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Containing the lights

Healing paranoia

In Parashat Beshalach we reach the climax of the exodus from the Egyptian exile?the parting of theRed Sea and the song the Children of Israel sang at the sea.

Although the Jewish people had physically left Egypt, salve until they actually saw the entire Egyptian army dead at the seashore, web they constantly looked back in fear that the Egyptians were close at their heels. It was then that the Jewish people were released from the paranoid fear that had held them in its clutches. At that moment they saw God’s might in redeeming them so clearly that they began singing, “This is my God and I will extol Him.”

The soul’s exodus from Egypt

The collective Jewish memory of the exodus from Egypt accompanies us throughout life and it is a mitzvah to recall the day of the exodus every day, which we do by reciting the third paragraph of the Shema every evening and morning, including the verse, “I am Havayah your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt…”

Yet, our daily recollection of the exodus from Egypt treats it as more than just a significant historical event, it also has great symbolic significance within our psyches. Our souls are held captive within our bodies in a materialistic world, and like the Israelites in Egypt, it needs to be released from the body’s physical limitations. This we attain through our daily prayers. When we recite the Shema, we reaccept God’s yoke upon us and thus free ourselves from any previous commitments to our physical existence, which threatens to enslave us in its clutches, so much so that we need to be warned “Do not stray after your eyes.” Nonetheless, just like our national exodus from Egypt, our own redemption is not complete until the sea of materiality parts and our consciousness manages to break through to a higher level where we can perceive reality’s Divine source.

In the Shema we speak about God, but we do not yet speak to God. Yet, as we stand for the silent Amidah prayer, from the moment of our opening request, we turn directly to Him saying, “God, open my lips and my mouth shall speak Your praise.” This is the moment when the “sea” that usually prevents our spiritual development splits before us and all of our enemies drown in its fathomless depths. The song that the Jews sung immediately after the sea split in a miraculous revelation of the Divine is actually prayer. Indeed, the gematria of both “song” (???????) and “prayer” (????????) is 515. When standing in prayer before God, “the individual should see himself as if he is standing before the King and speaking to Him.” While praying, we should dismiss all foreign thoughts that diffuse our concentration. If we stand in prayer as we should, all foreign thoughts will drown in the sea behind us and recede from our consciousness.

While we say the Shema we close our eyes to the influence of physical reality, which the sages describe as a world of deceit, because it conceals God. But during the Amidah prayer, we pray with our eyes open to take sight of how all our enemies disappear until only pure Divinity remains, just as it was at the parting of the Red Sea. “Israel saw the great hand… and the people feared Havayah.” All negative fears disappear and all that remains is pure fear of God (which is why the silent prayer should not be interrupted in any way.)

From a Kabbalistic perspective, each part of the morning prayers corresponds to a different spiritual World, or state of consciousness. We begin our prayers in the World of Action and then rise through the World of Formation until we recite the Shema and reach the World of Creation. In order to rise to the next spiritual world, the World of Emanation, which is a state of absolute Divine consciousness, something must split in our soul. This is referred to as splitting the screen that divides between the lower Worlds and the World of Emanation.

From the silent prayer to its communal repetition

By taking this allegory of prayer as redemption one step further, we can see that there are two integral stages: first, the splitting of the sea, when the Jewish people walked through it and the Egyptians drowned, and second, when the Jewish people saw the Egyptians dead at the seashore and spontaneously broke out in a song of praise to God. Until that moment the people could not yet believe that they had indeed been saved from the Egyptians, but once they were finally released from any impression of fear and paranoia they sang God’s praises.

Correspondingly, the Amidah prayer is also divided into two parts, the silent prayer followed by the repetition out loud by the prayer leader. The Arizal explains that initially, we still need to beware of outside forces, which is why we are not allowed to pray out loud (similar to the Shema, when we must close our eyes so as not to see the outside world), but during the communal repetition by the prayer leader, no fear of outside forces remains at all and we can pray out loud.

The silent prayer corresponds to experiencing the Red Seasplitting, while we are still aware of the enemies’ existence. But the repetition corresponds to the song at the sea itself, after the final release from all foreign oppression. Indeed, the song at the sea is a classic example of communal prayer out loud, with Moses acting as prayer leader, and the people repeating after Moses, word for word, just as the Hallel is read.

When the Jewish people passed through the sea, their unity as a congregation was not yet apparent. The miracle was experienced more from a personal perspective, like the silent prayer, when each individual in the congregation stands alone in his personal prayer. Another idea that upholds this view is that the sages state that theRed Seasplit into twelve different paths, one for each tribe; similarly the Arizal taught that there are twelve principal versions of prayer, each representing the specific gates through which the prayers of each tribe pass.

Yet the song of the sea was sung by everyone together; an enormous congregation of six-hundred-thousand people all sung it in unison (the women also participated in the song, and their prayer leader was Miriam the Prophetess, and they played tambourines so that the men would not hear their voices.) This state of unity is the highest level of all.

We are taught that in the future redemption the effect of the exodus and the splitting of the sea will be reproduced. We have escaped the clutches of those who threaten to enslave us physically and experienced the exodus to some extent with the return to Zion but we are still influenced by post-trauma paranoia—our mental faculties and our cultural perception are still enslaved to the non-Jewish culture and we look behind us, as it were, fearing the harsh reaction of the nations. Yet, in this way we drag the impurity of the exile behind us and bring it into theHoly Land. As it was then, so today, we must continue to advance through a “sea” that perhaps appears even more perilous than the enemies we have escaped. In doing so, we can extricate ourselves from our imagined fear and from our dependency on various oppressors and become a truly free people, serving God alone.

from Rabbi Ginsburgh’s class 7th Shevat 5772

When the Jewish people in its entirety stood beneath Mt.Sinai to receive the Torah, for sale ambulance they experienced a miracle greater than the exodus from Egypt and the Ten Plagues and more wondrous than the splitting of the Red Sea. The miracle that happened at Mt. Sinai was the revelation of God’s light to the world. At the Exodus from Egypt we are taught that, view no rx “The King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, revealed Himself and redeemed them,” at the sea, “A maidservant at the sea saw what the Prophets did not see,” But, it was only at Mt. Sinai, that the entire Jewish people prophesized together, “All the people saw the sounds.”

A miracle is a revelation of Divine energy, which is liable to merely disperse ineffectively if it is not contained. The vessels that can contain the Divine energy revealed through a miracle are God’s commandments, the mitzvot of the Torah. Indeed, we see that each miracle of the redemption was accompanied by a commandment: the plague of the Egyptian firstborns and the Exodus were accompanied by the mitzvot of sanctifying the New Moon and the Passover sacrifice; Rashi quoting the sages states that the splitting of the Red Sea was accompanied by the mitzvot of Shabbat, the red heifer and various laws; and most obviously, at the Revelation at Mt. Sinai we received the Ten Commandments and subsequently, Moses received the entire Torah with its 613 mitzvot.

Lights and vessels

The relationship between Divine revelation and the Torah’s commandments can be explained using the basic pair of Kabbalistic concepts: lights and vessels.

As mentioned above, a miracle reveals Divine light, but, without a vessel to contain it, the light is prone to disperse. The vessel gathers the tremendous energy released, contains it, and by integrating it in our daily lives, allows it to be transmitted as a matter of traditional observance from generation to generation. Therefore, at every stage of great enlightenment we need the appropriate vessels to contain the light. Following this reasoning, the sages state that in order to redeem the Jewish people from Egypt, God gave them the commandment of the Passover sacrifice and had them circumcise themselves—otherwise the light of redemption would not have been properly integrated.

A similar need arose after the Parting of the Red Sea and the exuberance attained by the people with the Song of the Sea. Once they left the shores of the Red Sea, they came to Marah, where they could not find water to drink. The name Marah literally means “bitter,” not only describing the fact that the only water to be found was bitter, but also the psychological bitterness that many times accompanies the slump following an exhilarating experience. When the energy accompanying a spiritual experience disperses and we are left with only the drudgery of life, we may be prone to depression. To alleviate the bitterness that ensues and sweeten it, we need more Torah and more mitzvot.

At Mt.Sinai, the revelation was so powerful that the people in the camp were unable to bear it. So much so that they entreated Moses, “You speak to us and we will hear, but let God not speak to us, lest we die.” In fact, according to the sages, “with every commandment [they heard from God], their souls parted [from their bodies].” Great spiritual light descends to the world and immediately disperses but the mitzvot are a suitable vessel in which the great light of the Revelation at Mt.Sinai can be preserved.

In every generation, every Jew should feel that it is he himself who was redeemed from Egypt. The light revealed during the great events from the Ten Plagues to the Giving of the Torah is preserved in the vessel of the mitzvot. By, keeping the mitzvot throughout the centuries, generation after generation, our forefathers ensured that the great light of the Divine revelation experienced then remains with us even now.

613 candles and one great light

Another way of understanding the relationship between lights and vessels is to see them as principles and details. The light revealed at Mt.Sinai constitutes the general principle, while the 613 mitzvot are the myriad details that serve to contain the light. “For a mitzvah is a candle and the Torah is light.” Every commandment is a candle; a well-defined vessel that can contain the Torah’s light.

The many commandments with all their details and precise requirements (all written with such small print in the Shulchan Aruch) may seem  dark and detached from great spiritual light. Indeed, some people searching for the light, for exhilarating spiritual experiences, find it difficult to comprehend why we need the mitzvot at all. What purpose does the vast world of halachah (Jewish law) serve in our quest for spirituality? Isn’t it better to experience Jewish spirituality by singing songs with friends and playing the guitar? This is a common mistake. In fact, here in this world we need an abundance of vessels to contain the lights because only the appropriate vessel can help us integrate the light.

In the words of the Zohar, the 613 mitzvot are 613 pieces of “advice.” Just as appropriate practical advice can aid an individual in a moment of distress, so too every mitzvah is a vessel that contains light like no other mitzvah. If you want to find the lights that illuminate reality, just calculate the value of the word “lights” (???????) and you will find that it is 613, the exact number of mitzvot in the Torah! Meaning that if you are looking for spiritual “lights” the place to find them is in the Torah’s 613 mitzvot.

Dark treasures

In spite of all we have explained, the vessels still appear more lowly and mundane than the lights. The reality of routine mitzvah observance appears far less exciting than the spiritual fireworks that we experienced at Sinai. Nonetheless, since we inhabit a physical reality and Divine light is so spiritual and supernal, we need practical mitzvot to act as an intermediary to capture the light, contain it, and integrate it.

But the inner dimension of the Torah teaches us that in fact, “the source of the vessels is higher than that of the lights.” Surprisingly, the vessel containing the light actually emanates from a higher level than the light it contains. Above and beyond the Divine light revealed during the Exodus and the giving of the Torah is the even higher source of the vessels, which from our physical perspective appears absolutely dark. Therefore, in Kabbalah it is referred to as “the supernal darkness,” not because it is inherently dark, but because we cannot perceive its illuminated state. It is from the supernal darkness that the vessels through which we can integrate the light descend into our reality.

This is exactly what the Torah relates regarding the experience at Mt.Sinai. While the entire people stood at the foot of the mountain, saw the voices and the torches and heard God’s word—an incredible experience of Divine light?Moses had to enter the place of darkness and bring down the Torah from there! Mt.Sinai was shrouded in “darkness, cloud and fog,” three screens, one inside the other with each progressively darker than the last. “Moses approached the fog where God is,” and it was from this “thick cloud” that we received the mitzvot.

In the book of Yeshayahu there is an amazing expression that illustrates this idea, “And I shall give you the treasures of darkness and the hidden caches.” The greatest treasures are hidden in darkness, like a king who hides his most precious treasure in a dark, secret hiding place.

The treasures of the soul

When considering the human soul, or psyche, the vessels manifest as the three garments through which the soul expresses itself: thought, speech and action. The lights are the soul’s attributes and essential faculties, the personality as it is in and of itself. Here too, the soul’s expressive garments (or, vessels) seem much lower than its essential faculties. Yet even so, the three garments descend from the soul’s highest unconscious root, the three super-conscious heads of the crown, as explained in length in Chassidut.

Thus, the greatest Divine treasures are present in the vessels, the mitzvot, which we practice with the soul’s garments: thought, speech and action. This means that the vessel that eventually transmits the light, although dark by nature is not only subordinate to the great light that is above it, but actually expresses the “fog where God is,” the very same darkness that is high above the lights. Indeed, the word “treasures” (?????????) is composed of the word “lights” (???????) with an additional letter tzadik (?). The tzadik, the righteous leader of the generation, like Moses is not content with the lights experienced during moments of spiritual exhilaration, but enters deeper into the thickness of the cloud to bring the “treasures of darkness,” the 613 mitzvot. These are the 248 positive commandments and 365 prohibitions that we keep with our 248 limbs and 365 sinews.

From Rabbi Ginsburgh’s class 13th Shevat 5773

3 Responses to “Containing the lights”

  1. EdIsrael says:

    I have been meditating on your commentary, it is beautiful to think on mitzvot as portions of the divine light of revelation, for they are. The great wonder is that these revelations where imparted so long ago, in the Bronze age in fact, and have been perfectly preserved from that time to this. No other belief can make this claim, these lights will never dim for they are of the Divine.

  2. EdIsrael says:

    Just read this again, it is awesome!

  3. SaraLeya says:

    somewhere else in one of Rav Ginsburgh’s longer transcripts this year there is a reference to darkness, cloud and fog as the three heads of keter??? can you help me with which teaching and the background source?