Last week during Simchat Torah we started Rabbi Larry Tabick’s weekly exploration of the Torah with a kabbalistic lens. Since this week also concerns Bereishit, we use a different kabbalistic text source — Chabad’s translation of the Writings of the Ari (Rabbi Yitzhak Luria) by Chaim Vital, translated by and Avraham Sutton.
Chaim Vital’s recounting of Yitzhak Luria’s teachings is one of the fundamental works of kabbalah and is the foundational work of modern kabbalah. Rabbi Tabick draws heavily from Lurianic kabbala — we will also use this source to introduce ideas that appear in Tabick’s book. Luria lived from 1534 to 1572 and taught in Tsefat, Israel. In this text Luria interprets Parshat Bereishit.
בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃
When God began to create heaven and earth …
Writings of the Ari (Rabbi Yitzhak Luria), Chaim Vital, translated by Avraham Sutton (1570s, Tsefat, Israel)
Why did the Torah begin with the letter beit and not with alef? Why was the alef saved for the first letter of “Anochi” [“I”], the first word of the Ten Commandments?
[This] teaches that the Torah has or contains two aspects: peshat (its simple or literal meaning) and sod (its deeper meaning).
For the Torah in which the Holy One took delight [before creating the world], as well as the Torah that the tzadikm learn in Gan Eden, is none other than its level of sod. Indeed, the Torah studied in Gan Eden was the initial Torah.
Therefore, [the fact that the Torah begins with the letter beit] also teaches that the Torah [we read from] is the “second” Torah, the one that was enclothed and which is a “garment” for the initial Torah. Again, for this reason the Torah begins with a beit, which itself is the second letter of alef-beit.
[Our Sages cautioned (Chagiga 14b) that] we do not have permission to speak about what precedes alef, for this relates to questions such as: What is above? [What preceded this universe?] What is below? etc. Alef correponds to the dimension of Atzilut, the “first” world, in that it precedes Beriya, the “second” world. This teaches that the Torah we have comes from Beriya. Accordingly, it uses the word “bara” [created], since it is only up to this world that we do have permission to speak. For this reason, the Torah begins with the letter beit.
Atzilut, and all the more so, anything that precedes it, in contrast, we may only contemplate intuitively [without concepts or words].
Atzilut thus corresponds to intuition or imagination. Beriya corresponds to conceptual thought. Yetzira corresponds to speech, and Asiya corresponds to actions.
These are the four worlds of kabbalah — intuition or imagination, conceptual thought, language (verbalization), and actions.
This set of correspondences is alluded to in the verse, “He saw it, and He declared it; He measured it; yes, and He examined it.”
The written Torah wraps divine imagination in human language and culture. The goal of the sod level of study is to connect back to the spiritual foundations of Torah. Paradoxically, we do through language and culture, which both reveals and obscures. It is secret knowledge because words are not enough, we must experience what words point to.