Reflections on Jewish Spirituality and Mystical Thought
Tuesday, October 15, 2013
A Castle of Seven Stories (Revisited)
A couple of years ago I made the following parable available on my blog. Since then mystical teachings elucidated by the Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber of Lubavitch informed me with fresh ideas, which had deepened my understanding of the parable’s underlying lesson. As a result, I feel obliged to revise and republish the lesson. As part of framing the lesson in its original context, I also restated the parable itself.
I heard the following parable from a dear teacher of mine, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Jacobson, about twelve years ago. He quoted it in the name of the holy Baal Shem Tov:
There was once a King who decided to set a date when all the subjects of His kingdom can meet Him freely, without appointments. He sent heralds around the kingdom announcing the date. The populace was very excited and prepared themselves for the momentous day. As the day approached their request lists grew longer and longer and longer and ...
Finally the long awaited day arrived. They donned their best clothing and before dawn eagerly surrounded the castle. The moment dawn broke, the royal herald blew his trumpet and the drawbridge gradually descended. Hearts pumped with excitement. The moment the bridge touched ground, the crowd poured in.
The castle had seven floors. Being a gracious host, the King wanted to pleasure of his guests. To this effort, He set up each floor with its own unique entertainment. The first floor was set up as a banquet hall. The King hired the finest chefs in the kingdom to create the most delicious mouth-watering delicacies. Many of the people never even set their eyes to such culinary creations in their whole lives. Some were so entranced that they just kept eating without ever realizing that they were full.
The second floor was set up as a tavern, featuring the finest wines the kingdom had to offer. Many of these wines were brought up from the royal wine cellars. Each wine came with a unique history about its vintage, its age and the barrels it fermented in. Some of the wines were literally centuries old. If you were into wine this was your spot.
The third floor was set up as a concert hall, where the finest musicians of the kingdom gathered to entertain the guests. They spent months rehearsing together just for this momentous occasion. They played in a wide variety of musical styles. Never once that whole day was the same melody played in the exact same way. It was too intriguing for most to resist.
The fourth floor was the royal library. Books, manuscripts and scrolls containing all the wisdoms available to the kingdom were set out for display. It was literally an intellectual’s paradise. Many curious minds finally got to open books that answered their deepest questions; questions that haunted them for years and years.
The fifth floor was a royal art museum. All the finest royal artwork was tastefully displayed, as a feast for artistically sensitive eyes. The people were finally able to gasp at real life portraits of the kingdom’s celebrated heroes, founders and historical figures. The history of the kingdom was all there, encapsulated in art. Among the paintings were also landscapes of places whose features had changed centuries ago. Here time was frozen, as they were memorialized in their original state. Also, there were special exhibits featuring contemporary paintings, emphasizing new styles of creative expression.
The sixth floor was a display of the royal jewels. The spotlights were aimed just right to elicit from each gem a cheerful gleam and glisten. On this floor, an array of royal crowns were on display: the coronation crowns, the ceremonial crowns, the crowns worn at balls, the crowns for visiting places of worship, crowns for receiving diplomats, etc. And of course there was much personal jewelry as well, like royal wedding rings, bracelets, etc.
On the seventh floor was the throne room. The King sat eagerly awaiting His guests.
Twelve hours from opening, when the royal herald made the rounds to all the floors announcing “the castle is closing”, the visitors were shocked. It felt like their day had just begun and now they were being chased out all too fast! Except for one person, nobody ever got to see the King. They were all so busy enjoying the royal entertainment that their sense of time had evaporated.
Who was this one person who got to see the King? He was an uncultured peasant who was so uncultured that none of the entertainment gripped him. He had no basis for appreciating what he was being exposed to and what the crowds were raving about. When he tasted the food it tasted so weird to him that he was actually happy that his wife packed lunch. He tried out a few wines, each one more or less tasted like the next. The fine unique process of creating each wine seemed to him like an impractical waste for something that will end up tasting pretty much the same anyways. He was too tone deaf to appreciate the music. Being illiterate, he could not read the books. The art gallery was a pretty view; but appeared to him much like the rest of the artfully decorated castle. In his uncultured mind, it blurred and meshed with all the other art work throughout the castle. The royal jewels were somebody else’s valuables, not his. So before he knew it he climbed up enough steps and stood right in front of the King.
He told the King that he needed a new cow, a new roof, better quality feed for his animals. He also needed the landlord to reduce the rent. He asked for everything that his peasant sensitivities were able to fathom and imagine. The King enjoyed the visit, approved the requests and the peasant left happy.
The parable describes why a human being on earth can have a special relationship with the Creator that cannot be enjoyed by the inhabitants of the celestial realms.
The King in the parable is the Creator. The various floors of the castle are the levels of paradise. All the entertainment on each of these floors represents the Divine pleasures offered in each heavenly realm.
Even though the pleasures are very spiritual, they're all “about the King”. They're not the King Himself. Paradoxically, only a being too unrefined to appreciate the spiritual music of paradise and be distracted by its allure has the privilege to meet with the King Himself. This “being” is an earthbound human who lives like a "uncultured peasant” by inhabiting a realm deprived of spiritual delights. Now you know why we are the lucky ones.
The Creator’s Essence is equally present everywhere, whether on earth or in the various spiritual realms. This reality is unchangeable. What do change are His revelations, known in the parlance of Jewish mystical thought as “lights”. Generally speaking, a place of spiritual revelation is referred to as “light filled”, while a place where spiritual revelation is withheld is called “darkness”.
There are many levels of revelation or light. From the above parable it seems like revelations come in two general categories. There are revelations which are “about the Creator” and revelations which are “of the Creator” Himself. The real difference between the two types of revelation is how much depth of self goes into the interaction. Revelations “about the Creator” do not convey the real depth of His Self. They are mere superficial interactions, which are largely besides the point when compared to the real goals of creation. They’re like giving a child a candy to study well. The candy is just designed as an incentive, not as the actual goal. In contrast, revelations “of the Creator” are mediums to convey His Essence. They’re directly on topic with the goals of creation itself.
The delightful revelations offered on the various castle floors were “about the Creator”. Only the throne room, on the seventh floor, was a revelation “of the Creator” Himself. The food, music, wine, books, art works and jewels were not revelations of the King. Therefore, no true intimacy with the King rubbed off on those who indulged in them.
Similar to the six floors of pleasures, the spiritual realms are filled with revelations which are “about the Creator”. This is why these realms contain paradises, oases of pleasurable lights. In contrast, the earthly realm is designed to contain revelations “of the Creator” Himself. At first glance, this would appear to be counterintuitive. Shouldn’t the higher realms contain the more important revelations? There’s a concept in the “Book of Formation” which states, "The end is wedged in the beginning and the beginning in the end”. Similarly, on every Sabbath eve we recite, “The last deed is found in the earliest thought.”
This means that there’s a very unique connection between the highest and the lowest, which the stages in between don’t share. In the mind of an organized project manager, the final outcome is actually the earliest thought. Everything in between is just a “flow through” process to bring the earliest thought into a final fruition. So in many ways the two extremes of beginning and end are actually closer to each other than to any stage in the middle. These two extremes are personified in the parable in the relationship between the King and the peasant, i.e. the Highest Sovereign and His most loyally submissive subject. The middle, is symbolized by the pleasures of the other six floors.
This is why the earthly contains the unique quality to allow for Torah and good deeds. We are the subjects of the Highest Sovereign. Here, is the seventh floor where we meet the King.
In the King there’s lies yet a deeper Essence, the Beloved. Today, we mainly relate to the Creator as either King or Parent. We merely glean glimmers of the Beloved through the lattice of these other roles. Though fleeting, these glimmers are actually “of the Beloved”, not just “about the Beloved”.
Obviously, when the Messiah arrives more “of the Creator” will be revealed in the earthly realm. This will occur in degrees commensurate with the stages of human spiritual development. As time progresses, the human perceptive capacities to receive such revelations will improve. Our interaction with the real Self the Creator will deepen and grow to more fully incorporate relating to Him as "Beloved". Then we’ll really be the lucky ones.