Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, August 27, 2016
Rabbi Meira Chmiel
Words of the Baal Shem Tov, as told by Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezeritch, in Likutim Yekarim:
“If you wish to ascend on high, you must go from one step to the next.
“First, you should have in mind that you are ascending only to the first Firmament… In your mind, expand this firmament on all sides. It should not appear small and narrow in your mind, but broad, filling the entire mind.
“Once you stand there, you must strengthen your mind to go higher, and then still higher. You must go step by step, however, since you cannot ascend through all Seven Firmaments at once.
“The only time that it is possible to do this is in the middle of prayer… Since in your mind you are literally in the First Firmament [in Assiyah], you can then ascend to the next Firmament. [You can climb from one Firmament to the next] until you reach [Yetzirah], the world of Angels. You can then climb to [B’riyah], the world of the Throne.
“Finally all that remains is the Universe of Atzilut. When you reach this level, you bind your thoughts to God…” [from Meditation and Kabbalah by Aryeh Kaplan, pp. 294-5]
We have dimensions to our soul we are largely unconscious of, which require that we train our consciousness to ascend and expand into these farther reaches. The primary hazard in such an undertaking is ego—inflating that mental mirror-image of ourselves into a massive narcissism. Which is a complete distraction that sends us crashing. How do we avoid it? Study Musar and what Moshe is saying in Deuteronomy and don’t flatter yourself. Walk with your Holy Guide. Long for the Source of your spirit and keep your mind focused on that. When you get directives, obey them. Don’t lose your focus.
Two words describing states of consciousness: gadlut [gadol] and katnut [katan]. In the state of katnut, contracted consciousness, you are on the ground floor looking up at God on high. In the state of gadlut, expanded consciousness, you are on the top floor gazing out at the universe through God’s eyes, like a child riding on his father’s shoulder. But if you forget your father, the king, who has raised you up so high and instead start complimenting yourself on all your supposed power and achievement, you will be put back down.
But we are not always in katnut for rebuke. We are fragile in our material existence and need to rest and be refreshed. Moreover, it is our task to bring the gifts we experience in gadlut down into our earthly garden to plant. Which is why there always is a descent from the high place of our soul’s origin, as Jacob’s ladder teaches us. Because we are here as pioneers planting fresh seed.
The siddur is our Jewish map into our divine soul and up its many narrow and twisting flights of stairs and sudden escalators to the spindle-top and down again via that panoramic glass elevator that displays our vast world to us. Last week I briefly listed the four worlds or levels of expanded consciousness and defined them. Now we will walk them, following our map.
At the beginning of a morning service we visualize ourselves at ground level: Assiyah. The world of making and building and planting and harvesting, acts of using matter. We have seven Firmaments to ascend in Assiyah, according to the Baal Shem Tov; the Ariz”l counts eight, including Keter, the final height. The Ariz”l refers to each Firmament as a Heikhal, a bimah, like we have surrounding the Holy Aron at the front of the sanctuary, because it involves making an aliyah to open the Ark. In our old Birnbaum siddur, pp. 37-41 of the Korbanot section, these Heikhalot are symbolized by the “Places of sacrifice in the Temple”. By this point of the service, we will have already read through the Birkhat HaShachar, the early morning blessings and some Talmudic writings to contemplate, which help us focus and settle our minds to ascend even to that first Firmament or Heikhal.
The first Firmament is called the Star Sapphire or, in the Ariz”l siddur, Heikhal Livnat HaSaphir Yesod [v’Malchut] d’Assiyah, the sanctuary Star Sapphire of emanated aspects of God called Yesod [joined with Malkhut] that is on the level of Assiyah. Gaze around you. The ceiling, so high and far above you, even down here, is like translucent glass, through which you can see into a corresponding chamber of the next higher universe, its radiance shining as if through a filter. Keep traveling through Assiyah and you step up into the next adjacent sanctuary, slightly higher, entering a new dimension within. And keep going, gradually ascending upwards through each of these sanctuaries of sacrifice, atonement, and thanksgiving, till you reach the eighth sanctuary, Keter, the Crown, expressed by the offering of the first-born of kosher animals, the tithed cattle, and the Pesach lamb. Both the first-born and the Pesach offerings reflect Litziat Mitzraim: when Israel came forth out of bondage and was trapped by the Red Sea, and God’s supreme power was activated to disrupt natural law as Redeemer and Savior of Israel. Through this Keter in Assiyah ceiling you can glimpse coming down from the Keter sanctuary of the next higher universe that same redemptive light we are experiencing here in this more down to earth universe.
This, so far, is our practice model: each of the four universes or Olamot is like a different floor inside an infinitely immense glass tower, and on each floor there is a series of glass chambers or sanctuaries, each linked, floor to ceiling, with corresponding chamber above it in the next higher universe, each sharing the same name, each embodying the same dimensional quality emanating from the Godhead. As you ascend the four universes, or building levels, the light or energy from each of these emanations of God becomes increasingly intense. The universes serve as filters so that the unveiled high pitched energies above won’t destroy the creation that is becoming more manifest and revealed in physical form below.
Here below in Olam Assiyah, our first level, these sanctuaries ascend one to the other in an orderly, down to earth way. They are: 1) Star Sapphire, the sanctuary for Yesod 2) Center of Heaven, the sanctuary for Hod, 3) The Glowing, the sanctuary for Netzach, 4) Will, the sanctuary for Tiferet, 5) Merit, the sanctuary for Gevurah, 6) Love, the sanctuary for Hesed, 7) the Holy of Holies, the sanctuary for Hokhmah and Binah, also Da’at, and 8) Keter, the sanctuary for Keter the Crown, from which emanates everything else below it.
How do we ascend to the next Universe? Gradually, step by step through the first seven or eight sanctuary rooms stepping up into each other in sequence, then, arriving at Keter, making a rapid ascent up an escalator that, in our prayer guide, is called a kaddish. Suddenly we have arrived at Barukh Sh’Amar, our entry door into the P’sukei D’Zimra, which symbolizes the Universe of Yetzirah. We are in a new kind of universe, where creation is done through formation, manifesting as vocalized sound, utterance. In the universe of angels and souls we ascend sanctuaries that are symbolized in our siddur by psalms and songs. The Ashrei, psalm 145, expresses very high crown and kingship energies, orienting us to proceed.
From here we move on to psalm 146, entering the sanctuary of the Presence of God among us, Shekhinah as Malkhut, kingdom. Psalm 147 takes you through the Star Sapphire sanctuary, then half-way through the psalm brings you over into two higher sanctuaries that have become merged in this universe: The Center of Heaven and The Glowing. Thus, psalm 147 shows us a merging of the emanations of the lower limbs or qualities expressed in a King portrait we are beginning to catch the vision of. Downstairs these qualities were distinct, but now they are synchronized, like two legs working in synchrony. The next sanctuary is psalm 148—called Ratzon, the sanctuary of God’s Will, housing the emanated Torso of an emerging Kingly visualization, called Tiferet—Beauty. Psalm 149 brings us to the upper pair of sanctuaries, Merit and Love, also synchronized, housing the emanated “arms” or “hands” of the King, which are Gevurah and Hesed. Love, the King’s right arm, dominates this psalm.
Psalm 150 takes us up into the Sanctuary of the Holy of Holies, housing the emanation of the head of the King, the unified qualities of Hokhmah, Binah, and Da’at: Divine Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge. The remainder of the P’sukei D’Zimra belongs in the sanctuary of Keter, the King’s crown. The theme of God’s redemptive salvation culminates here in the Song of the Sea and the overcoming of enemies.
After the Yishtebach hymn of praise we are carried up a second escalator by the Hatzi Kaddish into the third Universe, B’riyah. The Barchu and the opening of the Yotzer Or blessing bring us over its threshold into the exalted atmosphere of Thought. Creative thought. Over the length of the Yotzer Or blessing we flow through the three lower sanctuaries: Star Sapphire, the Center of Heaven, the Glowing, and we end in Merit, the sanctuary of Gevurah, the King’s left arm, and its repeated theme of renewal. But what has become of the sanctuary of Tiferet, called Will? Instead, beginning with the Ahavah Rabbah, we enter the sanctuary of Love that houses Hesed, the King’s right arm, and Ahavah continues through the Sh’ma and the three paragraphs that go with the Sh’ma.
Emet at the end of the Sh’ma section brings us at last into the sanctuary of Ratzon, Will, which houses Tiferet, the Torso. And here Tiferet, in this Universe of B’riyah, has become unified with the head emanations of the Holy of Holies sanctuary, joining together as one to direct the work of the arms and legs and creative center emanating from it. Our entry into the final sanctuary, the Crown, begins before the Mi Kamokha section at the words, MiMizraim. It concludes with the blessing for Gaal Yisrael, and suddenly, without even a Hatzi Kaddish, we are transported in the Universe of Atzilut, the universe of Emanation, the Nothingness before manifestation, standing on nothing, a cosmic spindle-top above a tower we can no longer see or touch or comprehend, deep in the S’phirot of God’s Glory.
In Atzilut, your only method of orientation is to stand and pray the Amidah Prayer. This provides your only foothold. There are details to this, yes. And also to fall on your face when you pray Tachanun. And to rise and stand before the open ark to receive your King and hear God’s utterances, whispered as well as inscribed in the Torah of Heaven and Earth.
Yes, there is a glass elevator that takes you swiftly down afterwards, like we said earlier, but now today we must end here. The details for those who seek them will be made available to you on request.
The Handout for the Ekev talk is available at the office in Rabbi Chmiel’s mail slot. Ask Judy for help.