[The following post is based on a presentation that I made at a minyan, a prayer group, on Nov. 8 this year, the week of the weekly Torah portion of Lech Lecha.]

This week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, the third in the Torah, could be seen as the launching pad of the Jewish people. The first portion, Bereshit (Genesis 1:1-6:8), launches the universe; the second, Noah (Genesis 6:9-11:39) launches a new humanity, after the flood; and this week’s portion (Genesis 12:1-17:27), is the first to talk specifically about the Jewish people. It launches Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, onto the scene.

At the opening of this Torah portion, the unseen God appears to Abraham as an inner calling to leave behind everything he knows and go to an unknown land (or the land of the unknown), which is not even mentioned by name:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל אַבְרָם לֶךְ לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ.
And Y-H-W-H said to Abram, “Go forth from your land and your birthplace and your father’s house to the land I will show you….” Genesis 12:1

God’s call to Abraham, lech lecha, is an idiomatic expression which is normally translated as “go forth.” However, the Zohar, a major kabbalistic text, interprets these opening words of the portion literally, or hyperliterally: lech literally means “go”, whereas “lecha” literally means “to you.” Go to you, the Zohar tells the Abraham in each one of us; go within. What for? For the sake of tikkun azmecha, a restoration of your notion of yourself, a restoration of your limited notion of who you are. And you will do that by renouncing any habitual identification with the things that you normally define yourself by, even the most intimate ones, such as your land, your birthplace, and your family of origin. Only when you are free from the identification with these impermanent notions will you enter “the land that I will show you.”

Thus, according to the Zohar, this journey within is the essence of what the religion of Abraham is all about. It points us to find the Promised Land within ourselves. It seeks to transmute the yearnings for a return to a geographical place into a yearning for a state of awareness, for consciousness in its natural state, free from any identification with any human-made notions. The Zohar seems to be saying here: “The Promised Land is within you.”

Not only the Promised Land is found within us. According to the Torah, the Torah itself is found within us. Moses says in Deutronomy 30:11-14:

כִּי הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם לֹא-נִפְלֵאת הִוא מִמְּךָ וְלֹא רְחֹקָה הִוא. לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא לֵאמֹר, מִי יַעֲלֶה-לָּנוּ הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה. וְלֹא-מֵעֵבֶר לַיָּם הִוא לֵאמֹר, מִי יַעֲבָר-לָנוּ אֶל-עֵבֶר הַיָּם וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ, וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה. כִּי-קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד, בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ, לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ.
For this command which I charge you today is not too wondrous for you nor is it distant. It is not in the heavens, to say, ‘Who will go up for us to the heavens and take it for us and let us hear it, that we may do it?’ And it is not beyond the sea, to say, ‘Who will cross over for us beyond the sea and take it for us and let us hear it, that we may do it?’ But the world is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it.

And Jeremiah 1:32-33 describes this internal discovery as a central feature of the renewed covenant between Y-H-W-H and the people of Israel:

נָתַתִּי אֶת תּוֹרָתִי בְּקִרְבָּם וְעַל לִבָּם אֶכְתְּבֶנָּה; וְהָיִיתִי לָהֶם לֵאלֹהִים, וְהֵמָּה יִהְיוּ לִי לְעָם. וְלֹא יְלַמְּדוּ עוֹד אִישׁ אֶת רֵעֵהוּ וְאִישׁ אֶת אָחִיו לֵאמֹר, דְּעוּ אֶת ה’:  כִּי כוּלָּם יֵדְעוּ אוֹתִי לְמִקְּטַנָּם וְעַד גְּדוֹלָם….
I have put My Torah within them, and on their hearts I have inscribed it, and I will be their God and they shall be My people. And they shall no longer teach each to his fellow man and each to his brother, saying ‘Know Y-H-W-H.’ For they shall all know Me, from the least of them to their greatest.

If one understands the word “Torah” to mean a book, a sequence of letters, such statements about it being inscribed internally do not make much sense. But there is a different idea of the Torah, one that would enable us to make more sense of these statements. I’m referring to the term Torah Kedumah, primordial Torah, coined by Rabbi Isaac the Blind (1160–1235) of Spain. This Torah is not understood as text, but rather as the fountainhead of natural law, the most fundamental level of the laws of nature, existing beyond time and space as pure potentiality and giving rise to the manifest universe. While the written Torah that we ordinarily know is composed of static black letters on white parchment, the Torah Kedumah is a dynamic entity described by Isaac the Blind as “black fire over white fire.”[1] The Torah that we have in our hands is only a flat representation of that alive, dynamic, timeless entity. And how can one have access to that Torah? Within oneself. Not just the Promised Land, but also the Primordial Torah is within you.

Rabbi Yisrael Friedman of Ruzhin, a 19-Century Chassidic rabbi known in Yiddish as Der Heiliger Ruzhiner (the holy one from Ruzhin), described locating the Torah within the self in the opening to his book, Irin Kadishin, in an original manner:

כל התורה כולה נכללה בספר בראשית, וספר בראשית נכלל בפרשת בראשית, וכל פרשת בראשית נכללת בפסוק “בראשית ברא וגו'”, וכל הפסוק “בראשית ברא וגו'” נכלל בתיבת “בראשית”, וכל תיבת “בראשית” נכללת באות בּ’ של בראשית, וה-בּ’ נכלל בהנקודה שבתוך ה-בּ’.
ואח”כ אמר: ואני הוא הנקודה של ה-ב’ וממילא נכלל בי כל התורה. כי הצדיק הוא הנקודה של כל התורה.
The entire Torah is contained in the book of bereshit (Genesis), and the book of bereshit is contained in the parasha [Torah portion] of bereshit [the first few chapters], and the entire parasha of bereshit is contained in the verse “bereshit bara etc. ” [the first verse of the Torah, commonly translated as “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”], and the entire verse “bereshit bara etc. ” is contained in the word bereshit [In the beginning], and the entire word bereshit is contained in the letter “beit” [בּ, the first letter of the first word] of “bershit”, and the “beit” is included in the dot within the “beit“.
And then he said: I am the dot of the “beit” and therefore the entire Torah is contained in me. Because the tsaddik [the righteous man] is the point of the entire Torah.[2]

The insight that the Ruzhiner offers here is that the mark of spiritual attainment—which is one way of understanding the word tsaddik—is recognizing that the Torah is within one’s Being. A human being is an embodiment of the Torah, and a tsaddik is one who has realized that.

He offers an additional insight, namely, that the Torah has a sequentially unfolding structure, concentric circles unfolding from the center of the self. Each level is an elaboration of, or a commentary on, the previous one. Just as the sprout is an elaboration of the seed, the young tree is an elaboration of the sprout, and the full-grown tree is an elaboration of the young tree, so it goes with the Torah, in the following manner:

Concentric circles, each representing a more elaborate version of the Torah.

We could have added one more concentric circle, one more degree of elaboration: the entire universe. Because in the Jewish tradition it is often said that God “looked into the Torah and created the universe.[3]” The Torah is said to be the blueprint of the universe. So the universe is an elaboration of, or a commentary on, the Torah; and the Torah is a commentary on, or an elaboration of, our innermost self.

*   *   *

I have not found anywhere else in the Jewish tradition such a description of the inherent structure of the Torah (if you, the reader, know of such a reference, kindly share). But listen to this quote from a Sufi writer from the 13th century, Muḥammad b. Talḥah al-Shāfi`ī’. In his book, al-Durr al-Mandham, he writes:

و اعلم أن جميع أسرار الله تعالى في الكتب السماوية و جميع أسرار الكتب السماوية في القرآن ، وجميع ما في القرآن في الفاتحة ، وجميع ما في الفاتحة في بسم الله، وجميع ما في بسم الله في باء بسم الله، وجميع ما في باء بسم الله في النقطة التي هي تحت الباء . قال الإمام علي : أنا النقطة التي تحت الباء
And know that all of Allāh’s secrets are in the heavenly books, and all of the secrets of the heavenly books are in the Qur’ān. And all of which is in the Qur’ān is in al-Fātiḥah [the opening chapter of the Qur’an], and all of which is in al-Fātiḥah is in bismillah [the first word or the Qur’an, translated as “in the name of Allah”], and all of which is in bismillah is in the [letter] bā’ of bismillah, and all of which is in the bā’ in bismillah is the dot (nuqṭah) which is under the bā’. Imām `Alī (عليه السلام) said: “I am the dot which is under the bā.”

It’s hard to imagine that there was a connection of transmission between this Sufi writer and the Ruzhiner, yet they both had an almost identical intuitive realizations about the origin and structure of the scripture. Both asserted that the scripture emerges sequentially and dynamically from a point, which is oneself. From a mystical Jewish perspective, one could say that Imām `Alī (who was a cousin of the Prophet Muhammad and is considered to be the founder of Sufism) is describing a cognition of Torah Kedumah. Could that level of reality be the source of all sacred revealed scriptures?

*   *   *

Another tradition of knowledge with similar intuitions about scripture as a sequentially unfolding structure from within the self is the Vedic tradition of India. Here the exponent of this understanding was Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of Transcendental Meditation who for 50 years (1959-2008) was one of the most influential gurus in the West.

One of Maharishi’s favorite mottos was a verse from the Rig Veda: “richo akshare pareme vyoman…” (Rig Veda I.164.39). The richas, the hymns of the Veda, are structured in akshara, the imperishable consciousness, the transcendental self of all. From the Self, he taught, the Veda unfolds sequentially in a manner that is very reminiscent of the Hassidic and the Sufi descriptions above, each level of unfoldment serving as an elaboration of, or a commentary on, the previous levels. He called this structure the Apaurusheya Bhashya, or “the uncreated [i.e., not humanly created] commentary,” in the sense that the very structure of the Veda is how the Veda comments on itself.

Thus, he explained that the entire Vedic literature is contained in the four Vedas (Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda and Atharva Veda); these four Vedas are, in turn, contained in the first Veda, the Rig; Rig Veda, on its ten “mandalas” (“cycles,” or books) is contained in the first mandala; the first mandala is contained in the first sukta (chapter), which is in turn contained in the first line (Agnim elay purohitam etc.), which is in turn contained in the first word Agnim, which is contained in the first syllable AG (which, in his theology, stood for the collapse of the unbounded fullness, symbolized by the sound A, into a point, symbolized by the sound G), which is contained in the letter A, which stands for the the unbounded consciousness of the self.

And just like in the Jewish tradition, so also in the Vedic tradition the scripture is said to be the blueprint of the universe. The Self is elaborated on in the A, which is elaborated on in Ag, which is elaborated on in Agnim, and so forth, all the way to its ultimate elaboration as the whole universe.

The idea of the whole universe emerging from a dot, which is the ultimate nature of the self, is also beautifully expressed in a story from the Chandogya Upanishad, about a father and son, Uddalaka and Shvetaketu. Uddalaka, wanting to teach Shvetaketu the ultimate truth, asked him to fetch a fruit from a nearby banyan tree and break it open. Shvetaketu did that.

“What do you see?” asked the father.

“There are many small seeds inside” said Shevetaketu.

“Now break open one of the seeds and tell me what you see,” said the father.

“It’s hollow, father, there’s nothing in it” said Shvetaketu. 

Uddalaka said, “My son, from this nothingness came the entire banyan tree. Likewise, the entire universe comes out of this invisible subtle essence. And you, Shvetaketu, are That.”

Is Torah Kedumah that intelligence that is metaphorically described here as the nothingness out of which the entire tree emerges? If so, it is identical to how Maharishi Mahesh Yogi understood the terms Veda.

*   *   *

The command lech lecha, go to yourself, is the first command that the first Jew, Abraham, is given. Limiting it to a command to move to a different geographical location does not do justice to the richness of this divine call. At the launch of Judaism—which, in extension, is also the launch of Islam and Christianity—Abraham is called to go inside his own consciousness, in order to find within himself the level of life beyond space and time, a level of intelligence, dynamism and creativity that gives rise to the whole manifest universe.[4] This is the true call of every genuine mystical teaching.


[1] See Gershom Scholem, On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism. 1996: New York, NY, Schocken, pp. 48-49.

[2] Translated from ‘Irin Kaddishin (עירין קדישין), a collection of the writings of Rabbi Yisrael Friedman of Ruzhin

[3] Bereshit Rabah 1:1

[4] The big bang theory of quantum physics describes how the universe emerges from a small seed: “Through a quantum fluctuation, a sort of bubble, in this vacuum, there emerged a hot, dense seed, much smaller than a proton, yet containing all the mass and energy of our universe.” Matt, Daniel C., God & The Big Bang: Discovering Harmony between Science & Spirituality. Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights, 2016, p. 3.

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