Spiritual Praxis

I’ve been reflecting on some of the vocabulary I use in these writings and some of the experiences I’ve drawn on in attempting to understand them. I think it’s important that I establish some of the terminology that gets used here, and the larger context in which they are framed.

Many of the writings here have emerged through my own experimentation and have had the feeling of discovery. This feels like different viewings of something comprehensive yet hidden from view. This is part of the genesis for referring to these experiments as occult or esoteric, in that they are typically more hidden from the mind’s rationalizing capabilities. In order to aid me in looking at these experiences closely and accurately, I have embraced a broad platform of human thought and experience.

Following this kind of journey has made it clear to me that liberation and understanding, so crucial for humanity’s efforts in this reality, are global possibilities which everyone contributes to. Although I am not an accredited teacher, and do not have an official teacher within a spiritual tradition, I have learned something valuable from casting my nets wide and listening to as many perspectives as possible. This type of study serves as a check on my many one-sided viewpoints.

This is why my writings have emphasized different understandings of religion and spirituality. I tend to use these concepts frequently on this site, although they elude rigid interpretation. They are used in a looser and more intuitive way. Spirituality, in my view, begins with a human investigation into topics of universal significance. These can include self-identity, love, the problem of evil, and our reason for existing. It embraces a wide range of physical and mental tools, such as reason, intuition, and meditation. It also has an ethical component which seems to be one of the most important characteristics of any kind of spiritual writing – how this type of investigation, in broadening our understanding of life, contributes to more realistic and compassionate behavior.

Religion is an extension of spirituality and shares many commonalities with it. When discussing religion, we are not only looking at spiritual teachings, but the architecture that sustains these teachings. This can include monasteries and nunneries, church gatherings, and meditation groups. It also looks at the larger social consequences of those participating in these practices and how spiritual teachings are spread through cultures. So when we are discussing religion, this is intentionally broad. It looks at human values, practices aimed at understanding the universe, and human social institutions that preserve the teachings of individuals who teach this particular kind of knowledge.

Both of these expressions are tied together in a human impulse, where, through reflection, we wish to understand our place in the world. That impulse manifests as a desire to connect to something larger than ourselves. Both spiritual and religious practices tie this impulse into what is commonly referred to as practice. Simply put, this practice is not only the techniques we use in our spiritual inquiry, but how we express what we have learned there.

The culmination of this kind of spiritual and religious study is an understanding beyond our self-image, and why this understanding is truer and more reflective of reality as a result. Many traditions have emphasized this understanding, such as the Kabbalistic map of God and the complete human; Christian kenosis and rebirth in Christ’s love; or Buddhist emphases on human action. These maps all seem to converge around deeper human awareness, how to access that, and how to ultimately transform human behavior.

This kind of analysis is found in the book Symbols of the Kabbalah by Sanford Drob, also discussed in my previous post. His excellent analysis involves the Sefirot, the Kabbalistic aspects of God’s nature. The process of the Sefirot also describes the individual contribution to something higher than oneself. This interpretation revolves around the last triad on the Sefirot, Netzach or “Endurance,” Hod or “Splendor,” and Yesod, “Foundation.” Since Netzach and Hod are understood as the “legs” on the Sefirot that correspond to the body of God, they correspond to the material expression of divine potential that hold this process aloft.

From a psychological point of view we may regard Endurance, Splendor, and Foundation as the cultural fulfillment of earlier, more individualistic psychological principles. This follows from the very names of these Sefirot; for civilization and culture are the very aspects of the human psyche that are splendorous and enduring, and which serve as a foundation for human communal life. It is not sufficient that we as humans have individual desire, intellect, and emotion; we must also build something of enduring value. Such cultural pursuits – achievements in work, the arts, religion, the family, society, etc. – are the human equivalents to God’s creation of the material world; for through them, as Hegel observed, the human spirit expresses itself and becomes concrete and real. Psychological (and psychotherapeutic) work does not begin and end with the harmonizing of conflict in one’s own inner life; it must extend to the achievement of a wider expression and balance in one’s work in the world, an achievement of something more enduring than the individual self. (225)

This seems to be what follows from the highest reaches of spiritual inquiry – questions of origin and identity, and what we can create with the time that we have. Part of this inquiry is the nebulous concept of meaning. Meaning allows us to ask and follow questions through which we can create our life. We therefore have a great deal of freedom in what we help create.

Making these realities also involves kindness, love, and compassion, which all converge at the nexus of spiritual and religious life. In the process of asking these questions, we become one with that massive outpouring of reality, and realize our connection to it, from which we are never apart.

Practice and Parenting

My wife and I had our daughter a few years ago, provoking a massive change in our lives.    Combined with shifts in my current job and my wife’s illness, I have been gradually assuming more responsibility at home.  I was no longer able to rely on old supports, which gradually kickstarted a process that would put me in limbo for most of the year.  Part of this process involved a painful interlude of inner work.  

This interlude has immeasurably enriched my meditative practice.  Being a parent is in some ways a close parallel for many of the things we can bring about through meditation.  It encourages a greater awareness of our connection to our fellow creatures and the reality in which we live.  It is also an avenue back to a beneficial perspective that many of us have lost.  We can discover this perspective at work joyously within our children.   

When I first began spending long stretches of time working at home and caring for my daughter, I noticed an internal resistance begin to surface.   I had an immediate recognition of some of the things that had come up in meditation, and an awareness that what I was going through was part of my conditioning.  In this conditioning I discovered how many of my personal habits were used to keep personal pain at bay.  Long hours of studying, reading, writing, and playing music were all ways of losing myself and escaping.  As a child, my days were wider and gentler, and my time was not always linked to the endless rituals of adult life.  Being asked to remember this fact and spending hours being present with my own child seemed foreign to me.  I could not endure the kind of time that my child inhabited so easily.  My inner conversations and reactions hardened into interminable days of struggle.   

Given enough time, this inner resistance softened, and parenting became somewhat easier.  As this resistance came down, I noticed some changes within myself that correspond to what I have observed in my own child.

Children seem to have a different order of time.  The day feels different with my child, and she has certainly taught me an extended sense of that time.  Instead of running from project to project, I am learning to slow down and settle into a slower timeframe.  Attached to this sense of time is an incredible sense of play that can transform any activity into a game.  As I play with her, she comes up with rules that we both follow that create the structure of the game.  She instructs me on how this game operates, and if I find myself deviating from the rules, she guides us back.   Part of the fun with these games is finding variations on them.  She responds to them totally in the moment, being both hyper aware and able to absorb and process large amounts of information. 

This sense of time and play don’t seem to be coincidental.  It seems that children have a recognition that many adults lose as we leave our childhood through biological and cultural changes.  Spiritual practice allows us on many levels to discover what we had lost in this transition and a chance to combine adult and childhood perspectives harmoniously. 

Another reference to this kind of experience happens in the writing of philosopher Georges Bataille. 

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Even thinking generously of this philosopher, the best adjective I can come up with is “fringey.”  Bataille thought comprehensively on a number of subjects including taboos, sexuality, metaphysics, and literature.  In his book The Accursed Share, Bataille describes how culture mimics the flow of universal energy, and the various ways that culture replicates the squandering of this universal energy.  Bataille has numerous perspectives across his works worthy of consideration.  In the same book (and in my interpretation, linked to our experience as children) Bataille describes the misguided nature of objects and utility, and how he connects this view with his own theory of energy:

The beings that we are not given once and for all; they appear designed for an increase in their energy resources.  They generally make this increase, beyond mere subsistence, their goal and their reason for being.  But with this subordination to increase, the being in question loses its autonomy; it subordinates itself to what it will be in the future, owing to the increase of its resources.  In reality, the increase should be a situation in which it will resolve into a pure expenditure.  But this is precisely the difficult transition.  In fact, it goes against consciousness in the sense that the latter tries to grasp some object of acquisition, something, not the nothing of pure expenditure.  It is a question of arriving at the moment when consciousness will cease to be a consciousness of something; in other words, of becoming conscious of the decisive meaning of an instant in which increase (the acquisition of something) will resolve into expenditure, and this will be precisely self-consciousness, that is, a consciousness that henceforth has nothing as its object . . .  More open, the mind discerns, instead of an antiquated teleology, the truth that silence alone does not betray.  (190)

Bataille’s shift is placing our focus on the this momentary expenditure of energy, done for its own sake and not restricting it within any future end.  He makes a very profound point here about the typical human way of approaching problems, and the separation that takes place as a result.  This approach consists of using the mind to split experience apart into what we call objects, and then constructing additional approaches or realities using those objects.  With this ability humans engineer their environment in all sorts of concrete and abstract ways.  For instance, the label “house” is a certain configuration of matter.  The fact that we ascribe the mental designation of “house”  to this reality allows us new approaches to the reality of “house” and have a mental file of dealing with these kind of objects, from intended use to social etiquette.  However, we can also break this kind of thinking, and use this “house” beyond its intended use and build something else out of it. 

Seeing things from the level of a child is much different.  Children do not always limit things to their mental rank and file, and come up with amazing and unexpected solutions.  Like the games I mentioned earlier, these changes happen spontaneously.  This is also something that adults appreciate, but we tend to often equate survival with repeatability, and can often stagnate if we simply equate fulfilling our own needs with the purpose of our existence.  I think this is part of the point that Bataille is trying to make when he speaks in his works about intimacy with existence, although the consequences he draws from his views are taken much further.  He is discussing something that many humans no longer pay attention to in their quest to deal with the full realm of their mental objects and survive.

This brings me to my second main point about the spiritual aspects of parenting.   It has seemed to me, as I struggled with meeting my own and my family’s needs, that a larger perspective was in play.  It does seem that my daughter being born was part of this larger perspective, and that she is now involved in part of this bigger process.  In helping her growth and development, I am helping that perspective change into something else. If I pay attention only to what I think are my own needs, I may ultimately inflict some kind of damage on that process.    

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It is significant that the first Sefirah in Kabbalah is designated Keter (Crown) and associated with Will, which is what initially created the universe.  In Sanford Drob’s book Symbols of the Kabbalah, the author discusses a development in Kabbalistic thought called Lurianic Kabbalah.  The creation myth of Lurianic Kabbalah details how that in order to create the universe as we know it, God, after a sufficient “will” to create, had to “withdraw” itself and create a space for the universe to develop within its infinite presence.  This is called Tzimtzum.    In the book, parents also withdraw themselves somewhat from their children, in order to allow their children to become who they are.  

The Hasidic ethic, it would seem, implies an admonition that in relating to others, in particular to our children, we must first emulate the Infinite God and perform an act of Tzimtzum whereby our own thoughts and desires are contracted and concealed so that the other may emerge in his or her own individuality.  (150)

The challenge to this approach is knowing when to set aside some of our selves to allow our children to grow, as well as providing clear and appropriate boundaries.

Like the religious traditions, meditative and parenting parts of life enrich each other  when they are allowed to dialogue freely.   Being a parent has given me an entirely new perspective on my practice.  The love, attention, and presence that we provide for our children can also be given to the entire world, something that the great mystics and religious teachers have tapped into.  This is an avenue for us to enter as well, and an arena in which we can actually become what we have learned.

The Foundation of the World – The Zohar, Parashat Noah

Due to the Zohar’s explicit usage of sexual symbolism in this chapter, this article may not be appropriate for work.  All quotations are taken from Zohar: Pritzker Edition Volume One, translated by Daniel Matt, unless otherwise noted.  

The Zohar continues to draw up secret meanings of Torah with it’s third chapter and analysis of the story of Noah.  Titled Parashat Noah, the beginning of the chapter focuses on a discussion of Noah, his sexual purity (he was born circumcised!), and how this allowed him to enter the ark.   In the symbolic system of the Zohar, the themes of righteousness and sexual purity gravitate around the area of the phallus on the sephirot, which is also described as the body of God. 

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In the Zohar, our level of reality is called Malkhut and is symbolically associated with the female.   Since Malkhut “receives” its energy from within God and its higher divine realms, it is characterized as female.  That flow of energy is given to the female, characterizing its expression as male. The give and take between these two realms is described in terms of a charged, erotic relationship.  Where does the Kabbalist fit into this schema?

Taking a cue from the passage “righteousness and justice are the foundations of Your throne” (Psalms 89:15), the mystic becomes an integral part of the libidinal system.  Since our reality has been divorced from blessing through human action, the mystic is needed to correct this imbalance.   Through righteous action and creating interpretations of Torah, the Kabbalist unites the discord between the masculine and feminine God, reestablishing an optimal flow of energy and harmony.  They are the phallic link between the upper and lower, and allow this relationship to reach its fruition.  

Noah is associated with this level, and Parashat Noah elaborates on how this phallic symbolism relates to its discussion of the Ark.  A feature of the Zohar is its reading of Torah on multiple levels that create wonderful connections among all its verses.  The Ark is also read in this case as Malkhut (or Shekinah, the “divine presence”) and once Noah “entered” her, he enabled a new generation to flower after the Flood. Noah, like the Zoharic mystic, is considered a “husband” of Malkhut, wrapped around her in a loving embrace, forever joined to her.  

Noah entered the ark, bringing with him every species of the creatures of the world.  Truly Noah was a tree bearing fruit (Genesis 1:11), and all species of the world sprang from the ark, corresponding to the manner above.  

Come and see when this tree bearing fruit joins the fruit tree: all those supernal species!  Living great and small; countless species, each one unique, as is said: Living beings small and great (Psalms 104:25).  Similarly, Noah in the ark, all of them issuing from the ark, and the world was established, corresponding above.  So he is called Noah, husband of earth (Genesis 9:20), Noah, righteous man (ibid. 6:9) as they have already established.  (Zohar 1:62b, p. 362-363).  

Drawing the reader further into its dialogue on evil and moral responsibility, human sin was what brought on the waters of the Flood.  Another idea that is expressed numerous times in the Zohar is that through human action, God’s expression is biased towards Greatness (Compassion) or Judgment.  God gave humanity time to redeem itself after Adam’s initial sin, but this grace period eventually ran out and God’s judgment devastated the world.  In Parashat Noah, the Zohar elucidates these themes through its telling of the story of the Companions, the mystical brotherhood at the heart of the Zohar’s exegesis. As two of the Companions Rabbi Hiyya and Rabbi Yose wander through mountains, they discuss the history of the Flood and its divine implications. In this dialogue, it becomes clear that the mountains are a grim monument to human sin:

Rabbi Hiyya and Rabbi Yose were walking on the way.  They encountered the mountains of Kurdistan, where they saw traces of crevices in the earth dating from the time of the Flood.  

Rabbi Hiyya said to Rabbi Yose, ‘These crevices are vestiges of the Flood, preserved by the blessed Holy One ever since, throughout the generations, that the sins of the wicked not be obliterated from His sight.  For such is the way of the blessed Holy One: He wants the virtuous who do His will to be remembered above and below, their blessed memory unforgotten generation to generation.  Similarly He wants to the sins of the wicked, who fail to do His will, not to be forgotten, their punishment and evil memory remembered generation to generation, as is written: ‘Stained is in your iniquity before Me’ (Jeremiah 2:22).  

In the story of the Flood, God turned over judgment to “the Destroyer,” whose judgment was so immense that it cleansed the Earth.  The Destroyer is associated with the demonic, and when humans rely upon that evil taproot, it eventually corrupts and eliminates them. Evil in this sense is also linked to judgment, as its practitioners bring the judgments of hell upon themselves.  This interpretation allows for humans to take a place in the cosmos, choosing the blessings of righteousness or the punishments of sin for themselves.  

In one of its group dialogues on this subject, some of the Companions go into this further, describing how humanity’s sin ultimately caused the judgment of the Flood to manifest.

And I, I am about to bring the Flood, as we have established: to unleash the Destroyer upon them, since through him, they had defiled themselves.  

Rabbi Yose said, ‘Woe to the wicked who, having sinned, refuse to return to the blessed Holy One while still in the world!  For when a person returns, regretting his sins, the blessed holy One forgives him, but all those who cling to their sins, refusing to return to the blessed holy One, will eventually fall into Hell, never to be raised.  

Come and see: Since the entire generation of Noah hardened their hearts, desiring to flaunt their sins, the blessed Holy One executed judgment upon them in a similar manner . . . These wicked ones were obliterated from earth.  Obliterated?  How?  Waters gushed boiling from the abyss, rising and peeling off their skin, then their flesh, leaving nothing but bones, fulfilling the verse: They were obliterated from the earth (Genesis 7:23).  All those bones disjointed from one another, no longer together, so they were totally eradicated from the world.  (387-388)

A focal element of the Zohar, and part of what makes it such an engaging read, is its use of a central story to combine its themes and bring the reader through its rich interpretive processes.  The story element is particularly playful in the Noah chapter, with several characters coming and going.  The characters play with a variety of themes that include righteousness, judgment, and redemption that are hallmarks of the Kabbalistic story. They return to these motifs throughout Parashat Noah, building on them with increasing subtlety and grace. 

The Zohar also uses linguistic analysis to examine Torah on deeper levels.  This technique looks at the structure of letters and words in the Torah, and treats them as significant to understanding the divine story.  Since this approach describes a Torah that is infinitely rich in meaning, its analysis adds another level in which they can discover divine will and its secrets.

This element is frequently couched in the story element and is used to great effect.  While traveling in the mountains, Rabbi Hiyya and Rabbi Yose meet a Jewish traveler.  The traveler proceeds through an exploration of the theme of judgment found in Noah.  Furthering on the Companions inquiry into the Flood, he provides a linguistic analysis of the use of the word “Elohim” in a certain passage:

When they reached the site of a certain field they sat down.  That man asked, ‘Why is it written: And YHVH rained brimstone and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:24), whereas in the Flood it is everywhere written: Elohim, Elohim?  Because we have learned: ‘Everywhere it is written: And YHVH – this means ‘He and His Court.’ Elohim, unspecified, means Judgment alone.’  Now, at Sodom judgment was executed, yet not destroying the world, so He intermingled with Judgment, but in the Flood It destroyed the whole world and all those present in the world.  

Now you might say, ‘But look, Noah and his companions were saved!’  Come and see: Noah was hidden from sight, invisible! So everything present in the world It destroyed.  

Therefore: And YHVH – in the open, not destroying all.  Elohim – one needs concealment and must seek protection, for It destroys all.  So Elohim was alone.  (376)

Another significant dialogue is found with a child (interestingly named Abba, or Father), who proceeds to elaborate on further mysteries of Torah.  He uses a passage from Genesis that focuses on Noah after the Flood, and uses it to explore new meanings of the text. Emerging from the Ark after the Flood, Noah builds an altar and makes an offering to God.  To discover the verse’s secret meaning, Abba does a mystical reading of the verse, discussing how an offering done in this fashion quelled the divine wrath and allowed peace to return once more to Earth.  

Noah built an altar to YHVH, and took of every pure animal and of every pure bird, and offered ascent-offerings on the altar Genesis 8:20 . . . 

Of this is written:  They shall place incense in Your nostril (Deuteronomy 33:10), for fire returns to its site, and through that aroma the nose contracts inward, inward – till all is embraced, returning to its site, all drawn in toward thought, becoming a single desire.  Then (Reiah nihoah) a pleasing aroma, for wrath (nah), subsides, yielding (neyaha), tranquility – for smoke is absorbed, condensed in fire, grasping smoke, both entering within, within, until wrath subsides.  When all intermingles and wrath subsides, then tranquility, a single nexus named ‘tranquility’ – tranquility of spirit, joy of all as one, radiance of sparkling lamps, radiance of faces.  So it is written: YHVH smelled [the pleasing aroma], like one inhaling, drawing everything in to its site.  (412)

Unfortunately, the Flood was not enough to totally redeem those who came after.  The story of Noah effects another fall, this time from “the sacred to the secular.”  As we discussed earlier, this ensured that reality became more closely tied to the demonic serpent, and sin obscured the divine light.  And since Israel was not able to grant its blessings to the world and fulfill its cosmic vocation, Earth remained in its fallen state.  Furthering this turning away from God, the Companions discuss how Nimrod, “garbed in the garments of Adam,” used the power of the garments to draw worship away from God and towards other idols.  

Not even Noah could effect a redemption, as he was not prepared for what he was to find when he looked within the divine mystery.  Rabbi Shim’on, in typical head-exploding fashion, interprets Noah becoming drunk as becoming corrupted by the divine wisdom.  Since Noah was “saturated with the other wine” (or evil), his sons furthered this corruption and humanity’s fall.  Noah could not handle the divine energies he had unleashed.  The Zohar does justice to the possible corruption of spiritual practice, for when humans look within and are unprepared for the scope of their own freedom.  Moses was unique among the Patriarchs for his ability to explore the divine wisdom without becoming corrupt.  

Rabbi Shim’on said, ‘There is a mystery here in this verse.  When he sought to probe the sin probed by Adam – not to cling but to know, to mend the world – he was incapable.  He squeezed grapes to probe that vineyard, but as soon as he arrived, ‘he became drunk and exposed himself (ibid., 21), and was powerless to rise.  So, exposed himself, exposing the breach of the world that had been closed [by Adam].  Inside (oholoh), his tent (ibid.), spelled with a ‘he’: inside oholah, ‘her tent,’ the tent of that vineyard . . . Because the blessed Holy One brought secrets of wisdom down to the world, humanity was corrupted by it and sought to attack Him.  He gave supernal wisdom to Adam, and through that revealed wisdom he discovered rungs and clung to the evil impulse until the springs of wisdom vanished.  Afterward he returned to the presence of his Lord, and some was revealed, though not as before.  Later through that book of his, he discovered wisdoms, but then people appeared and provoked Him.  

He gave wisdom to Noah, who thereby served the blessed Holy One.  Afterward what is written?  He drank of the wine and became drunk, and exposed himself (Genesis 9:21), as has been explained. 

He gave wisdom to Abraham, who thereby served the blessed Holy One.  Afterward Ishmael issued from him, who provoked the blessed Holy One.  Similarly Isaac, from whom issued Esau.  Jacob married two sisters.  

He gave wisdom to Moses.  What is written of him?  Throughout My house he is faithful (Numbers 12:7).  There was none as faithful as Moses: he performed on all those rungs, yet his heart did not stray into desiring any of them; rather, he stood firm in supernal faith fittingly . . . 

Come and see: With fragments of wisdom discovered by these people from wisdom of the ancients, they antagonized the blessed Holy One, built a tower, and perpetrated all they did – until they were scattered over the face of the earth, lacking the wisdom to accomplish anything.  But in the time to come the blessed Holy One will arouse wisdom in the world, with which He will be served, as is written: ‘I will put My spirit within you and cause you’ – not like the ancients who ruined the world with it, but rather: ‘cause you to follow My Laws and carefully observe My rules.     433-447

The chapter concludes with the building of Babel, when God realized that if humanity united with a common language and singular will, they could no longer be judged.  Therefore God broke up humanity.  This furthered the corruption of the fall, and humanity would not receive the revelations of Torah, and the Ten Commandments until Israel’s exile from Egypt and their experience at Mount Sinai.  

I’m five volumes in and the Zohar has slowly come into its own, somehow masterfully combining insightful analyses, poetic language, the erotic, the mystical, an interesting story, and a relentless creativity into a book like nothing I’ve ever read.  The Zohar is a peerless work of spiritual literature, and I’m looking forward to doing further essays, as close re-readings bring out the true wonder that this text provides at every step.  

Next up is Parashat Lekh Lekha, “Go You Forth,” the Companions adventures starting with Genesis 12:1-17:27.  

You can purchase the Pritzker Edition Zohar from Stanford University Press here. You can also purchase it from Amazon here.

Salvation in Flux

And though it is like this, it is only that flowers, while loved, fall; and weeds while hated, flourish.
-Eihei Dogen

I sigh when I see learned men
Wasting their minds all day
Babbling away at a fork in the road
Deceiving whoever they can
Creating more ballast for Hell
Instead of improving their karma
Impermanence suddenly comes
And all their learning is dust
– Pickup

Impermanence means that our perception and experience don’t stay in one place, but always remain in flux. The fluidity of phenomena, self, and agency are painful, so we try to cling to the walls of the dilapidated house we have built for ourselves in our own minds. Failing to see this fact for ourselves, we enter and inhabit elaborate fantasies, looking for salvation in something beyond change. Impermanence guts our opinions and gradually corrodes everything that we believe to be true.

Our minds serve to erect a kind of illusion that does not take the fact of impermanence into account. It frequently tries to uphold a static idea of self. Archaic attitudes we are raised with do little to help this situation. They place us further inside the morass by attempting to give us stable definitions of words like “self” and “other.” Thankfully, meditative practice is an antidote to these limited ways of understanding. The more we sense instability, the more we are able to see on a deeper level than we typically perceive.

Nothing seems to fully inhere on that level of change as concepts, acts, and agents are plucked from the void and thrown into the stream. Seeing into universal change has implications for our freedom. It allows us to go into what we experience with an inquisitive attitude and open eyes. It is beginning to swim from a our own small tributary into something abyssal and endlessly fluctuating.

Flux allows things to bloom, as there is no possibility in a static world. Infinite openings exist within that watery confluence of events, allowing us chances to act, to change ourselves, and to help influence all creation. The more we penetrate through to the core of things, the more we find something surprisingly malleable and contingent.  Contingency and change in the moment allows new choices to be discovered and mined. Aided in our perception of that change, we can respond in ways that free ourselves and benefit other beings.

It is through an understanding of impermanence, and the doors to action that it creates, where we come to the edge of choice. Here is where we discover what it means to be truly moral. That moral choice is something that requires the entire arc of our lives to appreciate and fulfill.

Similar ways of understanding exist in the Kabbalistic masterwork The Zohar. As described in The Zohar, Torah is infinite. The central characters known as the Companions participate in what scholar Melila Hellner-Eshed describes as “the nocturnal delight.” Waking at midnight, this group makes creative interpretations of Torah. The Companions connect passages from Torah amongst themselves in incredible, gravity-defying ways. These connections reveal each verse’s secret meanings. In doing so, the divine is evoked and its joy in the good that the Companions bring flows into the world. Hellner-Eshed’s writes:

The engagement with Torah after midnight and the endeavor to participate, day in and day out, in the nocturnal delight in the Garden of Eden lie at the core of the mystic’s service and worship; and it is this spiritual task that determines his way of life and his soul’s orientation . . .

The following passage, one of the most detailed accounts of the nocturnal delight found in the Zohar, highlights the interconnection between the events transpiring in the upper world and those transpiring below. The souls of human beings, together with their words of Torah-the fruit of their thoughts and emotions-are transformed into a gift bestowed by the Assembly of Israel to the blessed Holy One.They function as an aphrodisiac arousing the union between God and His Shekhinah. The delight is characterized by the arousal of the entire reality of the Lower Garden of Eden-with with light, song, joy, and play preceding the dawn union.

Rabbi Abba said, “Now is certainly the time for the blessed Holy One’s desire; and many times we have been aroused by this, that at midnight the blessed Holy One enters among the righteous in the Garden of Eden and delights in them. Happy is he who engages in Torah at this time!” Rabbi El’azar said,” How does the blessed Holy One delight in the righteous in the Garden of Eden? At midnight the blessed Holy One is aroused with love from the left [side] toward the Assembly of Israel…. and the Assembly of Israel has no gift with which to draw near to the king, nor any important, excellent [offering] like the spirits of the righteous that the blessed Holy One sees crowned with many good deeds and many merits attained that day. And the blessed Holy One is more pleased with them than with all the sweet savor of the sacrifices and offerings. Then a light shines and all the trees of the Garden of Eden utter song and the righteous are crowned there with the delights of the world that is coming. When a person arises at that hour to engage Torah, he partakes with the righteous in the garden.” (Zohar 2:173b)

There is a connection between the “world that is coming,” from the preceding passage, the fluctuating present of the Kabbalists, and the Four Great Vows of the Buddhist tradition. The vows are:

The many beings are numberless, I vow to save them
Greed, hatred and ignorance rise endlessly, I vow to abandon them
Dharma gates are countless, I vow to wake to them
The Buddha way is uncontrived, I vow to embody it fully.

Every night the Kabbalist restores harmony and creates blessings.  The world is always in need of the Companions’ righteousness. Similarly, every moment the Buddhist practitioner discovers truth and corresponding action. This is the opportunity couched within decay that flows into the new. The need to fulfill these vows, and to help heal ourselves and others, is never ending .

Radiance – An Excerpt From The Zohar

 

Zohar

Instead of an original essay this week, I wanted to highlight an excerpt from my ongoing study of The Zohar. The Zohar is an extensive work in the Kabbalistic tradition. Three volumes in and it continues to amaze me with the beauty of its writing and the depth of its philosophy. On the surface it is a reading of the Pentateuch, with the author(s) extracting a mystical system from its pages. Going deeper, they twist and mutate its language into stunning new vistas. The amplification of Torah is part of the religious function of the Kabbalist: to contribute new blossoms to the Tree of Life. As The Zohar says in Va-Yeshev: So all depends on Torah, and the world is sustained only through Torah – sustaining pillar of worlds above and below (129).

This exemplary passage touches on familiar themes found throughout the book: the creation of the universe and our world, the darkness found within Eden, and its redemption.

Rabbi Hiyya opened, ‘A song of ascents. Of Solomon. Unless YHVH builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless YHVH watches over the city, the watchman guards in vain (Psalms 127:1). Come and see: When it arose in the will of the blessed Holy One to create the world, He issued from the spark of impenetrable darkness a single vaporous cluster, flashing from the dark, lingering in ascension. The darkness descended, gleaming – flaring in a hundred paths, ways, narrow, broad, constructing the house of the world.
     The house stands in the center of all, countless doors and chambers round and round – supernal sacred sites, where birds of heaven nest, each according to its species. Within emerges an immense, mighty tree, its branches and fruit nourishing all. That tree climbs to the clouds of heaven, is hidden amid three mountains, emerges beneath these mountains, ascending, descending.
     This house is saturated by it; within, it secretes numerous supernal hidden treasures, unknown. Thereby this house is constructed and decorated. That tree is revealed by day, concealed by night; this house rules by night, is concealed by day.
     As soon as darkness enters, enveloping, it rules: all doors close on every side. Then countless spirits soar through the air, desirous to know, to enter. Entering among those birds – who collect testimony – they roam and see what they see, until that enveloping darkness arouses, radiating a flame, pounding all mighty hammers, opening doors, splitting boulders. The flame ascends and descends, striking the world, arousing voices above and below. Then one herald ascends, bound to the air, and proclaims. That air issues from the pillar of cloud of the inner altar, issuing, it spreads in the four directions of the world. A thousand thousands stand on this side, a myriad of myriads on that side – the right – and the herald stands erect, proclaiming potently. How many there are then who intone songs and render worship! Two doors open, one on the south and one on the north.
     The house ascends and is placed between two sides, while hymns are chanted and praises rise. Then the one who enters, enters silently, and the house glows with six lights lustering in every direction. Rivers of spices flow forth, water all beasts of the field, as is said: watering all beasts of the field . . . Above them swell the birds of heaven, singing among the branches (Psalms 104:11-12). They chant till morning rises, when stars and constellations, the heavens and their hosts all sing praises, as is said: When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of Elohim shouted for joy (Job 38:7). (Matt Translation, Volume 3, 40-41)

As part of this discussion, we will look further into the first volume, which contains a reading of the story of Noah. In the next few weeks, I also hope to publish the first in a series of articles that look at useful works in transformational literature. Stay tuned.

Heart/Mind Practice

We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine.
– Giovanni Pico della Mirandola

Your embodied practice is what separates an actual spirituality from intellectual exercise and speculation. It is the willingness to take risks and embark on turbulent seas towards something we’ve always been but haven’t known.

It is part of an ability to question everything and delve into what we have been taught to be true. Meditation aids us in this. It is a way to observe the body in a vivid and experiential way. Meditation brings up the frameworks, assumptions, and secret pains lying in wait within. Looking at the same tired cycles of behavior makes them seem less pressing; and things we took to be important are eventually seen through.

Meditation is a highly physical way of understanding yourself. Reading books on it and speaking with others are no substitute for it, although these are all important when joined to the practice itself. It would be the difference between reading books on a subject such as the Kabbalah, committing its many abstractions to memory, and climbing the tree of life towards union, seeing its concepts for yourself. Consistently returning to the cushion will convert it into lived experience.

We become better equipped to physically express the insight meditation offers the more we come back to it. Although a distinction between “inner” and “outer” is misleading, we can say that this insight has both an interior and exterior expression. The internal aspect is looking with clarity at ourselves. This is how we understand ourselves in a comprehensive and nuanced way. Our subjectivity is changed by our ability to take on the beneficial or harmful patterns we find. The external is the articulation of that interior choice. Although impulse and thought coalesce in many different ways for us, they may not bleed out into expression until we so choose.

In The Zohar, this choice is split in humans between good and evil. We are capable of great purity and defilement, depending on which position we decide. The harmful patterns we are capable of are expounded on as “the evil impulse” which defines every human since birth.

Rabbi Yehudah opened, ‘For He will command (mal’akhav), His angels, to guard you in all your ways’ (Psalms 91:11). This verse has been established: The moment a human being comes into the world, the evil impulse appears along with him, inciting him constantly, as is said: ‘At the opening sin crouches’ (Genesis 4:7) – evil impulse . . . who is called king, ruling over humanity in the world. ‘Old and foolish,’ for he is surely old, as already established, since as soon as a person is born, emerging into the atmosphere, he accompanies that person. So he is ‘an old and foolish king.’
– The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, Volume 3 Pages 1, 85-86

Seeing through the evil impulse, and how much of it we have in common with others, helps us become more adept at choosing for ourselves. We can learn from other people’s mistakes, fully commit to our own, and make more lucid decisions. Wiser decisions and more compassionate living require time and skill. This gets easier with repetition, and adds another dimension to the meaning of practice. Like any craft, we must throw ourselves in.

Meditation is open to anyone with the time to give it. This is truly an intriguing premise that displays spirituality’s egalitarian nature. In his landmark study Mysticism: Experience, Response, Empowerment, Jess Hollenback claims that what unites mystical traditions is a practice called recollection.

Recollection refers to that procedure wherein the mystic learns to focus one-pointedly his or her mind, will, imagination, and emotions on some object or goal. This focused total mobilization of the mystic’s affective and intellectual powers, if successfully carried out, eventually shuts down the incessant mental chattering that is normally present as a kind of background noise behind all our activities in the waking state. Once mystics stop this process of silently talking to themselves, they transform their mode of consciousness and begin to have their first tangible encounters with that spiritual world that otherwise remains imperceptible to the five senses.

The great saints of the past have been dedicated men and women who progressed humanity’s self-knowledge. They did so through a more complete understanding of themselves. They had a baseline of recollection which they used to develop that understanding. Our searching of their religious systems helps our own practice grow. What we find is that their religious and mystical insights can be applied by anyone who marries them to their own spiritual practice. This is what separates any artist: giving their methods time and room to grow.

A change in awareness greets those who can make meditative practice part of their lives. As that awareness changes, it reveals our own ability to change in turn. It also opens new doors back to the profound. Ultimately, our practice will be transmitted through everything we do in our lives. Our bodies will become that practice, and we can better compose each new movement, along with the communal truth which defines us all.

 

Let There Be An Expanse: The Cosmology of the Zohar’s Parashat Be-Reshit

This is a continuation of this website’s series on the Zohar. For the first part of this series, click here.  This commentary used the Pritzker Edition of the Zohar, Volume One by Daniel Matt.

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Parashat Be-reshit is a passionate reading of the Book of Genesis. Through its passages it follows the deluge of emanation back into the infinite. Seeking this universal corona is described in the Zohar as “a journey on concealed paths.”

The beginning of the cosmos woke within Ein Sof, the endless. To emphasize the non-conceptual nature of Ein Sof, words are invoked and just as quickly discarded. Like a mountain disappearing into the clouds, our landmarks collapse and withdraw into singularity.  The Zohar takes the reader on an odyssey back to the birth of existence as it gives way to its own expansion:

At the head of potency of the King, He engraved engravings in luster on high. A spark of impenetrable darkness flashed within the concealed of the concealed, from the head of Infinity – a cluster of vapor forming in formlessness, thrust in a ring, not white, not black, not red, not green, no color at all. As a cord surveyed, it yielded radiant colors. Deep within the spark gushed a flow, splaying colors below, concealed with the concealed of the mystery of Ein Sof. It split and did not split its aura, was not known at all, until under the impact of splitting, a single, concealed, supernal point shone. Beyond that point, nothing is known, so it is called Reshit, Beginning, first command of all . . . Then this beginning expanded, building itself a palace of glorious praise. There it sowed seed to give birth, availing worlds. The secret is: ‘Her stock of seed is holiness’ (Isaiah 6:13). Zohar! [Radiance!] Sowing seed for its glory, like the seed of fine purple silk, wrapping itself within, weaving itself a palace, constituting its praise, availing all. (107-110)

The Zohar does not shy away from drawing provocative conclusions from its interpretations of Torah. As it continues, it gives the reader a unique rendering of the sentence Be-reshit bara Elohim. The sentence is turned into an opaque treatise on emergence. It is often translated as, “In the beginning, God created.” In the Zohar, God’s origin stands out as a lacuna in that sentence, referring back to Ein Sof, “the unknown concealed one.” This gives an inspired twist to the sentence’s meaning:

With this beginning, the unknown concealed one created the palace. This palace is called Elohim, ‘God.’ The secret is, Ba-reshit bara Elohim, ‘With beginning, ______ created God’ (Genesis 1:1).

This universal history, sketched out in Be-Reshit, is contained within the iconic map of the Sephirot.

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The Sephirot are key to understanding Kabbalah in many ways. One level of interpretation describes the characteristics of God as He manifested. These are the qualities of will, wisdom, understanding, and so on. The first three Sephirot are the beginning of this dilation. Out of Ein Sof comes Keter, the will, transitioning into Hokmah. Hokmah is a point of light, the beginning act that moves on to fertilize Binah, creating the palace of the world. The imagery utilized in these descriptions is of the two Sephirot of Hokmah and Binah uniting in a current of energy. Binah then becomes the womb of all forms:

The primordial point is inner radiance – there is no way to gauge its translucency, tenacity, or purity until an expanse expanded from it. The expansion of of that point became a palace, in which the point was clothed – a radiance unknowable, so intense its lucency. This palace, a garment for that concealed point, is a radiance beyond measure, yet not as gossamer or translucent as the primordial point, hidden and treasured. That palace expanded an expanse: primordial light. That expansion of primordial light is a garment for the palace, which is a gossamer, translucent radiance, deeper within. From here on, this expands into this, this is clothed in this, so that this is a garment for this, and this for this. This the kernel; this the shell. Although a garment, it becomes the kernel of another layer . . . All for the arrayal of the world, and so the world is. (152).

After Binah followed Hesed, “Love,” which then fragmented into darkness. The Zohar does not retreat from is its inspection and elucidation of evil in the world, which is represented by the left column of the Sephirot, and referred to as the Other Side. Evil is found on “the Countenance of Days” in a complex and subtle sense. Evil twisted apart from the unity at the beginning of creation as a destructive force.

Good and evil are bound together as the right and left hand of God. The radical nature of this is that evil is not separate from the divine. Instead, the Zohar reveals how darkness is another name of God:

‘Darkness’ – upon it rests the name Elohim . . . Here is mystery in detail, separating upper waters from lower through mystery of the left. Here conflict was created through the left side. For until here was mystery of the right, and here is mystery of the left, so conflict raged between this and the right. Right is consummate of all, so all is written by the right, for upon it depends all consummation. When the left aroused, conflict aroused, and through that conflict blazed the fire of wrath. Out of that conflict aroused by the left, emerged Hell. Hell aroused on the left and clung. The wisdom of Moses: he contemplated this, gazing into the act of Creation. In the act of Creation a conflict aroused between left and right, and in that conflict aroused by the left, Hell emerged, clinging there. The central pillar, who is the third day, entered between them, mediating the conflict, reconciling the two sides. Hell descended, left merged in right, and peace prevailed over all. (127-131).

God absorbed good and evil within itself, creating Tif’eret, “beauty,” “compassion,” or “heaven.” In the same way that good and evil are enjoined, the initial separation allowed for reconciliation. Without separation, there could be no mending. The Other Side remained, its forces responsible for punishing sin, then called Gevurah or “judgment.” Tif’eret combined the other Sephirot’s energy, moving down into Yesod, the Vitality of the Worlds, which feeds our level of existence. The world we inhabit is called Malkhut, or “kingdom,” and is depicted using the feminine symbol of Shekinah. Shekinah is the bride, with the Kabbalist as the bridgegroom.  Human sin has dislocated Shekinah, diminishing the flow of energy to Malkuth. The Kabbalist blends with Shekinah to reconnect the male and female God.

The world trembles in the thrall of judgment. Demons now lie over the altar in a broken temple, their numbers growing into widespread contagion.

One monster below, on the left side, swims through all those rivers. He approaches the side, all his scales iron-hard, stretches to suck, and defiles the site. All lights darken before him. His mouth and tongue flame with fire, his tongue sharp as a steely sword, till he penetrates the sanctuary within the sea. Then the sanctuary is desecrated, lights extinguished, supernal lights ascend from the sea. The waters of the sea split on the left side, and the sea conceals, its waters flowing no more. So the mystery of the word is as written: ‘Now the serpent was slier than any creature of the field that YHVH Elohim had made (Genesis 3:1) – mystery of the evil serpent descending from above, skimming the surface of bitter waters, seducing below till they fall into his nets. This serpent is death of the world, penetrating a person’s blind gut. He is on the left, while another, of life, is on the right, both accompanying each human, as they have established. ‘Than any creature of the field.’ For no other creature of the field is as cunning in perpetrating evil, for his is the dross of gold. Woe to one drawn to him, for he inflicts death upon him and upon all those following him! This they have established. Adam was drawn down toward him, descending to know everything below. As he descended, his will and ways were drawn toward them, until they reached that serpent, discovering worldly desire, straying at that site. Then he rose, drawn toward Adam and his wife, clung to them, inflicted death upon them and all subsequent generations. Until Israel arrived at Mount Sinai, his slime never ceased infecting the world, as has been explained. (288-289)

This reconciliation is also reflected in the Adam and Eve creation story. Since humanity mirrors God, separation is found in us as well. Love and unity fall into evil and sin, only to be redeemed in the light of heaven, found in the heart by uniting what has been cast down.

The Zohar depicts Adam and Eve in the bliss of the garden, culminating in eating the fruit of knowledge. In this reading, Adam and Eve simultaneously absorbed the knowledge of good and evil, becoming like God in the process. Among the roots of the Tree of Life, Adam grasped his own mortality and a world that “embraces all” its accompanying shadow. At the same time Adam became aware of good, then evil presented itself to him:

The blessed Holy One ate from this tree and then created the world . . . Eat from it and you will be creating worlds! So, ‘God knows that on the day you eat from it [your eyes will be opened and you will become like God . . . ]’ (ibid., 5). Because He knows this, He commanded you concerning it . . . Certainly all touched upon this tree, by which they are embraced. Whoever takes it by itself, takes it together with hordes below embraced by it, takes idolatry, murder, and exposing nudity . . . So in them all he was commanded concerning this tree. When he ate from it, he violated them all, for it embraces all . . . ‘The eyes of both of them were opened’ (Genesis 3:7). Rabbi Hiyya said, ‘Opened to perceive the evil of the world, unknown to them till now. Once they knew and were open to knowing evil, then ‘they knew that they were naked (ibid.), for they had lost the supernal radiance enveloping them, which disappeared, leaving them ‘naked.’ (225-229)

In pursuing sin, Adam allowed evil to fracture the world, bringing death and judgment to bear.  The Zohar reads this as Adam expelling God, instantly remapping the Tree of Life and removing Shekinah from the Sephirot. The separation that Adam enacts in himself is transferred upwards through the Sephriot as well.

Come and see: When Adam sinned by eating from the tree, he transmogrified that tree into a universal source of death; he caused a defect, separating the Woman from Her Husband. The fault of this defect stood out in the moon, until Israel stood at Mount Sinai, when that defect disappeared from the moon, enabling her to constantly shine. Once Israel sinned with the calf, She relapsed into defectiveness; the evil serpent prevailed and seized Her, dragging Her to him. (294)

The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil created a new level of understanding for Adam and Eve. In Eden, Adam and Eve are not really free, as they are unable to choose for themselves between good and evil. Since they chose materiality, they removed themselves from the oceanic unity of the garden. This distances the spiritual further from everyday life and helps to articulate evil in the world.

This evil may take the form of an extreme self-centeredness. This selfishness is all too often realized at the expense of others. Ultimately these actions are a bitter salve for our feelings of separation. This separation has its roots in human development, for as we become older we tend to acquire habits, desires, experiences, and propensities to act. These become codified into a self-image which we feel is separate from others. The pursuit of our imagined self’s desires exacerbates this separation, entrenching us in a cycles of dissatisfaction. However, a way out of these cycles remains.  The same action that creates our separateness can show us a way out as our awareness increases.

Both perceptions lay inside reality – self-centeredness and separation, and a cosmic, life-giving expansion. Both these paths exist inside of the human soul as well. Through evil, we understand the full range of our ability to shape cause and effect.

Interestingly, this conception has parallels to the phrase “the kingdom of God is within you.” As we journey along the Sephirotic path in ourselves, we encounter occluded knowledge, rising up like disparate and unknown lands. “Heaven” is the beauty of our fractured, contradictory existence, and of realizing these contradictions within us. Consciously striving for the good cause Heaven and Kingdom to join together.  In order to discover this, we have to take the plunge into the evil that shields love, sifting through our ever-present potential for sin.

It seems that the world continually remakes and goes beyond itself. The world is free, and humans have the privilege of remaking the Tree of Life.  Enlightened individuals recognize this, and see the light of creation in every existent thing. In the Zohar’s conception, these individuals hold up the pavilion of Shekinah. They are caretakers that work to heal what humanity has torn asunder. Moving outside of the self-centeredness that many humans take for granted, they aid the world in all its forms. They are “the mending of the moon,” restoring Shekinah through beneficial action. As they meld with her, they harmonize the full span of the Sephirot.

The enlightened will shine like the radiance of the sky – these are pillars and sockets of that pavilion. The enlightened – supernal pillars and sockets, contemplating in wisdom everything needed by that pavilion and its supports. This mystery accords with what is said: ‘Happy is one who considers, the poor’ (Psalms 41:2). ‘Will shine’ – for unless they shine and radiate, they cannot contemplate that pavilion, looking out for all it needs. ‘Like the radiance, of the sky’ – standing above ‘the enlightened,’ of whom is written: ‘An image above the heads of the living being, a sky like awesome ice’ (Ezekiel 1:22). ‘Radiance’ – illumining Torah. ‘Radiance’ – illumining the ‘heads of that living being. Those ‘heads’ are the ‘enlightened,’ who constantly radiate and shine, contemplating that ‘sky,’ the radiance flashing from there, radiance of Torah, sparkling constantly, never ceasing. (117-118).

For they constitute the mending of the moon.’ (168)

The Zohar’s radiant words show us to wholeness, and in exploring it, we find our participation in God. Let there be an expanse, above and below, to fuse all into unity. May there be good and evil, so that humanity can know them both, and be free. And let those who see this become like Tif’eret, guiding others back to the paths of judgment and compassion.

The Concealed Of All Concealed – Haqdamat Sefer ha-Zohar

Yet perhaps above all else, it was the worldview of the Zohar – through its establishing a reciprocal relationship between the world of humanity and the world of divinity – that left an indelible impression on the hearts of its readers. In this ever-changing, constantly evolving relationship, the divine flow seeks to be revealed and to saturate the world of humanity; and humanity, for its part, seeks to attain, to take part in, and to cleave to the divine world. Indeed, the Zohar created a view of reality that bestows upon humanity the ability and the responsibility to rectify, constitute, and beautify over and over again the figure of the Godhead-and in so doing, itself and the world. (Loc. 81-87).  

 – Melila Hellner-Eshed

In addition to essays with original content, this site also seeks engagement with a variety of world philosophical theory and practice. In this engagement, theory and practice are as fused and complementary as two sides of the same coin. These concepts ask to be experienced anew and perhaps even be called into being. They are reminders of the delicate, fluid web of cause and effect, and the paramount importance of our beliefs and actions.

I can think of no more fitting place to start this exploration than the Zohar, the 13th century Jewish mystical text. Combining stunning poetry with exacting biblical analysis, the Zohar provides a basis in which to effect the healing of creation. Reconnecting male and female elements of the divine, the Kabbalist helps to make “the world that is to come.” Although God is often shrouded in mystery, the Kabbalist nevertheless tries to understand and participate in His continuing revelations. Humanity’s own efforts when waking to the mystery of God help determine the course of His creation.

In honor of this great work of ages, I would like to do a series on some sections of its writings. Connecting it to diverse scholarship on the Kabbalah, I hope to help shed some light on this challenging text. The Zohar’s view of the religious life is difficult to match in its density of interpretation and depth of feeling, so each section will try to elaborate on some of its diverse themes. How we then attempt to practice these concepts is up to each of us. Reading the Zohar is a charged experience, and we may be drawn into its rapturous heights as we ascend further into its world.

Excerpts are from the first volume of Daniel Matt’s Pritzker Edition, unless otherwise noted.

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In its first section, the Zohar frequently discusses the mystery of existence and of God. This exploration of mystery generates some of the Zohar’s most amazing passages, describing the summiting of the inner life to probe the beginning of all. Some of these passages also refer to something called Ein Sof. As mentioned and explored in a previous essay, this is the infinite, unnameable source out of which all existence flows. It means “there is no end.” The One God that is wrapped up in all created things emerged from Ein Sof, and is intriguingly labeled “the Concealed of all Concealed.” God can be known in some ways, but there remain forever untapped and unknown dimensions of the absolute. This God gradually began to divulge itself in and through the shaping of the universe:

When Concealed of all Concealed verged on being revealed, it produced at first a single point, which ascended to become thought. Within, it drew all drawings, graved all engravings, carving within the concealed holy lamp a graving of one hidden design, holy of holies, a deep structure emerging from thought, called ‘Who,’ origin of structure. Existent and non-existent, deep and hidden, called by no name but ‘Who.’ . . . Seeking to be revealed, to be named, it garbed itself in a splendid, radiant garment and created ‘these.’ ‘These’ attained the name: these letters joined with those, culminating in the name ‘Elohim.’ Until it created ‘these,’ it did not attain the name ‘Elohim.’ . . . Through this mystery, the universe exists. (8)

Interestingly, God is named “Who,” as much a question as a designation. God emerged out of a dark, primal Unknowable, and will always remain so. In this understanding, God represents the origin of existence, yet His ultimate meaning and full potential remain uncharted. The Zohar truly brings the reader into an encounter with that arcane causa sui of existence. Even though it follows the emergence of everything from the initial point of divine incandescence, it still acknowledges that this beginning is veiled in secrecy. This is expressed in an incredible passage worth quoting in full:

The holy hidden one engraved an engraving in the innards of a recess, punctuated by a thrust point. He engraved that engraving, hiding it away, like one who locks up everything under a single key, which locks everything within a single palace. Although everything is hidden away within that palace, the essence of everything lies in that key, which closes and opens. Within that palace stand gates built cryptically, fifty of them. Carved into four sides, they were forty-nine. One gate has no side. No one knows whether it is above or below; it is shut. In those gates is one lock and one precise place for inserting the key, marked only by the impress of the key, known only to the key. Concerning this mystery it is written: Be-reshit bara Elohim, ‘In the beginning God created.’ Be-reshit is the key enclosing all, closing and opening. Six gates are contained in that key that closes and opens. When it closes those gates, enclosing them within itself, then indeed: Be-reshit – a revealed word combined with a concealed word. Bara, ‘Created,’ is always concealed, closing, not opening.

As long as the world was locked within the word ‘bara,’ it was not, did not exist. Enveloping everything was ‘tohu,’ [Chaos], and as long as tohu reigned, the world was not, did not exist. When did the key open gates? When was it fit to be fruitful, to generate offspring? (17-19)

So beginning is both revealed in the universe we find ourselves in yet is also concealed from human knowledge. The “single key” is the rune of existence, in which all speculation becomes obscure. This is the “closing” of speculation. One finds the last gate shut, unable to be opened to comprehension. Concepts no longer avail the seeker at this place. Here stretches out the gate to all, at the same time nothing, an impenetrable darkness. However, this creation or tree of life also expounds itself in certain ways which constitute our shared existence. This is “the tree bearing fruit with its seed in it.” The “revealing” is the same creation, seemingly endless in its manifestations.

The Zohar understands this revealing of creation as an emanation from that blazing point of divine light. In divulging some of Himself, progressive attributes of God make themselves known. These parameters, known as sefirot, help determine how God comes to be known to His creation. The sefirot are admirably described in the book A River Flows From Eden:

The Zohar assumes that its reader is familiar with descriptions of the structure of the divine world as they had crystallized in the circles of the first kabbalists in Provence and Gerona, beginning at the end of the twelfth century. These teachings assume the existence of an infinite, abstract divinity termed Ein Sof. From it emanate ten sefirot, constituting the world of active divinity. They are able to be comprehended in different ways. The sefirot are qualities or nodes of operation of the divine outside its incomprehensible and indescribable mysteriousness. They are characterized as masculine or feminine, and the relationships between them are dynamic and (hetero)sexual. (Loc. 215-221)

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The sefirot form a complex understanding of reality. They do not solely chart the known aspects of God. They also form a representation of meditative practice, in which the practitioner climbs the “rungs” of the sefirot to the apex of nothingness. The sefirot also reveal how the world progressed out of Ein Sof, and the hidden dimensions that this reality contains.

The Zohar introduces one of its major themes in its first part – the idea of God separated from itself. Although this work discusses more of its creation story in a later commentary, it touches on this in the first chapter. A passage discussing this theme reads:

As soon as He departed, the flow flowing from above ceased. ‘He,’ as it were, ‘smote’ them, destroying and obliterating them, and the Holy Throne fell, as is written: ‘And I was in the midst of exile’ (Ezekiel 1:1) – that rung, called ‘I’ was ‘in the midst of exile.’ Why? ‘By the River Kevar’ ibid.), River of Already, on account of the river gushing and flowing, whose waters and springs ceased, so that it did not flow as before, as is written: ‘A river dries up and is parched’ (Job 14:11). ‘Dries up’ – in the First Temple; ‘is parched’ – in the second . . . All the lights illumining Israel darkened. (39)

God is disconnected from Himself and the nourishing springs that flow down from the celestial worlds and out of Ein Sof. This metaphor is discussed several times throughout the Zohar’s first section. Mentioned later on is the distinction the Kabbalists draw between the masculine God and the feminine God, with the feminine half referred to as Shekhinah. Shekinah, equated with Earth, is separated from the healing radiance of the divine, ravaged by evil forces and the wages of sin. Her state mirrors that of Israel, God’s chosen people, with its Temple destroyed, and exiled among the demonic tribes of other human nations. It is the Kabbalist’s responsibility, through their actions, to restore this lost bond and unleash the healing potency of divinity. We will return to this description again, and in greater detail, as we look at some of the Zohar’s later sections.

Humanity thus occupies a hugely important role in healing the wounds brought on by existence and separation. These wounds are understand cosmically as part of the divine reality, in which humans are an indelible part. Humans can come to these feelings of esteem and protectiveness by engaging in certain kinds of practice. These include contemplating holy works which expose hints of the universal narrative; participating in creative and edifying interpretations of Torah; and resolving their inner conflicts of good and evil.

One of the most useful perspectives on evil in world literature is found in the Zohar, in both its description and emphasis on human action. It interweaves an incredibly rich mythology that describes how humans ultimately perpetuate evil. Demons continually try to inhere in human expression and occupy “a dual earth, dualized by darkness and light.” (63)

Some of the Zohar’s most inspired lines comes out of these intense experiences of darkness:

In darkness they turn into the image of the two-headed serpent, moving like a serpent, then swooping into the abyss, bathing in the vast ocean. Reaching the chains of Uzza and Azazel [fallen angels] they agitate and arouse them. These then leap into the dark mountains, thinking the blessed Holy One is about to call them to judgement. These two officials swim the vast ocean and fly through the night to Na’amah, mother of demons, after whom the primordial deities strayed. They intend to approach her, but she leaps 60,000 parasangs, transmogrifying herself into countless figures confronting human beings, so that they stray after her. These two officials fly and roam throughout the world, then return to their abode, arousing those descendants of Cain to generate offspring by the spirit of evil impulses. (63-64)

The demonic is sometimes referred to in the Zohar as “the Other Side” and exists as a necessary corollary to the divine. Evil existed as an outgrowth in the beginning of creation and became a shell encasing the divine light. In order to access this light, one must penetrate through the shells around it.  Bringing evil into awareness allows humanity access to its creative role without fatally being drawn into the Other Side. This is to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. According to an article by Paul Levy:

From the Kabbalistic point of view, evil brings into the world the possibility of choosing between sin and virtue, which is to say that evil is the very origin of the possibility of the highest good. Freedom of choice is a necessary postulate for responsibility, morality, and the creation of values. Evil becomes the condition for free choice, and hence, the condition for the full realization of good. As if the revelation of everything is through its opposite, an idea is only complete when it reveals its opposite to be inextricably linked to its very significance, e.g., darkness is only known through light, just as light is only known through darkness. According to the Kabbalah, the world and the soul of humanity are partly immersed in the “Other Side,” which is to say that the evil impulse can’t be banished, but needs to be harnessed for the good. To quote Jung, ‘You can’t reject evil because evil is the bringer of light.’

Seeing the evil in ourselves is part of our recognition of the unity of God and the necessity of our restorative work.   The Zohar places a great deal of emphasis on righteousness in this regard. It describes its adherents as “sturdy pillars.” It describes “the world that is to come,” the potential experiencing of ourselves and our creative place in reality with new eyes. This is an arduous and lifelong task. It is also a rousing call to action:

O high, hidden, concealed ones, open-eyed, roaming the entire world, gaze and see! O low, sleeping ones, close-eyed, awake! Who among you turns darkness into light, bitter into sweet, before arriving here? Who among you awaits each day the light that shines when the king visits the doe and is glorified – declared King of all kings of the world? Whoever does not await this each day in that world has no portion here. (21-22)

Since this knowledge of our facility for good is found within an interior pilgrimage, the Zohar refers to it is “hidden.” We must remind ourselves of this fact as the world proliferates its own darkest impulses in its confusion. Our imagined separation is part of the separation of God, and access to this knowledge becomes lost as humanity falls prey to the Other Side:

Since [your goodness] is hidden within you, it plays no part in this world that I am about to create, but rather in the world to come. Furthermore, because your goodness is hidden within you, the gates of My Temple will sink, as is written: ‘Her gates, have sunk, into the earth (Lamentations 2:9). (15)

This understanding is finally remembering the overwhelming generosity of the Holy Ancient One.

How great is the precious, supernal goodness the blessed Holy One intends to lavish upon humanity – for the supremely righteous, dreading sin, engaging in Torah – when they enter that world! The verse does not read ‘Your goodness,’ but rather ‘Your immense goodness.’ Who is that? ‘The memory of Your immense goodness they express’ (Psalms 145:7) – joy of life flowing from the world that is coming to Vitality of the Worlds, who is ‘the memory of Your immense goodness’ – ‘immense goodness for the house of Israel . . . ‘ – Isaiah (63:7).

Your goodness’ – the light created on the first day. ‘That you have hidden away for those in awe of You,’ for He concealed it for the righteous in that world. (44-45)

The last theme we will discuss ties into and develops the others to such an extent that it will make a fitting conclusion to our discussion on this first section. In the process of investigating what lies hidden within the Torah’s wings, the Zohar requires its practitioners to expound new and interesting ways of interpreting these canonical texts. Creativity is expressed in the Torah as a communion that all its adherents must enter. This is not numbing repetition for its own sake, but ecstatic discovery. Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead described something similar in his opus Process and Reality:

It follows from the first category of explanation that ‘becoming’ is a creative advance into novelty. It is for this reason that the meaning of the phrase ‘the actual world’ is relative to the becoming of a definite actual entity which is both novel and actual, relatively to that meaning, and to no other meaning of that phrase. Thus, conversely, each actual entity corresponds to a meaning of ‘the actual world’ peculiar to itself.

The novelty of each moment is unique to that situation, and cannot necessarily be predetermined arbitrarily. The novel is defined relative to the situation at hand. Becoming is the entire universe changing into the new, perennially changing the meaning of “the world.”  Interpreting the Torah in new ways is to participate with the becoming of divine creation. The broadening of the Torah’s meaning is brought out in the Zohar’s exegesis of “let the waters teem with swarms of living creatures” (Genesis 1:20). This creativity makes new methods of swimming in the waters of the world.

The Torah then comes alive, a matrix of associations branching into unique places. Interpreting the holy text becomes a religious imperative, as the Kabbalist makes new heavens and participates as the world. One’s connection to the Torah is thus extremely important. In creating new interpretations and new “heavens” for humans to dwell in, we add to the aesthetic beauty of the universe. We also devise enduring opportunities for salvation. These new heavens become part of “the supernal crown” and the glory of God. “The waters swarm” with the results of this abundance. Humanity’s religious goals become re-centered in expanding the image of God.

How vital it is for a human being to engage in Torah day and night! For the blessed Holy One listens to the voice of those who occupy themselves with Torah, and every word innovated in Torah by one engaged in Torah fashions one heaven . . . All the words of the Ancient of Days are words of wisdom, conveying supernal, concealed mysteries . . . So each and every word of wisdom is transformed into a heaven, existing enduringly in the presence of the Ancient of Days. He calls them ‘new heavens,’ newly created heavens, hidden mysteries of supernal wisdom. . . (25-26)

The Zohar is a paean to humanity’s deep creativity and the effects of that creative urge on all the worlds. God is permanently linked to humans through the consequences of our combined actions. These actions join us to the divine reality, as we add to creation, finding our own beauty, wonder, and awe.

The sixth commandment: to be fruitful and multiply. For whoever engages in this causes that river to flow constantly, it’s waters never ceasing, and the sea is filled from every direction. New souls are innovated, emerging from that tree, while above, numerous powers increase along with them, as is written: ‘Let the waters swarm with a swarm of living souls [and let birds fly above the earth]’ (Genesis 1:20.) This is the holy sealed covenant, a river streaming forth, its waters swelling, swarming with swarms of souls for that living being. (87-88)