Contemplation: Hitbonenut

Coming to recognize the unfathomable mystery of creation can be a humbling experience. Man takes great pride in his knowledge and understanding: it makes him feel he is in control of things, at least temporarily. The realization that we are puny, fleeting mortals who know and understand very little about anything should induce in us a deep humility.

Humility is indeed necessary in order to attain true wisdom. Wisdom in Hebrew is called ChoKhMaH. Reversing the order of the first two Hebrew letters of the word ChoKhMaH gives us the words Ko-aCh MaH, "the Power (Ko-aCh) of What (MaH)". For true wisdom, ChoKhMaH, is an holistic vision of the Power-Source (Ko-aCh) that underlies and animates all that exists (MaH).

Such wisdom and perception can dwell only in one who is humble enough to be able to see beyond the boundaries of his own limited perspectives and self-interest. When a person effaces self and attains a state of genuine humility and "nothingness", the blinkers that usually narrow human perception fall away and he becomes open to the visionary consciousness of Chokhmah. Since humility is the prerequisite of true wisdom, the Bible teaches us that "Wisdom comes out of nothingness" (Job 26:20).

Adam's sin of "eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge" was essentially a selfish act. Wisdom and knowledge are divine faculties. God may share them with man as gifts of grace. But Adam wanted to steal them for himself. Instead of pursuing the kind of knowledge that connects man with the true Source of all creation, Adam wanted to snatch knowledge and understanding for his own aggrandizement so as to be able to gain control of things and manipulate them for his own selfish purposes. But any system of knowledge and understanding that fails to trace back the objects of that knowledge to their Divine Source can only be a warped, counterfeit wisdom.

Abraham's essential mission was to rectify Adam's stealing of the fruit of the tree of knowledge and the intellectual arrogance that has afflicted mankind ever since. Since Abraham sought true wisdom, ChoKhMaH, he was obliged to climb the most challenging "mountain" of all: the mountain of genuine humility, which is the quality that is the very foundation of wisdom.

Humility is called a "mountain" because paradoxically, meekness and lowliness are the "highest" of all spiritual qualities. The summit of spiritual achievement can be attained only through years of steady work chipping away at all one's selfish, negative traits one by one, until finally all traces of self-centeredness are erased. Abraham had this humility. Even as he stood arguing with God in prayer, Abraham knew what man is: "I am dust and ashes" (Genesis 18:27).

Abraham's attributes as seen in the Kabbalah

In the Kabbalah, Abraham is seen as the living embodiment of the divine attribute of Gedulah ("greatness"), which is also often called Chessed, expansive loving kindness. In all the various things that Abraham did during his life, he manifested character traits or soul-powers that teach us especially about these particular divine attributes. For example, the hospitality and charity Abraham showed when he entertained wayfarers, dug wells, planted trees and the like help us gain insight into the kindness, hospitality and charity of God Himself. In relation to God, all of us are "guests" whose needs He provides without receiving anything in return.

"The universe is built on kindness (Chessed)" (Psalms 89:3). The Godly attribute of Chessed, personified in Abraham, is the foundation of the whole creation. For the entire creation is a loving gift from God in order to enable us to find Him and forge a relationship with Him through the things of this finite world despite our puny status in relation to God's infinite greatness. God's kindness in allowing us to enter into a relationship with Him is itself a manifestation of His true greatness (Gedulah). For only the very greatest is great enough to be connected even with the very smallest.

In Kabbalah the attribute of Chessed is associated with the Water Element (Mayim). [The four fundamental "elements" of all creation, spiritual and physical, are "Water", "Fire", "Air" and "Earth". The first three -- "Water", "Fire" and "Air" -- manifest themselves in and through the "Earth" element.] Water humbly flows ever downwards from the greatest heights to the lowest depths. Water is the indispensable basis of all life from the tiniest organisms to the most complex and sophisticated. Pure, vitalizing, cleansing, rejuvenating water symbolizes the expansive love and kindness that flow through the entire creation.

The opposite of water is fire (Esh). When left to itself, fire burns up and destroys creation, returning everything to nothing. Yet fire is equally indispensable to the creation, as long as its raw energy is harnessed and directed in a focused way. Fire is associated with the polar opposite of outflowing, unstinting Chessed: namely Gevurah, strength, discipline, limitation, restriction and severity. The attribute of Gevurah is embodied in Isaac (as will be discussed in Part II of the Course.) These two opposing poles of Chessed (thesis) and Gevurah (antithesis) are held in balance by a third, mediating quality: Tiferet, synthesis, harmony and beauty, embodied in Jacob and associated with air (or wind or spirit -- Ruach. See Part III of the Course.)

Chessed and Gevurah are the "right" and "left" poles of the "tree" of the Kabbalah. This "tree" is the conceptual structure that expresses the interrelationship between the various divine qualities and attributes through which we are able to begin to understand and forge a connection with God. The structure of the kabbalistic "tree" corresponds directly to that of the human body, since "God created man in His own image" (Genesis 1:27). Each attribute is associated with one of the main parts of the human body.

Chessed and Gevurah correspond respectively to the right and left arms/hands of the body, while Tiferet -- in the center -- corresponds to the heart. The two "arms" of Chessed and Gevurah are the two fundamental poles of the creative process: expansive, active "giving" (Chessed, Water), and retractive, passive "taking/receiving" (Gevurah, Fire). The mediating quality of Tiferet is reflected in the ever-repeated cycles of successive expansion and contraction of the heart, which are governed by Ruach, Vital Spirit, Air.

The qualities of Chessed, Gevurah and Tiferet are visible and manifest in innumerable specific phenomena throughout the creation. But just as the visible activity of the arms and all other parts of the human body is governed by invisible intentions and ideas within the brain, so too the energy manifested within the creation via the "arms" is in fact governed by a higher-level master-system inside the "head". Here in the "brain" the creation is conceived and planned, and from here divine power is channeled "down" into the creation itself -- the "body" -- in such a way as to bring about God's ultimate purpose, which is that we should all become connected with Him.

Thus the triad of Chessed, Gevurah and Tiferet -- the qualities that govern process within creation -- is itself under the control of the higher master-triad of Chokhmah ("Wisdom"), Binah ("Understanding") and Daat ("Knowledge") in the "brain", namely the spiritual level above and beyond creation. Chokhmah, Wisdom, is the holistic vision of what creation is to be. Binah, Understanding, is the analytic intelligence that explores and maps out in detail the various specific concepts involved in bringing this conception of creation into being. Daat is the knowledge, consciousness and connection that comes from combining Chokhmah and Binah so as to see the whole vision in relation to all its parts and each of the parts in relation to the whole. This ensures that everything in creation works together harmoniously to bring about the ultimate goal, which is that all creation should know and be connected with God.

Each of the individual attributes in the Chessed-Gevurah-Tiferet triad is particularly rooted in the corresponding attribute in the higher Chokhmah-Binah-Daat triad. Chessed, the expansive, flowing kindness manifest within the creation, is especially rooted in Chokhmah, the profound Wisdom of the overall divine plan of creation. Thus the Divine Name EL associated with the quality of Chessed has the numerical value of 31 (Aleph = 1 plus Lamed = 30). This is because Chessed is especially rooted in Chokhmah, which according to the Kabbalah consists of "thirty-two pathways of wisdom". Thirty-one of these pathways can be revealed within the creation through the attribute of Chessed/EL. However, the first and highest "pathway", the transcendent unity of the Infinite God, cannot be openly revealed within the finite, created world because this is the realm of limitation and plurality.

Hitbonenut: Contemplation

The finite human mind is well adapted to deal with the created world we live in, with its hosts of different phenomena, many of them seemingly disconnected from or even at war with one another. Particularly suitable for examining this world is Binah-thinking, which analyzes the individual phenomena making up a larger whole, investigating them in themselves and in relation to one another. [Binah-thinking traces the distinctions between one thing and another. "Between" in Hebrew is BeiN, which is obviously related to the root of BiNah, understanding. Moreover, by tracing the interrelationships between things as well, Binah-thinking connects and joins the individual entities together, as it were, building them into a larger structure. The Hebrew word for a "structure" or "building" is BiNYaN, the root of which is also related to that of BINaH.]

The discipline of actually using and applying Binah-thinking is in Hebrew called HiTBoNeNuT. This word is a noun made from the reflexive verb-form HiTBoNeN ("contemplates"), the root of which is BiN, to "understand". By thinking and thinking about something, examining it this way and that, one "makes oneself understand".

The created world, though founded on God's Chessed -- His loving will to "reach out" and reveal Himself -- could nevertheless only come into being through successive acts of self-limitation (Tzmtzum, "contraction") through which the Infinite Creator brings into being a finite realm suitable for the finite creatures destined to receive this revelation. Thus the finite world of plurality came about through the divine attribute of Gevurah, the disciplined, focused application of the exact power necessary at each stage in each place in order to bring about God's purpose. The attribute of Gevurah is associated with the Divine Name ELoHIM, which literally means "the Powers". God -- ELoHIM -- is the unified Source of the plurality of specific, limited powers that are revealed in this world.

Just as the attribute of Chessed is especially rooted in Chokhmah, so that of Gevurah is especially rooted in Binah, which traces out the specific details and limits of each of the various different powers involved in the creation. For this reason, Binah-thinking -- Hitbonenut, careful study and contemplation -- is particularly appropriate when starting to examine the phenomena of this world of plurality. As we seek to make sense of our surroundings we have no option but to begin with rational-analytic thought in order to investigate and try to understand the various different phenomena we find all around us.

But just as God's creation of the world is essentially driven by His expansive Chessed, His loving will to reveal Himself to all His creatures, so too the yearning of those creatures -- namely US -- to understand and make sense of this creation (in order to discover who we are and where we are going) is also fueled by a quality of Chessed within US. We are made in the image of God, and we therefore have this force of Chessed rooted deep within our souls. This is the inner urge that drives us to use our own creative spiritual powers in such a way as to transcend our limitations and penetrate to the unity that underlies the whole creation.

Abraham, who is the very embodiment of this Chessed, had no option but to begin his search for the Source from within the created world in which he found himself. Abraham was alone. He was the first. There was no tradition of religious revelation to guide him in his quest. Abraham had no alternative but to begin his search with Hitbonenut, contemplative examination of the phenomena of the world that he could see with his own eyes: the stars and planets and all the other hosts of creation. But the driving Chessed within him spurred him always to direct his Binah-contemplation towards Chokhmah perception, so as to see how all the individual entities in the world are in fact part of the single overarching, unifying Whole.

Abraham as a student of nature

Abraham was always journeying to the Mountain -- the humility and self-transcendence that bring one to true wisdom, Chokhmah. In his quest for God Abraham must have spent many years of his life in solitary contemplation, meditation and prayer on the blessed mountains of Israel, the Holy Land. It is indeed from the peaks of physical mountains that one can best survey the entire span of the heavens above and look down over all the territories stretching away below!

In his search for the unified Source of all the hosts of heaven and earth, Abraham had to direct his inner eye beyond the visible world. But it was from the visible, natural, physical world that he began. Indeed, Abraham was one of most the outstanding students of nature that ever lived, and especially of the planets and stars.

"And God took Abraham outside and He said, Look up to the heavens and count the stars..." (Genesis 15:5). According to tradition, when God took Abraham "outside", He was raising him to a level of perception that lay beyond the astronomy/astrology of which he was already a master (see Rashi ad loc.). The sages and priests of the Babylon culture in which Abraham had grown up were expert sky-gazers and star-worshippers. For them it was a given that the planets and stars rule over all that takes place on the Earth to which they shine.

Abraham knew the skies as well as anyone. He had no doubt that radiations from the stars and planets influence everything on earth. But Abraham had a driving urge to find EL, the Power, the Source of all things. This urge caused the inner eye of his contemplative soul to rise above and beyond the disparate parts of the system in order to perceive the Whole. For Abraham, everything we can see in this world derives from and is a teaching to us about the unified Source of the world. Through intense Hitbonenut, the proper application of Binah-thought to the phenomena of this world, we have the power to rise to Chokhmah-perception and see that all these phenomena are part of the flow of God's Chessed.



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