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Parallel Lines Meet at Infinity

Part 1 of this series:   The Secret Library: Introduction to the Inner Dimension of the Torah
Part 2 of this series: Is Kabbalah Mysticism, Science, Both, or Neither?

Part 4 of this series: The Chasidic Revolution

Kabbalah is the art of finding parallels or correspondences between seemingly disparate things

Until the 12th century, Jewish mysticism was known by various names, such as "Secrets of the Torah" and "Reasons of the Torah." However, gradually the term "Kabbalah" became established, and it is by this name that it is known to this day. The final name of a thing is not random but reveals something about its inner essence. So, what can the word "Kabbalah" teach us about the wisdom of Kabbalah?

To receive vs. to create parallels

Usually, the term Kabbalah is interpreted as stemming from the verb root k-b-l (קבל), whose infinitive form means, “to receive” (לְקַבֵּל). Kabbalah is perceived as wisdom that one receives from a previous, higher authority. However, looking up the Biblical origin of the root k-b-l reveals that the meaning of receiving is not the earliest and most fundamental one associated with it. With this meaning the root appears only in the third and latest part of the Bible, the Writings.[1] In the earlier and more sacred Pentateuch (the first part of the Bible known simply as Torah) the root k-b-l appears only in the sense of “parallel” or to “create a correspondence.”[2]

A basic rule of interpretation establishes that the first appearance of a word in the Torah exposes something about its deepest essence. Before Kabbalah was associated with receiving, it was linked with corresponding or creating parallels. But in what way?

We perceive with our senses that the world around us is characterized by a vast multiplicity of phenomena and entities. Our belief leads us to assume that there is a hidden unity behind these diverse entities, which creates and sustains them. But what lies between these two realms? Is there an abyss between the one divine "nothingness" and the multiplicity of created "things," or is there an intermediate realm mediating between them? Kabbalah upholds the latter. It claims such an intermediate realm exists, and the world's first Kabbalistic book, Sefer Yetzirah (the Book of Formation, traditionally attributed to the first Jew, Abraham), provides a detailed description of it.

The intermediate realm between the singular Creator and the multiplicity of created beings is described as containing a restricted and defined set of structures or models that play the role of a sort of cosmic toolbox through which the Holy Blessed One created the world and everything in it, and continues to sustain it at every moment.

God’s Toolbox

So, what models and structures does God’s toolbox contain? Let us look at three of the most basic and ubiquitously useful ones.

The most basic model is God’s four-letter Name, the Tetragrammaton. Although God Himself is one, His Name has four letters, yud-hei-vav-hei (י-ה-ו-ה). This structure is seen as encompassing all “being” (הֲוָיָה), the Hebrew word for which is made of the very same letters as God’s essential four-letter Name (י-הוה).

Another well-known structure or model is that of the Ten Sefirot, the ten channels of Divine emanation (from crown to kingdom). The ten sefirot form a structure that is embedded in all reality and serves as a kind of inner map of the world.

A third most important and central model is that of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

Though seemingly three separate models, in fact, the Tetragrammaton, the sefirot, and the Hebrew letters are intimately connected. Without getting into the details (which we encourage the reader to further research) the four letters of God’s essential Name can be extended into the ten sefirot, which are interconnected by twenty-two channels corresponding to the 22 letters in Hebrew.[3]

Together, the ten sefirot and the twenty-two letters are referred to as the “Thirty-Two Pathways of Wisdom.” When written with letters, the number 32 becomes לב, which means “heart” (לֵב) suggesting that the thirty-two pathways of wisdom serve, so to speak, as the heart of creation. In as much as these pathways are many—32 to be specific—relates them with Creation, whose core attribute is multiplicity.  But, in as much as they are abstract, generally applicable, and relatively few in number, relates them with the Creator, who is characterized by unity. 

If all complex entities found in Creation were created using a finite set of channels, then when their structures have the same number of channels or elements, these structures are expected to correspond to one another. Discovering these correspondences reveals the hidden common root from which the various phenomena stem. This, in many ways, is the core concern of Kabbalah. The first step in building a correspondence is therefore to look for complex entities that share the same number of basic elements, and then to correspond these elements to one another, in a one-to-one mapping.

When the correspondence is properly mapped and its elements understood, its contemplation cultivates an experience of unity and oneness in the soul, bringing it closer to its Divine source. Every correspondence discovered in the Torah and in the world is like an additional rung added to the ladder that brings us closer to God. This is the purpose of Kabbalah and the connection between it and the act of hakbalah, creating correspondences (הַקְבָּלָה).[4]

Kabbalah as An Interface

To illustrate all of the above, let us examine a very basic Kabbalistic model, that of the levels of the soul.

The sages enumerate five basic attributes that the soul, which dwells in the body, and God, who dwells in the world, have in common. They derive this from the fact that the phrase “Bless the Lord, O my soul” repeats five times in the Psalms.[5] The ability of the soul to praise God indicates a connection between them, and the repetition of this five times indicates its subdivision into five particular aspects.

Here is what the sages made of this, in their own words:[6]

Just as the Holy Blessed One fills the entire world, so too does the soul fill the entire body.

Just as the Holy Blessed One sees without being seen, so too does the soul see without being seen.

Just as the Holy Blessed One sustains the entire world, so too does the soul sustain the entire body.

Just as the Holy Blessed One is pure, so too is the soul pure.

Just as the Holy Blessed One dwells in chambers within chambers, so too does the soul dwell in chambers within chambers.

As we can see, this interpretation itself is an exercise in correspondence: it creates parallels between the attributes of the soul and the attributes of the Holy Blessed One. Another thing we can distinguish is that the order of the attributes ascends from below to above. The first attribute speaks of the presence in the "body," i.e., the point of connection between the soul and this world; and the last attribute speaks of a seat in the "chambers of chambers," i.e., the point of connection between the soul and its heavenly source (the expression "chambers of chambers" alludes to infinite chambers, one inside the other, to the Holy of Holies in the Temple, and also to the infinity of God from whom the soul emanates).

Now, in a completely different and seemingly unrelated place the sages indicate that the soul also has five names:[7]

“Who knows the spirit of human beings”: It is given five names: nefesh (anima), ruach (spirit), neshamah (soul), chayah (living one), yechidah (singular one).

For each of the names, the sages bring a source from the Scriptures, but they do not elaborate beyond that.

Now, the sages do not make any connection between these two interpretations, nor do they offer any Kabbalistic structure to explain them. The revealed literature of the Torah does not tend to highlight the Kabbalistic teachings nor to expose the inner architectural plan of creation. However, when a student of Kabbalah stands before these two interpretations, one counting five attributes to the soul and the other pointing out its five names, a lightbulb immediately goes on in his mind, telling him that the two must be interconnected.

Plus, if he is skilled in gematria, an incredible surprise awaits him: After calculating the sum of the words nefesh, ruach, neshamah, chayah,and yechidah (נֶפֶשׁ רוּחַ נְשָׁמָה חַיָּה יְחִידָה), he discovers it exactly matches the verse “Bless the Lord, O my soul” (בָּרֲכִי נַפְשִׁי אֶת י-הוה) upon which the whole interpretation of the five attributes is based! The two interpretations are thus a true heavenly pair, just waiting for someone to wed them.[8]

How can one bridge the two systems that appear in these two interpretations? Creating the correct correspondence between two sets of concepts is no simple matter. Beyond the extensive knowledge required to perform it, one needs a certain well-honed Kabbalistic “sense.” In our case, it is a relatively simple and straightforward correspondence, and therefore we can easily explain it here.

We have already mentioned that it is possible to arrange the five attributes in the first interpretation from below to above. Now, what about the five names? In this case, the Kabbalists have already done the work for us and explained at length that the names express five layers in the soul, which are also arranged from bottom to top: the nefesh layer is the most grounded; the ruach layer expresses a higher level; and so on.[9]

Based on this, we can draw up the following table:[10]

Name Attribute
Yechidah (singular one) Dwells in the innermost chambers
Chayah (living one) Pure
Neshamah (soul) Nourishes the entire body
Ruach (spirit) Sees but is not seen
Nefesh (anima) Fills the entire body

 

Many of us are put off by tables, as they remind us of the boring textbooks we had to suffer through in school (or alternatively, the boring bank statements we have to suffer through today). Studying Kabbalistic correspondences, on the other hand, can be a very enriching experience that stimulates our minds, hearts, and souls. What can we gain from the correspondence before us?

Levels of the Soul

The first thing we gain from this correspondence is a coherent model of the soul's layers. What was previously a scattering of attributes and synonymous names is now arranged into levels in a multi-layered structure. We can now distinguish between different planes within the soul, call them by their proper names, and hence learn about their relationship to each other.

Secondly, from the multi-level structure emerges a developmental model of the soul. Since the dimensions are arranged from bottom to top, we can infer from them the stages of complete spiritual development: mastery in the nefesh level leads to the discovery of the ruach level, mastery in ruach leads to the discovery of the neshamah level, and so on.

Thirdly, the Kabbalah between the interpretations allows us to find mutual correspondences between them, as well as other systems built on the same model of five levels. The multiplicity of Kabbalistic teachings allows us to compare one system to another and learn new things about each one.

But above all, the correspondence teaches us about the character and quality of each dimension. Each of the words nefesh, ruach, neshamah, chayah, and yechidah now corresponds to a specific characteristic that tells us about its nature:

  • The nefesh (anima) layer is revealed as the most basic level that fills and drives the body. It represents the inner aspect of the body, so to speak, the basic sense of vitality that we experience within us. The nefesh layer characterizes all living creatures (as implied in the verse “the blood is the nefesh,”[11] and by the fact that the word nefesh is also used in connection with animals[12]).
  • The ruach (spirit) layer is revealed as a higher and more hidden dimension, characterized as “seeing but not being seen.” If we expand this expression, we can interpret it to mean it senses but is not sensed. We learn from this that our sensitivity to others and to reality as a whole resides in the ruach level, but this sensitivity is itself modest and hidden (we also that the previous layer, nefesh, is relatively “seen and doesn’t see” or “sensed but isn’t sensitive”—i.e we do experience it consciously, but it is not sensitive enough to others).
  • The neshamah (soul) layer is revealed as a layer that nourishes The feelings of satisfaction, joy, and self-fulfillment that we so eagerly seek are therefore dependent on the neshamah layer shining within us: If it is fulfilled, it fills and nourishes us properly (we can also infer now that the previous two dimensions, nefesh and ruach, do not fill and nourish us as the neshamah does).
  • The chayah (living one) layer within us is described as pure. The implication is that this part is elevated above this world and is untarnished by its falsehoods and impurities (unlike the previous three dimensions, which apparently are not as pure as it is). The chayah dimension floats, as it were, above the waters of the world, and if we succeed in connecting to it, we too can aspire to inhale its pure air and be revived from it.[13]
  • Lastly, the yechidah (singular one) layer is described as “residing in chambers within chambers.” As mentioned, this circular expression hints at infinite chambers, one within the other. The implication is that the yechidah layer can never be fully attained, but only approached more and more. It expresses the essence of the image of God (tzelem Elokim) within us, a spark of infinity we share with God (in contrast to the previous four dimensions, which apparently are relatively finite and limited).

* * *

This model of the layers of the soul is relatively simple, and what was said here does not scratch the surface of what there is to learn about it. But it is sufficient to somewhat illustrate to us the power of Kabbalistic correspondence. When done properly and contemplated deeply, Kabbalistic correspondences can awaken dormant and unconscious levels of the soul, integrate them into our consciousness, and use them for its growth.

Part 1 of this series:   The Secret Library: Introduction to the Inner Dimension of the Torah
Part 2 of this series: Is Kabbalah Mysticism, Science, Both, or Neither?

Part 4 of this series: The Chasidic Revolution

[1]. See for instance Proverbs 11:20 and Esther 9:27.

[2] Exodus 26:35; 36:12.

[3] Beautifully, the four numbers we listed—1 (God’s oneness), 4 (the tetragrammaton), 10 (the sefirot), and 22 (Hebrew letters)—may be seen as evolving one from the other according to the simple formula 2n+2: place 1 in n and you get 4; place 4 in n and you get 10; place 10 in n and you get 22. This is a beautiful illustration of how plurality gradually and consistently evolves out of unity.

[4] Science too seeks to find a middle ground between empirical phenomena and their hidden source. The laws of nature formulated by empirical science are an attempt to reconstruct the basic structural patterns by which nature is organized; the same objective as Kabbalah has. Indeed, it can be said that science and Kabbalah complement each other: both try to outline the fundamental patterns at the basis of creation, but from different directions: science does this through observations, hypotheses, and experiments regarding nature, and Kabbalah does this through deep study of the Torah.

[5] Three times in Psalm 103 and twice in Psalm 104.

[6] Berachot 10a.

[7] For example, Yalkut Shimoni on Ecclesiastes §969.

[8] 1099, is also the numerical value of the expression from the Midrash "five Names" (חֲמִשָּׁה שֵׁמוֹת).

[9] It should be noted that other versions of this interpretation list the yechidah before chayah, but in Kabbalah, this order is decisive.

[10] These five levels also correspond to the above-mentioned four-letter name of God, with the addition of a special first level called "tip of yud" which corresponds to the yechidah.

[11] Deuteronomy 12:23.

[12] The first appearance of the word nefesh in the Torah is in the context of the creation of the first living creatures (Genesis 1:20), “And God said, 'Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures [nefesh chayah]….’”

[13] According to Kabbalah, the chayah layer corresponds to the avira—the air or gap found between the brain and the skull.

 

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