Wednesday, November 24, 2021

The Wheel of Transformation

Sichos HaRan # 40, slightly abridged
Translation, commentary, and wild speculations by Dovid Sears

After the sin of the Golden Calf, God commands Moses, “Make a sanctuary for Me, and I will dwell among you” (Exodus 25:8). The Children of Israel had estranged themselves from God and Moses. However, through the Mishkan (Tabernacle) in the desert, and later through the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, this relationship was “patched up” and the spiritual damage began to be repaired.

The Holy Temple is the central paradigm for the spiritual and even physical accord between the Creator and creation. As Rebbe Nachman states in the lesson we are about to read, it embodies the principle of “the superior below and the inferior above.” That is, Godliness “descends” into the vessels of creation, and creation “ascends” to its Essence, which is the Divine Oneness. The cognitive realization of this mystery is called da’as, literally, “knowledge.” However, a better translation in this context might be “enlightenment” (notwithstanding the word’s Eastern religious associations) in the sense of a completely transforming spiritual awakening. In this context, the term da’as does not refer to an idea or concept, but to an encompassing perception of the divine essence of all things.

The connection between the Holy Temple and da’as is underscored by a teaching from the Talmud:

Rabbi Ami said: Great is da’as, for it was given between two Divine Names; as it is written, “A God [E-L] of Knowledge [de’os, a construct of da’as] is the Lord [YHVH]” (Exodus 2:3).1
First the verse uses the Divine Name “E-L”; then the term “de’os”; and then the Essential Divine Name YHVH (known as the “Shem HaVaYaH”). So da’as is couched between these two holy names.1 

The Talmud continues:

Rabbi Elazar said: Great is the Holy Temple, for it was given between two Divine Names; as it is written, “Your dwelling place that You brought into existence, O God [YHVH], the sanctuary [mikdash], O God [ADNY], that Your hands established…” (Exodus 15:17).
Just as da’as is found between two Divine Names, so is the Holy Temple, or mikdash. Thus, our Sages show that there is a certain equivalency between the two. Aside from its other functions, the Holy Temple is the channel for the revelation of divine wisdom. As such, it is the antithesis of philosophy, which is a product of human reason, reflecting the natural order. Divine wisdom, by contrast, both encompasses and transcends nature; it is supra-rational, miraculous.

In the teaching from Rebbe Nachman about Chanukah and the Holy Temple that we are about to consider, rationalist philosophy is pitted against “mystical wisdom,” represented by the Holy Temple—and the former is defeated by the latter. Although Rebbe Nachman doesn’t say so, this is why the struggle of a handful of Jews against a vastly more powerful foreign invader more than two thousand years ago remains relevant even today. The Syrian Hellenists sought to suppress the study of Torah and the rites of the Holy Temple, championing an alternative world-view and seeking to impose it the conquered. The Talmudic sages recognized that this conflict was not just another one of the many national conflicts the Jews had endured. Rather, it represented an archetypal conflict between two approaches to life, and existentially between two antithetical ways of being-in-the-world.
The Hellenists esteemed above all else man-made philosophy; even their gods were conceived in vividly human terms. By contrast, the Maccabees who led the Jewish revolt asserted the superiority of divine intellect, prophecy, and the paradigm of the Holy Temple. The miraculous victory of the Maccabees, as Rebbe Nachman explains it, was actually a refutation of the Greek approach, which was the philosophical approach, and the occasion for a new revelation of divine intellect: the da’as for which the Holy Temple was and is destined to be the unique channel.

The Cosmic Dreidel

Rebbe Nachman begins his teaching by attacking philosophy, even philosophical works written by of some of the great medieval rabbis, and asserting the primacy of simple faith: the basic Jewish belief that God creates and sustains the world, and will renew it in an entirely wondrous manner in time to come. He states:

Concerning the order of creation, the philosophers ask: why is a star a star, or a constellation a constellation? For what misdeed were lower things, such as the various animals, consigned to lower levels? Why isn’t the opposite the case? Why is the head a head, and why is the foot a foot, and why isn’t the opposite the case?

Questions like these are discussed at length in their books. However, in truth, this is “vanity and a disturbance of the spirit” (Ecclesiastes 1:14). We do not need to question God’s ways, because “tzaddik vi-yashar hu . . . He is righteous and just” (Deuteronomy 32:4).

In truth, the entire world is a wheel of transformation. It is like a dreidel, a toy top that spins around and around. Man becomes angel, and angel becomes man; head becomes foot, and foot becomes head, and similarly all other aspects of creation. Everything goes in cycles, revolving and being transformed. All things exchange forms, lowering the higher, and elevating the lower.2 For all things share one root.

There are transcendental beings such as angels, which have no connection to the material. There is the celestial realm, whose nature is very subtle. Finally, there is this lowly world, which is completely corporeal. Although to be sure, each of these three isderived from a particular place, nevertheless, they all share one root. 

Rebbe Nachman’s reference to “particular places” that share a common root reflects the kabbalistic concept that every aspect of the Four Worlds of Asiyah/Action, Yetzirah/Formation, Beriah/Creation, and Atzilus/Emanation has its root in the “global template” of creation. The Zohar calls it Adam Kadmon, “Primordial Man,”3 which, of course, is not any sort of man at all, in the ordinary sense of the word. This awesome and purely abstract reality defies our grasp. We can’t imagine what Adam Kadmon truly is, aside from that it is the substratum of creation. However, what we can say is that all levels of creation reflect the archetype of the human form, beginning with Adam Kadmon. The array of the ten sefiros, too, conforms to this principle. As the Tikkuney Zohar states, “Chesed/Kindness corresponds the right arm, Gevurah/Might corresponds to the left arm, Tiferes/Beauty…”4 and so forth. Thus, Rebbe Nachman acknowledges that every phenomenon has its corresponding noumenon, which he terms its “particular place” in the metaphysical worlds, which devolve from Adam Kadmon. On this highest plane, all things share a common root.
Therefore, all creation is a wheel of transformation, revolving and oscillating. Right now, something may be on top, like a head, and another on the bottom, like a foot. Then the situation is reversed. Head becomes foot, and foot becomes head. Similarly, man becomes angel, and angel becomes man.

Our sages teach us that angels were cast down from heaven to this lowly world. They entered physical bodies and became subject to all sorts of worldly lusts.5 Many times angels were sent on missions to this world and clothed themselves in physical bodies.6 We also find the opposite, cases where human beings became angels.7 For the world is a revolving wheel. It spins like a dreidel, with all things emanating from one root.

The feet of some are also higher than the heads of others; for in the supernal worlds, the lowest level of an upper world is higher than the highest level of a lower world. Yet everything revolves in cycles.

That is, the hierarchy in creation is dynamic: nothing remains fixed, nothing exists exactly as it did a moment ago, everything is in a constant process of transformation; yet there is an encompassing unity within which all things are subsumed. This oneness is beyond hierarchy, beyond division altogether. It is the prima materia, the foundation of all diversity, as Rebbe Nachman will soon explain. This oneness is what in another lesson Rebbe Nachman calls emes, the true nature of things.8 It is also the domain of the holy, where Creator and creation meet.9

Although the universe is unimaginably intricate and complex—and in the Baal Shem Tov’s conception, reflects divine providence in its every detail10—nevertheless, the essence of all things is Godliness. In this sense, we may say that “all is One.”

It should also be noted that Rebbe Nachman describes each level of creation in terms of its relative coarseness and materiality. Transcendent beings are beyond materiality; the celestial realm has only the subtlest material aspect; and the earth is altogether physical. In kabbalistic terms, this reflects a process known as tzimtzum, constriction of the divine light, and each level of creation, in general and in particular, may be described as a “garment” for that which precedes and transcends it. Thus, the hierarchy is one long scale, like a musical scale, of devolving substantiality, level after level. However, this scale is but the modulation of one “sound.” That sound includes all notes, and is present within all notes, a concept which Reb Noson develops further in his Likutey Halakhos.11

The next section of our discourse relates the symbol of the dreidel, tying in this seemingly “innocent” custom, which is not mentioned in the Talmud or any primary sources, to the core issues of Chanukah:

This is why we play with a dreidel on Chanukah.

Chanukah is an aspect of the Holy Temple.12 The primary concept of the Temple is the wheel of transformation. The Temple represented the paradigm of “the superior below and the inferior above.”13

That is, what is inherently bound up with a higher level of the cosmic hierarchy becomes revealed on a lower level, and what is inherently bound up with a lower level of that hierarchy becomes spiritually elevated. As the Rebbe goes on to explain:

God lowered His Presence into the Temple, which is “the superior below.” The converse is also true. The entire pattern of the Temple with all its details was engraved on high,14 which is the paradigm of “the inferior above.” The Temple is therefore like a dreidel, a spinning top, for everything revolves and is transformed.

The Temple refutes philosophical logic. God is beyond every transcendental concept, and it is unthinkable that He should constrict His Presence into the vessels of the Temple. [As King Solomon declared,] “Behold, the heavens and the heavens of heavens cannot contain You—how much less this House!” (I Kings 8:27).

Yet God caused His Presence to dwell within the Temple, thus destroying all philosophical logic.

Philosophy cannot explain how man can have any influence on high. Nor can it explain how a mere animal can be sacrificed and rise as a “sweet savor”15 and source of gratification before God, “Who spoke and His will was fulfilled.”16 How is “will” applicable to God? However, God showed that the truth contradicts their logic. For in fact God brought His Presence below into the Temple, and the animal ascended as a sweet savor. Philosophical logic is crushed by the dreidel, the spinning wheel that brings “the superior below and the inferior above.”

The power of the hyle, discussed in their books, stands between potential and actual.17 Before anything comes into existence, it must exist in potential. Coming from potential to actual, it must first pass through the in-between stage of the hyle. All manifestation thus emerges from the hyle.

Thus, the hyle is the source of all creation.18 The three categories of creation—transcendental, celestial, and physical—all proceed from this common root. As they change form from transcendental to physical and vice-versa, they all revolve around this root, within which they are one.

This description suggests that the hyle is not just a stage through which everything must pass in the voyage from potentiality to actualization, but is a realm unto itself; an encompassing reality, which stands above and beyond the hierarchy of creation altogether. It is like the absence of color that contains all colors, the silence that contains all sounds.

The letters on the dreidel are heh, nun, gimel, and shin.
Heh stands for hyle.
Nun stands for Nivdal, the transcendental.
Gimel stands for Galgal, the celestial.
Shin stands for Shafal, the lower, physical plane.
The dreidel thus includes all creation. It goes in cycles, alternating and revolving, one thing becoming another.

Chanukah means “dedication,” referring to the dedication of the Holy Temple, the paradigm of “the superior below, and the inferior above.” This revolving wheel is the dreidel.
Rebbe Nachman now turns to contemplate the Redemption. The political victory of Chanukah was occasioned by the miracle of the one flask of oil with the seal of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) that burned for eight days. This miracle was a foretaste of the Redemption. Then, too, all oppression will cease, the Jewish people will be restored to their ancient homeland in peace, and the miraculous nature of reality will be perceived by all. 

Thus, Rebbe Nachman asserts:

Redemption, too, will express this alternating cycle, as in the paradigm of the Holy Temple: the superior below and the inferior above.
When the Israelites crossed the Red Sea after the redemption from Egypt, they sang, “You brought them and planted them on the Mount of Your inheritance . . . the Temple that Your hands established” (Exodus 15:17). Redemption was for the sake of the building the Holy Temple, which embodies the wheel of transformation. For when the superior are below and the inferior are above, which is the ultimate goal—this shows that everything is one.

This is the meaning of the letters on the dreidel. They correspond to the initial letters of the verse “You redeemed the staff of Your inheritance, Mount Zion…” (Psalms 74:2).
Gimel is Ga’alta − “You redeemed”
Shin is Shevet − “the tribe”
Nun is Nachalasecha − “of Your inheritance”
Heh is Har Zion − “Mount Zion”
This is the paradigm of “You brought them, You planted them on the Mount of Your inheritance.” It is the aspect of the Holy Temple, symbolizing the wheel of transformation, which is the essence of redemption.

Thus, the Redemption is not only a matter of liberation from the oppression of other nations. It is also a spiritual phenomenon: liberation from inner conflict and our most basic misconceptions about reality and the self, a correction of our deep confusion about nature as an autonomous force, and an awakening to the miraculous and the divine. It is this erroneous way of thinking, the true “exile mentality,” that Rebbe Nachman attacks with his critique of philosophy.

Spinning the Dreidel

To sum up the discourse, Rebbe Nachman describes creation as a “wheel of transformation,” giving three basic models for this concept: the Holy Temple, the Chanukah dreidel, and the Redemption. However, in describing the Redemption, Rebbe Nachman stresses not so much the political aspect, not even the ideal of world peace that the prophets extol, but our spiritual liberation. This is brought about through the revelation of da’as, or divine intellect. The core of that da’at is the paradoxical knowledge of how all things proceed from Oneness, are permeated with Oneness, and throughout all possible transformations, remain subsumed within Oneness. This is symbolized by the Chanukah dreidel, spinning to the delight of little children whose innocence and simplicity renders them still capable of wonder and delight. For all creation is a cosmic dreidel, spinning on its axis in eternity—and if we have eyes to see, we too can gaze upon it with wonder and delight.


Answering the Philosophers

“The head becomes a foot, and the foot becomes a head . . . All things exchange forms, lowering the higher, and elevating the lower.” This is actually Rebbe Nachman’s answer to the materialist philosophers cited at the beginning of the discourse. In truth, nothing is a fixed entity; all existence is impermanent. There is no “head” or “foot” in an absolute sense. One may ask: if this is such an important point, why did Rebbe Nachman state it in passing, as if it were a side issue?

Perhaps he meant to imply that these philosophers do not deserve a direct answer − because their questions are already answers. They’re not even listening. Rebbe Nachman’s words are only intended for those of faith; therefore, answering the philosophers is truly a side issue.

Dreidel Ethics

“All things are different—but in their root, they are the same.” There is a wonderful teaching from the Baal Shem Tov related to this concept that I like to repeat whenever I have a chance.

“Do not consider yourself superior to anyone else,” the father of Chasidism states. “In truth, you are no different than any other creature, since all things were brought into being to serve God. Just as God bestows consciousness upon you, He bestows consciousness upon your fellow man. In what way is a human being superior to a worm? A worm serves the Creator with all of his intelligence and ability; and man, too, is compared to a worm, as the verse states, ‘I am a worm and not a man’ (Psalms 22:7). If God had not given you a human intellect, you would only be able to serve Him like a worm. In this sense, you are both equal in the eyes of Heaven. A person should consider himself, the worm, and all creatures as friends in the universe, for we are all created beings whose abilities are God-given.”19
If all creation is essentially one, proceeding from one source, as Rebbe Nachman also states, we must show compassion and respect for all of God’s works. We’re all spinning in the same dreidel!

The Dreidel and the Snake

The letters heh-nun-gimel-shin traditionally inscribed on the four sides of a dreidel bear the gematria of the word nachash/serpent.20 The verse states, “Now the serpent was cleverer than all the animals of the field that the Lord God had made” (Genesis 3:1). Archetypally, the cleverness of the nachash is the root of materialist philosophy and intellect as a power unto itself, cut off from that which is higher than intellect, as Reb Noson explains.21 The Holy Temple is the antithesis of what the Zohar calls the “corruption of the serpent.”22 Hence, according to Rebbe Nachman’s teaching, the dreidel is a tikkun for the gematria of the four letters it bears.

Moreover, kabbalistic sources point out that the gematria of nachash/serpent is the same as that of Mashiach/Messiah.23
Nun = 50
Ches = 8
Shin = 300
Total = 358
Mem = 40
Shin = 300
Yud = 10
Ches = 8
Total = 358

This is because the Mashiach will bring about the ultimate tikkun of the serpent and of our conventionally warped way of thinking.xxiv He can do so because he has slaughtered the “serpent” within himself (which is another way of reading all of those dragon-slayer stories), transforming the very epitome of selfishness to pure altruism. He is thus empowered to similarly elevate the rest of the world.


1 Berakhos 33a.
2 Exodus Rabbah 31:14; also see Shabbos 151b, Sukkah 5:6, Kesubos 10:6.
3 Tikkuney Zohar, Tikkun 19 (42a); Tikkun 69 (115a-b); Tikkun 70 (120a, 133b). This concept is discussed at length by the Safed kabbalists; e.g. Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, Pardes Rimonim, Sha’ar Erkhei ha-Kinuyim 23:1; Rav Chaim Vital, Eitz Chaim, Drush Iggulim ve-Yosher (11a-13a); ibid. Sha’ar Drushei Nekudos 1 (34a); ibid. Seder Atzilus 3 (17a), et passim; Arba Me’os Shekel Kesef, Drush Adam Kadmon, beg. (9b, 44b), et passim. The archetype of “Adam Kadmon” also suggests that the purpose of creation is man.
4 Tikkuney Zohar, Hakdamah, “Pasach Eliyahu.”
5 These include the “Benei Elokim/Sons of the Lord” mentioned in Genesis 6:1-2; Abraham’s angelic visitors in Genesis, chap. 18; Lot’s guests in Genesis, chap. 19; and the stranger identified with the angel Gabriel who directed Joseph to his brothers in Genesis 37:15-17 (according to Rashi); also see Genesis Rabbah 26:7; Zohar III, 208b; et al.
6 Yoma 37a; Yerushalmi Berakhos 1, 5, 9, et passim.
7 One example is Enoch in Genesis 5:24; see Targum Yonasan, ad loc. Another is Elijah in II Kings 2:1.
8 Likutey Moharan I, 51, which equates the terms echad (one), tov (good), kadosh (holy), and emes (truth) as descriptive of non-dual reality.
9 Ibid.
10 Tzava’as ha-Rivash 4, 84, 120; Sha’ar ha-Osiyos, Hashgachah Peratis; Shivachey Baal Shem Tov 150; et al. These and other such teachings are translated in my anthology, The Path of the Baal Shem Tov (Jason Aronson 1997).
11 Reb Noson Sternhartz, Likutey Halakhos, Peryah vi-Rivyah 3:21.
12 In the original, Rebbe Nachman speaks of both the Mishkan/Tabernacle and the Holy Temple. The connection between Chanukah and the Temple as a mystical paradigm is discussed further in Likutey Moharan II, 7:11. This lesson, too, was delivered on Chanukah. Reb Noson states that the makifin, or “surrounding powers,” mentioned in that lesson are an aspect of the dreidel, since these surrounding powers encompass and constantly change.
13 Pesachim 50a; Bava Basra 10b.
14 Tanchuma, Pekudey 1; Zohar I, 80b.
15 Genesis 8:21, et al.
16 Rashi, Zevachim 46b.
17 Nachmanides mentions the hyle in his commentary on Genesis 1:1-2; also cf. Rabbi Chaim Vital, Etz Chaim, Sha’ar Drushey A-B-Y-A, 1; Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, Me’or Einayim, Bereshis, Ma’amar 4, et al.
18 In an addendum to this teaching, Reb Noson adds that the hyle is equivalent to Chokhmah, which may be parsed “ko’ach-mah,” the power of “mah” (meaning “what is it?”). This may actually denote the sefirah of Keser, not Chokhmah.
19 Tzava’as ha-Rivash, 12.
20 Cf. Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz, Imrey Pinchas (Bnei Brak 2003), vol. 1, “Chanukah,” 68, who states that the letters on the dreidel equal “Mashiach / Messiah.”
21 Likutey Halakhos, Shabbos 6:8; ibid. Shilu’ach ha-Ken 5:18; et passim.
22 Shabbos 146a; cf. Zohar I, 52a.
23 Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (RaMCHaL), Adir Bamarom (R. Yosef Spinner, ed.), vol. I, p. 339, citing Zohar III, 119b, re. the verse: “Kolah ki-nachash yelekh / [Egypt’s] voice will go forth like a snake…” (Jeremiah 46:22). At the end of the paragraph, RaMCHaL mentions that “nachash” is numerically equivalent to Mashiach. Conceptually, this connection is found in numerous kabbalistic sources, e.g., Hashmatos ha-Zohar, end of Bereshis (Livorno ed., p. 15b of the hashmatos), which describes the final battle between the nachash and Mashiach. I am grateful to Rabbi Avraham Sutton for locating these sources. Subsequently I came across another mention of this gematria in Sefer Ohr ha-Ganuz, Va-eschanan, Ofan Ches (69a) by Rabbi Yehudah Leib Hakohen, a close disciple of the Maggid of Mezeritch.
xxiv Another connection between the nachash and Mashiach is that both are symbolically associated with the feet; see Sichos ha-Ran 93; Likutey Halakhos, Keriyas ha-Torah 1; ibid. Hoda’ah 6:4; ibid. Ribis 5:14; Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, Me’or Eynayim, Likkutim, Ma’amar “Vi-naid’ah nirdefah la-da’as es Hashem” (end); et al.

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