Tiferet: Beauty in the Realm of the Divine”
PARABOLA Vol. 35, No. 4, (Beauty), Winter 2010 – 11
The Torah tells the story that as a young man Jacob was sent away from his family to avoid confrontation with his brother, Esau, and to find a wife from among his mother’s kin. Immediately upon arriving in the center of the city of Haran, he beheld Rachel the shepherdess standing by the well, seeking to draw water to refresh her father’s sheep. ”…And the stone over the mouth of the well was large…” Jacob came forward and rolled the stone from the mouth of the well.
Instantly attracted to Rachel and overcome by her beauty, he kissed her and wept. Then he introduced himself as a relative. (Genesis 29:10)
This was no ordinary well. Jacob’s mother, Rebecca, once stood at that very spot when Eliezer, the servant of Jacob’s Grandfather Abraham, sent to find a fitting wife for Isaac, Jacob’s father, came upon her. How did Eliezer knows whom among all the maidens gathered at that popular watering hole was the intended one for his master’s son? He asked God for help and was given a sign. As Rebecca approached the well, rather than her lowering a bucket to its depth, the water level rose miraculously to the mouth of the well. Eliezer observed this and knew that Rebecca was the one.
Upon experiencing Rachel’s beauty and falling in love with her at first sight, Jacob’s heart softened, preparing him for prophecy. Prophecy, the kabbalists say, is not necessarily seeing the future, but rather seeing the world through the eyes of God. To fulfill that mission, the prophet needs a compassionate, expanded heart. The Prophet Ezekiel proclaimed, “I will remove the heart of stone.” (Ezekiel11:19) This stone, as understood in kabbalistic tradition, is the sitrah achra, the force of evil that rests on the heart of the people, preventing the experience of prophecy from gushing up.
“… And Rachel was beautiful of form and beautiful of appearance; and Jacob loved Rachel. ” With these mysterious gifts — two distinct elements of beauty — Rachel attracted and captured Jacob’s heart. These qualities — her physical form and what we might term her “presence” –work together to forge the attraction necessary to bring the story to its culmination. These are the dominant attributes of the sefirah Tiferet, one of the “realms of divinity” represented in the Eytz Chayim / Tree of Life. The realm of Tiferet encompasses the qualities of beauty and harmony.
Translating kabbalistic words such as “sefirah” for a non-specialist audience presents numerous challenges. Scholars have developed a number of technical terms in English that may grate on or mystify the ordinary ear, such as “attributes” and “emanations”. Here we will mostly retain the Hebrew term, occasionally rendering it in poetic form as a “realm of the Divine.”
In their most typical kabbalistic rendering, there are ten sefirot (the plural Hebrew form), often visually and diagrammatically represented in a tree-like form (see illustration). The kabbalists refer to this as the Eytz Chayim, recalling the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden.
The two qualities of beauty mentioned in this verse are significant since both, as we shall see, lead to harmony. To live infused with Tiferet / beauty is to experience the harmonious blending of love, awe, truth, kindness and respect. Tiferet will lead Jacob and Rachel, and their progeny, toward their individual and collective destinies.
Now more than ever Tiferet is the sefirah for the future of humanity.
Jacob’s vividly symbolic act of rolling the stone from the mouth of the well is understood by the tradition as removing the stone from his own heart, and thus establishing the foundation for intimacy with Rachel and also with the Divine. For Jacob, falling in love and opening his heart allowed higher perceptions and feelings – traditionally understood as a yearning for wisdom and Torah — to flood into him, and subsequently to flow forth through his being and actions in his life.
It is interesting that the Hebrew verb itself yagel / to roll off, points also to the mystery of life. Yagel shares root consonants gimel-
lamed- lamed with words like galgal / wheel / cycle and gilgul / reincarnation or the cycling of souls. As the story evolves both Jacob and Rachel go through many cycles. Tiferet, in charge of new souls, is a constant source of creativity and surprise. You never know what you can find once the stone is rolled off.
Many love stories, as well as other significant events in the Bible, take place in proximity to wells and gathered water. By drawing fresh water from the well of wisdom into our being and invoking words of prayer and blessing with clear and focused intention, we are able to purify ourselves from sources of contamination of mind, feelings and body. We become ready to serve our purpose with wholeness.
There are many more references to water in holy texts, and it is no wonder: our bodies are largely made out of water. Tiferet sets in motion the blending of the three elements: the meeting place of fresh water coming from external natural sources, with the water of our physical body, to which are added divine blessings. Water is the medium through which purification, transformation and initiations are rendered. The blending of waters, external and internal, coupled with blessings, transforms impurities into fresh ‘living water.” This harmony of living water[s] is a manifestation of the power of Tiferet.
When Rachel learned the identity of the kind young man she encountered at Haran’s well, she ran to tell her father, Laban, who welcomed Jacob, his sister’s son, “his own flesh,” into his home. Jacob stayed there for a month, then asking Laban for Rachel’s hand in marriage, “I will work for you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.” Jacob worked hard to claim the love of his life; it was only after 14 years, and not without other notable events and difficulties, that he was permitted to marry Rachel and to return with her and his household: now including Leah, Rachel’s elder sister and Jacob’s “other” wife back to his homeland, the land of Canaan.
In the kabbalistic imagination, Rachel is taken to represent the feminine aspect of the Divine, the Shechinah, God’s indwelling “Presence.” Rachel becomes the mother who weeps over her lost children, the mother who refuses to be consoled. Rachel’s position in the Eytz Chayim is in Malchut / Kingdom, the sefirah closest to earth, where human beings exist.
On his way home Jacob faces yet another challenge: dealing face-to-face with his brother Esau. One of the reasons why he had left his home 14 years prior was because he extorted Esau’s birthright, together with the blessing due the first born. When the two brothers finally met, following some moments of apprehension, Esau approached his brother Jacob and “…embraced him, fell upon his neck and kissed him; then they wept.”
Kabbala interprets these struggles as reflecting Jacob’s particular position in the Tree of Life. We see that Jacob, as well as ourselves, is born of contrasting forces: Chessed / compassion, depicted on the upper right, and Gevorah / law, boundaries and limitations, depicted on the opposing upper left side. In successfully reconciling these opposites into a new synthesis, and achieving success in the life challenges meted out to him, Jacob reached spiritual maturity, and this transformation was signified by the change of his name from Jacob to Israel, meaning to be straight and aligned with God.
What was this new synthesis, which allowed Jacob to harness and harmonize the opposing forces within himself? It is Tiferet. Jacob embodies Tiferet, and Tiferet becomes Jacob. In the kabbalistic rendering, Jacob occupies the central-most position of the Tree of Life, below his grandfather Abraham, the first Patriarch (representing Chesed / compassion) and his father, Isaac, the second Patriarch (representing Gevurah / judgment). Jacob, taking his place as the third Patriarch, is now a new man, at once his own man and the product of his progenitors.
Like Jacob, each of us needs to find a way to hold opposing forces within ourselves in a harmonious way. As with Jacob, the purpose of our life’s journey is to achieve a harmonious balance between our higher self and our lower self. In this balance, we find peace, and with it, the ability to enjoy its beauty, as did the psalmist poet King David when he realized, “Only this I do ask of The Holy Name and this is what I pray: To gaze at the Beauty of God / Adonai and dwell in [God’s] presence.” (Psalm 27:4)
In Hebrew the word Tiferet, is composed of five letters. The central letter is Aleph, itself understood to represent the reconciliation and balance of two forces which contradict each other by their very nature. At an energetic level, two potentially opposing parties are able to meet in Tiferet as equals. In Tiferet, the quality of their disagreement is spiritually elevated to a different plane, whereby creative new solutions can emerge. As with Jacob and Esau, in Tiferet each party receives what he or she needs. In Tiferet, the needs of the one do not negate or cancel out those of the other.
The potential for such a resolution is exemplified in the dispute between Jacob and his twin brother, Esau. After the apprehension of potential conflict, Jacob responds to Esau’s arrival, ”…I have seen you; it is like seeing the face of Elokim / God…” (Genesis 33:10)
Millennia later, the great 20th Century tzadik / holy man and kabbalist haRav Avraham Itzchak haKohen Kook characterized the encounter of Jacob and Esau (and a parallel encounter of the prior generation) as an archetype for the reconciliation of Jews, Arabs and Christians. Writing in 1908 to his friend Rabbi Pinhas HaKohen, he explained, ”The words of Jacob shall not go down in vain utterances. The brotherly love of Jacob and Esau, Isaac and Ishmael, will rise above all the disturbances and transform them to universal light and compassion.”[i]. What Rav Kook understood, and what Jacob understood millennia before him, is that by invoking the gifts of Tiferet, a “light of universal harmony” can effect harmonious change.
With a mysterious presence arriving from the realm of divine beauty, each member of the family receives what they wish for and see the other just as they really are: a divine being.
[i] Bokser, Ben Zion, “Abraham Isaac Kook: The Lights of Penitence, The Moral Principles, Lights of Holiness, Essays, Letters, and Poems”. (Paulist Press, Mahwah NJ, 1978) p. 339