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Tamuz: The Symbol of Life

As these words were being written, Jewish people all over the world united in prayer waiting for a sign of life from the kidnapped boys. Since then, the bodies of Eyal, Gil-ad and Naftali have been found. They were murdered for being Jewish; may God avenge their blood. This article is dedicated in their memory, and the Master of Consolation shall heal their dear families’ broken hearts and the broken hearts of the entire Jewish People.

We are currently at the beginning of Tamuz, meditating on the letter with which the month was created according to Kabbalah―the letter chet (ח). This letter is a symbol of life, beginning with the fact that the word “life” (חַיִים) begins with the letter chet.

What Does Your Tamuz Look Like?

The letter chet (ח), as it appears in a Torah scroll is composed of the letter vav to the right, and a letter zayin to the left, connected by a thin line, like a roof or hump, as shown[1]:

letter chet

The month of Iyar was created with the letter vav (ו), which is referred to as “The connecting line,” and the month of Sivan was created with the letter zayin (ז), which is “the Torah’s crown” – from here we see that the month of Tamuz unites the two preceding months of the year. An allusion to this idea is in the word “Tamuz” (תַמוּז), which can be alternately read as “the vav-zayin is complete” (תָם ו-ז), i.e., the connection between the letters vav and zayin is complete and whole.

This needs some explanation: by contrast to the Counting of the Omer in Iyar and the festival of the Giving of the Torah in Sivan, the month of Tamuz appears to be somewhat mundane. Moreover, there is even a date of negative significance that stands out during this month, the fast of the Seventeenth of Tamuz – the day that commemorates the sin of the Golden Calf,[2] and the day on which the siege on Jerusalem began, beginning a difficult period of mourning and destruction (the three weeks until the Ninth of Av).

Yet, from a different perspective, Tamuz takes on a completely different character. According to the original plan, the seventeenth of Tamuz was a very joyful day! Following the Revelation at Sinai, Moses ascended the mountain to receive the Torah for a period of forty days that ended on the seventeenth of Tamuz. On this day we were supposed to receive the Two Tablets of the Covenant, and what could be more festive than the completion of the Giving of the Torah and sealing the covenant between the Almighty and the Jewish People? From this point of view, Tamuz is definitely the pinnacle of the two months that precede it.

The truth is that how we see our Tamuz depends on whether we wait patiently for Moses to descend from the mountain with the Two Tablets in his hand, or if we prefer to find a glittery superficial replacement for him in the form of a Golden Calf whose end is more bitter than bitter aloes. Will we choose the letter chet of “life” (חַיִים) and “loving-kindness” (חֶסֶד), or God forbid, of “sin” (חֵטְא) and “transgression” (חַטָאָה). “Life and death have I given before you, blessing and curse; and you shall choose life so that you will live, you and your offspring.”[3] Choosing life (as explained in  Chasidut[4]) means understanding that everything has an inner core of life and goodness, together with an outer husk that represents death, and instead of grasping the seductive casing, we need to always tip the scales towards the side of life, by following God’s will as it is written in the Torah.

Him and Her beneath the Wedding Canopy

The Giving of the Torah was like a joyful wedding, “On the day of his wedding, and on the day his heart rejoiced.”[5] Since God is the Groom, then we, the Jewish People, are the bride and the Tablets of the Covenant are the ketubah (marriage contract).[6] The wedding takes place beneath the chupah (wedding canopy), above the heads of the couple; indeed the form of the letter chet (ח) is a perfect chupah beneath which the bride and groom stand on the most auspicious day of their lives.

In fact, we can even identify the bride and groom themselves in the letter chet. The letter vav is a relatively “male” letter, which represents influx that permeates mundane reality from above, while the letter zayin is “female,” representing reality’s reaction, as if it were growing from below to the height that concludes with the crown, like the petals of a beautiful flower, or, in Kabbalistic terminology: the returning light that rises in response to direct light.

Our wedding canopy, therefore, is made of the groom on the right and the bride on the left and above them rises a tall fragile roof that connects everything into one letter, the letter of life that alludes to new life that begins to be formed from that moment.

A Vital Pulse

We can begin to sense that there is a life-force that beats in the letter chet. This is life that is characterized by movement (“all that lives, moves”), not a direct, stable line but an ever-changing line that rises and descends, like heartbeats, or the movements of breathing. Nowadays, we are all familiar with the graphic representation of the machines that check various physical states, and it is interesting to note that the line that monitors the heart activities is amazingly similar to the letter chet, the letter of life, and in particular to the vibrating line above.

The wisdom of Kabbalah teaches us that life is characterized by vibrating beating pulses even at the most profound and abstract level of existence. There are two basic Kabbalistic concepts that relate to this pulse of life; the first is “run and return” and the second is “touching, yet not touching.”

Run and Return

In the “Working of the Chariot” the Prophet Ezekiel describes how the Divine “Living beings” looked, “And the living beings would run and return, like the appearance of lightning.”[7] The angels sense the Divine life-force that vitalizes them, and they aspire to return to their source and nullify themselves in it – this is the movement of “running.” But then, they immediately sense the Divine commandment that sends them out on a defined mission and they return to their place – this is the movement of “returning.” This is the movement of the constant life-pulse, running and returning again and again like an alternating electric current.

In our context, the letter vav represents the movement of “return” (like direct light that descends downwards), while the letter zayin represents the movement of “run” (the returning light that rises upwards). Thus, in perfect balance, the life that pulses into creation is represented by the letter chet, in particular by the fragile line that connects the two movements.

In our familiar physical experience we can identify the pulses of “run and return” in many physiological systems. Kabbalists describe even the sense of sight – the most delicate and abstract of all the senses – as acting in this way: sight exits the eye, as it were, towards the object (“run”) and returns from the object to the eye (“return”). According to Kabbalah, the sense of sight is the special psychological talent of the month of Tamuz and we can identify the intangible movement of sight, at the speed of light (“like the appearance of lightning”), as the beginning of life, “see life,”[8] or as the act of creation that began with light and sight: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good.”[9]

Touching, yet Not Touching

Whereas the concept of “run and return” relates to the movement of life with reference to created life, beginning with the most ethereal angels, “touching yet not touching” describes the movement from the point of view of the Divine source. Divine life reaches the being, “touching” it, but the contact is so gentle and lambent, as if it withdraws and ascends back to its source.

One superb expression of this phenomenon is in the verse, “As an eagle awakens its nest, hovering over its fledglings,”[10] and as Rashi explains, “It does not impose its [whole] body upon them. Rather, it hovers above them, touching them and yet not touching them.” The great eagle guards its children from up close, but is careful not to impose itself upon them but keeps some distance. So too, the Almighty is careful not to “suffocate” us with His infinite and absolute presence but grants us life as He hovers lambently, as it were, touching, yet not touching.

From this perspective, the letter vav is the movement of “touching,” while the letter zayin is “not touching.” Thus, the canopy above the letter chet is formed by touching-yet-not-touching, as Rashi describes the hovering eagle.

If the balance between “touching” and “not touching” is disturbed, a tragedy might occur, God forbid. This is how the sages describe it when Moses saw the Golden Calf; suddenly the Tablets of the Covenant became heavy in his hands because the letters that were engraved on them flew off into the air.[11] This means that as a result of our sin, new life no longer takes an “interest” in us and no longer wishes to arrive. If the Divine vitality stops “touching” us and rises upwards, only “not touching” the Tablets automatically fall and break.

What is Mashiach’s Name?

In the month of Tamuz there is a danger of catastrophe, such as the sin of the Golden Calf and the breaking of the Tablets – the light of Divine life ascends and we are left as dead bodies. But the wisdom is “preventative medicine;” preventing the ascent by creating the correct weight to draw in life, so that the light actually touches us and is not only “not touching.”

The sages say that every catastrophe that meets the Jewish People is a partial punishment for the sin of the Golden Calf, which means that complete rectification of the sin is a messianic objective. Indeed, in recent generations there are some joyful dates that have been set in Tamuz, such as the commemoration of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson’s date of redemption on the 12th and 13th of Tamuz. Connecting to the figures of righteous individuals is the preventative medicine that gives us immunity against the dangers of spiritual decline like the sin of the Golden Calf (which took place in the absence of Moses, the righteous individual of that generation).

Having mentioned connection to righteous individuals, which brings life, prompts us to search for righteous individuals who answer to the name “Chaim” (חַיִים), which means “life.” The most famous righteous individual whose name is Chaim is undoubtedly Rabbi Chaim ben Atar, author of the Or Hachaim (which literally means “Light of life”) commentary on the Torah. The author of the Or Hachaim Hakadosh is admired by all, and the Ba'al Shem Tov (who lived during his times) spoke of him very highly, saying that he had the soul of Mashiach. Indeed, in one place in his commentary, the author himself writes, “God’s anointed one, his name is Chaim.”[12] Mashiach knows the secret of life, which balances the constant tension between run and return and is a suitable container in which to absorb the light that touches, but does not touch; the light of life.

Indeed, the Or Hachaim Hakadosh passed away on the 15th of Tamuz, and on that date throngs of people visit his grave on the Mt. of Olives. The 15th of the month is the pinnacle of the month, when the full moon appears – and it is suited to be the day of preventative medicine for the 17th of Tamuz; preventing the fall into the sin of the Golden Calf and the destruction of the Temple. the first chet in the Torah is in the word “darkness” (חֹשֶׁךְ) but darkness turns into light in the next appearances of the letter, “And the spirit of God hovers over the face of the water” (וְרוּחַ אֱ־לֹהִים מְרַחֶפֶת עַל פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם), as the sages state, “This is the spirit of Mashiach,” who brings us the light of life.

[1] A different opinion holds that it is two letters zayin with a roof above them.

[2] ראה משנה תענית ד, ו.

באב. בשבעה עשר בתמוז נשתברו הלוחות, ובטל התמיד, והבקעה העיר, ושרף אפסטמוס את התורה, והעמיד צלם ב

[3] Deuteronomy 30:19.

[4] Torah Or, Ki Tisa 85:3, etc.

[5] Song of Songs 3:11.

[6] See Rashi on Exodus 34:1 how breaking the Tablets was like tearing a ketubah.

[7] Ezekiel 1:14.

[8] Ecclesiastes 9:9.

[9] Genesis 1:3-4.

[10] Deuteronomy 32:11.

[11] Midrash Tanchuma Parashat Ki Tisa, 30.

[12] Or Hachaim, Deuteronomy 15:7.

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