Above and Below

As my activity has increased, my time for writing, of course, has dramatically declined and fatigue has overcome the desire to write each evening. I have been carrying in my mind, for the past four days, a photo I took as I left Shaula and Ami’s apartment in Tel Aviv.  There, just hanging along Idelson Street, as if it were an art gallery designed to wish me nessiya tova (a good journey) to Tsfat, hangs this painting on glass with the simple and deeply meaningful Kabbalist phrase “…as above so below.”  As Shabbat exits here in Tsfat, it feels supremely appropriate to unite that photo with my experience of Shabbat in Tsfat and then go back, I hope, to pick up the other days in between. 

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The Old City of Tsfat is build into a mountain in the Galilee (northern region of Israel) and is Israel’s highest city at an elevation of just under 3,000 feet.  It is ancient and even in the 21st century, one can walk through alleyways and be certain one has stepped back many centuries. Even many of the residents of Tsfat seem to have stepped out of the 17th or 18th centuries, with their black trousers and coats, white shirts, peyot (sidelocks that follow the Levitical prescription – 19:27 – against rounding off the hair at the corners which the Talmud – Makkot 20b – interprets to be the hair between the ears and the temples), and a variety of head coverings from black kippot to large shtreimels. More than anything else, save art nowadays, Tsfat is associated with Kabbalah for it was the home of Rabbi Isaac Luria, “inventor” of Kabbalat Shabbat and a master of Kabbalah.  

One of my very favorite moments in our Renewal-flavored welcoming of Shabbat on Friday evening is a passage from Zohar that Rabbi Marcia Prager expertly placed in the siddur we use when we gather. “כְּגַוְנָא/K’gavna,” we begin, often with an evocative tune (I can hear the chant offered by R’ Eva Sax-Bolder when we led Kabbalat Shabbat at OHALAH several years ago with erev Chazzan Jessi Roemer and R’ Cherina Eisenberg).  With these words, we share with one another the secret of Shabbat/רָזָא דְשַׁבָּת/raza d’Shabat, as written in Zohar Terumah, 163-166:

Just as they (the six sefirot: ḥesed gevurah, netzaḥ, hod and yesod) unite above in Oneness, so She (malkhut/Shekhinah) unites below in the mystery of Oneness, to become One with those above: One receiving One. The Holy One Blessed Be He, who is One “above,” does not sit upon His Throne of Glory until She too is transformed in the mystery of Oneness, that they become One within One. This is the secret of “God is One and God’s Name is One: יהוה (the six sefirot above) Eḥad, u’Shemo (malkhut/Shekhinah) Eḥad.

As I write, I consider whether it is audacious to share these sacred words with such a wide audience and I err on the side of offering this ta’am/taste of the sacred text of Zohar (Hebrew for splendor or radiance), so complex one studies it late in rabbinical school (I will study Zohar this semester with Reb Elliot Ginsburg).  Zohar is intriguingly lush with mystical descriptions of the many aspects of God, the origin and structure of the universe, the nature of souls, the process of redemption, and the relationship between “universal energy” and humanity, to name only a few of its mystical pearls.  The teachings of the Zohar are designed to support Shekhinah (the Divine Indwelling Presence) in our physical realm by providing humanity with the knowledge and understanding and the metaphysical channels to keep the Light flowing into the physical realm, despite all of the brokenness and darkness, thus, sustaining us until the time of Redemption.  It is truly juicy stuff, born in Spain/ספרד (attributed to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai), raised up and advanced by R’ Issac Luria, HaAri haKodesh/the Holy Ari, the father of Lurianic Kabbalah, who resided in Tsfat in the mid-1700s and is buried here, and studied continuously for centuries. 

All that I know of Zohar (which is, admittedly, very little still) is in the background of my mind as I entered the courtyard of the Ashkenaki HaAri Synagogue and placed tzedakah in the box at the gate. A man in the courtyard is playing a Shlomo Carlebach tune as I duck into the synagogue. And with a feeling of being suspended in time, I sit for quite a while in the corner of this very old house of

worship and study in the center of the Old City of Tsfat. I pick up two books from the shelf next to me and read Tehillim/Psalms and peruse the siddur (prayerbook), finding a different arrangement of my favorite morning blessings, and appreciate the shtender (the wooden stand at perfect reading height just in front of my seat. As I let myimg_0454self sink into the Hebrew letters (otiyot), bits and pieces of conversations and explanations from tour guides in English, Spanish, Italian, and Hebrew wash over me. Frequently, I glance up and am drawn into the colors emanating from the large sunlit window right in front of me simply and resplendently adorned with the ancient s’firot of Kabbalah. I am struck by a keen sense of appreciation and awe with each and every look at this magnificent window, the sun’s rays dancing through each of the s’firot ~ vessels representing the many Divine attributes that are manifest above and below.


I find myself perpetually astonished by my proximity to the source of so much of what I have studied for the past many years. Sitting amongst the books in comfortable wooden chairs that would not be available to me (a woman) if this were a time of prayer, I feel at home, as if I am welcome and belong here. A far cry from how I will feel on Friday night when I attend Kabbalat Shabbat and am relegated to the cheap plastic chairs in the balcony, the stuffy air and the whirr of the heat increasing the sense of distance from the heart of the service. I watching the privileged men and boys (unaware, most likely, of this privilege) in the beautiful wooden seats with velvet cushions and wooden stands to hold their prayerbooks. I think of my male colleagues who come to Israel and are able to access all of the places from which I am banned and I feel angry for the first time since I arrived.  I cannot see very well through the thick lace fabric (that is the point – that the men not be mechitzah-lace-fabric-flowers-1distracted by me and the other women).  I am even more aware of the difficulty of seeing and hearing when the d’var Torah is delivered and I struggle to hear and understand, handicapped by language, distance from the speaker, the ambient noise, and my inability to capture all of his gestures through the thick lace. He has said something about the mitzvot illuminated by each letter of the shoresh (the Hebrew root) of the weekly Torah portion, Miketz, Mem-koof -tzadi. There are only 4 of us in the balcony. Presumably, all of the other women are home preparing dinner and I am distracted by my sense of indignation that now is blocking my ability to pray with any authenticity.

I am once again struck by the complexity of my spiritual journey in Israel. Tsfat is the first place where it is painfully clear that there is much that calls to me only to hold up a hand to rebuff me – telling me I do not have permission to participate. I will have to spend more time cultivating the proper kavanah (intention) to allow my spiritual energy to flow with authentic delight and purity and not be blocked by indignation.


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