The Biblical Jacob, a young man of about 19, sets out to seek his fortune. On his first night away from home, he dreams. A ladder connects earth and heaven; messengers climb up and down. Suddenly God stands right over him and speaks. Jacob wakes suddenly from this numinous dream, infused with awareness of Divine presence. “God is in this place,” he says, “and I, I did not know it!” He erects a monument.
Jacob thinks this is a dream about the place. He does not understand that he himself is the ladder. He is a conduit for Divine spirit. After years of joy and suffering, he will become a channel so strong that even the Pharaoh will ask for his blessing.
But, this morning, Jacob knows only his immediate mystical experience. He has no concepts to help interpret it. Like other characters in the Book of Genesis who walk and talk with God, Jacob simply accepts the spiritual magic of his world.
Over time, as Jewish literature documents, this acceptance faded. A thousand years later, the prophets – highly literate priests, trained in the spiritual arts – shared their visions, frustrated that others could neither see nor hear God’s presence. A thousand years after that, rabbinic tradition began to teach that mystical experience is a secret. Do not write about it, teachers said, and speak of it only in private, with others who have hinted at similar experiences.
But numinous experiences continued to bubble up in public. By the year 1200, Jewish mystics were again writing and publishing their visions – most famously in the Zohar, literally “the shining book.” The Zohar records dreams, visions, imaginative journeys in free associative writing, loosely connected with Biblical text. It offers a theory of the nature of God to help explain how our psyche can channel Divine Presence: the theory of the Sefirot. The word shares its root with the Hebrew words sapir, sapphire blue of the sky; mispar, number; sefer, book; sippur, story — words that speak of heaven and its representations.
Simply speaking, the sefirot are ten spiritual qualities: Emptying, Wisdom, Understanding, Love, Judgment, Balance, Endurance, Gratitude, Grounding and Presence.
Less simply, the sefirot are attributes of God; qualities of human thought; energy centres of the body; spiritual blueprints for material creation; cosmic forces that sustain the world; metaphors for creativity and procreation — a multiplicity of ten mystically participating in a unity of One.
Over the next 400 years, the theory grew more elaborate and complex. Kabbalah, literally the “received tradition,” became arcane and esoteric. Young Jacob had experience without theory; our Kabbalah held much about theory and little about experience.
In the late 1700s, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov began to reverse the trend. Kabbalah, he taught, helps us regain a sense of God’s mystical presence in everyday life. His early Hasidic movement experimented with practices we would call meditation, chanting, ecstatic dance and more. One simple practice, called by the Baal Shem Tov hashgacha peratit, God’s attention to individuals, can be done anywhere, anytime.
Imagine it is a weekend morning, a Saturday at synagogue or a Sunday at church, perhaps. You have resolved that this week, your participation will be meaningful. You are going to sing with passion, concentrate on the sermon, and pray sincerely for the healing of others. But, despite your intention, you find you cannot focus. You add items to your grocery list, worry about your sister, resolve to join the environmental protest on Burnaby Mountain despite your need for rest. Suddenly the service has ended, you have missed most of it, and you feel you have failed spiritually.
But don’t worry, taught the Baal Shem Tov. You have not failed; you have soared spiritually. Each and every distracting thought has been a mystical visitation from God. A grocery list expresses your need for good judgment, structure and planning. The sefirah of Judgment has touched you. Worry for your sister shows your care, the sefirah of Love flowing through you. Your resolution to reach through exhaustion to repair the world is powered by the sefirah of Endurance.
You have had powerful mystical experiences through your everyday thoughts. Your psyche is a channel for God. Like Jacob, you may feel surprise. “God is in this place, and I, I did not know it!”
You are your own ladder.
— Adapted from a sermon I presented to Canadian United Memorial Church and Centre for Peace, November 23, 2014.
— Image: ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ 1966 by Albert Houthuesen [1903-79] visit: www.houthuesen.com for further information. In Houthuesen’s words: “When you are a child and you read in the bible of miracles, you wonder very much. Later all that changes and it becomes an amazingly imaginative idea of the world, based on truth and written by great poets. Man, through this poetry, is trying to express about his life what is so terribly difficult to understand. He stands in mystery and through it he is trying all the time to understand. The bible is full of these tremendously imaginative ideas. They are profound symbols.” — Walk To The Moon – The Story of Albert Houthuesen, 2008 by Richard Nathanson.