Core Kabbalistic Understandings for the Divinity-Nature Interface

9 Tishrei 5776 (A Rosh HaShanah teaching)

By Rabbi Josh Jacobs-Velde

One of my most formative experiences was going on a three week Outward Bound backpacking trip in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park a few weeks before I turned sixteen. I grew up in St. Louis, MO and had never been in the Sierra Nevada before. This trip was, in retrospect, a rite of passage for me through the alienating center of my teen years, but it was also the first time I was blown away by the beauty and awesomeness of the wilderness. It was a kind of initiation into the deep and feisty love of the natural world I still treasure.  I didn’t view my experience through a religious or spiritual framework at the time, but I remember thinking, in my intense response of awe, that “What I’m seeing, and my reaction to it, can’t all be random; perhaps there is Something deeper in this incredible display of beauty. Something deeper is being expressed here.”

Our sages say that Rosh Hashanah  marks the anniversary of the creation of the world. Soon we’ll sing Hayom Harat Olam--Today the world is born. I want to use my talk today to explore the nature of that creation, on this anniversary of its birth, and the interface of creation with Divinity.

I did not know at that time of my Sierra Nevada trip that Judaism, particularly Jewish mysticism, has a wealth of evocative, juicy images, concepts and visions around the Divinity-Nature interface. The fundamental thing to say about the Jewish mystical vision of this interface is that it is not one of separation. This is so important. If you read the Torah in its literal or “plain sense,” you see very clearly that God is portrayed as separate from the world. In Genesis we read about a separate seeming Creator-God standing apart from the Creation, directing things to emerge here and there.

This simple reading is not the way the Kabbalists saw it. The Kabbalists had what we can call an emanationist worldview, whereby our world is sustained moment to moment by the continuous emanation of Divine energy/light. That light emanates from  the most hidden reaches of Divinity as it flows through a series of worlds so that it can enliven this world and not overwhelm it.

This continual influx of Divine energy is called “speech.” The Kabbalists were of course rooted in the Torah, so they paid close attention to the root text of creation (the opening chapters of Genesis), which depict the world as being created through a series of Divine speech acts: And God said, “Let there be...”  It is the “letters of Divine speech” that give rise to all manifestation, so that Life might arise out of the formless emptiness that preceded the six days of creation.

Let me give you the direct language of a great kabbalist, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady, the 18th century founder of the lineage of Chabad Hasidism, and the author of the Tanya, which is where this quote is drawn from. (Like the rest of the Tanya, it’s a dense quote, so hang in there. He writes:

[T]he power of the One who acts must be in what is acted upon continually, to give it life and sustain it. And [the elements that transmit this life force] are of the dimension of the letters of speech from the ten speech-acts [in Genesis], through which [all beings] were created…[F]or the Holy One contracted the light and life force/chiyut...and clothed it within the combinations of letters...For every exchange and transposition [of the letters] points to the descent of the light and life force from level to level, for thus is it possible to create and give life to creatures…[A]nd after all these would be possible for the light and life force to clothe even the lower created things, such as stones and dirt.” (Shaar Ha-Yichud 2 and 7, translation by David Seidenberg, in Kabbalah and Ecology, p. 235)

Everything is being empowered and animated continually. If it was not, Shneur Zalman tells us, everything would revert to the formless emptiness that preceded the six days of creation. In this same section, he offers the analogy of the Creator-Creation interface as like that of the sun and its rays, with each and every element of  creation being one of those rays. These rays are not in any way separate from the sun, but they appear to have independent existence. He also points out the limits of this analogy--in the context of the sun, the rays physically leave the orb of the sun to travel to us. But in the deeper actual reality he’s trying to convey, there is no physical distance. Each ray is always within the sun and doesn’t leave it.

Shneur Zalman also critiques the view of those of his time that would understand the creation of heaven and earth as like that of a goldsmith who has created a vessel, and once the goldsmith walks away, the vessel remains the same as when it left the hands of the smith. This view of separateness is entirely mistaken--Shneur Zalman says--because the vivifying power of the Creator must continuously be in the thing created to give it life and existence. It’s as though all the objects created by the hands of the goldsmith never leave Her hands, for they are actually an extension of Her hands. The artisan is not separate from what He creates.

When I first encountered these images of the Creator-Creation interface, I found them so helpful for countering the anthropomorphic-separate-being God language that we confront in most prayerbook translations and in the Torah, and which for so many of us turns us away from a meaningful connection to Judaism. For me, these images from Shneur Zalman are reminders of a deeper view of existence, one which counters the view of the world as made up of separate, unconnected entities. So when we find ourselves nourished by the natural world, we might understand ourselves as responding to an extension of Divinity Itself.

When we stop to be present in nature, we are taking in the artistry that is not separate from the artisan.

Shneur Zalman’s language in the Tanya is one of the ways traditional Jewish mystical language describes how all of existence is alive, even inanimate matter. Having a non-intellectual sense of this is what I think blows me away in nature, when I am truly attuning to the vitality that is present. The images offered from the Tanya are not simply informational, they are meant to be aids for contemplation.

What I am offering here are ideas from Judaism’s past that still have real life in them. And Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi has said, “When we talk about what the past can teach us, we also confront what the past cannot teach us.” So here we go, from Schneur Zalman to Reb Zalman!

But let’s stay in the past for another moment. Another way Divinity is described in Kabbalah is partzufim, literally “faces.” The Kabbalists saw the expression of Divinity as a kind of “archetypal family matrix” (Aryeh Kaplan, Innerspace, p. 93) that consisted of the Long Face/Grandfather , Abba/Father, Ima/Mother, the Small Face or Son, and the daughter/Feminine. For those of you who know the concept of the 10 sefirot, the partzufim are another configuration, somewhat condensed, of the sefirot. With these images, the Kabbalists “were looking for an interface, a means to connect with the infinite, which would otherwise be so utterly beyond us.” (Reb Zalman, Jewish with Feeling, p. 168)

Reb Zalman makes a powerful and provocative point about this that I want to quote at length:

I believe that Gaia, the face of our living planet, represents a newly emerging partzuf, or face of the ultimate core reality of the universe. What happens if we reimagine melekh ha-olam as the governing organismic wisdom of ha-olam– that is, of the planet Earth? All of a sudden we see phrases like "God is kind" or "God is merciful" in a new light. Instead of seeing God as an all-powerful patriarch in the sky, we can affirm that, yes, the universe is kind in the sense of being hospitable to life. Yes, the universe is compassionate in the sense that Earth heals her children. In our new understanding, such phrases become metaphors for the essential qualities of this planetary miracle we call life.

Does this mean that we replace the unknowable God with the name and face of Gaia, the Greek earth goddess? No. The God that I can know as an object of my mind is not God...But as our Sages said, the Torah speaks to us in human language. Partzufim are not God, but they help us connect. They help us charge up the God field, as it were. I don't always need to address God on a transgalactic scale. I can often be perfectly content to address the inherent intelligence of the universe as revealed right here on planet Earth (Jewish with Feeling, p. 168-169).

Our ancestors did not live in a global ecological crisis. They did not have the paradigm-shifting experience of viewing a photo of the Earth from space, of seeing the magnificent blue-marble wholeness of our planet. I find that in the eco-spiritual world we often have a tendency to be romantic, and to primarily look for inspiration in the distant past- a time in which we presume all was harmonious in the human-nature relationship. But this can be like trying to use a rear-view mirror to drive forward.

Truly, we are called on to have our faces both turned towards the past, rediscovering and delighting in those visions offered by our spiritual ancestors like Rabbi Shneur Zalman, AND at the same time, we also need to construct new partzufim, new faces, for the Divine-nature-human interface, as Reb Zalman has encouraged us.

May we be blessed with ample creativity and inspiration in this noble and evolving work.

Shanah tova,

    Rabbi Josh