Tag Archives: Mysticism

Three Reasons to be Religious

An artist’s rendition of the Ark of the Covenant

In this week’s parasha, Vayelech, we read how Moses completes writing the Torah and places it inside the Ark of the Covenant. The parasha cautions multiple times that we must not stray from this Torah, for our own benefit. At this introspective time of year, it is especially pertinent to ask: what is the benefit of living a Torah life? Why bother being religious? Aside from the simple answers, like fulfilling God’s will, earning an afterlife, or knowing this is the right way, what are the tangible, clear, positive impacts of living religiously? While there are, of course, many reasons, the following are three vital benefits of a life according to God’s Torah.

1. Personal Development that Works

Although Mussar as a large-scale movement only began in the 19th century, it has always been a central part of Judaism. The root of the word mussar (מוּסַר) literally means “restraint” or “discipline”. It is about developing self-control, awareness, morality, and being in tune with one’s inner qualities. The origin of this word is actually in the Book of Proverbs, which begin with this very term: “The proverbs of Solomon, the son of David, king of Israel, to know wisdom and mussar, to comprehend sayings of understanding, to receive mussar of reason, justice, law, and ethics.”

Before Proverbs, the word mussar appears once in the Torah, in reference to God disciplining us (Deuteronomy 11:2). The Torah instructs us to be kind and generous, humble and wise, restrained and strong; to take care of the widow and orphan, of the poor and oppressed. The prophets of Israel continued to instruct the people in this way, reminding them to be upright and just individuals. The tradition continued into the Rabbinic period, with ancient treatises like Pirkei Avot (a tractate of the Mishnah) wholly devoted to inspiring personal growth and self-improvement.

One who lives a Torah lifestyle is immersed in such teachings. Whether it’s simply reading the weekly parasha, or listening to the rabbi’s dvar; going through Avot in the weeks between Passover and Shavuot, reciting Selichot in the Forty (or Ten) Days of Repentance, or participating in the various fasts throughout the year, a religious Jew is simply unable to abstain from personal growth of some kind. We are constantly reminded of the humility of Moses, the selflessness of Abraham, the devotion of David, and the wisdom of Solomon; the incomparable patience of Hillel, the studiousness of Rabbi Akiva, and the tremendous qualities of countless other great figures. These are our heroes, and we are constantly prompted to emulate them.

There is no doubt whatsoever that a Jew who is truly religious (and not just religious in appearance, or because this is how he grew up) is continually becoming ever kinder, more humble, and generally a better human being. Now, it may be argued that even a non-religious person can focus on personal growth, and there isn’t a lack of secular self-help literature out there. This is true, but there is one key difference:

The secular person is improving for their own benefit (and the benefit of those immediately around them), while the religious person is improving not only for that benefit, but also because he understands that God demands this of him. This is important because the secular person might feel like reading a self-improvement book this week, or working hard on himself this year, but might completely forget about it next week, or might have a very busy year in which he didn’t have any time for this kind of thing at all. The religious Jew does not have this luxury. He will be fervently repenting and reflecting during the High Holiday season, and during Sefirat HaOmer and during the Three Weeks, because he is obligated to do so and cannot abstain. Religion forces us to improve. It demands that we become better, and God will judge us if we do not. This makes all the difference.

Take, for example, a person going on a diet. We all know that the vast majority of diets fail. Why is this so? Because there is nothing external forcing a person to stick to the diet. Eventually, they will slip up once, and then again, and soon enough the diet will be a forgotten thing of the past. Meanwhile, a religious person who takes upon themselves a kosher diet is unlikely to lapse. Most religious Jews happily stick to a kosher diet their entire life, despite the fact that it is so difficult. Why is such a diet successful? Because there is an external factor—God—that keeps us firmly on the diet.

Thus, while every 21st century Westerner might be engaged in some sort of secular personal development, these fleeting periods of growth are inconsistent at best, and completely ineffective at worst. Religious-based personal development works, and this is one major benefit to a Torah lifestyle.

2. The Importance of Community

While other religions may be practiced in solitude, Judaism is an entirely communal faith. The ideal prayer is in a minyan of ten or more, the ideal Torah study in pairs; marriage and child-bearing are a must, a holiday is no holiday without a large gathering, and even a simple daily meal should ideally have at least three people. Judaism is all about bringing people together. Indeed, Jews are famous for sticking together and helping each other out. There are interest-free loans, and a gmach that freely provides to those in need of everything from diapers to furniture. Jews pray together, feast together, study together, and take care of each other. A Jew can visit the remotest Chabad House in the farthest corner of the world and still feel like he is having a Shabbat meal at home.

“Belongingness” fills the third rung of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Judaism neatly facilitates the fulfilment of all five rungs.

Jews are not a nation, culture, ethnicity, or even a religion; we are, as Rabbi Moshe Zeldman put it, a family. And it is worth being a part of this extended family. We know from the field of psychology how important “belongingness” is. We know the troubles that people go through just to feel like they belong, or to have a community around them. We know how loneliness plays a key role in depression and mental illness. We know that “no man is an island”, and how important it is to be surrounded by a supportive community. The religious Jewish community is tight-knit like no other. Doors are always open for Sabbaths and holidays, charities are always open to help, and the synagogue serves as the nucleus of the community.

It is important to mention here how necessary it is for a community to stay physically close together. This is one major positive side-effect of not driving on Shabbat. In so doing, we must remain within walking distance of the synagogue, and therefore within walking distance of the whole community. The fatal error that the Conservative movement made was in allowing driving to the synagogue. As soon as this change was made, people saw no need to live close to the synagogue, and bought homes further and further away, tearing the community apart. Once the largest Jewish denomination in America, Conservative Judaism has been on a steadily decline ever since.

And so, the second major reason to be religious is the close community that comes with it. Dan Buettner, who famously spent decades studying communities around the world where people live longest and healthiest, concluded that being part of a “faith-based community” adds as much as fourteen years to a person’s life!

3. Cultivating the Mind, Mastering the Universe

Today, we find ourselves in an incredible age where centuries worth of philosophy, mysticism, and science are converging. Going back at least as far as George Berkeley (1685-1753), and really much farther to Plato (c. 427-347 BCE), philosophers have long noted the illusory nature of this physical world, and some denied the very existence of concrete material as we perceive it. The only real substance to this universe, according to them, is the mind. We live in a mental universe.

While this may sound far-fetched, the physics of the past century has brought us a great deal of proof to support it. The Big Bang taught us that the entire universe emerged from a miniscule, singular point, and that all was once in a ball of uniform energy, and that all matter (which appears to come in so many shapes and forms) really emerges from one unified source. The famous double-slit experiment showed us that all particles of matter are also simultaneously waves. Sometimes particles behave like solid objects, and other times like transient waves. The only difference is the presence of an observer, a conscious mind. Our minds literally impact our surroundings. Max Planck, regarded as the father of quantum physics, remarked:

As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter.

The “matrix” of this vast universe is the mind. Of course, this has been a central part of Kabbalah and other schools of mysticism for millennia. The Tikkunei Zohar (18b) transforms the first word of the Torah, Beresheet (בראשית), into Rosh Bayit (ראש בית), ie. that this entire universe (bayit), is a product of God’s “Mind”, or perhaps existing in His head (rosh). In fact, the Kabbalists say that if God were to stop thinking about a person even for the briefest of moments, that person would cease to exist. This is related to what we say daily in our prayers, that God “each day, constantly, renews Creation.” God is that Mind that holds the universe in existence.

And we are all a part of that Mind. After all, He made us in His image, with a small piece of that universal consciousness. This is related to the “quantum brain” hypothesis we have spoken of in the past, a scientific theory suggesting that our brains are entangled with the universe, which may itself be “conscious” in some way. In short, thousands of years of human reason, mysticism, and experimentation points to one conclusion: the only real currency in this universe is the mind.

In that case, the only thing really worth developing is the mind. The more powerful one’s mind is, the greater control one wields over the universe. This isn’t just a pretty saying, we know scientifically that our minds affect the universe around us. More personally, studies have shown that meditation (and prayer) can actually impact the way our genes are expressed! We may be able to consciously affect the biology of our bodies down to the molecular level.

The placebo effect is the best proof for this. Science still cannot explain how it is that a person who simply believes they are receiving treatment will actually heal. Surgeons have even done placebo surgeries, with results showing that people who were only led to believe they were operated on still improved just as well as those who actually went under the knife. How is this possible?

The answer is obvious: our minds have a very real, concrete, physical affect on reality. Unfortunately, most people are unaware of this latent power, and must be duped into it (as with placebos). But that power is definitely there, and its potential is immeasurable. One must only work to develop these mental powers.

Judaism provides us with exactly this opportunity. Like no other religion, Judaism is entirely based on ceaseless mental growth. We must always be studying, praying, blessing, meditating, contemplating, and reasoning. Scripture tells us to meditate upon the Torah day and night (Joshua 1:8), and the Talmud reminds us that talmud Torah k’neged kulam, learning Torah is more important than all other things. The mystical tradition, meanwhile, is built upon mental exercises like hitbonenut (“self-reflection”) and hitbodedut (“self-seclusion”), yichudim (“unifications”) and kavannot (“intentions”). A religious Jew is constantly developing not only their outer intellect, but their inner mental capacities.

And this is the true meaning of Emunah, loosely translated as “faith”. The first time the word appears in the Torah is during the battle with Amalek, following the Exodus, where we read how Moses affected the outcome of the battle by holding up his arms emunah (Exodus 17:12). Moses was very much affecting the universe around him. The only other time the word appears in the Torah itself is in next week’s parasha, Ha’azinu, where God is described as El Emunah (Deuteronomy 32:4). In light of what was said above, this epithet makes sense: God is that Universal Mind that brings this illusory physical world into existence. God is the ultimate mental power, and our minds are only tapping into that infinite pool.

Not surprisingly, the prophets and sages describe Emunah as the most powerful force in the universe. King David said he chose the path of Emunah (Psalms 119:30), while King Solomon said that one who breathes Emunah is the greatest tzaddik, and has the power to repair the world with his tongue (Proverbs 12:17-18). Amazingly, the Sages (Makkot 23b) reduced the entire Torah—all 613 mitzvot—to one verse: “The righteous shall live in his Emunah” (Habakkuk 2:4). Perhaps what they meant is that the purpose of all the mitzvot is ultimately to develop our Emunah; to strengthen our minds, to recognize the Divine within every iota of the universe, and to align our consciousness with God’s. This is the secret of the rabbinic maxim: “Make your will like His will, so that He should make His will like your will. Nullify your will before His will, so that He should nullify the will of others before your will.” (Avot 2:4)

Being religious Jews provides us with a regular opportunity (and requirement) to develop our mental faculties. Aside from the many positive health effects of doing so (including staving off mental and neurological illnesses, and even living longer), we are also given a chance to become real masters of the universe around us; to transcend our limited physical bodies. At the end of the day, that’s what life is all about.

The Mystical Purpose of the Omer

“Bringing the Omer to the Kohen” by Ahuva Klein

In this week’s parasha, Emor, we read of the commandment to count the Omer. Each of the forty-nine days between the holidays of Pesach and Shavuot must be enumerated. In Temple times, this went along with a special “wave-offering” consisting of sheaves (omer in Hebrew) of barley. The Torah doesn’t clearly spell out why this must be done. However, a big clue is given from the conspicuous interplay between the words Emor (the name of the parasha) and Omer (the mitzvah commanded in this parasha).

The difference between Emor (אמר) and Omer (עמר) is just a single letter: an aleph replaced with an ayin. Our Sages point out that when two words differ in such a way, there is a special connection between them. The letter aleph is the first in the alphabet, with a value of one, representing the One God. (In fact, an aleph is composed of two yuds joined by a vav, the sum of which is 26, equal to God’s Ineffable Name, Yud-Hei-Vav-Hei). Each Hebrew letter is also a word with its own meaning. “Aleph” means “master” or “chief”, once more hinting to God being the Master of the Universe. Ayin, meanwhile, means “eye”. The eyes are the tools with which we see this physical world. Because of this, the eyes mislead us, distracting us from the truth that everything is truly One. Indeed, the Shema that we recite twice daily cautions not to follow “after your eyes”. The aleph therefore represents spirituality, while the ayin represents physicality.

The Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570) suggests that Israel represents the unique, spiritual nation among the seventy root nations of the world that are trapped in physicality, the value of ayin being 70. Here (Pardes Rimonim 13:3), he gives the most famous example of the interplay between aleph and ayin: The Sages state that Adam and Eve were initially created as beings of light (אור). Only after consuming the Forbidden Fruit did their light disappear, replaced with fragile skin (עור). Other examples of such parallel terms described in mystical texts include “me” (אני) and “poor” (עני), “nothingness” (אין) and “eye” (עין), and the words in question: “emor” (אמר) and “omer” (עמר).

“Emor” means to speak. It is one of three major roots for “speaking” in Hebrew. The Zohar (I, 234b) explains that ledaber (לדבר) refers to simple, day-to-day speech; le’emor (לאמר) is to speak from the heart; and lehagid (להגיד) is to speak from the soul. For more practical examples, a simple, everyday Torah insight is called a dvar (דבר), while a long and in-depth discourse is a ma’amar (מאמר), and on Pesach we have a particularly special text that comes straight from the soul called the haggadah (הגדה). The form of speech we are interested in here is emor—speech of the heart.

What is the connection between this type of speech and the Omer?

32 Paths of Wisdom

Sefer Yetzirah, perhaps the oldest Jewish mystical text, explains how God brought about the universe. It begins by stating that God created through 32 Paths of Wisdom. These 32 paths are the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the 10 Sefirot (as explained here). Sefer Yetzirah tells us that the first letters God forged were aleph, mem, and shin, which brought about the three primordial elements: air (avir or ruach), water (mayim), and fire (esh). These central letters therefore stand at the three horizontal axes of the Kabbalistic “Tree of Life”. The Arizal elaborates (Sha’ar Ruach HaKodesh, drush 2) that God then brought about the substances of the first day of Creation: light, water, and space, ie. or (אור), mayim (מים), and rakia (רקיע). As we read in the Torah, these were the only things in existence at the end of Day One.

The three horizontal lines of the Tree of Life correspond to the paths of the letters Aleph, Mem, and Shin.

You may have already noticed that the initials of these three things make aleph-mem-reish (אמר), “emor”. Amazingly, it is exclusively this verb of speech that the Torah uses in describing God’s creation: v’yomer, God spoke (ויאמר), and everything came to be. It is this form of speech that contains within it the very power of Creation.

Even more amazingly, the Zohar we saw above states that this is speech from the heart. The heart is a special organ for, unlike any other organ, it literally intertwines with every single living cell in the human body, ensuring that the tiniest bodily component receives oxygen and nutrients. So, too, does God permeate the entire universe, and is intertwined with even the tiniest bit of matter, ensuring its continual existence. In Hebrew, “heart” is lev (לב), which has a value of 32, once more alluding to those 32 paths of Creation.

Better yet, the 32 paths correspond to the 32 times that God (Elohim) is mentioned in the account of Creation. It is only after the account of Creation ends, at the 33rd instance, that the Torah introduces us to God’s Ineffable Name. So, too, during the Sefirat haOmer period, we have 32 days before we reach the climax of the whole Omer period, the 33rd day, the holiday of Lag b’Omer. Of course, man is a microcosm of the universe, so it is only fitting that the human body has a spinal cord with 31 pairs of nerves emerging out of it, sitting beneath the all-important 33rd component, the brain.

With this in mind, we can understand the connection between Emor and Omer.

Rectifying Speech

The Sefirat haOmer period is meant to be one of rectification and purification. Upon the Exodus, the Israelites spent these 49 days preparing to receive the Torah at Sinai. We relive this experience each year, and likewise work on ourselves in these seven weeks. When we count the Omer each night, we quote from the verse in this week’s parasha: “And you shall count for yourselves from the morrow after the day of rest, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the waving [omer hatenufah]; seven weeks shall there be complete; until the morrow after the seventh week shall you count fifty days…” (Leviticus 23:15-16) and then we add, in many versions of the prayer, “in order to purify the souls of Your people Israel from their impurity.” The very purpose of the Omer is personal development and purification. How do we purify ourselves?

The greatest sin that needs to be atoned for is improper speech. The Talmud (Yoma 44a) states that it was for this sin in particular that the Kohen Gadol entered the Holy of Holies just once a year, on Yom Kippur. Conversely, as we saw above, proper speech has the power to create worlds. Impure speech can be immensely destructive while pure speech can rectify anything. King Solomon similarly wrote that “death and life are in the hand of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). It is through the mouth that we speak, and the tongue is its primary organ. Beautifully, the mouth, too, contains 32 teeth to parallel the 32 paths of Creation, with the central 33rd component being the tongue.

More than anything else, the purpose of the Omer (עמר) is to allow us to rectify our speech (אמר). The Torah itself hints to this in the verse above, calling the special offering of these 49 days the omer hatenufah, where the latter word can be split (תנו פה) to mean “give mouth”, or “teach the mouth”. Each of the seven weeks that the Torah prescribes correspond to one of the seven mystical middot of the Tree of Life. In the Omer period, we are meant to rectify these seven “lower” Sefirot (hinted in the term Sefirat HaOmer). We do not mention the three “higher” sefirot above. We can understand why this is so, for the Sages say the upper sefirot are the mochin of the mind, while the lower seven are the middot of the heart—and as we saw above, it is the speech of the heart that we are particularly focusing on. The final Sefirah is called Malkhut, “Kingdom”, which Patach Eliyahu (Tikkunei Zohar 17a) says is פה, the mouth. The very culmination of the Sefirat HaOmer period is the purification of speech.

The mochin above (in blue) and the middot below (in red).

Rabbi Akiva’s Students

The Sefirat HaOmer period overlaps with the tragic deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students. As is well-known, the students died because they lacked respect for one another. How exactly did they disrespect each other? Although we have discussed in the past that they were probably killed by the Romans during the Bar Kochva Revolt, the Talmud (Yevamot 62b) cryptically states that they died of a disease called croup. Elsewhere, the Talmud (Sotah 35a) suggests that croup is the standard Heavenly punishment for a person who commits slander. We may learn from this that Rabbi Akiva’s students spoke negatively about each other, and thus deserved their cruel death penalty.

Rabbi Akiva’s students ceased to die on the 33rd of the Omer, as if God was hinting at their misuse of the tremendous powers of speech. One of Rabbi Akiva’s surviving students, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, himself had to hide from the Romans for 13 years because he spoke negatively about the authorities. It was he who ultimately fixed the 33rd of the Omer as a holiday. Although this was the day of his death, it was also the day he revealed the depths of Kabbalah, and the teachings that would eventually be compiled into the Zohar. Lag b’Omer is a celebration of this mystical wisdom, much of which is focused on the powers of divine speech.

To bring it all together, we find that the term “lag” (לג) actually appears in the Torah. It is found only in one passage, Leviticus 14, where it refers to a measure of oil, log hashamen. This was a special oil used in the purification procedure for a metzora, loosely translated as a “leper”. The Sages teach that a person would be afflicted with this illness if they spoke negatively about another, motzi shem ra, hence the term “metzora”. Like the Omer, the log hashamen was also a “wave-offering”, a tenufah. Afterwards, the oil was sprinkled and poured upon the leper in order to purify them. If “log” (לג) hints to the oil used to purify improper speech, and Omer (עומר) is the inverse of emor, itself alluding to impure speech, then Lag b’Omer (לג בעומר) takes on an entirely new meaning.

Chag sameach!