Kabbalah Services are held monthly and are led by Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer. Rabbi Goldhamer is founder of the Hebrew Seminary, where he currently serves as President and Professor of Jewish Mysticism. He has lectured on philosophy, Jewish mysticism and prayer throughout the United States. We invite you to participate in these spiritually uplifting and empowering services.
(Leviticus 25-27:34) When I came to Chicago in 1972, several deaf Jewish leaders and I established a deaf Jewish congregation where all activities were conducted in American Sign Language (ASL). Membership was almost all deaf, and so, I had to learn ASL to interpret the Torah for the deaf, deliver Sabbath sermons and conduct classes of Jewish interest to my new, fledgling congregation. Over the years, the congregation grew older and the demographics greatly changed. Currently, even though I conduct religious services in sign language (and voice), the majority of our congregation is not deaf. We have transformed from a synagogue of the deaf to a synagogue that is completely accessible to deaf Jewish people. It is following this model that we train students at our Hebrew Seminary to become rabbis of the deaf and hearing Jewish communities. I am no longer 27 years old; in fact, I celebrated my 68th year on earth just two days ago, and I feel the onslaught of the past 40 years. Baruch Hashem, I still have all my hair and most of my teeth. I still love pursuing and probing Hebrew texts, especially in the field if Kabbalah. But, as we get older, our bodies aren’t as firm and healthy as they were when we were 27, forty years ago. For the past several months, I have been battling with atrial fibrillation heart disease. It’s a common heart disease, but very annoying, disconcerting and always reminding me that a stroke or a heart attack is a possibility, if I don’t take this seriously. Since I am also plagued with another vascular disease, Klippel-Trenaunay syndrome, there is debate whether I should use a blood thinner or a very strong blood thinner vs. a blood thinner of limited strength. Then again, which medicine should I use to get out of this very discomforting state of fibrillation. And why is this taking so long? I have spoken to my cardiologist who is quite wonderful. I have spoken to friends who are also doctors, who are also wonderful and generous with their opinions. Being confused and recognizing the healing power of Torah, I went to this week’s Torah portion for an answer to “A Fib.” Furthermore, my wife Peggy reminded me that healing preceded the world into existence. More specifically, Rabbi Samuel Edels (1555-1631) teaches that the power of healing is present in God, even before the illness occurs. And so, I turned to this week’s parsha Behar, which says in the opening chapter, “When you come into the lands which I give you…six years you shall sow the land, and six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in the produce, but in the seventh year, shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath unto the Lord; thou shalt neither sow thy field nor prune thy vineyard.” (Leviticus 25:2-4) Noam Elimelech asks “And should you ask, ‘what are we to eat in the seventh year (if we may neither sow nor gather in our crops)? I will ordain My blessing for you in the sixth year so that it shall yield produce for three years.'”(Lev. 25:20-21) Noam Elimelech interprets this text by saying, “When God created the world, God, out of His goodness—provided conduits that directed the flow, fulfilling people’s needs. The condition of this flow or sheaf was not ever to stop. But when people fall from their degree (of faith) and have no trust that the Blessed Creator is a faithful overseer….these people damage the upper worlds, and weaken the power of the Divine retinue. This means that the flow is interrupted. And God must ordain that sheaf anew, so that it will flow as it did from the start of Creation.” I can’t deny I have been complaining about my discomfort, my lack of energy, this “continuous pain in the heart,” which, when I read this week’s Torah portion and Elimelech’s commentary, I realized I am one of the grumblers who ask “what are we to eat?” And now I recognize that by so doing, my lack of faith is damaging the flow of the sheaf of God’s healing that He has already stored away, even before the Creation. My grumbling and lack of faith is creating a barrier that is preventing the flow of this spiritual gravity, this shefa. I have forgotten, because of my physical discomfort, that God’s shefa, the flux of God’s blessing in life, flows constantly out of love, as an act of grace. It is a given and a constant. However, Rabbi Elimelech’s teaching maintains that even though God’s beneficent flow comes to us automatically; when we doubt, when we fail to trust in God, the course of that flow is impeded. Rabbi Elimelech teaches us the consequences of a lack of trust in God, but he doesn’t help us understand how to meet doubt. For weeks, even months, I was doubting God’s active involvement in my healing, even though Peggy would remind me daily that the healing to my heart disease already existed—just use the instrument of faith and bring it down. Of all people, –I—who believe in God’s healing power, and that we people can become partners with God in healing– I was forgetting this, and maybe even doubting this. Doubt contributes to what Parker Palmer calls functional atheism– “The belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with me.” Was I becoming like the murmuring Israelite? “What are we to eat in the seventh year?” Or, “what should I do to correct my disease?” Or “Which doctor is right?” I was beginning to doubt that there is a “Divine Promise” of sustenance through the shemita. I was functionally denying God. But then I read the Torah this week, and once again, I realized that instead of wallowing in my doubt, I should use my doubt to inspire me to find a solution now, to the awful pest of “A Fib.” I am older and I am wiser, and a stronger Torah believer than I was when I came to Chicago in 1972. And I know that as great as science is, and it is great, healing will always be found in the pages of Behar, God’s holy words, to our Rabbi Moses. Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer is senior rabbi of Congregation Bene Shalom, Skokie, and president and professor of Mysticism at Hebrew Seminary of the Deaf, Skokie.
In the Kabbalistic tradition, words and letters have tremendous power beyond what we might imagine. The Kabbalists point out that in all languages, letters have symbolic power, and so “chaise,” the French word for “chair” is made up of the letters that represent “chair.” This is true with almost all languages. Letters and words have representational power.
But in Hebrew, letters have creative power. We need to imagine God sitting in front of a cosmic typewriter, punching the keys of the different letters of the Hebrew alphabet and watching the world come into being. God punched in the word adamah and the earth was formed. When the earth was formed, it was made up not only with molecules, atoms and quarks, but also with the Hebrew letters that make up the word adamah. The ground, or the earth, was made up of infinitely small alefs, daleds, mems and heys. Remove these constituent letters, and everything comes tumbling down. Remove the letters that make up ish and isha, and man and woman come tumbling down. These Hebrew letters – each one a different cosmic energy force that God used to create the earth and its moveables.
This thinking is supported by the first text of the Hebrew Scriptures: “Bereshit bara elohim; et hashamayim ve’et ha’aretz” (Gen. 1:1), which is translated by the Lurianic Kabbalist, “In the beginning, with wisdom, God created et.” The word et is not seen by the Kabbalist as a red flag directing us to the direct objecthashamayim; but, rather, the word et is seen as a word that encompasses every Hebrew letter from alef totav. But really, these Hebrew letters are not merely Hebrew letters. They are cosmic energy forces, with which God creates the world. There is nothing so powerful as the Hebrew word.
By Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer, Senior rabbi of Congregation Bene Shalom, Skokie, IL and president and professor of Jewish Mysticism at Hebrew Seminary, Skokie, IL.
In the past ten years, I have exhibited my paintings on parchment in a number of one man exhibitions in Chicago, and different American cities. I primarily paint Kabbalistic figurative works on the stories of Scripture and Talmud. Years ago, when I met my wife Peggy, I was intrigued by her profession as an art historian. She took me to many different museums and inspired me to pick up a paint brush.
One artistic concept that Peggy introduced me to is the idea of “negative space” – the space between objects that defines them. I never thought that the spaces in between Rembrandt’s figures would be as exciting as the figures themselves. I have always been fascinated by the story of Joseph in our Torah, and Rembrandt beautifully portrays Joseph recounting one of his dreams. In our Torah portion this week, Vayashev, Jacob makes his favorite son a coat of many colors; this leads to the enmity of Joseph’s brothers and sets the stage for the dangerous turn of events, which culminates with Joseph being sold into slavery. By the end of this week’s portion, Joseph is imprisoned in Egypt. Anyone who has seen the musical of course remembers that Joseph goes on to become the Pharaoh’s right hand man, the most powerful Jew in all Egypt.
I would like to focus this week on a short sentence which, to me, is all about “negative space.” In Genesis 37:15, the text says “And a man found him (Joseph) wandering in the field.” Joseph’s father has sent him from their home to follow his brothers, who are somewhere between Hebron and Shechem feeding the flock. This journey will set the course of Joseph’s future. Away from his father, his brothers will capture him and sell him into slavery. At this point in the text, though, Joseph is lost – and a man finds him wandering in the field. The Jewish mystic Nachmanides or Ramban comments that Joseph was straying from the road, not knowing where to go. He is assisted by a man, who is probably the angel Gabriel, sent by God. Joseph is in between being the spoiled son despised by his brothers, and the Pharaoh’s right hand man and redeemer of his family.
Negative space is the space “in-between.” Entering negative space is entering the space of the Unknown. Negative space is entering uncharted territory, and yet, negative space is essential to things being in relationship with everything else.
Professor Jacob Needleman teaches us that it is only in the space in-between that we begin to truly understand what it means to be human, and it is in this space that we begin to understand the meaning of our lives on this planet earth. The brilliant Dr. Needleman further teaches that we truly begin to obtain wisdom when we willingly stand in between truths or levels of truth.
Ramban states that Joseph was straying from the road, not knowing where to go. Joseph was in between.This state of being “in between” at first seems terrifying and threatening to Joseph. But the Biblical author is teaching us that there is wisdom in being “in between.” The man that Joseph meets is no ordinary man. Rashi and Ramban call him the angel Gabriel. The text is also teaching us that it was Hashem who was looking out for Joseph. Together with Gabriel, they transform Joseph’s life from being the young beloved handsome favored son of Jacob to become the Pharaoh’s right hand man, perhaps the most powerful man in the ancient world. Literally, Joseph has to enter the pit to come out the other side as the most powerful Jew in Egypt.
The Torah text teaches us once more that Hashem is concerned not only with how we live our lives, but He is concerned with every detail of our lives. The ancient world was filled with people at that time. Each man and each woman struggling to find his place and purpose in the universe, and then Hashem reaches down and guides the life and purpose of Joseph, the dreamer. Hashem is truly ha-madrich, the Divine Guide, who is concerned. And if we are open to Him and try to hear Him, He will guide each one of us in our lives. Not only when we are “in between,” but even when we feel we are stuck in negative spaces, like the foreboding wilderness, and even more foreboding, the awful pit into which his brothers thrust him.
Joseph is wandering in the “in between,” the vague, murky space that is bounded on both sides by the concrete. The Hebrew word for universe is “olam,” which is derived from the Hebrew root “alam,” which means “to conceal.” In a sense, God’s universe is the “in between” which conceals the Divine.
Each morning before I pray the morning service, I practice hitbodidut. I sit alone with God and I pour out my heart in my own words to Him. I thank Him profusely for what I have. I ask Him His advice for what I want to have, and there are many times when I weep profusely in His Presence, out of awe and love for Him. Before I do my hitbodidut, I repeat about 50 times the Hebrew phrase “Ribbono shel Olam,” which means “Master of the Universe.” This is a simple mantra meditation that heightens my awareness of Hashem. When I repeat again and again “Ribbono shel Olam,” I am saying that hidden behind the Universe is the Master of All, Hashem. When I do this mantra meditation, I again and again make myself aware of the Hidden Reality behind the visible reality of this world. I am “in between” the hidden reality and the visible reality, and in this negative space, I am inspired every morning, intuiting positive insights about myself, my God and my relationship to Him.
This January I am teaching a class, open to the public on the “White Spaces of Our Torah,” in between the black holy letters of God’s revealed word. We learn in the Midrash that when Moschiach comes, the black letters of the Hebrew alphabet will dance with the white letters of the white spaces “in between.” I hope you will join with me in prodding the Moschiach to come as we interpret the Kabbalistic meaning of every word of the black lines in the white spaces “in between.”
Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer is senior rabbi of Congregation Bene Shalom, Skokie, and president and professor of Jewish Mysticism at Hebrew Seminary of the Deaf, Skokie.
In this week’s Torah portion, our Jewish tradition teaches that we people and God are partners in this world. As a matter of fact, we learn that God does not live separate from us, as a unique entity, but that the Feminine Presence of God lives within us. And when we do prayers and tefilla in the right way, the Feminine Presence within us, the Shechina connects with the Transcendent Masculine aspect of God. The Hebrew word tefilla means “prayer,” but it also means “to connect.” And so, when we do prayer in the right way, we connect with Hashem, and we become One with God.
There are other ways to connect with God, other than prayer. In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob actually spends an evening wrestling with God. Some say Jacob spent the night battling his alter ego. Others say he spent the night in a wrestling match with his brother Esau. Still others say he spent the night fighting with an angel. And there are others who maintain that Jacob spent the night Godwrestling. During Jacob’s boxing match with God, he took a solid punch to his thigh, which hurt him for the rest of his life. God was so impressed when the match was over that He said to Jacob, “You’re a hero in my eyes. I am, going to bless you. I am giving you a new name. You and your progeny shall becalled Yisrael, or Israel, which means ‘a person who boxes with God.'”
Since that time, we Jews have never been afraid to box with God, whither it was Moses or Rabbi Akiba or Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, and many many more. We have always stood our ground, and even though we Jews love God to the core, our tradition encourages us to struggle and question and even box with God if we feel we are not being given a fair shake in this world.
God was very proud of Jacob. And our Kabbalah teaches that God was waiting for the right person to connect to Him and draw more light to the world. God chose our forefather Jacob for this privilege. This whole universe is a result of the interfacing of 10 unique energies called the Sefirot. These energies at the dawn of time collided with one another and hence 22 other energies were established, the Hebrew letters/energies, the DNA of all creation. These Sefirot are divided into three columns in the diagram of the Tree of Life – the left, right and central columns. The classic book of Jewish Kabbalah teaches that our father Jacob, through his vigor and vitality and courage in standing up to God, in this week’s Torah poriton, established the channel for the central column, and brought balance to the world. The 12 sons of Jacob, who include Joseph the Righteous, come from that pure seed, and they were all great spiritual forces. The Kabbalistic commentaries to this Torah portion teach us that each of the 12 sons of Jacob represent one of the 12 energies of the year, or what the astrologers like to call the Zodiac.
Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer
Peggy and I are working very hard completing our new Kabbalistic book, Secrets of Kabbalistic Healing, which will be out in your book store in the fall of 2013.
One of the greatest Kabbalistic books ever written was Sha’are Orah, Gates of Light. This medieval spiritual Hebrew text was written by Rabbi Joseph Gikatilla. His book is one of the most detailed accounts and teachings on the mind of God. It is an amazing Hebrew manuscript, that takes us deep within the mind of the Creator.
We learn an amazing Kabbalistic secret that Speech was a Divine Instrument that preceded Creation. The unique capacity of men and women to speak (and sign), to record and to remember, is what makes them human and godlike. We also learn that God created healing even before He created the Universe. This is the second Divine Instrument which preceded Creation. And so, when humankind would become ill with disease, we would be able, through Kabbalistic meditations, to bring down this healing, which could cure all disease.
The third Divine Instrument which preceded Creation was Thanksgiving (HODaot) It is part of the Spirit of God and the spirit of every person. It is one of our spiritual limbs. Rabbi Gikatilla teaches, when people are thanksgiving, it is as if they support God.
This week, all of us Americans celebrate what I believe to be the greatest of American holidays, Thanksgiving. Who would have thought that the Kabbalah, the most ancient of all books, teaches that Thanksgiving is one of the Kabbalistic secrets that preceded the creation of the world.
Every morning I thank God for what I have. Every morning. When we thank God, we pull God into every cell of our bodies. We become One with God and even more blessed by God. Tomorrow morning, when you wake up, please do the Modeh Ani prayer, that I shared with you during the High Holidays. It is the greatest expression of thanks that we have to God. But if for some chance, you don’t know Kabbalah, and don’t remember this ancient Kabbalistic prayer of thanks, God is a cool cat and will be totally satisfied if, on Thanksgiving Day, before you eat the turkey, you say “Dear God, Rub a dub dub, thanks for the grub.” Amen
Meditation is a foundation for prayer. It is through our meditations that we become closer to God and prepare to pray more fully. We are including some of the meditations taught in our Kabbalah Service here. If you are regular in your daily practice, you can feel the presence of God.
MEDITATION VIDEOS: View all Meditations and Chants: