People often ask me what one does during six years of rabbinical school, most of them curious about what we study and why it takes so long. I love to explain the process and why even six years isn’t enough: there are the text-based classes like Mishnah, Talmud and Codes, the practical rabbinics courses like Pastoral Counseling and Homiletics (sermon writing) and then there are the internships at congregations, the summer jobs at Jewish camps, the chaplaincy programs at hospitals … and so much more. While HUC-JIR, the seminary through which each of TDHS’ rabbis were trained, does a great job educating its students on the ins and outs of the rabbinic life, there are indeed a few things that aren’t covered during those six years. For me, the one thing I wish I’d gotten more exposure to is Kabbalah, also known as Jewish mysticism.
Now, it may surprise all of you whom I’ve called from my (310) area-code cell phone – registered in Beverly Hills, CA of all places – that I’ve had little to do with Kabbalah. The red-string-adorned movement of celebrities like Madonna has garnered much press in the last two decades, leading curious seekers to the teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria and the town of Tzfat in Northern Israel. While the concept of Jewish mysticism has revealed itself throughout Jewish history, in many ways Kabbalah is a fringe movement of modern Jewish practice. Its central text, the Zohar, is not a text with which most modern Reform communities are familiar. However – we touch on Kabbalist teachings in much of what we do, particularly the practice of Kabbalat Shabbat, welcoming the Sabbath, on Friday nights.
So imagine my delight when I found out that our Scholar-in-Residence this year is Dr. Daniel C. Matt, the world’s leading Kabbalah scholar and editor of the Pritzker Edition of “The Zohar,” published in 2012. In this large-scale work, Dr. Matt addresses each Torah portion separately through the words of the Zohar. This week’s parsha is Acharei Mot, or “after death,” referring to the period of time following the sudden death of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu. Pained by their shocking passing, Aaron is forlorn. Yet Adonai speaks to his brother Moses, instructing Aaron on how to move forward in his career as high priest. Here is a small bit of learning The Zohar offers on this moment in Leviticus:
“YHVH (God) spoke to Moses after the death of Aaron’s two sons …
YHVH said to Moses, “Speak to Aaron your brother…” (Leviticus 16:1-12)
“Rabbi Abba said, ‘serve YHVH in awe. [56b] Mystery of the matter: serve YHVH in awe – what is awe here? Well, as we have established, for it is written The Awe of YHVH is the beginning of knowledge … (Proverbs 1:7); the beginning of wisdom is awe of YHVH.” (Psalms 111:10) – so it is called.’”
“What is awe here…?” [In other words] to which s’firah does awe allude? To Shechinah, who is the gateway to the divine realm. She is the beginning of knowledge, namely leading to Tiferet who is associated with the hidden s’firah of Da’at (knowledge). She is also the beginning of wisdom – leading eventually to hochmah (wisdom).”
Awe? Tiferet? Shechinah? While some of us may recognize these terms, the way they are strung together is a definitive change from our typical Torah commentary. I have questions, and I’m sure you do, as well. So this Saturday in Seattle, join us at TNT (Torah and T’filah) starting at 9:30am to begin to crack the code of the Zohar. We’ll study together and prepare for Dr. Matt’s presentations over the weekend of May 13 & 14.
Looking forward to studying together.
Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen