Kabbalistic Concepts

Meet God

You’d like to meet God? To begin with, you’ll have to be a bit more precise...

In ancient Egypt, God could be a beetle painted gold. During the Italian Renaissance, Michelangelo painted God as the proverbial "guy with a long white beard." But when kabbalists refer to God, they often speak not of a human form or an entity of any kind. Instead, they refer to the Light that emanates from the Creator. Kabbalah teaches that this Light has always existed, even before the universe itself came into being. As it is written in the Book of Proverbs,

Before the mountains were settled,
Before the hills, I was brought forth;
While as yet He had not made the earth, nor the fields,
Nor the beginning of the dust of the world.
When He established the heavens,
I was there.

That’s a long time! The Light was already there on Day One! But since it’s not so easy to think in such cosmic terms, let’s turn for a moment to a more down-to-earth example of unchanging, written-in-stone, absolute permanence.

Growing up in Chicago, virtually in the shadows of Wrigley Field, I had many chances to see the Cubs do their thing. But one game stands out in my memory, though not only for what happened on the field. In fact, I can’t even recall whether the Cubs actually lost that day, though the chances are certainly good. This game, however, was important to me because of something that didn’t show up in the box score.

It was the summer between seventh and eighth grades. I was eleven years old. Going into the seventh inning, not even one run had been scored on that very hot and humid day. And it seemed like the game could go on for years in all its numbing boredom.

Well, there wasn’t much to do except philosophize. Sometimes at night I used to wonder what it all meant. Was everything an accident or did some deep meaning underlay the world’s physical reality? Had it all come into being through a vast linkage of incredible improbabilities or was there some supreme intelligence at the controls, who, for reasons of His own, kept Himself hidden.

That day in the Wrigley Field grandstand, I closed my program and stared off at the blue sliver of Lake Michigan visible in the distance, far beyond the outfield walls.

I closed my eyes, as I’d been taught to do when beginning a prayer. "Dear Lord," I silently began my fervent message, "if you’re out there, give me a sign. A home run on the next pitch. Show me what you can do, and I will believe."

Kind of shameful, wasn’t it? Not a prayer for the end of human suffering or the beginning of world peace. Instead, a prayer for a sudden end to a scoreless tie. A prayer for the relief of my boredom. A frivolous challenge to the Creator that, nevertheless, I was taking quite seriously in some hidden part of my pre-adolescent self.

I opened my eyes. The pitcher wound up, released the ball. The swing of the bat.

Click.

It’s outta here, ladies and gentlemen...”

Nobody on base. The batter trotted lazily around the bases, quite unaware of the vast magnitude of his deed. Today, I don’t recall his name or the name of his team, but I do have a clear memory of sitting there in stunned silence.

A couple of other kids were with me that day. Like the ballplayer making his way around the infield, they too seemed only slightly stirred by what had happened. But, of course, they didn’t know.

I did know... but know what? Was it a miracle or a coincidence? Should I now devote my life to the service of the Lord, who had just answered my smart aleck challenge? Or did it mean nothing, which seemed much easier to deal with, even if I didn’t really believe it.

That's the way it looks to a kid who thinks he's just met God.

People have always asked God to prove his existence. Humanity has always tried to find ways of dealing with a perplexing absence of the Creator from our lives. If He’s so big and important, where is He? There’s the table, there’s the chair, but where’s the One Who Made The Furniture?

In its collective childhood, the human race was not unlike my young self in the ballpark. People longed for a tangible image—something they could touch with their hands, look up to with their eyes, and occasionally even destroy, when a particular god no longer seemed to serve their needs.

This, of course, is the idol worship that is so strongly condemned in the Bible. But, condemned or not, it’s clear that worshipping "graven images" served a very real human need for simple answers to life’s complex problems: Wars, famines, and droughts could be dealt with by direct appeals to the wooden, stone or metal statues.

Yet life’s complexities inevitably reasserted themselves. What happened when two warring nations both worshipped the same idols? Or when even the most heartfelt prayers and sacrifices failed to bring rain or the end of an epidemic? In a number of the most closely studied ancient societies, including Greece, Rome, and the Viking people of Northern Europe, worship of the traditional gods eventually became only a formal exercise in which genuine belief was replaced by skepticism or even cynicism.

"Well, then," thought our distant ancestors, “let’s try something completely different, shall we?" Perhaps the drawbacks of idol worship could be dealt with by belief in a single all-powerful God whose ways were deliberately mysterious and unknowable, and whose physical appearance was simply not available for viewing. Belief in a determinedly inscrutable Supreme Being opened up some important new interpretations of the human condition: If wars and plagues continued to break out despite prayers and sacrifices, it was not because God didn’t care or couldn’t help. Instead, it was simply not in our power to know His intentions or grasp His wisdom. Just as God could not be depicted in a painting or a sculpture, His plan could not be understood by humanity. As Job said, "Though He slay me, yet I will honor Him." (Job 13:15)

This view of God had advantages in spiritual terms but it lost the accessibility that idol worship seemed to provide. The notion of one deity or spirit, whose presence permeates the universe is, itself, very old, and competed with idol worship in a number of areas of the ancient world. The Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaton, for example, brought about a virtual mutiny among the priestly caste when he abruptly declared numerous divinities “null and void" in favor of a single god of the sun. Among Native American people, a unifying spiritual power was venerated throughout nature. The Sioux tribes called this power wakan. It was wakan that made knives sharp, fires hot, and sunsets beautiful. A single positive energy was everywhere at work, though it could manifest in an infinite number of forms at the same time. The ancient Talmudic rabbis must have had this idea in mind when they wrote, "With an earthly king, when he is in the bedchamber, he cannot be in the reception hall. But the Holy One, blessed be He, at once fills the Upper Regions and the Lower." And further: "The Holy One, blessed be He, is the place of the universe, but the universe is not His place."

While it’s clear that Kabbalah is not alone in it’s recognition of One God, what is unique in Kabbalah is it’s understanding of a dynamic relationship in which the Light of the Creator is—or should be—endlessly desired, received, shared, and circulated. From a kabbalistic viewpoint, understanding and participating in this relationship is really the key, not only to meeting God but literally to becoming one with His essential nature, not just during prayers or rituals but in every moment of our lives.

Kabbalah teaches that, long before Creation, the Light of the Creator filled the entire cosmos, filled it beyond our conception of time and space—for it is the essential nature of the Light: to expand in every direction, and to endlessly share of itself. To express its giving essence, the Light created a Vessel whose nature was to receive. The Vessel was created not only for the Light but of the Light, in the same way that a pitcher made of ice is formed from the same water that pours into it. Yet there was also something entirely "new" about the Vessel, which was its nature to receive rather than to give and share. Kabbalah teaches that the fabrication of this new energy was the only true, ex-nihilo creation that has ever taken place. The entire physical universe, from the most distant stars to the smallest subatomic particles, is vestiges of that original Creation.

Once the primordial Vessel came into being, there existed a pure circularity—a condition of complete mutual fulfillment between the giving, sharing principle of the Light and the receiving, accepting principle of the Vessel. The Light found completion by giving endlessly of its beneficence, and the Vessel experienced total satisfaction at receiving endlessly of the Light’s infinite goodness.

But then something changed. The Vessel was no longer satisfied "just" to receive. Kabbalah refers to this new negative intention, this resistance, as Bread of Shame. Bread of Shame meant that the Vessel would no longer simply receive the unearned beneficence of the Light. Rather, the Vessel had taken on the giving intention of the Light. The Vessel’s desire to actively give rather than passively receive caused the Light to withdraw so as to create a space in which the Vessel’s new intention could express itself. The Light, whose only desire was to share, saw fit to withdraw its illumination so that the Vessel’s desire could manifest.

It is at this point that the metaphysics of Kabbalah intersects with the conclusions of modern science. Today, physicists refer to the creation of the universe as the Big Bang. But thousands of years ago, the ancient kabbalists were already describing that same creation as the Shattering of the Vessel. Into the void created by the withdrawal of the Light, the Vessel fragmented into an infinite number of entities and energies, all of which are endowed at their deepest level with desire—and not just Desire to Receive but Desire to Receive for the Sake of Sharing. In other words, not just to meet God but to become one with God. To be as God is.

Kabbalah has much more to say about the Light and the Vessel, and kabbalists over the centuries have delved deeply into the permutations of this very elegant formulation. Today, few people who encounter this beautiful metaphor fail to be moved by it. The interesting thing is, however, that it’s not just a metaphor. According to Kabbalah, the Light and the Vessel are the literal form and substance of the world we live in—and not just the world but even the physical bodies in which our souls now reside.

The primordial sequence—Desire to Receive for the Self Alone, followed by Bread of Shame and Resistance, followed by shattering and reconstituting as Desire to Receive for the Sake of Sharing, is played out not only over the whole course of our lives but in every action and every encounter. Once we understand this, we become aware that we are not distant from God in the sense that the Greeks were distant from Zeus and Athena in their palace on Mount Olympus. Instead, we are enacting what the Creator enacts. We are experiencing what the Creator experiences. We are our finite selves, and we are also the infinite Light of the Creator.

A phrase that occurs many times in both Hebrew prayers and the Bible expresses this great truth: He and His Name are One. He is the Light, and we are His Name—extensions and expressions of Him. But at the most fundamental level there is no distinction between He and His Name. As the great 20th century Kabbalist Rav Yehuda Ashlag taught, a stone is only a stone when it is separated from a mountain. Once it’s returned to the mountainside, it regains it’s identity with the mountain itself.

Understanding this means not just "believing in" the Creator but identifying with Him in a way that magnifies and humbles us at the same time. To assert that each of us can become like God might seem the utmost vanity—but not when the very essence of becoming like God is to receive with the intention to share.

Taking this to heart is not about becoming a holy person or a saint in any form. It’s really about growing up. It’s about being free of the temptation that a kid felt at a baseball game: The need to ask God for signs or to look for proofs, or to feel doubt. We meet God when we really meet ourselves. We become as God when we recognize our own true nature...


This article originally appeared in Kabbalah Magazine Vol. 4, Issue 3, Summer/Fall 1999

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