The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Tsav: what isn't being said

In Jewish hermeneutics, remez is studying what isn't being said, rather than what is being said. It is the textual equivalent of looking at negative space in art. So, when Moses is up on Mount Sinai, receiving the Law, Aaron is down at base camp making a Golden Calf for the people to idolate. But the Torah doesn't mention the Golden Calf until much later. There's really no hint in the passage where Moses receives the Torah that the people are otherwise than fully supportive of Moses.

Similarly, in this week's Torah portion, Aaron and his sons are ordained before the finished Tabernacle without giving any hint what is going to happen next week. God tells Moses to gather all the Children of Israel around the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. Recall that there are 600,000 men over 20 years of age, and many more women and children gathering. Moses brings Aaron and his sons in front of the whole group, and ritually washes them, dressing Aaron in the vestments of the High Priest, and his sons in the vestments of the priests. Then he anoints the Tent of Meeting, and Aaron and his sons with anointing oil.

Moses brings forth a bull for a sin offering. Aaron and his sons lay their hands on its head, and then it is ritually slaughtered. The blood is sprinkled on the altar, and its intestinal fat, the protuberance of its liver, and its kidneys are ritually burned, and then its body is burned outside the camp Then Moses brings forth a ram for a burnt offering. Aaron and his sons lay their hands on its head, it is ritually slaughtered, and its blood is sprinkled on the altar and then it is burned whole on the altar. A second ram is slaughtered, and Moses daubs its blood on the ridge of the right ear, the thumb and big toe of Aaron and his sons. The ram's intestinal fat, protuberance of the liver and its kidneys are burned on the altar, and its blood, mixed with oil, is sprinkled on Aaron and his sons and their vestments. The meat was boiled, and Aaron and his sons were to eat the meat inside the Tent of Meeting, from which they were forbidden to leave for seven days.

Spoiler Alert:

What happens next week? On the eighth day, God consecrated the Tabernacle. More animals were brought to be sacrificed, and the Presence of God (כְבוֹד-יְהוָה in Hebrew) came down as a fire and consumed the sacrifices. Then something bad happened. On their own initiative, Aaron's two oldest sons, Nadab and Abihu, each grabbed a fire pan, lit incense, and to offered it to God. The fire they offered was described as "strange [or alien] fire", or אֵשׁ זָרָה. The result? "And there went out fire from the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD." [Leviticus 10: 2].

I'm going to talk about this a lot more next week, but for now, there's no hint during the description of the ordination in this week's Torah portion that these sudden and shocking deaths are about to happen. None. What does the silence mean?

After all, the Torah narrative is full of foreshadowing. Throughout the description of Eden is a foreboding that it cannot last, and will end in grief. Joseph's triumph in Egypt sows the seeds of the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt. Pharaoh's stubbornness is his downfall. Why no hint that Aaron's firstborn and second-born son are doomed to die for misplaced zeal? What is the Torah saying this week by describing their ordinations as if no tragedy is about to occur?

It suggests that their deaths never should have happened, just as the Golden Calf never should have happened. God was seeking perfection on Earth, and man is imperfect. That is why Moses, enraged, smashed the first set of Tablets of the Law inscribed by the hand of God, and made new Tablets with his own hands. Nadab and Abihu were cut down by the intersection of their own imperfections with the perfection of God. Why? That will have to wait until next week.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Reason Rally

About the Reason Rally this weekend: it is disingenuous for atheists to think that by rejecting one axiom, they have reason on their side. Reason is a tool that everybody has access to. It is a powerful servant but a lousy master, since it wants nothing, cares for nothing, and wills nothing into being. There is reason behind rejecting theism, but there is reason behind rejecting oysters, and ultimately both reasons are aesthetic (unless one has a shellfish allergy).

To use an analogy from mathematics, believing in God is like using the Axiom of Choice, and rejecting God is like rejecting the Axiom of Choice. The majority of mathematicians embrace the Axiom of Choice, even though it is fraught with logical paradoxes, the same way that the majority of people are theistic, even though theism is fraught with logical paradoxes. Rejecting the Axiom of Choice provides its own sets of challenges, and makes it hard to engage with the majority of mathematicians who use it, when discussing mathematics governed by the Axiom of Choice. Rejecting theism makes it challenging to engage in ontological issues with the majority who are theistic. Ultimately, the existence of God is axiomatic, as it is unprovable, and for a theist, a first ontological principle.

In mathematics, there is a conceit that all of mathematics can be based on a set of axioms called ZFC, or the Zermelo-Frankel axioms, with the Axiom of Choice. Some try to build all of mathematics based on ZF¬C, or the Zermelo-Frankel axioms without the Axiom of Choice, because they regard those paradoxes that come with the Axiom of Choice as a refutation of the Axiom of Choice. Right now, it is very hard to be a ZF¬C mathematician. It might not always be so difficult, but currently the Axiom of Choice permeates a lot of mathematics, including algebra, analysis, measure theory, geometry, topology, set theory, logic, and without it, it is harder to do math. I see atheism as parallel to ZF¬C. It challenges an assumption that a lot of people live by. Those who evangelize atheism are demanding that people abandon a basic assumption about the way existence works.

There are brilliant atheists and stupid atheists. There are compassionate atheists and cruel atheists. There are moral victories and atrocities committed by atheists just as there are by theists. I don't believe that atheists should be discriminated against at their workplaces, in acquiring housing, or in their daily lives, and I am sorry if atheists feel oppressed, and will do what I can to help alleviate their oppression wherever appropriate. One big assumption of the Reason Rally is that there are many atheists who are living closeted lives as atheists. The assumption is that there are many people who would be vocal atheists, but are afraid of losing their jobs and families if they "come out" as atheists.  As people who put their trust in reason and science, I'm sure they have sociological data to back up their claims, which I encourage them to publish. I feel sympathy for these people, assuming they exist in the numbers claimed by their vocal advocates. Nobody should deny their natures because of outward pressure to conform. They are justified in convening and encouraging like-minded others to join them.

But if they think they have a monopoly on reason merely by rejecting the existence of God, they forfeit the very reason they claim to monopolize.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Vayikra: Making Sacrifices

This week begins the Book of Leviticus, probably the most misunderstood book in the Torah. The book begins with a detailed discussion of different animal sacrifices, tells of the ghastly botched inauguration of the Tabernacle, and discusses the concept of readiness and unreadiness for ritual activity in more detail than most people are comfortable with. Most people within the Judeo-Christian tradition are deeply uncomfortable with its frankness, harshness, and profound strangeness.

It must be understood that Judaism prior to the fall of the Second Temple was, as all ancient religions were, centered around sacrificing animals, birds, and grain products. The parameters of worship, observance, penance, and celebration were based around the sacrifice of cattle, sheep, goats, birds, and measures of grain. This is pretty much baffling to modern sensibilities, but the ancient soul was buoyed and awestruck by these sacrifices, and in them found the bulk of what for them constituted worship.

The Rabbis of the post-Talmudic era have struggled with this, as it is so alien to what we consider a cultured understanding of Deity, faith and worship. We know that when Titus destroyed the Second Temple, the portion of Jewish observance centered around animal sacrifices died out, and with it, the hereditary priesthood, which was centered around the Temple sacrifices. A group of rabbis gathered in the city of Tiberias in Israel and collectively decided that, without a Temple towards which to direct sacrifices, Jews should offer prayers instead, a prayer session for each designated time for sacrifice. Instead of morning sacrifices, afternoon sacrifices and evening sacrifices, with an extra sacrifice on the Sabbath, and yet another on Yom Kippur, instead we have, respectively, Shacharit prayers, Minchah prayers, Ma'ariv prayers, Musaf prayers, and Ne'ilah prayers. This transformation saved the Jewish religion, but much more importantly, it made Judaism a modern religion. There are still some Orthodox Jews who want to rebuild the Temple and begin the animal sacrifices all over again, and there is a line in the Amidah, or standing prayer, about bringing back animal sacrifices, but most contemporary Jews shudder at the idea.

While Christians (and Masons) insist that the Temple will be rebuilt not in physical space, but in each yearning soul, Jews do something similar in suggesting that when the Messiah comes, animal sacrifices will no longer be appropriate, because the soul will be able to express its devotion to God without the need for such intermediaries. The Rabbinical explanation seems to be that primitive people needed agricultural sacrifices because they were too crude for the subtleties of prayer, but after the Temple was destroyed, we could no longer take refuge in such sacrifices, but were forced to confront the mysteries of prayer head on.

Vayikrah (וַיִּקְרָא in Hebrew) means "and He called". Somehow, it is very Jewish to start a book with and. This Torah portion describes five types of sacrifice. The burnt offering (עֹלָה, or olah), the meal offering (מִנְחָה, or minchah), the peace offering (שֶׁ֫לֶם, or shelem), the sin offering (חַטָּאת, or chatat), and the guilt offering (אָשָׁם, or asham) A burnt offering is an animal or bird that is entirely burned. A bull is burned, or a ram if the person cannot afford a bull, or a goat if a ram proves too expensive, or a turtle-dove or pigeon, if the person cannot afford a goat. If a person cannot afford a bird, they can sacrifice a meal offering instead. High-quality wheat would be mixed with olive oil, and a scoop was placed on the fire, and the rest given to the Priests. Leviticus describes the meal offering as "a thing most holy of the offerings of the LORD made by fire." [Leviticus 2: 3], but in the Hebrew, it is described as a kodash kadashim, קֹדֶשׁ קָדָשִׁים, or a Holy of Holies among the fire offerings brought before God.

This is strange. We know that God rejected Cain's grain sacrifice in favor of Abel's animal sacrifice [Genesis 4: 3-5]. We also know that a meal offering is for someone too poor to afford a small bird to sacrifice. That a person that poor would still offer something up to God is profound, and God understands how holy such a sacrifice is.

The peace offering was given freely, without needing to have the sacrifice expiate for the sins of the sacrificer. It was often given to form a new alliance, or to testify about a friendship. The sin offering was in atonement for sin, and the guilt offering was for when the sacrificer was not sure if he had sinned or not, or had unwittingly sinned.

The description remains similar each time. For a bull, the priest would lay his hands on the bull's head, and then it would be ritually slaughtered. The bull's blood was brought into the Tabernacle, and sprinkled in front of the parokhet, or curtain veiling the Ark of the Covenant. Some of the blood was sprinkled on the incense altar, and the rest poured out at the base of the sacrificial altar. The layer of fat covering and attached to the stomachs was pulled out, along with the two kidneys and the  fat surrounding them, and the lobe on the liver near the kidneys. These are placed on the altar and burned, along with the skin of the bull, and all of its flesh, including the food still in its intestines.

To those who find such forms of worship odd, you are not alone. While there are still people today who are awestruck during a bullfight, watching the tragedy of the last tormented moments of the dying bull, I'm not sure they would keep the same emotion while watching various swathes of intestinal fat and organs being collected and burned.

In Talmudic pedagogy, the Book of Leviticus is the first section of Torah taught to young children. In the midrash on Leviticus, Rav Assi explains that children are pure, and the sacrifices are pure, and that is why they are introduced to Torah through the sacrifices. I think a more pedagogically sound explanation might be that sacrifices are deliberate and procedural, and have less interpretation than the troubling and complicated lives of the Patriarchs of Genesis.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Landed a Permanent Job

When I left my last permanent job last May, I had contract jobs through the summer, until in August, I landed a contract-to-permanent opportunity at a startup. I was supposed to contract for three months, and then get converted to permanent status. Unfortunately, in November, the company was not in a financial position to hire me permanently, so they renewed my contract for another three months. In January of this year, they went out of business.

I got a week's heads-up that my contract was ending. I updated my resumes on LinkedIn, Dice and Career Builder. I took down and deleted by account on because the laziest, sloppiest recruiters troll there. Four business days after the company I worked for went out of business, I had three permanent offers and a contract-to-permanent offer from the company that bought the intellectual property of the company that went out of business.

One company that made me a permanent offer was willing to pay me the same as I earned last time I had a permanent job, but I wasn't very interested in what they were doing, or the technologies they were using. One company was offering me more than a third more than my previous salary, but I was worried that I would have to travel too much, since I am working on getting another dog, and as as the Worshipful Master of a lodge, I need to stay in the area at least when my lodge opens. The third company seemed like they were hiring in a panic. They were annoyed by my insistence on low travel, and finally, the CEO of the company called me personally, and kept jacking up the salary until it was nearly double my last permanent salary. That much panic is unattractive, and so I turned them down and went with the contract-to-permanent offer, in the hope that once I was in the door, I could possibly jockey my way back to my old project.

I was working on health insurance software, a new product that they were launching. The product was very popular, and they did not have enough internal resources to handle implementations of all the new sales. So they hired an army of contractors, gave us minimal training and sent all of us out in the field after a few weeks on the job. I was on a client site after ten business days on the job. The following week, they flew me out to the West Coast to a client site. I was supposed to lead discussions about the technology behind their product, but I did not feel prepared, and was criticized by a supervisor for not knowing enough about the product. A recruiter called me that week, and I realized that I wanted out. I called her back during a lunch break.

On the following Monday, when I got back to the office, the head of the project criticized by performance and threatened to fire me if I didn't do a better job on a different client site that week, where again I was supposed to be the tech lead on implementation discussions. I went back to my desk, turned my Dice and Career Builder profiles back on, called every recruiter I had worked with previously, and called one of the companies that had made a previous offer in January.

Last Tuesday, I had an offer letter for a permanent job as an implementation engineer with a local software company, making a physician's point-of-entry system, with zero travel. I think this might be the first time that I was hired out of an unsuitable job by a better job. It feels pretty good. I offered the old company two weeks notice, and their response was to have someone meet me at my cubicle, take my pass, and escort me off the premises. So be it. I found out later in the week that the company fired people on my project right after I left, so I most likely dodged a bullet. I start my new job this coming Wednesday.

I learned something about my tastes as well. I love working on the hospital/clinic/lab side, because I get to feel like I'm helping to heal people. I don't really like working on the insurance company side, because too often I feel like I'm denying people the care they need. Also, the medical systems are the same all over the world, but insurance systems in the USA are unique to us because our insurance systems are more complicated and stupid than those of the rest of the world. Being an expert in medical insurance in the USA pretty much kills any chance of foreign travel.

A few notes about how to land a job quickly: time is not on your side. If you haven't worked in three months, you become less attractive to employers and recruiters. This is unfair but definitely the case. If you haven't worked in six months, you drop out of consideration. Unfair, but true.

Use LinkedIn. Keep your profile up to date, and fiddle with it weekly so that it stays new. On any job, if you are willing to have a drink with a co-worker outside of work, they should be a LinkedIn contact. If you know you are leaving a company, request to contact every person there that you respect. Do not request via LinkedIn. Do it in person, over the telephone, or by email. LinkedIn punishes you if your request is denied. Know in advance that your request will be approved.

Dice and Career Builder are good resources for recruiters to locate you. Create resumes that are loaded with keywords the recruiters are searching for, and edit them weekly. For example, I work with HL7, X12, XML, a few different integration engines, and I am comfortable with Ubuntu Linux, bash scripting, Perl, Ruby, and JavaScript (which is used as a glue language in integration engines). I list every technology I have used at work, with a few exceptions. I don't list SQL even though I know basic SQL queries. If you list SQL, they expect that you are a competent database architect, which I am not. I also list every major project I have worked on, and how my work on that project added value. I list everything I've been the lead on.

There are call centers in India filled with employees who Google every term that an employer is looking for in a job description, and call everyone who matches their search. So you will get a lot of calls from people with Indian accents who have either Indian or Muslim names who will call at all hours and launch a memorized sales pitch. If you interrupt them, they lose their place and you can weed them out. Their jobs are almost never a match. If a company wants someone to move to Lansing, MI for a three-month contract position, they will get an Indian call center to scatter-shot their search across the USA. It doesn't matter if you don't want to move to Lansing for three months. It doesn't matter if your profile says maximum 25% travel, or no relocation. The best thing to do is to interrupt them, demand your requirements, and if they cannot deliver, hang up.

It is a serious mistake to reject anyone with an Indian or Pakistani name, since it is bigoted and because IT in the USA has a large representation of people from the Indian Subcontinent. But the call center people tip their hand pretty quickly, and should be weeded out.

That being said, I get cold calls all the time that match my skill set and are viable options. Right now, in IT, and especially healthcare IT, there is a shortage of skilled professionals, and there are a lot of opportunities out there. If you are in IT but not in healthcare IT, it might be worth checking out the field.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Pekudei: the Glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle

This Torah portion finishes the Book of Exodus with the completion of the Tabernacle. In this passage, Freemasons in the York Rite can reflect upon a few things that relate to the Mark Master Mason degree and the Most Excellent Master Mason degree.

Exodus 38:25 gives the total of the one-half shekel census tax levied on the people. Each of the men over 20 years of age among the Children of Israel was required to give half a silver shekel as tribute to pay for the building of the Tabernacle. Capitular Masonic tradition, probably from the late 18th or early 19th century, equates a silver half-shekel with a quarter dollar coin, especially back when such coins were made of silver. The complete tally from this tribute was about 15,000 troy pounds of silver. There was also collected, from voluntary offerings, roughly 4400 troy pounds of gold, and roughly 10,600 troy pounds of copper. This was melted down and used in the construction of the Tabernacle.

Much of the passage is a repeat from a few weeks ago, when the future construction was described by God to Moses. In this passage, Bezalel and Oholiab construct the Tabernacle according to this description. The description of the vestments of the High Priest is particularly interesting. The robes were made of sky-blue, purple and crimson threads, using dyes from sea-snails, worms and plants. Gold was beaten into thin sheets, and sliced into threads which were woven into the fabric of the garments. The ephod, belt, and breastplate were fabricated. The breastplate was a doubled square, just as the Lodge Room is a doubled cube. The hem of the robe was decorated with pomegranates and bells, in sequential order, as in pomegranate, bell, pomegranate, bell, all along the edge.

Moses, seeing the work, blessed it and blessed the workers. On the first day of the first month of the second year of the Exodus, Moses and the Levites erected the Tabernacle for the first time. Exodus 40: 20 tells us that Moses put the Tablets of Testimony in the Ark of the Covenant, set the carrying poles on the ark, and put the karopet (covering) on the Ark. He then brought the Ark of the Covenant into the Holy of Holies within the Tabernacle, and shielded it from view with the parokhet (curtain). At each step, the Book of Exodus describes each thing Moses does to erect the Tabernacle, followed by כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה אֶת-מֹשֶׁה, or "as the Lord commanded Moses".

Finally, Moses placed a drape over the entrance to the Tabernacle, and with this, completed all the work. The Cloud that led the Children of Israel covered the Tabernacle, and it was filled with k'vod YHVH (the Glory of God). Moses could not come into the Tabernacle, because the Cloud rested on it, and it wis filled with the Glory of God. When the Cloud lifted off of the Tabernacle, it was a signal that it was time to move forward in their journeys. The Cloud appeared during the day, and by night, a fire was in the Tabernacle (but did not burn it).

This mysterious Glory of God came to be equated with the Shekhinah, or the feminine indwelling Divine Presence of God. The Shekhinah dwelt inside the Tabernacle, and later dwelt inside the Holy of Holies of King Solomon's Temple (and presumably, but more debatably, the Second Temple as well). This presents a real paradox. How can an omnipresent Deity dwell in one particular portion of space and time? This is the question that King Solomon asked at the consecration of the Temple: "But will God indeed dwell on the earth? behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house that I have builded?" [1 Kings 8: 27].

Indeed, during an ordinary regular year or ordinary leap year, this passage about the Consecration of the Temple (1 Kings 7: 51 - 8: 21) is read as a supplemental Scripture passage (or haftarah) after the Torah reading. The story in these two chapters from the First Book of Kings every Freemason should know intimately.

This year, 5772, this Saturday is a special Sabbath, Shabbat Parah, or the Sabbath of the Red Heifer. I have blogged about the Red Heifer before, when explaining about chukim, or esoteric mitzvot. It is probably the most mysterious commandment in the Torah. When someone is spiritually contaminated by exposure to a human corpse, they must purify themselves by being anointed with the ashes of a heifer who is entirely red in color (two non-red hairs on her entire body disqualifies her), who has never worked as a draught animal. The heifer is to be ritually slaughtered, and then burned to ashes, along with cedar wood, hyssop, and threads dyed with the dye of the crimson worm.  The ash mixture is mixed with pure water and contained in a vessel. A bunch of hyssop is dunked in the mixture, and then splashed on the contaminated person, on the third, and seventh days of their impurity. The priest who performs this ablution is ritually contaminated until sundown, and must bathe himself and his clothes.

Jewish tradition tells us that from Moses to the destruction of the Second Temple, only nine such perfect Red Heifers were ever located, slaughtered and used. The ashes of the last heifer were exhausted during the Talmudic period, and now, no Jew who has been exposed to a corpse has any way to purify himself. Jews even today will keep track of whether they are from the tribe of Levi, or whether they come from a line of kohanim, or priests. Hence the common Jewish last names of Levy, ben Levi, Lewis, Cohen, Kahn, Caen, etc. Cohens are advised never to attend a funeral, that they might not be irremediably contaminated by contact with a corpse.

This is a strange commandment. There is a midrash that after God imbued King Solomon with wisdom, he was asked if he now understood all the mitzvot in the Torah. He replied that he understood all of them except the mitzvah of the Red Heifer.

There is a tenet of some Christian eschatology that Christ will not return until the Third Temple is built in Jerusalem on the Temple Mount. This would require a new red heifer to purify the Temple builders and priests. To this end, a group of evangelical farmers are trying to breed a perfect red heifer. Some Jews believe that the red heifer has to be born in Israel, so work is being done both in the USA and in Israel to provide this animal through selective breeding. I'm not sure what planning is being done to relocate the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, and how well such planning is being received by those who worship at those holy sites.

Shabbat Parah is the Shabbat after Purim. This year's Purim day 2, or Purim Shushan, extended into the Sabbath, so Shabbat Parah is this Friday night into Saturday morning.

It is customary in Torah study, when a student or group of students finishes studying a book of Torah, to say: chazak chazak v'nitchazek. This could be translated as "Be strong! Be strong! And may we be strengthened."
חזק חזק ונתחזק

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Vayakhel: Chokmah, Binah and Da'at

The Torah is divided by the rabbis into 54 Torah portions, or parashiot. The Hebrew calendar is lunisolar, meaning it is based on both the sun and the moon. The Islamic calendar is lunar; it is defined by twelve months, each of which is defined by the moon from new to waxing to full to waning to the next new moon. The challenge is that twelve lunar months is 354.37 days whereas the solar year is 365.24 days. That means that the two means of reckoning the year diverge by about 11 days. So a date in a purely lunar calendar will drift throughout the seasons as the years progress. The sacred month of Ramadan can appear in the winter when days are short, or in the summer when days are long and heat increases people's thirst, or anywhere in between.

The Jewish holidays are seasonal. Passover is a celebration of springtime. Shavuot is a celebration of summer, and Sukkot is a harvest festival in the autumn. The Jews wanted a lunar month but wanted to keep their seasonal festivals, so they came up with a lunisolar calendar. Each month is lunar, so to adjust the calendar to keep the months aligned with the seasons, they have a leap month every few years. The month of Adar becomes the months of Adar I and Adar II. The rabbis of the Talmudic era divided the Torah into 54 portions so that, with a few special Sabbaths outside of the cycle (like during the High Holy Days), they would fit into the 13 month calendar. On non-leap years, like 5772, the current year, some of the shorter Torah portions are doubled up so that the cycle fits into a 12 month year. This week is the first such double parashah, where Vayakhel and Pekudei are bundled together as Vayakhel/Pekudei.

In blogging about each Torah portion, I had to make a decision this week as to whether to consider each portion separately, or to treat Vayakhel/Pekudei as one portion. I have decided to treat each portion separately, although each treatment may be shorter than my regular treatments (which is fine: the passages themselves are shorter).

Vayakhel is not the first mention of the craftsmen Bezalel son of Uri, son of Hur (B'tzalel ben Uri ven Chur) of the tribe of Judah in the Torah, but it is the first in which he appears in person. Previously (Exodus 31: 2-3), God told Moses about Bezalel, and told Moses that He had filled Bezalel with wisdom, understanding and knowledge. These words in Hebrew are Chokmah, Binah, and Da'at, and the first two are Sephirot on the Tree of Life, holding the second and third positions. Da'at is sometimes considered a Sephirah, but more often it is considered a pseudo-sephirah, or something inferior to an actual sephirah. This is strange, and needs some explaining.

The first Sephirah on the Tree of Life is Keter, or the Crown. This is the first manifestation of Being, as Ain Soph precedes Being. Keter is utterly abstract, the Prime Movement of the Prime Mover, the first inkling of the first actuality. It immediately emanates into a polarity: yin and yang, male and female, the first dyad. The male pole is called Chokmah, or wisdom. The female pole is called Binah, or understanding. These one-word translations do not do these concepts sufficient justice. They cannot be conceptualized without a lot of meditation.

The synthesis of the two is called Da'at, or knowledge. It sits inside a hexagon of the first six Sephirah, but is often not considered a Sephirah itself. In the Golden Dawn system, Da'at sits in the Abyss, the barrier between the three lesser worlds of Ideas, Formations, and Action (Briah, Yetzirah, and Assiah) and the greater world of emanations (Atzilut).In the Western Hermetic tradition, this Abyss is absolutely perilous. The adept has to cross the abyss, but if they tarry or get bogged down, or if they try to keep their egos from being annihilated in the process, they will fall into the abyss of which there is no escape. Aleister Crowley claims that the Abyss is populated by the demon Choronzon, whose number is 333,, who will devour your soul if he detects any trace of ego remaining in you when you encounter him.

All this is much more innocent in the Jewish Kabbalistic tradition. Da'at is knowledge. It is the synthesis of Chokmah and Binah, wisdom and understanding. It is not a Sephirah, but it valuable nonetheless. In the form of Hasidism under the Chabad Lubovich school, ChaBaD is itself an acronym. Chokmah, Binah, Da'at. Chabad philosophy is encapsulated in the Tanya, the magnum opus of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad. The Tanya is a plain language treatise on Lurianic Kabbalah written as to be understood by the layman as a rational philosophy. At the time, this was an extraordinarily controversial thing to publish, as Kabbalah was a closely-guarded secret whose adherents required proficiency with Torah and Talmud from any potential student. Chabad believes that it is information that should be made accessible to any Jew whatsoever. Chabad also has its own unique interpretation of proper Jewish orthodoxy and orthopraxy, which can sometimes be controversial.

So Bezalel was chosen because God had filled him with Chokmah, Binah, and Da'at, and that gave him the power to construct the Tabernacle. In a very real sense, he is to the Tabernacle what Hiram Abiff is to the Temple, with the noted exception that there is nothing in the legends about Bezalel's death. The Kabbalists regarded Bezalel as able to form letters out of nothing, and to rearrange them to shape the substance of the universe as he saw fit. The name B'tzal-el means in the shadow of God. Midrash says that although God twice showed Moses the design of the Menorah, or lampstand, Moses was unable to grasp the complexities of God's concept for it. When Moses described what he understood to Bezalel, however, Bezalel understood immediately, and was able to create it from a single giant piece of hammered gold. The Talmud says that Bezalel was only thirteen when he fashioned the Tabernacle, but was of great wisdom, and Midrash says that he was the grand-nephew of Moses, through Bezalel's grandfather Hur (Chur).

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Ki Tisa: I Beseech Thee, Show Me Thy Glory

In this week's Torah portion, Moses asks God to allow him to behold God’s Presence (Exodus 33:18). Literally, the word used that we translate as presence (or glory) is כְּבֹד, or kavod. This term, when combined with God’s name (כְּבֹד יְהוָה), can itself be one of the names of God. This presence is a manifestation of God on Earth. The pillar of fire and column of smoke that follow the Israelites through the wilderness of Sinai are described as kavod YHVH, as is the mysterious force that is present in the Tabernacle, and later, the courtyard of the Temple, that receives the animal sacrifices. This power is so terrible and profound that it can kill a human being unprepared to receive it. In the Book of Leviticus, Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, rush into the Tabernacle with incense pans burning with “אֵשׁ זָרָה, or alien fire” [Leviticus 10: 1], and are immediately struck dead. The term used for the Presence of God in Leviticus 10:2 is יְהוָה לִפְנֵי, or before the Face of God. This is another expression, used with similar meaning to the Presence of God. Thus, Moses’ request is audacious and perilous, because an ordinary man would be killed in such an interaction.

God responds: “And He said, I will make all My goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy. And He said, Thou canst not see My face: for there shall no man see Me, and live. And the LORD said, Behold, there is a place by Me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock: And it shall come to pass, while My glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a clift of the rock, and will cover thee with My hand while I pass by: And I will take away Mine hand, and thou shalt see My back parts: but My face shall not be seen.” [Exodus 33:19-23].
Moses wakes up the next morning, and alone, climbs Mount Sinai, bringing with him two tablets of stone. At the summit, God descended in a cloud, stood with Moses, and proclaimed the name of the LORD [Exodus 34: 5]. The nature of the proclamation, given in the next two verses, is one of the foundational scriptural passages of the Jewish religion, and is known as the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. The enumeration is traditional, as is the interpretation.
1.      יְהוָה: YHVH. Compassion before a person sins.
2.      יְהוָה: YHVH. Compassion after a person has sinned.
3.      אֵל: El. One of the more ancient names of God. Mighty in compassion to give all creatures according to their need.
4.      רַחוּם: Rachum, or Merciful. Merciful, that humankind may not be distressed.
5.      חַנּוּן: Chanun, or Gracious. Gracious if humankind is already in distress.
6. אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם: Erech Apayim, or Slow to Anger.
7. רַב-חֶסֶד: Rav Chesed, or Great Loving-kindness.
8. אֱמֶת: Emet, or Truth.
9. נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים : Notser Chesed La’alafim, or Keeping Loving-kindness unto the thousandth generation.
  1. נֹשֵׂא עָו‍ֹן : Noseh Avon, or Forgiving Iniquity.
  2. נֹשֵׂא פֶשַׁע : Noseh Peshah, or Forgiving Transgression.
  3. נֹשֵׂא חַטָּאָה : Noseh Chata’ah, or Forgiving Sin.
  4. וְנַקֵּה: V’naqeh, or And Pardoning.

In the King James Version, the whole passage reads: “The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” [Exodus 34: 6-7], which misses the last attribute in its translation.
This passage gets recited, given a quorum of worshippers, on every holy day that does not coincide with the Sabbath, and also on Yom Kippur Eve.
This, the Book of Exodus tells us, is God’s way of showing Himself to Moses. In other places in the Torah, God reveals to mortals either through an angel or group of angels, like He did with Abraham and Jacob, among others; or through a voice, as He did with Moses and Aaron. We know that direct revelation can be deadly to the unprepared and uninitiated. In a real sense, God is merciful to humankind by not revealing Himself directly to us, which would kill us.
In the middle of the 16th century, the great kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero wrote Tomer Devorah, or The Palm Tree of Deborah (published posthumously in 1588). This was a book of Mussar, or ethics. In it, he advises the reader that the best way to lead a moral life is to imitate God. To do this, the reader is shown the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, and is given a chapter each in which Cordovero explores how to imitate that particular attribute. In the introduction, he makes an astonishing claim, which deserves to be quoted in length:
“[God is] a patient King Who bears insult in a manner that is above human understanding. For behold, without doubt, there is nothing hidden from His providence. Furthermore, there is no moment when man is not nourished and does not exist by virtue of the divine power which flows down upon him. It follows that no man ever sins against God without the divine affluence pouring into him at that very moment, enabling him to exist and to move his limbs. Despite the fact that he uses it for sin, that power is not withheld from him in any way. But the Holy One, Blessed is He, bears this insult and continues to empower him to move his limbs even though he uses the power in that moment for sin and perversity offending the Holy One, Blessed is He, who, nonetheless, suffers it. Nor must you say that He cannot withhold that good, God forefend, for it lies in His power in the moment it takes to say the word ‘moment’ to wither the sinner's hand or foot, as he did to Jeroboam. And yet though it lies in His power to arrest divine flow - and He might have said: ‘If you sin against Me do so under your own power, not with Mine’ - He does not, on this account, withhold His goodness from man, bearing the insult, pouring out His power and bestowing of His goodness. This is to be insulted and bear the insult, beyond words. This is why the ministering angels refer to the Holy One, Blessed is He, as ‘the patient King.’ And this is the meaning of the prophet's words: ‘Who is a God unto Thee?’ He means: ‘Thou, the good and merciful, art God, with the power to avenge and claim Thy debt, yet Thou art patient and bearest insult until man repents.’ Behold this is a virtue man should make his own, namely, to be patient and allow himself to be insulted even to this extent and yet not refuse to bestow of his goodness to the recipients.
…for  a destroying angel is created whenever a man sins, as we have been taught: ‘He who commits a sin acquires a prosecutor for himself,’ who stands before the Holy One, Blessed is He, saying: ‘So-and-so made me.’ As no creature can exist without the divine flow of power how does the destroying angel who stands before Him exist? It would only be right if the Holy One, Blessed is He, were to say: ‘I will not nourish this destroying angel, let him go to the one who made him to be sustained by him.’ If He were to say this the destroyer would at once descend to snatch the sinner's soul or to cut it off or the sinner would be obliged to expiate his offence in creating the destroyer by suitable punishment unto the latter is made naught. The Holy One, Blessed is He, does not behave in this fashion. He bears the sin and endures it. He nourishes the destroyer and sustains it as He does the whole world until one of the three things happens. Either the sinner repents and makes an end of the destroying angel by the severity of the penances he inflicts upon himself. Or the righteous Judge brings the destroyer to naught by bringing suffering or death upon the sinner. Or the sinner descends to Hell to pay his debt.
This is the meaning of Cain's plea ‘My sin is too great to bear,’ interpreted by our Rabbis of blessed memory as: ‘Thou bearest (that is to say, Thou nourisheth and sustaineth) the whole world; is my sin so heavy that Thou canst not bear it (that is, sustain it until I repent)?’
This is the greatest quality of tolerance, that He nourishes and sustains the evil creature brought from which a man should learn until the latter repents. From which a man should learn the degree of patience in bearing his neighbor's yoke and the evils done by his neighbor even when those evils still exist. So that even when his neighbor offends he bears with him until the wrong is righted or until it vanishes of its own accord and so forth.”

This illustrates the nature of God’s forgiveness and mercy in a very remarkable way. The image that Cordovero creates is that of a sinner doing something that offends God, and having God exert more energy into preserving the sinner than He does in correcting the sin. God could easily roll back His Divine blessing of protection an iota in reaction to the sin, but He does not. If God bears our sins which are insults directed at Him, with such patience, surely we can bear the insults of our fellow mortals with the same equanimity.
Cordovero personifies the offense that sin creates as an avenging angel, or demon, that exists to devour the soul of the sinner, and God’s love for us is so great that God keeps the demon from devouring us even when our sin creates the demon. The demon needs energy to sustain its existence, and a just God could demand that we provide the energy or life-force that the demon requires, but instead nourishes the demon until a) the sinner repents and does penance for the sin, b) God brings suffering or death upon the sinner, or c) the sinner descends into Hell (literally, Gehinnom, or Purgatory) to burn off his sin before entering the World to Come, or the afterlife. I have not encountered a more striking illustration of the nearly-unfathomable forgiving nature of God, who could destroy us with the tiniest relenting of his awesome merciful protection, and yet suffers our insults to Him with great patience.