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My Spiritual Experience and My Jewish Heritage

This essay is about the grace of spontaneous spiritual experience that calls us to a direct and personal connection with the divine. My own call came quite literally through the telephone! It started a lifelong search that has inspired me to delve deeply into the mystical roots of my Jewish Heritage.

I was dreaming of doves cooing outside my window in New York City, and I awoke to the phone ringing at 3 a.m. I fumbled for the receiver and said “hello” repeatedly. There was no voice on the other end. I hung up. And then I heard it. A voice spoke loudly and clearly: “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh.”

“Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” is the divine name that was first revealed to Moses by God in Exodus 3:14. It is Hebrew for “I am That I am,” or “I am becoming That which I am becoming.”

The voice was in Hebrew, and I don’t speak Hebrew. I only noticed the luminosity in the room afterwards. I went back to sleep and by the morning had started to doubt my whole experience… Did I really hear those words? Did the phone really ring?

The voice spoke to my soul as if picking up a conversation started long ago in an ancient land, a land of slavery, exile, hope, promise, and pain. I thought to myself:

“You bring me doves cooing outside my window, make phones ring, and speak to me in the middle of the night. Why do I doubt your presence?”

There is a taboo in our society that inhibits the sharing of these kinds of experiences, yet all of us have had them. The veils between worlds are thinner than we think. The fear is that we will be thought of as crazy, ungrounded or even grandiose. As a culture we don’t honor the prophets,
shamans, and visionaries among us.

Messages from the other side are meant to help us unfold our purpose in life, which is always some form of service, versus an increase in personal power. Yet even when there is a powerful experience of divine connection, it can be lost almost as soon as it is found. This sets up a dichotomy between what appears to be normal waking existence and the numinous.

The Kabbalists1 knew that sustained connection to the divine required the preparing of the physical and emotional bodies as well as a ripening of the soul. Through a process of “running and returning” and a repeated anchoring of that connection, we are prepared to have a more continuous
relationship with the Divine.

Robert Johnson, a Jungian therapist, tells of his own encounter with the “antechamber of heaven” after an accident when he was eleven years old. He was hemorrhaging in the hospital and began to drift away when he entered a realm that was ”pure light, gold, radiant, luminous, ecstatically happy” (2). He called this world his “Golden World” and he spent the rest of his life trying to
integrate his ecstatic experience.

Most human beings have had some contact with the inexplicable. I was completely surprised to find out that my Dad, who was hit by a car when he was four years old, remembers flying around above his body before the ambulance came. He could replicate that experience until his older brother told him he was crazy. It shut down after that.

Most children have a deep connection to the divine through nature, angels, and invisible “friends.” This connection is usually rapidly eclipsed by our modern culture, and it disappears until one is motivated to start a spiritual quest.

In Jewish mysticism, The Tree of Life represents a ladder of consciousness that reaches from heaven to earth. Its roots are buried deep in the primordial nothingness. Its leaves and branches represent all the myriad paths through which light can be channeled. It is a cosmic blueprint of creation as well as a map for how we awaken out of our isolated and seemingly separate sense of existence into unitive consciousness.

The Kabbalistic story of creation reveals how the primordial forces of creation combine to create manifest reality. Isaac Luria, a 16th century Kabbalist, tells us that in order for God to create the manifest world, he withdrew some of his presence and light to create a vacuum, so that something other than light could exist. Into that vacuum went ten initial vessels of light that were emanated by God in the form of a straight line. These vessels formed a primordial form of the
Tree of Life.

The first three vessels were able to hold the light, but the next seven shattered, because they could not hold the full force of the light. The shards of the vessels descended forming ever denser levels of reality and matter. When they were later re-emanated, they were arrayed in a pattern that supported a giving and receiving of the light, so that its full force could be distributed through a relational matrix. This Tree of Life has ten vessels and 22 paths that represent interconnected stations on the ladder between heaven and earth, with which all of creation has been formed.

Our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual experiences are patterned on this process of shattering, repair, and finding the relational matrix of support to open to the light and grace of the divine. The process of shattering and dissolving of form seems to precede every act of creation.

Most of us resist this stage of dissolution, believing that we need to hold on tightly to the old ways. We don’t like uncertainty and not knowing.

Yet like the trapeze artist leaping through the air to catch the next swing, we have to tolerate the abyss of being in mid-air before we can land in a new place. No matter what condition of isolation, darkness, or despair we find ourselves in, we are always connected to the divine, and the creation story assures us that this shattering is given an honored place on the “map.” The darkness is the state that has to precede a revelation of light and new birth.

The Jewish mystics actually have practices that enable them to navigate extremely disorienting and chaotic states, because they know that staying stable in the midst of chaos is a threshold to perceiving divine glory.

To work with the Tree of Life is to take the same journey of ascent, descent, shattering and repair. The most amazing thing occurs when we start to see the ups and downs of the journey as an exquisite opportunity to know ourself and our struggles as the unfolding ladder of the Living Tree of Life. This is the Tree behind the Tree.

In the process, all the parts of our being that are splintered, shattered, and unable to hold the light come forward. On the psychological level we meet our crazy parts, our shadow aspects, as we turn inward to repair our vessels. The Kabbalists do this by marrying the opposites, a divine alchemy that produces a luminous “third” state that is not just a blending of the dark and the light, but rather an illumination that is greater than both sides.

We have to know intimately both our dark and light sides in order to stop projecting our split-off selves onto the world and other people.

The Kabbalists use a process called gematria to study creation through permuting the letters in words. Words that have the same letters have a mystical relationship to each other. For example the word for plague is “nega” in Hebrew and is composed of the same three letters that form the word for delight “oneg” in Hebrew.

This play on words and letters is an example of how the Kabbalists would teach the unification of opposites. One side is embedded in the other, separated only by the turning of the wheel. The polarities dissolve when we can see that within delight there is the potential for plague and vice versa.

One can change into the other when we are out of balance. Ice cream is a delight until we eat too much and get a stomachache.

When we fully explore our reactions to pleasure and pain, darkness and light, plague and delight, we trace our way through duality to the sparkling light of our Soul. We need to know the light hidden in the darkness and the darkness hidden in the light.

When we have plumbed the depths of our pain and our shadow, we no longer attack this part in our fellow human beings. This produces a spaciousness and a presence that doesn’t polarize reality. The holding of opposites opens up the central column, the trunk of the tree, so that we have more continuous contact with our roots in the ground as well as the ever-flowing grace from above.

Our lives then bear the fruit of this and our ripening is felt as a ripple through the fabric of creation. We find we can pass on this knowledge with true humility, because it is deep in our bones, gleaned from plumbing the depths of our nature. Each of us takes this journey of ascent and descent and passes on the knowledge of the ladder of creation. Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh: We are becoming THAT which we are becoming.

1 Kabbalah, which comes from a Hebrew root that means “to receive” is the totality of the Jewish Mystical Tradition
2 Balancing Heaven and Earth, Robert Johnson, p. 2

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