Chag sameach! We have reached the end of our series of eight posts with readings about light – all kinds of light, from the lights of Rebbe Nachman to the lights of secularism. Make sure to check out our previous offerings:
Day 1: Ra’u Or: Essays in Honor of Dr. Ora Horn Preuser edited by Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser
Day 2: Everything Thaws by R.B. Lemberg
Day 3: Thirty-Two Gates of Wisdom: Awakening Through Kabbalah by Rabbi DovBer Pinson
Day 4: Here Is Our Light: Humanistic Jewish Holiday and Life-Cycle Liturgy for Inspiration and Reflection, edited by Miriam S. Jerris and Sheila Malcolm
Day 5: An Angel Called Truth & Other Tales from the Torah, by Rabbi Jeremy Gordon and Emma Parlons, with illustrations by Pete Williamson.
Day 6: The Missing Jew: Poems 1976-2021 by Rodger Kamenetz
Day 7: Enlightenment by Trial and Error by Jay Michaelson
Now we’re upping the ante and not just talking about light, but about lightning!
We picked the following excerpt from Rabbi Jill Hammer’s Return to the Place: The Magic, Meditation, and Mystery of Sefer Yetzirah. This book features an entire new translation of the classic Kabbalistic text Sefer Yetzirah, with chapter-by-chapter commentary, and meditative exercises. The following section covers the expression “the look of lightning” (כמראה הברק) from chapter 1:8.
Our Chanukah sale is still ongoing, and you can get all three of our Jill Hammer books for the price of two! That’s almost $25 off, and with free shipping within the US… But let’s read!
The Look of Lightning
In the previous passage, we heard that the divine dwelling place is at the center of the sefirot, so that the sefirot reach out in endless rays from the divine. The hollow sefirot and the engraved letters seem meant to conduct divine energy, power, or intention throughout the cosmos. Our current passage tell us that these ten rays are in fact infinite, and that they have the “appearance of lightning.” It seems that they are flashes of energy, or that flashes of energy appear in them, moving back and forth. God’s word, like lightning, flashes from the sacred center, moves through the depths of the sefirot and out into their endless reaches, and returns to the sacred center. Sefer Yetzirah calls this movement “running and returning.”
The use of lightning to describe the sefirot is evocative. Physicist Kared Barad writes: “Lightning is a reaching toward, an arcing dis/juncture, a striking response to charged yearnings.” Lightning arises from “electrical potential buildup and flows of charged particles.” While the physics of lightning may not have been available to the author(s) of this text, the flash of lightning certainly was. The lightning that moves within the sefirot is very much like a flow of charged particles, an electrified reaching toward divine presence.
Ronit Meroz understands this section to be describing the sefirot as a group of angels, similar to the “holy beasts” in Ezekiel who bear the divine throne. Meroz argues that beings that can “bow” before God must be “personified” supernatural beings – angels, in the form Jewish tradition usually understands angels, rather than anything “abstract.” Meroz writes: “It is the angels who always set out on God’s mission, and of whom one may therefore say that ‘his word is in them.’” Meroz asserts that the sefirotic angels have “humility and reverence” for God – they are entities capable of having a personal attitude toward the divine.
Yet are the sefirot truly personified? God’s word in these beings does not “command,” but rather “runs and returns” – the sefirot are conduits, not servants. Perhaps we might call them angels, but they are also hollow endless entities, and the divine word runs and returns in them like an electric current through a charged wire. They may be conscious, but they hardly seem like Michael or Gabriel. It may be that the sefirot bow not (or not only) because they are reverent in a personal way but because they are channels sensitive to the movement of divine creative power. The bowing of the sefirot is a theotropism of the whole universe.
The sefirot act as a collective – they are a multiplicity with a single purpose. They move together after God’s word, and they bow together before God’s throne. These multiple forces are channels for one “singular master.” Yehuda Liebes indicates that many of the sections of Chapter 1 start with multiplicity and end with oneness, as if to show the reader how all is drawn toward the One.
Thank you for following along with us, and we hope we managed to bring a little additional light into your life!