How can Moses see God?
All of the secrets of Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, are contained in today’s Torah reading. Moses says to God, show me kevodekha, your glory, please! God says, you can’t see my face; no human can. So, I’ll pass my goodness by you, and shield your face with my hand. Then, I’ll lift my hand, and you’ll see achorai, my back, or my aftereffects (Exod 33:18-23.)
Moses wants to see God’s kavod, God’s pure essence, God’s raw energy.
But God says, no. Human consciousness isn’t built to see my kavod. But I will let you glimpse a bit of my achorai, my effects, my qualities. Like my compassion and my grace.
And there you have it. That is the whole theology of Kabbalah. But, in Kabbalah, the key words get new names.
Infinite Divine Light
God’s pure essence is Eyn Sof, which means “infinity.” God’s qualities and effects are sefirot, which means—a lot of things.
First, I’ll talk about Eyn Sof, infinite divine energy. At the very beginning of the Torah, “God says, ‘Let light exist’ and light exists.” (Gen 1:3) The first time we read this story, we probably imagine sunlight streaming. But the Torah quickly makes it clear that this is not sunlight. It’s not moonlight or starlight, either. Because God creates the sun, moon, and stars on the fourth day. So what kind of light is it?
Here is one of many possible answers. The light is divine energy. Maybe not divine energy in itself. But divine energy as it appears in our world. It’s a wave. A particle. Energy that sometimes looks like matter. It’s the first creature God made, so it’s the raw material from which everything else is made.
Divine light is incredibly bright. So bright, we cannot look at it directly. But we can look at its effects. And they are everywhere! I am made of divine light. You are made of divine light. The chairs in this room are made of divine light. My thoughts, and your feelings, are made of divine light. So, when you take the big view, there is nothing except divine light. The infinite Eyn Sof wearing costume after costume.
How do Kabbalists know this? If they—we—are lucky, we have an experience of cosmic consciousness. Ordinary perception falls away. Once this happened to me on an airplane. For four and a half hours, I saw: my consciousness is inside me, and also outside of me. The source of experience lies beyond my body, brain, or mind. What I am, what we are, is not bounded by our bodies. Of course there is life after death, because the source of life does not die. Eyn Sof.
It felt good to know this. I was not at all “out of it.” I sat in my seat, typed a report on my laptop, entertained someone’s bored baby. Then, I walked through the airport, through the chaotic crush at baggage claim. And I did it all with a beatific smile on my face. People smiled back. They were delighted to be lifted out of their traveler’s stress, even for just a moment.
It’s amazing to feel held in divine infinity.
Jewels of Spiritual Vision
But most of the time, spiritual experiences aren’t like this at all. Spiritual wows come in smaller chunks. Like a stunning rush of beauty when the clouds over the mountains part. A sudden clarity of judgment around a life problem. A reservoir of patience when someone we love needs so much from us.
Kabbalah teaches us to treasure these spiritual experiences, too. Because they show us God’s goodness, the effects of God’s presence. In the language of Kabbalah, these experiences are perceptions of the ten sefirot. Ten spiritual qualities of God expressed in creation: Emptying, Wisdom, Understanding, Love, Judgment, Beauty, Endurance, Gratitude, Grounding and Presence.
The Hebrew word sefirot brings together at least four meanings, all from the same root. The sefirot are a sippur, a story, God telling the story of God’s own inner life. They are a sefer, a book that helps us read God’s presence in the universe. They are mispar, number, a measured bundle of divine energy. And they are sapir, sapphire, precious spiritual jewels.
So it is important to pay attention to the sefirot as they move inside us. These profound experiences of beauty or judgment or endurance are how we see God.
And what better time to pay attention to the sefirot than the season the Torah calls sefirat ha’omer—measuring the grain? This seven week season between Pesach and Shavuot is barley harvest time in the land of Israel. Torah tells us to take the harvest seriously. And to make a daily ritual of observing the ripening grain.
Teachers of Kabbalah tell us to make a daily ritual of observing the sefirot. To watch for a different sefirah each week and a different nuance each day. With this spiritual practice, we learn to see the effects of God, like Moses saw at Mt. Sinai.
This week’s sefirah is chesed, love. Where does this goodness show up in your life? How are you challenged to live into it? Could its goodness—and its challenges—be a little bit of divine light in disguise?
Originally prepared as a dvar Torah for Congregation Beth Israel, Vancouver.