Beginning Concepts in Mysticism

    June 2011          
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Primer of Mystical Concepts, Part Five

By Yechezkel Gold

This is Part Five of our online mystical primer. Click here for Part One, Part Two. Part Three. and Part Four.

Regarding the great Divine revelation at Mount Sinai, the Torah cautions us: "You beheld no image" (Deuteronomy 4, 15). The cabalistic concept of Ain Sof, that G-d is Infinite and therefore unknowable, parallels this notion. This poses a great problem: If so, how can man relate to Him? What real connection can exist between the Infinite, unknowable G-d and Torah Commandments, especially the great majority that involve physical acts?

A verse in Psalms (139, 12) expresses a corollary of this concept: For God, "[the] darkness is equivalent to [the] light". These words refer to spiritual darkness and light. A similar idea appears in the Book of Job (35,7): "(Even) if you are righteous, what will that give Him?" Chassidic mysticism connects them to the level of Arikh (see the 4th article in this series). From this perspective one could fallaciously conclude that there is no right and wrong, that no act or thought could matter to G-d. Obviously, this conclusion would be diametrically opposed to the Torah in which G-d commands us 613 commandments. How does Torah reconcile the two vantage points?

The first article in this series began to answer this question. The Contraction hid the Infinite G-dly Light, forming a void in which creation would occur. Then, the "Assessment Line" extended G-dliness into the void. Thereby, the world created in that void does not exist in a spiritual vacuum. Everything exists by virtue of its Divine purpose as drawn to it by the Assessment Line. However, the Assessment Line is a very general extension of the Divine Light from above. The void into which it extends is only a spiritual "space" in which there can be (as opposed to Infinite Light, Ohr Ain Sof) existence.

Even Arikh, the external aspect of the Divine Crown Keter, is qualitatively infinite. It is not revealed directly. In order to bring G-dliness into the finite created world, after the Assessment Line brought a general Divine purpose for existence, it remained to emanate specific G-dly modes of being. These will be the spiritual roots of Torah and the Commandments. From that basis there can be creation.

We refrain from using the term "particular" existence on this level because we are dealing with G-dly principles and generalities rather than particular created beings. This is the emanation of the world of Atzilus and it preceded creation. Only when specific, definite spiritual and material entities emerged can we speak of particular created beings. Jewish mysticism's description of the intermediary process between infinite, unknowable G-dliness and the created world focuses on the ten sefiros.

Analogous to human will, Arikh causes the ten sephiros to operate, but has no particular manifestation of its own. It is a level of Divinity that, being infinite, can not connect directly to a finite world. Only its products through operating the sefiros are revealed. However, although the sefiros derive from the boundless Arikh, each sefira does have a particular G-dly character manifested in its products.The 10 sefiros are the "tools" G-d employs in creating and directing the spiritual and physical realms. Each sefiro is a particular mode expressing G-dliness. This is the mystical understanding of a key tenet in Judaism:

The notion of Torah means much more than belief in G-d Who commanded us to follow Torah's edicts. It means there is a reality called G-d's ways, a way truly manifesting G-d in the created world. Zohar states that G-d and Torah are one. Being Master of the World is only one of G-d's manifestations. G-d's Omnipresence is not meant only as background or substratum; Torah and the Commandments bring G-d into the workings of the world. A general description of the way G-d's sanctity took definite form is the concept of sefiros.

The sefirot are oriented in 3 vertical lines. The right line has chochma [wisdom] at the top, chesed [kindness] below it and netzach [triumph] still further down. The left line has bina [understanding] at the top, gevura [power] beneath it and hod [eminence] still farther down. The middle line has daat [knowledge] oriented between chochma and bina but somewhat further down, the 3 forming a triangle. Similarly, tif'eret [splendour] is between chesed and gevura but drawn somewhat downward, and yesod [foundation] lies between netzach and hod but extended downward. Malchut [regalness] is placed under yesod. G-d willing, later articles will explain more about each of the sefirot.

This configuration is not to be understood dogmatically. Indeed, sometimes the mystical literature speaks of different orientations. Thus, if Keter is enumerated among the sefiros, daas is not counted all. Tif'eret might be placed above chesed and gevura. Malchut can assume a great range of different positions.

Nevertheless, the following configuration is generally the standard, with the proviso that in any reckoning, either Keter or daat is to be considered one of the ten, but not both. Sequentially, the order of sefiros is from top to bottom and from right to left. The right sefira precedes the left (unlike the impression given by writing the names of the sefirot in English, from left to right): thus, chochma precedes bina, chesed precedes gevura, and netzach precedes hod.


/   \

bina chochma

\   /


/   \

gevura chesed

\   /


/   \

hod netzach

\   /




This normal positioning does not obviate a great variety of other relationships among the sefiros, operating in different sequences.

The Mystical Meaning Of Right And Left

"Rescue Your right hand, and answer me!", we beseech God in the conclusion of every Amida prayer. In blessing Joseph's sons, Jacob placed his right hand on Ephrayim's head, as a mark of special favor. "For Your right hand is extended to accept the penitent". There are many verses and other quotes where the right hand is viewed as the way of dispensing love, kindness and leniency.

The left hand denotes judgment and power. We regard it with fear and dread. The Talmud sums it up: "The right hand draws people near, and the left hand rejects them."

We may wonder how this imagery came about. For "righties", the left hand seems no stronger, perhaps weaker, than the right. About a quarter of the population is left handed, and we discern no reflection of these distinctions in their character.

The Jewish literature must be looking at things differently. Let us begin by remarking that in Halachic terms, left handed people are regarded as being different from the others in having their "right" hand on the left side. The left hander puts Tefillin on "his" left hand, which is on the right side. So the expressions, "right" and "left", refer to the more and the less dexterous hands.

Dexterity is identified with the "right" hand, and, hence, with love, kindness and leniency. We might conclude that power, justice, and fear, associated with the left, would be expressions of manual ineptness! If we think in terms of the experience of right and left, we will be closer to understanding them spiritually. We use our dexterous hand when we need to do something requiring sensitivity. Our "right" hand follows our mental instructions much better than the "left" one, so we employ it for fine detail and close work. It cooperates nicely when we want to do something, mediating comfortably and effectively between our minds and what we're working on.

The left hand is a little clumsy, though, and is best used for keeping something steady while we work on it. If we want it to do something more subtle, we have to force it to obey us, and we have to control it consciously. We are relaxed with our right hand, but our left hand is rather like a stranger to us, and we can not quite deal with it comfortably.

In like fashion, when we ask God to deal with us with His right hand, we are begging for the sense of rightness, for the closeness and comfort, harmony and peace, associated with His kindness.

Power and control are hallmarks of the left, because that is the only way we can do much with our clumsy hand. If God's will just does not seem to fit us, and we can not seem to conform to it, we figuratively deem that to mean His dealing with us with His left hand. The demand to conform to a standard is the definition of the attribute of justice, also associated with the left hand. It is an expression of power, and we are not very comfortable with it. When we do "measure up" to the attribute of justice, then spiritually, left is converted to right.


from the June 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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