This weekend we complete the yearly cycle of Torah readings with the final parasha, V’Zot HaBerakhah. Here we read Moses’ last words to the nation before his passing, starting with a blessing for each tribe of Israel. The prologue to the blessings introduces God as coming for Israel “from Sinai, and arising from Seir unto them. He shined forth from Mount Paran, and He came with holy myriads at His right, [to give] a fiery law to His people.” (Deuteronomy 33:2) The Sages use this verse as one of the supports for the practice of taking three steps back and bowing to each side when concluding the Amidah prayer. What is the connection between the two, and why do we take three steps and bow, anyway? Continue reading
In this week’s double parasha of Nitzavim and Vayelekh we read that “The hidden things are for Hashem, our God, and the revealed things are for us and our children forever, to fulfil the words of this Law.” (Deuteronomy 29:28) One of the common explanations for the “hidden things”, nistarot, is that it refers to Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition. Unfortunately, the term “Kabbalah” is among the most misunderstood and misused today. Some people think it refers to a religion of its own, or some sort of cult. Others think it is a secret book. Many more associate it with black magic or witchcraft (God forbid). It has given rise to the English word “cabal” (a sinister or conspiratorial group). None of these things are even remotely true.
Kabbalah simply refers to the more complicated, esoteric teachings of the Torah. As is well-known, the Torah can be studied on four levels: peshat, “simple”; remez, “allusions” (reading between the lines); drash, “allegory” and metaphor; and sod, “secret”. Kabbalah is primarily concerned with the latter category. Like other mystical systems, its purpose is to guide the person into a deeper understanding of God, the universe, and one’s soul. It involves a great deal of metaphysics and cosmogony, prayer and meditation, along with a heavy emphasis on penance and tikkun, “spiritual rectification”. A large part of Kabbalah is about understanding God’s mitzvot on a deeper level. Reincarnation and related spiritual migrations play a sizeable role, as does the cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil. Ultimately, Kabbalah is about elevating ever-higher and drawing as close to God as possible.
What follows is six big myths about Kabbalah, and why they are totally wrong. Continue reading
This week’s parasha, Vayetze, begins with Jacob’s famous vision of the Heavenly Ladder, upon which he saw angels “ascending and descending” (Genesis 28:12). Many of our Sages have pointed out that the gematria of “ladder” (סלם) is equivalent with “Sinai” (סיני). The Zohar (I, 149a, Sitrei Torah) states that Jacob saw a vision of his descendants receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The Zohar goes on to discuss the profound connection between the two, focusing on the mysterious words of Psalm 68, which describes the Sinai Revelation.
It begins by stating that atop the Ladder, Jacob saw the chief angel Metatron, the “elder” of the Heavens. In the Talmud (Chagigah 14b), we read how the rabbi Elisha ben Avuyah became an apostate after ascending to Heaven and seeing Metatron, the Heavenly “scribe”, sitting on what appeared to be a throne. In a serious error, Elisha confused Metatron for some kind of deity of his own. The Talmud doesn’t say too much more on this, but the Zohar passage here clarifies the matter.