thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was …
Rabbi Yitzchak and Menachem Mendel of Vorki, 19th century Poland
There is no darkness or gloom greater in the world than this: that people do not see, and do not want to see, their fellows, but each one worries only about themselves.
When no one sees their fellow, and worries only about themselves, then “no one gets up from their place,” for there is no hope for revival or progress.
Rabbi Yitzhak and his son interpret the darkness as the inability to see other people.
Why is that the deepest darkness?
“Do not want to see,” why don’t they want to see? How does that compound the darkness?
Why is the ability to see others prevent someone from growing or spiritually healing?
How might this relate to our lives?
This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you. Speak to the whole community of Israel and say that on the tenth of this month each of them shall take a lamb to a family, a lamb to a household. But if the household is too small for a lamb, let him share one with a neighbor who dwells nearby, in proportion to the number of persons: you shall contribute for the lamb according to what each household will eat.
Moshe Cordovero, 16th century Tsefat, Land of Israel
Our rabbis have said: If two people are eating the Passover lamb, and one eats it for the sake of [fulfilling the commandment of eating] the Passover lamb, and the other eats it for the sake of the physical act of eating, of the first one it is said: “the righteous eats it for the satisfaction of the soul” [Proverbs 13:25], while of the second it is said: “but the belly of the wicked shall be lacking” [Proverbs 13:25]. In this way, they teach us that although eating the Passover lamb is a physical act, everything follows from the intention. If a person, by good intentions, draws spirituality from a holy source, as for example when one eats for the sake of [fulfilling the commandment of] the Passover lamb, [and] since it has been commanded by the Creator, then that act, by virtue of this drawing down from on high, brings perfection to the soul.
A key problem in Kabbalah is the relationship between the physical and spiritual. What is the purpose of us existing as physical beings? How do we connect with God?
The answer, for Moshe Cordovero, is that intention or consciousness connects the physical and spiritual. We also connect with God by being conscious of God’s purposes and creation. How do you develop that connection with God? By practicing intention in a discipline way. The blessings, which Judaism structures throughout the activities of daily living create a framework for that practice. More broadly, the system of mitzvot, by creating an explicit linkage between God and our actions provides a mechanism of developing a spiritually refined person.
What’s more, the kabbalists will go further and argue that intentionality unblocks the obstacles between God and the world, and has more profoundly a redemptive purpose.
We see here, how Kabbalah creates a way providing meaning and purpose to ritual and mitzvot. What is your relationship to ritual and mitzvot? Does it help to reframe it as a system for developing consciousness or mindfulness?
An issue that will concern later Hasidic teachers is the way that ritual and observance can become rote and empty habit and cease to provide a pathway to the spiritual. What are your experiences? If you observant and practice rituals, how do you keep it alive?