DOT... LETTER... WORD...
Insights from Breslov Hasidism
YAACOV DAVID SHULMAN
Elijah began to expound:
“Master of the world, You are one, and beyond all accounting.
“You are higher than the highest, more hidden than the most hidden.
“No thought can grasp You at all” (Patach Eliyahu).
Beyond all universes, beyond all thought, beyond all conception, is the one primal Being Whom we call God.
“The true nature of this Being,” teaches Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, “cannot be understood by anyone besides Him. All that is known about Him is that He is totally perfect” (Derech Hashem 1:2).
The Jewish mystical tradition teaches that in order to create the many planes of being that culminated in our world, God brought into being ten sefirot, or vessels. These sefirot consecutively filtered God’s spiritual light so that universes separate from Him could emerge.
In this way, God could bestow love on others. He could be revealed to others as a giving king (cf. Likutei Halachot: Yoreh Death: Tolaim 4:5).
These ten sefirot are still active, for God continues to recreate all of creation at every moment.
The pattern of the ten sefirot exists on many levels. Every object and every process in the world is a working through of the energies of the sefirot. Every Jewish practice and holiday presents a theater for the energies of the sefirot to flow.
In addition, like an infinite hologram, each sefirah contains within it all the other sefirot (Likutei Halachot: Choshen Mishpat: Geneivah 4:6).
And in our own personalities and our own lives we can find analogues to the divine processes of the sefirot.
Thus, the classic work, Tomer Devorah, in which every sefirah is linked to an ethical quality states, “It is fit for a person to be similar to his Maker.”
And Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth rebbe of Lubavitch, taught, “God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image’ (Genesis 1:26). All the heavenly levels are found in man. The word adam–man–is related to the word edameh–I will be similar–as in the verse, ‘I will be similar to the One above’ (Isaiah 14:14). Man below is an image of the sefirotic lights and vessels above. All levels above are found in man below.”
Because we contain an analogue of the sefirot within ourselves, we can intuit the spiritual truth of the upper worlds. Furthermore, through our acts here below–acts of goodness and of religious meaning, such as keeping the Sabbath–we can influence the heavenly sefirot and draw down their positive energy (Likutei Dibburim, p. 246).
In particular, we can use the sefirot as a model when examining and attempting to improve our spiritual lives and struggles.
This analogue between the sefirot and our personal work in relating to God in a profound and deeply-felt way is a theme that is discussed at length in the Breslov Hasidic literature.
This is particularly so in Likutei Halachot (Collected Discourses on Jewish Law), an eight-volume collection of essays by Rabbi Nosson, a major student of Rabbi Nachman. This work parallels the sixteenth-century collection of Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch (The Prepared Table). But whereas that work, the foundation of modern halachic practice, is a practical manual, Likutei Halachot uses the halachah as a take-off point for brilliant expositions of Breslov Hasidism.
Likutei Halachot forms the basis of this book.
The Ten Sefirot
The first sefirah is called keter: crown. It is the most transcendent of sefirot, the closest to the blazing, inconceivable light of the Infinite One.
Then the light of keter is filtered down to the second sefirah, chochmah: wisdom. Chochmah is the incipient flash of what the structure of this world will be.
From chochmah comes binah: understanding. Binah is the broadening and development of that primal flash of insight.
The culmination of chochmah and binah is da’at: knowledge. Because keter is so exalted and hidden, it is sometimes not counted as a sefirah. In such a case, da’at is counted. Da’at represents the union and integration of chochmah and binah. Now the balanced flow of Divine energy can proceed.
The next sefirah is chesed: lovingkindness. A much more tangible form of creation is taking place. This first step is an untrammeled outpouring of limitless love.
This is balanced by the next sefirah, gevurah: might. This is the sefirah of holding back and constriction. It is a necessary placing of boundaries on the exuberant force of a loving creation.
These two forces are integrated and balanced in the following sefirah of tiferet: beauty. Now love and withholding are in balance, with a slight tilt toward love.
After this comes netzach: victory. This is again, on a more tangible plane, a sefirah of giving. This time the giving is one of overpowering and overcoming.
Netzach must be balanced by hod. Hod is related to gevurah. It is gentler, a receiving openness to Divine energy.
These two sefirot of netzach and hod combine in yesod: foundation. Foundation is the conduit for all the sefirot above it. Through it, like water through a sluice, energy flows down in a directed stream. It is a holy energy that must be directed and controlled wisely. Therefore, it is analogous to human sexuality.
The final sefirah is malchut: kingdom. This sefirah, which has received the energy of all the sefirot above it, rules the world over which it hangs and which it permeates.
Each one of these sefirot has a wealth of characteristics, and can be known by a plethora of names.
Besides this, the sefirot interact in a complex set of relationships.
A primal dynamic of the sefirot is the balance between male and female energies. The sefirot are arranged in three columns. The right-hand column is male, the left-hand female, and the middle column blends the two.
The paradigm of the sefirot is repeated infinitely, one set within another.
Imagine a series of infinite universes. At the very bottom is our own world, with its billions of galaxies, each containing billions of stars, spanning distances of billions of light years.
This universe is merely a small part of the more spiritual universe directly above it. And so does creation rise, level after level, in a scope of unfathomable greatness. The higher universes contain a profusion of spiritual energies that we can barely imagine, filled with spiritual beings and processes. Higher and higher do the universes ascend. And in each one, we are aware of the progressively more powerful flow of divine energy coursing down.
We rise from level to level, like an explorer tracing the source of a mighty river. Finally, we come to a level that totally baffles us, that overwhelms our most evolved and purified spiritual being. It is as though we stand beneath a roaring, battering, brilliant Niagara Falls of overpowering spiritual energy. All our thoughts, conceptions, our consciousness and awareness are shattered. We have come to the limit of any created being to understand Godliness. Beyond this is the great source of Being that created beings can only experience as an exalted Nothingness.
And the energy that flows through all these universes is the dynamic flow of processes running in a complex and never-ending interplay of balanced and interacting energies and vessels. These are what we call the sefirot.
The Jewish mystical tradition teaches that even this conception is a corporealization of processes that transcend our human intellect. In the upper worlds, there is no space and there is no time. Therefore, all the words and concepts that we use to describe the sefirot are hopelessly impoverished.
Just as a poem can recreate the mood of a magnificent vision, so can the descriptions of sefirot give us a taste of the spiritual world that flows above and about us.
But the prime purpose of this work is to discuss the sefirot in a way that can provide inspiration and direction for our own spiritual journeys.
This writing proposes to present one way of viewing the model of the sefirot: a modern interpretation of Breslov Hasidism. It is by no means an attempt to be definitive or even to cover the bulk of the subject. The approach is not technical, but impressionistic. And the characteristics of the sefirot are not hermetic. Thus, the same quality–such as joy–may be related to different sefirot.
Two other English-language books are recommended. Aryeh Kaplan’s Innerspace has been described as the best English-language introduction to Kabbalah. Mattis Kantor’s Ten Keys: A Guide for the Entangled is an original study of the sefirot as psychological paradigms.
The Sefirot and Beyond
You are He Who emanated ten rectifications and called them ten sefirot, to rule with them the hidden, unrevealed universes and the revealed universes.
In them, You are hidden from humanity.
You are He Who ties them and unites them.
Because You are within, whoever separates one from another of those ten sefirot is considered as though he had separated within You.
These ten sefirot proceed in order.
One is long, one is short and one is in-between.
You are He Who rules them.
But no one rules You–neither above nor below nor from any side.
You made them garments from which blossom souls for humanity.
You prepared a number of bodies for them–called bodies in relation to the garments that cover them (Patach Eliyahu).
Higher than all the sefirot is God Himself. But what is His exact relation to the sefirot?
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (a major Kabbalist of the eighteenth century) writes, “The sefirot are God’s traits that He made for Himself to serve creation. They are not traits in regard to His completeness and primal true Being, but are created from His will and desire, for the sake of the beings that He desired to create....
“They are not God’s character, for ‘character’ is a concept that refers only to created beings, not to the Creator. These traits are types of Providence and illumination that are brought to shine on His creation....
“The sefirot are not something outside of Him. They are literally His traits: His compassion, grace, judgment, charity, and so on. These are not like the character of a soul, but rather like types of illumination and providence” (K’lalim Rishonim, in Da’at Tevunot, p. 247).
The sefirot are so to speak the attributes of God. They are a part of God, and, at the same time, crystallizations and formulations.
The sefirot are our means of relating to God, for His attributes are a function of the sefirot.
God’s essence before the sefirot is unknowable. Yet at times, in the depths to which the ten sefirot do not seem to descend, when we seem beyond God’s lovingkindness, when we cannot cling to any of His attributes or manifestations, we can turn to Him directly and be answered by the ineffable God Who exists beyond the ten sefirot.
When Hannah wept bitterly that she had no children, her husband Elkanah consoled her, “Am I not better to you than ten sons?” (Samuel I 1:8).
In this way does God console every individual who has descended into his own subjugation: “Am I not better to you than the ten sefirot?”
God told Jacob, “I will descend with you to Egypt.” And He continued with a promise: “And I will also bring you up.”
God is the true “I” of the universe. He is the center of being, the monadic identity behind all shifting manifestations.
It is God Himself that we yearn for. In the depths of exile, whether a bitter moral ugliness or a pervasive sense of a life leached of holiness and meaning, our soul yearns for release, for transcendent holiness, for the essential, unknowable, refreshing and redeeming God.
God’s sefirot, His attributes, are His “ten sons.”
God consoles us all–for every individual suffers his own Egypt: “Am I not better to you than ten sons?” I, the primal and most exalted God, am close to you and ready to redeem you, even when you cannot reach My attributes.
“God is close to all who cry out to Him–to all who cry out to Him in truth” (Psalms 145:18).
When our heart is emptied of lies and truth rushes in, we cry out to the highest Being: at that moment, in the exile itself, we are redeemed.
After that, we can attach ourselves to God’s attributes, which are His garments, so to speak, and correspondingly purify our own attributes, engaging in the slow and steady work of healing (cf. Likutei Halachot: Orach Chaim: Chanukah 6:17).
The Vision of Ezekiel
The prophet Ezekiel had a vision in which he saw heavenly beings “running out and returning.”
In our service of God, we also go through these two phases repeatedly.
In a state of spiritual inspiration, we run out to God, to the highest level that we can reach. We can be nullified in the overwhelming Presence. In that place, all is Oneness, all is hidden. No thought can grasp that place. We are cast beyond conception, thought and self. “You are One, yet not in number. You are higher than all high, more concealed than all concealed. No thought can grasp You at all” (Patach Eliyahu).
But we return to a normative state. We again becomes a vessel able to absorb God’s light in a limited, effective measure. We again relates to God as the Creator of the sefirot. “You are He Who emanated ten rectifications. They are called the ten sefirot” (Likutei Halachot: Yoreh Death: Milah 5:17).
The Sefirot are Measures
Ultimately, we must approach God through the sefirot. The sefirot are vessels that hold God’s light. That is why they are also called midot–measurements. They measure out God’s light so that it is graduated. In this way, we can receive the light without being overwhelmed and destroyed by its great power.
When God began creation, He first created a state of chaos, tohu: “the earth was void and without form” (Genesis 1:2). God’s light exceeded the vessels. The light pouring into the vessels shattered them, and bits of light were scattered to the lowest depths. This created the possibility of free will–and concomitantly of evil.
Then God created the universe again–the creation that we know, which is called tikkun: rectification. In this reality, there are many vessels and few lights. Although the light may be hidden by the vessels, the universe is steady and substantial.
We need the vessels to hold the light. This is a lesson that is sometimes learned too late by those who, intoxicated by the flight of mystic ecstasy, deny the reality of spiritual law. It is precisely these constraints that in limiting the light make it absorbable.
We reflect the sefirot above, and thus we contain within ourselves lights and vessels. Our light is intellect, and our vessel is physical service of God.
In itself, intellectual appreciation of God–even a broad understanding–is tohu: a precarious state that can at any moment collapse.
Active service of God, even without intellectual understanding, is tikkun: rectification. Even though the amount of light is small, it is safely set in protective vessels. By acting correctly, even without understanding, we rectify our moral traits, treat others well and develop our awe of heaven.
The ideal cosmic state will be reached when the light of tohu will be drawn into the vessels of tikkun.
On a personal level, we must work to achieve a balance of principled action nourished by intellectual, emotional and aesthetic richness (cf. Likutei Dibburim, p. 246).
God is in the Sefirot, Yet Beyond the Sefirot
In the ideal future, “the earth will be filled with knowledge of God like water covering the sea” (Isaiah 11:9).
In order to create the universe, God vacated a space of His Being. (This vacating takes place only from the point of view of His creation; from God’s point of view, He never changes–see Tanya.)
In this vacated space, God created the universe with ten sayings (Pirkei Avot 5:1)–e.g., “Let there be light.”
These ten sayings correspond to the ten sefirot.
The ten sefirot served as conduits of energy which flowed down to create the world.
It would seem that the vacated space is truly empty.
But this is not so. The empty space is both empty and filled with God’s life force. In a deeply paradoxical manner that human intellect cannot fathom, it is empty to allow the creation to proceed, yet it remains filled.
Thus, all of creation stems from the inaccessible wisdom that fills the vacated space.
In that vacated space, where Godliness exists yet is hidden, the answers to all the questions of faith and providence are concealed. In that realm of bewilderment, one question opens the door to a dozen more, and perplexity can lead to denial of faith.
Although the heart can reach directly to God beyond the sefirot, the mind must admit its finite capabilities. In the face of unanswerable mysteries, it must remain still: “Be silent before God” (Psalms 37:7).
But in the future, this hidden knowledge will flow through the world. Everyone will gain a direct, immediate knowledge of God (cf. Likutei Halachot: Yoreh Death: Tolaim 4:8).
In Exile from the Sefirot
Today we live in an era of exile. We are separated not only from the wisdom that is hidden within the “vacated space,” but we are also separated, in various degrees, from the light contained within the sefirot.
The first three sefirot–keter, chochmah and binah–form a unit that is known as “a father in wisdom.”
As a result of sins committed here on earth, this upper unit has risen and left us behind as orphans: “we were orphans without a father.”
What is the nature of a sin? Ideally, our soul is in harmonious unity with the illumination of God’s wisdom, which unifies the entirety of creation. A sinful act rips apart that unity. Then our soul stands outside the stream of life. The wellspring of God’s divine energy no longer flows upon our desecrated will and being. Only a return to God brings back the primordial harmony (cf. Orot Hateshuvah, 9:6).
Here on earth, the analogue of the three sefirot known as the “father in wisdom” was the holy Temple–the Beit Hamikdash–in Jerusalem. With the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, the Jewish people went into exile.
“Elders no longer are at the gate; young men no longer sing” (Lamentations 5:14).
When the “elders”–the first three sefirot–are no longer at the gate, the young men no longer sing.
Our souls yearn to relate to God in joy and song. But when the first three sefirot rise, joy no longer streams through the universe. “The joy of our hearts has ceased, and our dance has turned to mourning” (ibid. 15).
Now our inheritance has been given over to strangers, and the Beit Hamikdash has been destroyed (cf. Likutei Halachot: Orach Chaim: Shabbat 7:16).
But through repentance, through a return to our innate wholesomeness, our despondency is healed. Our internal Beit Hamikdash is rebuilt.
As the sefirot devolve, there is a progressively greater constriction of light until this lowest universe is formed, where physical creatures such as ourselves can exist.
When a person sins, he increases the constriction of the divine light, cutting himself off from God’s primal wisdom. A spirit of foolishness, far distant from God’s wisdom, enters into him (cf. Sotah 3).
The cohen gadol would enter the Holy of Holies in the Beit Hamikdash on Yom Kippur. The Holy of Holies, the repository of the Ten Commandments, is the place of God’s wisdom. Here the cohen gadol would attain forgiveness for the Jews.
So too must a person enter his own mind and heart, his own wisdom, and carry out a personal inventory. When he does so, he is aligned with truth and Godly wisdom, and his sins are forgiven.
By sacrificing an animal in the Beit Hamikdash, a person would sacrifice his foolish, animalistic behaviors and state of mind. But it was not possible to offer a burnt-offering from a stolen animal.
Our repentance, our self-renewal, is acceptable only when our intent is matched by our action. When we return to the Beit Hamikdash, we are accepted in love and communion. But when we have stolen the sacrifice–when we have hurt another and not made up the damage–we cannot enter the circle of love and communion. Our spiritual constriction is so intense that we are cut off from our source in God’s wisdom.
When we rectify the theft, we reconnect ourselves to God’s wisdom. Our offering in the Beit Hamikdash of our heart is accepted (cf. Likutei Halachot: Choshen Mishpat: Gezeilah 2:8).
Then we are again in resonance with God and the sefirotic structure. We are unified with the wholesome current of the universal energy.
The Wisdom of Action
The sefirot are found in everything, for with them God gives life to and guides the entire universe. The sefirot are thus found in our intent, speech and acts.
Our intent relates to the first three sefirot, the “mental” sefirot.
Our subsequent speech or action relates to the following seven sefirot. These correspond to the seven days of creation, actualized being.
The first three sefirot are totally holy and good. As they devolve into greater actuality, the energies grow more constricted. At last, a very corporeal evil inclination can emerge.
When we have a pure intent to engage in a redeeming action, we can become overwhelmed by the destructive tendencies of the past.
These tendencies are a result of the constriction of divine energies that our previous unenlightened way of life brought about. This constriction resulted in a corporeal evil inclination. It now makes it difficult for us to break out of the inertia of the consciousness and way of life that has become our darkened pattern.
Often, we are not strong enough to engage these thoughts in conflict. We must tolerate the continued presence of these negative influences and proceed with our good intent. We learn Torah, pray or in some other way engage in a holy, wholesome way of life.
Eventually, as we create a new, more wholesome pattern, the old, sclerotic forces no longer appear so strongly or frequently.
This is part of the process of redeeming the fallen sparks of holiness. Some of the sparks fell because of our confusion and misdeeds. Some fell because that is part of the human odyssey after the fall of Adam.
How do we redeem these sparks? Through learning Torah, praying to God, and engaging in good deeds (cf. Likutei Halachot: Yoreh Death: Shiluach Hakein 4:2).
The Song of the Future
All systems have three basic phases. The first is giving. The second is receiving and restraining. The third is a blending of the two. This blending does not reduce the phases of giving and receiving, but rather balances them.
Some of the sefirot are primarily givers. These appear in the right-hand column of the sefirotic structure. Other sefirot are more engaged in receiving, holding back and preserving. They appear in the left-hand column. And the middle column contains the balancing forces.
The three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, were vehicles for God’s will. Abraham represents the side of unbounded giving. Isaac represents restraint. Jacob is the blend of the two: compassion. Thus the three patriarchs form the archetype of the ideal Jew.
The Torah that we have is an expression of these three streams of energy. The Torah is sometimes very loving, sometimes firm, and at times a rich balance. “Blessed is the Compassionate One, Who gave us a Torah divided into three parts” (Likutei Halachot: Yoreh Death: Milah 5:17).
Our singing voice can also be divided into three parts: the voice; the echo of that voice; and the combination of the voice and its echo.
These voices mirror the right, left and middle energies.
We combine these three energies and composes songs to God.
We serve God when we sing to Him in joy and exultation.
Energy came down to us in the form of ten sefirot. Now we raise up our heart to God, binding together the sefirot.
All the sefirot and all the universes, which themselves are garments of Divinity, are contained in our song.
When we align ourselves with God and His sefirot, our inner nature is balanced. Then our song to God reverberates within all reality. “Sing to God a new song; sing to God, all the world. Sing to God, bless His name; announce His redemption from day to day” (Psalms 96:1-2; cf. Likutei Halachot: Even Ha’ezer: Ishut 3:17).
KETER: THE CROWN
The Crown of Nothingness
Keter is the crown. Just as a crown is higher than the head, so is keter beyond thought. So profound is it that it can only be conceived of as a supernal Nothingness. Thus, it is also known as Ayin–Nothing.
Keter is the first frame of God’s thought, blinding us into darkness (Rav Kook).
And when the letters of Ayin are re-arranged, they spell out the word Ani-I. God is the “I” of the universe (Baal Shem Tov).
The Loving Countenance of Keter
Keter is the first emanation of the infinite light of God. It is therefore a manifestation of complete giving and love. It is in regard to this aspect of God’s relationship to the universe that the prophet, Micah, glorified God: “Who is a god like You? You forgive sin, and You pass over the iniquity of the remnant of Your inheritance. He does not hold forever onto His anger, for He desires lovingkindness. He will again have compassion on us. He will subjugate our sins and cast into the depths of the sea all of their sins. You give truth to Jacob, lovingkindness to Abraham, as You have vowed to our forefathers, from the days of old” (Micah 7:18-20).
Just as God relates to the universe in utter love, so must a human being relate to others lovingly.
Keter does not look up at its magnificent source, the Light of the Infinite Creator, but it looks down, sending its rays to the lower universes.
God looks down at His world with love, allowing only goodness to enter before Him and showing respect to even the slightest creature (for if He had any lack of respect for it, it would immediately cease to exist). So must a person look lovingly at others, not considering their flaws.
We should honor all beings, recognizing that they were created by God’s wisdom. We should recognize that by not respecting them, we do not appreciate He Who made them.
We should fill our heart with love of humanity. We should even think lovingly of those who do evil, wishing, “Would that they repented and became pleasing to God.”
Keter sits upon a head, so to speak, and that head is subsumed within keter.
In our head are our thoughts. The “thoughts” of keter are a continuous outpouring of goodness and love. They are thoughts of the primal Torah, the blueprint of creation. So should a person have only thoughts of goodness and love, and only meditate upon the Torah and upon God.
The “forehead” of keter is involved in ameliorating all harshness and judgments. So should we quiet the anger of others when we can, and act in a soothing manner.
The “ears” of keter do not allow entry to harsh judgments or slander. So should we not listen to empty and ugly words, words which arouse anger, but only to good and useful things.
The “eyes” of keter gaze down always at goodness. So should we not look at any ugly or immodest sight. Instead, we should only look to help the unfortunate.
The “nose” of keter refers to God’s acceptance of man’s prayers, which are “a pleasing scent to the Lord” (Leviticus 1:9). So should we always strive to be calm, even when provoked. We should always desire to help the oppressed, overlooking provocations.
The “countenance” of keter gives life, as in the verse, “In the light of the King’s countenance is life” (Proverbs 16:15). So should we look at people pleasantly and kindly.
The “mouth” of keter is always speaking goodness. Similarly, we should not speak curse words, violent words or empty words. Instead, we should only speak good of others, and our mouth should be filled with blessings.
It is true that we must often act with strictness and firmness. Those traits stem not from keter but from lower emanations of Godliness.
But in certain situations, we should only act with the traits that are appropriate to keter.
Such times are the Sabbath and holidays–particularly Yom Kippur. And during a regular day, there are the times of prayer and learning Torah (cf. Tomer Devorah, chapter 2).
Keter: Protective Screen
Keter is a screen that stands between our consciousness and the infinite, unfathomable light of Divinity. Keter is the curtain between the Emanator and that which is emanated.
The thoughts of a God-intoxicated person might run into the infinite regions and be swallowed up forever.
Keter prevents this. Keter allows us to rise to the heights of spirituality without self-annihilation. Therefore, Keter represents the greatest possible rectification of our consciousness.
The ability to access keter marks the difference between human beings and angels.
Angels are called seraphim, which means fiery beings. They burn up and are aflame in the light of their great insight and God-intoxication. Because they cannot access keter to receive God’s light, they are overwhelmed by that light.
A human being can access keter because he has the ability to do good deeds. The Jews have been given the 613 mitzvot of the Torah, and gentiles have been given the seven Noahide laws.
Jewish tradition calls the universe that we inhabit the world of Asiyah: the world of action.
When we serve God with action, we lift physicality to Godliness until it reaches the level of keter. We infuses physicality with spirituality.
This is the purpose of existence: to raise the most corporeal aspect of existence to keter, the root of thought and consciousness.
Eternal Joy is a Crown Upon the Jews’ Heads
When we carry out God’s commandments, we should do so in a state of joy. The prophet speaks of “Eternal joy on their heads” (Isaiah 35:10).
Keter is “on their heads.” The realm of keter is a realm of eternal joy.
When we carry out good deeds and God’s commandments in a joyous spirit, we can lift ourselves to the state of keter.
And when we reach keter, we are able to access the light of the Infinite One.
Angels, on the other hand, cannot bear the test of living in this low world. And correspondingly, they have no filters to receive God’s great light. Thus, human beings have the potential to reach a level of Godliness beyond the ability of angels.
At times, we may be dismayed by the frustrating boundaries of our human condition. It may seem that our physicality, our upbringing, our emotional problems, our everyday limitations keep us distant from God. We may feel that the desires and needs that constitute our makeup are a barrier to Godliness.
We may envy the angels, who are free of all earthly desire and needs.
Yet it is precisely on this earthly plane that we can actualize the will of God in perfecting His universe (cf. Likutei Halachot: Orach Chaim: Nefilat Apayim 4:9).
The Path of Action
“Those who go down in ships, who do work on the great seas, They have seen the works of God and His wonders in the depths” (Psalms 107:22-23).
There are holy and good people who carry out God’s commandments in joy. They rectify the level of keter, and so their consciousness can run joyfully to attain the light of the Infinite One. They go down to the sea of wisdom and do their work in the water of knowledge. They truly see and know how great are the works of God. They have seen His wonders in the depths.
But sometimes, a storm wind blows up. “He spoke and brought up a storm wind, which raised the waves. They rose to the heavens and sank to the depths. The [sailors’] spirit melted in fear” (ibid. 25-26).
Sometimes keter does not adequately hold back their consciousness. Then they are battered and confused. “They circled and staggered like a drunkard.” Lost in the storm of supernal energy and consciousness, they are flung about by the overwhelming light, rising to the heavens and being cast to the depths.
Because they were not adequately prepared when they rose to the heights, they receive no insight, and they are cast down.
All of us experience such a process to some degree.
And by engaging in joyful and holy action in this world, we redeem the delusions of the world. Here, so far from the fountain of Divinity, we wander amidst palaces of illusion. Here desire masquerades as reality; entanglement as maturity; confusion as truth; distance from God as sophistication; intellect as understanding.
By actively working our way through these issues, we prepare our keter so that we can regain our natural, healthy state. Then not only our body and psyche, but our soul as well, are in a state of well-being.
The Path of Silence
The more we try to rise to holiness, the more do our delusions begin to clamor. And barriers may also arise from without.
This is similar to stirring the clear water in a barrel. The refuse that had lain in the bottom now swirls throughout the water.
Such a time represents a precious opportunity to rectify these matters. We can best do so with the aid of a teacher. And we must always seek friends and colleagues. Then we can extract holiness from the palaces of illusion and raise the sparks of holiness to their source.
And we need a great deal of patience. We must often wait in silence as the trials of living endure. “Silence is a fence to wisdom” (Pirkei Avot 3:17). Keter–the crown–is a surrounding fence. Silence and acceptance before God provide a vessel in which wisdom can be contained.
“They rejoiced, for [the waves] were silent” (Psalms 107:30)–which can be read, “They rejoiced, yes, they were silent.”
Via the accomplishment of good deals in a joyful spirit, we attain keter, the holy inner silence. And then, “He led them to the port of their desire” (cf. Likutei Halachot: Orach Chaim: Hoda’ah 6:5).
“Be silent before God and hope in Him” (Psalms 37:7). The essence of returning to God is silence before Him. It is via this silence, a state beyond words, that God has compassion–and we attain repentance.
This is the level of keter.
The Torah defines man’s distinction from animals as his ability to speak. The Aramaic translation of “a living soul” is “a speaking soul” (Genesis 2:7).
When we acted in a way not consonant with the illumination of Godliness, we allowed ourselves to be overwhelmed by a this-worldly consciousness. We acted on a clouded level. We were, was, to a greater or lesser extent, animalistic.
We must rectify all that we flawed. We must again make ourselves wordless like an animal.
This silence is higher than speech. It is the level of keter.
We can call out to God in a wordless cry.
This is the cry of the shofar, which is blown on Rosh Hashanah, the time of judgment and repentance. The shofar, the wordless cry, awakens a person from his sleeping state of consciousness: “Awaken sleepers from your slumber.”
When we return to God, there is a time to stand before Him and before our own conscience in silence. Our words–our patterns of thought–are still tied to our previous, unenlightened state. Were we to begin speaking prematurely, we would only precipitate ourselves back to our previous state. Sometimes a person talks endlessly, trying to extricate himself from the morass of his life. But although he uses all the proper phrases of self-growth, he remains blocked. First, we must remain silent. We must allow ourselves to rise to a different sphere of perception. Then our speech is clear and new.
The shofar does not try to explain or defend. It does not even plead over our sins. It is a wordless call to God.
So too does a person feel within himself a wordless cry for cleanliness and redemption.
At that point, our animal nature is augmented by our human essence. Our animal nature is symbolized by our blood–in Hebrew, dam. When we connect wordlessly to God on the level of keter, we connect ourselves to the Master of the world, the Aleph (Alpha). The letter aleph prefixed to dam spells adam–human being. Now we regains our link to Godliness–that is, our humanity (Likutei Halachot: Orach Chaim: Rosh Hashanah 4:2).
The Path of Confession
We can only rectify a situation of exile by descending into the depths and raising the sparks of joy and holiness.
We do so by confessing our wrong-doings. We cast ourselves down in order to raise joy from the depths of exile. We admit the reality of our lives–to ourselves, to God, to another human being.
We take responsibility for the flawed state of our lives.
Now we can rectify our level of keter, our joy. Now we can access the light of the Infinite One (cf. Likutei Halachot: Orach Chaim: Nefilat Apayim 4:2).
In Shacharit, the morning prayers, we confess our wrong-doings to God immediately after the Shemoneh Esrei prayer, the apex of the morning service.
In the course of our prayers, we are, ideally, raising all the worlds to God.
Having finished Shemoneh Esrei, all the universes have been lifted up. Now we must incorporate them into the Light of the Infinite One.
This is only made possible when we confess our wrong-doings. Then we rectify keter, and we can access the Light of the Infinite One.
When confessing our wrong-doings, we lower our face: we lower ourselves to the level that we are actually on.
When Moses stood before God, he “hid his face, for he feared looking at God” (Exodus 3:6). It was at that time that God blessed the Jews with the thirteen traits of compassion.
The Path of Hope
Whatever level we find ourselves on, we must struggle to lift ourselves. Despair, the acceptance of degradation and incompleteness, removes us from the possibility of self-transcendence. And because it is always possible to grow, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov exclaimed, “Despair does not even exist” (Likutei Moharan II 78).
“If [your sins] will be red as scarlet wool, they will become like cotton” (Isaiah 1:18).
Scarlet wool is tola. When rearranged, the letters spell out olat–a raised offering. Cotton is tzemer. When rearranged, the letters spell out meitzar–straits.
Even if our sins are as red as scarlet wool, we can raise ourselves. Even from the straits, we can purify ourselves.
When we never give up but rise from the most precipitous fall, we come to keter.
Our only hope is to act in a manner consonant with God’s will, and constantly to approach His glory.
“Where is the place of God’s glory?” The Jewish spiritual tradition teaches that the word “where” refers to keter. The constant search for self-improvement, the constant pushing for goodness raises us from distance and degradation to a point where we are able to gain access to the light and clarity of Divine glory (cf. Likutei Halachot: Yoreh Death: Tolaim 3:3).
When a person remains stale and unchanging, when he repeats the spinning cycles of weary time, when the course of his days is an unending corridor lined with closed doors, then he may be said to have accepted the corruption of his station. “That soul shall be cut off, its sin is in it” (Numbers 15:31). His “evil,” that part of his life which must be improved and clarified, is in him. Because such a person makes no effective effort to transform his life, his life shall not change: “that soul shall be cut off.”
There are two avenues of relating to Godly consciousness. One: for every specific area in our life, there is a corresponding specific consciousness. And two: there is a general, over-arching consciousness that can envelope the entirety of our life. This second consciousness is related to keter.
The specific consciousness is on a lower level–but it is accessible. The general consciousness, on a higher level, is more hidden.
When we sin, acting in a life-denying manner, we cut ourselves off, from the vines of the specific Godly consciousness.
Then our life is maintained only by the mercy of the general consciousness. The Divine energy that we receive from that general consciousness is constrained and narrow. We live a life that is shrouded in shadows. Yet it is also a life that is maintained by great Divine compassion.
Whenever we wish, we can gain greater access to that Divine energy. When we are ready to rectify our state of being, our fall can turn to a great ascent.
Then our state of being “cut off” is transformed.
The Hebrew word for “cut off” is karet. When rearranged, the letters spell out keter (cf. Likutei Halachot: Even Ha’ezer: Gittin 3:29).
The Experience of God
God created the world to give of His goodness to others. Closeness to God gives a person fulfillment. It is through knowing God that we experience satisfaction.
The more that people experience Godliness in their lives, the more can it be said that God’s greatness and honor grow. Therefore, the more that those who experience Godliness bring such an experience to others, the more do His greatness and honor grow.
“Speak of His wonders” (Psalms 105:2). God’s “wonder” refers to keter. Keter is wondrous because it is beyond the level of cognition. It is experienced as wonder.
But keter is also the filter via which the light of the Infinite Being is made accessible. Thus, it is possible to “speak of His wonders.”
Another verse says, “They thank God for His mercy and His wonders to man.”
What is mercy? Mercy relates to our raised state of consciousness, for then we are solely aware of God’s mercy. Such an exalted state of being is something to thank God for. We have reached the level where our consciousness runs after God to receive His light.
But this is not perfection. Remaining on such a level, we would be nullified out of existence. The rest of the world would not know of His greatness.
We must have both the elevated state of consciousness and the ability to conceptualize and communicate that exalted state to others (cf. Likutei Halachot: Orach Chaim: Hoda’ah 6:6).
The Place of the World
In the rhythm of life, we sometimes work hard to come close to God.
But when the light is not apparent, we seem to be in a state of darkness, and we rest.
Our sages taught, “He who comes to be purified is told, ‘Wait’” (Yoma 39a). This is the level of keter, for the word keter also means “Wait” (Job 36:2).
Sometimes, after an initial burst of enthusiasm, we encounter obstacles and complications. Sometimes we must wait for years, making our way through thickets of this-worldly complications and personal entanglements. This is part of the process of growth.
It is during this period of comparative rest and darkness that we deal with this-worldly reality. Our spirituality will not help us solve or escape those issues.
It may be dismaying to find an apparent drop in our spiritual level. But we may also make discoveries about the imperfection of what had seemed ideal. We may discover that our spiritual superiority had masked a fear of other human beings. We may discover that our drive for purity had masked feelings of unworthiness.
It is during this often painful, slow process that we work to lift the holy sparks that have fallen amidst the refuse.
As we proceed in this work, integrating and clarifying our being, we come to a true and mature wholeness that we can then lift back to holiness.
We must take care even while in the darkness and difficulty of the process to retain a memory of holiness, to tie our thoughts and heart to goodness and purity: to the strength of the Torah. Even if we do not understand, we still keep our thoughts linked to the level of keter. Then, although we may be spiritually asleep, we are asleep in the midst of words of Torah.
And after we have gathered the holy sparks, we can ascend in health to heaven.
The Story of Jacob
This process can be seen in the story of Jacob.
On his journey, Jacob came to a place that would be the site of the Temple, the transfer-point between heaven and earth. The word used in the Bible for “came to” is pagah, which implies “to hit upon.” Jacob’s mind hit upon and was blocked by the “place”–keter. (“Place” is one of the names of keter. Keter is called Place because it is the root of spatiality.)
Here, it grew dark, and Jacob lay down to rest. This is the level of relative spiritual darkness.
Before falling asleep, Jacob gathered stones and placed them beneath his head. He gathered the holy sparks in his situation and fell asleep in the midst of holiness.
And while he slept, he “saw a ladder reaching to earth and its head reaching to heaven.” This is the ascent to heaven that we can make to heaven after clarifying the holy sparks here on earth.
The Awe of God
Then, when Jacob awoke, “he feared and said, ‘How awesome is this place’” (Genesis 28:17).
Approaching keter brings us to a state of awe.
“The beginning of wisdom is the fear of God” (Psalms 111:10). The beginning of wisdom, that is, the source of wisdom, is keter. On this level, we have an awesome awareness of God’s greatness.
The level beyond our consciousness, beyond our ability to conceive and interpret reality, is a level of great fear. It is also a level of great compassion.
On a this-worldly level, when we come to the border of our preconceptions and courageously step into a new way of life, we are filled with a fear that is mixed with excitement. It is the level of the unknown. It is in the acknowledgment that we do not know that we truly grow (cf. Likutei Halachot: Orach Chaim: Hoda’ah 6:24).
The Path of This-Worldly Love
As was noted earlier, keter is the region of joy–“eternal joy on their heads” (Isaiah 35:10).
Through joy, we reach strength: “They will rejoice in strength” (Job 39:21).
And what is strength? Strength is love: “for love is strong” (Song of Songs 8:6). In particular, strength is related to well-directed sexual love.
One man who controlled and directed his passions correctly was Boaz. When he awoke to find the young woman, Ruth, lying at his feet, he did not touch her, but agreed to marry her. The meaning of Boaz is “in him is strength.”
Only by connecting our physical life to holiness can we, to whatever degree, reach the level of keter.
When the Jews stood at Mt. Sinai, ready to receive the Torah, they exclaimed, “We will do and we will listen” (Exodus 24:7). The Talmud teaches that as a result of these two commitments, each Jew merited two crowns.
These two commitments express the energies of male and female.
Man and woman are filled with the tension of incompleteness. When they join together in holiness, a great joy is liberated. This joy leads to strength: the strength of holiness permeating this-worldly reality.
In opposition to this great power of holiness is the strength of a lust that focuses solely on physical pleasure. Such lust is both a spiritual and a psychic degradation.
Rather, we infuse physicality with the joy that comes from the male and female crowns of holiness. Thus, the Talmud teaches that it is a mitzvah–a holy deed–to give joy to the groom and bride. This joy infuses them with the strength of holiness (Likutei Halachot: Even Ha’ezer: Piryah Viriviah V’hilchot Ishut 4).
The Root of Man and Woman
The Bible tells that “a woman of valor is the crown of her husband” (Proverbs 31:10).
Because keter is so high, when its energy devolves to the earthly plane, it is very hidden, surrounded by the illusions of physicality.
The holy level of woman is surrounded by a mystique of lust.
It is for this reason that Judaism invests value in the concept of modesty. Precisely because the beauty of woman and sexuality is drawn from the highest level of holiness is it prone to degradation and perversity.
Sexuality is holy in its source, necessary in its expression, hypnotic in its power. It constitutes the basic arena of spiritual struggle.
In order to connect sexuality to its root in holiness, to lift it out of the realm of delusion, the Talmud surrounds it with joy. We are obligated to give joy to a newly-wed couple. And similarly, the Talmud teaches that “if a man does not have children, he should give joy to his wife with the mitzvah” (cf. Likutei Halachot: Even Ha’ezer: Ishut 4:2).
The Pure Soul
One of the first blessings recited in the morning begins, “My God, the soul that You have placed in me is pure” (Prayerbook).
Every individual has a pure soul.
We have to work to live an outer life that will resonate with that gift of inner Godliness.
Many people believe that they are in essence not holy. This is a false modesty that originates in the palaces of illusion. It is a self-limiting thought that makes it difficult to surpass our circumstances and come close to God.
Many people assume that a spiritual life is not for them.
But spirituality and religiosity are very broad.
A person who takes pleasure in the sensuous being of life can come to serve God with his joie de vivre.
A person who loves to relate to others and nurture them can realize how by doing so she is emulating God and nurturing the Godly spirit in others.
A person who is a dynamic, social personality serves God by making the most of himself, creating events that are dedicated to the expansion of goodness.
An aggressive leader can lead others in a path of integrity.
Whoever has come to a higher state of healthy spiritual consciousness and closeness to God has done so as a result of a great deal of hard work. We can spend years, decades, working to improve and heal our emotional and spiritual self.
This is the job of a lifetime. It is the role that is meant to be filled by everyone.
Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook taught that “as long as the revelation of one line in a thinking and feeling spirit has not yet emerged into actuality, we are obligated to bring it out through the creative act” (Song of Songs).
Our sages teach that “the Messiah will not come until every soul comes into the world.” Every soul in the world must fulfill its unique potential in order to serve God with complete joy.
Everyone who has attained a level of spiritual authority has done so only by great struggle and by overcoming many obstacles.
Everyone has free will. Everyone can achieve this.
As the Talmud states, “Aaron took the crown of the priesthood. David took the crown of kingship. But the crown of a good name lies before us. Whoever wants to can take it” (cf. Likutei Halachot: Orach Chaim 3:6).
 Extensive use was made of the five-volume topical index to Likutei Halachot, Nofet Tzufim, by Rabbi Natan Tzvi Kenig.
In Tomer Devorah, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero delineates these thirteen types of love. See Appendix A.
No created being on any spiritual plane can reach God, for He is extraordinarily high, beyond all concepts.
But when we prepares keter so that we can absorb the Light in a graduated manner, our mind can run up to that level of Divinity and then return. It arrives at that level although it does not fully arrive. This ability is made possible by keter.
All material on this site copyright 2020 by Yaacov David Shulman