Tag Archives: Beshalach

The Mystical Significance of Bones

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.

To summarize:

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.

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.

Red Sea or Reed Sea: Where is Mount Sinai?

This week’s parasha, Beshalach, recounts the Splitting of the Sea. It is common knowledge that this was the Red Sea, called yam suf in Hebrew. Yet, in recent decades scholars have tried to “debunk” that notion, preferring to associate yam suf with a smaller lake of some sort. They often start by pointing out that yam suf literally means “sea of reeds”. It is the Reed Sea, not the Red Sea. There are indeed several shallow, marshy lakes with reeds in that vicinity of Egypt, around the modern Suez Canal. The fact that the Torah speaks of the “Reed Sea” being near places like Pi-Hahirot, whose location is believed to be known, is used as further proof of yam suf not being the Red Sea.

Of course, this serves to diminish the great miracle of the Splitting of the Sea. It almost implies that the Israelites waded through a shallow lake, as opposed to crossing a vast expanse. The reality is that such a hypothesis does not at all fit with the descriptions we receive in the Torah. A careful look reveals what yam suf actually is, and further helps to locate an even bigger prize: Mount Sinai.  

A Sea or a Lake?

From the Torah’s description of the Splitting of the Sea, we learn that the waters stood as large walls to the left and right of the Israelites, and that the Egyptians later drowned in its depths (see, for instance, Exodus 14:28-29, 15:4, 8). This implies a deep sea, not a shallow, marshy lake.

Yam suf is mentioned well over twenty times in the Tanakh. When going through these verses and their context, one will find that it is a major geographical entity, not a small lake. For example, Numbers 14:25 says that the Amalekites and Canaanites live near yam suf, while Numbers 21:4 says the Edomites are near it, too. If it was a small lake somewhere in the Sinai Peninsula, or by the Suez Canal, this wouldn’t make much sense.

The Biblical lands of Edom, stretching down to the Red Sea (Credit: Briangotts)

In fact, the land of Edom is known to be in the area of what is today the Negev desert, roughly southern Israel and Jordan, going down to what is today Eilat. This is confirmed by I Kings 9:26, where we read that “King Solomon made a navy of ships in Etzion-Geber, which is beside Elot, on the shore of yam suf, in the land of Edom.” King Solomon built a navy-yard in a port near Elot (אֵלוֹת), undoubtedly related to today’s Eilat. And, like today’s Eilat, is in on the shore of yam suf, the Red Sea, in the land of Edom. This verse solves the entire puzzle. Scholars wonder why the sea became known as the Red Sea, when the answer might be right there in the Torah: to the Israelites, this was the sea by the land of Edom, which literally means “red”. It was the Edomite Sea, the “Red Sea”. And it is the selfsame body of water as yam suf.  

On that note, some have proposed that is isn’t yam suf, but yam sof, literally the sea “at the end”, since it is at the southernmost tip of Israel. Yet another idea is that it is yam sufa, “Storm Sea”, referring to the great wind storm that God sent to part the waters (Exodus 14:21). Whatever the case, there is little doubt that the Israelites did indeed cross what we know today as the Red Sea.

The bigger question is: where exactly did they cross?

Some believe that the Red Sea got its name from the red blooms of sea sawdust, Trichodesmium erythraeum (a type of cyanobacteria), that occasionally happen there.

Sinai or Saudi Arabia?

NASA Satellite Image of the Sinai Peninsula

It is commonly thought that Mount Sinai is somewhere in what is today called the Sinai Peninsula. In fact, back in the 6th century, Christians built a monastery on a mountain in the Peninsula which they believed to be Sinai. It still operates today as Saint Catherine’s Monastery, and is among the oldest Christian monasteries in the world. The only problem is that it isn’t anywhere near the real Mt. Sinai.

First off, the Torah introduces us to Mount Sinai when Moses is living far from Egypt in Midian. Recall that Moses had fled Egypt, and eventually ended up living among the Bedouins of Midian… This already confirms that Mount Sinai was probably not in today’s Sinai Peninsula, which would have still been under Egyptian control in those days. In fact, we know from historical and archaeological evidence that in those days, the Egyptians ruled at least as far as Canaan itself. Moses fled outside of Egypt’s domain, across the Red Sea, to what is today Saudi Arabia. This is the land traditionally associated with the Midianites. And the Torah tells us that Mt. Sinai is there (Exodus 3:1-2):

And Moses was shepherding the flock of Jethro, his father-in-law, the priest of Midian; and he led the flock to the farthest end of the wilderness, and came to the mountain of God, unto Horev. And the angel of God appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed…

The Torah famously tells us that Moses saw a burning bush during his first encounter on the “mountain of God”. In Hebrew, it is called a s’neh, which gives rise to the name Mount Sinai. This mountain is in the wilderness around Midian, in a land call Horev. Later on, the Israelites cross the Red Sea and journey towards this same mountain, where they receive the Ten Commandments. This implies that the Israelites crossed somewhere in the Gulf of Aqaba, ending up in what is today Saudi Arabia. This makes all the more sense since they can journey from there to the wilderness “on the other side of the Jordan”, where they spent forty years before crossing the Jordan River—from the East—into Israel.

Amazingly, there is a mountain in Saudi Arabia which is completely sealed off by the authorities, and off limits to any historians or archaeologists…

The above is an excerpt from Garments of Light, Volume Two. To continue reading, get the book here