Category Archives: Personal Development

Four Levels of Human

In this week’s parasha, Tazria, we read about various skin ailments that could afflict a person in ancient times. The section begins with the words “A human [adam] upon whose skin will be…” (Leviticus 13:2) The Zohar (III, 48a) asks: why does the Torah specifically say adam, “human”? This is peculiar language, for we would more likely expect the Torah to use the far more common term ish, a “man” or a “person”. The Zohar notes how at the beginning of Vayikra, too, the Torah stated “A human [adam] among you who will bring a sacrifice…” (Leviticus 1:2) Why “human”?

Credit: Totemical.com

The Zohar answers that the Torah has four distinct words for human beings: adam, gever, enosh, and ish (אדם, גבר, אנוש, איש), and these correspond to the four types or four levels of being human. The term adam is reserved for the highest, most refined, and most spiritual level of a human being, for this is the original word used in the Torah, as God intended man to be, b’tzalmo, in His image (Genesis 1:27). This is why, when speaking of bringing an offering to God, the Torah specifically uses adam, for a person had to be on a very refined and pure level to properly offer a sacrifice.

The same is true for the mysterious skin ailments in this week’s parasha. As our Sages taught, these were not actually communicable diseases, but rather spiritual ailments sent upon a person for a very specific reason. They manifested solely on the skin because skin is the most external part of a person’s body, the outer shell. The person afflicted was really pure and holy inside, so the ailment could only cling to the most external surface. Only the greatest of people had these skin ailments, such as the prophetess Miriam as we read later in the Torah. (Our Sages described Mashiach as being similarly skin-afflicted, for evil is only able to cling to him externally).

The Zohar does not say much about the other levels of human. Based on the discussion that follows though, we can deduce that the next level after adam is ish. Both adam and ish are high-level humans, so much so that even God is metaphorically described with these titles in various places in Tanakh. For instance, the Zohar points out how Ezekiel 1:26 describes God k’mareh adam, “resembling adam”, and in the Song of the Sea we find that God is called ish milchamah, a “man of war” (Exodus 15:3). Moses, the greatest of prophets, is called an “ish” in multiple places, such as Exodus 32:1 and Numbers 12:3. Lastly, we saw above that a person who got a skin affliction was described as an adam, but later in the chapter the Torah also calls such a person ish o ishah, “man or woman” (Leviticus 13:29). This actually helps us understand the difference in levels between adam and ish.

When it comes to adam, this is a complete human being entirely in God’s image. That means adam has both male and female halves, as the Torah says that God created Adam “male and female” (Genesis 1:27, 5:2). On this, our Sages (Yevamot 63a) taught that a person who is not married is not called “adam” since they are missing their other half! A real adam is one who is righteous and refined, and is also eternally bonded to their soulmate who is righteous and refined. This is the complete human, on the highest possible level. Below that is ish o ishah, where there is a clear distinction between “man” and “woman”, referring to a refined righteous person, though unmarried or not successfully married. This can help us further explain the Zohar’s pointing out that Moses is often called an “ish”, but not an “adam”, since Moses had stopped being intimate with his wife. (Unlike Moses, Mashiach will not separate from his wife, see Zohar I, 82a [Idra Zuta], 137a [Midrash HaNe’elam], and 145b.)

The next level after ish is gever, a term difficult to translate. The root literally means “strength” or “restraint”, and could also refer to a “hero”, “warrior”, or “great one”. It implies physical strength or greatness, but not necessarily much spiritual elevation. A gever might be one who is successful in other areas of life, but not in the spiritual realm. It may explain why Jeremiah famously said “Blessed is [or will be] the gever who trusts in God…” (17:7) The great person will truly be great only when they learn to trust in God.

The lowest level of human is enosh, literally “mortal”. This is a person who is simply alive, but otherwise contributing little to the world. This is why King David asked: “What is enosh that You should even remember him…?” (Psalms 8:5) Further proof comes from the man actually named “Enosh”, the grandson of Adam, the first to go “off the derekh” and away from the true spiritual path (Genesis 5:26). It is also why the generic word for “people” in Hebrew is anashim, deriving from this same root.

Finally, the Zohar states that there is a level that is even lower than all of the above, when a person is “sub-human” and behaving like an animal. This is the level of behemah, “beast”. The Zohar says this is the hidden meaning of Psalms 36:7 which states that “Your righteousness is like the highest mountains, Your justice is like the great depths, You save adam u’behemah, O Hashem!” God saves both the highest human, adam, and the lowest, behemah.

Souls and Universes

One might notice that the four (five) types of human above neatly parallel the five levels of soul, as well as the four (five) mystical olamot, or “universes”. The lowest type of human is the animalistic behemah, corresponding to the lowest level of soul, the nefesh. When the Torah speaks of the nefesh, it is usually in relation to animals and their blood. In fact, in later mystical texts the term nefesh behemit, “animal soul”, is used frequently. This lowest level corresponds to the bottom, physical universe, Asiyah.

Above that is the ruach level of soul, corresponding to the enosh level of human, and to the Yetzirah universe. Then we have the great and “largest” neshamah paralleling the great gever human, and the realm of Beriah. Higher still is the chayah soul to go along with the ish and ishah, and the lofty realm of Atzilut. Recall that chaya is typically associated with one’s “aura”, and recall as well that Moses was the quintessential “ish”. With this in mind, we can deeply understand the Torah telling us that Moses had a brightly-glowing aura! Better still, Atzilut is often described as God’s infinitely glowing “emanation”.

At the very top is the yechidah soul-level, corresponding to adam, and fittingly corresponding to the highest “universe” of Adam Kadmon, a reality in which the human is entirely one with the cosmos. This is a place of total unity, just as adam refers to a husband-wife pair with their souls united wholly as one.

Finally, the Torah amazingly alludes to all of this in cryptic fashion in the account of Creation. First, in Genesis 1:25 we read that God vaya’as (ויעש) “made” all the land animals and the behemah. The verb used is the same as that of Asiyah (עשיה), the lowest realm. In the following verse, we are told that God vayomer (ויאמר) “spoke” to bring forth adam in His image, and this human would dominate the universe, alluding to the highest level of human, the Adam Kadmon, with speech being his greatest power. Next, in verse 27, we are told that God “created” the human male and female, referring to the ish and ishah level. Then, in verse 28, God “blessed” the humans to conquer the Earth, alluding to the physically domineering gever. Finally, Genesis 2:7 tells us that God vayitzer (וייצר) “formed” the human from the dust, hinting that “to the dust he shall return”, and alluding to the low level of the earthly and mortal enosh, fittingly corresponding to the realm of Yetzirah (יצירה).

To summarize:


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Practical Jewish Meditation

An illustrated section from Gustav Doré’s “Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law”

In this week’s parasha, Ki Tisa, we read how Moses goes up Mount Sinai on three separate occasions. His first ascent concludes with receiving the Two Tablets, only to come down and see the horror of the Golden Calf. Following this, the Torah tells us that “Moses returned to God”, back up the mountain, to address the Calf fiasco and its aftermath (Exodus 32:31). Moses then came back down to pitch a “Tent of Meeting” (33:7) where he could more regularly communicate with God without having to ascend the Mountain, and for when the Israelites would leave Sinai to head to Israel. Moses asked to see God’s Presence directly, and God replied that no mortal can see God and live, though He would show Moses His “back”. To do this, God asked Moses to come up Sinai one last time (34:2), where a new set of tablets would be created to replace the shattered ones.

When Moses descended from Sinai for the last time to present the new Tablets, the Torah tells us that “He was there with God for forty days and forty nights; he ate no bread and drank no water…” (34:28) Moses had gone up Sinai three times, each for forty days, making 120 days total. Indeed, if one counts the days of the Jewish calendar between Shavuot and Yom Kippur, one would find 120 days, since Shavuot is the date of the initial Sinai Revelation while Yom Kippur is when God forgave the Israelites for the Golden Calf and Moses returned with the new Tablets. At the end of Moses’ three sessions of intense meditation with God, his face glowed and the people could no longer look at him directly (34:29-30). Moses would henceforth wear a mask.

The Torah motif of going up a mountain to spend time in prayer and divine meditation spread all over the world, and we find very similar descriptions in other faiths that emerged after Judaism. Buddha, for instance, spent 40 days (or 49 days) up on a mountain meditating under a bodhi tree to attain enlightenment, and also abstained from food and water during that time. Jesus is said to have spent forty days in the wilderness without food and water, and Mohammad purportedly received his first revelation while meditating and fasting for days on Mount Hira at the age of 40. Despite the fact that Moses was undoubtedly the first, meditation today is associated more with Eastern faiths, and strangely not with Judaism.

The truth is that meditation has always been central to Judaism since ancient times. In fact, it is highly likely that it was Jewish exiles who introduced meditative practices around the world after their expulsion from Israel in the 6th century BCE at the hands of the Babylonians. It is intriguing to point out that many world religions began in the century following Israel’s exile, including Buddhism and Confucianism, as well as the Pythagorean and Orphic religions in Greece. Even ancient Zoroastrianism and Hinduism were heavily influenced by spreading Torah ideas in the middle of the first millennium BCE.

Today, science has uncovered the vast benefits of regular meditation—everything from reducing stress and improving sleep, to boosting the immune system and accelerating healing, even positively impacting the expression of our genes! So, what does the Torah tradition have to teach us about meditation, and what are some specific Jewish meditative techniques we can put into practice daily to enhance our lives? Continue reading

The Faces of God’s “Chariot”

‘The Pillar of Fire’ by Paul Hardy (1896)

This week’s parasha is Beshalach, with its climactic moment being the Splitting of the Sea. Before this, we are told that “God went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could journey day and night.” (Exodus 13:21) The Zohar (II, 46b) comments on this that the Patriarchs travelled alongside Israel: the words “went before them by day” refers to Abraham; “in a pillar of cloud” is Isaac; “to lead them the way” is Jacob; “by night in a pillar of fire to give them light” is David. The Zohar then says that these four are the faces upon God’s Holy “Chariot”.

It is the prophet Ezekiel that describes the Chariot in greatest detail. The Book of Ezekiel begins with his famous vision:

And I looked, and, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, a great cloud, with a fire flashing up, so that a brightness was round about it; and out of the midst thereof as the colour of electrum, out of the midst of the fire. And out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had the likeness of a man. And every one had four faces, and every one of them had four wings… As for the likeness of their faces, they had the face of a man; and they four had the face of a lion on the right side; and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four had also the face of an eagle.

Each of the four corners of God’s Chariot has an angel “driving” it. As might be expected for a chariot, beneath each angel is a spinning wheel. The description appears to be speaking not of a simple wheel, but possibly a gyroscope, a “wheel within a wheel” as Ezekiel states (1:16). Each angel has four faces: the face of a man at front, a lion at right, an ox on the left, and an eagle on the back. Understanding the appearance of the animal faces is straight-forward, but whose human faces adorn the angels? The Zohar states these are the faces of God’s beloved Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David.

The “Tree of Life” depicting the Ten Sefirot, intertwined by the 22 Letters of the Hebrew Alphabet. Together, they make up the 32 Paths of Wisdom.

Recall that Abraham represents the Sefirah of Chessed, “kindness”; Isaac represents Gevurah, restraint and judgement; Jacob is Tiferet: beauty, balance, truth; and David is Malkhut, “kingdom”. These four Sefirot also correspond to four elements: Chessed is flowing, life-giving water; Gevurah is powerful, burning fire; Tiferet is the spirit of boundless air; Malkhut is the earthy kingdom below. Although there are, of course, Ten Sefirot, these four in particular serve as the major “axes” of the Tree of Life. They have also been said to correspond to the three major dimensions of space, and the fourth dimension of time. (It is worth mentioning that string theory has expanded the number of dimensions to ten—as we might have predicted all along based on the Sefirot!)

Each of the Chariot faces also parallels the major constellations of the Zodiac: first is dli, “Aquarius”, with the face of a human. Three months later comes shor, “Taurus”, the bull or ox. Three months after that is aryeh, “Leo”, the lion. Finally, after another three months is ‘akrav, “Scorpio”, which in ancient times was alternately referred to as the “Eagle” constellation, nesher. The Zohar (I, 24a) points out that the initials of these four constellations and their faces is shinan (שנא״ן), standing for shor, nesher, aryeh, and the nun sofit being representative of the complete human. This is the meaning of the cryptic statement in Psalms (68:18) that “God’s Chariots are myriads, alfei shinan; God is among them, as in Sinai.” Just as at the Splitting of the Sea and at the Divine Revelation at Mt. Sinai that followed, when God “descended” into this world amongst myriads of Chariots, He continues to “mount the Cherubs and fly, gliding on the wings of the winds…” (Psalm 18:11)

The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 3b) offers another mystical meaning of alfei shinan: that God “rides” through 18,000 worlds. This number is derived from the fact that the verse states the number of Chariots is ribotaim, meaning “twenty thousand”, but then says alfei shinan, which can mean “less two thousand”. So, twenty thousand less two thousand leaves 18,000! What are these 18,000 worlds through which God “rides”? The Zohar (ibid.) states that these are the worlds in which God’s Presence dwells. If His Presence dwells there, it implies that there is someone in those worlds to benefit from His Presence! Incredibly, one of the most ancient Jewish mystical texts, Seder HaRuchot, says that God visits these 18,000 worlds and “examines their populations” in an instant! Based on such sources, there have been authorities who’ve suggested there very well may be life on other planets—perhaps 18,000 of them out there in the vastness of the cosmos. Generally speaking, these 18,000 are thought to be strictly angelic worlds, inhabited by the supernal beings. (For a lot more on this, see here.)

Rotating Faces

While each forefather may have excelled in one particular aspect, he was also a complete man who possessed the other traits. Abraham was mainly Chessed, but clearly displayed Gevurah, too, as we see in harsh trials like the Akedah. The Torah says three times that Abraham arose early in disciplined service of God (Genesis 19:27, 21:14, 22:3). Meanwhile, Isaac was Gevurah first and foremost, but is also described with words of lovingkindness in at least three places (Genesis 24:67, 25:28, 27:9-14). Jacob is the perfect balance of the two, hence it is Jacob that embodies the balance and truth of Tiferet. And David is the very reflection of Jacob centuries later. One who reads the Tanakh carefully will see how the lives of Jacob and David mirror each other. (For more on this, see ‘The Mystical Connection Between Jacob and David’.)

This is one reason why each of the faces of the Patriarchs on the Chariot also had a lion, ox, and eagle face. When necessary, each of these great Jewish figures could “put on” their lion face, representing Gevurah, and fight noble battles. [In fact, the gematria of “lion” (אריה) is 216, equal to Gevurah (גבורה)!] At other times, they could be the “ox” peacefully tilling the soil and investing in the development of the Holy Land. As we read in the Tanakh, each of the four figures did tremendous work in the Holy Land, from digging wells to planting trees (and everything in between) in order to make the land flourish and prosper. They could also put on an “eagle” face and “hover over their hatchlings” (Deuteronomy 32:11). The eagle has to teach its chicks some perilous skills like flying and hunting. The figures of the Chariot similarly taught their families and disciples how to navigate the dangers of this material world and live the proper spiritual path. (The Arizal has a fascinating discussion on the eagle and its ability to spot and defeat the snake—symbolic of the evil inclination—in Sha’ar HaPesukim on Mishlei.) Their teachings continue to give us the tools to fly ever higher today.

There is a wonderful lesson here for us. Every good human being works hard like an ox, hovers over their family like an eagle, and defends them like a lion. Behind the face of each person—like the face of each Patriarch, and the face of each angel on God’s Chariot—is the face of a lion, an eagle, and an ox. The spinning wheels beneath these faces symbolize the need to put on a different one of these faces at different times, when the situation calls for it. We have to be able to display both kindness and strength, both beauty and modesty, humility and honour. We must balance all the elements—water, fire, air, earth—within us, and walk the spiritual trail blazed by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David. This is the “pillar of fire” that guided and protected the Israelites in the Wilderness, and continues to guide us and protect us today.