Turning Noga into Chashmal
Purim 2020 / 5780
Sarah Yehudit Schneider
וַיְשַׁלְּחֵהוּ יְי ﭏהִים מִגַּן-עֵדֶן…וַיַּשְׁכֵּן מִקֶּדֶם לְגַן-עֵדֶן אֶת-הַכְּרֻבִים וְאֵת לַהַט הַחֶרֶב הַמִּתְהַפֶּכֶת לִשְׁמֹר אֶת-דֶּרֶךְ עֵץ הַחַיִּים
God banished [Adam] from the Garden of Eden…and stationed cherubim (angelic sentries) east of Eden, including a revolving, flaming sword to guard the path of the Tree of Life. [Gen 3:23-24]
וַיְהִי | בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי וַתִּלְבַּשׁ אֶסְתֵּר מַלְכוּת וַתַּעֲמֹד בַּחֲצַר בֵּית-הַמֶּלֶךְ הַפְּנִימִית נֹכַח בֵּית הַמֶּלֶךְ וְהַמֶּלֶךְ יוֹשֵׁב עַל-כִּסֵּא מַלְכוּתוֹ בְּבֵית הַמַּלְכוּת נֹכַח פֶּתַח הַבָּיִת
And it came to pass on the third day [of Passover], that Esther donned royal garments [and Divine inspiration rested upon her]. She stood in the throne room of the king’s palace, facing the King’s inner chamber [and proceeded to pray], while the king sat upon his royal throne inside the inner sanctum, facing the chamber’s entrance [gazing toward the Holy Temple in Jerusalem]. [Megillat Esther 5:1. The italicized insertions are from the Targum Sheni on that verse.]
A reminder that whenever the word king appears in the Megilla, it refers both to the literal king, Achashverosh, AND to the King of kings, the Holy One.
Commentators marvel at how Esther managed to pass through all the layers of security preventing intruders from entering the king’s throne room uninvited. It’s as though Esther’s royal gown became an invisibility cloak that allowed her to slip past the guards, straight to the inner chamber, sight unseen.
In fact, the Komarna Rebbe (R. YY Safrin) actually suggests as much, based on the numerical equivalence of the word for garment (מלבוש) and for electrum (chashmal)[1) The verse above states that, “Esther clothed (תלבש) herself in Malchut (מַלְכוּת) which, as the tenth and lowest sefira, is the province of the lower, moonlike, receptive Shekhina (as opposed to Binah, the higher, boundary-setting, vision-building Shekhina). To state that Esther “donned malchut” is to convey that she was cloaked in Shekhina Presence which, says R. Safrin, manifests as chashmal a shimmering radiance generated (curiously) by the mastery of paradox.
The term, chashmal, appears only thrice in the entire Bible, all of which occur in the book of Ezekiel as part of the prophet’s mystical vision of higher worlds that is a focal point of kabbalistic yichudim. Chashmal comprises two contradictory subwords: Chash (חש) meaning silence and mal (מל) meaning speech. As such it highlights the necessity of managing paradox, a skill that’s key to any spiritual path. The message of Chashmal is that unless you are grappling with paradox, you have not found truth.
In modern Hebrew chashmal (חשמל) means electricity. In science, electricity refers to a whole spectrum of expression including both visible and invisible light. A science primer explains how to generate chashmal (חשמל): “A vibrating magnetic field creates an electric field which in turn vibrates and creates a new magnetic field whose vibrations create still another electric field, ad infinitum. This interplay between alternating magnetic and electric fields is what creates electromagnetic waves (including light).”
As below so above. Light is a synonym for consciousness in kabbala. Chashmal thus becomes the codeword for embracing paradox by skirting back and forth between opposing perspectives and admitting the truth that’s present in each. This kinetic approach to truth-seeking jiggles the mind open to higher awareness. It is not just a mental exercise, it’s a spiritual practice …and it’s the one that Esther employed to enter the King’s sanctum unawares. Her alternating-chashmal-current jammed the psychic “radar” of the guards blocking her way.
The parallels to Gan Eden are striking. Genesis describes how G-d banished Adam and Chava from their Garden of Delights after they ate from the Tree of Knowledge. HaShem placed a fiery-spinning sword at Eden’s gate to block them and their descendants (including us) from returning to our paradise until our requisite teshuva is done. And, how do we know when we’ve finished the job? The answer is: When we can pass through that treacherous turnstile without getting mauled. And what does this teshuva entail? Well, says R. Safrin, in kabbala-speak it means “turning noga into chashmal.”
And that, says he, is exactly what Esther did. She wrapped herself in a cloak of chashmal, passed through the “turnstile” and entered the kings sanctum, encountering Divinity face-to-face, a devekut that is the ultimate delight and spiritual equivalent of paradise. In other words Esther slipped into Gan Eden, stated her plea to the King of Kings and secured His/Her/Its grace.
The question becomes, what does this mysterious task entail? What is noga and how do you turn it into chashmal.
It’s no coincidence that the word noga appears four times in that same chapter of Ezekiel’s vision that introduced us to chashmal. In that prophesy Ezekiel beholds what kabbalists interpret as the four universal vexations that frustrate our teshuva journeys (aka our lives). Expressed as symbols, these four hindrances are: a storm wind, a thick cloud, a flaring fire and finally, a surrounding glow that is called noga (a translucent shine).
The first three obstacles (wind, cloud, fire) are stumbling blocks that train us to choose between good and bad. The Torah is our guide for these kinds of things. Its clear distinctions between commanded and prohibited habituate us to right action and sensitize our moral taste buds to the sweetness of good.
But most of life falls outside the objective categories of holy and forbidden. Most of the time we are not actively engaged in a mitzvah or deliberately avoiding a sin. We’re just working, shopping, eating, exercising, reading, chatting, etc. And that brings us to noga, which includes all the things that are neither commanded (and thus intrinsically holy) nor forbidden (and unequivocally soul-damaging). It includes things like academic study, the arts, business, nature walks, cooking, sports, etc. One unique feature of this category is that its spiritual impact hinges entirely upon the intention one brings to it. If one consciously seeks to serve G‑d and good and truth through that act then it raises sparks, elevates the soul, and furthers good. If one performs that same activity with selfish, gluttonous, or ego-indulgent intent, it has the same effect as a forbidden deed. It degrades the spark, dulls the soul, and darkens the world.
Another feature of noga is that its directives are constantly changing—what is right for a person today might be wrong for them tomorrow. Or, the high-road for person A, might be a low-road for person B. What is healthy for some folks could be harmful for others. There are no absolutes and there is no rulebook to consult. It takes ruach hakodesh to negotiate the murky, shape-shifting realm of noga. You can’t rely on precedent, or habit for there’s a new instruction coming down each moment.
Kabbala equates noga with the revolving sword that guards Eden’s way, for there, as well, survival requires us to channel the advice specific to each instant. If you stand here, now, you’ll dodge the slash, but if you don’t take the right next step then, in the following moment, that spinning sword will slice through. To negotiate Eden’s turnstile you need to get the message anew in each moment. You need to be utterly present and awake. You need to cultivate beginner’s mind.
And really, this revolving sword is just a metaphor for life and its messianic culmination, which is the moment by moment devekut that we are aiming for. Knowing right from wrong by integrating the Torah’s code of law, will not get us into our messianic gan eden. It will give us a good foundation and healthy instincts, but it won’t get us through the turnstile. For that we must turn noga into chashmal; and for that we must grow expert at picking the most spiritually productive option from a range of plausible contenders; and for that we must cultivate ruach hakodesh.
The pitfalls are many. Our habits and precedents incline us to repeat whatever worked the last time a circumstance came round. Although the present case seems similar, it could still require a novel response; subtle changes transpire in people, context or social norms. Chashmal is the skill of tuning into the custom-tailored message for this moment, these people, this context, these norms.
That brings us to Esther who mastered this technique and became its prototype. When the verse reports that “Esther donned malchut,” kabbalists explain that she entered the consciousness called chashmal which opened the gates to ruach hakodesh, not just for herself, but for her people, from that point onward.
A master of chashmal dances back and forth between paradoxical poles at a rapid pace, completing each circuit in less than rega. Yet, like a propeller that spins so quickly it appears still, a master of chashmal radiates equanimity. That is how to turn noga (a spread of acceptable options) into chashmal (a dynamic grasp of the playing field that opens the gate to ruach hakodesh).
The Zohar explains that in order to access a higher state of consciousness (including Divine inspiration), one must find its portal, which is always situated at the “center” of one’s current level. Chashmal, defined as the brilliance emitted by an oscillation between paradoxical poles, is the perfect tool for locating that center. The more crisscrossing paradoxes one bears, the more defined the center becomes.
Esther grappled with several:
- The literal paradox of chashmal: chash (surrender of will) and mal (assertion of will)—Mal expressed as Esther’s intense prayer for success and safety in her death-defying mission (as recorded in the Targum). Chash expressed by her verbalized acceptance that Hashem might have a different fate in mind (כאשר אבדתי אבדתי—“If I perish, I perish”).
- The paradox of both listening in and listening up that are equally essential to ruach hakodesh (as opposed to prophesy which only requires listening up). Kabbala calls ruach hakodesh “breath of the bones (הבלי דגרמא)” meaning that the more a person taps into their authenticity (metaphorically, their bones), the more Divine inspiration (holy breath) they will draw forth.
- The imperative, when making decisions, to consider both the big picture and the demands of the immediate present, bringing both faith and savvy to our endeavors. In Esther’s case it meant to appease the King of Kings (ie, Hashem) who was angered by our lack of observance while simultaneously placating the earthly king (ie, Achashverosh) who was riled by our excessive observance (that we prioritized G-d’s law over his sovereignty).
- The Komarna rebbe brings a further paradox that challenged Esther’s mission: On one hand she needed to find grace in Achashverosh’s eyes. Her survival and success depended on that. But on the other hand, she didn’t want to awaken his physical desire toward her because then, as the initiator, she would be guilty of betraying her secret marriage to Mordecai.
Esther did good. Her chashmal dance drew the ruach hakodesh that steered her through the turnstile. Wherever the guards looked, she was not (either because she side-stepped their gaze, or dazzled them with her chashmal-cloak). There were no neon signs or prophetic voices to guide her way. Step by step she scanned the horizon for options, waiting for her heart to whisper yes, and there she would move…A foray to the kings’s private sanctum?…A wine-party for three?…Another? Alone with her instincts, she had to find God’s holy word, that speaks through them as surely as He spoke at Sinai.
Esther found the portal and accessed its higher lights. The only place in the whole Megilah where HaShem’s four-letter name appears is as the acronym of four words spoken by Esther to the king in his holy of holies: “Let the king and Haman come today”…( יָבוֹא הַמֶּלֶךְ וְהָמָן הַיּוֹם). With HaShem’s presence secured, Esther’s success was assured.
Esther turned noga into chashmal and invites us to follow her lead: When faced with a range of options (ie, noga), identify the paradoxical tugs, acknowledge the truths of each, alternate between them, pick up the pace, find the point of stillness (chashmal), pray for counsel, feel the gate of knowing open, receive the guidance (ruach hakodesh), act upon it, trust the process, then proceed on your way.
Each year when Purim comes around and Esther’s tale looms large, HaShem agrees (because of her) to join our fests as well. And so that means that on that day our portals, too, are near. Seize the moment. Don malchut. Find your center and follow its thread to your own gate of higher knowing. Take some breaths and invite its shower of ruach hakodesh into your heart, bones, cells and spaces. This is Esther’s mishloach manot to us on Purim day.
EAT DRINK AND BE HOLY
 R.Y.Y.Safrin, Ketem Ofir, 5:1-2.
 Binah relates to the first hei (ה) of HaShem’s name and Malchut corresponds to final hei (ה) of HaShem’s name.
 Ezekiel 1:4,27; 8:2. Yichudim are deep kabbalistic meditations potent to produce devekut (encounter with the Divine).
 TB Chagiga 13b. במתניתא תנא: עתים חשות עתים ממללות.
 R. Tsadok HaKohen, Likutei Maamarim: p 201 (top left column).
 Kaku and Trainer, Beyond Einstein (Bantum Books, 1987) p. 24-25.
 Ezekiel 1:4,13,27,28.
 Ezekiel 1:4.
 Tanya, chapt 7.
 ספר ליקוטי הלכות – הלכות סוכה הלכה ז
 ספר לשם שבו ואחלמה – ספר הדע”ה חלק ב – דרוש ג ענף ג
 R. Gershon Chanokh Lainer, Sod Yesharim, Sukkot 10.
 Purim marks the voluntary acceptance of our Oral Torah which comes down through the channel of ruach hakodesh (as opposed to the Written Torah that was revealed through prophesy… Always, at moments of quantum shift, someone must rise to the tip of this world, reach up through the heavens and pull the lights down. Esther was called to perform this feat. At Sinai there was a pyramid of ascent. The people stood below in their designated places at the mountain’s base. The seventy elders climbed a little higher. Aharon and Yehoshua higher still. Yet Moshe, alone, went up through the clouds to the peak to the King. And so now, the time had arrived to pull the oral Torah down into the hearts of the people and Esther was the chosen one. Alone with her instincts, she had to find God’s holy word, that speaks through them as surely as He spoke at Sinai
 The name of G-d associated with chashmal—the shiluv between havaya and adnut—embodies this paradox.