a Tradition or way of life in which they are embodied. It is for these and their communication to the nations of the world that we have been appointed. No sacrifice on our part can be too great for the fulfillment of so heroic a destiny. What is more, no power on earth can destroy us, provided always that we remain loyal to our purpose.”

-Pappas to Elisha
in Milton Steinberg’s book
As a Driven Leaf