Friday is Lag B’Omer – a day that marks an end to the traditional semi-mourning period of the Omer. The day is a quasi-holiday. Not in the sense of a special davening, but in the sense of barbeques and school field days. The whole specialness of the day is only maybe, kinda, sort of alluded to in the Talmud, but it really comes to life in the Zohar.
According to the Kabbalistic tradition, the great scholar Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai died on that day (in the second century CE). Also according to tradition, on the day that Rabbi Shimon died he revealed the teaching of Kabbalah into the world. Thus, Lag B’Omer is a type of Shavuot for Kabbalah.
Kabbalah literally means “tradition.” It is the mystical teachings about creation that were passed from Adam to Mesushelach to Noach to Shem to Ever to Avraham and bipidy bipidy bop to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Until then it was closely guarded secrets given in hints and allusions to only the most promising scholars. But Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught it clearly and explicitly. His words are also passed secretly and reverentially to only the very select few until 13th century Spain, when it is written down as the Zohar.
Sadly, I’m not a Kabbalist. I can’t even say that I really pursue Kabbalah as serious hobby. But, you know, I dabble. I’ve gleaned. I would say I’m probably at the advanced neginner stage. Like a guy taking karate that has earned a yellow belt with two stripes.
But hey, it’s the internet, and ignorance never stopped anyone from saying what was on their mind, so I’ll push forward.
One of the topics that Kabbalah is deeply concerned about is trying to understand how an Infinite and Completely Spiritual Creator can interact with lowly creatures of mud and anxiety like you and me. Meaning, a hammer can’t interact with the smell of a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie because they are two completely separate realms. An octagon can’t impact “independence” and the color orange doesn’t have a sound (to most people). So how could infinitely spiritual G-d interact with this gloopy, physical world?
The Kabbalah talks about innumerable spiritual worlds between here and The Infinite One, each world filled with its own type of angel. And it has entire systems to describe how our actions give capabilities to the worlds “above” us, or how the Will of Hashem comes through those worlds to us.
Another core concept in Kabbalistic thinking are the sefirot. These are 10 lenses or conduits (or spheres as the name would indicate) through which we and our world are influenced by, or perceive, the Creator. These 10 sefirot are divided into three higher ones and seven lower ones. The higher ones are very complicated to talk about as a novice without accidentally tripping into some theological pitfall. But the lower seven sefirot are not trying to describe anything about what G-d is or thinks but how we perceive G-d’s actions in this world. That’s pretty safe ground.
We often describe our relationship with Hashem as being a paradigm for a parent/child relationship. And I think that this is particularly helpful in thinking about these seven sefirot. So in honor of Lag B’Omer and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, let me suggest a parenting based way of thinking about these seven sefirot.
Chessed – Giving that flows from love: This first sefirah is the aspect of Hashem as giver. Truth is, I think this parallels my experience as a grandfather more than as a father. When you’re in Target with a 2 and a half year old snugglebuggle and you just want to give her anything she looks at. You don’t get anything out of it – just giving because love forces you to do it. That’s this sefirah of chessed. Unadulterated giving because love has to have some expression.
Gevurah – Withholding out of strength: This second sefirah is what we experience when we really want the Creator to answer our prayers with a yes, but it’s not happening. Maybe it’s not happening for all the best reasons, and maybe it’s out of love, but that’s not what it feels like. It feels like you’re watching every other kid at the park eating a ice cream on a boiling summer day, and you are the only kids that doesn’t get. Diabetic, shmyabetic. It doesn’t matter. The child doesn’t really experience it as love in that moment. But sometimes, love means withholding. That is gevurah.
Tiferes – Harmony/beauty: Tiferes is the synthesis of Chessed and Gevurah. It’s withholding and setting limits in the context of giving out of love. Imagine dad running behind the bicycle, holding the seat, giving word of encouragement. The act is an act of giving but holding the seat, preventing the child from going wherever she wants, that’s actually an act of withholding and setting limits. She isn’t free to fall or hit a car. But the limit setting is itself an act of giving. That feels like tiferes.
Netzach – Victory/overcoming obstacles: Sometimes we have to do things that are honestly not what the child wants. Sometimes we can have a discussion, we hear their feelings, we can figure out a respectful plan forward. But sometimes it’s just going to be what we say. It’s not a competition, but we do need to win. When a child needs to take medicine or take an injection, they don’t get a vote. Their voice isn’t important. They are going to take it because my will has to be stronger than theirs. Don’t want to do the physical therapy? Too bad. I love you enough to allow you to be angry at me. Because you have to do this. I love you enough to know you can’t have a vote. I have to win this. That’s my sense of Netzach.
Hod – Receptivity: Hod is that experience of being moved by an object of beauty. Hod is a passivity that results in being changed. The complexity is that a person can choose to be receptive and open – you can be actively-passive. When we express gratitude, when we are deeply in prayer, when we ask for forgiveness, we are opening ourselves up to the Hod experience. Apologizing to a child is not an easy thing to do. I don’t mean a regular, “I’m sorry I forgot whole wheat bread last night. I’ll get on the way home from work,” apology. I mean a real, “I’m sorry I got so angry at you, because really I was worried about my own reputation, and how this affects me, and not what’s best for you. And that was wrong.” That’s hard. I didn’t enjoy it. In the apology a person is actively making themselves receptive to whatever the other person says. That “actively-passive” experience is the Sefirah of Hod.
Yesod – Foundation: Yesod is the synthesis of Netzach and Hod – the amalgam of being forceful and being the winner and being receptive and open to change. The classic example of yesod won’t fit our model today because we’re talking about parenting and the classic example is husbands-and-wives-example. I wonder if having a small child help with a household chore might fit the mold. Let’s say that your 2 and half year old snugglebuggle wants to help you load the dishwasher. And certainly it would be easier and faster to just do it yourself. But you allow her will to dominate your will. But the task itself is your will. But the action is her doing it. But it’s really that you are receiving in a giving way. Or giving in a receiving way. That’s the sense of Yesod.
Malchut – Royalty: Malchut is the thing that is made up of the things, but it is not any one of the things, but it is all of the things. The same way that a king is a citizen of a country, but not really. But without the citizens his royalty has no meaning. But he is the face and mind of the country. So he is part of them but not one of them but all of them but none of them. So Malchut is the Sefira that is the most and least of the Sefirot. It is the rainbow before it’s differentiated into colors. It is the combination of all of them and also none of them. It is the Shabbos.
The Shabbos table, when the children participate, and everyone sings, and we all worked to get to that moment and we all enjoy it, and where we speak and listen and argue and laugh – this is Malchut. It’s the sefirah experience that includes everything else. Shabbos is the whole week, but it’s not a weekday. And Friday night dinner is whole week, but it’s not just a meal. It’s everything.
The sefirot are lenses through which we perceive Hashem’s actions. In kabbalistic writings (such as Tomer Devorah and Nefesh Hachayim) an idea that comes up often is that we are not just influenced by these “higher worlds” but influencers of them. We are told that person came make themselves more receptive to Chessed or Hod through their actions. And conversely, a person can be stuck in gevurah when they keep putting themselves there.
The legacy of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is that he helped us see this world as not just a collection of carbon based lifeforms trying to make it though the muck of life. Rather, we are beings that can be touched by, and even influence, the conduits of a spiritual reality that sit at the heart of creation. That’s a day worthy of celebration.