Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib of Ger, author of one of the great works of Eastern European mystical theology, the Sefas Emes, commented that when Jacob dreamed about a ladder joining heaven and earth, he had attained a level of spiritual awareness that would have filled most people with pride. God had spoken to him personally and assured him of a successful future. Instead, however, Jacob was overcome with reverence.
"And Jacob awoke from his sleep.... Shaken, he said, `How awesome is this place!'" To our surprise however, Jacob's ego does not get bigger, it gets smaller! Such reverence, says the Gerer Rebbe, is a sure sign that someone is on to great truth. Indeed, every event that occasions reverence also participates in ultimate truth. "Reverence is the beginning and the end of everything."
It happens to us too. Maybe we don't get the big dream or the personal speech but, like Jacob, we awaken to the mystery of our own existence and are overwhelmed with reverence. I'd call it "amazing grace." Just this is the beginning of all spiritual awareness: Reverence before The Mystery.
I have a friend who is a recent grandmother. Even though her granddaughter lives several hours away, she jumps at any excuse to spend time with her. Sometimes, if she is lucky, she even gets to baby-sit. On one such summer afternoon she was reading while the little girl played on the floor. Suddenly there was a clap of thunder and a torrent of rain. Within five minutes, she told me, it was over and the sun was shining again. The four-year-old wandered over to the window and exclaimed, "Grandma, who made that?" When my friend got up and looked outside she saw a complete rainbow.
The Kabbalists say that the ultimate question a human being can ask is not "what?" or "how?" or even "why?" The ultimate question is "Who?"
The Letter Aleph
Aleph is the first letter. It has no sound. Only the sound you make when you begin to make every sound. Open your mouth and begin to make a sound. Stop! That is Aleph.
It is the letter beginning the first of God's mysterious seventy names: Elohim. God. It also begins the most important thing about God: echad. One. Know that God is One. The first and the last and the only One.
The name of the first man was Adam. Adam. The first man. And the name of the herald of the last man will be Eliyahu, Elijah.
The name of the first Jew is also Aleph, Avraham Avinu, Abraham, our Father.
Aleph is the letter of fire, aysh. A fire that flames but does not destroy. That is how the Holy One gets your attention. God shows you the primordial fire.
And the very first letter of the first word of the first commandment begins with the first letter, which has no sound: Aleph, anochi, I. "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of slavery."
It is no accident that all these words begin with Aleph. The most basic words there are begin with the most primal sound there is. The almost sound you make before you can make any sound.
Blessing as Awakening
Blessings give reverent and routine voice to our conviction that life is good, one blessing after another. Even, and especially, when life is cold and dark. Indeed to offer blessings at such times may be our only deliverance.
We have specific and unique phrases by which we bless a sacred book before we read it, our children at the Sabbath table, our hands while washing them, the bread we eat, the moon, the fact that we are not slaves, and that the rooster can distinguish between night and day. We bless dwarfs and trees in first blossom. We bless the hearing of good news and any kind of wine. We bless everything. Or, to be technically correct, we bless the Holy One who stands behind and within them all.
Blessings keep our awareness of life's holy potential ever present. They awaken us to our own lives. Every blessing says, "I am grateful to be a creature and to remind myself and God that life is good."
With each blessing uttered we extend the boundaries of the sacred and ritualize our love of life. One hundred times a day. Everywhere we turn, everything we touch, everyone we see. The blessing can be whispered. No one even needs to hear. No one but the Holy One. "Holy One of Blessing, your Presence fills the universe. Your Presence fills me."
A Glistening Thread
"There is nothing besides the presence of God; being itself is derived from God and the presence of the Creator remains in each created thing."Rabbi Menachem Nahum of Chernobyl
The first chapter of Genesis is so familiar that we can easily overlook the obvious. I'll give you an example. Imagine there is an artist. There are rumors about his creativity. It is said that not only does he possess enormous energy but his artistic skills encompass many widely differing forms of expression. Imagine also that after years of curiosity, you have at last been invited to tour his workshop.
He holds up a piece of sculpture and says, "I made this."
It is very beautiful; you are impressed. Then, over on an easel, there is a freshly done canvas. "I made this too."
So he is not only a sculptor but a painter also. "And this bench here, I made it." A carpenter, he is. "And this electric drill, I made it also." So he is a machinist too.
"And the soufflé, would you like some? I baked it." He is also a gourmet cook. "And the window here; I made the glass. And this book; I wrote it. Bound it myself. Even made the paper. The music playing on the phonograph; it's mine." On and on it goes, until it seems that there is nothing in the entire workshop that the artist has not himself made.
What would you think? Well, first of all, it is obvious that we are in the presence of enormous talent. This artist made everything. But also we suspect that since all these creations are the work of a single artist they must share some common aesthetic motif or stylistic thread. And that it is only because of our relative inexperience in dealing with an artist of such enormous capability that we cannot discern the common hand in them all.
We remember once how in an art appreciation course in college we suddenly saw that the sculpture and the painting of Michaelangelo bore unmistakable common traits that any trained eye could see at a glance. Or perhaps we recall how after studying Beethoven, that the symphonies and the string quartets were clearly the work of the same genius. And that it had only been on account of our previous lack of sensitivity in such matters that made them initially sound dissimilar.
But now we are confronted with too much. We cannot go from the soufflé to the electric drill. They seem to have absolutely nothing in common, even though one and the same artist has made them. We know that they must be related to one another in precisely the same way that the painting and the sculpture or the symphony and the string quartet are related; they share a common maker. They are artistic siblings, each unique and yet each intimately related, each traceable to a common source.
It is that way with our world too. The apparent brokenness, disharmony, and confusion that clutter the universe are illusory. For everything in the world was fashioned by the same Artist. And this is perhaps why the author of the first chapter of Genesis is so intent on punctuating each day's work with the refrain, "And God made this and God made that". Which is to teach that everything is related to everything else and that if we would but look carefully enough, we could discern the work of the One Creator.
As Menachem Nahum suggested, "... the presence of the Creator can be found in all creation." One great glistening thread joining all being.
There is an old Hasidic story, recounted by Martin Buber, of the disciples who gathered to learn from their rebbe, the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. After the evening prayers, the master would go to his room where candles would be lit and "the mysterious Book of Creation" lay open on the table. All those seeking advice from the Baal Shem were then admitted in a group to hear their teacher, who would speak late into the night.
One evening as the students left the room, one apologized to the others for monopolizing so much of the Baal Shem's attention. Throughout the entire audience, the master had spoken to him personally. His friend told him not to talk such nonsense. They had all entered the room together and, from the very beginning, the master had spoken only to him. A third, hearing this, laughed and said that they both were mistaken, for their teacher had carried on an intimate conversation with him alone for the entire evening. A fourth and a fifth made the same claim, that the Baal Shem had spoken to them personally, to the exclusion of everyone else. Only then did they realize what had happened and all fell silent.
So it is with us when we read scripture. The biblical text speaks
intimately and demands an intensely personal response. As Harold
Bloom has said of reading "strong poetry," the interpretation evoked
"insist[s] upon itself ... it and the text are one." Because the words of
the poem speak only to me, I am not free to comment dispassionately
on them, for I am in them. They are me. What you say of the
poem, you say of me.