Kabbalah’s Biblical Roots in the Torah Portion of Vaeirah
Some skeptics ask: Where in the Torah – in the written Torah that is – is there reference made to the spiritual, the mystical?
A very devout Rabbi once actually criticized me for using the word ‘spiritual’ in my talks and writings. “Spiritual,” he suggested “is a foreign concept to Judaism.” “Why are you allowing Torah teachings to be contaminated by new age ideas, by this… by thissss, spiritual thing?!” he stammered, barely able to utter the word ‘spiritual’ from his mouth, as if it were an anathema.
Others have suggested that too many teachers today have gotten caught up in ‘psychobabble,’ and are replacing time tested classical Torah thoughts for modern day fads, or at least adding them into our vocabulary, instead of relying on the language that has always been used by Rabbis and scholars.
It reminds me of an interesting question I was once asked at the end of one of my classes. A young man, clearly a yeshiva educated fellow, was disturbed by that fact that I was teaching “Kabbalah” as he put it, to people who were under forty years old. “Isn’t there a clear prohibition not to study Kabbalah until you reach the age of forty?” he contended.
I replied by asking him if he says Modeh Ani with his young children. [Modeh Ani is a morning prayer recited right upon awakening. In it you acknowledge G-d for returning your soul to you after a night’s sleep. In the original: Modeh ani lefonecho Melech chai v’kayam she’hechozarto bi neshmosi, b’chemlah rabbo emunosecho]. “Of course,” he said, of course I teach my children this prayer.” I continued: “And what do you tell your child when s/he asks you what is “nishmosi” (my soul), where did my soul go to during sleep, and what does it mean that my soul is now being returned to me – how do you explain this to your child?”
I was hoping that he wouldn’t tell me that his children don’t ask these questions. Because children do ask these questions, and if they don’t there’s a problem. Anyone thinking about these words has to ask what does a soul mean? Where does it go, and how does it return.
“Do you tell your child,” I asked, “that you will have to wait till you’re forty years old before I can explain to you the meaning of a soul (neshomo)?…”
“And then what do you tell your child when they say the next prayer, “Elokei neshomo she’nosatoh bi tehoreh hi, atoh boroso, atoh yotzarto, atoh nofachto bi, v’atoh meshamoro b’kirbi” (My G-d, the soul which you have given within me is pure, You have created it, You have formed it, You have breathed it into me, and you preserve it within me.” What are these levels of “tehoreh,” “boroso,” “yotzarto,” “nofachto”? Does anyone suggest that we are not to understand the meaning of our prayers until we become 40 years old?! And “tell me, my friend, if we don’t understand what we pray for 40 years, will we be able, or even be interested, to understand their meaning when we hit 40?!
I explain to him and to the class, that the prohibition of learning Kabbalah (even if it applies today – which requires a discussion of its own) certainly doesn’t apply to explaining the meaning of a soul to our children and ourselves!
The basic foundation of the entire Torah is that G-d created the universe (the first verse in Genesis) and gave the human race laws by which to live. Torah is based on the fact that we have a relationship with G-d and we are required to cultivate this relationship; to ‘know G-d,’ to ‘love G-d’ and to stand in ‘awe of G-d’ – are all mitzvahs in the Torah, obligations that every man, woman and child are required to fulfill (not at age… 40, but) from the time of bar/bat mitzvah, and education of this relationship begins from the youngest age, from birth and even earlier.
No, spirituality is not a foreign concept to Judaism; it is the essence of the entire Torah: To establish a relationship between the mundane and the Divine. To bridge heaven and earth – the material and the spiritual – through infusing our physical lives with G-dly energy. ‘Ruchnius’ is the word in Hebrew for spirituality; the entire Torah and mitzvot was given to bring peace to the world – peace between matter and spirit, to achieve dominance of spirit over matter (‘hagborot ha’tzurah al ha’chomer,’ ‘nafsho ikker, v’gufo tofel’ – see Tanya chapter 32).
There are two dimensions in this process, corresponding to the two dimensions in Torah: The ‘body’ of Torah – Talmud, halacha (law) – teaches us the Divine mechanics about how to live our lives, the ‘whats’ and the ‘whens.’ The ‘soul’ of Torah – the esoteric and mystical – teaches us the inner spirit of all the mitzvahs. Like a body and a soul both are necessary, the fusion of both creates one complete unit.
We have been trained and taught not to teach Kabbalah per se, but to teach the basics of Judaism, the abc’s that have always been known by Torah scholars and leaders: to teach about the soul and it’s connection to G-d. To teach that Torah is not only a body of laws, a conglomerate of tradition and history, a document of inspiration. Torah is a rich spiritual text that addresses the real issues of life. Torah is instruction (form the word ‘horaah’), a guiding light that illuminates the paths of life, addressing all our challenges – our pain and joy, our childhood and growth, our homes and wealth, life and death and everything in between, over and under.
Judaism is not just a culture and a religion; it is a comprehensive blueprint – and yes, a spiritual blueprint – for life.
This is why the Torah is still with us today. Not because of it being yet another constitution of law, but because it carries the eternity of the Divine, and yes, the spiritual and sublime, that transcends the vicissitudes of time and space. Timeless, yet always profoundly relevant and timely.
All my classes and writings are produced with this spirit in mind. I always hope and pray that I succeed in being faithful to the source material and maintain the integrity of the original while attempting to apply it to contemporary life.
Indeed, this is one of the biggest challenges facing us today: How to experience Torah as relevant to our lives. How to apply Torah teachings in a way that resonates and is indispensable to us.
But after all, after so many discussions on the psycho-spiritual applications of Torah thought, where is there reference in the Torah to these mystical and psychological dimensions?
One of the prominent places is in this week’s Torah portion (Vaeirah). The parsha opens with G-d’s words to Moses:
“I am G-d (Y-H-V-H). I revealed Myself to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob, by the name of El Sha-dai, but by My name, Y-H-V-H, I did not make Myself known to them.”
What is the difference between ‘El Sha-dai’ and ‘Y-H-V-H’? And isn’t the name Y-H-V-H also mentioned earlier when G-d appears to the Patriarchs?
These different levels of Divine revelation are obviously mystical and spiritual by definition, and can only be properly understood in that context.
Even Rashi, the classical Torah commentator, who explains the verse according to pshat (the literal interpretation), comments here, that G-d is saying to Moses: “I did not reveal My quintessential truth,” represented by the divine name Y-H-V-H, to the Patriarchs.
What we have here are clearly different spiritual expressions of the Divine. G-d’s quintessential truth expressed in Y-H-V-H in contrast to the name El Sha-dai which represents a more limited manifestation of G-d’s expression.
The great Torah scholar and Kabbalist, Rabbi Menachem Emnuel Ezariah of Pano (1548-1620) and the Shaloh (1565-1630) explain that the Torah essentially “speaks about that which is above [the spiritual] and alludes to that which is below [the physical].” In other words, Torah is a spiritual document that ‘speaks in human language.” This does not mean that the verse is not to be taken literally (we have the axiom that ‘ayn mikra yotsei m’idei pehsuto’), but that the root and source of the literal is in the sublime. Or as Nachmanides (the Ramban) writes: “The entire Torah are names of G-d.”
Therefore it should be no surprise that there are many direct references in Torah to the spiritual, beginning with the first description of the human being, created in the “image of G-d.” Unique to this week’s Torah portion is the fact that we catch a direct glimpse of the Divine names, the different manifestations of G-dly energy, which is generally concealed in other parts of Torah (though all of Torah are ‘names of G-d’).
Today more than ever we are in desperate need of the psycho-spiritual application of Torah in order to demonstrate its personal relevance. Religious commitment is meant to be experienced not by rote, but with renewed vitality each day. This is possible only if we allow our souls to experience tradition with a deep spirituality, and not be just trapped in the mechanical ritual of our bodies.
And this spirituality is not just the domain of the spiritual seeker. Each of us has the obligation to infuse our rituals with life, passion and vivacity.
May we all live up to the Maggid of Mezeritch’s interpretation of “v’chai bohem,” ‘and you shall live by them [by the mitzvot]’ – you shall make the mitzvot come alive…