archwaysShavuot 5775 / 2015

Sarah Yehudit Schneider

תאנא כמה פנים לפנים אית ליה לקודשא בריך הוא. פנים דנהרין. פנים דלא נהרין. פנים עילאין. פנים תתאין. פנים רחיקין. פנים קריבין. פנים דלגו. פנים דלבר. פנים דימינא. פנים דשמאלא. תא חזי זכאין אינון ישראל קמיה דקב״ה דאחידן באנפין עלאין דמלכא. באינון פנים דהוא ושמיה אחידן בהו ואינון ושמיה חד הוא.  [הזהר ח״ב דף פז ע״א]

It has been taught: How many faces upon faces has the Holy One! Shining faces, dim faces; high faces, low faces; distant faces, near faces; inner faces, outer faces; right faces, left faces. Blessed are Israel before the Holy One, for they connect to the supernal faces of the king—faces where He and His Name unite, faces where He and His name are One [Zohar 2:87a].

The Torah’s revelation at Sinai was the most profound manifestation of God that ever transpired on the planet. A searing revelation of Presence engraved the souls of an entire nation with the truth-of-the-universe compressed into a single burst of light. Its impact continues to impel their generations to be seekers and servants of God and will do so until the end of time.

“The entire nation saw the kolot [lit. voices]…”[1]  Why the plural noun here when we know that it was a single booming kol emanating straight from the Holy One. It is especially confusing since in this delicate context (with sounds blaring from all directions[2]) the plural term might suggest a plural Source…gods as opposed to G-d.  And in fact, the midrash reports that a group of heretics questioned R. Simlai on exactly this point.[3]  And they bolstered their case with the curious fact that the term for G-d introducing the Ten Commandments, is Elokim (which technically, literally, means Almighties, because of its plural ending).

“And Elokim spoke all these words, saying…” [Ex. 20:1].

Simlai admits that it might have appeared that way, because HaShem adapted his revelation to the capacity of each beholder. He proves this with a phrase from Psalms: “The kol of HaShem [was] with power (קול ה’ בכח).”[4] The verse doesn’t say “with His power (בכחו),” for that would imply that HaShem held nothing back—that the voice thundered at full throttle which, for HaShem, means infinite magnitude—yet that would have been impossible for us to bear.[5]

The midrash explains that HaShem adapted Himself to the limitations (כח) of each and every person:

To the old according to their strength, to the young according to theirs; to the children…nurslings…men…women, each according their strength; [to the prophets and sages according to theirs];[6] and even to Moses according his. The prototype for this custom-tailored revelation is the manna which looked and tasted completely different according to each person’s merit and preference.[7]

And so it follows that HaShem showed as many faces as there were people at Sinai. But it doesn’t stop there, for since our כח—our capacity to know HaShem in all His/Her/Its glory—is not static, it follows that our conception of HaShem is in constant flux. The revelation stands, but our grasp of the Holy One behind that revelation deepens daily. This applies both individually and collectively.

The attributes that we ascribe to G-d as children are different from those we value as adults.  This shift occurs in our collective self as well.  Kenesset Yisrael also evolves through time. Avraham was its beginning, Moshe further on, Judges, Kings, Sages, a two-thousand year diaspora, and finally now a return to the land—all the while aging, maturing, and evolving in our conception of G-d (at least that is the theory). The Torah demonstrates this process:

Elokim spoke to Moses, and said to him, “I am YHVH [Tetragrammaton]. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, by the name Kayl Shakai,[8] but my name YHVH I did not make known to them. [Ex.6:2,3]

Yet the Torah itself belies this assertion in instances that are too numerous to count. For example.

YHVH appeared to [Abraham] in the Plains of Mamre…[Gen. 18:1]

The Torah is obviously aware of this contradiction, in fact that’s exactly its point. YHVH appeared but Avraham instead saw Kayl Shakai.[8] That’s because at our Avrahamic stage of development we lacked the life experience, the centuries of water under the bridge, the big picture.  We hadn’t yet witnessed HaShem keeping promises made hundreds of years earlier.[9] These transforming experiences opened our (inner) eyes to the visage of YHVH.

The Zohar reads the first three words of the Torah in a most unconventional way. The standard rendition is: “In the beginning Elokim[10] created the heavens and the earth.” The Zohar reads those first three words as a sentence unto themselves: In the beginning He (the supernal and unknowable One) created Elokim.”  Meaning that the Infinite and ungraspable NoThing began by creating a Divine persona (called G-d) that would be comprehensible to creation.  The Infinite One then enclothed Itself within that G-d “like a silk worm inside a cocoon.”[11]

This persona, called Elokim, carries a plural ending because, through it, the Infinite-and-Ungraspable-One meets each creature where they’re at and (to some degree) squeezes Itself into those constricted parameters. This aspect of Divinity (called Elokim) is entangled by our (inevitably distorted) conceptions of G-d.  That is how kabbalists read the verse from Song of Songs, אסור ברהטים  מלך—“the King is entangled in the tresses,”[12] i.e., in our projections and conceptions of Divinity that say more about us than they do about G-d.[13]

The peace-nikim are sure that G-d is Love, though others perceive Him as Justice…or Serenity…or Bringer-of-Upheaval….or Hater of Frivolity…or Cosmic Jokester…or Dispassionate Genius…or Ignorer-of-Wrongdoing.  Every one of these depictions has (at least) a sliver of truth and a sliver of falsehood. At the level of Elokim, we really do (partially) create G‑d in our image.

The first commandment has two parts to it “I am YHVH, your Elokim || that brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”[14] Commenting on this verse the kabbalists note that there are fifty times that “Exodus from Egypt” appears in the Torah. And the Hebrew word for Egypt (Mitsrayim) is from the root, tsar, which means narrow-straits.  HaShem introduces Himself as the Great Liberator, the cosmic force that frees us from constrictions, and in particular, say the kabbalists, from constricted consciousness. These fifty allusions to leaving Egypt become the Fifty Gates of Understanding which mark our path of inner awakening.[15] Each gate is an anthropomorphism (a frozen thought-form) that must be shed.[16] Slowly but surely we come to understand what it means, what it really means, what it really, really means (with fifty really’s on the list) that G-d is One.

In this sense Elokim is more a pathway than an entity. It meets us where we are but it also reels us in. Like a tractor beam it draws us, gate by gate, toward a more expanded conception of G‑d—free of the inadvertent heresies that corrupt our entangled interface with Divinity. Elokim, as the designated persona of the NoThing, invites us to direct our worship in “Its direction” for then our devotions will reach their mark. Yet we must not mistake the Holy Placeholder for the ungraspable One behind it all. That is a grave error bordering on idolatry.

The first commandment informs us that Judaism is both a religion, and a spiritual path. Regarding the former, it hints to the ritual practices for if we really understood what it means that “I am YHVH your Elokim” our instinctive response to the world would always accord with spiritual law (ie. Torah and its 613 mitzvot).[17] And the second half of the verse summons us to seek an authentic relationship with G-d which is inevitably a path of awakening.

And so this year on Shavuot, as we dedicate ourselves anew to our precious Torah…may we glimpse the full potential of our soul—the  light at the end of our multi-millennial trek through those Fifty Gates to meet our Maker face-to-face, core to core…seeing and being seen, knowing and being known.

חג שמח


[1] Ex. 20:15.

[2] MR, Ex. 5:9.

[3] MR, Ex 29:1.

[4] Psalms 29:4.

[5] MR, Ex. 5:9.

[6] I merged two midrashim here, so this snippet comes from MR 28:6.

[7] MR, Ex. 5:9.

[8] In order to indicate HaShem’s name on a document that might be thrown away, a semblance of the name replaces the actual name.  And so here, the actual name is א-ל  ש-די, but a “k” is added to the transliteration of each of the two words so the name is only implied.  And here in the footnote, also, in the Hebrew, dashes are used to avoid writing the actual name, as explained.

[9] Rashi, Ex. 6:4.

[10] See footnote 8. And similarly here, with Elokim, a “k” is added to the transliteration for reasons explained.

[11]  Zohar 15a (Yehuda Edri translation):

זֹהַר שֶׁזָּרַע זֶרַע לִכְבוֹדוֹ, כְּאותוֹ זֶרַע של מֶּשִׁי שֶׁל אַרְגָּמָן טוֹב שֶׁמִּתְכַּסֶּה לִפְנִים וְעוֹשֶׂה לוֹ הֵיכָל שֶׁהִיא תִשְׁבַּחְתּוֹ וְתוֹעֶלֶת לַכֹּל. בזה בָּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אוֹתוֹ סתום שֶׁלֹּא נוֹדַע להֵיכָל זֶּה. הֵיכָל זֶה נִקְרָא אֱ/לֹהִים, וְסוֹד זֶה – בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱ/לֹהִים.

[12] Song of Songs 7:6.

[13] תיקו”ז בתוספות ו קמד ב – as brought by אור המאיר – ביאור לשיר השירים (but also in many other places).

[14] Ex. 20:2.

[15] Tikunei Zohar, Tikun 39, p. 77; Pardes Rimonim Gate 3, chapter 1.

[16] R. Yitzchak Ginsburg, 50 Gates of Understanding, Lecture series and unpublished manuscript.

[17] R. Tsadok Hakohen on MR SHS 1:15; Pri Tsadik, Chanukka 8 (and elsewhere).  Also see Tikunei Zohar, tikun 22. Leshem, Shearim v’Hakdamot, shaar 6, perek 10.


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