A Kabbalistic Approach to Spiritual Growth

Kabbalistic Approach to Growth: Part 22 – Sword and Bow

The Torah hints at two forms of communication with God–meditation and prayer–in relating how Jacob blessed his son Joseph: "I have taken this city (Shechem) from the Amorites with my sword and with my bow." The Aramaic translator, Onkelos, renders the word "sword" as prayer in the sense of contemplation/meditation, and the word "bow" as prayer in the sense of supplication. The first describes the process of entering into a state of solemnity and prayerfulness while the second refers to one's actual conversation with God, which culminates the entire effort.

Hassidic teachings explain at length how meditation–the battle with sword and spear–is hand-to-hand combat at close range. It is the struggle against conscious evil, those things actually perceived and experienced as "enemies of the soul." Steady, focused concentration upon the Shema can eradicate visible evil in the soul and rectify the conscious dimensions of personality. Yet this is still a state of immaturity, for the subconscious is not yet controlled.

Prayer–the combat of bow and arrow–is the struggle against concealed, subconscious evil. The arrows are shot blindly, and God directs them to their target. Yet, if victory over the invisible enemy depends upon God, why are some "archers" more successful in this than others? Hassidic teachings explain that those who are more successful are both poised and humble. Metaphorically, an archer prepares for battle by "stringing the bow." This means bringing the body and soul into a state of poise and positive tension. There are precise guidelines for this work, and a bow must be as finely tuned as the strings of a harp. If it is, the arrows, though shot blindly at invisible enemies, will nevertheless reach their targets, for the archer will have come into harmony with God.

The tension created from bending and stringing the bow–from uniting the two poles of body and soul–must be positive and productive rather than negative and destructive. Success is directly proportional to the archer's selflessness. Otherwise, the brittle inflexibility of ego and self-absorption will break the bow rather than poising it for action.

[This principle is particularly applicable to the teshuva process, and people should pace themselves accordingly. The limiting factor in personal and spiritual growth is the extent to which an individual can shed the many layers of ego. It is important to slow down, to take time off if need be, to avoid pushing oneself to the breaking point]

The exceptional strength required to string a bow represents the humility of constantly remembering the human dependency upon God, and the ultimate insignificance of ego and personality. The ancient bows used for warfare were shot upward at a 45-degree angle while the strings were pulled back toward the earth. The measure of downward stretch symbolizes humility and this determines how far the arrows will fly. After these preliminary efforts of stringing and drawing the bow, the archer releases the arrows and God does the final work of directing them to their proper target.

To be victorious with the bow is to reach the highest state of maturity, where the archer controls and directs both the conscious and subconscious levels of personality. Initiation purifies the conscious aspects of self and integration extends this clarity to the hidden, subconscious levels of being, integrating truth into the physical self and changing it accordingly. The former operates through the agency of meditation and latter through the medium of prayer.

It might, at first glance, seem that meditation should be the devotional method that could penetrate into the subconscious, while prayer would be limited by the horizons of conscious awareness. Yet, in fact, the opposite is true. Meditation is a conscious and discursive thought process that culminates in concentration upon a particular subject or point of focus. Whether we succeed in this or not (in other words, our ability to concentrate) depends on our strength of mind. The extent of our concentration is the extent to which we can penetrate into the depths of things, or develop thought through various levels of abstraction. If we are "unaware," it is because we cannot concentrate long enough to analyze the details of our surroundings. We are primarily driven by our subconscious because we do not examine these impulses and bring them under our conscious direction. Only by differentiating between those urges that will actually further our goals and those urges that will waste energy and are ultimately self-defeating can we break ourselves of blind obedience to our physical impulses by exclusively selecting appropriate motivations to act upon.

Meditation enhances the ability to concentrate. Though it extends the boundaries of conscious awareness to include more and more of what had previously been unconscious, nonetheless its primary field of influence remains the conscious realms of intellect and emotions.

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