Why We Need Radiant Immanence Now, More Than Ever
Holy Garments That Can Hold Us In Difficult Times
This is Life as a Sacred Text, an expansive, loving, everybody-celebrating, nobody-diminished, justice-centered voyage into one of the world’s most ancient and holy books. We’re working our way through Exodus these days. More about the project here, and to subscribe, go here.
Today we’re going to talk about garments, both literal and metaphoric. It’ll get a bit trippy before it loops back around to us, here, now—so bear with me, OK?
OK, so: the Israelites have been busy been building the Tabernacle. Now, in Exodus 28, the Torah is ready to to talk some about what the priests will wear when said holy site for the divine indwelling is up and running. We’re looking specifically now at the threads of Moses’ brother Aaron, who is to be the High Priest.
Make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron, for kavod and tiferet. (Exodus 28:2)
Kavod and tiferet. Kavod is related to the word for “heaviness” (and also, yes, for those of you who know Hebrew, it’s also liver—the body part) and can be reasonably translated, depending on context, as dignity, honor or respect. But, notably, kavod is also a way of talking about the indwelling presence of God, immanence—the divine as manifest among the Israelites. The “Kavod of God,” is translated often as the “Glory of God” or “Presence of God.” (See, for example, Exodus 16:7; 24:16-17; 40:34-35, and so forth.)
Tiferet can be translated as splendor, as magnificence, and its root has a connotation of beautifying, glorifying—but not in a superficial way. There's this sense of radiance—of glorious, holy adornment. And yes, it's one of the sefirot (uh, divine emanations) in Kabbalah, one of the mystical threads of Judaism.
Aaron is to be dressed in, essentially, the divine, in order to serve the divine.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev, the 18th c. Eastern European Hasidic master also known as the Kedushat Levi, wrote,
apparently Aaron was to serve as a vestment for God, Who, when on Earth, must garb Godself in a manner that prevents harm coming to the people among whom God “dwells.”
We have a concept according to which the souls of the righteous serve as vessels harboring celestial attributes. This is the meaning of [this verse], that Aaron’s soul was to serve as sacred vestments for celestial attributes. The words “for kavod and tiferet” refer to these celestial attributes of God.
Aaron’s soul was to serve as sacred vestments for celestial attributes.
Aaron’s soul was to serve as sacred vestments for celestial attributes.
Whew. But also, like, what does this mean? In practical terms—how could a human soul be a garment for the divine?
And, mind you, the divine is also a garment for the human—remember the original verse, “Make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron, for kavod and tiferet. (Exodus 28:2))? So how does this all work?
(Also, like, do we have a “soul” and if so what is it? Is it separate from the body or an intrinsic part of it? What does “Judaism” say? 2000 years of people arguing with each other start to snicker, as though there would only be one Jewish answer to a question like that. Yes, there are myriad concepts about the soul, running pretty much the gamut. I, personally, super hope that when I die I will finally get the answer sheet to the quiz and find out where things land on stuff like this. As such, I’m intentionally using these words without defining them and, as always, please plug into this language in ways that make sense for you, personally.)
In Judaism, we talk about (at least!) four traditional levels of Torah reading.
There’s the plain meaning of the text, what the verse means in a literal way.
Then there’s the symbolic, allegorical, metaphorical meaning.
There are the the midrashic meaning(s), the ways it can be part of a homiletic jam session.
And then the secret, esoteric, mystical meaning, what this verse teaches us about the nature of God Godself.
So while the plain meaning of the verse is that these were instructions about the High Priest and his very fabulous threads, on other levels, this verse, like every verse, is about us, and our connection with the Holy.
Each verse is a teaching for all of us, always, at all times.
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So, with that in mind, we start to get a few concrete ideas about what a soul being “vestments for celestial attributes” could look like from a few of our commentator friends:
As the 19th c. Russian commentator Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser—better known as Malbim—reads it,
Behold, the garments that God commanded to make were ostensibly outer garments, such that their makeup is discussed. But they really indicate inner clothes that the priests of God should make - to clothe their souls with thoughts and traits and proper tendencies, which are the clothes of the soul. God commanded Moses that he should make these sacred garments - meaning to teach them how to refine their souls and traits, in such a way they will wear majesty and splendor upon their internal souls.
According to Malbim, allowing ourselves to be clothed in the glory and splendor of the radiant indwelling divine is really about doing the work to refine ourselves, our traits.
It’s about actively going to work on the ways in which we cultivate positive traits, like generosity, courage, and integrity, and address the places where we still have work to do on our tendencies towards anger, selfishness, being unfairly judgmental, or other places of challenge.
And that as we do that inner work, as we cultivate that growth, majesty and splendor will shine forth.
The Sfat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, the 19th c. Polish Hasidic thinker, has a different take. This passage is addressing a different verse, but I think it’s relevant to the Kedushat Levi’s read, so I’m bringing it here. (You’ll forgive the mixing of metaphors that’s about to happen, I hope.)
Should we revisit the Kedushat Levi briefly for a second, first? Remember, he said:
We have a concept according to which the souls of the righteous serve as vessels harboring celestial attributes.
OK, now to the Sfat Emet. (There’s a thing sometimes where rabbis get the nickname of their most famous book. I don’t make the news, just here to report it. Anyway.) He wrote:
God placed a holy point into the very nature of every creature.... The more you take the light of the soul upon yourself, drawing your deeds to follow this light, the more spirit and soul is added to you. This opens the wellspring that flows without end. (Sfat Emet, Parshat Devarim 3).
You can see the connection, yes? Sure, the Kedushat Levi says that it’s only the righteous, maybe, that are allowed to harbor these divine attributes, but I think these texts are all of a part. Malbim says that as you do the internal work to refine yourself, you can wear this holy splendor upon yourself.
And here—read the Sfat Emet a couple of times more if you want—he’s saying that every creature has this holy point, and that the more our deeds follow this light, the more spirit and soul we get. And if our deeds follow the light enough… we can access the eternal wellspring.
Sure sounds like the celestial attributes. Sure sounds like a righteous soul—whose deeds follow the light—bathed and bathing in majesty.
Except the Sfat Emet makes pains to spell out that we all have this point, and that it’s not an all or nothing thing. You’re not clothed or naked, if you will. The more your deeds follow light, “the more spirit and soul is added to you.”
Until you hit the place where you’re in the wellspring, until it flows without end.
Why am I going on and on about this? The deeds and the wellspring, the soul as the garment for the divine?
I mean, honestly, I think it’s powerful Torah for any day.
But these days are not any day, friends.
These are difficult times.
Over 200 anti-trans bills have been introduced in the first three months of 2022 alone. Trans kids and adults are under attack in a way that threatens their safety, their existence as trans people—and yes, forcing people to detransition, to stay closeted, and denying them the care they need to live in their gender is very much that—and their lives.
This year has also been the most devastating year for abortion bans since Roe v Wade. Texas, Florida, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Louisiana have significant bans in place, many of which have no exceptions for rape or incest. And in all likelihood Roe will be overturned or gutted when the Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health decision comes down later this spring or early summer. If Roe is overturned, 26 states will have abortion bans immediately—over half the country will require forced pregnancy and childbirth. This will entrench and deepen every systemic injustice that exists—particularly racial and economic injustice. People will suffer and people will die.
Bans on so-called “Critical Race Theory” (hope you know by now: if it’s not being taught in law school, it’s likely not actually critical race theory)—aka the teaching of accurate history, antiracism and an understanding of systemic oppression, and even social and emotional learning concepts continues apace, as does book banning, and prohibitions on “saying gay”.
The pandemic is still not over, and there is a new variant in town. (Please be safe and remember that some people are immunocompromised, elderly, too young to be vaccinated, or otherwise higher risk. So please be careful for their sake, if not for your own, and mask and reduce exposure as you can, OK?)
There’s lots happening now that is hard, that is maybe harder than we’ve ever had it in our lives, and will as such demand more of us than we’ve yet had to give.
We need to know how to get there.
Our armor for this fight must be glory and splendor.
Without a spiritual practice, without connection with the Holy, we will be toast. We will burn out. We will lose sight of the big picture. We will forget that the reason this all matters is because each of us was created sacred and irreplaceable, in the image of the divine, and that our showing up is to take care of anyone we might be able to help, to change systems to try to take care of all of us.
The work is going to be hard and we have to find our way to the wellspring.
Malbim says we must cultivate our ways of being in the world that are concordant with our values.
And the Sfat Emet says it is about drawing our deeds to follow the light—that our actions in the world are the result of choices of light, not of darkness. That what we do in the world follows and brings more light. Even if it doesn’t change everything. Even if it can’t singlehandedly fix all of the problems.
Your actions just need to bring more light.
If you can do that—keep doing things that bring more and more light—then eventually you find the wellspring, the place from which it just flows. From which instead of chasing the Holy, you draw down the Holy. The Holy acts through you, the energy comes from a source outside of you—like being plugged into the outlet, instead of using your own battery.
When you can access the wellspring—for short periods of time to refill the cup, or perhaps even for longer periods when you are in a place of flow, of alignment—you do not burn out.
You stay clear in your purpose.
You know what you are doing and why, and the doing, the actions fill you as well. And you don’t use yourself up, because you have refilled, you are drawing down.
This is going to be a long haul, and we need to make sure you have what you need.
That your cloak of kavod and tiferet keeps you protected warm.
We need you to have be ready connected at that one perfect inner point and radiating that light all around you.
That’s how you can show up, and keep showing up, in all the ways that you can, for the people who need you—wherever you belong in this fight for a more just world right now. We need all hands on deck and there’s a lot of deck.
So come, show up, robed in glory and majesty.
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