The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Kabbalah: Permuting the Letters

Like being a good Freemason, being a good Jew requires education. I don't mind if non-Jews study Kabbalah (to be honest, I'm delighted). But if you want to learn, learn the real spiritual technology. Please don't mimic superstition and assign to your mimicry a profundity it does not possess. Masons go through the degree work, and then spend a lifetime figuring out what it means. If we did not, the degree work would just be mimicry. Jewish children cram for their b'nei mitzvah and then spend adulthood figuring out what it all means. If they did not, their Torah portion would just be mimicry.

Kabbalah is part (but not all) of "what it all means". Kabbalah is imbued throughout with meaning. There is a sense in most Kabbalah work that the Grand Architect of the Universe is trying to communicate with the practitioner, and most of the details of Kabbalah practice are how to clean up the input stream, because everyday consciousness is too crude to perceive the holy message from above.

Putting your head in a blue wooden box with gold letters painted on it is a good idea if it brings you closer to the GAOTU, and a stupid idea otherwise. If you do it without any real focus, feeling or understanding, it's probably a stupid idea. Please note that I'm not aware that anyone actually puts their head in blue boxes with gold letters painted on them. The purpose of spiritual practice is connection with Deity, and without that connection, it is either rehearsal for a future connection, or it is nonsense.

I thought I would share some real Kabbalah with my readers. Nothing too fancy, just something simple to start out with. Rabbi Abraham Abulafia had a method called tzaraf, in which the letters of a word are permuted, making new words. The Hebrew alphabet is actually an abjad rather than a true alphabet. The consonants are written down, and before the Masoretes of the 7-11th centuries, there were no vowels. In English, "tar" and "rat" are palindromes of each other. In Hebrew, there are two letters for "t", so they might not be. Also, assuming they are spelled with the right "t", "shirt" and "trash" could be palindromes, even though the vowels are different. Palindromes, anagrams, and letter transpositions fascinated the early Kabbalists.

Studying the weekly Torah portion a few weeks ago with a group of students, we noticed a fairly obvious example, but one I'm still meditating upon.

The passage I'm going to use is the verse Leviticus 16:2. In the story from Scripture, Moses and Aaron are at the debut of the Tabernacle. Moses ordains Aaron and his sons as priests before the entire congregation, all 600,000+ Israelite men, and even more women and children. The first sacrifices are offered, and the Glory of the LORD (K'vod YHVH) comes down and consumes the burnt offering on the altar. Two of Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, rush forward with fire pans full of "alien fire" and enter the Holy of Holies, and are instantly struck dead. The other sons drag their corpses away, and the ceremonies continue, sons unmourned. There is a long deviation from the plot of the story as Moses explains the dietary laws, postnatal cleanliness, the rules of leprosy, excema and psoriasis, and how to handle mold infestations in clothing or in a house, before the LORD explains to Moses the proper way to enter the Holy of Holies.

I'm sure that all the Master Masons reading this have pricked up their ears at the mention of how to enter the Holy of Holies. The LORD says to Moses:

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, דַּבֵּר אֶל-אַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ, וְאַל-יָבֹא בְכָל-עֵת אֶל-הַקֹּדֶשׁ, מִבֵּית לַפָּרֹכֶת--אֶל-פְּנֵי הַכַּפֹּרֶת אֲשֶׁר עַל-הָאָרֹן, וְלֹא יָמוּת, כִּי בֶּעָנָן, אֵרָאֶה עַל-הַכַּפֹּרֶת.
To translate: "The LORD said to Moses: 'Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the holy place behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the Ark of the Covenant, or he will die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover.'" My grasp of Hebrew is weak, so please correct me when I'm mistaken.

Some words to point out: Aaron is אַהֲרֹן or Aharon, and the Ark of the Covenant is הָאָרֹן or ha-Aron. The first two letters are transposed in an odd (1 2) cycle. While the vowels are different, in this case, in Modern Hebrew pronunciation, they sound the same. Aaron is the High Priest, and his ritual takes him before the Ark of the Covenant. A man becomes a holy vessel, a container for the Ten Commandments.

Also, and even more interesting, the curtain is פָּרֹכֶת or parokhet, and the cover of the Ark of the Covenant is כַּפֹּרֶת or kaporet. The ת is fixed in this case, and the other letters are cycled rotationally in an even (1 3 2) cycle. ת is the final letter of the Aleph-Bet, the path from Malkut to Yesod on the Tree of Life, the "The World" card in the Tarot deck. It makes sense for this to be the final letter, and makes sense for it to be fixed, grounded on Earth in our waking reality.

In Kabbalah, the word parokhet is used to mean the veil between worlds, or between states of consciousness. Between waking consciousness, the world of Assiah, and the dream-state of Yetsirah, there is a veil, or parokhet. Between Yetsirah and the world of ideas, Briah, there is another parokhet. Between Briah and the world of archetypes, or Atsilut, there is a veil. The cover of the Ark is described as having two winged Cherubim sitting on top of it. In the Torah, Moses is able to listen to the Voice of the LORD coming from between the two cherubim atop the kaporet. That makes the kaporet a very holy place, the focus of an enormous amount of spiritual energy.

The LORD is telling Moses to tell Aaron (Aharon) when he is allowed to draw back the parokhet and enter the sacred space where the Ark of the Covenant (ha-Aron) rests, the holiest space inside the Holy of Holies. The cover (kaporet) of the Ark is covered by a cloud, and the LORD appears in the cloud. Aharon visits ha-Aron, drawing back the parokhet to reveal the kaporet. The energy released by this is so powerful that Aaron may not do this at will---this is why his sons were struck dead, because they did this heedlessly. It's clear that Nadab and Abihu were killed not as punishment for sin, but because of an accident of spiritual technology, like touching a live wire. There's no moral judgement (necessarily) in getting electrocuted; it just happens.

The scripture passage goes on to describe the ritual for Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Hebrew calendar, and explains that only on Yom Kippur, dressed in the proper clothing, with the proper sacrificial animals may he enter the Holy of Holies, and only to atone for all of his sins, the sins of his family, and for the sins of the whole Israelite community.

Thus we can only pull back the veil and face the Holy of Holies when we do this not for ourselves, but for a higher purpose. This holy space is not ours in our mundane state of consciousness-- it would destroy us in our regular state. We have to purify ourselves and our motives, atone for our sins, and act for all humanity (v'al kol Yisrael often is taken figuratively to mean all of humanity in scripture). That is why not even a Fellowcraft may enter a lodge of Master Masons unless he is taking his third degree. We have to be someone duly and truly prepared, worthy and well-qualified, to enter the Holy of Holies, and must enter at the right time.

Notice that a simple transposition turns Aaron into the Ark of the Covenant, but a three-cycle is needed to turn the veil into the cover of the Ark of the Covenant. A simple transposition turns a man into a vessel for sacredness, but it takes a 3-cycle to turn the veil into the place from which one can hear God's voice. A 3-cycle can be decomposed into two transpositions, like switching the middle two letters, and then switching the first two letters afterwards. We can decompose the transformation from veil to cover into two steps by first sliding back the veil, and then putting your ears between the cherubs on the cover of the Ark. Thus it is takes a single transformation to convert oneself into a holy vessel but two transformations to hear the Voice of God.

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