Blog PostsVayishlach

Checkmate to the Kings of Edom

Since the time of the kings of Edom until today, the World of Chaos is in a state of instability and prefers to wallow eternally in the swamp of bachelorhood…

Kings without Queens

In any good story about a king, one might suppose that there is also a queen. It just doesn’t seem fitting for a king to be single. But, there is at least one place in the Torah where kings did not follow this basic protocol.

“And these are the kings who ruled in the Land of Edom before there ruled a king of the Children of Israel.” Towards the end of the Torah portion of Vayishlach, the Torah enumerates the eight kings of Edom and describes how, one after the other, each of them rises to power at the other’s expense: “And there ruled in Edom Bela ben Be’or… and Bela died and after him ruled Yovav ben Zarach from Botzrah. And Yovav died and after him ruled Chusham from the land of the Teimani…” One after the next, the Torah describes how each king of Edom dies and the next one rules. Yet, of the eight kings, seven apparently had no queen by their side, and only with reference to the eighth and last king does it mention his wife’s name: “And after him ruled Hadar … and his wife’s name was Meheitavel.” This seems to imply that all the other kings were bachelors, or at least did not have a marriage worth mentioning.

In order to understand this phenomenon, we need to first understand why the Torah even mentions these kings. Taking a literal approach, the Ramban [Nachmanides] [1] interprets that from here we learn that Isaac’s blessing to Esau was realized, “Upon your sword shall you live.” [2] These kings of Edom were Esau’s descendants, and they conquered the kings of Seir who had ruled before them. But, beyond this literal interpretation, there are many more hidden facets to this episode, which can be accessed by studying the esoteric teachings of Kabbalah and Chassidut. There it becomes clear that this passage conceals some of the Torah’s deepest secrets.

Chaos Comes before Rectification

Rabbeinu Bechaye writes:

From a Kabbalistic perspective, “And these are the kings who ruled in the Land of Edom” is a hidden reference to the world that the Almighty created with the measure of judgment before He created this world, and before He revealed His Majesty in this world… For He created worlds and destroyed them until He created [our world] and included…the attribute of compassion, and I cannot explain this because these are eminent, secret matters that are of utmost significance.

However, those ideas that were ambiguous and obscure in Rabbeinu Bechaye’s era, [3] were explained two centuries later by the Holy Arizal and continued to come to light in the Kabbalistic literature that followed, and later, in Chassidic literature.

In short, the kings of Edom are a reference to the World of Chaos that preceded the World of Rectification. In Kabbalah, the creation of the world is described as a spiritual process of God’s infinite light descending until it reaches the physical world as we know it. During this process, the World of Chaos was created, which did not endure for very long, but “broke and died.” This is the meaning of the sages’ saying that “God creates worlds and destroys them.” [4] The World of Rectification was created to replace the World of Chaos that broke.

The World of Chaos is described as points of light that emanated, one after the other from their supreme Divine source (referred to as “Primordial Man”), however each one of these lights broke and died as soon as it protruded, because the vessels were unable to contain the lights. This is the traumatic event referred to in Kabbalah as the “Breaking of the Vessels” (שְׁבִירַת הַכֵּלִים). This is the secret of the recurring phrase “And he ruled… and he died,” which is stated with reference to the first kings of Edom. Each king represents a light that radiates out and immediately shatters. In contrast, we note that the Torah does not mention that the eighth king, Hadar (who again, is the one who is married) died. Kabbalah therefore explains that he represents the initiation of the World of Rectification.

To make these ideas somewhat easier to digest, we can explain that this does not only refer to primordial events from the distant past. God renews the act of creation every single day, so any description of what happened at creation is, to a certain extent, what is happening at the more profound levels of reality all the time. For instance, the service that we need to do in this world is to refine lost sparks. These lost sparks are the fragments that fell and scattered from the broken World of Chaos.

This means that in the same way that the spiritual world began with chaos, so too does every physical phenomenon also begin with a state of chaos before it reaches its ultimate rectification. This we can perceive from the very beginning of the Torah, first “And the earth was chaos” [5] and only afterwards, “and there was light.” [6] This order can be identified in many general ideas in the Torah, for example: darkness preceded light; animals preceded human beings; the six days of creation preceded the Holy Shabbat; Esau preceded Jacob; the kings of Edom “before there ruled a king of the Children of Israel”; the seventy nations of the world appeared on the stage of history before the Jewish people; and the dark reality of exile precedes the final redemption. The sages succinctly state the rule that, “First is darkness and light follows.” [7] To use another Kabbalistic phrase that describes this phenomenon, “The [inedible] husk precedes the [edible] fruit.” One of the reasons why things need to appear in this way is that the husk guards the fruit, allowing it to safely develop to maturity.

The Power of Chaos

What is it that caused the kings of chaos to break and die? In the language of Kabbalah, in the World of Chaos there were “many lights and few vessels.” This means that each light appeared at the peak of its power and aspired to overtake the whole stage, flooding it with its own hue. In the context of the kings, this phenomenon is described as each king saying, “I will rule.” Each king came with the full extent of his force and said, “I am here and only me!” Such a powerful chaotic force as this “breaks the vessels,” in both the literal and the esoteric sense of the phrase. The vessels are intended to contain the light―which is initially spiritual and elusive by nature―and bring it to effect as a tangible reality. But, when the light enters these vessels with great intensity, the vessels are unable to endure the pressure. Instead of containing the light, they burst and shatter.

For this very reason, the lights of the World of Chaos cannot live in peace with one another. One king can only appear after the death of his predecessor because, “No kingdom can touch another kingdom, even by a hair’s breadth,” [8] and “two kings cannot reign with one crown”[9]―especially not kings like these, whose inflated egos aim to conquer territory for their own purposes and extend beyond their own boundaries. When egoism is unbridled, just having someone else in the vicinity seems like a threat to the person’s existence.

By contrast, in the World of Rectification, “there are few lights and many vessels.” The lights appear in a smaller, more refined and more restrained version. Since the lights do not appear with such high intensity, they do not break the vessels with their force. The lights succeed in uniting with the vessels, reaching a state of stable existence that does not break. This is why in the World of Rectification all of the lights― despite their obvious dissimilarities―are present simultaneously, and there is no need for one to “die” before another appears. Peace reigns in the World of Rectification because these different lights do not appear as individual protrusions, but are relatively annulled to their source. This type of peace is referred to as “a vessel that holds blessing” and this is how all the lights combine into one harmonic system that becomes a complete “persona.”

From Bachelorhood to Married Life

Chassidut teaches us how the most profound secrets of Kabbalah are reflected in the human psyche, as the verse states, “From my flesh I will perceive God.” [10] With regards to the subject under discussion, being single is considered relatively “chaotic,” while married life is considered to be a World of Rectification.

This idea comes to the fore in the case of someone who remains single because they are psychologically trapped in a culture that does not encourage them to extricate themselves from singledom, and create a genuine, lasting marriage. Often, these are people who have a lot of “light,” they want to achieve many things, to advance, to get rich and conquer new horizons; they have big ideas and a great desire for self-actualization. However, their problem is that in their world there is only one person―them and themself alone. This is a typical “I will rule” phenomenon in which the person’s individuality does not allow them to let anyone else into their world, except as an object to be exploited for their own interests.

This is why the Torah does not mention that the first seven kings of Edom had wives. “Kings” of the World of Chaos are essentially unable to live their lives in a genuine marital relationship. The most that can be expected of them is to create a profitable business partnership. Only the eighth and final king, Hadar, who represents the beginning of the World of Rectification, was really married. Therefore, only Hadar did not die, because just as in a game of chess the King without the Queen is unable to run long distances, so too, without nurturing our partnership for life, “stale-mate” may be the most likely outcome, and “check-mate” is only a few moves away.

When someone is totally self-oriented, they live in a foreign, cold and distant world, unable to make true contact with their (potential) spouse. In order to improve this they must undergo a process of self-rectification, which begins by breaking all their present misconceptions. The first step to this process is to pay attention to the fact that somewhere deep inside, lurks the belief that “I am all and there is none besides me”―a thought that leaves no room for anyone else to step inside. This type of stubborn egotism believes that all other people were born to serve this individual’s ego. Once this facet of narcissism has been pinpointed, the individual will understand that they need to turn down their headlights, out of consideration for anyone approaching them, so as not to “dazzle” them with their own energies. Lowering the intensity of their ego allows the individual to listen to others’ voices. In other words, instead of expecting Prince, or Princess Charming, to capture their heart, it would be better to open their own heart by taking an attitude of selfless concern towards those they meet.

The process of developing from chaos to rectification is liable to be accompanied by a critical breakage point. This is experienced as a sense of surrendering one’s self-image, which may feel like psychological suicide to a certain extent. But, this predicament is worthwhile, because when we turn towards the other and begin to nurture a warm, loving relationship, together we construct a wide vessel that can contain the lights of both partners in the most harmonious combination. When two people build together such a loving, considerate relationship, their energies resonate with each other, and the integration of their lights comes to fruition as a complete “persona” in the form of a warm Jewish home and family.

For further reading see our book in Hebrew, Ahavah (Love), in the chapter on late bachelorhood. 

[1] See Ramban’s commentary to Genesis 36:30.

[2] Genesis 27:40.

[3] Rabeinu Bechaye wrote his interpretation on the Torah in the mid 14th century.

[4] Kohelet Rabah 3:11.

[5] Genesis 1:2.

[6] Ibid 1:3.

[7] Shabbat 77b.

[8] Berachot 48b.

[9] Rashi, Genesis 1:16.

[10] Job 19:26.

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