By Jeremy Toeman
If you’ve been following this blog, you know by now we’re having a “sababa” time in Israel, eating great food, seeing amazing sights, learning more of our heritage and history, and making wonderful new connections. But that’s only part of the story – in another way we’re having experiences that I can only call magical. That was a thought I had before we arrived in Tzfat to learn more about the mystical sides of Judaism.
Personally, most of what I’ve known of Kabbalah in the past either came from Madonna or other pop cultural references. So when Rabbi Arnowitz shared some of his recent insights and learnings of the deeper interconnectedness between the Zohar and Talmudic Judaism, I must admit I was a touch skeptical. As we entered the Tzfat Gallery of Mystical Art and were introduced to Avraham, I became instantly curious about the symbols and patterns woven throughout his beautiful artwork.
I could tell in a moment that the intricate patterns of lines and triangles and symmetrical shapes were somehow going to be connected to the Torah, but other than a guess about the number 613, I was stymied. Avraham explained to us one of his inspirations was to visualize the connections between the sounds of the shofar blown on Rosh Hashanah and the Kabbalah – the Tekiyah, the Teruah, the Shevarim, and the Tekiyah Gedolah,and as I learned, the obviously uncoincidental fact that there are exactly 100 notes blown that day.
And then we saw how Avraham visualized them, from the first blow to the final, ascending with color schemes from dark rising to the light (as observed by 10-year-old Isaac Arnowitz!). Which connects to a core concept of Kabbalah – our journey on Earth is to ascend from a basic, primal “What can I get?” form of thinking and being to a richer “What can I give?” And this isn’t just our journey, it’s our tafkid – our task – to get there, and we repeat this journey until we “move to the consciousness of everyone.”
As the discussion continued, the Rabbi’s words kept echoing in my head – that we can’t have one form of Judaism without the other. When Avraham mentioned that there is “nothing but God” and that the center of all things is unconditional love, this struck me quite deeply. As a “typical” Conservative Jew, I’ve personally struggled with my perception of God. In fact, it was at my wife’s family Shul in Montreal, the Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue, where I first heard a Rabbi give me an explanation that helped me connect the dots in my own head. Paraphrasing, he explained that thinking of God as an old guy living in the clouds with a big white bushy beard is a very “entry level” way of thinking, and to instead picture him, simply put, as “the universe itself.”
Ah ha. It clicks. We continued to learn how the Kabbalastic view is that nothing happens by chance – not even our names. An hour or so later, outside on the streets of Tzfat, through a random set of coincidences I met a stranger who just so happens to work for a company I’ve been trying to connect with. Yet another inexplicable, magical moment on our already amazing trip. As we headed to the Dalton Forest, I felt more connected to this concept of moving up, of pondering “What can I give?” more than before.
We alighted from the bus and walked through the woods to a hilly region where we met Moshiko and Guy, who gave us a quick lesson on how to rappel and off we went. Being quite uncomfortable with heights, I wanted to go right away, otherwise I’d lose my nerve. It was exhilarating, though squarely in the category of things I’m glad I’ve done and don’t imagine I’d do again. I reached the bottom, and couldn’t help but connect spiritually with the thoughts Avraham planted in my head earlier in the day. What can I give?
I spent the next hour taking photos and videos of everyone else coming down the ropes, as I know how great it is to be able to look back on those moments or share them with others. As I stood on the cliffs below, between descents I noticed the quiet sounds of baby birds from hidden nests in the rocks. At one point we heard the surprisingly pleasant sounds of jackals howling from the nearby hills. Rabbi Arnowitz was the last one down and as the sun began to set, we ascended the rocky area to rejoin the group and bask in the magical moments we had together.