Sukkot: Clouds of His Glory,Shelters of His Peace

According to the text of Vayikra 23:43, the commandment to dwell in sukkot (booths/shelters) is observed:

“In order that future generations will know that I made the children of Israel live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.”

In the Exodus narrative itself, these booths are not mentioned. This gave rise to a Talmudic dispute in which R.Akiva’s claim (that the festival of Sukkot refers to physical booths built in the desert) is contested by R. Eliezar, who suggests that the shelter referred to is none other than that of the “annanei kavod”…the Divine clouds of The Glory which protected Israel in the desert. (Midrash Sifra 17, Talmud Bavli, Sukkah 11b).

There is  a sense in which both opinions are correct.

The hut (sukkah) which is built during the festival of Sukkot is a reminder of our reliance on Divine Providence and Protection. For some the emphasis is on the idea that it is we ourselves who build it-literally by our labour and creativity and figuratively by our attempt to live according to the Torah.  For others it is a reminder that ultimately we are totally reliant on the Protection of God, and that He will be gracious to whomsoever He chooses. Both ideas are part of the liturgy of this festival, and both ideas can be a fruitful source of inspiration for our meditation,prayers,  and other gemilus chasadim.

Though the nature and symbolism  of the Shelter/shelter under which we celebrate generated much creative argument - one opinion on the festival of Sukkot  which was always  universally agreed upon is that Sukkot is the "Season of our Joy". 

The Joy which characterises this season celebrates a “time in the desert” which was no Nature Ramble or jolly summer-camp vacation. As Rabbi Irving Greenberg wrote in 1988:

“In the desert, the people of Israel met their God, ate the bread of heaven, and followed the pillar of fire. In that same desert, The Amalekites attacked, the water springs were bitter, the Israelites lusted after meat, the flocks were thirsty.”

The Joy of Sukkot is the joy of optimism in all circumstances-those we perceive  as “good” and those we perceive as “bad”- and it is the fruit of authentic and expansive gratitude for whatever we are provided with daily.

How can we feel joy at ANY time when we are aware that there is so much poverty, suffering and cruelty in our broken world?

 The sukkah in the photo above (one I built when I lived in Indonesia)  would be a palace to millions of people in our world right now and at any time of year. Sometimes G-d’s reality seems to be  more cruel than we humans can perceive or even begin to understand.

Those fulfilling the commandment to build and dwell in a sukkah during Sukkot are challenged to cope with the mix of Chesed and Gevurah in Creation and find ways to make their reliance on the Providence of G-d and their attempt to generate equanimity overflow to all worlds.  Even if we begin "small":

   Sitting in the Sukkah, we are given a choice: We can moan and grumble when the roof leaks,or we can try to keep our spirits up and focus on the beauty of the stars we can see through the hole.

We can give up the task of re-building when the winds blow the makeshift walls down or we can be optimistic and remember that all we have is temporary anyway, and just plod on with hope.

It is by reflecting on such common aspects  of life  in a modern sukkah when we are safe and in "good" circumstances that we can generate the sort of positive outlook that stands people in good stead in times of crisis.

That is all well and good when we are talking about minor domestic difficulties and personal trials, But what use is this to someone whose entire family has just died in a flood, or to someone whose REAL house is now a pile of rubble after an earthquake, or who actually doesnt have  a roof over their heads at all?

Not much.

Which is why we try to get practical assistance to those who are struggling in the wake of tsunami, flood, and earthquake.  It is why we do whatever we can daily to heal the mess our species is creating.  It is why we act to alleviate poverty and  homelessness in any financial or temporal way that we possibly can, both in our local environment and “globally”.

The contemplative believes that prayer has a role to play in this too even though it may not be so readily measured.  Relying on Divine Providence does not mean that we expect magic to be performed on our behalf. Our prayers for the victims of natural disasters, for those trying to repair the damage done  to our broken planet, and for those politicians,volunteers, and  caring professionals who work to raise up the  bodies and  souls of the afflicted and persecuted.... are not an attempt to overturn the laws of nature.

They are an attempt to generate positive thought and energy, and to make a plea for inspiration and comfort to descend into the hearts of those in the midst of difficult times, and to those "In Power" and those with  influence to make positive and compassionate  changes. In this  way they are imploring HaShem to make his Compassion "overcome" His Strict Justice.    

  Perhaps this is a form of “positive visualisation”, a healing stream of optimism whose beneficial effects we can only hope for. Some of us claim to have experience of the power and effectiveness of such prayer, for others it is a form of hope and trust in G-d whatever the outcome. All of us can surely see the value of the psychological support effected by solidarity and positive encouragement—and its results can be surprisingly and even dramatically  tangible. 

One thing is certain: a Jewish Contemplative cannot be an escapist.

Our faith in Divine Providence is not quietism. Our belief that our prayers make a difference is part of our active community service. Our prayer is meant to encourage and to generate positive and creative events in ourselves and in other people. As the  Yom Kippur prayer book has recently reminded us : Our prayer may not “avert the harsh decree” but it can “transform it”. It may actually give hope to those who have no hope. It may be one of the ways which the "sukkah of G-d's Presence" is extended over His wild and broken earth.

All of this  is above national and partisan politics. All of this is  above political Governments or leading personalities who we may have made into scapegoats for our our own failings or to bolster up our excapism in the  face of genuine anxiety and pain. There is no person who cannot be an agent of G-d's Providence, for all is "in" Him. 

And it is better to light a candle than to rant and rave at the  dark, to be grateful for  the Sukkah and its apparently flimsy protection.  And  to try to see its hidden beauty even in a storm.

May He shelter us all in the Sukkah of His Peace.

Chag Sukkot Sameach!!

Nachman Davies

10th October 2019

(The photo at the top of this item was taken near my home in Granada Costa, Spain in December 2008)


Elul: Hide and Seek for Contemplatives

 Each year we enter into a period of deep reflection and prayer which begins with the month of Elul. In Aramaic, 'elul' means 'search'. Contemplatives are those who seek G-d with a special intensity. As I put it in my book "The  Cave  of the  Heart":

 “A Miskarev (Jewish Contemplative)  is someone who seeks to be engaged in an intimate relationship with G-d.

  That relationship becomes the main activity, motivation, and even occupation of such a person. For a Jewish Contemplative the relationship is lived out through the activities of deveykus (a conscious attempt to be passionately attentive to the Presence of G-d), tefillah (liturgical prayer), hegyon ha-lev (a meditative and prayerful study of sacred texts) and hisbodedus (a dialogue of informal prayer in solitude).

   When one considers that the 'Object' of the contemplative’s desire is ultimately unknowable, inexplicable, intangible and utterly beyond human description or comprehension, it might well seem rather odd to describe a contemplative life-style as a 'relationship'.

  Yet that is how I experience it and it is the way the vast majority of Jewish contemplatives and mystics have experienced it since biblical times. In the Bible, we are told that the G-d of Israel is our Father, our King, our Friend, and even our  Betrothed.  In the daily experience of prayer that is how it can feel even though we know we are using similes and metaphors to describe the indescribable.

  Biblically, G-d is the One who insists that “If you seek me with all your heart I will let you find Me” (Yirmeyahu 29:13).

  David reminds us: “If you seek Him, He will be found by you, but if you forsake Him, He will reject you forever” (Divrei Hayamim I, 28:9).

 As David reminds us, there are many times when G-d hides Himself because of our faults. In playing Hide and Seek for Contemplatives, there are times when we simply can’t be bothered looking for G-d, and times when we do not wish to be found ourselves. Times when we push G-d away like spiteful children losing a game, and times when when we try to hide Him in a mental cupboard out of embarrassment or shame. This can sometimes be due to remorse about things we have done or said or thought ourselves. Sometimes it can be because we have chickened-out in a political, social,or theological world in which it is unfashionable to admit that we want to know G-d in an explicitly intimate way.

  G-d sometimes seems very close to us and we rejoice. But even when we feel we are doing our best, there can be a strong sense of His distance or absence.

  Sometimes He hides from us in a sort of dance, in a sort of game, in a sort of lesson, in a sort of method we don’t really understand, and sometimes struggle against. It can go on for years like that. The absence of any sensation that G-d might be within hailing distance is a common and recurring state in the life of most full-time contemplatives. This is not punishment, cruelty, or the Divine toying with us like puppets. But it may be a refining test-situation. It may be a positive tool which ultimately helps us to see more of G-d and less of ourselves in the contemplative process. It can remind us that it is G-d Himself that we seek and  not the  gifts He gives us.

Yes, He will let us find Him...but we cannot make Him stay.
Yes, He will wrestle with us for a time....but at dawn He will be gone.
Yes, we may sense His Presence for a moment....but we cannot dwell in that moment for long and live.

   If we truly experienced the feeling of 'rejection forever' that David spoke of, the chances are that many of us would give up the search to find G-d. This does not mean to say that Miskarevim always, or even often, feel truly close to Him. For some, there  are  times when it is a case of believing that the sun is there even when it doesn’t shine. For others there are even times when faith itself disappears.

  We must also realise that our relationship can be intimate but our attention span is severely limited, and though we may describe the contemplative life as being a relationship, it can never be a relationship between equals."

(From "The  Cave  of the  Heart" 2019)


Maybe Rebbe Nachman of Breslov came the closest to describing the situation we are in.
 (My interpretation of the following symbols is not the Breslover one, and it is not as complex or as kabbalistic an interpretation as R.Nachman himself may have intended.) 

   He speaks of a 'Spring' and a 'Heart' which are in love but are separated by space and each located on the summit of a mountain. When the 'Heart' leaves its summit and runs to try to reach the Spring it feels anguish because, in the valley, it can no longer have an uninterrupted view of the Beloved on the opposite summit. 

 So the intimacy of their love is expressed in periods of eternal gazing and unfulfilled longing....or in bursts of rushing to achieve a union despite an almost total loss of vision.  It is a view which captures the paradox that the contemplative is in a passionate relationship with an immanent G-d, while simultaneously knowing the otherness of G-d and the chasm produced by His transcendence.

(Spring and Heart Illustration ©N.Davies 1994)

   The month of Elul leads into the 'Ten Days', a period of confession, self analysis, and charitable giving at the end of which the Jew seeks forgiveness and the union of 'atonement” with G-d on Yom Kippur. Almost without pause, this segues into another festival, that of Sukkot during which we declare our trust in the protecting cloud of G-d’s Presence.

   For many Jews this period is the time of year when they become their most active in both prayer and in self examination. For those who live out the festival calendar with some intensity, there is a sense that one should 'seek G-d while He may be found' with the month of Elul being an annual retreat-time par excellence. For such people the Ten Days of Awe can be extraordinarily charged and numinous. This can even be the case for contemplatives who have an intense prayer regimen all year round.

  For many Jews, the season provides an uncomfortable (but somehow also welcomed) opportunity to take stock and it gives them a formally sanctioned encouragement to engage in a more intense prayer-life than may be thought appropriate or even possible at other times.

   But the High Holidays period can sometimes be a sort of one-off binge which does not truly connect with the time preceding and following it. There is also the risk that our confessions can become rather pathetic exercises in perfectionism unless we remember that we are also confessing in the plural for 'kol Yisrael'.

  The month of Elul and the Ten Days, are a time when the game of hide and seek is liturgically intensified. In a sense, G-d was/is there all along and we create the liturgy to highlight that.

  The long haul of the penitential period which opens with Elul, and which closes at the end of Yom Kippur can be a cathartic experience, but it is not magic. Neilah is best seen as being a part of a continuing journey rather than as a triumphal destination. A contemplative also knows that time is really an illusion. Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow are simultaneous in G-d: The still point of Musaf Yom Kippur can be like a small flame inside the soul which burns all year round as a memory and a reference point.

   In this way of seeing things, though G-d has concealed Himself, His Presence is not altogether withdrawn but there is a sense in which this kind of hiding is for our own good. We are reminded that Moses saw the back and not the face of G-d and that Elijah covered his face with a mantle: both prophets experiencing the event thus shielded for their own protection.  The times in which we are in our own cleft of the rock are rare events, and the obscuring cloud is actually our friend:

   We are given the Penitential/Holiday season as a chance to double up our half-hearted efforts to find G-d. Its message is really that He is more present in the world if we make Him so. But that is also a description of what a Jewish Contemplative is trying to do in every moment and not just once a year, or even once a week.

   Potentially, every moment can be 'the time when He might let us find Him'.  Every place is His 'field' if we are actively looking for  signs  of His Presence.

  But it sometimes involves us seeing in the dark. It sometimes involves us standing still in order to see that He is right next to us.

It may involve the ability to survive on the manna of hope when faith is all but lost. It certainly involves patience and determination. And in this game of Hide and Seek, whether we are playing it during Elul, during the High Holidays or on a normal weekday- it is the energy and consistency with which we make the search that counts: for we are told we can find Him..... but only if we search with all our heart. Nothing less will do. It requires total commitment....but He is waiting  for us and coming towards us as we turn towards Him in teshuvah. And He has  a place in His Heart for us  all.

“For He will hide me in His Tabernacle on the day of distress,He will conceal me in the shelter of His tent.Upon a rock He will lift me.”(Tehillim 27:5)

©Nachman Davies (2019)

Shabbos and the Coming of Moshiach

Today (the  first day  of Menachem Av) is Erev Shabbos and also the Yahrzeit of Aharon  HaKohen Gadol. 

  This text describes the Breastplate and the Urim and Thumim which Aharon wore as part of his ceremonial robes as the first high priest.

   Judaism has no High Priest these days, and so the offices of the Temple are performed by each individual Jew when reciting the daily services. Each one of us bears the responsibility for the entire nation upon our individual hearts. 

   In our worship, we often make special mention of people or causes which we seek to commend to G-d—a prayer for the sick or troubled people we care about who need a spiritual hug, or a plea for peace between opposed or squabbling factions. 

   But one of the hidden messages of this little verse is that we actually bear those good intentions imprinted on our spiritual hearts already. The vestments are principally a 'memorial' or a reminder of something which exists as a spiritual reality.

The spiritual reality here is that each of us is a 'part' of G-d; each of us shares a common humanity; and each of us shares the same 'Soul' with all the children of Israel (and indeed with all the Children of Adam). Consequently every action we undertake is simultaneously a personal act and a cosmic one.

When we pray each Shabbos—even though we do not make liturgical mention of our needs on the Sabbath day—we are taking the needs of Israel, of humanity, and of all creation with us into the Sanctuary which that Day creates. The observance of Shabbos is like a silent prayer.

Our task on Shabbos is to 'rest'—but just as Aharon wore those vestments as a silent prayer of supplication—so our observance of the Sabbath is also a silent prayer of supplication. By observing the peace (shalom) of Shabbos, we are actually 'praying for' peace. By observing the rest (menuchah) of Shabbos we are actually 'praying for' the end of strife and conflict. By observing the joy (simcha) of Shabbos, we are actually teaching ourselves to see the positive in all our changeable circumstances.

Such Peace, Tranquility, and Joy are things we would all wish for our friends and for all the World. Focussing on these concepts and practices each Shabbos is a way of realising that they are things we can choose; things we can create; things we can believe in. We are given them as a gift on Shabbos but in the six days of the week which follow we are expected to bring them into existence ourselves by our communal effort in all our week-day encounters.

To put it another way: The best way to 'bring Moshiach' is not simply to ask for that as a gift but to make it happen by our own observance, and especially by letting our Shabbos observance (and insights) inform our weekday actions.

In this sense we are bearing the  breastplate 'at all times' 

When we do that, we bring the  Lights of Perfection from Shabbos into the ordinary days  of the  week...and what each one of us does as an individual to make this happen is automatically connected to the welfare of the People of Israel and to that of all Creation.

This is what we lay upon our hearts when we 'enter the sanctuary' on Shabbos, and this what we are expected to 'remember'  once we have 'disrobed' at havdalah.

Nachman Davies
March 2nd 2012
(reposted August 2nd  2019)


SHAVUOS: The Torah of the Heart

ושמתם את־דברי אלה על־לבבכם ועל־נפשכם

“Therefore you shall lay up these words
 in your heart and in your soul.” [1]

   The ‘heart’ is our intuitive intellect. The ‘soul’ is our very life-force. The Torah of the Heart is eternally given and when we receive it intentionally, it produces a connecting link between our intellect and our life-force. Our tangible experiences and our spiritual perceptions are thus bound up with our essential soul root, and from there, bound up with our G-d. When we open up this channel we deepen our relationship with the Supernal Torah, because our obedience to the commands of the Torah would be incomplete if love and true internalisation were absent.

    G-d speaks to all of us via the Torah She-bi’chtav (Written Torah) and the Torah She-ba’al Peh (Oral Torah). He also speaks to us in our own prayers and in our own private meditation. When we read the scriptures with pauses for meditation or when we meditate in silent prayer, we are hoping to access the Torah of the Heart. 

   We know how and when we are called to action as a nation and as individuals through the words of the written and oral Torah—but we each receive that Torah according to our own abilities and character, and for this reason we also need to receive and digest those ‘words’ personally in the Cave of the Heart, alone with our G-d.

   The Kotzker Rebbe [2] tells us that the words of the Shema are ‘laid on the surface of the heart’ so that they may sink into those hearts which are truly receptive later on:

‘And these words which I command thee this day,shall be upon thy heart.’ The verse does not say: ‘in thy heart.’ For there are times when the heart is shut. But the words lie upon the heart, and when the heart opens in holy hours, they sink deep down into it.”[3]

   This implies that the ‘words’ are only received when they are reflected upon and internalised personally—we may observe the ‘letter’ of the Law, but we have not received it until we go beyond that letter to access its ‘Soul’. This is done most especially in silent contemplative prayer.

   I am reminded of a parallel example of this pre-condition for authenticity in the tale of the Baal Shem Tov’s encounter with the righteous and learned Rabbi Dov Baer of Mezeritch. After asking the latter to recite holy words of Torah, the Baal Shem Tov declared Dov Baer’s recitation to be ‘correct’ but without ‘true knowledge’ because there was ‘no soul’ in what he knew.[4]

   I can remember when reel to reel tape-recorders and cassette players were a miraculous novelty. I can remember the invention of the internet and the shock of realising (so comparatively recently) that we have wireless and satellite infotech connections of such power and speed that the entire Tanach, Talmud Bavli, and Shulchan Aruch can be transferred onto disk and printed or viewed in any synagogue or home with sufficient resources. Only a few years ago, our world did not have the wonderful treasury of, an ever growing (and free) online resource of Torah texts for all.

   We can watch and listen in amazement as many centuries of Torah commentary and study can be transferred from PC to PC, from personal email to personal email, and from smartphone to pendrive—in seconds. And by the time you read this most of those miraculous inventions will almost certainly be superseded. Even as I write, there are forms of bio-implanted data being developed and I suspect it will be years rather than decades before this is commonplace.

   Living in such an era, the traditional Jewish concepts concerning the transmission and the receiving of the Torah do not seem at all fanciful. Living in these times, we can easily comprehend the possibility that Moshe Rabbeinu may have received the ‘entire’ Torah in several intense instalments,[5] or even in less than a second. How much he may have been conscious of, or how much of it he understood personally at the time of revelation is, I think, another matter. Consequently, I have no difficulty in imagining the truth concealed in the tale that we each knew that same Torah in the womb—and that an angel tapped us at birth so that we should forget its Light in order to spend all our lives looking for it. [6] I also have no difficulty in considering that it is possible that,in one moment,our G-d can infuse our brain or soul with his pure word in a way that is currently beyond our comprehension—But not beyond our receptive capability, and not beyond our experience.

   The Baal Shem Tov suggests that the Torah can be fractally or microcosmically presented,[7] and many sources emphasise that the Torah we see is not the whole story.[8] In Kedushas Levi, Rebbe Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev reminds us that:

“In fact, the entire Torah is G-d's name. It originally contained combinations of letters and secret mysteries that ‘no eye has uncovered’ (Yoav 28:7). In its descent to our lowly world, the Torah must become clothed in a material garment.”[9]

   The Zohar tells us that each one of souls of Kehal Yisroel has ‘their own letter’ in the Torah.[10] Interestingly, the Talmud Yerushalmi posits that this refers to letters in the primordial Torah written in black and white fire. [11] The Arizal concurs with this view and adds that by contemplative activity one can actually access the way one’s soul root is linked to that letter/spiritual particle in the Supernal Torah in order to set up a channel of blessing on all worlds. [12]

The Sfas Emes [13] writes:

“The essence of the Torah is G-d’s pure light shining to us through its Hebrew letters. They are spread throughout the universe, and the Jewish people are assigned to find them.” [14]

We all stood at Sinai. We all heard the Voice. The Words of the Living God have been laid upon our hearts, and they are a form of data which our intuitive hearts can access.

   The ‘data’ which forms the ‘daat’ I am referring to here is a bit like having the Talmud and the Tanach on our soul’s hard drive. There may be thousands of ‘words’ we have yet to read, or yet to understand—but they are there—and we can choose to ‘click on’ them to open their ‘folders’ if we want to.

   One might even say that just knowing that they are there inside us is an act of ‘spiritual knowledge’ even though we may not realise it on an explicitly conscious level. The Torah which we had seen and known in the womb (and before) was not erased. It remains in our soul’s storage system for us to discover anew—letter by letter, word by word, line by line.

   We may be the type of people who need to discuss our lives with G-d frequently as though He were at our side. We may be the type of people who prefer to use the texts of prayers written by other people when we want to get closer to Him. We may be the kind of people who prefer to discuss His Words in the company of other humans. Or we may be the kind of people who can’t bear to do much of any of these activities, yet find we meet Him most intimately in acts of compassion and charity, in the ordinary events of an apparently ‘secular’ life. All of these can be the way one hears and reads the Torah of the Heart.

But for the Contemplative?

Well, we are those who need, more than anything, simply to turn the receiver on and let G-d broadcast to us. We may not hear what He is saying in a way that is clear, but we can sense that, by being thoroughly attentive, we are doing what we were created to do. Standing or sitting or walking in contemplative prayer; praying the liturgy; performing ritual mitzvos—in our small way, we are attempting to both study and practice the Torah of the Heart. When we lay tefillin and bind the written texts of the Torah on our head and arm we make a highly symbolic statement to underline this process:

“Therefore you shall lay up these words in your heart and in your soul and you shall bind them for a sign on your hand and as frontlets before your eyes.” [15]

   When we lay tefillin, the Pure Words of the Supernal Torah are transmuted, laid-up, and stored in the file-system of our ‘heart and soul’. The ritual is like a daily program update that renews and refreshes our communication with our G-d. Perhaps as ‘signs’, tefillin can speak to us more clearly than words. Perhaps these ‘signs’ are closer to the ‘Pure Words’ of G-d Himself than we realise. Perhaps they are laid-up (stored) in the file-system of our ‘heart and soul’ because it is only there that we can ‘hold’ all of His Torah.

   The Torah of the Heart is the medium whereby the Supernal Torah is revealed to the individual soul. The task of the contemplative is to make this explicit by intentionally running to receive it daily.

©Nachman Davies
     3rd June 2018

(An extract from the first draft of a new book: “The Cave of The Heart” which Nachman Davies is preparing for publication.)


[1] Devarim 11:18

[2] Rebbe Menachem Mendel Of Kotzk (1787-1859)

[3] ‘Tales of the Hasidim’ vol 2,page 278;; Martin Buber; trans. Olga Marx; Schocken Books Inc; New York, 1949

[4] See ‘Tales of the Hasidim’ vol 1,page 99; Martin Buber; trans. Olga Marx; Schocken Books Inc; New York, 1949

[5] Gittin 60a-b. see also Berachos 21b

[6] In the Midrash Nidda 30b

[7] Ben Poras Yosef 23b states that the entire Torah is included in every single word. Other sources cite the Baal Shem as saying that the entire Torah is present in a single one of its letters.

[8] Notably Tikkunei Zohar 21b. Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620) conceptualises the facets of the Torah as “PaRDeS” (pshat-remez-drush-sod).

[9] In Kedushas Levi: Parashas Beshallach. The idea is also to be found in the Zohar at ZoharII:87a, and III:98b as well as in the Ramban’s “Introduction” to his Torah Commentary.

[10] Zohar Chadash, Shir HaShirim 74d

[11] Talmud Yerushalmi, Shekalim 6:1, Midrash Tanchuma (Bereishis 1)

[12] This idea is expounded at length by the Shelah (Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz 1555-1630) in Shnei Luchos HaBris.

[13] Rebbe Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger (1847-1905)

[14] Translated by Moshe A.Braun in ‘The Sfas Emes’, p70; Jason Aronson inc; Northvale (1998)

[15] Devarim 11:18

Lag B'Omer: The Holy Fire of Shimon Bar Yochai

Lag B’Omer is intimately related to the memory of  Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.  Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai is intimately connected to the Jewish contemplative tradition, especially where it involves solitude and seclusion.  In 2008,  I published an essay on this website to celebrate Lag B’Omer and as that is now a good while ago,  I have decided to repost  some of it here today  with a few editorial additions: 

The Holy Fire of Shimon Bar Yochai

Graphic: Nachman .Davies 1994
Though Lag B’Omer is a festival with complex origins and customs, by far and away its most celebrated form is as a commemoration of the Yahrzeit (anniversary of death) of the Venerable Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. He is the second century C.E “Superhero” of Jewish Mysticism and a sort of honorary patron  of Jewish contemplatives and kabbalists, especially since he was the "source author" of the Zohar itself. 

This year (2019), Lag B’Omer begins on the evening of  Thursday May 22nd,  and though it might seem odd to celebrate a death with what can only be described as a Very Big Party Indeed, we have it on good authority that Bar Yochai ordered it to be this way himself. Many describe his death as a “marriage of heaven and earth”. Nothing to be sad about at all.

No other personage in Judaism has a whole day of feasting and festivity devoted to their passing (though perhaps the Moroccan Maimuna festival for Maimonides’ father comes close). At Meron in Israel, sheep will be slaughtered and roasted, there are bonfires and torches galore, and a mass picnic takes place around his tomb. ( There are two informative video-clips of the celebrations at Meron  HERE and HERE )

The "Torch" graphic which heads this essay  is a scan of an illustration which I made in November 1994 in my personal prayer book for Leyl Shabbos. I was not (and am not) proud of its rudimentary and childish calligraphy,but it’s the thought that counts, and my intentions were good. The text is a hymn in honour of Shimon bar Yochai written by a Spanish Jew, Shimon ibn Lavi in the sixteenth century. The chorus reads

 “Bar Yochai, Happy are You, For you were anointed with the holy oil of joy”.

There is a beautiful new translation of this piyut with a commentary  (both by Rabbi Dovid Sears) HERE .
Some commentators on the song think that the text refers to the anointing of kings, but the more common view is that the song is comparing Bar Yohai to the high priest. There are several references to items of priestly clothing in the song, so this seems most likely.

The Sefardic melody to which this text is often sung is one of my favourite piece of Jewish music, and in Breslov circles it is  often performed on Shabbes on Friday nights.  Here is version of it which I notated in May 2007.

In kabbalistic texts, R. Shimon Bar Yochai is often called by the Aramaic name “Butsina Kadisha”….the Holy Light. For this reason (and others) the torch has become one of his symbols. There is fire and flame everywhere in his life-story. For example, the story is told that on leaving the cave for the first time, his ferocious gaze set things and people ablaze….and then there is the story that his deathbed was surrounded by fire. Some say that this is the origin of the custom to encircle his tomb with bonfires.

The precise connection between Bar Yochai and Lag B’Omer is disputed. Some say it was the day he left the seclusion of his cave, some say it was the day of his ordination by Rabbi Akiva, some say it was the day of his death. Some say all three. Judaism is a religion where differing opinions can flourish and co-exist. Indeed, the usual answer to an unresolved Theological or legal disagreement is a statement that both opinions are,in some  way  "right".   The Talmud frequently concludes with a statement that one of the two opinions seems to have been accepted as the “norm” if not the “absolutely correct.”

Rabbi Shimon and this website

The issue which permeates my “Kuntres M'arat Ha-Lev” (and indeed this entire blog) is the question “What value does a contemplative life-style have within the community of Israel?”

 It was Shimon Bar Yochai who, as it were, started the debate on this in the tractate Shabbat33a-b.

Its format (heavily simplified) was as follows.

* Rabbi Yishmael states that we have a duty to engage in worldly occupations.
* Rabbi Shimon sates that if we are too occupied with our work-load we will have no time for Torah study. 

* As the arguments develop, Rabbi Shimon is understood to be putting forth the view that the obligation to study Torah overrides the importance of earning a living. 

Centuries of commentary and discussion follow... but ultimately, apart from the statement from Abaye that.

* many have followed the opinion of Rabbi Yishmael and have been successful 
* others have followed R.Shimon Bar Yohai and they have not been successful.

The issue remains open to this day.....
though some think that  Moses Ben Maimon (Maimonides) may have been advocating an  intentionally dedicated life-style of Torah  study and prayer after the  example  of  R. Shimon Bar Yochai  in the following passage:

“Why did [the tribe of] Levi not merit an inheritance in the land of Israel and a share in the spoils of war together with its brothers? Because it was set aside to worship God, to teach His direct ways and His righteous judgments to the public ... Therefore, they were set aside from the ways of the world: they did not wage war like the rest of Israel and they did not inherit the land ... Rather, they are the army of the Lord, ………..

The tribe of Levi is not alone [in this]. Rather, every single person of those who live in the world,
* whose spirit has gratefully welled up,
* and who has comprehended in his mind
* to be separated
* and to stand before God,
* to serve Him,
* to worship Him,
* and to know Him;
* who has walked in the straight path that God has intended for him;
* and who has shed from his neck the yoke of the many accountings that humans make [of one another]

-- this person has become holy [like] the holy of holies, and God will be his portion and inheritance forever and ever. Such a person will have sufficient in this world, as did the priests and levites, as David, may he rest in peace, said, "The Lord is my portion of inheritance and my cup; You sustain my destiny" (Ps. 16:5).”
Mishne Torah in Hilkhot Shemitta ve-Yovel 13:12-13

Those who would join the school of Shimon Bar Yochai and attempt to live Jewish Contemplative lifestyles are always going to be few in number. No doubt much smaller in proportion to the world Jewish community than the tribe of Levi was to the entire nation. But then size isn’t everything: “a little Yud” can change worlds.

In that essay I wrote of the intimate connection between Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and the Jewish Contemplative tradition.  There is also an especially  “intimate connection” between Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.   This year the Breslov Research Institute has very kindly made a free booklet available for the use of those who wish to celebrate this special day with appropriate prayers and reflections.  You can download it HERE.
An annotated translation of Reb Noson's supplication in the merit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai can also been found on the Breslov Center website HERE

Finally, for those readers who are visiting this page on Lag B’Omer itself. Perhaps you would like to use the following few thoughts as “pegs” in your  hisbodedus on this special day.  They are aspects of the story which might shed light our own personal situation and progress while we are engaged in solitary  discussion with HaShem:

-Part of the Lag B'Omer story relates to the way Shimon Bar Yohai copes with his fear of the Romans (and perhaps his internal fears which are expressed in rage).

-Part of it concerns the way a contemplative learns to rely on Providence (the carob tree and the spring).

-Part of it concerns developing the knack of knowing what our true target is (the lessons of secluded retreat followed by an attempted return to society to test the transformation).

-All of it is about the way Prayer/Torah study guides our aim. 

A very Happy Lag B'Omer
-To all who visit this website;
-To all Jewish Contemplatives who would drink from the Nachal Novea of  Bar Yochai's stream;
-And to all the Worlds it feeds.

Nachman Davies
Lag B'Omer 2019 

PURIM 5779: The Hidden Treasure

HaShem hides Himself in the beauty of Concealment.
His  Wisdom is hidden from all human analysis.
                                       Avraham Maimin (1522-1570)

The festival of Purim is a celebration of the hidden action of  G-d in our lives. It is  often pointed out that His Name is never mentioned in Megillas Ester, and yet the entire tale is a demonstration of the power of Hashgochoh Pratis (Divine Providence) in the lives of those who trust Him yet do their part with gratitude—and  even bravery. The name of the principal protagonist  “Ester” is itself related to the hebrew “hester” (hiddenness). Goodness hides in the midst of evil and what seems like “A” turns  out to be “B”. Expectations  are turned “v’ na hafoch Hu” (upside down) and outcomes are seen to be part of a Divine Plan—but  in retrospect.

The life  of a Jewish Contemplative is also a celebration of the concealment  of the Hidden One.

Contemplatives are seekers who are engaged in a continuous process of discovery and not an elite who have somehow "arrived". A Jewish contemplative is ever engaged on a journey towards G-d and yet, as a Jew, he or she realises that the journey can never end. How could it when it leads to the One who is eternally ever-present? Such infinity is not something we can ever grasp or possess.

 The Jewish Contemplative hopes to be granted an experience of the Eternal One but accepts that this experience can only ever be partially understood. It is an encounter with a deeply veiled awareness of a Presence whose actual Being is beyond our comprehension. Most Jewish mystics experience only the very merest hint of this veiled Presence, and yet the memory of that fleeting moment is often sufficient to inspire a whole lifetime of contemplative yearning for further contact.

Such a motivating experience is an experience of deveykus (cleaving and attachment to G-d). It is not a superior state of human perception and understanding achieved by any practice or method of our own devising and it cannot be taught. It is a form of moral and spiritual contemplative bonding which simply makes us useful to the Creator. Its purpose is to show us that we are in a relationship with One who requires our effort, our loving compliance, and our determination to be made more “in His image” as each day passes.

In a nutshell, when we cease to see ourselves or focus on our own needs, but look in G-d’s direction and hope to meet Him in some way, we will find ourselves looking back through His eyes. This is perhaps the closest we can come to “enlightenment” and experiencing it is a process which never ends.

If there is to be any enlightenment on a Jewish mystical path, it does not consist in arriving at an all-encompassing grasp of the Divine master-plan- rather it is something which is most usually encountered in moments of semi-prophetic or inspirational intuition which can then nourish our otherwise transient and changeable experience. As Jewish contemplatives, we are expected to draw nourishment from the deeply buried memory, the muffled echo, and the glimmering after-glow of Sinai as it presents itself to us in the ordinary but often synchronous events of each and every day. To see and hear the unbearable thunder of the Voice of Sinai in every moment was beyond us then and it is beyond us now. Our blessing is to be spoon fed digestible measures of spiritual manna and to hear the message of that Voice as a still small whisper, a barely distinguished hint, a kol d’mama dakah.

When we daven or meditate, when we spend time with our G-d in discursive hisbodedus or reflective hisbonenus, we do not do so because we want to achieve something for ourselves-we pray because we are commanded to and because we wish to take our observance of the commandments to   “cleave to G-d” and to “love Him with all our heart, soul, and strength” to their fullest and most authentically Jewish levels. Not as an act of philosophy, spirituality, or mysticism per se, but as an act of religious service.

The effectiveness of this realistic and humble approach to the spiritual and mystical journey has its root in the process known as bittul haYesh: There is no point in demanding that our thirst for total control over the wildness of existence be quenched at all costs.  Our desire for certitudes and a clear vision of a spiritual 'G-d-particle' is certain to miss the target as The Target is simply beyond our reach and skill. It is an approach which reminds Jews of their own place as the devoted servants of a commanding and loving G-d.  The concealment of G-d is not a barrier to be breached, nor is it a negative situation which we ought to try to “remedy”.  It is the Kevod of HaShem made partially accessible.  It is a gift to be treasured.

In Tehillim we read:

“Wonderfully concealed are your testimonies,
Therefore my soul has treasured them.”
Psalm 119: 129

The words of the Living G-d are pathways to walk on, shining lights to inspire us or guide our choices; flowing rivers to nourish our seminal hopes and growing thoughts; and they are a Tree of Life which is planted in heaven yet intended to bear fruit on this earth. In other words, they are a process not contained by tangible items or mental conceptualisation and the One who makes them has made them as ultimately beyond our full comprehension as His own Being is and always will be.

This in itself is a treasure, and being aware of it enables us to be both the beneficiaries and the transmitters of the Hidden  Light we are then freed to hold  in our embrace despite never being able to grasp it as a hoarded  possession.

One who treasures the concealed word of HaShem in the Torah haNistar in their prayer and meditation and who seeks to live the Torah haNigleh in their daily study and work knows that this Torah cannot ever be used as a spade to dig with, nor as a crown to be hoarded away for personal pleasure.

All  of a Jew’s relationship with HaShem is for the sake of the outflowing of the Divine into our world. The reward of a mitzvah is another mitzvah, and even the blessings which are granted specifically to Israel are ultimately for the sake of all nations and for the sake of all creation.  As the Berditchever Rebbe reminds us:

“When one nullifies oneself completely and attaches one’s thoughts to Nothingness, a new sustenance flows to all universes. This sustenance did not exist previously.”
Quoted in Aryeh Kaplan’s “Meditation and Kabbalah p.305

These words are most encouraging for those of us who make their prayers their main contribution to the tikkun (healing) of the world’s woes yet often wonder if their endeavours are of any use.  Jewish Contemplatives then, are both the beneficiaries and the transmitters of the Hidden Light. The transmission is most effectively brought about when we are as observant and as whole-hearted in yiddishkeit as we possibly can be.

That Psalm 119 verse I quoted (Wonderfully concealed are your testimonies, therefore my soul has treasured them) - tells us that G-d’s “decrees” for our life-history are not known to us, yet we ought to rejoice that our “fate” is in such good care. We make our own choices and face our trials, that is true, but He is our watchful and guiding shepherd at every moment.

The messages hidden in the “testimonies” of G-d are often very well hidden indeed. They are beneath the surface of the ordinary events in our lives. They are in the familiar texts of our prayer-books and bibles. They are in the often bewildering insights and intuitions which we receive in contemplative prayer. They are also in the insights of our prayerful study of Torah in meditation: Often, such insights are at first dimly perceived, but they can dazzle us when we suddenly “see” what we are being told/shown, each of us individually seeing something personally spoken to us in intimacy.

Our father Isaac goes out at dusk to meditate in the field.
At dusk, ordinary things are often bathed in a soft focus
And we can see their inner light more accurately.
At dusk ordinary things can sometimes fade into the half-gloom
And we turn inward to see our inner light in a more heightened way.

The growing darkness is sometimes our best friend and not an annoyance or an enemy.
It often leads to the place where we can see that our clouded perception of G-d is not just the adoption of a realistic approach-
The cloud of darkness prevents us making G-d in our own image.
It is actually closer to the Truth of G-d’s nature than any detailed theology ever could be.
The Divine which is concealed will always elude our attempt to grasp it.
But we can let G-d, the Hidden, grasp us
Through our loyalty as servants
And hold our hands as friends,
Thus, we can be held by the Hidden and know some of the power and beauty of our G-d.

When we experience an ecstatic sexual or sensual feeling
We reflexively close our eyes to improve our mind’s savouring of the physical event.
In contemplative prayer our eyes are metaphorically shut,
But we may discover that we actually “see” better in the dark.
We may not be able to see G-d’s plans for us
But being “kept in the dark” is not always a negative thing.

A contemplative is happy to know that the answer is not (necessarily) “42”.
A contemplative is not looking for answers but is allowing G-d to lead—to wherever.

Being in a Divine/human relationship in which we are informed on a “strictly need to know” basis does not  indicate that we are being kept in a subservient state of ignorance. As contemplatives, we are enlightened by a form of loving revelation whose brilliance we could never bear without the embrace of the Cloud of Unknowing.

This is the treasure of the Hidden One.
Our task is to make sure we don’t hoard it for ourselves,
But allow G-d to make us into transparent conductors of its Light.

Nachman Davies
Ta'anit Ester 5777
March 9 2017