Power and Strength
Mountains are very beautiful and inspiring, but few are able to remain permanently on a mountain-top living the life of prayer and prophecy. For most people the idyllic existence of Rebbe Nachman's Prayer Leader and his followers out in nature, surviving off wild fruits and spring-water (see Part I, To the Land), is not a practical option.
Visiting the mountains for spiritual retreats, hitbodedut, hiking, climbing and the like can be conducive to physical health and spiritual wellbeing. But these cannot be more than leisure-time pursuits for most people. Afterwards they must backtrack down the mountain and return to their normal lives in the civilized world. Mankind is still afflicted with the curse of Adam, and the majority can survive only through some kind of toil, whether literally out in the agricultural field, cultivating the land to provide food, or through some other metaphorical "field" of activity in a different sector of the economy.
The mountain is the place of vision -- the holistic vision of Abraham, who was the first, the breakaway, the revolutionary, the initiator. But after the drama and excitement of the vision comes the hard follow-up work of trying to actualize the vision in practice. Having set your sights on the peaks, you now have to break through the actual terrain. You have to keep going even when you can no longer see the grand view and get direction. You have to keep going even when the path gets extremely tough and you don't seem to be getting anywhere. This is the work of cultivating the field, the work of Isaac.
In Ezekiel's vision of the Divine Chariot (Merkavah), the Chayot -- the vital (Chai) forces of creation ("angels") -- are described as "running and returning" (Ezekiel 1:14). They rise up in yearning to transcend their limitations as created beings in order to merge in unity with their Creator: they "run out" of themselves. But afterwards they "return" to themselves and their separate existence. For it is God's will that they should continue to be independent creatures.
This cyclical "running and returning" is one of the underlying dynamics of all creation from the highest spiritual levels down to actual physical matter. All human life consists of up and down cycles, such as waking and sleeping, satisfaction and hunger, and many others. This is particularly true in the pursuit of spirituality. We may have moments of self-transcendence and intimate closeness with God -- "running". But as long as we remain in this world, such moments must be followed by a "return" to ourselves, to normality and everyday activities. Our purpose in this world is to transcend ourselves and attain closeness to God of our own free will. But it would undermine this purpose if God did all the work for us, constantly taking us beyond ourselves with no effort on our part. We have to "return" in order to start working again in order to "run".
The phase of "running" is personified in Abraham, exemplar of Chessed, expansive outreach and kindness. Abraham broke away from the repressive tyranny of Nimrod's civilization-gone-mad in quest of freedom, vision, the Land, the Mountain, the stars, the Heavens, and the summits of true humility and divine connection.
However, "running" has to be complemented by "returning": coming back to the normal world in order to actualize the vision in and through practical everyday situations amidst all the constraints and pressures of reality. The phase of "returning" is personified in Isaac, man of the Field, the exemplar of Gevurah, the disciplined, controlled application of power.
"Running" is represented by the dawning day and the rising sun -- morning -- which is associated with Abraham, who typically "rose early in the morning" (Genesis 19:27; 22:3). According to tradition, Abraham established Shacharit, the Morning Prayer. "Returning" is represented by the declining, setting sun -- afternoon -- which is associated with Isaac, who "went out to meditate in the field towards evening" (ibid. 24:63). According to tradition, Isaac established Minchah, the Afternoon Prayer.
The morning begins with a fresh burst of energy and enthusiasm: the light breaks through on the horizon and the sun appears in all its glory, climbing higher and higher in the skies, radiating ever more light and heat. But then the sun reaches its ultimate noon peak, and then a constraining force -- the great wheel of the universe -- forces it to start its downward descent and decline, until at last it sinks beneath the horizon, leaving the world to darkness.
The expansive upward climb of the sun, radiating life to all the world, is a glorious manifestation of Godly power. Thus in Kabbalah, the associated divine attribute of Chessed (loving kindness) is connected with the divine name EL, which literally denotes "power". However, the counter-balancing attribute of Gevurah (strength, restriction, constraining force) leads to an even greater manifestation of power. For it is through the harnessing of raw power and energy and their controlled, disciplined application that their full potential becomes actualized in reality.
For example, the formidable power of electricity is manifested not so much in massive surges of current through a major power line, though this can instantly burn up any puny thing it touches, but rather in the way specific, limited amounts of electrical power are distributed to all kinds of different equipment and appliances in order to serve an endless variety of different purposes. Similarly, torrents of water can sweep away and destroy humans, animals, plants and even rocks. But it is the minute quantities of water that falls in individual rain-drops and finds its way into individual living cells that makes all life possible.
The attribute of Gevurah, power, strength and constraint, is associated with the divine name ELOHIM, which literally means "the Powers" -- alluding to the multiplicity of specific, defined and delimited powers manifested in different parts of the creation, all through the power of the single, unified God. Just as Abraham expressed the divine attribute of Chessed, expansive kindness, in various different ways and on different levels throughout his career, so did Isaac express the divine attribute of Gevurah, power, discipline and strength, in his.
Abraham was the first. Without guides or teachers he discovered the path of HaVaYaH for himself through the power of the yearnings of his heart and the outpourings of his lips in the letters and words of his prayers.
But Abraham did not merely want to find God for himself. He wanted to rectify the whole world and bring everyone to know God. He therefore had to teach his pathway to others. This was why he craved so much for a son that he could raise and train in the service of HaVaYaH from the very start.
Therefore Abraham "commanded his sons and his household afterwards to keep the way of HaVaYaH to practice charity and justice" (Genesis 18:19). Thus what for Abraham was a new path discovered through the voluntary yearnings of his heart became for Isaac a revered tradition, a teaching, a Torah that carried with it a set of strict obligations. Thus when God blessed Isaac, it was in the merit of Abraham's code of obedience, "Because Abraham listened to My voice and guarded My ordinances, My commandments, My statutes and My teachings" (ibid. 26:5).
A founder needs a follower; a teacher needs a student. A giver needs a receiver. Isaac was the follower, the student, the receiver. Abraham typifies the active principle of Chessed, "giving", while Isaac typifies the passive principle of Gevurah, "receiving". To receive means to submit to the power and will of the giver. It is as the exemplar of submission and obedience that Isaac himself became the teacher and giver of spirituality to others. Isaac's teaching is that the only way to come closer to God is through obedience to God's will as expressed in God's law.
Just as the binding of Isaac on the altar was a test for Abraham, it was equally a test for Isaac. Would he be unflinching in his willingness to submit even to the bitter end? The figure of Isaac bound on the altar is symbolic of perfect submission and obedience to the will of God.
Not that mindless obedience was all that was required of Isaac throughout his life. He faced many tests of his own. He had to take his own initiatives in order to hack out a way for himself on Abraham's path. For example, "the Philistines stopped up all the wells that his father's servants dug in the days of Abraham, and they filled them with earth... And Isaac dug the wells of water that they had dug in the days of Abraham his father which the Philistines had stopped up after the death of Abraham, and he called them names like the names his father had called them" (Genesis 26:15-18).
Besides their environmental significance as water supplies for the general welfare, Abraham's wells also signify the wellsprings of spiritual inspiration that he made available for all humanity. Because of human crassness, these water-sources became "stopped up and filled with earth", i.e. earthliness and materialism caused the dampening of spiritual enthusiasm. Isaac had to dig all over again in order to rediscover and reopen the wellsprings of spiritual inspiration. A major task for any second- or later-generation religious seeker is to rediscover the original freshness within time-encrusted traditions.
But it was to his tradition that Isaac had to bind himself. Indeed through his very submission and obedience he attained his greatest spiritual heights. Tradition attributes Isaac's blindness to the fact that at the moment when he was bound on the altar with Abraham about to slaughter him, the heavens opened up and the ministering angels saw and wept, and their tears fell upon Isaac's eyes (Rashi on Genesis 27:1). The opening of the heavens and the falling of the tears from the "eyes" of the angels into those of Isaac indicate a transcendental vision attained by Isaac only through his perfect surrender.
Abraham is particularly associated with the festival of Pesach (Passover), which celebrates freedom from oppression. Abraham's escape from Nirmod's furnace was the paradigm for his descendants' liberation from slavery in Egypt. But the purpose of releasing the Jewish People from subjection to the man-made tyranny of Pharaoh was to bring them to submit to the higher service of HaVaYaH and His Torah that would lead to the rectification of the world. Thus the journey out of Egypt into the wilderness necessarily led to Sinai, where the Torah was given.
The giving of the Torah at Sinai is celebrated on Shavuot ("the Festival of Weeks"), fifty days after the first day of Pesach. Shavuot is particularly associated with Isaac. Just as Isaac was bound on the altar, so there was an element of compulsion in the Giving of the Torah. In a certain sense the Jews had no real alternative but to accept it, as expressed in the rabbinical teaching that "God uprooted the mountain from its place and arched it over them like a huge tank, saying: If you accept it, good; if not, this will be your grave" (Avodah Zarah 2b). In a way, Mount Sinai actually turned into a field, for according to tradition, when the Torah was given this lowly desert mountain was verdant with plants and trees.
It is customary on Pesach to read the Song of Songs, which is a lyrical love-song between God and the Soul, replete with images of nature, flowers, fragrant herbs and fruits, groves of trees, springs of water, meadows and hillsides and "mountains of spices" (Songs 6:14). On Shavuot it is customary to read the Book of Ruth, in which a major theme is harvesting the crops in the field and the associated laws of gifts of produce to the poor.
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