Like the Radiance of the Sky
It is said in the Midrash that God ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil before He created the universe.
The lesson here is that, though mankind was forbidden from eating from the Tree of Knowledge, what it represents is a central part of God’s plan for the universe. Moreover, without it, creation cannot even come into being at all. This is because the Tree of Knowledge, its branches reaching towards good and evil and all other dichotomies, emerges as a split within the primordial unity. And within that split resides the creative power of God’s speech. It is when God eats from the Tree of Knowledge that He acquires the power of speech and is able to proclaim, “let there be light”, and light is of course opposed to darkness.
If this is the case, then why were Adam and Eve forbidden to eat from the Tree of Knowledge? The truth is, as explained by some of commentaries, that if they had waited for Shabbat, they would have been permitted to eat from the it. Meaning that at the time they ate from it, they were not ready, they were not yet mature enough to process what they would experience. And that is because Shabbat represents both completeness and a return to the source. It is both the end of the week and the beginning of the next. Because they ate from the Tree of Knowledge on Friday, they condemned themselves to perpetually living in doubt and incompleteness (though even this was the Will of God). And had they waited for Shabbat they would have realised that duality and nonduality are the two poles of the ongoing cycle of creation. This is as the Sefer Yetzirah says Running and Returning: “when the mouth runs to speak and the heart to think, return to the place. As is said “and the Living Beings running and returning.”
This is a message to us. I was on a meditation retreat many years ago. There were only seven of us in total including the teachers, but it was very precious time. We realised then that the word retreat has a defeatist ring to it and that what we were actually doing was advancing. And that’s just the point, in order to advance we must first retreat.
There is a verse in the book of Daniel regarding the end of days: “many that ‘sleep in the dust’ will awaken and the enlightened will shine like the radiance of the sky”.
I don’t know if you feel the same way but as a Jew I find I am always oriented towards the outside. What is going on there, what is going wrong, how can we make it better? Judaism is world affirming. Its focus is on creating a better world, society and individual. But we can see in this aspiration the footprint of the Tree of Knowledge. Because it is not simply the Tree of Knowledge, it is the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Judaism is inherently bound up with the dichotomies of good and evil. And this is where I find myself going wrong, I find that I am always running, running. And I tire myself out, because there is only so long you can run before you burn out.
So therefore, I’m doing it wrong. And the Rabbis are there to correct me because the Torah is actually called the Tree of Life. Practising the Torah is not running, it is walking, Halacha, and it is also sitting, i.e. yeshiva, Shabbat and returning. The Tree of Life is the rectification of the mistake of eating from the Tree of Knowledge. The midrash says that the penance, teshuvah, for eating from the Tree of Knowledge was to eat from the Tree of Life, but Adam and Eve refused, and on that account they were sent out of the garden (Bereshit Rabba 21:6). Teshuvah means returning. So just as in the Sefer Yetzirah, when we run to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, which means to create a better world, we must return by eating from the Tree of Life: and this averages out to sitting and walking, which is what we do on retreat.
Returning to the verse in Daniel: “sleeping in the dust”, a metaphor for death, means burning ourselves out, letting our minds run amok and being overtaken, or taken over, by thought. “Waking up” means returning by way of the Tree of Life, it means sitting, it means walking, it means resting for a day. But the crucial part of the verse is the next part: “and the enlightened will shine like the radiance of the sky”. The sky is a great metaphor. It does not distinguish or discriminate. Whatever comes its way it welcomes. When the clouds obscure it, above it is still clear. There are two key words here. The “enlightened”, or maskilim, this comes from the word sechel and means something akin to intuitive knowing. This is our natural state, the cloudless sky. Then there is the activity of the enlightened, they radiate like radiance of the sky, in Hebrew, yazhiru kezohar harakia. The word Zohar might be familiar to you as the central text of the Kabbalah. It is named thus for its Illumination. But it also has another meaning in the form Zehirut, or in the Ashkenazi pronunciation zehirus. This term is the second stop of a ten-step process which culminates ultimately, like our verse, when death is transformed into life. These ten steps parallel the ten commandments. Zehirus is therefore the second stop or the first branching of the Tree of Life: this is the first step after you have returned to the source, which is the Torah, the Tree of Life itself.
Zehirus, means be careful, watch out. The best way I see to define it is compassionate awareness. The image I have is like holding a new-born baby. They are floppy and delicate, and you are afraid to drop or hurt them. But the fear comes on account of your love for them. And this is the foundational orientation we are told to take in our engagement with the world. As we eat from the Tree of Knowledge, as we try to better the world and ourselves, we have to do so with compassionate awareness. I find this to be a profound teaching and a profound practice that we can take and apply to anything we are doing, even when we are not doing. And it applies equally to ourselves as to others. When we do it right, we see that this is the natural arising out of the ground of stillness, it is automatic. If we can penetrate wisdom/silence/intuitive-knowing, when we act, we act with compassionate awareness. So, we can trace one into the other. Where there is compassionate awareness there is the sky-like radiance of intuitive knowing, where there is sky-like radiance there is compassionate awareness. In this way we begin to fulfil what the Sefer Yetzirah says elsewhere, “to embed the end in the beginning and the beginning in the end”. We rectify the disconnect (between the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life, Friday and Shabbat, Running and Returning) and learn how to seamlessly flow between duality and nonduality.
This post was the initial script for a talk on a retreat which took place on the 1st August 2021. The title of the retreat was Like the Radiance of the Sky: Enlightened Living.