Torah Reflections: November 19 – 25, 2017

Vayeitzei

Genesis 28:10 – 32:3

God Was in This Place

There is one verse in this week’s Torah portion which encompasses the entirety of the Kabbalistic endeavor: “Waking from his sleep, Jacob said, ‘Truly, the Eternal is in this place, and I did not know it!’” [Gen. 28:16] The Hebrew uses a word here which is rarely translated: the word “yesh”—yesh YHVH bamakom hazeh. “Yesh” is ignored because it is mostly thought of to mean “there is;” which, if kept, makes the English phrasing awkward: “there is the Eternal in this place.” But that’s because most translators aren’t Kabbalists. “Yesh” also means: “something-ness, being, or essence.” In other words, one could translate this verse to mean: “Waking from his sleep, Jacob said, ‘Truly, the Essence of YHVH is in this place, and I did not know it.’” This one verse describes the unique path that is Judaism in general, but Jewish mysticism in particular. Ours is a path that seeks to awaken to “the Essence of YHVH in this place,” in this world—to realize the Divine Presence filling all of Creation yet transcending all of Creation.

יהוה approximately rendered YHVH in English, are the four letters of God’s unpronounceable name, of the formless, transcendent, unmanifest aspect of the Divine; what the Kabbalists also call “Ayin” or Nothingness. Ayin’s counterpart—though our language betrays us since, in absolute terms, Ayin knows no counterpart— is also called Yesh, when Yesh, in this case, is understood as Something-ness. In Kabblistic principles, this Universe was created Yesh me-Ayin, Something-ness out of Nothingness. However, in our everyday perspective we live under the illusion that this Something-ness is separate from Nothingness. We perceive this world and ourselves within it to exist independently from the Divine. The reason for this is that—as the Kabbalists explain—we, like Jacob, are asleep, unknowing, ignorant. Husks cover our consciousness as well as all physical creation and conceal the Divine from us. In other words, the Nothingness/Ayin appears to be concealed within the Something-ness/Yesh. From this perspective, Yesh is all we know.

Our spiritual practice is, therefore, geared toward seeing the most mundane aspects of creation as holy. The half-joke that in Judaism there is a blessing for everything, highlights this very practice. We will remain asleep as long as we continue to see ourselves and the world outside, as other than Divine. For our sages, the performance of mitzvot in this world serves as a pathway to reveal the Divine Essence in every moment of our existence, in every action we undertake, in every being we interact with. One mitzvah at a time, one spiritually grounded action at a time, we chip away at the husks that seemingly mask the Ayin at the source of it all. Eventually, this process leads to what is referred to in Kabbalah as bitul haYesh: at once the nullification of the Yesh/Something-ness of the world, and the nullification of the Yesh/Something-ness of the ego. After both drop away, all that is left is Ayin.

Ultimately both perspectives are united. As the Chassidic Master Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) explains; in our waking up, even the idea of the concealment of the Divine is seen as an illusion. Something-ness and Nothingness are understood as not two, for there isn’t one separate from the other to conceal it. Like Jacob we exclaim: “The Essence of YHVH is in this place!” Both Yesh and Ayin are one, everything is nothing, everything is God.

Torah Reflections: January 22 – 28, 2017

Va’eira

Exodus 6:2 – 9:35

Many Faces of God

This week’s Torah portion opens with a compelling affirmation: “God (Elohim) spoke to Moses and said to him: ‘I Am the Eternal (YHVH).’” [Ex. 6:2] I often wonder how people read this opening: “God spoke to Moses.” It is such a common verse in Torah that we tend to skip over it. But, this time, let’s take a few moments to reflect on what it might mean.

Whatever image this sentence conjures within us, based on our own individual understanding of what God might be, this sentence categorically affirms that God is. In truth, there never is a debate within Judaism about God’s existence; not in biblical times and not since the advent of Rabbinic Judaism. God’s existence is taken for granted in Jewish tradition. We simply start with “God is.” The nature of the Divine, what God is, is what we are asked to explore and unpack for ourselves in each generation, together with the Divine’s relationship with Creation.

Beneath the layer of the myth or the storytelling, we are confronted with God as Elohim revealing God-Self as YHVH. The late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem M. Schneerson, explains that the word “Elohim [is] a finite disclosure, revealing God as He is immanent in the world, the world of plurality: hence the name Elohim which is in the plural.” God, as immanent, manifests Himself as all that is, the whole of Creation. Everything, every one, everywhere, every when, is God; is Elohim. But Rabbi Schneerson continues saying that God telling Moses “I am YHVH, “was [now] revealed in His four-letter name as infinite, transcending all divisions, a Oneness.” YHVH are the four letters of the unpronounceable name of God, transcending the divisions of the dualistic world of Creation; not plural but One. Here, God is nothing, no one, nowhere and no when. The name is unpronounceable because words exist only in the world of Elohim. YHVH transcends time and space, It is pure nothingness within which everything arises; formless Being-ness within which all form becomes manifest.

In the next verse of our Torah portion God follows His initial declaration saying: “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by my name YHVH.” [Ex. 6:3] The Midrash explains: “And so the Name Shaddai represents God as He appears in the finite world” [Bereishit Rabbah 46,2] God appears in/as/through the finite world, but His essence (his name) is known only beyond that world. Furthermore, from this moment forward, the totality of the Divine nature—immanent and transcendent at once—now so revealed, can be known and apprehended by all. God is now making God-self available to be fully known. And the Lubavitcher Rebbe concludes: “At that moment [of revelation, all] divisions were dissolved, [and most critically] the division between higher and lower powers.” [Torah Studies, p.88] The Rebbe is calling us to awaken to a realization wherein the separation between the higher transcending YHVH and the lower immanent Elohim dissolves, a knowing that YHVH and Elohim are not two.

Some of us connect to God as Elohim in the plurality of ways She appears: immersed in the sacredness of Creation, the holiness of Nature. Others seek to know or commune with YHVH, the transcending aspect of God through meditation or prayer. Ultimately, as the Rebbe said, at the end of whichever path we choose is an opening in consciousness wherein all divisions dissolve, and one is able to remember the One at the source of it all.