L’Shana Tova 5768
Today is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Each year, on Rosh Hashanah mankind is judged and entered into the “book of life,” but the judgment is not final. We have ten days of atonement before Yom Kippur when the judgment is sealed. Below is a myth about atonement from The Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism by Howard Schwartz. Perhaps the example of Rabbi Abraham will inspire you. To read last year’s excerpt from The Tree of Souls click here.
A Vision at the Wailing Wall
In those days Rabbi Abraham Berukhim was known for performing the Midnight Vigil. He rose every night at midnight and walked through the streets of Safed, crying out, “Arise, for the Shekhinah is in exile, and our holy house is devoured by fire, and Israel faces great danger.” He longed, more than anything else, to bring the Shekhinah out of exile.
Now Rabbi Abraham was a follower of Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as the Ari. The Ari had great mystical powers. By looking at a man’s forehead he could read the history of his soul. He could overhear the angels and he knew the language of the birds. He could point out a stone in a wall and reveal whose soul was trapped in it. So too was he able to divine the future, and he always knew from the first day of Rosh ha-Shanah who among his disciples was destined to live or die. This knowledge he rarely disclosed, but once, when he learned there was a way to avert the decree, he made an exception. Summoning Rabbi Abraham Berukhim, he said: “Know, Rabbi Abraham, that a heavenly voice has gone forth to announce that this will be your last year among us—unless you do what is necessary to change the decree.”
“What must I do?” asked Rabbi Abraham.
“Know, then,” said the Ari, “that your only hope is to go to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and pray there with all your heart before God. And if you are deemed worthy you will have a vision of the Shekhinah. That will mean that the decree has been averted and your name will be inscribed in the Book of Life after all.”
Rabbi Abraham thanked the Ari with all his heart and left to prepare for the journey. First he shut himself in his house for three days and nights, wearing sackcloth and ashes, and fasted the whole time. Then, although he could have gone by donkey or by wagon, he chose to walk to Jerusalem. And with every step he took, he prayed to God to reveal such a vision of the Shekhinah to him. By the time Rabbi Abraham reached Jerusalem, he felt as if he were floating, as if his soul had ascended from his body. And when he reached the Wailing Wall, Rabbi Abraham had a vision there. Out of the wall came an old woman, dressed in black, deep in mourning. And when he looked into her eyes, he became possessed of a grief as deep as the ocean, far greater than he had ever known. It was the grief of a mother who has lost a child; the grief of Hannah, after losing her seven sons; the grief of the Shekhinah over the suffering of Her children, the children of Israel, scattered to every corner of the earth.
At that moment Rabbi Abraham fell to the ground in a faint, and he had another vision. In this vision, he saw the Shekhinah once more, but this time he saw Her dressed in Her robe woven out of light, more magnificent than the setting sun, and Her joyful countenance was revealed. Waves of light arose from her face, an aura that seemed to reach out and surround him, as if he were cradled in the arms of the Sabbath Queen. “Do not grieve so, My son Abraham,” She said. “Know that My exile will come to an end, and My inheritance will not go to waste. Your children shall return to their country and there is hope for your future” (Jer. 31:17). Just then Rabbi Abraham’s soul returned to him from its journey on high. He awoke refreshed, as if he had shed years of grief, and he was filled with hope.
When Rabbi Abraham returned to Safed he was a new man, and when the Ari saw him, he said at once: “I can see from the aura shining from your face that you have been found worthy to see the Shekhinah, and you can rest assured that you will live for another twenty-two years.” And he did.
This mythic story, “A Vision at the Wailing Wall,” derives from the city of Safed in the sixteenth century. This story comes from the last of three letters written from Safed by Shlomel Dresnitz of Moravia in 1607 to his friend in Cracow. It is one of a cycle of tales about the great Jewish mystic Rabbi Isaac Luria. These stories about the Ari were collected in several volumes, including Shivhei ha-Ari, Sefer Toledot ha-Ari, and Iggerot Eretz Yisrael.
This famous tale has a number of biblical and rabbinic precedents. The final words that the Shekhinah speaks to Rabbi Abraham come directly from Jeremiah 31:17. They are the words God speaks to console Rachel, weeping for her children (Jer. 31:14-16). There is also a strong echo of Jeremiah’s vision of Mother Zion in Jeremiah 15:9, which is developed in Pesikta Rabbati 26:7. Mother Zion is likely an early incarnation of the
Shekhinah. See “Mother Zion,” p. 46. The assumption that the Shekhinah could still be found at the Western Wall, despite the destruction of the Temple, is found in rabbinic sources such as Midrash Tehillim on Psalms 11:3 and Exodus Rabbah 2:2, and in Rabbi Moshe Alshekh on Lamentations 1:1-2.
While this story demonstrates the prophetic wisdom of the Ari, the real focus of the story is on one of his disciples, Rabbi Abraham ben Eliezer ha-Levi Berukhim. Rabbi Abraham was born in Morocco in 1519 and came to Safed some 50 years later, where he was first a follower of Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (1522-1570) and later became a disciple of the Ari. Rabbi Abraham was an important figure among the mystics of Safed, and Hayim Vital, the primary disciple of the Ari, described him in his autobiography, Sefer ha-Hezyonot, as someone who could move others to repentance (p. 130). Vital, who firmly believed in gilgul, the transmigration of souls, also appears to have viewed Rabbi Abraham as the reincarnation of Elijah the Prophet.
In most versions of this story, there is no mention of Rabbi Abraham performing the Midnight Vigil of crying out in the streets because of the exile of the Shekhinah. But some variants of this famous tale, such as that in Kav ha-Yashar, add this important detail at the beginning of the story, giving new meaning to the Ari’s directive for Rabbi Abraham Berukhim to seek out the Shekhinah at the Kotel. Devotion to the Midnight Ritual indicates that Rabbi Abraham was seeking the Shekhinah before the Ari sent him on his quest. In this view, the Ari, well aware of Rabbi Abraham’s longing for the Shekhinah, simply directed him to seek out the Shekhinah in the right place—at the Kotel, the last retaining wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
This tale lends itself to multiple interpretations. From the traditional perspective, the Ari has remarkable powers that enable him to peer into the heavenly ledgers to determine the fates of his followers. These fates have been written in either the Book of Life or the Book of Death. (See “The Book of Life and the Book of Death,” p. 289.) While this ability to read in the heavenly ledgers is rare, it is not unheard of. In B. Berakhot 18b, there is reference to a pious man who remained in the cemetery on Rosh ha-Shanah and there learned the decrees to be issued in heaven during the coming year.
Or, the Ari may simply have recognized Rabbi Abraham’s profound need to encounter the Shekhinah after years of performing the Midnight Vigil and therefore sent him to find her.
Or, from a modern psychological perspective, the Ari has perceived that Rabbi Abraham faces a midlife transition. If he continues on his present path, he is shortly going to meet his death. That is to say, Rabbi Abraham’s life has reached a dangerous transition, and in order to survive it, he must undertake an extraordinary task. Therefore the Ari sends him on a quest to find the Shekhinah in the logical place where she could be found—the Wailing Wall, the remnant of her former home in the Temple in Jerusalem. In giving Rabbi Abraham this quest, the Ari functions virtually as a therapist, sending Rabbi Abraham on a journey to wholeness, to plead for mercy from the Shekhinah, who is identified in the kabbalah as the Bride of God. Once he reaches the Wall, Rabbi Abraham has dual visions of the Shekhinah, encountering her both as a grieving old woman and as a radiant bride, and afterward he is a new man, who through this visionary experience rediscovers his lost anima and reintegrates his feminine side.
Rabbi Abraham’s visions of the Shekhinah can be recognized as both mythic and archetypal, very close to the purest vision of Jung’s concept of the anima, the symbolic feminine aspect of every man. That is why he is able to live for another 22 years, one year for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, representing a whole new cycle of his life.
The version in Kav ha-Yashar also makes changes in Rabbi Abraham’s vision of the Shekhinah. Here, when he raised his eyes, he saw the shape of a woman on top of the Wall, instead of emerging from the Wall. Upon seeing Her, Rabbi Abraham fell upon on his face, cried and wept, “Mother! Mother! Mother Zion! Woe to me that I see You thus.” (It is presumed that She is wearing mourning garments.) Further, when Rabbi Abraham faints, the feminine figure puts Her hand on his face and wipes away his tears. This identification of the Shekhinah with Mother Zion directly links this story with that of Mother Zion in Pesikta Rabbati 26:7. See “Mother Zion,” p. 46.
Central to understanding this tale is the concept of the Shekhinah. See the Introduction, pp. xlvii-xlix, for a discussion of the evolution of this term. The two appearances of Shekhinah that Rabbi Abraham envisions at the Wall, that of the old woman in mourning and of the bride in white, are the two primary aspects associated with Her: She appears as a bride or queen or lost princess in some texts and tales and as an old woman mourning over the destruction of the Temple in others. In “A Vision at the Wailing Wall,” She appears in both forms. Thus he sees both aspects of the Shekhinah, Her aspect of mourning and Her joyful aspect, making his vision of the Shekhinah complete.
There is much to learn from this tale about how to read rabbinic tales to discover the psychic truths at the core of them. First, however, it is necessary to learn how to interpret their symbolic language. Identifying the Shekhinah with the anima is the first step toward translating this language into an archetypal framework. A similar vision of the Shekhinah is recounted by Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev.