Two Halves of Desire

Marc Chagall’s “Angel with Trumpet”

A teaching of Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezeritch, found in Or Torah, Imrei Tzadikim (Or haEmet) 10, and Likutei Amorim (Maggid Devarav LeYaakov) 7.

Make for yourself two trumpets of silver.         עֲשֵׂה לְךָ שְׁתֵּי חֲצוֹצְרֹת כֶּסֶף     Numbers 10:2

The word for trumpets, חצוצרות hatzotzerot, can be read חצי צורות hetzi tzurot, that is, “half-forms.” So God’s command is to “Make of yourself two half-forms.” This is like [Ezekiels’ vision]: “upon the semblance of a throne there was the semblance of a human form above.” For a person is only dam, “blood” — that is dibur and malkhut, “speech” and “kingship,” dwell within (1). But when a person cleaves to the Holy One of Blessing, who is Alufo shel Olam, “the Alef” or “the One” or “the Ruler of the World,” then he becomes Adam, a human being (2). Now the Holy One of Blessing contracted the divine Self through a series of worlds, in order to unite with humans beings, who otherwise could not withstand the divine brilliance (3). And human beings must separate themselves from all corporeality until they ascend through all the worlds and unite with the Holy One of Blessing until their very existence has become nullified, and then they can be called Adam, a human being.

This is the meaning of “upon the semblance of a throne,” for God is seated there, within the “huge cloud and flashing fire.” The meaning is this: first, darkness dwells in a person and he cannot pray with fervor — this is the cloud; and then fervor comes — this is the flashing fire. And God, enthroned above, is like “the semblance of a human form” — whatever is awakened in the human is awakened in God. If love is awakened in the righteous person, then love is awakened above, and so with every attribute (4). So when a person brings himself in great purity to the place above all worlds then he will unite with God, for God thinks of nothing but doing good to humanity, for “all the world was created only to serve me” (5), and all the worlds and all the angels are under his power, and he is like a king commanding his army…as the righteous person wills, the Holy One of Blessing wills.

Even the sexual union of our holy ancestors is a complete Torah, and if “Jacob came unto Rachel, and he loved Rachel” is missing from a Torah scroll, then it is no longer fit for holy use, for the Holy One of Blessing has entered into them (6), for they did everything while cleaving to God, and the Holy One of Blessing took great joy in them. For “Torah and the Holy One of Blessing are one,” and even though their union was an act of tremendous corporeality, the Holy One of Blessing delighted in them.

This is the meaning of two trumpets of silver. For a person of dam, blood, is only half a form, and Alef by itself is not a complete form, but when they join together they become one complete form. And kesef, “silver,” also means “desire,” and so you should desire only the Holy One of Blessing, and the Holy One of Blessing will love you, as a parent and a child love one another, for they are one body and they each long for the other, for each alone is incomplete and only half a form, yet together they are one complete form. This is clear.


Sources: upon the semblance…Ezekiel 1:26; huge cloud… Ezekiel 1:4; all the world… Berachot 58a; Jacob came unto Rachel…Genesis 29:30…Torah and the Holy One of Blessing are one…Tikkunei Zohar 57:91b

1) Dam, “blood,” is read as an acronym for dibbur and malkhut, “speech” and “kingship.” Speech is considered the defining characteristic of humans. Aside from the connections to kingship explained below, Dibbur and Malkhut are both names for the Shekhinah, the feminine, indwelling Divine Presence, manifest in the world and especially in people (when they live right). It is also the lowest sefirah, or manifestation of God in the worlds above, serving as a gateway between the physical and spiritual worlds. As embodiments of the Shekhinah, we are also ourselves gateways.   2) Alef is the first letter of the alphabet and as such also means “head,” “beginning/source,” “ruler,” and “one.” The letters of the alphabet being the tools of creation and the series of veils through which the divine light passes, silent Alef stands for the purest, most ineffable stage in that process. Adam is both the word for a human being and the name of the first human, who is considered the primordial archetype in the image of God, the human as s/he was meant to be (Eve was actually part of this Adam).   3) There is no room “next to” the Infinite One, and nothing can withstand Its overwhelming power, so God “constricted” this Self through countless stages, represented by such diverse metaphors as lenses, crystals, jugs of water, veils, clothing, concentric circles, the human form, a tree with its roots in heaven, letters and numbers, supernal worlds, and divine attributes.  This allows for the existence of finite things (like us) who are at once of God and separate from God, and for our comprehension of God through a process that is at once self-concealment and self-revelation.   4) Attributes here could mean any emotion or trait, such as love, awe, or equanimity, but it also evokes the seven “divine attributes” that serve as stages in God’s self-concealment/self-revelation — “Love,” “Awe,” “Equanimity,” down through “Kingship.”   5) The reference is to a discussion in the Talmud about which blessings to say upon seeing large crowds of people. One suggestion is “Blessed are You, the knower of secrets,” because every person in that crowd has a different mind and a different face, yet God knows (or is present in, because in God’s case they are the same thing) each and every one of them. The next suggestion, the one paraphrased in our teaching, is “Blessed are You Who created all these to serve me” —  an expression of gratitude and amazement at how deeply each of us depends on one another for everything from what we eat to what we wear. In this way, even though the Maggid is taking this blessing entirely out of context by removing it from a very prosaic setting to the upper worlds, he is staying true to its spirit: each of us can become “the king commanding his army,” not by lifting ourselves up above others, but precisely by nullifying our sense of separateness and realizing our interconnectedness with the Divine One manifested in the diversity and multiplicity of the world.   6) It’s not clear whether “them” here means the verses or the people; I vote for both.

Jeff says…

This is one of the Maggid’s most famous and characteristic teachings. I love its balance between/combination of spirituality and corporeality, in what I might call embodiment. Paradoxically, this teaching on “embodiment” begins with a call to cleave to God by stripping ourselves of corporeality. While some scholars, led by Gershom Scholem, saw this as an obliteration of the material in the spiritual, I (and plenty of others) see the “stripping off” as only one step in the process. It’s a means, not the end. You can see this in the Maggid’s use of the term tzimtzum, translated here as “contraction.” For the Arizal, the 16th century Kabbalist on whose teachings a large part of Hasidism is based, tzimtzum meant “withdrawal.” The question that bothered the Arizal, like many other thinkers, was how anything can exist if God is infinite. Using the metaphor of space, the Arizal asked “where” would the finite world be if God fills all existence? His answer was that, before creation came an act of withdrawal, of “making room”: in “the center” of the divine infinity God withdrew, leaving a womb-like circle of “space” into which a ray of infinite divine light entered, passing through countless stages of diminution and dimming until it entered the womb like — yes — semen. From this single ray grew all Creation. The Maggid uses tzimtzum to answer the same question but in an almost opposite way: tzimtzum is not “withdrawal” but “contraction.” Infinite Divinity is not contracting “away” from Creation but “into” it. While both understandings combine immanence and transcendance, in the Arizal’s system the emphasis is on transcendance, with only “sparks” of divine light (or “oily residue,” to use another metaphor of his) remaining in them material world, while the Maggid puts more emphasis on God’s immanence. One of the Maggid’s closest disciples, Shneur Zalman of Liady (the Alter Rebbe of Lubavitch), even understood tzimtzum as an illusion — God did not “go anywhere” or change in any other way; rather, our consciousnesses contracted so that we can see a material world existing along with and within the purely spiritual cosmos. In this understanding (which scholars call “acosmism”) the only thing separating us from the Infinite is our own smallmindedness. Paradoxically, though, he emphasized the importance of engaging with the physical world, limiting the focus on acosmism to times of prayer. Some of Shneur Zalman’s peers saw his understanding as the true interpretation of the Maggid’s teaching, only made more explicit, while others thought he took the Maggid’s teaching to its extreme and criticized him for it. 

But back to the teaching at hand: the reversal of God’s process, this “stripping away” of the material, whether in fact or only in awareness, happens especially in prayer, but it can potentially happen any time, in any deed — eating, sex, small talk — if done with proper devekut, cleaving to God. In this way we unite with God, and in that unity there is no distinction between Infinite and finite, God’s will and our will, spiritual and corporeal. This is made clear in the 90 degree turn the Maggid makes from talking about stripping away your materiality and ascending to a place above all worlds to talking about Jacob and Rachel having sex. We can read “Jacob” and “Rachel” as codewords for the sefirot, or divine potencies, of Tiferet and Malkhut; “the Holy One of Blessing” and “the Torah” can be read in exactly the same way. In this case, the union is happening within God, in a purely spiritual way. But the Maggid also distinguishes between the divine and the human (the Holy One of Blessing took great joy in them), so that the upper spiritual union takes place alongside the lower physical union, and is actually caused by it. Contrary to how Scholem would read it, I think the physical (that is, sex with real bodies) is not obliterated at all, but remains, infused now and united with the spiritual. The Maggid couldn’t be any plainer than saying their union was a tremendous act of corporeality. Hence, embodiment.

Why does the spiritual need this embodiment in the physical? Like the silent letter alef, it can’t be expressed without being attached to dam, flesh and blood. Only then is Being fully realized. As I see it, to return to the purely spiritual (at least for more than the length of your prayer, for example) would defeat the purpose — we’d be back at the Alef, unpronouncable and inexpressible, a “half-form” in need of a partner. In a daring finale, the Maggid claims that God without us is as incomplete as we would be without God.

This entry was posted in Behaalotecha, Concepts, Creation, Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezeritch, God, Hasidic Masters, Parsha, Torah. Bookmark the permalink.

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