“As the Kabbalists point out, the word Moses spelled backwards is Ha Shem, meaning ‘the name.’ Importantly, Ha-shem in biblical Hebrew also is the most common reference to God’s name. When you respond to your call and realize your soul print, fully becoming your name, you become one with God. When Moses did this, he found his voice, he became a prophet.”
By Marc Gafni
To live your story is to move from a state of slavery to freedom. Slavery is not limited to our old image of the oppressed Hebrew or black slave being whipped by the cruel master. We are all potentially free, just as we are all potentially slaves. Our intent in this brief essay is to at least begin to unpack a core intuition of the Zohar —that a free person is a person who has found voice. As we shall see in the very last paragraphs of this discussion the implications of freedom are wondrous indeed!
The Hebrew name for the Passover Storytelling Ritual, which celebrates and reenacts the dynamic movement from slavery to freedom, is Pe-Sach. Renaissance mystic Isaac Luria reminded us that Pe-Sach is a combination of two words—Peh, meaning “mouth,” and Sach, meaning “talk.” Pe- Sach, therefore, means the mouth that talks.
One school of Hasidic masters unpacks this idea by defining redemption as the emergence of speech. To move from a dumb and mute existence to a communal storytelling existence is to undergo redemptive transformation. “To be redeemed,” writes one mystic, “is to lead a history-making, storytelling, communing, free existence.” To be in exile is to lack history, tell no story, fail to commune, and exist as a slave, silent.
The most oft cited source for this idea is a stunning passage in the Zohar which describes the Egyptian slavery as the “exile of speech.” In Kabbalah, every biblical nation represents a different organ of the body; Egypt represents the throat. The mystics read the Hebrew word “Egypt” literally as meaning narrowness. The throat is, of course, the narrow, constricted passage between the wide spaces of the heart and mind. The narrow throat, Egypt, is thus the ideal symbol for the exile of speech. Speech remains caught in the throat, in the dark passage, and can’t make it to freedom’s gateway, the mouth. Redemption comes in the birth of the word. In the actual process of your retelling, you reclaim your story. But to be capable of retelling your story you need voice. Redemption then is the process of finding voice.
The Greatest Persecution
In the Nazi concentration camps, certain people were referred to as mules. They were so broken that, although not physically impaired, they could no longer speak. Among animals, mules are the hybrid of a horse and donkey, unable to reproduce themselves. These human, muted mules were so traumatized, their souls so mangled, that they too were unable to “reproduce themselves”–to express themselves in speech.
The great master Kalonymous Kalman of Piacezna wrote from the flames of the Warsaw ghetto that the torture of the exile is not only in the physical suffering but in the inability to cry out – the loss of voice. “The people have become mute,” he cried out in a teaching given in 1940, just weeks after his son and daughter in law and many of his disciples were brutally killed. The teaching was on the story of Joseph and his brothers in the book of Genesis. In a dream, Joseph sees “the binding of sheaves in the midst of the field. And behold my [Joseph’s] sheave, rose up.” In the simple reading of the text, this is a dream of Joseph’s future power. The bound sheaves represent the servility of his brothers while the rising of his sheave is an expression of his potency. Joseph is predicting he will be lord over his brothers. Kalonimus Kalman uses the classical interpretive method of the mystic–reading the text independent of its context (here, Joseph and his brothers) and focusing on subtle wordplays and dual meanings–to extract a deeper spiritual meaning. For Kalman, the sheaves represent his disciples. The word for sheave in Hebrew also means “mute”: “My disciples are mute in the field of the spirit.” They have lost voice. Their suffering is so intense that it defies and destroys all expression. “However,” continues the master, “my sheave–that is, my muteness–must rise.” By this he means, “I must find voice.”
Kalman sees the role of the mystic leader, himself, as retaining voice, holding on at all costs to the ability to talk. He does not mean speech in the technical sense, of which even the slave is usually capable. He refers rather to the ability to have the voice that allows you to remain the storyteller of your own tale—even in the face of Nazi horror.
Kalonymous Kalman took on this role by continuing to teach even when he couldn’t be certain anyone survived to hear him. He risked all to record his teachings and hide them in the hope they would be found by some future generation. He was continuing to tell the story. In an act of heroic protest, he refused to allow the Nazis to claim “his-story.”
Kalman’s book, along with his voice, was lost in the war. He died in the Treblinka concentration camp and his book disappeared. Although he left word that he had buried his writings before being deported, they were not to be found. That is, until almost fifteen years after the Nazi defeat when a Polish worker miraculously discovered them in a pile of rubble and somehow understood their importance. The work has since been published. Treblinka may have succeeded in killing the Master of Piacezna, but it could not kill his voice. He died but his words did not. His voice triumphed.
Voices can indeed triumph even when the storyteller dies. For a version of Kalman’s story that is completely different yet exactly the same, we turn to Alice Walker’s classic work, The Color Purple. The novel focuses on two sisters, abandoned by their father to the custody of a man referred to as Mistah. One sister gets away. The other remains behind. What keeps the captive sister from losing her soul? The letters she sends to her sister. By telling her story she avoids be sucked into the slavery’s dark and deadly vortex.
In Blaise Pascal’s words, silence is “the greatest persecution.” Silence can forge the bonds of slavery even if you have not been sold by Dad to a man named Mistah or suffered the brutality of Nazism. Whenever you give up the belief that you are special and deserve to have a voice, you become a slave. Whenever you work in a place that instills fear, whenever you are afraid to speak up and ask for what is your due, you are a slave.
This post is the first in a five-part series of posts, “Foundations for World Spirituality: Learning the Language of God”.