Category Archives: Personal Development

The Intersection of Science and Mysticism

Dear Friends,

Back in February I was invited to speak with Eli Nash on his In Search of More podcast. We discussed everything from Torah and science to Kabbalah, kashrut, conversion, and major issues currently plaguing the Jewish world. See the full interview here: 

The Hidden Geometry of Pirkei Avot

Between the holidays of Pesach and Shavuot it is customary to read one chapter of Pirkei Avot on each of the six Sabbaths. While the plain text of the Mishnaic tractate Avot is already full of significant statements that can be meditated on at length, a closer look reveals much more beneath the surface. One thing that becomes clear is that each chapter has its own unique structure and essence. When it comes to Chapter One, we find an obvious pattern—a hidden geometry based on a fundamental Kabbalistic principle. As is well-known, the central concept of Jewish mysticism is the framework of the Ten Sefirot. These are arranged in three columns, and in three rows:

The most important of the three rows is the middle one; composed of Chessed on the right, Gevurah on the left, and Tiferet in the centre. In fact, mystical texts often see the entire right column as an extension of Chessed, and the entire left column as Gevurah, and the entire middle column as Tiferet. The dichotomy between Chessed and Gevurah permeates Jewish writings, both mystical and plain. For example, in Jewish law one must put on their right shoe first and their right sleeve first, and just about everything is done with the right side first—to favour the side of Chessed, kindness. This is also why the right tefillin strap is longer than the left, and why we wash the right hand first in netilat yadayim. We favour the right because the left is Gevurah, “restraint” or “severity”, also known as Din, “judgement”. The left is a more “negative” quality, and is also associated with the impure forces of the Sitra Achra, along with the evil inclination. We favour the right in order to overpower the left.

Balancing these two is Tiferet in the middle, also referred to as Rachamim, “mercy” or “compassion”, as well as Emet, “truth”. Too much Chessed is not good, just as too little Gevurah is not good. A person should judge themselves regularly in order to iron out their own weaknesses and improve. And a person should not be too kind and easy-going, for then they might become a pushover and get taken advantage of. The true path is Tiferet, where severity is mitigated by kindness—hence the term Rachamim, or mercy (for more, see ‘The Meaning of Tiferet’). This is actually where many practices in Judaism come from.

For example, it is customary to add a few drops of water to the Kiddush cup of wine. This is because the red, bitter wine represents Gevurah, while the clear, life-giving water represents Chessed. Adding water serves to “sweeten the judgement”, and brings balance to the opposing forces. For the same reason, Israel has three patriarchs: first came the overly hospitable and generous Abraham, who was Chessed; then came the tough, reclusive Isaac (whose relationship with God is described as pachad, “fear”), who was Gevurah; only then came the wholesome Jacob to balance the previous two. Due to his measured approach, it was Jacob who merited becoming “Israel” and fathering the nation. Abraham leaned just a bit too far to the right, while Isaac was just a bit too far on the left. In Jacob, God had the perfect balance. Fittingly, our tractate is called Avot, literally “patriarchs”, so there is an obvious allusion to our three patriarchs here. Indeed, we find that the first chapter is built all around such threes.

Truth in Threes

The Kabbalistic trifecta described above is not just a mystical idea, but is seen as the foundation for all of Creation. It represents the cosmic balance of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Three is a most special number, and the Talmud (Shabbat 88a) points out that God “gave a three-fold Torah to a three-fold people through a third-born, on the third day, in the third month.” There are three parts to the Holy Scriptures (Torah, Nevi’im, Ketuvim), and three parts to the Jewish people (Kohen, Levi, Israel), and Moses was a third-born child (after Miriam and Aaron), and the Torah was given on Sinai after three days of purification, in the third month of Sivan. All of these threes reflect the mystical trio of Chessed, Gevurah, and Tiferet.

Similarly, we see that many statements in Pirkei Avot are relayed in three clauses. In fact, every single verse in the first chapter of Pirkei Avot is split into three. When further examining each verse, we see how the Sages clearly paralleled each of their three clauses to one of the three Sefirot. The first teaching comes from the men of the Great Assembly who taught: “Be cautious in judgement, raise many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah.” The first explicitly speaks of din, “judgement”, referring to the Sefirah of Gevurah. The second is about having many students, just as Chessed represents abundance (while Gevurah is restraint), and just as Abraham was famous for having many students (while Isaac, our Sages say, only had one). The last clause is about the Torah, and the Kabbalists always speak of the Torah as emanating from the central Sefirah of Tiferet, or Emet.

In the next verse, Shimon haTzadik teaches that “the world stands on three things: on the Torah, on the service of God, and on acts of kindness.” Once more, the parallel to the three Sefirot is clear: kindness is Chessed, service (avodah, literally “labour”) is Gevurah, and the Torah is Tiferet. Shimon’s student Antigonus taught: “Do not be as servants who serve their master for the sake of a reward; rather, be as servants who serve their master not for the sake of a reward; and may the awe of Heaven always be upon you.” The one who serves his master (or Master) only out of obligation and fear is in the difficult realm of Gevurah, while the one who serves his master out of love is, of course, in Chessed. Whatever the case, one should never forget the truth of who the real Master is, and have the awe of Heaven upon them (Tiferet).

Then comes Yose ben Yoezer: “Let your home be a meeting place for the wise; dust yourself in the soil of their feet, and drink thirstily of their words.” The wise, like the Torah, stem from the Sefirah of Tiferet. One should roll around in the dust of their feet (meaning to humble one’s self before them, which is Gevurah) and drink thirstily (evoking water and abundance, both symbolic of Chessed).

His partner, Yose ben Yochanan, taught: “Let your home be wide open, and let the poor be members of your household, and do not engage in excessive conversation with the woman…” To have one’s door open is to be hospitable—Chessed. To remember the poor, who are undoubtedly experiencing tremendous din upon them, is Gevurah. We have already discussed in the past the real meaning of not speaking excessively to “the” woman. Rabbi Yose explains that this will ultimately lead a man to “neglect the study of Torah”—Tiferet.

Yehoshua ben Perachiah then famously says: “Assume for yourself a master, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every man to the side of merit.” One’s master will (hopefully) lead them to the balanced life and teach them truth—Tiferet; a friend is a companion in Chessed; judging others favourably is the right way to approach Din and Gevurah.

Nitai haArbeli speaks next: “Distance yourself from a bad neighbor, do not cleave to a wicked person, and do not abandon belief in retribution.” While one should always be kind to their neighbours, they should also be weary of the bad apples. Remember, too much Chessed is not a good thing! One should certainly distance from the wicked person (who is attached to that negative Left Side). And no matter how hopeless it may seem (especially now with what’s going on in the world), there will in fact be a great reckoning to come, just as the Torah promises—do not lose hope in this truth! The “era of Tiferet” will soon be upon us, so don’t abandon belief in divine retribution.

Yehuda ben Tabbai then says that one should not act like a lawyer (Chessed), and one should be neutral when judging (Gevurah), and once judgement is passed one should see both litigants as righteous since they have accepted the truth (Tiferet). His colleague Shimon ben Shetach similarly teaches that a judge should be diligent in questioning witnesses in order to reach the correct verdict (Chessed), though a person should be restrained in their speech and careful with every word (Gevurah), lest their speech lead to the proliferation of falsehood (the opposite of Tiferet and Emet).

One can continue in this manner for the rest of the chapter and unravel the three-part structure of every phrase, with clear allusions to Chessed, Gevurah, and Tiferet each time. The very last verse mirrors the first, and gives the most explicit reference to these three Sefirot. In the beginning, Shimon haTzadik told us that the world stands on three things, and now at the end Shimon ben Gamliel tells us the world endures through three things: Din, Emet, and Shalom, three alternate names for Gevurah, Tiferet, and Chessed, respectively. In this way, we can understand each line of the first chapter of Avot on a far more profound level.

Shabbat Shalom!

Adam and the Mashiach Within

In this week’s parasha, Tazria, we learn about the various laws of tzara’at, loosely translated as “leprosy”. The verse that begins the discussion starts by saying Adam ki ihyeh, “When a person has on the skin of the body a swelling, a rash, or a discolouration, and it develops into a scaly affliction on the skin…” (Leviticus 13:2) The phrasing is unique in that the statement strangely begins with the word adam. Grammatically, it would have been more appropriate and common for the Torah to say Ki ihyeh b’adam. Rav Yitzchak Ginsburgh cites an old tradition that there are three other such verses that use the word adam with strange grammar: Leviticus 1:2, Numbers 19:14, and Psalms 36:7. These four instances correspond to the four mystical olamot, dimensions or “universes” of Creation, called Asiyah, Yetzirah, Beriah, and Atzilut. In turn, they represent different stages in the development of every human being, literally an adam.

In addition to the four verses above, we can include the first verse in Chronicles, which is also unique in that it is made up of just three names, starting with “Adam”—here referring to the actual first civilized man Adam, and not adam generically. I believe this fifth instance alludes to the highest universe and ascension of man, that of Adam Kadmon. Recall that the five universes correspond to the five levels of soul, as well as to the five parts of God’s Ineffable Name (the four letters, plus the “crown” atop the letter yud), and the five books of the Torah.

If we carefully go through the five special “Adam” verses, we can derive the key stages in the development of every human being. Stage one comes from Leviticus 1:2, where God declares: “When any of you presents [adam ki yakriv mikem] an offering of cattle to God…” This verse has been classically interpreted as a person offering up him or herself as an offering, adam mikem. In other words, any kind of significant growth or personal development requires self-sacrifice and hard work. If a person is not willing to give anything up, nor abandon any of their old ways, habits, and preconceived notions, there is little chance for successful spiritual elevation. Thus, step one is sacrifice.

Next is the verse in this week’s parasha about an adam being afflicted with leprosy. The result, of course, is that they are ostracized and separated from the community until their leprosy heals. (Interestingly, the word “ostracism” comes from the Greek ostracon, a potsherd upon which were engraved the names of undesirable people voted to be expelled.) This is actually the natural next step in the growth journey, because once a person abandons their old norms and starts to enter new areas of thought and practice, they will undoubtedly be criticized, attacked for their new-found “radicalism”, possibly branded as some kind of “reformer” or “heretic”, and ultimately “cut off” from their old community. They will be cast off as a “leper” of sorts, and valuable relationships will be lost. This stage is often experienced both by baalei teshuva who leave behind their secular lives, as well as religious people disenchanted with their particular sect, or synagogue, or denomination and looking to find new meaning. The second stage is quite a difficult process, and leads to the next step:

The third adam verse is Numbers 19:14, stating “When a person dies in a tent [adam ki yamut b’ohel]…” This is symbolic of the death of the old self. The person transitions to a new reality, a new hashkafa, renewed meaning in life, a fresh vigour and spirituality, and perhaps a new (and better) community. Only then is the person ready for the fourth adam verse: “man and beast [adam u’behemah] you save Hashem!” One has finally attained personal salvation, and communion with God. Such a person is a truly God-conscious, whole, and righteous individual.

There is just one more, sublime level after this, reserved for those who want to go even further, transcending the very bounds of time and space. This is the highest level of Adam Kadmon, corresponding to the loftiest yechidah soul. Fittingly, it corresponds to the opening Chronicles verse that has just three words: “Adam, Shet, Enosh.” If you read these not simply as names, but as an actual sentence, it literally means “man rules over mortality”! In other words, this person is immortalized and attains true eternity.

We can now add a new column to our previous table:

We can see how neatly the rows line up in the table. Ostracism is a fitting link for Bamidbar, when the Israelites were cast “into the Wilderness”. This is where a lot of the fundamental work needs to be done, hence its parallel to Yetzirah (“formation”), and the Middot (character traits) of Zeir Anpin. Similarly, Shemot is a fitting link to the “Salvation” or “Elevation” stage, a spiritual “exodus” to a new and higher plane, a personal Redemption. And “Transcendence” ties to Beresheet, as it is described as becoming one with Creation. At this highest stage, one has accessed and revealed their own inner “Mashiach”, because every adam has a spark of the first Adam, who gave over a portion of his soul to David and then, in turn, to Mashiach. Recall that “Adam” (אדם) is said to stand for “Adam-David-Mashiach”, and spans the entire course of history, from the first person to the “last”. And, the Arizal taught (Sha’ar haGilgulim, Ch. 11) that just about every human being has a spark of Adam, and a spiritual “portion” of the first human—and therefore also of the last.

In fact, we find the same five stages in the way our Sages described the events of Mashiach. The “sacrifice” stage (from Leviticus 1:2) is self-evident in Mashiach’s self-sacrifice on behalf of his nation. [Rav Ginsburgh points out that the word korbano (קרבנו), “his sacrifice” in the subsequent verse (Leviticus 1:3) has the same numerical value (358) as “Mashiach” (משיח)!] That Mashiach is ostracized like a leper is described by our Sages all over the place, and the Talmud even refers to him as “the Leper Scholar” (Sanhedrin 98b). The “death” of Mashiach ben Yosef, corresponding to stage three, is well-known (and will be explored more fully in an upcoming class). Then comes ushering in the Redemption for all of mankind (stage four), and finally bringing the world to a new, transcendent state where Heaven and Earth are united—corresponding to Adam Kadmon. This is the Mashiach journey, and this is the same journey for each of us, to ultimately bring out our very own inner mashiach.