Love and kindness

... You must also understand that the Rabbis in many cases explained fundamental mystical concepts using examples from nature or science. When they explained things with reference to science, they used concepts that were meaningful in terms of the theories current among students of nature and science in their time. But the main point in such explanations is not the scientific example as expressed in terms of once-current theories, but rather the mystical concept they wanted thereby to elucidate. It has no bearing on the truth of the mystical idea whether the external "garb" in which they clothed it -- the scientific theory -- is actually true or not [according to later thinking]. Their only intention was to express the mystical secret in terms used by the learned in those times. The actual secret could equally well have been clothed in another garb drawn from ideas and theories of later times, and the Rabbi giving the explanation would himself have put it in those terms had he lived later on.

The Rabbis view all physical phenomena as being governed and controlled by spiritual forces of various kinds, whether holy angels or demons and destroyers. Everything in this lowly material world is under the power of a higher, spiritual realm. Conversely, physical actions have an influence on that spiritual realm. Someone who does not understand this view will never be able to understand rabbinical thought...

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto ("RaMChaL"), Maamar al Agadot, printed as an introduction to Midrash Rabbah


The wise men of Athens asked Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya: "Where is the center of the Universe?" He raised his finger and said: "Here!". They said to him, "How do you know?" He replied: "Bring ropes and measure it!" (Bekhorot 8b)

It may be grating to the modern mind to discover that the Judaic view of nature is unapologetically geocentric. It is clear from the Sefer Yetzira, Rambam's Mishneh Torah and other classic sources that the Earth is the center of the universe, while the sun, the moon and the other planets and stars are in orbit around it, each following its own unique path through the skies.

Many moderns will look with disdain at such pre-Copernican ideas. Even though large numbers of people evidently do regard themselves as being at the center of the universe, they would still consider it "subjective" and "unscientific" to view the sun and other celestial bodies as essentially dancing around us and shining especially for us -- even though that is the way it seems when you watch the sun and other heavenly bodies on their magnificent east-west circuits day after day.

But after a few hundred years of post-Galilean astronomy and several decades of space travel, many today would probably consider it more "objective" to take a "scientific" view and look back down at the solar system from some imaginary standpoint way above, in which case Earth would seem to be "just" another planet -- i.e. a “mere” appendage of the sun, which in any case is apparently "merely" another star.

Contemplating the numberless galaxies stretching away from us endlessly in all directions, one might easily conclude that the universe has no order and no center. Once Earth is dethroned from being the center of everything, the more democratic view would seem to be that all the stars, young and old, are equal -- and all equally meaningless, chance explosions of some gas that came out of nowhere for no reason.

Where is the center?

Post-Copernican theories may well provide better explanations of the observable movements of the members of the solar system than the geocentric rotating-sphere theory found in the Rambam. But it is a mistake to conclude that just because science has displaced Earth from being the physical center around which all the stars and planets are orbiting, this means we are not at the actual center of the Universe.

Saying that we are at the center of the Universe is not a statement about our physical position in some closed system. The Universe appears to be endless, and therefore cannot meaningfully be said to have a physical center. There are in fact many physical "centers". The sun is clearly a "center", since it evidently holds major bodies, such as the Earth and planets trapped in its gravitational field. Earth is also a center, keeping you and me and all the rest of its inhabitants very close to the ground most of the time through the power of its gravitational pull.

When we speak about the Center of the entire Universe, we are not talking about a physical center but rather the Absolute Center. This is not a physical concept. For the Absolute Center of all centers is the One Creator, who in Himself is not like any of His creations. God is beyond the physical parameters of space and time that He created for this finite universe. The concept of physical center is simply inapplicable to God. Being one single unity in every respect, God is simultaneously at the center of all things, large or small, at all times. Or to put it another way, the Center is everywhere.

What this means is that wherever you are at any time, you are always right by the very center!

This is what Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiya said to the wise men of Athens when they asked him where is the center of the Universe. "Right here!" he said, raising his finger and pointing. When they asked him how he knew, he said, "Go and measure it!" Obviously it is impossible to measure the Universe since it goes on for ever, being the work of the Infinite One, who is beyond all measure and limit. And because of His very infinity, God -- Creator of all things and Center of all centers -- is at all times simultaneously present in all places, including "Right here!" Wherever you are, you are always right next to the very Center!

Does the universe have meaning?

It is easy to look up at the endless stars and galaxies and sneeringly dismiss the entire Universe as a massive fluke. This is the reaction of an arrogant ignoramus who will not admit that there could be any meaning in something he himself does not understand.

Insisting on only looking "down" at the sun, earth, planets and stars from some imaginary standpoint "up there" (the supposedly "objective," "scientific" viewpoint) as opposed to gazing up at the heavenly bodies in awe and wonder from "down here" on Earth, which is how the heavenly light-show was meant to be seen -- is like going to a wonderful movie and spending the entire time trying to figure out the projection system. This may be a most fascinating exercise, but you will miss the whole show!

The heavenly-light show -- the incessant spinning of the sun, the moon, the stars and planets around and around our skies -- is part of the overall live "movie" or Sippur, the "story" God is causing to unfold in front of our eyes here on Earth through the medium of the Universe, the Creation, which is the Sefer, the "book" (or "screen").

From our viewpoint here on Earth, the story is being enacted amidst the fabulous setting of the circuiting sun, the moon, the planets and stars. It is certainly a wonderful privilege to live in an age when men have traveled in space and looked back down on Earth from "up there", and have even walked on a tiny portion of one of the main projectors, the moon. But why be overly worried about the mechanics that are making the heavenly light-show work the way it does, while totally ignoring the actual radiations of light and other influences these celestial beings are sending down to us right here where we are on Earth?

Without doubt, if we were living on a different planet in a different galaxy the radiations would be different and so would the "story" they tell. It would be a completely different world, and we would be different beings. But the fact is that we are living here on this Earth, exactly where God has put us, and He is shining the lights of the sun, the moon and the stars in just the way He wants in order to tell us the part of the "story" that relates to us.

Above the stars

Abraham, outstanding astrologer that he was, knew full well that the sun, the moon, the planets and stars are all shining directly to US with all kinds of radiations and influences. The Sefer Yetzira provides the foundations for a complete astrological system tracing influences present in the spiritual physical worlds to the stars and planets.

Yet Abraham understood that the Source of these influences is above the stars. Abraham did not merely project himself up to some imaginary standpoint above the solar system and look down the way the scientifically-minded might wish to do. Abraham took a far greater leap -- a leap of faith -- above and beyond the entire physical universe.

"And God took him to the outside, and He said, Look over the heavens...." (Genesis 15:5).

"He took him out from the space (ChaLaL) of the universe and lifted him up above the stars. This is why the word 'look over' is used in the verse, having the connotation of looking from above down below." (Rashi ad loc.)

The humble Abraham was able to rise above the limitations of normal, everyday, materialistic, ego-bound thinking. Through the power of faith and holistic Chokhmah-vision, Abraham took a leap beyond physical space altogether -- to the ultimate, absolute Unity underlying the entire universe. This was how Abraham rose "above the stars". For he made connection with HaVaYaH, the Supreme Power that makes them shine.

The Hebrew word for star is KOKhaV. The word is made up of two pairs of letters, Kaph Vav and Khaph Bet. The numerical value of the letters of the two pairs is respectively twenty-six and twenty-two. (Kaph, 20 and Vav, 6 = 26. Khaph, 20 and Vet, 2 = 22.)

Twenty-six is the numerical value of the holy name of HaVaYaH, Creator of the Universe. At the very core and "center" of each KO-KhaV -- this star, itself a center, an individual sun radiating with light -- is the Absolute Center, the Source and Cause of all things: HaVaYaH. God. The specific power of this particular star derives from its inner Tzura, the God-created spiritual "form" that is the "soul" of the physical star. The power radiated by the Tzura is defined by the "name" of the star, which is made up of a particular combination of the elemental "letters" of creation. Altogether there are twenty-two elemental letters: the twenty-two letters of the Aleph-Bet. The Hebrew word for star, KO-ChaV, indicates that the power of the unified Creator, HaVaYaH (= 26 = KO) radiates via the physical star by means of the Tzura, the "form" or "angel" of the star, whose power is channeled via KhaV (= 22), the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Ko-ChaV!

It is these elemental letters that are writing the story being beamed down to Earth by the sun, the moon, the planets and stars with their many different kinds of light and different influences.

Love and kindness

Abraham grasped that all this light shining down into the world -- giving life to the plants and to all other life-forms on Earth -- is a gift of pure kindness and charity. In the words of Rebbe Nachman:

All the heavenly spheres and cycles are governed by Tzedakah, charity and kindness. This is the idea of "the way of the eagle in the skies" (Proverbs 30): the eagle is a symbol of kindness and charity (Zohar Yitro 80b)"

Likutey Moharan I, 31:1

Seeing all this kindness and charity flowing down into the world, Abraham knew that it was directed to him. For He knew that God is so great, He is intimately involved in every single detail of creation. That is why "Each person must say, The entire world was created only for me" (Sanhedrin 37a, see "In the beginning...").

And the humble Abraham asked: "Who am I to be the receiver of all this? How can I show my gratitude for this gift? What can I do to play my part in this amazing system?" What can I offer?

His answer was: "Just as the sun and the stars and planets are all giving, I too must give. Just as they are all shining pure love, charity and kindness to me, so too I must shine the light on to others...."

For Abraham, it was not enough to study and contemplate nature as an idle spectator. Spiritual maturity is when a person realizes he must play his part not just as a taker but also as a giver in a system which is all about giving.

Having leapt beyond the stars to the Absolute Center and Source, Abraham knew that the Center is everywhere. Every tiny detail of creation is important. Each individual is important. Every single one makes a difference.

That means that I also make a difference. What I do is important.

It is the acts of practical goodness and kindness we show to those around us that build a sweeter, happier world. Kindness means helping people satisfy their material needs. And it means more. The truest kindness is to help people satisfy their deep inner craving for spiritual light and joy and for the fulfillment that can only come from knowing God.

This was why Abraham was always reaching out to others (See "To the Land"). He would go from place to place trying to awaken people to the truth about the world and heighten their awareness of God.

Thanks for the food

One of the ways Abraham did this was by teaching people to appreciate the many blessings flowing to us every day, especially in our very food and drink.

"And Abraham planted the ESheL in Beer Sheva and he called there on the name of HaVaYaH El Olam, Power of the World" (Genesis 21:33).

The Rabbis taught: "The ESheL was a grove of trees, a place where travelers could rest. Our father Abraham made every passer-by call on God's Name. How did he do it? After his guests finished eating and drinking, they would get up to thank him. Abraham would say to them, "Why thank me? Was the food that you ate mine? The food you ate is the gift of El Olam, the Power of the World! Give thanks and praise and bless the One who spoke and brought the world into being" (Sotah 10b).

When a person eats, it is an offering to oneself. After performing the very physical and necessarily self-centered act of eating, Abraham taught that we must take some moments to focus our minds on the goodness, grace and kindness with which God lovingly sends food and sustenance into the entire universe.

"Blessed are You, HaVaYaH, our God, Power of the Universe, Who nourishes the whole Universe in His goodness, with grace, love and kindness..." (from Birkhat HaMazon, the Blessing after Bread).

By reminding ourselves of the kindness and charity that pervades the universe, we will remember our obligation to give something back in return.

It is necessary to offer such prayers of gratitude and praise regularly, in order to draw our awareness of God's love and our obligation to Him deep into our being. For, in the words of the beloved moralist, R. Bachya Ibn Paquda (who lived in the 10th century):

Human beings are like foolish animals when they come into this world. As the wise man said, "When a man is born, he is like a wild ass's colt" (Job 11:12). People grow up surrounded by a superabundance of divine favors which they experience continuously, and to which they become so used that they come to regard these as essential parts of their being, not to be removed for their whole life. Even when their minds and intelligence develop, they foolishly ignore the benefits God has given them, feeling no obligation to be thankful. For they are unaware of the true value of these gifts and the infinite greatness of the Benefactor.

They are like a baby found in the desert by a kind-hearted individual. He took pity on the child, carried it home, brought it up, fed it, clothed it, and provided for it most generously until it was old enough to understand the many benefits it had received. The same kind individual heard about someone who had fallen into the hands of his enemies and had been starved and kept naked and treated with extreme cruelty for a long time. The kind man was able to arrange for the prisoner to be freed, and he then took him home and showed him kindness, though to a lesser extent than he showed to the abandoned child. Yet the freed prisoner was more grateful to the kind man than the child who had been surrounded with kindness from infancy....

Since this is so, men of wisdom have deemed it their duty to awaken those who are unaware of God's beneficence and to teach them to recognize the benefits. There are many good things that people never enjoy simply because they are unaware of how good they really are. As soon as they are made aware of the true benefits they are receiving, they will offer greater praise and thanks to God, gaining pleasure and happiness in their life in this world as well as their heavenly reward in the next.

from Duties of the Heart (Chovot Halevavot) Second Treatise, by R. Bachya Ibn Paquda


To thank and bless God is to take the human faculty of speech, which people mostly use to communicate with other humans, and direct it inwards to self and soul and upwards to God.

Not only are our words of thanks and blessing a way to inculcate ourselves with greater awareness of God as we concentrate on the meaning of these words. These selfsame words are also the most precious offering to God we could make. For speech is man's highest faculty. Out of all creation, man alone was made "in the image of God". God "speaks". With letters and words He brought into being all the Tzurot, the various "forms" of created beings from the highest to the lowest. The greatness of man is that his speech is also vested with creative power.

Since "every physical action has an influence on the spiritual realm", the very air of the breath with which we express the words of the blessings causes vibrations in the whole Universe. Just as the Word of God brought into being many forms and angels radiating love and light, so the words of our prayers and blessings send "kindness and charity" into all creation.

Having eaten and benefited from the fruits, vegetables and other foods that could only grow with the loving light of the sun, the moon and the stars, we take the time to bless God. We reflect on the flow of love manifest in the vast cosmic process of sustenance. And we open our mouths in praise and thanksgiving in order that the words and vibrations flowing from our lips should send blessings into the whole universe.

Adam sinned by stealing the fruit of the tree of knowledge for himself. Abraham taught people not to steal, but to eat what is rightfully theirs with thanks and gratitude to the One who gave it.

And God's love for us is such that when we -- tiny creatures in this vast, endless cosmic system -- bless God, our words are precious to Him. He takes these humble human words and letters and makes them vibrate through the entire universe, opening up the wellsprings of blessing and spreading goodness and peace throughout the world.



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