The dark side of nature

A deer is in desperate flight from a lion. The deer's grace and beauty are of no avail when at last, exhausted, it falls prey to the powerful lion, which mercilessly savages the deer's tender neck to gratify its lust for meat and blood.

An eagle digs its claws into its terrified prey.... A snake sinks its teeth into the flesh of its victim and injects its deadly venom.... A spider bites to death the helpless fly trapped in its web....

Similar scenes of predators and their prey are repeated constantly day after day on every level of the chain of life from the lowest, simplest and most primitive to the highest, most complex and sophisticated. Millions and millions of cows, sheep, chickens, fish and other creatures are slaughtered every day for human consumption.

Sooner or later, man's time also comes. Throughout his life he was the confident master. Now he becomes the frightened victim. One way or another the Angel of Death always gets his prey, and man's body goes back to the earth to decompose and be consumed by worms, molds and the like. These in turn provide food for other life-forms which in turn become the food of others. And so the food chain goes on and on.


No sensitive person can fail to be troubled by the plight of the victims as they meet their bitter end in the mouths of their predators. At the same time we cannot but accept that the vast, awesome process of life feeding off life is one of the most fundamental of all universal cycles. In water and on land the bodies of lower organisms are recycled through being consumed by and turning into the bodies of higher organisms. They in turn end up providing food and energy for other organisms.

The Hebrew word for a cycle is galgal, literally a "wheel". The spinning of the wheel is called gilgul, a term which in Jewish mysticism is particularly associated with the "recycling of souls", i.e. reincarnation. In other words, not only are physical materials constantly being recycled through the water, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and other natural cycles. Souls and spirits also spin around on the wheel of cosmic destiny. Human souls may enter the bodies of animals, birds, fish or even plants, and vice versa. These great cycles are in turn governed by higher, more exalted spiritual cycles. These are the Sefirot. (The word SeFiRaH has the connotation of a rotating sphere.)

For the earthbound humans of pre-modern times, as indeed for any truly aware, thinking person today, one of the most profoundly moving and striking of all examples of cycles was and is the way the sun, the moon, the planets and the stars seem constantly to circle the earth in their various orbits.

Consider the orbiting of one heavenly body around another. The body in orbit is unable to travel off freely on a path of its own out into space because its forward movement is constrained by the gravitational pull of the larger body. Without entering into the complexities of the actual orbital paths of planets (which are elliptical) the orbiting body essentially travels an endless circular path around the greater body.

A circle is the shape described by any moving point whose forward motion is constrained in a specific way by some other point -- the "center" -- around which the former is moving. The moving point maps out a circle because it is unable to move any closer to or further from the center point. This far but no further!

The concept of circularity and cycles is thus bound up with that of force and constraint. A center point of some kind exerts a force upon all the points circling around it, keeping them all in their place. The size of the circle described by any given moving point is a function of the distance of that point from the center (i.e. the radius of the circle) and the mathematical ratio known to mathematicians as Pi, which is approximately 314:100. Significantly, 314 is the numerical value of the Hebrew letters of the Divine Name that expresses the constraining aspect of the creative process, Shadai, "the Eternal God" -- "Who said to His universe, Dai, enough! This far and no further!" (Chagigah 12a).

Isaac and the afternoon sun

The concept of power and constraint is particularly associated with Isaac, who embodies the quality of Gevurah, strength and strictness. This is associated with afternoon, time of the setting sun.

Abraham was the first, the initiator, the embodiment of Chessed, expansive, unrestricted love and kindness. Abraham is associated with the morning, time of the rising sun, which gets ever more brilliant and hotter as it climbs up and up, ascending to the heights of the heavens.

But then comes noon. The sun reaches the peak of its strength and glory, and its upward climb is now constrained. At first indiscernibly, then gradually more and more markedly, the sun descends, the day begins to cool and the brightness of the skies starts to fade, until at last the sun sinks magnificently down to the western horizon and finally disappears, leaving the world to dusk and the darkness of night.

In the early hours after sunrise the path of the sun may have seemed like a straight upward climb from the east. But as the day progresses the upward movement of the sun seems to be constrained by a force that pulls it in a circle across the skies and down to the west.

The sun's daily rising and setting symbolizes the constantly repeated expansive-Chessed and contracting-Gevurah phases that characterize all kinds of different oscillations and cycles on all levels of creation. Thus "Abraham [Chessed] rose early in the morning [sunrise]" (Genesis 19:27 & 22:3), while "Isaac [Gevurah] went out to meditate in the field towards evening [sunset]" (Genesis 24:63).


It can be very fascinating to contemplate vast cycles of creation such as reincarnation of souls and the food chain -- as long as you are not the one being eaten. For most people it is sobering and indeed fearful to think about the quality of Gevurah as it actually manifests itself in human life in the form of limitations, obstacles, hardship, pain, illness, decline, old age and death. In contrast to Abraham's quality of unstinting mercy and kindness, Isaac's quality of power and control is characterized by a relentless strictness that may turn into veritable harshness. The emotion associated with Gevurah is fear. It was with fear and awe that Isaac experienced God, as it says: "the Fear of Isaac" (Genesis 31:53).

When we think of the terrible things that happen to people, the world can seem like a very cruel place. The cruel face of Gevurah is epitomized in the figure of Isaac's son Esau. Whereas Sarah bore Abraham only one son, Rebecca presented Isaac with twins, Esau and Jacob, two very different types. While Jacob's preference was for "dwelling in tents" (this will be the focus of Part III of this course), Esau followed after his father as a "man of the Field" (Genesis 25:27).

Isaac's activity in the field was the constructive work of physical cultivation of the land and cultivation of the soul through meditation, prayer and good deeds (see "The Field" and "Cultivating the Land"). On the other hand Esau's love of the field was as a place to throw off the restrictions of civilized life in order to surrender himself to his primitive selfish lusts and passions even to the point of barbaric cruelty.

"And Esau came in from the field" (Genesis 25:29). According to tradition, the day on which Jacob cooked soup and fed it to Esau in exchange for his birthright was the day Abraham died. The soup was of lentils, which Jacob was preparing for the customary meal of consolation given to mourners, in this case his father Isaac. Jacob chose lentils "because they are round like a wheel, for mourning is a revolving wheel that recurs again and again in the world" (Rashi ad loc.).

In other words, when Abraham died and Chessed reached its end point, as it were, the quality of Gevurah came to the fore as expressed in the severity of death and mourning, which are inevitable aspects of the universal cycle. And on that same day the harsh extreme of Gevurah manifested itself in the person of Esau.

"Esau raped an engaged girl, as it is written (Deuteronomy 22:27) `for the rapist found her in the field'. And he committed murder, as it says `And Esau came from the field and he was tired' -- tired from killing (see Jeremiah 4:31).... He also robbed, denied God and worshipped idols" (Midrash Rabbah Bereshit 63:12; Baba Batra 16b).

Esau embodies the unholy extreme of Gevurah -- power used with merciless brutality for the gratification of self. This is the ultimate in taking and grabbing, as opposed to Abraham's selfless giving to others. Abraham himself had been the polar opposite of the selfish, power-loving Nimrod (see Part I, Abraham smashes the idols). Now the cycle swung around again, and Abraham's revelation of Chessed was followed by the terrifying manifestation of the opposite, wickedness and crime. According to tradition, the beautiful clothes that Esau possessed (Genesis 27:15) had actually been Nimrod's. One day Esau saw Nimrod wearing them and desired them for himself, so he killed Nimrod and took them (Midrash Rabbah Bereshit 65:16).

Esau's exploitation and slaughter of others for his own self-gratification -- "My life before yours!" -- makes him a fitting symbol of the Angel of Death. Death is the ultimate constraint.

Sweetening the Severity

"And God saw all that He had made and it was very good" (Genesis 1:31). "Very good" -- this refers to the Angel of Death" (Midrash Rabbah Bereshit 9:12).

Cruel and heartless as it may at times seem, Gevurah is an indispensable part of creation (though this should never be used to justify outright cruelty by humans, who have the freedom to act otherwise).

The Infinite God is all good, and wants to share that goodness with all His creatures. However, it would simply be impossible for God's creatures to experience this goodness incessantly, for then they would no longer exist: they simply would be absorbed and merged in God's infinity. The only way for any created being to exist is within limitations of some kind. It is these very limitations that give it a specific identity of its own. As we have seen (Power and Strength), even the Chayot, the vital forces ("angels") of creation, exist in a mode of "running and returning" (Ezekiel 1:14). They "run out" of themselves in yearning to rise up and merge with God, but then they "return" to themselves and their separate existence. This cyclical "running and returning", expansion and contraction, is one of the underlying dynamics of all creation.

Just as the world needs Abraham, the founder, the leader, the teacher, the giver, the man of Chessed, so it also needs Isaac, the follower, the student, the receiver, the man of Gevurah..

Isaac's holy mission is to teach how to rectify the harsh aspect of Gevurah -- selfish excess, as embodied in Esau -- by directing one's very power and strength back in upon oneself in the form of self-discipline, restraint and the focused application of power and strength for the sake of accomplishing true good. Gevurah has to be "tied up" and bound in the service of Chessed, as symbolized in the binding of Isaac on the altar by Abraham (see The Binding of Isaac).

The labor of Isaac in the field thus includes the tough spiritual work of facing and resolving inner conflict, fear, pain, torment, depression, doubt and other forms of negativity and darkness. This is an integral part of the work of hitbodedut (see The Field). The essence of the work is to search for the sparks of good within darkness and negativity.

The Blessings

Isaac was old and his eyes were dim so that he could not see. He called Esau, his elder son, and said "I am old: I do not know the day of my death. Please take your weapons, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field and catch me venison. Make me tasty food the way I love and bring it to me so that I may eat in order that my soul may bless you before I die." (Genesis 27:1-4).

According to tradition, "When Isaac 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 dropped down and fell into Isaac's eyes, weakening them" (Rashi on Genesis 27:1).

Isaac's willingness to be bound on the altar symbolizes his perfect willingness to apply his quality of Gevurah to himself through total self-surrender and submission to the will of Abraham, Chessed. This in itself lifted Isaac to a most exalted level of spiritual perception way beyond people's normal level of perception in this world. This elevation is expressed in the idea of the ministering angels shedding tears into Isaac's eyes, which represents their superior angelic power of vision coming into Isaac (cf. Likutey Moharan 1, 250 end).

Isaac's higher vision of the ultimate cyclical forces (sefirot, angels) that underlie all worldly processes tends to make him "blind" in the sense of being apparently insensitive to the everyday ups and downs that upset most people. This is because Isaac keeps his eyes focused on their long-term meaning and purpose.

Adam and Eve's original mistake in selfishly stealing the fruit of the tree of knowledge was itself caused by a flaw of vision. They looked at the immediate, the superficial and the temporary -- "The woman saw that the tree was good to eat" (Genesis 3:6). Adam and Eve ate, "and the eyes of both of them were opened" (ibid. v.7). Isaac rectified this flaw by closing his eyes to the vanities of the transient world and keeping his inner vision focused on higher truths.

Whether Isaac really intended to hand on the blessings he received from his father Abraham to the wicked Esau and if so, why, has been the subject of extensive discussion by biblical commentators. This is not the place to enter into the mysteries of what the wise, dim-sighted, far-gazing Isaac intended in calling on Esau to bless him, or why the eminently shrewd, down-to-earth Rebecca saw fit to disguise her favorite Jacob as Esau and send him in to take the blessings for himself.

Here our focus is on a single facet of Isaac's conduct in this episode: how he ate. For it teaches us a lesson about the rectification and elevation of the quality of Gevurah.

Of the three patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Isaac is the only one in the biblical narrative whom we actually see eating. All three patriarchs are portrayed as preparing and giving food to others. Abraham gave hospitality to the angels (Genesis 18:4ff). Isaac made a feast for Avimelech and his men (Genesis 26:30). Jacob gave the lentil pottage to Esau (ibid. 25:28) and he called his sons and Laban to eat bread (ibid. 31:56).

But Isaac is the only one who is explicitly shown to us eating and drinking in the episode of the Blessings.

"Isaac was old and his eyes were dim so that he could not see. He called Esau, his elder son, and said `I am old: I do not know the day of my death. Please take your weapons, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field and catch me venison. Make me tasty food the way I love and bring it to me so that I may eat in order that my soul may bless you before I die.'" (Genesis 27:1-4).

Whenever we eat, we take something that was alive -- animal or vegetable -- and we ingest it in order to give ourselves life. When someone says he "loves" meat, he does not love the poor animal at all. He loves his own taste buds and stomach much more, which is why he puts a quick end to the animal's life to gratify his own desires.

We have already discussed how the quality of Gevurah is bound up with taking for oneself as opposed to giving to others (above, and see Power and Strength and Cultivating the Land.) It is a universal law of the food chain that the greater consumes the lesser. But to what end? Isaac wants to eat the venison not merely to gratify a lust for meat but "in order that my soul may bless you": Isaac eats so as to have the strength to pass on Abraham's blessings of kindness to the next generation. Isaac takes in order to give.

The food eaten by higher forms of life is actually elevated by the process. In the words of Rebbe Nachman:

Through eating, the food turns into the one who eats it. When an animal eats grass or plants, the very grass turns into the animal through being digested and becoming part of the animal's body. The same happens when a human eats an animal. The animal turns into the human. Wherever the nutrients from that food enter into the tissues of the person who ate it, they turn into that tissue. For example the part of the food that goes up to the brain turns into brain; that which comes into the heart turns into the heart, and so on.

Likutey Moharan 1, 129

When a human uses the energy derived from his food to pursue animal activities, the food is degraded with the person. But when a person devotes his energy to the pursuit of justice, kindness, Torah study, prayer and other Godly purposes, the very plants and animals he consumed are elevated in the process. For their energy is being used to influence the cosmos in ways far more exalted than anything they could have accomplished it had they remained in their original form.

The Torah teaches that killing of an animal or bird for human consumption (Shechitah) is a most solemn moment. The slaughterer invokes his privilege under God's law to mankind (Genesis 9:2-5) to take the knife, symbol of Gevurah, and swiftly slit the animal's windpipe and gullet according to God's command (Deuteronomy 12:21).

Before the slaughterer may take the animal's life, he is obliged to invoke the name of God: "Blessed are You, God, Ruler of the World, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us concerning Shechitah).

The invocation of God's name on his lips is man's highest act. The quality that distinguishes man from the animals is the power of speech, manipulating the letters of creation. When the slaughterer offers the blessing just before taking the animal's life, the holy words of the blessing become the medium of ascent of the animal's spiritual soul to the higher worlds.

But if the slaughterer treats the blessing as a meaningless formula to which he pays no attention, or worse still, if he fails to make a blessing at all, the animal's soul has no medium through which to ascend to the higher spiritual realms and it remains caught in the rut of cosmic destiny until the wheel will eventually swing back again (see Likutey Moharan 37:6).

In the words of Rebbe Nachman, "Woe to this slaughterer! Woe to the soul that killed a soul and gave her over into the hands of her enemies!" (ibid.)

The same could be said to apply to all eating. The person who eats is the "slaughterer" who puts an end to the life of the food item he is about to eat in order to give himself life. If the person understands that the foods he is eating contain holy souls that are waiting to be elevated and if he uses these energies for Godly purposes, he then elevates these souls. This is accomplished especially through invoking God's name when eating the food through blessing Him before and afterwards. But when a person eats purely for selfish animal gratification and lust, he degrades these souls just as he degrades himself, for a human who behaves like an animal is lower than an animal.

"Make me tasty food the way I love and bring it to me so that I may eat in order that my soul may bless!" Isaac's act of eating had the purpose of elevating the energies in the food in order to spread blessing further and further.

Rebecca knew her two sons better than did Isaac. She knew that Esau was unfitted to receive Isaac's blessings as he would want to keep them selfishly for himself rather than spread them further and further to others like Jacob.

Rebecca herself prepared food for Isaac and, disguising Jacob as Esau, sent him in with the food to Isaac in order to receive the blessings.

"And Isaac said, `Bring the food near to me and I will eat of my son's venison in order that my soul may bless you. And he brought it near to him, and he ate. And he brought him wine, and he drank. And his father Isaac said to him, `Come near now and kiss me, my son'. And he came near and kissed him. And he smelled the smell of his clothes and blessed him and said:`See, the smell of my son is as the smell of a field which HaVaYaH has blessed. So God will give you the dew of the heaven and the fat places of the earth and plenty of corn and wine. Let peoples serve you and nations bow down to you. Be master over your brothers and let your mother's sons bow down to you. Cursed be everyone that curses you and blessed be every one that blesses you.'" (Genesis 27:25-29).

Isaac smelled on Jacob the fragrance of "a field that God has blessed". Isaac, holy man of the field, knew that the son who brought him his food was the one who was worthy to receive the blessings, for he too had the smell of the field: the true field -- the field that God has blessed.

The Site of the Holy Temple

This "Field" is the same as Isaac's field -- the place where he went to meditate, the place where he had been bound on the altar on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. This is where Isaac fulfilled his holy mission to rectify the quality of Gevurah, power and strength. And this is the place where the rectification of Gevurah is to take place as a continuous process through the service in the Temple, God's House of Prayer for all the nations.

In the following teaching, Rabbi Nachman explains how the various cycles of creation are bound up with the Temple.

The world is a rotating wheel. It is like a Dreidel (the spinning top customarily played with on the festival of Hanukkah), where everything goes in cycles. Man becomes angel, and angel becomes man. Head becomes foot and foot becomes head. Everything goes in cycles, revolving and alternating. All things interchange, one from another and one to another, elevating the low and lowering the high.

All things have one root. There are transcendental beings, such as angels, which have no connection with the material. There is the celestial world, whose essence is very tenuous. Finally, there is the world below, which is completely physical. All three come from different realms but all have the same root.

All creation is like a rotating wheel, revolving and oscillating. At one time something can be on top like a head with another on the bottom like a foot. Then the situation is reversed. Head becomes foot and foot becomes head. Man becomes angel and angel becomes man. Thus our sages teach us that certain angels were cast down from heaven. They entered physical bodies and were subject to all worldly lusts. Other angels were sent on missions to our world and had to clothe themselves in physical bodies. We also find cases where human beings literally became angels. (Targum Yonatan on Genesis 6:4, 18:2 and 5:24; Numbers 25:12, etc.)

For the world is like a rotating wheel. It spins like a Dreidel, with all things emanating from one root.

The feet of some are also higher than the heads of others. For in the transcendental worlds, the lowest level of an upper world is higher than the highest level of a lower one. And still, everything revolves in cycles.

The primary concept of the Temple is the revolving wheel. The Temple was in the category of "the superior below and the inferior above". God lowered His presence into the Temple and this is "the superior below". The Temple's pattern was engraved on high: "the inferior above".

The Temple is therefore like a rotating wheel, where everything revolves and is reversed. The Temple refutes philosophical logic. God is above every transcendental concept, and it is beyond all logic that He should constrict Himself into the vessels of the Temple. "Behold the heaven and the heaven of heaven cannot contain You, how much less this Temple!" (I Kings 8:27). But God brought His presence into the Temple and thereby refuted philosophical logic. Philosophy cannot explain how man can have any influence on high. It cannot say how a mere animal can be sacrificed and rise as a sweet savor giving pleasure to God. They explain that this pleasure is the fulfillment of His will, but how can we even apply the concept of desire to God?

But God placed His presence in the Temple and accepts the animal as a sweet savor. He made the fact contradict philosophical logic. Such logic is crushed by the Dreidel, the rotating wheel which brings the "superior below and the inferior above".

Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom #40



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