by Bill Page
If Jewish history, culture, and religion could be likened to a mine, one of the deepest and richest veins would be Jewish mysticism. Mysticism and its associated practices, all meant to lead to a direct experience of God or ultimate reality, has many styles, and indeed, Jewish mysticism encompasses many practices. We may immediately think of Kabbalah, for example, but Torah study itself has a mystic vein.
For example, Jewish mystics of the Middle Ages understood that Torah was a mine of information with many potential levels of meaning. Moses de Leon, author of the Zohar, is said to have coined the acronym pardes for the four levels of interpretation of Torah: literal (peshat), figurative (remez), midrashic (derash), and mystical (sod). Although pardes, pleasure garden, sounds like a wonderful place, the rabbis considered it instead a dangerous place in which to wander: A story in the Tosefta says that four well-known rabbis entered pardes, but only one of them (Rabbi Akiva) entered in peace and left in peace.
All of this strikes the modern mind as somewhat strange, and I think that today we are more likely to see people who claim to have seen God face-to-face as psychotics, rather than mystics. But there is a gentler strain of Jewish mysticism that I find much more to my liking. During a Shabbat morning service some months ago, I was overwhelmed by a profound feeling of thankfulness for life itself. It was a different kind of feeling, one of tenderness, openness, and even vulnerability. I no longer had the world in a sharp focus, the better to ensure some supposed good thing for myself in the future, but in a soft focus on what surrounds me always, but of which I seldom take notice. Instead of trying to steer things in the present or planning the future, I was suddenly seeing things as they are and simply blessing them. I sensed a connection with things and that I was part of a whole, rather than my being separate from them and having to fight for my share of something.
I saw that my feelings of vulnerability were coming from temporarily removing my armor of self-interest and self-preoccupation to gain a wider perspective. In reality, we are in charge of very little, and when we drop our fixed glare of self-interest and adopt the soft focus of simply seeing things as they are, we can enter what seems to be a different state. As I think back on all this, it strikes me as the kind of experience that mysticism is about.
Unlike the dramatic, frightening sort of encounter – when one sees God in some awe-inspiring form, like the chariot (merkavah) of Ezekiel, with four-faced angels, intersecting wheels, thrones of sapphire, and the like – this strikes me more like the “still, small voice” encounter of Elijah. Finding a quiet connection with ultimate reality seems to me to be a kindred sort of sacred connection: perhaps it is the “awe” part of yirah, rather than the fear.
If mysticism involves a search for such encounters, how do seek out such quiet encounters? My brief Shabbat service experience leads me to think that we are meant not so much to seek out such encounters as to allow ourselves to experience them. Mostly, we are in our own way, and we will come more frequently to such encounters not by effortful searching but by trying to be more open, even vulnerable, to experiencing a mystical quietness.
My friend Emerson wrote about two states of being in his essay titled “Transcendentalism.”
“One (state) prevails now, all buzz and din; and the other prevails then all infinitude and paradise…”
Emerson says all we can hope for is that these moments of bliss will become more frequent in our lives of buzz and din, like a more and more dense web of quiet peeks of infinitude paradise. I can’t say it any better than that.
Bill Page is a member of Temple Micah in Washington, D.C.