By Dr. Marc Gafni
Summary: The four faces of eros, described by Marc Gafni in this excerpt from Mystery of Love (2003), are 1.) being on the inside, 2.) fullness of presence, 3.) desire, and 4.) interconnectivity of being. As Marc describes, with its mystical role in these four expressions, the face itself is the truest reflection of the erotic. In the flow of eros, we access the experience of being on the inside of God’s face, which Marc explores here through the Temple mystery of the sexually entwined cherubs atop the Ark who are positioned face to face; the Hebrew word “panim,” which means “inside, face, and before;” and the erotic experience of having a true face-to-face conversation. This significant passage from Mystery of Love invites you to embody the erotic—which is modeled but not exhausted by the sexual—more deeply in your own life.
Eros has many expressions. Each expression is hinted at in the temple mysteries. There are four faces of eros which, when taken together, form the essence of the Shechina experience. In this essay, we will explore the erotic understanding which forms the matrix of the secret of the cherubs and informs every arena of our existence. As we shall see, at the very heart of Hebrew tantra was a very precise and provocative understanding of the relationship between love, sex, and eros. This will open us up to a whole new understanding of our sexuality and will show us the way to erotically reweave the very fabric of our lives in more vivid patterns, sensual textures, and brilliant hues.
- 1 The First Face of Eros: On the Inside
- 2 The Second Face of Eros: Full Presence
- 3 The Third Face of Eros: Desire
- 4 The Fourth Face of Eros: The Interconnectivity of Being
The First Face of Eros: On the Inside
“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
The cherubs in the magical mystery of Temple myth were not stationary fixtures. No, these statues were expressive, emotive. They moved. When integrity and goodness ruled the land, the cherubs were face to face. In these times, the focal point of Shechina energy rested erotically, ecstatically, between the cherubs. When discord and evil held sway in the kingdom, the cherubs turned from each other, appearing back to back instead of face to face.1 Back to back, the world was amiss, alienated, ruptured. Face to face, the world was harmonized, hopeful, embraced. Thus, face to face in biblical myth2 is the most highly desirable state. It is the gem stone state of being, the jeweled summit of all creation. Face to face, to be fully explicit, is a state of eros.
As we shall see, face to face means first and foremost, being on the inside. Indeed, the God force said to rest between the cherubs in the Holy of Holies, the Shechina, is no less than the radically profound experience of being on the inside. Eros is aroused whenever we move so deeply into what we do, who we are with, or where we are, that its interiority stirs our heart and imagination.
For the Temple mystics, exile is when one’s inside and outside are not connected in the day-to-day of living. Or, said differently, exile is non-erotic living. The first, although by no means the only, problem with exile is that it is extraordinarily difficult.3 When I am not living from the inside, I am not living naturally. My choices, reactions, and responses do not emerge spontaneously from what Teresa of Avila called one’s “interior castle.” I am not in the flow of my own life.
Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore writes, “Where is the fountain that throws out these flowers in such a ceaseless flow of ecstasy?” Eros is to be in the flow of the fountain, what the Zohar calls, in one of its evocative mantras, “the River of Light that flows from Eden.”4
To merge is to traverse the chasm that separates object and subject. It is to become one with your reality, to be on the inside of the experience.
The opposite of eros is therefore alienation. To be alienated is to always feel that you are an outsider with no safe place to call home. The result of non-erotic living is always bad choices, betrayals, and pain. I am not in the flow. I wind up always having to watch my back. I am on the outside, exiled from my inner castle. I have lost face.
The face is the truest reflection of the erotic.5 To lose face is to become de-eroticized.
The Spell of Spelling – Panim
In the Hebrew mystical tradition, language is not the mere random designation of sounds and letters in a particular pattern.6 For the mystic, words are vital portals to meaning. Language is the spiritual DNA of reality. Thus, when one root word is used for seemingly disparate ideas, you can rest assured that these different ideas are in fact integrally related. So, let’s watch for a moment as the magic of language dances before us.
The Hebrew term for the Holy of Holies is lefnei u’lefnim. Literally rendered into English, this means “the inside of the inside.” This was not merely a reflection of the physical fact that it was the inner-most point in the Temple; indeed, teach the mystics, the opposite is true. The Holy of Holies was situated in the inner-most physical point in order to evoke the sense of interiority that is the very key to eros.
In another architectural expression of this idea, the temples of the Masonic order have doors which open only from the inside. One must insert his or her hand through an opening in the door to grasp the handle on the inside. The point—in order to open the portals to mystery, one must approach from the inside. What’s more, this opening was shaped like a heart. Eros—the yearning for the inside—is the essence of love. The Masonic order springs from the Templars, a monastic order of Christian mystics in Jerusalem, who fell in love with and understood deeply the eros of the Temple.
That is just for starters. Hold on, for the magic of language, the spell of spelling, has just begun. The Hebrew word for “inside,” panim, has two other meanings as well. The first, not surprisingly, is “face.” Face is the place where my insides are revealed. There are forty-five muscles in the face, most of them unnecessary for the biological functioning. Their major purpose, it would seem, is to express emotional depth and nuance. They are the muscles of the soul. Every muscle of the face reflects another nuance of depth and interiority. When I say, “I need to speak face to face,” I am in erotic need of an inside conversation. At this point, all of the cell phones and sophisticated internet hook-ups won’t give me what I need, for while amazingly efficient and effective, they are non-erotic. True erotic conversations rarely happen on the Internet.
The spell continues. There is a third meaning to the Hebrew root panim. In a slightly modified form, it means “before,” in the sense of appearing before God. Specifically, the biblical myth text in Leviticus tells of the Temple’s high priest, who on the biblical Yom Kippur, the Day of At-one-ment, appears Lifnei Hashem—“before God.”7
Read in the English, this appears similar to a summons to appear “before” a judging court, generally not a joyous occasion. For the Hebrew mystics, however, rooted as they are in the magic and spells of language, it is an entirely different affair. Remember that all three English words—face, inside, and before—share the same Hebrew root. The essence, then, of the day of at-one-ment is not a commandment to appear “before God” in the magistrate sense. It is rather an invitation to live on the inside of God’s face. Once the journey to God is finished, the infinite journey in God begins.8
In Every Stitch
It was the middle of the 19th century.9 Heaven was joyous, hell was in an uproar, for it seems that one Hanoch the Shoemaker was about to usher in the Messiah. The Master of Rishin tells the story to his disciples something like this:
Hanoch the shoemaker used to sit every day, intent in the stitching of his leather shoes. It was known that with every stitch Hanoch was ‘meyached yichudim elyonim.’ That is, he was unifying higher unities. Now ‘yichudim,’ my holy disciples, in Kabbalah always means ‘zivug’ (coupling). (“Zivug” is an ultimate erotic term. It refers not to the sexual person, but to the cosmic love affair between the masculine God presence and the feminine Shechina presence. A love affair brought about by human action.)
Now the strange secret of the story, my holy community, is that Hanoch wasn’t doing anything that should have caused such ecstatic ‘yichudim.’ He wasn’t fulfilling any religious commandment; he was engaged in no ritual or pious act.
“Perhaps,” said one of the disciples, “he was meditating on a passage of Zohar as he stitched.” Another chimed in, “Perhaps he was doing the spiritual exercises of Luria’s Kabbalah which cause pleasure above?”
“No, nothing of the sort,” replied the master.
“Then, what was he doing while he stitched?” pressed the disciples.
“Nothing!” responded the master with a slight smile. “Hanoch was doing nothing… nothing other than being fully inside in every single stitch.”
“Fully inside in every stitch?!” Duly impressed, the eager disciples now had another confusion. “So then, Master, why is it that the Messiah has not yet announced his arrival?”
The master of Rishin sighed and said, “The force of evil discovered the cause and countered it. Sadly, he seems to have gotten the best of our holy shoemaker.”
“But how?” the crestfallen disciples asked.
The reply, “With plenty of good business.”
And so it was, rushing to fulfill his flood of orders, Hanoch became the busiest and most prosperous cobbler in the region, mindlessly producing shoe after cookie-cut shoe, and the Messiah still has not yet come.10
Once a year in a spine-tingling mystery rite, the priest would enter the Holy of Holies. On this day, every person was forgiven.11 On this day, every person was to re-experience themselves in the depths of their own true innocence. For, on the inside, we are all innocent. This day is called in biblical myth tradition Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement or At-One-Ment.
The core erotic idea of the Bayit—the Temple—was that every person could and needs to access the Shechina experience.12 Bayit means, quite simply, home.13 Every human being needs to live erotically in all facets of being. Every human being has a primary erotic need to move beyond the imposter and into his or her own deepest place of oneness, oneness with themselves, their relationships, and their reality. The Zohar refers to the exile from one’s deepest self as alma depiruda, the world of separation.14 The most tragic separation is not from mother, not from community, but from self. The journey of a lifetime is to move from alma depiruda to alma deyichuda, from separation to oneness—at-one-ment. Love is the path back home. We are not talking about superficial love, not merely sexual love, but erotic love.
The litmus of an erotic lover is this: Does this person lead you back to your inner self? Are you able to share with him or her your most vulnerable, fledgling, faltering dreams? Every person has a Holy of Holies which, in those most intimate of times, we let another enter as the priest to worship at our altar. And in the gorgeous paradox of the spirit, by letting a lover enter, we ourselves are let in as well. For, when the Temple door is open and the lover enters, we ourselves trail behind. We gain uncommon access to our inner selves, a place which alone we are often unable to reach. The true lover always takes you home.
The Second Face of Eros: Full Presence
The second face of eros is the fullness of presence.15 This is not a distinct and different quality, but flows naturally and even overlaps with the erotic qualities of being on the inside. And yet, it is not quite the same. Of course, being on the inside requires the fullness of presence. But we can experience full presence even when we have not merged with the moment or crossed over to the inside. Full presence is about showing up. You can show up and be fully present in a conversation without necessarily losing yourself in the encounter’s flow. Full presence at work can mean that you derive joy, satisfaction, and self worth from your vocation. It means you feel full and not empty.
At this point, I will share a particular mystical tale that I love very much.
The Chassidim, adherents of a powerful kabbalistic myth movement which reached its apex in mid-nineteenth century, tell of a girl named Sarah who had run away from home to a convent. Now convents are beautiful—for nuns—but not for Sarah. Everyone knew where she was, yet no one could persuade her to leave the convent and return home. Finally, the distraught parents turned to the Baal Shem Tov, the Master of the Good Name.
It is reported that the Baal Shem went and sat behind a tree not far from the convent. He brought with him no books, no ritual prayer objects, and only the bare amount of food necessary to sustain him. One day goes by, Sarah does not come. A second day, no sign of her. A third, no girl. But wait, the sun is setting—Sarah runs out, looks around, and eventually finds her way to the Master, sitting quietly behind his tree. They look at each other, wordlessly, and she goes back home, ultimately growing up to be one of the great holy women of her day.
Late in life, she was asked what the Baal Shem did to make her leave the convent. She responded, “On the first day, I felt him there, waiting, and I was angry with him. What right did he have?! On the second day, I was no longer angry, just curious—who was he and why was he waiting for me? But I was determined not to let him trap me with my own curiosity. On the third day, I felt him waiting, and I was engulfed by an overwhelming sense of love. I tried to resist it, but my desire grew and grew until I could resist it no longer. And I ran outside to see his face.”
What a magnificent moment of eros! To live erotically is to be fully present16 to each other’s richness, complexity, and ultimate grandeur. It is to fully wait for the other to appear. The Shechina in the Temple is termed the indwelling presence. Say the mystics, She is presence waiting for us to show up, to be present.17 She is eros, standing outside of our window, waiting for us to feel her presence. Waiting for us to be overwhelmed by her love. Waiting for us to run out and behold with wonder, her face.
Emptiness and Addictions
Eros is about feeling the fullness of being, the opposite of emptiness. Every human being has met emptiness, that feeling we experience in the late night, home alone or in the hotel room we return to after a long day’s work on a business trip. We enter the room and are often overwhelmed by intense feelings of emptiness. We flip on the cable or order up dinner and entertainment—anything to not stay in the emptiness. Indeed, the sentence that I probably repeat to my students more than any other is, “Life is what you do with your emptiness.”
In our society, which sadly defines human beings as consumers and not lovers, denial is the primary strategy for coping with emptiness. We are sold ful-fill-ment at every turn and in every guise. We buy buy buy, hoping that one of the hawked elixirs might finally full-fill us. And yet the emptiness lingers.
This is the great paradox of emptiness. The first relation to emptiness must not be to fill it, but simply to be mindful of it, to notice the emptiness. The goal is to move beyond the void to the fullness of eros and Shechina. Yet, paradoxically, you can only access the fullness of being if you are willing to stay in the emptiness long enough to find your way. The path to eros is filled with detours to pseudo-eros, but they are all dead ends. When we are so desperate for fullness, when the emptiness hurts too much, these detours seduce us off the path, often spinning us to painful places we never wanted to go.
Addiction is, at its root, the inability to stay in the emptiness. So we rush to fill the emptiness with whatever gives us the quickest hit of pseudo-eros. Pseudo-eros is virtually always addictive. Sex, food, public acclaim, drugs, work; pseudo-eros has many disguises. We are all addicts. Goethe was right when he defined addiction as anything you cannot stop doing.
People are thrown for a little bit of a loop by the opening talk which I sometimes gave at orientations for spiritual retreats. These retreats, which were not geared toward drug or alcohol problems, started something like this: “I know you are all addicts—but I promise you it will be okay. You can break the habit. Indeed, we insist you let the addiction go.” At this point, everyone would look at each other, asking in silence, “What is he talking about? We’re not addicts. Did we come to the wrong place?”
I would keep on in this vein for some time until someone was finally fully exasperated and shouted out, “But I’m not an addict!” At which point, I suggest to check that claim, we need to define addiction. The definition that emerged was always something like, “Addiction is anything you are incapable of refraining from doing for 24 hours that is not essential to your physical health.” After that was agreed, I posed the following question: “How many people here believe casual gossip about other people’s ostensible shortcomings is essential for your physical health? How many people have succeeded in going twenty-four hours in their lives without talking negatively about someone else?” The place slowly would get very quiet. We realized that almost all of us are addicted to negative gossip. We cannot go 24 hours—or much less time—without negative gossip! We are addicts!!
When you think deeply about it, you realize that talking about other people is one of the easiest ways to engage conversation. Deeper still, it is one of the easiest ways to fill the emptiness. It is a form of pseudo-eros, a shortcut to fullness. At our retreats, rather than maintain silence, which is relatively easy, we invite everyone to mindful speech. Indeed, Kabbalah scholars point out that one of the defining characteristic of the Zohar mystics is that illumination happened not in solitary retreat, but in groups engaged in sacred conversation. Fulfillment comes not from escaping, but from engaging.
So, carefully watch and you will see that a millisecond before you are moved to casual slander, you touched a moment of emptiness in yourself. Something in the mention of a person’s name or in the topic of conversation subtly, almost invisibly, challenged your self-worth, adequacy, or dignity. Imperceptibly, your system moves to fill the emptiness with a quick hit of fullness—pseudo-eros—gossip.
The cherubs once again serve as our guide. Remember that the vortex of Shechina in the biblical myth is no less than “atop the ark in the Holy of Holies, between the cherubs.”19 “Between” is interpreted by the Kabbalists as a word which dances between the emptiness and the fullness.20
In the first unpacking, between—bein in Hebrew—is understood as the “empty space between the cherubs.” Bein is the emptiest place in the world, hence the place in which the Shechina dwells. A seeming endorsement of the emptiness.
In a second understanding, “between the cherubs” is said to be the place where there is no emptiness. That is the place of Shechina, which is to say a place of erotic fullness, the radical intensification of presence from which wells up the voice of God. A seeming endorsement of the fullness.
The meaning underlying these paradoxically different understandings of bein/between is clear. Only when we can hold the emptiness does it become filled with the divine voice.
Beautifully, the Hebrew word bein also means “wisdom”—beinah.21 For wisdom only comes when we are willing to stay in the emptiness long enough to hold center and walk through. When we try to fill it too quickly, we always wind up shocked and deeply unsettled when the emptiness does not go away. Instead, the void gets deeper, thicker, more palpable, virtually suffocating us.
The Third Face of Eros: Desire
When I am on the inside, when I am fully present, I am able to access this third face of the erotic experience—longing.22 Longing and desire are two essential expressions of love and eros. As long as I am on the outside, I can ignore my deepest desires and stifle my longing. But longing is a vital strand in the textured fabric of the erotic. It is of the essence of the Holy of Holies.
We are filled with desires. How to relate to them—ally or enemy, teachers or tempters? Here again, the cherubs hint at the way.
This is the place to introduce another set of cherubs which appear in biblical myth. The first, of course, are the cherubs above the ark. The second pair make a dramatic earlier appearance in the biblical book of Genesis as the two cherubs which guard the way to the Garden of Eden. The Zohar speaks for much of the mystical tradition when it suggests that these are one and the same cherubs. The Temple in biblical myth is called the Garden of God. The mystics reveal that the Garden of Eden and the Temple are in mythical terms the same plane of consciousness.
Remember the archetypal Garden of Eden story? Eve, overcome by desire, eats from the forbidden tree and gives Adam a taste of the fruit as well. Adam, when confronted by God, blames Eve. Eve blames the serpent. According to mystic Isaac Luria, had they but waited three more hours, the Tree of Life would have been theirs.23 Full erotic fulfillment in all the senses of spirit, soul, and body would have been realized. But they could not wait. Unable to stay in the emptiness, they required an immediate hit of pseudo-eros. For their failure to take personal responsibility and for their inability to resist the blandishments of pseudo-desire, they are exiled from the Garden.
The goal of personal and cosmic history is to return to the Garden. The cherubs, however, stand at the entrance to the Garden with swirling swords of flame. Anyone who attempts to return to paradise through the drugs of pseudo-desire is burned by the cherubic sword. The same cherubs stand above the ark in the Holy of Holies. They give instruction in the path of Hebrew tantra. If we are willing to do the work, the temple cherubs will ultimately lead us back to the Garden. Pseudo-eros will give way to true eros. For to be in the Garden, which is the Temple, is to live in full eros in every facet of our lives.
Desire is Holy
The biblical mystic lovingly counsels us to be with ourselves and gently watch our desires as they come and go. Not to eradicate them, not to get off the wheel of suffering which they are said to create. We are invited to engage in birur teshuka, the clarification of desire.
Eros is to be on the inside, including the inside of your desire. What being on the inside does is invite a person to clarify his desires, yet not transcend them. True desire is attained through the deep meditation in which you access the internal witness.24 This is a place of detachment, from which you survey with penetrating but loving eyes all of your desires. This place of internal witness allows you to move beyond an addictive attachment to any particular one. At that point, the person engaged in birur—“clarification”—does not abandon desire. Rather, she moves to connect to those desires which were truest to her deepest and most authentic self. It is in the empty space “between the spasm and the desire” that the person is born.
Detachment for the biblical mystic is a strategy, not a goal. In the end, you must not remain a spectator in the drama of your own existence. Rather, you need to become the lead actor on your stage, fully merged with the part the universe has invited you to play in this run, to live always on the inside and never get lost in the luxury of distance or detachment. Longing and desire are good, not because we believe that all of our yearning will be fulfilled or realized, but because the yearning itself fulfills us. The desire itself fills the emptiness. When we yearn to grow, when we are alive with desire, we touch fulfillment.
Hannah was a walking prayer, constantly calling out to God. People would see her on the streets, carrying her groceries with a light step, all the while with eyes facing upward, a soundless prayer on her lips. Passing by her window, you would see her by the stove or by the sink, lips lost in prayer, pleading with the heavens for something, for anything, for everything. A neighbor with a jealous eye one day came to her and whispered, “And so why hasn’t God answered all your impassioned prayers?” Hannah was shaken. What if this neighbor was right? Then, will God answer, and why should I wait? And so Hannah abandoned her beseeching. She gave up on her yearning. And though the groceries seemed heavier, the stove colder, she refused to pray. Until one night, a divine voice called out to Hannah in a dream, “Why have you stopped praying to me?” Hannah retorted, “Well, you never answered, so I stopped asking.” To which the Divine replied, “Don’t you realize, every call of yours IS itself my response? Your great yearning is my greatest gift.” With this, Hannah’s ceaseless prayer came back to her lips. Her burden was again lightened, her stove was ablaze.
Depression is at its core the depression of desire. When we lose touch with our authentic desire, we become listless and apathetic. There is wonderful eros in desire. It is what connects us most powerfully with our own pulsating aliveness.
The Yearning Force of Being
The mystical tradition knows to tell of time portals, each capable of accessing different regions of our interior castle.25 The mystical masters understood that the Temple of eros was built not in space, but in time. The Sabbath—a Temple in time—is patterned in its spiritual blueprint after the Temple in Jerusalem. The axis mundi of the Sabbath, its Holy of Holies, takes place near dusk as the Sabbath ebbs away into sunset.26 In the tradition, this is the time of tears. Not crying of personal sorrow, but tears that well from the yearning force of being. It is at this time that the disciples would gather around the master’s table and sing songs of longing, often well into the night.
This is what Viktor Turner called Liminal Time, the time between the cracks when all the gates are open. Here is one of its tales of eros.
It was near dusk as the Sabbath ebbed away. The disciples were gathered. The master Levi Isaac of Berdichev, holiest teacher, rises to speak. He wants to explain to his disciples not the wonder of creation, or the mystery of the chariot, but merely that God is the inside of the inside, the erotic life force of the universe, and that therefore each one of our lives matters.
He begins his discourse with an elegant teaching from the Talmud, demonstrating the reality of God.
“Do you understand?” he queries.
“No,” they answer… heads hanging.
He then takes them on a dance of light, intricately weaving the mysteries of the Zohar, which illuminate God’s presence in the world.
“Do you understand?” he queries.
“No,” they answer… heads hanging.
In desperation, he begins to tell stories, tales revealing great mysteries.
“Now do you understand?” he queries.
“No,” they answer, heads still hanging.
So, he becomes quiet and begins to sing a melody of yearning, of longing, of pining.
For a few moments, he sings alone, then one and then another joins in, until they became one voice.
Levi Isaac did not need to ask. Their heads raised. They understood.
The Fourth Face of Eros: The Interconnectivity of Being
Longing, desire, and tears remind us of the fourth strand in the erotic weave. They whisper to us that we are all interconnected. No human stands alone.27 The word “religion” traces its source to the Latin root ligare which, similar to ligament, is about connectivity. Religion’s goal, then, is to re-ligare—to reconnect us. Religion’s original intention was to take us to that inside place where we could indeed experience the essential interconnectivity of all reality. All of existence is one great quilt of being, and we are all patches in its magnificent multifaceted pattern.
Eros is what allows us to move past the feeling of isolation and separation and experience ourselves as part of the quilt. To sunder our connection to eros is therefore to sin. Not only would we lose the source of life’s greatest pleasure, but we would undermine the building blocks of connection without which the world would ultimately collapse.
At this point, then, it does not surprise us to learn that in the Temple myth, it is said that the Holy of Holies is the place of the Even Shetiya, the foundation stone of the world.28 In myth, it is that stone, symbol of eros, which holds the world together. Eros is the interconnectivity of reality. Eros, wrote Emerson, is “an ascendancy of the soul.” Its place could be nowhere other than the Holy of Holies.
In the kabbalistic myth, the great sin which caused what is called the shattering of the vessels was the sin of separation. Each divine force—sefira—held itself apart, autonomous, and independent, free of any dependency on the other sefirot. The result was that each independent sefira was unable to hold its light and ultimately shattered, causing great cosmic disarray.29 The tikkun – the fixing of the shattering – is experiencing every point of existence in connection, as part of the quilt of being.
It is in this sense that mystics were often also magicians. Ecstasy and magic are in the end inextricably bound up. Both seek to access the myriad lines of connection that under-gird the wondrous web of existence.30 It is this magic that a child intuitively understands. Psychology dismissively refers to this childlike intuition as magical thinking and sees maturity as the triumph of the rational mind over magic. Yet, the mystic insists that the child is at least partially right. It is not for naught that the magical Harry Potter books swept the world with such speed. Children who had never read before were suddenly reading hundreds of pages, volume after volume. The children were saying, “Finally, you give us something that is true to our spirit.”
Eros is another word for magic and enchantment, the knowledge that everything is alive and intertextured, interwoven and filled with meaning. The experience of sin is the feeling that things, and you, are not holding together, that you are falling apart. Eros is the drive to wholeness and thus to healing and health.
Love Knows No Distance – Non-Local Love
The interconnectivity of being is neither doctrine nor dogma. Rather, it is the fully accessible nature of reality if we just take the time to notice.
This enmeshment in a web of connection is the essential erotic experience of mystics throughout the ages. But all of us catch glimpses of it as well. We have all known those moments of seemingly inexplicable coincidences—a mother having a piercing pain in her chest precisely when her daughter 2000 miles away has been in a car accident, or that time when you thought of an old friend only to come home to a message from him on your answering machine. These subtle synchronicities are all part of our daily reality. They are the faint yet persistent whisperings of the universe, which says, “You are not alone. Love knows no distance.” The all is connected to the all.
The worlds of music, dance, and, most of all, orgasm, allow us glimpses of our higher reality. Here again, the sexual models the erotic, the erotic being the experience on the inside of reality where all of being yearns for connection and every living thing knows that it has a patch called home which is part of the great quilt of the universe. Love is the eros of connection, the underlying interdependence of things, the bond between all living things, the emotional ether in which we all live.
Love Letters & Love Numbers
In biblical mysticism, love and oneness are identical. In Hebrew, there is a mystical technique called “gematria” in which each letter, and thus each word, has a numerical value. The Hebrew word for love, ahava, has a numerical value of thirteen. Echad, meaning one, also has a numerical value of thirteen. To the kabbalistic mind, this coincidence of number is more than coincidence. It is as if it is a mystical law that has been encoded into the letters of these words. Love is Oneness, and Oneness is Love. One is but another word for the erotic interconnectivity of all being.
But the rhyme of mystical meaning continues, for these two words added together equal twenty-six. Twenty-six is a central number in Hebrew mysticism because it is the numeral value of God’s four letter name: Yud Hei Vav Hei – יהוה – the divine name of healing and love.31 Thus, God is One Love. Love is the universe’s way of embracing us and telling us we are not alone. We have a home, a bayit. We are connected.
One + One = One.
Do You Know What I Need?
Teaches Isaac Luria, the great Kabbalist writing in 16th century Safed, “All evil is a failure of love, and all love is a failure of eros. I can only hurt you if I feel that you are not connected to me. Would the hand stab the foot to take revenge?” Love, for Luria,32 is, in its very essence, the erotic re-ligaring with all of being.
It always starts, however, not with all of being, but with a friend that you already know.
The master Moshe Leib of Sassov said he never knew what it meant to be a lover until he learned it from a drunkard. It happened that the master was in a tavern and overheard a dialogue between two men deep in their drink. One was professing how much he loved the other, but the other argued that this was not so.
“Ivan,” he cried, “believe me when I tell you, I love you more dearly than anything in the world.”
“Not so, Igor,” Ivan replied. “You don’t really love me at all.”
Igor gulped down a glass of vodka. The tears streamed down his face. “I swear, Ivan, I love you with all my heart,” he wept.
Ivan shook his head. “Igor, if you really do love me, tell me why I am not satisfied in my life. If you really loved me, you would know what I desire.” With this, Igor was silent. This time, Ivan was the one who cried.
All the faces of eros show themselves in the tale. Interconnectivity, desire, being on the inside, and the fullness of presence. If you really love me, then we are deeply connected. You hear the deepest desires of my soul because their melodies resonate in your soul as well. You learn to hear my soul’s music by being fully present in our encounter. Moreover, you are radically empathetic to my needs. Radical empathy comes when the fullness of presence engenders a great yearning to move beyond the alienation that separates us. It is this feeling of emptiness and loneliness that propel you to shatter the ego boundaries that alienate us and enter the inside of my story. You are my erotic lover.
1. “When Israel was with merit, the Cherubs were face to face, entwined with each other, and when they lacked merit, they would turn their faces away from each other”—Zohar, additional texts, vol. 2, 278a. See also BT tractate Baba Batra, p. 79a.
In this context, it is important to mention a little-noticed tradition, which appears in Zoharic literature, according to which the two cherubs were separated as a result of the Exile. It is apparently based on Midrash Zuta on the Song of Songs, where, commenting on the fact that the cherubs are referred to in the singular in the biblical verse “And He rode on a cherub and flew” (II Samuel 22:11 and Psalms 18:11), the Midrash says that when the Shechina was exiled, She was exiled with one of the cherubs. One “stayed with God,” as He knew that exile was not eternal (Midrash Zuta Shir Hashirim, parshah 1). In fact, this midrash may be echoing the Talmud in Rosh Hashana 31a, which describes the ten journeys of the Shechina in Exile. She is depicted as going from the Ark covering to one of the cherubs, then form cherub to cherub, then from cherub to the doorstep. The Talmud is also based on the same biblical verse.
As is often the case in Zoharic retelling of midrashic exegesis, the story is similar but with a critical twist or addition. In the New Tiqunim printed in Zohar Hadash, it is written: “And one cherub, which is the center pillar, rose to the Concealed One, concerning whom it is written, And he rode on a cherub and flew [vanished]. The second cherub remained, who is the Shechina in exile. Happy is he who unites them [together again] with the lips…through the eighteen blessings of prayer (the Amida).”
The significance is obvious. As we have been contending, the face-to-face cherubs are the ultimate metaphor and mirror of erotic living. The meaning of Exile is the disintegration of this state, the sense of separation, alienation. Through the agency of prayer (what we will presently call “sacred conversion”) this unity can be restored.
In the Rav Metivta section of the Zohar, the same idea is expressed (interestingly enough, as a possible explanation of one of the Saba’s riddles. It seems obvious to me that the Saba Demishpatim and the Rav Metivta are of the same Zoharic stratum and possibly even written by the same author. This is an interesting interface between them). Here, one cherub is said to have been assigned to Joseph from the day he was separated from his brothers, while one remained with Benjamin (Zohar vol. 3, 162a). Without entering into a lengthy discussion of the symbolic meaning of Joseph and Benjamin in the Zohar (or in the Luriannic literature), we can roughly say that Joseph represents yesod and Benjamin is malhut, so we are still addressing the same fundamental chasm.
Together with my friends and fellow teachers Ohad Ezrahi and Avraham Leader, we have taught texts and ideas that seek to reclaim this core vitality of the spirit. In reading the limited scholarship on this Cherub mystery, including Moshe Idel’s treatment in New Perspectives—although all the sources were extant—the sense of Temple energy and tantric vision seemed to be missing. I was thus surprised and pleased to note that Idel’s tone shifted markedly in his article “Sexual Metaphors.” There, he begins to capture this sense of Temple energy, even employing the tantric analogy.
In a conversation with Prof. Idel (Jan. 2002), I shared with him the general contours of the thesis which I will be unpacking in this chapter. Particularly my understanding that the essence of the kabbalistic position was that while the sexual modeled Eros it did not exhaust Eros. I was pleased when he shared that he had come similar conclusions and indicated that in 2003 he will be bringing out an academic work on Kabblalah and Eros which shares the same underlying premise. Recommended reading. Idel’s analysis is always good..and no less importantly has brought back into the conversation of the spirit many many critical texts that were here to fore virtually forgotten.
2. See, for example, Exodus 33:11 and Deuteronomy 34:10, where the expression “face to face” is used to describe the intimate relationship between Moses and God. In Deuteronomy, it says: “that God knows him face to face.” The Hebrew word yada (know) has explicitly sexual overtones, as in Genesis 4:1.
3. Zen Roshi B. Glassman (from Tzel article).
5. There is no limit to the amount of literature in Hasidism and the Kabbalah pertaining to the face. In this context, I would like to mention the Zoharic distinction between Arih Anpin – literally the “Long Face,” which represents God Who is before, after, and entirely beyond all forms of that which is finite – and Ze’ir Anpin – the “Small Face,” God in the world, in Whose divine image man is created. When the world is in its much-too-often alienated, non-erotic state, Arih Anpin and Ze’ir Anpin are said to be back-to-back. When they turn around and face each other, the face of Ze’ir Anpin lengthens, equaling that of Arih Anpin. The erotic imagery is self-evident. See Idra Rabba, Zohar vol. 3, 135b.
6. In the teachings of Rabbi Avraham Abulafia, this is one of the bases of his entire method and philosophical rationale. In general, he argues that language is a matter of agreement between people as to which sounds correspond to which objects, ideas, etc. It may be, however, that the sounds that compose words are of a more primal, essential nature, and they are the basis of the Hebrew language. These sounds are the building blocks that create reality as we know it, which Abulafia calls “knots.” The way to altered states of consciousness and God awareness passes, therefore, through the rearranging of these building blocks, or the untying of these knots, i.e. the rearranging of letters and sounds, the method of gematria, etc. Of course, the most extreme case is in the uttering of divine names, which necessarily connect us with the divine DNA, as it would be.
It is also interesting to note that Abulafia rearranges words from languages other than Hebrew (Greek, Latin, etc), because these essential sounds are heard in other languages also. For a discussion of this fascinating topic, see Or Hasehel, section 4, “The Secret of the Letters of Creation,” and the beginning of section 9, “The Mystery of Binding and Releasing.”
7. This phrase is used several times in Leviticus, chapter 9, where the priestly rite of Yom Kippur is described.
8. In the Kabbalah, Yom Kippur is associated with a direct link to the sfira of binah (see Pri Etz Hayim, Sha’ar Yom Hakipurim, from chapter one of Mystery of Love onwards). Binah is the sfira of ultimate liberation and freedom, as it contains the fifty gates, which parallel the fifty years leading up to the Jubilee year, when all is set free (Jubilee is yovla in Aramaic, one of the words used in the Zohar for binah, which has the numerical value of 50. On Yom Kippur, the high priest came lifnei Hashem. The Hebrew word lifnei can be read as lefi nun – to the mouth (gate) of the fiftieth (in the name of Reb Yaakov Lider, a 20th century Jerusalem mystic and saint). There is a story told of man who came to the Baal Shem Tov and asked how it was possible that our teacher Moses only reached the 49th gate, and could not enter the 50th gate. The Baal Shem Tov answered him: “You do not understand. It is not that Moshe did not enter the 50th gate. He did, and he saw before him another set of fifty gates. He then understood the secret of infinity.” Once the journey to God is finished, the infinite journey to God begins. See also the Tiferet Shlomo on Yom Kippur and the Yismah Moshe on parshat Aharei, who both make a very similar sort of association.
9. One vignette the mystics like to tell appears in the Hebrew mystical literature of the 19th century. See for example Michtav MeEliyhahu, Vol. 1, Kunteres HaChaessed, Tract on Loving.
10. The story appears in the sources without the second part. It is my imagined ending.
11. Leviticus 16:30.
12. Concerning the thrice yearly pilgrimage to the Temple, it is written “All your males [shall see] [shall be seen by] the face of the Lord, God the lord of Israel (Exodus 23:17, 34:23, and Deut. 16:16). There is a certain degree of lack of clarity as to how this verse should be read, as indicated in the two bracketed alternatives (see tractate Hagiga 4b). At any rate, we are referring to the Shechina experience, as noted, for example, by Rabeinu Bahye and the author of Haktav Vehakabbalah on these verses.
13. The Hebrew word bayit, home, also means inside. See, for example, the description of how to insulate Noah’s ark: “Seal it from inside (mibayit) and outside with tar” (Genesis 6:14).
14. Zohar vol 1, 155a. In Raya Mehimna, vol. 3, 110a, the world of separation is associated with the internal worship of idols, which is indicative of a non-unified self. Note that the Hebrew words for “other gods’ are elohim aheirim. In Hebrew, the word aher, other, also means “back,” as other gods is taken to mean relationships to oneself, others, and to the Universe, which are lacking the aspect of “face-to-face,” i.e. from the inside.
15. In the teachings of Reb Tzadok Hacohen of Lublin, there is a Hebrew term called hakarat hanochah, which may be roughly translated as “awareness of the presence (or present).” It refers to the relationship towards God expressed in the blessings, when we say “Blessed are You.” You, the second person, implies that God is near, present. In the exile state of consciousness, this may entail limitation, for how can the infinite God make Himself so small as to allow human beings to address Him as You? According to Reb Tzadok, messianic redemption consciousness means that there is no need for any limiting in order to be totally present before God and for Him to be totally present before man. There can be true fullness of presence. This is also a state we aspire to attain during prayer. See, for example, Resisei Leila, the letter het, and other places in R. Tzadok’s writings.
16. Although this is not the place to delve into this matter in depth, it is worthwhile to note that in kabalistic literature, the symbol of redemption is the fullness of the moon, which parallels the fullness of the Shechina.
17. The Torah, personified as a feminine Shechina figure, is pictured as waiting for man to take notice of her: “(The Torah)…calls in a powerful voice (Proverbs 9:4): ‘Whoever is simple, let him turn here. Whoever lacks understanding, she says to him: “Come, eat my bread and drink my wine,” and no one listens’” (Zohar vol. 1, p. 227a).
18. “And you shall not turn astray after your hearts and your eyes, which you whore after them” (Numbers 15:39). Note that both the heart and the eyes, which we have defined as the gates to sacred erotic living, can take on the exact opposite function. Note also the use of the Hebrew word zonim in this context, which literally means to whore. This is pseudo-eros in the extreme.
19. Numbers 7:89: “I will speak to there ….from between the cherubs.” Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, in Likutei Moharan 64, in a discourse known as “The Torah of the Void” and what may be the most important single essay in contemporary Hebrew thought, teaches that between the cherubs means—literally—in the Reek, the empty space between the cherubs.
20. See Midrash Tanhuma on Vayakhel, chap. 7, where it says that not only did God “limit” His Shechina to the tabernacle/temple, but even to the Ark. R. Meir ibn Gabbai in Avodat Hakodesh (sec. 4, chap. 28) interprets this as referring to the space between the two cherubs that were positioned on top of the ark. Note that the Tanhuma uses the word tzimzem for limiting, the same word used in Luriannic Kabbalah to describe God’s “withdrawl” of His infinity so as to create the emptiness where creation unfolds. This is the void that Rabbi Nachman discuses in the discourse mentioned in the previous footnote. Interestingly enough, when Sefer Habahir describes the voice that the people heard at Sinai, it is described as coming out from between the seven sounds (Sefer Habahir 48).
21. Binah is also identified with the first he of God’s holy name – YHVH. She is called “Supernal Mother” or “Supernal Shechina,” as compared to malhut, the Shechina aspect that descends together with humanity to the lowest of places. We can also identify her with the Great Mother archetype. The emptiness of the womb is the crucible where creation takes place.
22. The tzadikim are said to inherit 400 worlds of longing in the world to come, which is usually interpreted to mean “400 worlds” that they long to inherit. This is based on the biblical encounter of Abraham and aEfron, where Abraham buys the Cave of Mahpela for “four hundred pieces of silver” (Genesis 23:16). The Hebrew word for silver is kesef, which is the same word as that for longing, kisufim. I would like to humbly suggest that this be re-interpreted as “400 worlds of longing,” that is, 400 worlds, all comprised of longing. For the tzadiq, longing is an end unto itself and as we all know, sometimes the longing is sweeter than its realization (Idra Zuta, Zohar vol. 3, p. 288a).
23. In fact, Luria’s understanding goes even further. Commenting on a passage from the Babylonian Talmud (tractate Sanhedrin 46a) that tells of a man who had intercourse with his wife under a fig tree, Luria says that this man is actually Adam: “When Adam had intercourse with his wife under the fig tree, it was as if he ate something unripe (the Hebrew word used for unripe is paga, similar to fig). He should have waited until Friday night, which is the time for scholars to have intercourse with their wives. Adam’s sin was exactly like that of King David (with Bathsheba. Luria writes in Sha’ar HaPesuqim on Judges that Bathsheba was David’s soulmate, the problem being that he took her before their time.) (See Liqutei Shas on Sanhedrin).
24. In this context, it is interesting to look at how the Shma, possibly the primary mantra in Judaism, is written in the Bible. The last letter of the first word (shma) is an irregularly large Hebrew ‘ayin, and the last letter of the last word is an irregularly large dalet. Together they form the Hebrew word ‘ed, which means witness (see Deut. 6:4). R. Avraham Abulafia rearranges the words gan eden, the Garden of Eden, to form the Hebrew words ed nagan – the singing witness, the non-attached state which is a prerequisite for attaining prophecy (Haye Olam Haba, page 50).
25. Friday evening chazter – shabbot morn. Kosesh – afternoon kodsh kodashim—see Eliot Ginsberg
26. “On the Sabbath day, when the time of the afternoon prayer approaches (towards sunset), the Desire of all Desires is present, and the Ancient of Days reveals his will.” The Hebrew word ratzon, which is commonly translated as Will, actually means something much closer to Want, in the sense of ultimate desire and love. This is the only time of the week when this particular divine revelation is fully accessible. It is the time when the forehead of Atiq is turned towards that of Ze’ir, so all harsh judgments—denim—rest, and are replaced by compassion. All gates of prayer and other forms of longing are open at this time. See Idra Rabba, Zohar vol. 3, 129a, and Idra Zuta, Zohar vol. 3, 288b.
27. In Luriannic practice, one is instructed to take upon him/herself the love of all fellow human beings before beginning prayer, as it says, “And you shall love your fellow man as yourself.” If you know that your friend is in pain or in need of healing, then this need must be made part of his/her prayer. Only in this manner does prayer receive “wings” that carry it to the Divine, where it may “produce fruit” (Petora d’Abba, 3c).
28. This was all there was in the Holy of Holies at the time of the Second Temple, as the ark and the tablets were lost.
29. In the complex and most intricate Luriannic rendition of this myth, all the seven kings (who are parallel to the sefirot beginning with da’at) are present at the time when da’at enters its vessel (the first king, Bela). The problem is that “each one is as large as the other, but is not capable of being beneath or dependent on the others. Therefore, the vessel of each of them is only capable of containing its own light. Therefore, when all of them entered the vessel of one of them together, the vessel shattered, for it could not bear them all” (Sha’ar Hahaqdamot, 23b).
30. See note 60, above, for R. Avraham Abulafia’s description of the “lines of connection,” and how their unraveling opens one up to ecstatic experience. Abulafia is aware that the techniques used to induce magical ecstatic and mystical ecstatic states are very similar. Bearing this in mind, he cautions: “And even if, with the power of the Name, he can perform signs, wonders, and miracles, even so, this is totally worthless for Receivers (students, Kabbalists), who think to actualize their consciousness (my translation of the word sehel in Abulafia) through such sense-oriented wonders. What is most important is to teach them true miracles of consciousness, until they achieve what their teacher has achieved, and they realize [true] consciousness” (Haye Olam Haba, p. 108).
31. In Kabbalisitc tradition, the Name itself represents a unity of the Higher and Lower, of Male and Female. The first two letters YH, represent the higher world; the last two letters, VH, the lower world, which abide in harmony. The first letter Y is Father, who is wedded to H, the Mother. The V is the Son, who is wedded to H, his bride, the daughter. This is the state of erotic zivvug. When the Shechina is in exile, the last H is said to be separated from the V, or the VH is said to be separated from YH.
32. Luria. See also similar position in Cordovero. Bracha Zak article. See also Berdichev citation and adaptation of Lurianic position on love. For Luria, love is the first and most natural corollary of acosmism.