TABLE OF CONTENTS
THE IMPERFECT LAMP
THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE
THE BOOK OF ADAM
THE MARRIAGE OF SAMSON
THE HIDDEN ZADDIK
THE NAME OF THE ROAD
THE CHICKEN PRINCE
THE POOR MAN’S SONG
THE DEATH OF KING DAVID
Kabbalah is a system of knowledge with its roots in another age, a previous stage of human development, when people experienced the world very differently than we do now.
According to traditional stories, Adam was given a book containing the complete future history of the world, with all the secrets and mysteries of human existence laid bare. The mystical teachings of that primeval book have filtered down through the generations, contributing parables, metaphors, and allegorical stories to Kabbalah's body of tradition and knowledge.
From a historical point of view, a significant amount of material found in the Old Testament, the prime source of Kabbalistic learning, is now known to have been written down in the ancient Syrian kingdom of Ebla, as early as 4500 years ago; contemporary with the construction of the great pyramids in Egypt. From Ebla and ancient Mesopotamia, these traditional stories stretch back to the stone age. Old Testament themes such as Jacob’s Ladder, Ezekiel’s Field of Dry Bones, and Abraham’s Covenant, have been commonly found in slightly varied forms, among diverse and widely-isolated shamanic traditions.
Whether these traditional stories derive from the Book of Adam, or from some kind of archetypal patterns in a collective unconscious, they plainly convey a numinous, pre-rational, perspective. Conversely, philosophers like McLuhan and Leonard Shlain explain in detail how our modern information technology is Rationalist. It's linear and denotative; and often, a fortiori, even digital as well.
We generally view the world as Cartesian, regardless of the fact that Bell's Theorem, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, and other established principles of quantum physics, tell us that the universe, in a most basic way, does not operate in the linear manner Descartes imagined.
We primarily understand and transmit ideas by transcribing them sequentially, point-by-point, cause-then-effect, step-by-linear-step. With the teachings of Kabbalah, the method is totally different. Here, as in psychologist Eric Fromm's Forgotten Language, the target ideas are not approached directly or linearly, but are rather woven wholesale, between the lines. It’s a completely different way of handling information.
The word “Kabbalah" means to receive. Traditionally there are four levels of receiving information from Kabbalistic teachings – or anything else for that matter. “Pshat" is the first and lowest level understanding, and is likened to the Kabbalistic world of Assiah (the physical/material realm), and the element Earth. Ideas and meanings in Pshat are as simple and tangible as dirt. There are no symbols, metaphors, or allegories on this level of understanding; each word in the story has only its literal denotation. Anyone who can follow the language and the train of events in a story receives understanding on the level of Pshat. In Pshat, the Garden of Eden story is about two people who get in trouble for eating an apple they were told not to eat. A rich man / poor man story, on the level of Pshat, is about one man with money, and another man without; and Samson and the Lion is about a man defeating a large feline.
On the three higher levels of understanding, a myriad of connotations arise. Here, a rich man / poor man story can be an allegory about a person and their God, or their intuition; or it can represent a soul/body duality, etc. Samson and the Lion becomes archetypal; now he might be the enlightened hero overcoming the beast on the eighth trump of the Tarot - higher consciousness overcoming its lower, animal nature. It can be a metaphorical story about Superego overcoming the beastly Id, or other such things.
Kabbalah’s second level of understanding is called “Remez” , and is likened to the Kabbalistic world of Yetzirah (the sentient/emotional realm), and the element Water. Remez is the level of deductive reasoning. Meanings which can be deduced from elements contained in a story, but which aren’t actually stated per se, belong to this level of receiving. Remez presents more than a simple story line, and can often lead one to a moral or lesson. A person who hears the Garden of Eden story, on the level of Remez, could be left, among other things, with a message such as: don’t disobey the authorities, or you might lose their shelter and protection.
Kabbalah’s third level of understanding is called “Drosh” , and is likened to the Kabbalistic world of Briah (the cognitive/intellectual realm), and the element Air. This is the level of inductive logic. Meanings on the level of Drosh are dependent on context, and can be as shifting and nuanced as a gusty breeze. A single meme, idea, or figure, without a context or ground to give it reference, has little substance in Drosh.
It has been said that Drosh will yield understanding only to one who brings their own question or frame of reference. For example, a man with a troubling Oedipus Complex might bring that frame of reference to the Abraham-Isaac story. His understanding of that story will be much richer, on the level of Drosh, than that of a person who is unconcerned with issues of paternal authority.
It's on the level of Drosh that Jung's archetypal themes find their resonance in personal context, and seem to strike such deep chords of personal meaning. And it's on this level that a person can get the feeling that a story or drama was somehow written personally for them, and for their personal situation.
The top level of understanding is called “Sod”, and is likened to the Kabbalistic world of Atziluth (the holistic/spiritual realm) and the element Fire. As Fire is the transcendental member of the classical four elements, so Sod is the transcendental level of receiving and understanding. This inner understanding transcends the capabilities and applications of logic, analytical forms, and verbal languages. The understanding of Sod is holistic, integral and gestalt. It has been said that on the level of Sod the lover and the beloved, the knower and the known object, the figure and the ground, are one with each other. This kind of integral understanding can be experienced, but it’s introspective, and can not be described in a science book, or directly communicated to any external being.
According to one of Kabbalah’s basic tenets, our physical reality is comprised of the broken shards of ten great cosmic vessels, or sephiroth. These ten vessels were successively created, each to contain a very different kind of cosmic energy. But each successively burst apart, as each in turn failed its intended task of containing the inexhaustible rush of divine energy, that surged through the universe, at the moment of creation.
The properties of these ten sephiroth, how they interact with each other, and how their energies underlie and inform all events and processes in this reality, are at the core of learning Kabbalah.
At the beginning of time, they say, when the immeasurable wave of energy exploded these ten primordial vessels into bits, human souls were formed from the scattered sparks of divine energy, for the task of collecting together, and restoring, all the damaged and scattered fragments. And each human soul with its divine spark must venture in, to become a part of the physical world. For only by actually entering, and becoming one with, the physical world, can the divine sparks reunite with the broken fragments, redeem them with recognition and understanding, and bring them all back together, making the universe whole, once again.
The messiah, reflecting this shamanistic model, is a divine consciousness which descends down into a physical human body, in order to experience human life, joys, sins, and pains, to understand us, to become one with us, with our fragmented, imperfect souls, to redeem them, and restore them to their proper place and function in the universe.
This paradigm also recalls how Moses comes down from his home in Pharaoh’s high palace, to become one with the lowly slaves; and then as one of them, to lead them to their enlightenment at Sinai, and then to freedom in the Promised Land.
Reb Nachman’s parable of The Chicken Prince revolves about this same theme. The scruffy little healer, (a hidden zaddik - a great soul disguised as a chicken) represents the messiah. He lowers himself down to the level of the lost prince, becomes a chicken himself, to unite with the prince; and in that process, heals the broken and confused prince, and restores him to his proper place and destiny, as a high soul and a great king.
Among other things, the tale of The Imperfect Lamp explores the ancillary idea, of fragmentation and imperfection being the luminous part of a human soul.
A variation of this theme is expressed somewhat differently in How The Baal Shem Tov Got The Name Of The Road. Here, there is a focus on a kind of mind/body dualism; a dualism engendered by the notion of a high soul, a divine spark, which needs to venture down into the difficulties of the physical world. This story features a master/disciple duality, where the disciple is sort of an alter-ego that the master sends down into the world, to accomplish a physical task.
Similarly, there is also a scholar/merchant (soul/body) duality in the Name of the Road, where the holy scholar is lowered down to the mundane occupation of merchant, for the purpose of going out into the world to attain a goal, which would essentially be impossible to achieve as a feckless scholar.
Along the same dualistic lines, this story broaches the notion of an avatar or messiah: a high soul who, purely for the love of fellow humans, willingly foregoes a life in paradise, in favor of taking upon themselves the rigors and travails of an earthly life as a human being.
Another iteration of the same theme in this story invokes a community of people who achieve a perfect balance in their lives, by alternating realities; shuttling effortlessly between spiritual paradise and the lower physical realm - a traditional Kabbalistic commentary on the dualistic potential of our human condition.
As indicated by the diagrams on the Contents page, the stories in this book have been specifically arranged, in an attempt to illustrate the lower nine of Kabbalah’s ten sephiroth in descending order (from Chockma through Malkuth). Kether, the top sephirah, can only be experienced directly. Kether lies beyond the domain of representation, metaphor, allegory, and third-party description. Like any attempt to depict the Holy One in terms of graven images, human attributes, common idioms, or pronounceable names, so would any attempt to illustrate Kether with a story or parable be inherently misinformative.
And I hope you will listen with both ears,
so you can understand my meaning on more levels than one.
Chapter II: The Wheel of Fortune
...meanwhile, the wealthy partner became worried that his guest had not appeared, and he sent his servants out to look for him. Searching everywhere, but not finding him, they were at last returning home. Then, as they were passing by the cemetery, they heard singing; and going in, were surprised to find the beggar they were seeking. He was stark naked, dancing and singing among the tombstones.
Surprisingly, the naked beggar greeted the rich man's servants civilly and sanely, so together with this strange fellow, they returned to their master's home. There the man of great wealth revealed himself to his old partner, and had new clothes brought out for him. He had his accountant draw up half of his vast belongings, and he signed them over to the amazed beggar. “Now,” he said, as he poured them each a glass of schnapps, “you owe me two explanations. One for why you so suddenly broke off with me that day, when you found our lost money in the meadow; and one for why my servants found you singing and dancing naked, in the cemetery today.”
“I had a dream, while I was sleeping in the meadow, just before I woke to find our money,” the beggar replied. “In the dream, I saw myself discovering our lost money, laying there in the grass beside my head. And in my dream I saw that, at that very moment, my fortune was at the top of the great wheel. I knew that from there, I could go no way but down. It is written that each person is responsible for their partner's debts and liabilities; so not wishing to drag you and your fortune down with me, I had no choice but to dissolve our partnership. And then today, as I was sitting naked in the cemetery, with all my possessions, even my last thread, stolen, I realized that my fortune had surely reached the bottom of the wheel, from whence it could go no way but up again. When I realized that, I could not restrain myself from singing and dancing.”
“And so Yankel,” the Rebbi continued, when he had finished telling the story. “When you came here yesterday, I could see that you were on the downhill side of fortune's wheel, nearing the bottom. Those two thousand rubles, that you had borrowed to preserve your last belongings, would only have slowed the wheel, staved off your descent, and prolonged your misfortune. Without that money, you have already hit bottom; and beginning today, your fortunes are on the upswing. May it be a long and happy climb for you. And may it be soon, that you finally learn to lift your fortune free of the wheel, to follow the higher purpose of your own soul.”