Does the first chapter of Genesis secretly allude to the major events in the history of mankind? How do the Six Days of Creation parallel the past six thousand years of human civilization? Find out in this class where we review the key developments of history through the lens of Torah, Talmud, and Kabbalah, and take a peek into what’s to come in the long-awaited seventh millennium. Also: does AI have anything to do with the forthcoming Messianic Age?
In this week’s parashah, Beshalach, the Israelites finally leave Egypt. We read how Moses made sure to take with him ‘atzamot Yosef, the “bones of Joseph” (Exodus 13:19). It is interesting that a bone is called an ‘etzem (עצם), which literally means an “essence”. As an adjective, ‘atzum (עצום) means “strong”, as well as “shut” or “closed up”. This is fitting since bones are the strongest components of the body, and “closed up” within muscles and other tissues. (For those who like numbers, the gematria of עצום is 206, which is the total number of bones in the human body!) There is something especially significant about bones. God made Eve from Adam’s bone, and Adam later declared that Eve is “bone of my bone” (‘etzem mi’atzamai), implying that her essence is like his essence, and now he would finally be happy and no longer feel alone. What is so special about bones that they hold the very essence of a person?
One of the amazing wonders of biology is that each and every cell of our bodies contains our entire genome (except, of course, the reproductive cells). So, the DNA inside the nucleus of eye cells contains the genes that also program toenails, and the toes have the DNA of the retinal proteins in our eyes! It remains one of the great mysteries of biology how cells are able to control exactly which genes are turned “on” or “off” in every cell, and how they make sure that eyes don’t have nails, and nails don’t grow eyes. In our adult bodies, most cells have already been differentiated into something specific (like eyes or toes), but there is one place where cells remain undifferentiated, and could become anything. These are called stem cells, and they exist mainly within our bones. Here in the bone marrow, we do indeed find our ‘etzem, the core essence of who we are, still undifferentiated and full of potential to become anything.
This explains why God made Eve from Adam’s bone specifically, as if He took some of Adam’s undifferentiated stem cells to create Eve! This is precisely how a modern-day scientist experimenting with genetic engineering or organ printing would do it. Better yet, when scientists and surgeons need to extract bone marrow for stem cell transplants today, the rib bone is actually a great place to get them, since they are near the surface and easily accessible, with little meat around them. (I know that some people will quote a different opinion from our Sages, as in Berakhot 61a, that Eve was “split” from a two-faced Adam, or that she was made from his “tail”, but the rib opinion makes a great deal of sense from a scientific perspective.) In any case, when we remember that our bones contain our undifferentiated cells and our untampered DNA, we appreciate the beauty of divine Hebrew in calling a bone an “essence”.
Scientifically speaking, the human body has four main types of tissues: bones are a type of connective tissue, and then there is muscle tissue, nervous tissue, and epithelial tissue. The Torah, too, speaks of four types of tissues: bones, plus bassar (meat), gidim (nerves), and ‘or (skin), neatly paralleling the four biological categories. We know that all fours in the Torah—such as the four mystical universes, the four Pardes aspects of Torah study, and the four letters of God’s Ineffable Name—match up and correspond to each other. We can link these up yet again with the four tissue types, to see once more the divine anatomy with which we were created:
Skin represents the surface level of Torah study, pshat (פשט), corresponding to the lowest realm, the physical and superficial Asiyah (as well as the lowest level of soul, the nefesh). Interestingly, the word in Hebrew to undress, ie. to remove one’s surface garments and reveal the skin, is lehitpashet (להתפשט)!
Beneath the skin is muscle, the bulkiest and heaviest part of the body, representing the sub-surface level of Torah study, remez, and the angelic realm of Yetzirah, as well as the next level of soul, ruach. The ruach is typically associated with the heart, also a muscle. With this we can understand why bassar (בשר), “flesh” or “meat”, shares a root with revealing news, levasser (לבשר)—for what is levasser but to reveal something currently hidden and as yet unknown? Levasser is to give more information beyond the obvious surface pshat that is already known! Moreover, we can now better understand why the Torah specifically uses the term yetzirah to describe the creation of Adam’s body (Genesis 2:7), and the command later for him to specifically become one bassar with his wife (2:24).
Going onwards, the muscles are innervated and controlled by nerves, paralleling drash, the metaphorical and allegorical level of Torah study, and the higher realm of Beriah, along with the neshamah level of soul. The neshamah is seated in the brain, the largest bundle of nerves in our body.
Finally, the inner-most part of the body is the bone, representing sod, the deepest part of Torah and its very essence. This is the level of soul called chayah, fitting because our Sages taught that Eve (made from Adam’s bone) was originally called Chayah, and only after the consumption of the Fruit did she become Chavah (see Kli Yakar on Genesis 3:20). The bone-sod level corresponds to the highest realm of God’s pure emanation, Atzilut. (The pure white colour of bone symbolically adds to this, along with the alliteration between Atzilut and ‘atzamot!) Atzilut is the place of pure, unadulterated light. Light is אור, with a value of 206, again like the total number of bones in the human body. We see a beautiful phonetic relationship between the surface level of skin, ‘or, spelled עור, and the deepest-most level of bone, corresponding to secret light, or, אור. (A word for an even more profound secret is raz, רז, with a value of 207, going one step further.) Without bones, the body would fall apart into a shapeless mass, just as would Torah without sod. (The Chida, Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai [1724-1806] pointed out that if you take the sod out of Pardes [פרדס], you are left with pered [פרד], a mule!)
And what of the hidden-most “fifth” part—the “crown” atop the Yud of God’s Name and the yechidah soul, paralleling the most mysterious and mystical Adam Kadmon? Perhaps it’s the DNA itself, the very code that gives rise to all four tissue types of our bodies.
A final thought: Damage to the skin often heals back to the way it was before. Muscle and nerve damage is much harder to reverse, and sometimes irreparable. Bones, however, tend to heal back even stronger than they were. There is a wonderful lesson here for each of us, both individually and collectively as a nation: If something hurts us deeply and damages our very essence, we should bounce right back and recover, growing even stronger than we were before, so that our inner essence shines brighter than ever.
Shavua Tov and Happy Tu b’Shevat!
For more on ‘The Divine Anatomy of the Human Body’, see here.
In this week’s parasha, Va’era, we read about Moses’ first confrontation with Pharaoh and the famous battle of their serpentine staffs. Interestingly, in last week’s parasha when Moses’ staff first turned into a serpent (Exodus 4:3), the word used was nachash, while this time it says tanin (7:9-10)! The former term certainly means a “snake”, but the latter is more general and can be any serpent, reptile, or even crocodile. Mystical texts see this as an allusion to the greatest of the taninim, created by God on the Fifth Day of Creation, the great sea dragon called Leviathan. The Zohar (II, 27b) comments here that the Leviathan was red like a rose, with iron-like scales, wing-like fins, a powerfully-thrashing tail, and fire coming out of its mouth. It has long migrations in the deep seas lasting seventy years.
Commenting on the words hataninim hagedolim, “the great sea monsters”, in Genesis 1:21, Rashi says that God originally created a pair of Leviathans, but they were so terrible that He slew the female so that the couple wouldn’t reproduce. God then “salted” its flesh and preserved it for the righteous in the World to Come, who are said to enjoy it at the “Feast of Leviathan” in the End of Days. Rashi is quoting the Talmud here (Bava Batra 74b-75a), which adds that God will make a sukkah for the tzadikim from the skin of the Leviathan. The leftover skin will be draped over “the walls of Jerusalem” and will shine and glow to wow the entire world. Perhaps that means the Kotel will have a miraculous new look in the near future, which is quite fitting since it will no longer be a “wailing” wall.
We read here in the Talmud that God castrated the male Leviathan, too, and provides a Scriptural source for it all in Isaiah 27:1, that “He will slay the Serpent that is in the sea…” The Sages ask: why did God slay the female and not the male? One answer is that the female could have still laid eggs without the male. Indeed, we know scientifically that there is a phenomenon called parthenogenesis where female fish are able to reproduce even without fertilization by a male. The Talmud then gives another answer based on Psalms 104:26, which says “There is Leviathan, whom You have formed to sport with.” God created the Leviathan just to “sport with”, and it wouldn’t be appropriate to sport with a female Leviathan, so he left the male only. (It seems gender segregation in sports is not a new issue!)
There is a way to interpret all of this metaphorically, too, and the Talmud goes on to say that the Jordan River flows into the “mouth of Leviathan”, while the ancient Seder Rabbah d’Beresheet says the entire planet “rests” on one of the fins of Leviathan. Even the Zohar has an interesting interpretation of the taninim gedolim of Creation, saying they are actually referring to the “Seventy Princes”, the Heavenly angels overseeing the seventy nations of the world. Leviathan is chief among them. From other sources, we learn that the chief of all the Seventy Princes is the angel Metatron (ie. Enoch), so we find here a link between the great Metatron and Leviathan. (This is further appropriate because the earliest known reference to a “Feast of Leviathan” is actually the apocryphal Book of Enoch!)
Mystical texts say the spirit of Metatron is found within Mashiach (see, for instance, Kol haTor), and Mashiach is destined to slay the remaining Leviathan at the End of Days, ushering in the final Kingdom of God on Earth. This, too, might be a metaphor for Mashiach subduing all seventy nations and unifying them under one God, as we read in Zechariah 14:9 that “Hashem shall be king over the entire Earth; on that day Hashem will be one and His name will be one.” In fact, the numerical value of “Leviathan” (לויתן) is 496, equal to Malkhut (מלכות), “Kingdom”. Leviathan thus corresponds to the last of the Sefirot. (We explored in the past how the changing astronomical constellations in the sky above us are shifting now to reveal this very process.) Intriguingly, we find six other terms for serpents throughout the Tanakh, and they neatly parallel the six other “lower” Sefirot from Chessed to Yesod.
The Seven (Eight?) Serpents
The most common term for a serpent is, of course, nachash. This snake corresponds to the central Sefirah of Tiferet. Tiferet is the spiritual root of all Israel, and of Mashiach in particular. This is another reason why the values of nachash (נחש) and “Mashiach” (משיח) are equal, both being 358. When Jacob blessed his son Dan, he saw a vision of Mashiach and said “I await Your salvation, Hashem!” (Genesis 49:18) Before that, Jacob fittingly described Mashiach (while seemingly speaking of Dan) as a nachash ‘alei derekh, a “snake upon the road”.
He then used another serpentine term, saying that Mashiach should also be a shfifon ‘alei orach, typically translated as a “viper upon the path”. The Maharal (Rabbi Yehuda Loew of Prague, c. 1512-1609) in Gur Aryeh connects this mysterious term with several roots, including the humbling shofef, as well as neshef, meaning an “exhale” or a “relaxation” or even a happy gathering of some sort. The shfifon (שפיפן) has positive energy, and corresponds to the loving Sefirah of Chessed. Jacob was possibly alluding to Mashiach’s role to bring all of Israel together and reconnect them spiritually through various “paths”.
On the opposite side of the Sefirotic tree we have the fiery and judging Gevurah. This corresponds to the Torah’s saraph (שרף), a “burning” venomous snake that God used to punish the people in the Wilderness for their rebelliousness (Numbers 21). To heal the people, Moses then made a nachash nechoshet, a copper serpentine rod. Now we can understand why it had to be specifically a nachash because, as we saw above, that one corresponds to Tiferet, which is said to be the source of healing and shares a root with refuah! Mashiach, too, is said to carry a serpentine staff. In fact, the Midrash and Zohar state that a woman called “Heftzibah” will bring it to him, finding it somewhere in Tiberias where Eliyahu hid it. She is also known as Mevaseret Tzion, the “Herald of Zion”, as per Isaiah 40:9 (see Sefer Zerubbabel and Zohar III, 173b).
Next, we have the “twin” Sefirot of Netzach and Hod, corresponding to the legs. They are always referred to as being the source of prophecy. In Psalm 91 we read “You will tread on lion cubs and phethen…” The phethen (פתן) is none other than the python. It is worth noting that in ancient Greece, the python was associated with prophecy, and their prophetic Oracle at Delphi was called Pythia. In the famous messianic prophecy of Isaiah, we read of another serpent paralleling the python: “A babe shall play over the hole of a phethen, and an infant pass its hand over the den of a tzif’oni.” (11:8) The word used for a “den” here is me’urat, which can be read as m’orat, ie. “from the light [or fire] of the tzif’oni”. The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush Wisser, 1809-1879) reads it this way, saying the “fiery” poison of the tzif’oni (צפעוני) will no longer harm a child in the Messianic Age. This gives us a clue that the tzif’oni corresponds to Hod, lying beneath the fiery Sefirah of Gevurah, and tempering its judgement. More significantly, we can learn from this Isaiah verse that in the Messianic Age, even a child will be able to connect to Netzach and Hod and attain the light of prophecy.
Finally, the last word for a serpent in Tanakh is ef’eh (אפעה), as we read in the Book of Job that “He sucks the head of a viper; the tongue of the ef’eh kills him.” (20:16) This one parallels the Sefirah of Yesod, the domain of sexual purity. In fact, the Kabbalists teach that of the 72 Names of God, the one that links to Yesod and through which one can atone for sexual sins is חב״ו. In the Amidah, there is a kavanah to insert during the kibbutz galuyot blessing to purify one of wasted seed and other sexual issues and it quotes a well-known phrase chayil bala’a vayakienu, mibitno yorishenu El, “The riches that he swallowed he vomits; God empties it out of his innards.” The letters of the first three words (חַיִל בָּלַע וַיְקִאֶנּוּ מִבִּטְנוֹ יֹרִשֶׁנּוּ אֵל) spell חב״ו. And where does this powerful verse come from? The preceding one in Job! (20:15) Thus, we have a clear Scriptural link between the ef’eh and Yesod.
And what of the Mochin, the upper three Sefirot? Perhaps we can link them to serpentine terms outside of Scripture. For instance, there’s the Teli (תלי) of Sefer Yetzirah (6:1-2), typically understood as the dragon constellation Draco. Recall that Sefer Yetzirah is an exposition of the Lamed-Bet Netivot Chokhmah, 32 Paths of Wisdom, so the Teli is directly linked to the Sefirah of Chokhmah. Then there’s the Talmud’s Aramaic hiviya (חויא), the root of which is said to come from Eve (חוה), and her encounter with the Snake. This would parallel the “motherly” Sefirah of Binah (also called Ima). And Keter on top, the origin of all the others, would be the generic term Tanin (תנין) with which we started, referring to any of the serpents below and often used interchangeably with them, as in this week’s parasha. Altogether, we have the following array of links between mystical Sefirot and mystical serpents: