Category Archives: Personal Development

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.

Dever: Understanding the Plague

‘The Fifth Plague of Egypt’ by J.M.W. Turner (1800)

In this week’s parasha, Va’era, we read about the first seven of the Ten Plagues that God struck ancient Egypt with. The one that is particularly of interest today is dever, pestilence. While in Egypt, it primarily affected the livestock, the word dever can refer to any kind of pestilence. One of the big questions here is why the plague is called dever (דבר), a term we typically associate more with “speech” and “words”, davar. Perhaps one way to understand it is that a plague that is especially virulent, like the one in ancient Egypt—and the one we are in the midst of currently—can be spread even through speech. The plague (dever, דבר) is invisible and airborne, like a word (davar, דבר) itself.

Another way to understand it is to remember that the Tanakh often tells us that the world exists only through God’s Word. King David wrote poetically that “By the Word [davar] of God the Heavens were made, and by the breath of His mouth all of their hosts.” (Psalms 33:6) Even more relevant for us now, Moses told us that God “subjects you to hardship” and sends us difficult challenges “in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but on all that comes out of the Mouth of God does man live.” (Deuteronomy 8:3) In times of plague, this is a vital message—and while it might be a most difficult one to accept, it is undeniably true nonetheless—that ultimately, who lives and who dies is decreed by the Word of God.

Each person must do their hishtadlut, their effort in proactively preserving health. That means staying active, eating right, reducing stress, and maintaining positive relationships. It means reducing exposure to toxins and mutagens as much as possible, switching to more natural products, installing a good water filter (especially for drinking water), and spending time out in the great outdoors with plenty of fresh air. It also means, in times of plague, to be vigilant of surroundings, wear personal protective equipment when appropriate, maintain the highest standards of hygiene, and do the research in determining which medications are effective and safe. The rest remains in God’s Hands, and there is no need to panic. As the Prophet promised us, “Blessed is the man who trusts securely in God, and God will be his security.” (Jeremiah 17:7)

When it comes to our current pandemic, every person has had a different experience. Some have lost loved ones, others have not. Certain communities have been hit particularly hard while others went entirely unscathed. There are many views regarding how to deal with the plague and the proper way to get out of it. There have also been absurd conspiracy theories pushed on the one hand, balancing out the illogical and unreasonable measures enacted on the other. In fact, perhaps the key problem has been the constant torrent of misinformation, both mainstream and alternative. People don’t know what to think anymore! So, let’s try to honestly sift through the confusion and come to at least a few undeniable facts that everyone can agree on at this point.

A year ago, we were told that the new vaccines are up to 95% effective, and if all we did was take a couple of shots the virus would go away and the pandemic would be over. Here we are now, on the cusp of a third or even fourth shot, and nothing’s changed at all. The restrictions are still in full force, with new lockdowns on the horizon. Despite the high vaccination rates of most western countries, the pandemic has not receded whatsoever. Now, the majority of COVID cases are among the vaccinated. Here in Ontario today, 10436 new cases were reported, of which a whopping 8221 were fully vaccinated! The majority of people hospitalized are also fully vaccinated. In Israel, meanwhile, the first death from the Omicron variant was reported today—and it was a triple-vaccinated woman. Yet, unbelievably, the powers-that-be are still pushing us to vaccinate with even more boosters! As Albert Einstein purportedly once said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

The data really speaks for itself: vaccines have done little to stop the pandemic besides for reducing symptoms. We were initially told the vaccines would stop transmission, but that message has changed. The vaccinated are undoubtedly transmitting, too. On that note, the push to vaccinate children was primarily made on the argument of not having them transmit it to the elderly, who are most susceptible. But everyone now agrees that the vaccine does not stop transmission! So, what is the point of vaccinating children? Kids are not very susceptible to COVID, and no one disputes that the vast majority of children, with rare exceptions, take it mildly or are entirely asymptomatic.

Worse yet, evidence is building that the spike protein which the mRNA vaccines code for is itself carcinogenic (here is a peer-reviewed study in a scientific journal, and here is another). Why give little children multiple doses of a potentially harmful carcinogen when the virus itself is mostly harmless to them? What might be the horrific long-term consequences of repetitive mass-vaccination? It may very well end up being an enormous crime against humanity.

Finally, regardless of how you feel about the virus and the vaccine, or which side you are on, the new “mandates” being introduced by governments worldwide should concern everyone. People have lost their jobs and livelihoods for simply exercising the right to their own bodies. No one should be coerced into a medical procedure they do not want—especially when the data behind it is so poor, as we’ve seen. Meanwhile, fundamental rights are being stripped for all people, regardless of vaccination status. Freedom of movement? Highly restricted. Freedom of speech? Be careful what you say lest you lose your license! Freedom of religion and belief? Every single person I know who’s applied for some kind of religious exemption or conscientious objection has been denied outright.

You might think it’s okay because desperate times call for desperate measures. However, once these “rules” are in place, it will be almost impossible to repeal them, and they will remain long after the pandemic. Want to go to a restaurant? Let’s see your private medical records! Want to go on vacation? You will first have to take this invasive medical test before and after (and in between)! Want this job? Not if you don’t take multiple doses of a new “treatment” required for all employees! We are setting dangerous precedents and descending ever further down a treacherous slippery slope. Meanwhile, the World Economic Forum is openly pushing a “digital ID” for everyone that will store a person’s private information and biometrics, linked to their vaccinations, and bank accounts, too. (See here on their own website.) Is this the future we want?

Let’s not forget what happened to the Israelites in Egypt. How did Pharaoh manage to convince an entire populace to turn on its Jews? The answer is simple, and relayed clearly in the Torah. Pharaoh saw an opportunity, and said: “let us outsmart them!” (Exodus 1:10) He engineered a crisis, and used fear-mongering and propaganda to convince everyone that Israel was the dreaded enemy. Did it happen overnight? Not at all. In fact, our Sages say that the Israelites gave up their rights willingly, one small “harmless” step at a time. This is the meaning of the famous statement that Israel was enslaved b’farekh (בְּפָרֶךְ, Exodus 1:13), meaning b’pe rakh (בְּפֶה רַךְ), with a “soft mouth”, gradually, through a set of small “gentile” mandates (Sotah 11b). It was for the good of society after all! It took thirty years until they were fully enslaved. By then, it was too late to go back.

We are now seeing the same playbook of fear-mongering followed by incremental restrictions. Now is the time for everyone—across the social and political spectrum, vaccinated or not—to stand up and fight to preserve freedom. The more people that speak out, resist (peacefully), and refuse to comply, the better it will get. The government needs to be sent a clear message, for the government is only as powerful as the governed allow them to be. If people do not speak out, or continue to stay silent for fear of ostracism, things will only get worse. And then, again, it will be too late.

We began by exploring the connection between dever and davar, the plague and the Word of God. Here may lie the real core of the matter. The test right now is one of faith in God. As our Sages taught, “All is in the hands of Heaven, except the fear of Heaven.” (Berakhot 33b) The question is who is aligning with God’s Will, and who is not. (It is worth mentioning that the mystical term for the Will of God is Keter which, when translated into Latin, is literally “corona”.) It could very well be that the challenges we are facing now are meant to strain out those who have faith in God, think for themselves, and put Torah law first, from those who have faith in men, let the media think for them, and follow the corrupt laws and mandates of wicked people. Long ago, the prophet Zechariah (13:8-9) foresaw that a day would come when

Throughout the land—declares God—two-thirds shall perish, shall die, and one-third of it shall survive. That third I will put into the fire, and I will smelt them as one smelts silver, and test them as one tests gold. They will invoke Me by Name, and I will respond to them. I will declare: “You are My people.” And they will declare: “Hashem is our God!”

We have a general rule in Judaism that a negative prophecy does not have to be fulfilled, since it is given as a warning. Unfortunately, the warning usually falls on deaf ears, and the prophecy is realized anyway. If Zechariah’s prophecy is fulfilled, only a third will survive the coming calamity, and it is the third that trusts in God. Still, it will not be easy for that third, as they will be put through tremendous tests. We should learn from this that no matter what happens in the coming days, and how excruciating it might get, we must only strengthen our resolve and continue to declare loudly: “Hashem is our God!”

What’s The Ideal Number of Children to Have?

1907 Illustration of the Exodus from the Providence Lithograph Company

This week we begin reading Shemot, the second book of the Torah. Commenting on Israel’s rapid population growth (Exodus 1:7), Rashi famously cites the Midrash that each woman gave birth to six children in a single pregnancy! This is a classic Midrash in the sense that it probably should not be taken literally. One way to make sense of it is to suggest that perhaps each woman produced six Jewish souls per pregnancy. We know that while there was a limited number of Israelites physically present in Egypt and at the Exodus, we maintain that all Jewish souls that ever lived or will live (including those of converts) were there spiritually. Jewish souls from across history were liberated from slavery in Egypt and experienced the Revelation at Sinai. That’s one reason the Passover Haggadah reminds us that each and every Jew at the seder should feel like he or she personally came out of Egypt. You did!

Back in Egypt, the physical Jewish population did indeed grow rapidly. However, when we read the detailed genealogical lists in the Torah, we find that family sizes were not disproportionally large. Amram and Yocheved had three children, Aaron had four, Moses just two. In fact, throughout the Torah family sizes seem relatively small. Isaac had two sons, and Joseph had two as well (that we know of). Abraham was one of three sons. He went on to have a single child with Sarah, one with Hagar, and six more with Keturah (who may or may not be the same person as Hagar). There’s a tradition that Abraham had a daughter, too. Jacob had two children from Rachel, two from Bilhah, two from Zilpah, and seven from Leah—six boys and a girl (like Abraham). The reason for this, from a mystical perspective, is quite evident.

When it comes to the Sefirot, six are described as “masculine”, and the seventh is the feminine Nukva. Higher above, the Sefirah of Binah is called Ima, the “mother”, while Chokhmah is called Aba, the “father”. In this arrangement, the first and highest Sefirah of Keter symbolizes God Above. So, there’s God, father, mother, the six sons, and the daughter. This is a complete mystical “family”. Is this, then, the ideal family on the physical plane as well?

Not exactly. Continue reading