Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Layers of Passion

My passions are layered. 
As worn out passions fade, 
Fresh ones are exposed.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Up/Down ~ Right/Left ~ In/Out

In Jewish Mysticism, the designations of upper, inner and right usually refer to holier and more spiritual positions. Whereas, lower, outer and left usually designate more physical positioning. This concept is basic to Judaism's inner teachings. However, what might be lost on some people is the different meanings of each set of positions: up/down, right/left and inner/outer. Even though generally speaking all the sets represent a polarity of spiritual and temporal, in the specific sense, each set means something different.

It seems to me that up/down designates positions of dominance and submission. For example, when we say that heaven is above earth, we mean to say that heaven is the dominant partner in the relationship.

Right/left seem to designate the parties as being different, but, complimentary. Each brings his/her own talents to cooperate in accomplishing a task, which requires their partnership. An example of this would be parenting children.

Inner/outer to me seems to designate the parties as exact or near exact parallels to each other on different levels. For instance, every sensory organ has an outer and an inner component. The outer presence of the eyes and ears are continuous with their inner presence in the brain. 

Interestingly, while studying a mystical discourse by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi describing the states of heart one can aspire to during prayer, I encountered descriptions of the holier component of the heart. It was decribed with both the terms, "inner" and "right". In contrast, the heart's earthier component was described as both "outer" and "left". I was musing to myself, "Spatially speaking, if something's positioned on the right side, it's not inside. If it's placed on the left side, it's not outside. So how can both right/left and inner/outer describe the same exact entity? It seems spatially impossible. The position should be either one or the other."

Perhaps a possible answer is that their default positions are indeed right/left. They're side by side with each oter. This is because they are different from each other in the sense that one component of the heart is primarily focused on the earthly, while the other is primarily interested in the spiritual. Yet, they compliment each other, keeping man in balance between the two concerns. Thus, delivering to man a moderate, but, sweetly spiritual life.

However, with spiritual work the two components of the heart can be brought into alignment. The left side of the heart can eventually become sensitive enough to feel and identify with the vibes coming from the right side of the heart. When this alignment happens, the two components are now in an "inner/outer" relationship. The spiritual side of the heart is driving the earthly side, as his vehicle for outer expression.


Monday, October 24, 2011

A Pathway to Lurianic Kabbalah


"From my flesh I'll perceive Divinity (Job 19:26)"

Lurianic Kabbalah is largely about the overall cosmos - the very big picture of created reality. This sweeping overview is often referred to as the "macrocosm". In contrast, the human being was created as a "microcosm" of this "macrocosm". In other words, there's a sampling of every level, physical and spiritual, inside the human being. This is why the Creator announced, "Let us make man in our image and our likeness.." (Genesis 1:26).

Rabbinic commentators relate that the our in this verse refers to all the forces of creation. Each force of creation contributed something of itself to man ~ making man a sample, in miniature, of the entire creation. Therefore, as creation became physical as a result of eating the fruit in the Garden of Eden, man's body also became physical, changing to match the universe's new circumstances.

Since the macrocosm and microcosm mirror each other, the best possible place to begin studying the macrocosm is by studying the microcosm. If somehow the whole universe is within, then it's best to start from within. It's the most accessible starting point. We're more naturally in touch with ourselves than we are with what's occurring outside ourselves. 

Therefore, when studying "Tree of Life", the magnus opus of Lurianic Kabbalah, I recommend first relating to the text as a description of our body, soul and super-soul levels. Each level should be identified within ourselves. We should understand what our inner "partzufim" look like, what our inner realms look like, what Divine Names look like in our psyche, etc.  Once the "Tree of Life" is understood in this light, an inner model has been developed for taking it to the macrocosmic level and trying to understanding the cosmos. 

Although I wish I had a teacher to show me what every detail described in the work "Tree of Life" looks like within me, I do have a place to begin. Chassidic teachings often rework deeper Kabbalistic concepts, making them more user friendly by explaining what they look like inside of ourselves. In fact, there's a work of Kabbalah dedicated to just this approach. It's called "Tal Orot" by Rabbi Yaakov Meir Shpielman. The author takes Chassidic teachings and uses them to explain Lurianic Kabbalah.


Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Humble Willow


Today is the Jewish Holiday of Hoshana Rabba. Customerlily, we beat five willow branches on the ground. Afterwards, we recite a prayer beseeching the Creator to sweeten all harsh judgements. This seems like a bizzare mystical ritual that begs for deeper explanation.

During the past seven days, we took a date palm frond, a citron, three myrtle branches and two willow branches and united them together. Then we waved them in all six primary spatial directions. Each of these four kinds of plant growth represent a different kind of Jew: The Torah scholar, the one who thrives on doing good deeds, those who are a balanced combination of both Torah and good deeds, and those whose deeds and learning are poor.

The Torah scholar is represented by the date palm frond because dates taste yummy like Torah knowledge. The one who thrives on good deeds is represented by the myrtle because it's leave exude a fragrant aroma - like good deeds. Those who combine both focuses, Torah and good deeds, are represented by the citron because the citron exudes fragrance and also, offers taste. Those whose deeds and learning are poor are represented by the willow which has neither fragrance nor taste. 

However, it's these four plant growths are not only four kinds of Jews, they are four states within every single Jew. Every Jew has an inner aspect which is learned, an inner aspect that's focused on good deeds and an inner aspect which wishes to combine both learning and good deeds. Then we also all have an inner unreached potential - our "inner willow".

Since this "inner willow" is unreached and unformed, it's wild and often manifests as our harsher more judgmental side. On Hoshana Rabba, as the judgment period which began on Rosh Hashana draws to close, we beseech the Creator not to view our "inner willow" as a liability worthy of His disappointment, but, rather as an asset, as untapped potential, which can be grown, molded, shaped and sweetened into something beautiful ~ perhaps, a future "inner myrtle", maybe even an "inner date palm frond" or an "inner citron".

Happy Holiday !

An Afterthought:

I wrote the following in an e-mail to a friend concerning the above teaching:
Basically, the article deals with what the willow symbol means to us on the personal human level. It's derived from the backdrop of what it means cosmically in Kabbalistic terms. It are basically forces that are feminine (malchut) and need their masculine counterparts in order to function without harshness. Otherwise, their vision is shortsighted and they behave from a perspective of fragmentation. So we pray to the Creator to sweeten them, meaning to marry them to their masculine counterparts so they can function from a vantage point of kindness, the sefira of chesed.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Succot Thought - Emotional Packaging

We are now in the midst of the Holiday of Succot. Mystically speaking, the buoyantly vibrant celebration of Succot is seen as an extension of  Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It's all just one long Holiday, divided into segments. Somehow, during the happiness of Succot we are further processing the blessings for a sweet year we had received during the more solemn Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. 

I think of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as setting out the blueprint for our year. As with all blueprints, it's intellectual. As an architect lays out the plans of a building, so too the Creator has laid out the plans for our year. However, Succot is different is one very important way. It's primarily emotional. We’re praying for those blessings charted with the Creator's intellectual care to be also given personality and character. Specifically, we want those blessings granted with a happy and shining Divine Face. We're not only interested in what's given to us, but also in how it's given to us. That sweet emotional packaging is very important.

The same planned blessings will reach us very differently if the Creator wraps them in His emotions and presents them to us with a heart over brimming with joy. It's our hopes that our joyous celebration, will warm up His heart and signal our readiness to receive His gifts for a new year in a joyous relationship with Him. We hope that with our joyous attitudes during Succot He will be aroused to grant us our new year with a happy and shining Face. 

Imagine a King who has dedicated an annual allowance for each of his two sons.  One son, he’s feeling emotionally distant from. To this son he sends a messenger with the allowance. It will be appropriate, but, limited to what he decided from the distance should be objectively sufficient. However, to the son he feels emotionally close to, the story is entirely different. He meets this son personally. During the meeting, he inquires about his welfare. If his son needs something more, it’s readily arranged. In the joy of the discussion the allowance easily grows to really suit his every need and whim, even exceeding them to allow for luxuries. 

Similarly, by our Succot celebrations we are now going through a period of warming up the Divine Heart.  We don’t simply want His gifts. We want His gifts given to us happily. While music, dancing, food, are all part of this celebration, there’s nothing that arouses His warmth for us like our unity. To symbolize how deeply we identify being unified, we take a date palm frond, a citron, three myrtle branches and two willow branches and unite them together. Each of these four kinds of plant growth represent a different kind of Jew: The Torah scholar, the one who thrives on doing good deeds, those who are a balanced combination of both Torah and good deeds, and those whose deeds and learning are poor. We proclaim that all four kinds of Jews are one. By waving these four plant products in all six directions in space, we show that we’re one beating heart pulsating in all directions together. 

The Torah scholar is represented by the date palm frond because dates taste yummy like Torah knowledge. The one who thrives on good deeds is represented by the myrtle because it's leave exude a fragrant aroma - like good deeds. Those who combine both focuses, Torah and good deeds, are represented by the citron because the citron exudes fragrance and also, offers taste. Those whose deeds and learning are poor are represented by the willow which has neither fragrance nor taste. This bond of unity among all four kinds of Jews coming together, arouses the Creator's happiness for us like nothing else and brings Him to us along with His planned blessings.


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Light of Four Philosphers

I'm in my early 40's. Rather recently I've asked myself if the Creator had given me an opportunity to briefly revisit my youth what scenarios would I like to have a second chance to re-experience? Truthfully, my college years were mostly splendid and full of stimulating experiences. It was a time when I really discovered life. However, a couple of experiences really stand out among the rest. The reason is not necessarily because they were my favorites, though they were very high on that list. Certain favorite experiences are off this list because I still regularly experience them. They lack the nostalgia factor. Other youthful experiences aren't on this list because while I enjoyed them at the time, I regret having done them. They weren't right for me. 

Two experiences seem to dominate this list, a Shabbat with Congregation Shearith Israel and to sit once again in Rabbi Strickman's Medieval Jewish Philosophy classes. What seem to tie both experiences together is that they are the spiritual, intellectual and emotional fruits of the Medieval Sephardi world. I used to sit on the maroon cushioned bench in Shearith Israel, close my eyes and sway to the voices of the choir, imagining myself transported back in time to a synagogue in Medieval Spain. I recall Rabbi Angel's sermons and classes as offering me seasoned insight into the psycho-social currents of the contemporary world within the framework of a sensitive and nurturing Torah outlook. I often wake up in the morning, especially on Shabbat and festivals, to the recurring dream of finding myself in the main sanctuary of Shearith Israel.

In the course of my four years in Touro College, Rabbi Strickman led me through an intellectual journey exposing main highlights of four central works of Medieval Jewish Philosophy. They were the Maimonides' "Guide for Perplexed", Rabbi Judah HaLevi's "Kuzari", Rabbi Saadia Gaon's "Beliefs and Opinions" and Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pequda's "Duties of the Heart". Interestingly, each of these works were originally written in Arabic, the vernacular of the Sephardi world in Medieval times.

The other day I found myself in the midst of an inner debate over why I would want restudy these works. At first I thought that it was for their philosophical content. Then I realized that I'm not exactly jumping to study other works of philosophy, like Plato or Aristotle. So while I may have a definite philosophical side, it's not strong enough to draw me into voluntarily studying ponderous works of world philosophy. Then I thought to myself, "Maybe my real interested is in history and I'm simply making a mistake. What I think is a philosophical interest is really a historical interest. Maybe, I'm interested in the thought processes of these great Jewish Sages for their historical value. After all, I've been pretty diligently studying world history since childhood." 

"Yeah, but that was in bite size encyclopedia entries", I answered myself. "I haven't recently  gravitated to any serious works of history. I am satisfied with just knowing my general way around humanity's historical landscape. Then my interest in restudying these four sages must have different motivation."

"If it's neither a philosophical quest nor a historical quest then what is such a yearning called? What is it called when I admire someone so much for making a such special contribution that I want to feel the stream of his thoughts flowing in my mind and I want to feel his loves, fears and compassion pulsate in my heart? What do psychologists call this? What's the real nature of such a yearning? When I really think about it, I feel this way about studying Jewish Mysticism as well. It's just that since I study this topic regularly, I don't feel the thirst. It's like having a glass of water nearby. So real thirst never has a chance to develop."

"Maybe, if I am having difficulty defining these feelings psychologically, it's time to examine them in religious/spiritual terms. Maybe, this kind of definition is more readily available to me."

"Maybe, I'm drawn to certain areas of Torah because that is what I need to learn in this incarnation. This is the spiritual food I descended into the earthly realm to eat. My soul was hungry for just such a meal and still is. This explains my deep attraction to Torah subjects which are today loosely classified as Mach-shah-vah or "Thought". This kind of thinking draws both from Jewish Philosophy and Mysticism to build a picture of the real nature of the world we live in. I recently chuckled with someone about how some explore the universe by peering into a telescope, while I explore the wider universe by peering into Jewish Mystical works. Really, it's the same quest, but, from a different direction."

"So it stands to reason that every Torah sage who channeled teachings along the lines of this topic is dear to me. They're offering me my soul food. Each is a living repository of teachings perched within the context of Torah's vast landscape. I view each sage's teachings not merely as a book knowledge, but, rather as a living spirit, capable of nurturing my own growth in Torah and helping me nurture the growth of others as well. This transmission is a living consciousness. When computers transmit knowledge to each other, this knowledge is about as alive as a stone is. However, when souls transmit Torah, this knowledge might be on a level that's even more alive than people are. When that knowledge becomes part of us, we become more alive ourselves. This is why I want to once again partake in the soul food offered by these four sages."

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Ultimate Oneness

"Duties of the Heart" by Our Master Bachya Ibn Pequda is divided into sections called "gates". In "The Gate of Unity" he takes his audience on an intellectual journey into the meaning of what Jews proclaim twice daily, "The Creator is One." 

He explains that the Creator's Oneness is unlike any other oneness. Anything else that people consider one is really made up of parts. The technical term for this kind of oneness is a "composite unity", meaning a unity composed of parts. Humans are incapable of conceiving anything singular in any other way. For example, let's take one beam of light. It has parts: a beginning, middle and end. Even the beginning has it's own beginning, middle and end. It has a beginning of a beginning, a middle of beginning and an end of beginning. So it's composite to the core.

By contrast, the Creator's Oneness has no parts whatsoever. Being Infinite in the ultimate true sense of the word, He's beginningless, middleless and endless.  This kind of Oneness is called "non-composite". It's a pure and perfect Oneness. There cannot be a truer One. Though humans cannot conceive of such a Oneness because the mind is designed to process more fragmented reality, still we can contemplate why our minds cannot conceive the Creator's Oneness and bow in utter surrender before His transcendental mystery.

Our Master Bachya Ibn Pequda eloquently argues that there can only be one true Oneness or Infinity. For if there were two, reality would be divided up between them. Each identity of each would stop at the border where the other begins. Hence, they'd both manifest limitations rendering each finite, not truly One. If there can only be One Infinity, then why do the Kabbalist sometimes refer to the higher spiritual realms as being Infinite?

It seems likely to me that the higher spiritual realms are not absolutely infinite. Rather, they are relative infinities, meaning that they appear as infinite relative to realms below them. The way this might work is that the higher realms truly exhibit multiplicity on their own level. Yet, this multiplicity is too subtle to register on the lower levels. Beings on the lower levels don't have the capacity to perceive the elevated components comprising such multiplicities.

An example from our own realm of this phenomenon might be our perception of white light. If passed through a prism it presents itself as being a composite of seven colors. However to the naked unaided eye, it's a single color - white! So too, the multiplicity of the higher realms would be lost if examined from an earthly perspective. Therefore, they appear like non-composite unities. However, relative to themselves, to yet higher realms and certainly to the Creator Himself, they exhibit multiplicity and are finite. Only the Creator is truly non-composite, Infinite and One.


Wednesday, October 5, 2011


A Yom Kippur Thought:

In the midst of a deep spiritual crises, the "golden calf" episode, the Creator revealed to Moses the "Thirteen Attributes of Compassion" (Exodus 34:6,7). Since then, invoking these "Thirteen Attributes" at opportune times have brought about the Creator's unconditional forgiveness.

The "Date Palm of Deborah" is short book written by the renown Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovaro (1522 -1570). The main body of this work is a description of how each of the Creator's "Thirteen Attributes of Compassion" has a human counterpart which can actually be practiced by people to forgive those who have hurt them. All human acts of forgiveness express  one or more of these attributes.

For example, it's commonplace for people who have been hurt by others to feel insulted. The concept underlying the first attribute of compassion addresses the insult cast at the Creator when people knowingly misuse His resources He kindly created to benefit humanity. These people abuse the blessings to satisfy their short sighted selfishness, usually towards destructive ends. Their attitudes and actions taunt their Divine Benefactor. Yet, the Creator absorbs these insults and does not withhold His kindness from them. Humans can put this first attribute into practice by not withholding their kindness from those who have insulted them.

The idea that the "Thirteen Attributes of Compassion" can also be practiced on the human level carries amazing implications for our role in the world because by imitating the Creator's Attributes we become channels to bring those Attributes down into the earthly realm. They already exist higher up in the spiritual reams. By forgiving others, we continue their chain of decent and birth them down here. This is especially poignant during this time of the year as Yom Kippur approaches - a general time for forgiveness.

So if the Creator has given me and you someone to forgive, He's given us the opportunity to participate in this wonderful process of bringing His sweetness into the world this year. If our conscious minds would see it the way our souls do, we'd instantly recognize that we've been truly gifted!