The Kol Aleph Blog
By Rabbi Natan Margalit, Organic Torah
I read the NYTimes. I try to work. I go to the pantry and eat a cookie. I try to work. I read the NYTimes again. It’s been that kind of year. The media is filled with these rueful descriptions (but always with a friendly wink that says “hey, we’re all doing it!”) of 2020’s favorite coping mechanisms: binge munching, binge watching tv series, obsessively checking the news, and on and on. This has been the most stressful, painful, fearful, and depressing year of most of our lives— I’m certainly not immune from all those coping mechanisms.
But that fact is, while I might fall into it, I don’t really want to over-eat, over-watch, obsess or binge. It’s been a long enough run that I’ve learned that these things might give a very short term hit of pleasure, but in the long, or even medium term, they don’t really help. They get me into habits I don’t really want to be in.
My feeling at the end of this year is that I have never been in more need of spiritual practice. When I’m feeling anxious or depressed, I need to re-mind, and re-experience myself enveloped in the sense of kinship with all creation; I need a feeling of belonging and being loved and held in the awesome, sacredness that enlivens everything. That feeling actually does beat out tv, cookies and definitely the news.
I’ve been inspired by the writings of the Piaseczner Rebbe, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro (1889 – 1943), who is most known as the martyred Hasidic Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto. Although he lived much of his life studying and teaching in batei midrash (study houses), preaching and writing, mostly indoors, his thought was deeply ecological. This is a testament to the underlying organic patterns that are the essence of the Torah, no matter where we study it.
In one of his commentaries on Succot he retells our Jewish Creation story in a way that I find speaks to us and our contemporary world: God created the First Human by gathering soil from all four corners of the world. When the First Human(s) disobeyed God, sparks of their soul(s) fell back down and were scattered all through the world. So, the whole world is filled with soul sparks, in a myriad of forms. Our job in this life is, and has always been, to recognize our kinship with the world, to connect with those sparks as partners, and together with them serve God. When we do that, we, and the world, feel deep, true joy. If, however, we forget that the world is our partner, with its holy sparks offering us opportunities to serve, and we relate to the world as mere objects, we distort our souls and damage the world. We fall into desperate, self-defeating obsessions and addictions, searching for the true joy that we know is there but have forgotten how to find. (based on Derekh HaMelekh, “Ushpizei Yitzhak,” p. 291- 292, Vaad Hasidei Piaseczna, Jerusalem, 1995)
We have, as a society, largely forgotten our soul connection to the world around us—to our fellow creatures of all kinds, to our fellow humans, to the soil, air and water of the earth. This year, 2020, we have experienced the tragic results of that alienation in the large-scale crises such as we see in our politics, our society and in our climate, and also in the individual lives of so many who are suffering daily as we simply try to get along. As a society we have largely chosen separation, individualism, and mechanized convenience over connection and belonging.
Recovering a sense of connectedness may reach a pinnacle (at least in my estimation) with the deep spiritual work that the Piaseczner Rebbe describes: training ourselves to relate to all of the world as partners, offering opportunities to raise the holy sparks and reveal the miraculous, awesome, sacredness of creation. But it seems to me that there are many small steps we can take to move in that direction: when we stop and remind ourselves to appreciate our families, friends, colleagues, neighbors, strangers, rivals, enemies, as all parts of ourselves; when we make a practice of stopping and listening to the wind in the trees to remember that they breathe together with us. When we regularly take out the kitchen scraps to make compost so that we experience the miraculous cycle of transformation that is the beginning of a healthy food system; when we take a bit of dough out before we bake our bread and offer it (for me that means putting it with the compost) as “Challah” to the Source of All Nourishment and remind ourselves of all the awesome and miraculous creations that went into this dough.
These are some of the spiritual practices that I’ve used this year to keep myself sane in this most challenging of years. Perhaps the Organic Torah of 2020 is that even in this year, maybe especially in this year, we are offered opportunities to realize how connected we really are. And perhaps that can move us in the direction of a great and wonderful healing.
Several times the Bible tells us that God wants to have a Place “to make His Name dwell therein.” It’s interesting that God does not say ‘I will dwell there,’ but that ‘My Name will dwell there.’ While everything is God and in God, and the whole cosmos is not separate from God, the point that a Temple makes is that there is a concentrated, stronger focus of the quality of Divinity for those who enter there. So while it is true that God is in everything, and everything broadcasts its own quality, a Temple could be understood as a kind of “broadcasting tower” from which a signal goes out to the world.
The carrier wave is a field of blessing, and the message stream is the way in which God would like to see the world be in harmony in order to receive that blessing. There would also be a certain kind of beacon in the broadcast, giving meaning to life and beaming the sense of justice and compassion for the world. In each human being there is a receiver for that broadcast – because Divine Compassion broadcasts on human wavelengths. People who are open to God and want to be open to receive that beacon can in this way recalibrate their moral and ethical life.
Although the First and the Second Temples were destroyed, the teaching is that the Third Temple is already present on a higher and more subtle vibratory scale. The broadcast comes even now from that Temple, is received by some people and, alas, not by others. The beacon to us, as human beings, also invites us to contribute to that broadcast. In the way in which we invest energy we boost the signal strength in public worship and in private prayer, in meditation and then acts of justice and compassion.
We beam these back to the Source of the broadcast that we call the Name of God. [There are many more possible models for this process. Usually an organismic model is preferable, but for this process I find that the technical model of “broadcast” will help me make the point]
There are two modes of looking at reality in Jewish mysticism:
1) Yichuda ila’ah, and
2) Yichuda tata’ah.
Yichuda ila’ah, the higher union, is when we unify everything in God to the point where the infinite is the only reality there is. This points to the sentence and its intention: Sh’ma Yisrael — Echad.
Yichuda tata’ah on the other hand is indicated by the sentence that follows: Baruch Shem K’vod Malchuto l’olam va’ed, May the Name of the Glory of His Kingdom (the reflection of majestic effulgence) reach us here in our world. Yichuda tata’ah sees the universe as God embodied in all the details of life from galaxies to humans, and from humans to energy particles, as one organismic, living, conscious whole.
There is a further teaching which touches the cosmic process of Yom Kippur: each Yom Kippur a new “Shem” – a “God-Name” is emanated downward to energize the world for the coming year. Embedded within it is the direction that Divine Providence wants each part of the cosmos to take. The Name that came down the year before is no longer serviceable for the present year. Kabbalah describes it as if the energy matrix of the last year has been corrupted (by human beings trespassing on the Divine intention). [Imagine: the house has a hot-air furnace and every room has filters through which the heated air passes – and it gets clogged and needs to be replaced]
The great broadcast of Divine Indwelling beams to the human heart, the inner sanctuary that is a hologram of the cosmic Temple, which is a receiver. It therefore also depends on our attunement to receive the broadcast. I believe that every spiritual discipline is set to attune us to be able to receive this broadcast with greater fidelity. So in our liturgy we ask: “ v’Taher libeynu l’ovdecha beh-Emet – Cleanse our hearts so that we might serve You in Truth.” Emet/Truth has the sense of being attuned to what it is, and how it is, in reality.
Prior to the building of the Temple in Jerusalem we had a traveling Tabernacle that was built after the Exodus from Egypt. The Bible tells us how it had to be built to very precise specifications. At the end of the book of Exodus there is a description of how, when the Tabernacle was completed, the Divine Presence made Her entrance to reside there. Later when the Bible tells us about Balaam the prophet. Sent to curse our people he could not help but say “How good are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling place O Israel.” He saw the tribes encamped about the Tabernacle in the center, and all the tribes in harmony with that broadcast. What a remarkable vision that is – to see all the nations on earth receiving that broadcast and living in harmony! It is such a vision that likes to appear to us in our vision of the messianic era. The teaching we received about how the Tabernacle in the desert had to be prepared to receive the indwelling also includes the final act of anointing the surfaces of the Tabernacle with sacred oil. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Apter Rebbe, in his great work Ohev Yisrael points out that the Tabernacle came to life as a result of that anointing. In addition the lighting of the sacred candelabrum brought awareness to the sanctuary. You have here the image of the Tabernacle as something organic, alive and aware of being the center from which the sacred broadcast issues.
When The Broadcast Is Denatured
It is quite easy to understand from our own lives and existence to what extent we have been flooded with information and impressions from all kinds of sources. It requires a great deal of stilling the mind in order to tune into the Divine broadcast. However, the media have usurped the bandwidth of our consciousness, so that now only with great difficulty can we tune in to the broadcast that wants us to live in harmony.
This is the preface to the story of Chanukah. When the people had come back from Babylon and rebuilt the Temple, although it lacked some of the Sancta of the first Temple, it nevertheless was able to broadcast the message: “the universe exists on three coordinates: on Torah, on Avodah and on Gemilut Hasadim.” The Divine Name had settled in the Temple and the broadcast was resumed.
A new culture, that of the Hellenists, was spreading over Asia Minor and the Fertile Crescent with a broadcast that was inimical to the one that came from Jerusalem. They invaded the Temple, desecrated it, offered swine on its altar and thereby changed the broadcast. This proved allergic to the soul of the Jewish People, who under the Maccabees took up the sword against the Hellenists, and after fierce battles in which they experienced that God helped them, they freed the Temple and purified it. Now they needed to light the sacred Menorah. In order to do this one needs specially and meticulously prepared olive oil. Finally after much searching they found one little cruse of oil still sealed with the seal of the High Priest that contained just enough to light the Menorah for one day.
It takes seven days to make fresh oil. They didn’t want to wait until he had enough oil for the continuous lighting. That would’ve meant a delay. They so craved to receive the sacred broadcast that they did not wait. When the oil in the Menorah burned for eight days, until fresh oil could be produced, it was seen as a miracle.
The natural order was at one time seen by religious teachers as being superseded by the supernatural order. I like to speak of it as the “miraculous order,” that at times becomes visible to our awareness, but which steadily suffuses what we call the natural order. Much of liturgy and teaching prepares us to tune into that miraculous order. Culturally, the natural order has been subverted to utilitarian purposes. The stronger that template covers the natural order, the less we are in touch with the miraculous order.
The ritual and liturgy connected with Chanukah and the candles are there to cleanse the doors of our perceptions so that we might again be attuned to the order of the miraculous. So we are taught that “these candles and their light are sacred and we have no permission to make use of them. All we must do is to just look at them”.
Gazing at the candles, as they are in themselves, is the meditative contemplation we are urged to do on Chanukah.
While it is important to display the (Chanulah) menorah so that it could be seen from the street, the purpose is that even the street may receive the benefit of Pirsuma d’Nissa, to be made aware of the miraculous order.
Olam, Shanah, Nefesh, As Eons
The Sefer Yetzirah speaks about the three dimensions of Olam, Shanah and Nefesh. Olam – world – denotes the dimension of space, Shanah – year – denotes dimension of time and Nefesh – soul/spirit – denotes the dimension of the person, the individual. There is a view that describes each of these three dimensions as dominating a separate Eon. (Joachim de Fiore, a Christian mystic, spoke of it as the Eon of the Father, which is followed by the Eon of the Son and then followed by the Eon of the Holy Spirit).
When the dimension of space – Olam – dominated, we speak of the Temple in Jerusalem in a particular locale. When the Temple was destroyed a paradigm shift happened, and we speak of the next Eon as the one of Shanah. Now we no longer had the sanctuary in space, but the sanctuary became one of time: Shabbat and the holy days.
Here, the High Holy Days serve as the source of the broadcast for the whole year. We lived our spiritual life in the dimension of sacred time, in ‘illo tempore’ – ‘in that time.’ A new paradigm shift occurred in our day after the Holocaust, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the Moon-walk and Internet. The Gaian crisis brings us into an Eon where things depend on the individual, the nefesh. At this point the receiver of the broadcast is what is in our heart. In order to fine tune this receiver it is also necessary to be in some connection and communion with individuals who are attuned to the sacred broadcast.
The rules stated in the Talmud specify that all that is necessary is for each household to have one candle at the door facing the street, located as follows: “the mezuzzah at the right and the Chanukah candle at the left of the door and below 10 handbreadths.” The Talmud then tells us further that there are people who are more meticulous and generous in their observance, “the mehadrin,” and that they’ll have one candle per person of the household. Then the Talmud says that those who are the meticulous-of-the-meticulous, the “mehadrin min ha-mehadrin,” the generous of the generous, will each light one to eight candles following the teachings of Hillel, beginning with one the first night and going up to eight by adding another candle each night. Shammai’s school opted for beginning with eight and going down to one reducing each night by one candle. [In another area of difference of ruling Hillel says that light has many colors whereas Shammai says that there is only one color to light. It has been my custom to use two electric menorahs one with colored light bulbs following the rule of Hillel and one with only white bulbs following the rule of Shammai] on each (Chanukah) menorah.
To return to the main theme: Chanukah is all about Pirsuma d’Nissa, and being in touch with the miraculous order. The place from which we can tune in to the miraculous order is by opening ourselves to the imaginal realm, and to look at what is before us – the light of the Chanukah candles.
At the very time when we are in the darkest days of the year,
lighting the candles for Chanukah brings us back to the miraculous order.
This is what we need to invoke for ourselves and for the rest of the world at this time. May we be granted the vision of the good world that is to emerge from the present dark chaos.