We are now counting the days from Pesach (a.k.a. Passover, commemorating our redemption from slavery in Egypt) to Shavuot (commemorating our receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai). This seven-week period, called Counting the Omer, offers the ideal opportunity to begin discussing a question I am often asked on the AT discussion page on Facebook, namely, what is the relationship between Talmud and Kabbalah?
First, we must understand that we are now in a time of mourning.
It may seem strange that we are not waiting in mounting joy for Shavuot, and indeed we will end our mourning on Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of this period, and then perk up considerably as the birthday of Torah in this world approaches.
But first come these 33 days of mourning for a plague that happened some two thousand years ago.
They said: R’ Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of disciples…and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. (Yevamos 62b)
R’ Akiva, or Akiva ben Yosef, is known as Rosh la-Chachamim, or the Head of All Sages. His teachings are absolutely integral to any understanding of Rabbinic Judaism, and he influenced the nature and manner of the Talmud’s compilation more than anyone.
He is also a fascinating character, and I hope to relate many Akiva stories in future AT blogs. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Head of All Sages, is that he did not begin learning Torah until he was 40. Prior to that, he thought of Torah scholars as his enemies, whom he wished to “bite like a donkey.” (Pesachim 49b)
The dramatic redirection of Akiva’s life can be attributed to his wife, Rachel. Before they fell in love, he was a hired shepherd and she was the boss’ daughter. She agreed to marry him only if he would cease being an am ha’aretz, or ignoramus, and learn the ways of Torah.
Her father so opposed the match that he disinherited her, and she lived in poverty for 12 years while Akiva studied. Upon returning to her, Akiva overheard an argument between Rachel and a neighbor critical of his long absence. He also heard her reply, “If I had my wish, [Akiva] should stay another 12 years at the academy!” So back he went.
After 12 more years, he returned as the greatest Rabbi in Israel, with 12,000 pairs of students hanging on his words. When a poor woman tried to make her way toward the famous Sage, she was rebuffed.
“Make way for her!” he told them, “For my [learning] and yours are hers.” (Nedarim 50a)
If Akiva is the Head of All Sages, and these were his own 12,000 pairs of students, how is it possible they behaved so badly that a plague was dispatched to wipe them all out? After all, murderers and thieves routinely live long lives. What exactly did these students do that was so wrong? The first hint is that they did not treat a poor woman with respect.
These students were so engrossed in amassing knowledge and the honor that attends such knowledge, that they forgot how to behave like true Torah scholars. They lost the qualities of humility and courtesy which are essential to their profession.
Ben Yehoyada says they were arranged in pairs because Akiva sensed trouble brewing. He tried to avert tragedy by matching strong and weak so proper respect would be paid, but the students only became more jealous of each other’s accomplishments. And because their spiritual level was so elevated thanks to their teacher Akiva, their sin was punished quickly, and completely.
Thus, the great, unbroken line of the Oral Teaching, first given to Moses at SInai, was now held only by the aging Akiva. The world teetered on a precarious edge.
Rabbi Yehudah Prero teaches that the death of a great sage atones for a generation if that generation seizes the event to elevate their spirituality. In Akiva’s time, 24,000 Sages died. What did that generation do? What Jews have always done: they wrestled meaning from tragedy, changed their ways, and moved forward.
Rabbi Akiva began teaching again, and though his later students were only five, they were men of great kindness as well as understanding, and it was through them that the Oral Teaching was saved.
One of those students, R’ Shimon bar Yochai, is traditionally credited with originating the teachings compiled in the Zohar - the foundation text of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism. It would take many, many blogs to explain the meaning and history of Kabbalah, but it will suffice for now to say that there has always existed within Judaism a stream of mystical thought, dedicated to understanding the relationship between Creator and Created so that one may experience it.
Such an understanding is necessarily incomplete and ephemeral, but it arises from deep and careful study of every aspect of the Creation, including its most flawed and wonderful component: us.
G-d is perfect, we are not. This everyone knows, but the Talmudist and the Kabbalist share a keen interest in the precise nature of our flaws, so that we may do the crucial work of Tikkun Olam, or repairing the brokenness of the world. That repair starts with the self.
The way Jews take meaning from tragedy is to make themselves better people. Akiva made himself a better teacher. His student, Shimon bar Yochai and his spiritual progeny, the Kabbalists, developed a system for mapping the Creation based on 10 emanations of the Creator’s will. These emanations or sefirot, are defined by and can be understood through our intellectual and emotional capacities because we are created in G-d’s image. Sefirot literally means “enumerations,” the same word used for “counting” the days between Pesach and Shavuot.
In the realm of the Infinite, G-d is undifferentiated, unchanging, and perfect, i.e., One. To create a place for us, and to enable us to have free will, G-d carved out a space within the One that is not perfect. This place is necessarily broken because it cannot contain the infinite light that shines around it. But we can let that light flow through us if we try.
And that is what Counting the Omer is all about. During this period, we engage in a practice of reflection upon the emanations of G-d as we experience them in our own personalities, and try to rectify the flaws which prevent G-d’s light from flowing through us as It desires to flow. For a good primer on the daily meditations one can use to engage in the work of repairing one’s flaws, visit the Chabad website here.
Talmud and Kabbalah thus work hand and hand, and the greatest thinkers in Jewish history all studied both. Examples in the last thousand years include Rambam, Ramban, Maharal, Arizal, the Baal Shem Tov (founder of Hasidism) and the Vilna Gaon (the principal opponent of Hasidism). One of my favorite thinkers is the Baal Shem Tov’s great grandson, Reb Nachman of Breslov and I will leave you with one of his teachings - a teaching which is especially appropriate while we are Counting the Omer.
Reb Nachman taught that we must spend some quiet time every day talking with G-d, not as some insect would talk to a Giant King in the Sky, but as you would talk with your own True Friend. Rabbi Mordecai Finley taught me to start with just 60 seconds a day, but to do it every day. You must schedule it. I have an alarm on my phone that goes off every afternoon. My computer is also set to perform a backup at that hour, so I have to stop.
If you try this practice, you’ll find three things: 1) it’s very enjoyable to have a little cessation every day you can count on, like a mini-Shabbat, 2) it’s very enjoyable to chat with G-d because He is an excellent Listener, and 3) every question you ask during this time will give rise to a truth you already know, but didn’t stop to heed.
What do I do wrong? How do I do it? Why do I do it? What can I do about it? How will I start? What can I do right now? What shall I do after that?
All these questions have answers that will arise during your daily chat with G-d, if you schedule it. As you become aware of those answers, you will naturally modify your behavior toward a good balance of understanding and kindness, like the latter students or R’ Akiva.
Amazingly, Shimon Bar Yochai died on the anniversary of the day which ended the plague that killed the 24,000 - Lag B’Omer (May 10, 2012). It is customary to celebrate his yahrtzeit with great rejoicing, as we turn the mourning of the first part of the Omer into the joyous expectation of the latter part.
May we all merit to grow in both understanding and kindness this Omer season, and may we all drink wisdom from the interconnected streams of Talmud and Kabbalah.
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Salvador Litvak wrote and directed the Passover comedy and cult hit “When Do We Eat?” His current film, “Saving Lincoln”, explores Abraham Lincoln’s conflicted tenure as commander-in-chief through the eyes of his dear friend and bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon.
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