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Thoughts for Shabbat: “I became aware of something sublime arising within”

Portae_LucisA bit of thirteenth-century mysticism for your Friday night: 

Why do we utter letters and move them around? I, a fledgling, will tell you what I experienced. Know, my friends, that from the beginning I felt a desire to study Torah. I learned parts of it and some of the rest of the Bible. But I found no one to guide me in the study of Talmud—not for any lack of teachers, but because I longed to be home, to enjoy being with my father and mother. Finally, God gave me strength to search for Torah. I went out, searched, and found. For several years I studied Talmud abroad. Still the fire of Torah burned within me—though I could not sense it.

      I returned to my native land, and God brought me together with a Jewish philosopher with whom I studied some of Moses Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed. This only added to my desire. I began to explore logic and natural science; this wisdom tasted sweet for, as you know, nature attracts nature. God is my witness: If I had not previously acquired strength of faith through the little I had learned of Torah and Talmud, many of the mitsvot would have been ruined for me—even though the fire of pure intention blazed in my heart.

      What this teacher revealed on the path of philosophy was inadequate. Then God had me meet a divine man, a kabbalist, who taught me the outlines of Kabbalah. Nevertheless, because of my smattering of natural science, the path of Kabbalah seemed to me nearly impossible.

      Then my teacher said to me, “My son, why do you deny something you have not tried? You should try it. If you do not discover anything—and you are not perfect enough to attribute the fault to yourself—then say nothing is there.” Wherever he guided me, he would always define the matter for me in scientific terms—to sweeten it for me, so that my rational mind would accept it and I could enter enthusiastically.

      I reasoned as follows: I have much to gain here and nothing to lose. If I discover something, I have gained; if not, what I already have will still be mine. So I placed myself on the path, and he showed me how to permute the letters of the alphabet, transpose them, play with their numerical values, and the other techniques outlined in Sefer Yetsirah. He let me explore each path for two weeks-until each form was engraved in my heart. So he drew me on for about four months. Then he commanded me to erase everything. He said to me, “My son, the intention is not to grasp any finite form—even the highest. Rather, this is the path of the names: Their intrinsic value is proportional to their degree of incomprehensibility. The less comprehensible, the higher. Eventually you will reach an energy that is not in your control; rather your mind and thought are in its control.”

      I replied, “If this path is incomprehensible, then why do you compose books combining natural science with the divine names?”

      He said, “For you and those like you among the philosophizers, to attract your human minds naturally. Perhaps this attraction will bring you to the knowledge of the Name.”

      My mind did not accept it. But after about two months of meditation, my thought had been stripped, and I became aware of something sublime arising within. I set my mind to combine the letters at night, conducting them in contemplation—just a little differently than I do now. I continued this for three nights without telling him. The third night, after midnight, I was sitting with the quill in my hand and the paper on my knees. I nodded off—then suddenly saw the candle about to go out, as often happens when you wake from a nap. I rose to trim the candle, and I saw that the light persisted. I was amazed. As I gazed and contemplated, the light seemed to be issuing from me. I said, “I don’t believe it.” I walked throughout the house—and look, the light moves with me! I lay down on the couch and covered myself. Look, the light is with me still!

Abraham_abulafia     Those who know a little about this-and especially those to whom something has been revealed experientially—will rejoice in what I have written and find it fitting. But their difficulty will be that I have revealed all this explicitly. As for me, God knows and is my witness! My intention is for the sake of heaven. I wish that every person in our holy nation excelled me in this, that everyone was purer than I. Then, perhaps, things unknown to me could be revealed. For God, who is truly one, teaches all who are ready to receive—freely and in love. Since God desires us to imitate the divine perfectly, I cannot bear not to lavish upon another what God has lavished upon me. That is why I had to tell the story of my experience, because the only genuine proof of this wisdom is experience itself.

– from the Sha’arei Tsedeq, by an anonymous student of Abraham Abulafia (thirteenth century); excerpted in Daniel C. Matt, The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism, 105-07