In this week’s parasha, Vayetze, we read about the intrigues of Jacob and Laban’s business dealings. Jacob asked for his wages to be all the sheep and goats that had strange skin patterns. He then used his knowledge of epigenetics (as explored in the past here) to produce flocks that were ‘akudim, nekudim, and telu’im, “ringed”, “spotted”, and “striped”. Years later, when he relates his struggles with Laban to his wives (Genesis 31:10), he describes the flocks as ‘akudim, nekudim, and vrudim, using a different term for “striped”. While this might seem trivial on the surface, Jewish mystical texts derive a tremendous amount of meaning from these descriptions. In fact, here in these verses the Torah is revealing to us some of the deepest secrets of Creation. Continue reading
In this week’s parasha, Lech Lecha, God forges a covenant with Abraham and promises Abraham that his offspring will be as numerous as the dust of the earth (Genesis 13:17) and the stars of heaven (15:5). The Midrash (Lekach Tov) comments on this by stating that “So, too, are [Abraham’s] children: When they rise, they rise as high as the heavens; when they fall, they fall as low as the dust.” Israel is compared to both stars and dust simultaneously. Peering a little further, there is actually a much more profound, scientific connection hiding in this statement.
According to modern scientific understanding, the dust of the earth and the stars of the cosmos are intricately linked. Where did the dust of the earth come from? For that matter, where did all elements of Earth, and its entire mass of material, come from? The scientific answer may at first sound blasphemous, but actually fits neatly with the Torah and the ancient teachings of our Sages. Scientists believe that Earth (and the entire Solar System) formed about 4.5 billion years ago (on the issue of the age of the universe, see here), probably from the remnants of a previous star that exploded in a massive supernova. The supernova resulted in a nebula of dust and gas, that then reformed into new worlds.
Going back to the very beginning, the first element to form in the universe was simple hydrogen, with just one proton and one electron. It remains the most abundant element in the cosmos. In our sun, hydrogen atoms fuse together under immense pressure to form helium, the second element (with two protons and two neutrons). Eventually, as hydrogen will start to run out, even helium atoms will start participating in fusion. This will give birth to the first and lightest metal, lithium (three protons), and then beryllium (four protons), and so on. This process generally keeps going until iron (26 protons), the most stable atom and most abundant metal in the universe. When a star explodes, or when neutron stars merge, even heavier elements may be generated, including gold and silver.
As such, it is believed that planet Earth condensed from the minerals spewed out of an exploding star long ago. The lithium and iron we mine from the ground were once part of a star! In fact, the very atoms that make up our bodies were once part of the stars, too! The Torah tells us that the body of Adam was made from the dust of the earth (Genesis 2:7), yet the dust of the earth itself was forged in the stars. With that in mind, we can have quite a literal understanding of God’s statement to Abraham that his children are both dust of the earth and stars of heaven. It also allows us to appreciate the ancient mystical teaching that man is an olam katan, a “mini-universe” or microcosm of the universe (see, for instance, Zohar III, 33b, Ra’aya Mehemna) while the universe is, in turn, an adam kadmon, a “primordial man”.
The big question is: what do we make of these scientific statements? Might they be true? Could Earth have formed from the destruction of previous worlds? Amazingly, our Sages taught exactly that!
Disorder to Order
The Torah states that before God created our world, space was tohu v’vohu and a tehom, a chaotic and unformed abyss. What does this really mean? King Solomon stated in Ecclesiastes 3:11 that God “made everything precisely at its time; even the world…” [gam et ha’olam] In the Midrash, Rabbi Tanchuma explains that this means even the Earth had a specific time when it could be created (Kohelet Rabbah 3:11). Rabbi Abahu then teaches: “We learn from this that the Holy One, blessed be He, would create worlds and destroy them, create worlds and destroy them…” until He finally made a world that “pleased” Him. Rabbi Elazar concludes by suggesting this is alluded to by the great tehom before Earth’s formation, and says this is why God ultimately stated that everything He made was “very good”. God was finally satisfied!
Thus, long ago our Sages already taught what modern science has recently come to realize: our Earth itself was made from the remnants of previous worlds that God had destroyed! It is amazing to think that the wedding ring on your finger—meant to symbolize an eternal bond—is made from gold atoms made by God billions of years ago in a massive cosmic blast, or that the iron coursing through your veins was forged by God in the furnace of an old star. It gives such things immensely more meaning.
On that note, it is important to remember that God programmed the universe with certain unyielding natural laws (as stated, for instance, in Jeremiah 33:25). And God generally follows His own rules, working through derekh hateva, “natural ways”, as our Sages taught. It therefore isn’t surprising that He also generated all the many worlds of the universe through natural means.
Intriguingly, the last Mishnah in the tractate Uktzin famously states that God made 310 worlds for each tzadik, to be enjoyed in the World to Come. This is based on Proverbs 8:21 where God promises He will reward those who love Him with yesh (יש), “substance”, the value of which is 310. It is also God’s “gift” to the righteous, since the value of “gift”, shai (שי) is 310. Going back to the Midrash above, our Sages imply that God made a multitude of worlds that pleased Him, not just the one which we inhabit now. This is probably referring to all the wonderful worlds He made—through derekh hateva, the laws of nature—for the righteous, 310 each, to inhabit in the future. And for those who like gematria, it is fitting that the value of derekh hateva (דרך הטבע) itself is 310!
A final thought: what can we learn from the notion that Abraham’s offspring are both dust of the earth and stars of heaven? Or, in other words, as the old saying goes, that “we are stardust”? We can learn from this that even if we see ourselves as minute and insignificant, a fleck of dust in the vastness of space, God nonetheless always sees us as His precious, glowing stars.
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”?
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).