The Strongest, Most Dangerous Pharaoh

Perhaps the most enduring, certainly the cruelest and most evil False God we serve is ourself. I’m not referring to the trivial case of seeking full license to pursue our pleasures–a sober look from almost anyone self-doomed to indulgence quickly reveals the emptiness of that life. Rather, I’m talking about someone who makes himself his very own ultimate authority.

I recently read (I apologize that I can’t find the original citation, but if anyone is familiar with this, please let us all know in the comments section) that preceding the events in Sh’mot, including the ascension of a new Pharaoh who didn’t know Yosef and leading to Yisrael’s enslavement, was Yosef’s death and the death of his brothers, the first generation of leaders of the Jewish People. Not only were these people familiar with Yosef, the Tzaddik, Yosef the saintly, righteous man, a man who no matter how much secular power came into his hands always remembered that The Creator is, was and always will be our ultimate authority, they even more so lost the connection with Yaakov, whose relationship with God was even greater.

In the midst of a great famine, this nomad family, along with so many others, entered Egypt for relief. But, unlike all the others, acknowledging and following higher authority than merely themselves, they reached the top social positions in their new host country. They were given dominion over the lushest Egyptian district, Goshen (relate to Geshem materiality) and in contrast to neighboring refugee populations, lucky merely to be alive, they lived in luxury beyond the dreams of most Egyptians!

But with Yaakov’s, and then with Yosef’s deaths, the Jewish people all-too-quickly forgot their great message, that God, and not they (and certainly not the secular Egyptian authorities nor any other human agency) was in charge. We were no longer worthy of our elevated status since it was no longer based on a higher truth of our total dependence on The Creator, but, rather, on that most self-destructive illusion of our own  inherent superiority. Thus we rapidly fell to the very bottom of the social scale, abject slaves.

Whenever Man becomes the “measure of all things”, declares one of his own “Supreme Leader”, “Wisest Of All Men”, “The Perfect Human Being” “God Himself” and the like, unprecedented tyranny inevitably follows. Even when such a phenomenon starts off innocently and idealistically, it rapidly degenerates. It puts us at the very trailhead of the road to self-caused disaster.

Literally, not a day passes since I became a rabbi where the words of my rabbi/friend/mentor, Rabbi Daniel Goldberger z”l don’t reverberate in my head. When, in my mid-20’s I finally decided to become a rabbi, I made an appointment to see him. When I explained my plan, he looked me straight in eye and said, “Zeitlin, there is one thing I never allow myself, and that’s absolute certainty.” The moment we convince ourselves that we have complete knowledge of anything, we have left our humanity behind.

Not only on the global scale, but also much closer to home, whenever we usurp the mantle of God, we are immediately faced with challenges to which we know we will be inadequate. When we claim ultimate authority, we’re left breathless with the speed at which our knowledge retreated. This is the tragedy when one member tries to dominate the family.

The arrogance of one person or a very small group, usually self-appointed, to speak with full authority in proclaiming God’s way (all too often today in harkening back to a mythological past of “obedience”) always brings division, denominationalism and, inevitably, greater and greater distance from each individual to God. Each step towards making ourselves the final arbiter leaves us alone, isolated and increasingly less-effective.

We find that freedom this Pesach promises not merely by dethroning Pharaoh nor even by drowning him in the sea, but by bringing him, as well as his influence within each one of us, to the understanding that only God is the true Master of the Universe, relieving us of the responsibility we will always fail. It’s time to de-throne ourselves in favor of life itself.

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Do Good…Don’t Just Feel Good

We probably don’t know each other personally. While there’s a very good chance that I would like you–I’m a pretty social guy–at this point I really don’t care about your self-image or if your Jewish practice provides you a full complement of “warm fuzzies”. The goal of Jewish practice is not to fill you with ecstasy, make you feel good about yourself, give you a free and legal high–it’s not a self-help program or anything else directed at you or at me. In fact, even if we become best of friends, your superficial gaiety still won’t likely matter much to me.

Nonetheless, you are critically important to me and I’ll do everything I possibly can to help you succeed. Because, you see, I can’t succeed without you and without every other Jew and, ultimately, without every other created being in the universe. Without you pulling your weight, me pulling mine and the gal around the corner pulling hers and the tree on the opposite side of the world pullings its weight as well.

The nineteenth chapter of Shemot (Parshat Yitro), just preceding Matan Torah (The Aseret Divrot/Ten Sayings (Commandments)), repeatedly emphasizes that the entire nation, Kol Ha’Am, all six hundred thousand root souls of the Jewish People, were present for this most singular moment in human history. Not one soul was absent. We’re taught that every Jew, both those alive at that specific time as well as those living throughout history, both before and after that historical event, were there.

A notable and amazing fact is that the world’s Jewish population has, over history, remained at the relatively stable number of around twelve million. Natural growth of a population that size, over, say, the two thousand year stretch of just our current exile, would lead us to expect many more Jews living in today’s world. Acknowledging that we have indeed been almost wiped out several times within this history, those catastrophes don’t begin to account for our much-lower-than-expected population.

Rather, our souls have been dispersed throughout the general world population through waves of assimilation, both voluntary and forced, to the point that these original six hundred thousand souls, most of them today unknown and anonymous, if not making up a large proportion of humanity, have, when combined with the non-Jewish souls we have positively impacted and influenced, must include almost everyone.

The point of this isn’t that “we’re all Jewish”. Rather, all humanity, in one way or another, is included in the experience of Torah. While still only the tiniest minority of humanity is obligated to perform mitzvot, all of us, together, have distinct, unique roles to play to bring the universe to its ultimate state. For the Jewish People to be Or l’Goyim, a Light unto the Nations, we must engage and inspire everyone, beginning, of course, from our center and then working outward, eventually including everyone to live with an awareness of God’s existence and of His Divine Will. And while only our tiny minority are obliged by Covenant, Brit, to the actual 613 Mitzvot, we’re all absolutely needed, in each of our individual uniqueness, to perform the roles and tasks that only we uniquely can, to partner with The Creator to bring the Universe to it’s Ultimate Perfection.

Geula, Redemption/Resolution/Perfection is mankind’s privilege/responsibility. It is possible only with each of us contributing our unique efforts. Everyone of us, throughout human history, has/has-had/will-have roles and tasks that only we can do, and the project will be completed only when each of us has done our share, be it in the specific realm of Torah and Mitzvot for us who fill the halachic definition of Jewish, be it in all the other wide realms of human achievement and accomplishment for those who are, nonetheless, obligated/privileged to participate.

Whether directly obligated, or “merely” inspired by Sinai, all of humanity has a part to play and, in addition to the specific mitzvot, every Jew also has the obligation to engage/inspire not only fellow Jews, but everyone else as well, to live with the understanding that there is, indeed, a Creator Who both encourages and expects every person to join together.

“Inclusiveness” is a popular catch phrase, but is usually reserved for creating a warm sense of well-being. While feelings, including feeling good about oneself and one’s fellows are nice, Judaism has always been, and remains to this day, committed to doing good rather than merely “feeling good”.

Please join not just me, but everyone who has been involved in this adventure since Matan Torah, since all of us, together, received the Holy Torah. Let’s get going. Together, and only together, we can achieve and co-create the ultimate good of the universe.

Shabbat Shalom

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Past, Present and Future

Ki Ani HaShem Lo Shaniti (Malachi 3:6), “Because I am God, I do not change”. Among the very final words of the official prophetic era, a close reading (diyyuk) implies that absolutely everything except The Creator is subject to change.

Judaism and the Jewish People have lived and evolved in several distinct periods and modalities (often with transitions where two or more modes existed concurrently). Traditionally, we trace the transition from a close family/clan (the age of Avraham/Yitzchak/Yaakov), through Egyptian slavery, to a nation as we left Egypt. From a wandering band in the desert to a sovereign nation in our own land, culminating in the era of Prophets, Kings and the First Temple. From the Babylonian Captivity to the Return and the Second Temple to the almost-two-millennia Diaspora. And now, today, from the seeming-endless exile to Jewish sovereignty, with approaching a majority of the world’s Jews, in our indigenous and eternal land.

Although The Creator, and by extension, the Torah, are unchanging, our ways of attaching ourselves to Him, by means of our relationship with the complex, yet eternal Mitzvot (“commandments” is a barely minimal translation which obscures much of the true essence of mitzvot, but is a convenient one-word designation in English) has, quite obviously, demonstrably, and uncontroversially, been expressed by a number of modalities, some gradual developments from an earlier form, but some quite abrupt phase changes. Although the stock example is the switch from Karbanot, the ritual animal sacrifices in the Holy Temple to the rabbinic study of same once the Temple was destroyed, that was not a singularity.

Although Judaism does, indeed, exist today both in the diaspora and in Eretz Yisrael (and might well for a long time into the future), these two forms of Jewish practice/observance/life are, relatively in an historical sense, rapidly diverging. Although both modes are the means for the people as a whole and individual Jews to forge and reinforce our intimate relationships with God, they differ in more than mere custom (such as one-day/two-day holiday observance), but in goal and purpose.

Throughout the long centuries of exile, our unique survival as an intact people, something unknown to the rest of humanity, depended (in an empirical sense–obviously in a deeper sense our survival, along with everything else in the universe, depends only on The Creator) entirely on our religious observance and our stubborn adherence to it. As the cliché goes, “more than the Jewish People kept the Shabbat (v’Shamru Bnei Yisrael et HaShabbat (Shemot 31:16), the Shabbat kept the Jewish People”. Many of our laws and rituals could be described as “defensive”, as a “circle the wagons” relationship with the surrounding, non-Jewish cultures we lived among. One could say that Jewish Survival in frequently hostile environments was the first, and not infrequently only, priority. There is no Torah observance if there are no Jews to follow its paths.

While we were minimally, at best of times, equipped to combat physical threats, our leaders clearly saw that the greater danger to our future was run-away assimilation. Therefore, the emphasis was placed on rules and rituals which forcibly separated us from our neighbors. Discouraged by kashrut laws to eat and drink with them, social interactions were minimized. Isolating ourselves within our own communities once-a-week, Shabbat, also forced us to keep to ourselves. Obviously, all our mitzvot also contained paths towards individual and communal spiritual development and intimate attachment to God, I submit that these were almost luxuries in determining halacha.

Today, in Eretz Yisrael, we have not only an historic opportunity, but a transcendent responsibility. As longed for over countless generations, as mandated from our earliest days, as a theme repeating throughout our Prophetic period, rabbinic teachings beginning with the Talmud, the vast literatures of halacha (observance and ritual law), machshava (philosophy), kabbalah (mystical/spiritual exercise), chassidut and mussar (morality), perhaps culminating in the relatively recent writings of Rav Kook (Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, first Chief Rabbi of The Mandate of Palestine (which has evolved to The State of Israel) and our most recent, perhaps last, visionary leader), we are to be not merely Or L’Goyim, a Light to the Nations, but to, again via Torah and Mitzvot, albeit in necessarily re-calibrated forms, usher in the ultimate Geula, Redemption, with all humanity, the world in all its many aspects, the entire Creation, reaching it’s highest potential.

Even though the previous paragraph risks the illusion of pretentiousness, this is only the case for those of us who have lost the dream, the vision of what our destiny is and what our potential for good in the world can be. However, to begin work towards that goal, we in Israel need to recognize that our change is not merely geographical. Even though the details have yet to be understood/revealed, our relationship with Torah and our participation in Mitzvot need to be re-calibrated towards this goal of Geula. While of course, not every Jew in Eretz Yisrael is “religious”, not to mention that not every person in Eretz Yisrael is Jewish, but the gradual self-destruction of radical assimilation is no longer a threat here, and combatting that is no longer the primary goal of our religious/spiritual lives as Jews.

Mitzvot are the only path we have to reach this goal, but, just as halacha has adapted throughout our history to respond to changes in our situations, the way we perform many mitzvot will no be the way we have in our most recent places of exile. Of course, this requires letting go of the past mode of fighting assimilation and the courage to discover/develop how we can perform our mitzvot, perhaps in entirely new ways, to power our journey from here to that reality that we’ve yet to experience. We also need the courage to believe that all of the talk of Redemption wasn’t merely placebos to help us endure and survive the millennia of pain and torture, but that they describe an actual reality and they promise us that we will achieve it.

While the array of minhagim (customs), nusachot (liturgies), niggunim (melodies), cuisines and more which make up the cultural fabric of our people add beauty and richness, if we are to move forward they must yield normative authority and power-of-obligation to make room for what is to come.

Here, of course, is another great challenge. Since we don’t know yet the forms Torat/Mitzvot/Minhag Eretz Yisrael will take, can we find the courage to let go of the security blankets of our past, successful as they were in their times and places to bring us, thriving and burgeoning with yet-to-be-formed energy and creativity, to our miraculous existence in sovereign Eretz Yisrael, before we’ve found something to to grasp hold of? While it’s true that the ladder that has brought us so far has, all too often and in too many cases, now turned into an anchor, stranding us here and blocking our striving to fulfill God’s ultimate goal for us, we only have faith, emunah, and trust, bitachon, that a truly bright, infinitely suffused with light future really is inevitably awaiting us? Without certainty that there will be “smooth sailing”, in fact with certainty that there will be difficult, unknown and terrifying challenges between our imperfect present and the promise of Olam M’Taken, Olam Shalem, a finally complete, rectified and perfect world, yet to even be empirically describable, must we, can we depend on the emergence of a new generation of leaders, scholars, teachers, visionaries to blaze the trail?

Although there are limitless lessons to learn from our past leaders, from Avraham Avinu, from Yitzchak and Ya’akov, from Moshe and Yehoshua, from out Prophets, Kings and Sages, from our prodigies and geonim (geniuses) and visionaries like Rambam, Ramban, Ramak, Ari,  Karo, Ramchal, Baal Shem Tov, Vilna Gaon, our Rebbes and Ravs, through Rav Kook, insightful and inspiring, but all in our collective pasts, pointing to the future but no longer here to lead us, perhaps even without a new leader, but, rather, following Rav Kook’s observation that we, Am Yisrael, The People of Israel in all our diversity, must rise to the challenge of bringing the ultimate Geuala not only to our people, but to the universe as a whole.

Can we rise to this challenge? Can we not?

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What Are We Celebrating?

Simchat Torah (in Israel–in the diaspora where the holidays last two days rather than one, it’s the following day) is the climax of a month of intense holidays, beginning with Rosh HaShanna, running through Yom Kippur and Sukkot. The overall theme has been tshuva, self-correction and refinement, but there has been a not-so-subtle shift in tone from great solemnity and absolute fear to unbridled joy. On Simchat Torah we not only madly dance with our arms wrapped around Torah scrolls, but we also end and restart our yearly cycle of the Five Books of Moses.

In general, we accord a Torah scroll a tremendous amount of honor and respect. The slightest defect in a letter must be promptly repaired. We wrap them in either a beautiful wooden case or with a velvet cover. If one ever falls to the ground, chas v’shalom, a forty-day fast is required. We place the Torah scrolls in a special cabinet, always in the very front of the synagogue in the direction of Jerusalem (or, in the direction of the Temple Mount itself), so it appears, and to a certain degree we are, praying directly to this Torah scroll.

At first sight, this seems anti-Jewish. In a religion where we’re warned away from even the appearance of worshiping any physical object, let alone an incomplete spiritual one, where does the reverence for what can be reduced to “x” pounds of parchment and “y” pounds of ink enter the picture? Warned to not be fooled into following any of the agents The Creator employs to direct our world, to never bow down to a star or planet, let alone to a person of flesh-and-blood, how can we worship this inanimate object?

The only way to avoid making an “avoda zara” (idolatrous worship) out of the Torah is to realize that the physical object that rests in the Holy Arks around the world, that we hold lovingly in our arms and from which we read in a chant so ancient that it transforms us to a much earlier, purer state of being, is only, as it were, the “tip of the iceberg”. It is the final reduction of absolute infinity, crystalized, as it were, into sounds and words which become letters which become black ink on specially prepared hides. Although it easily looks, and too many people dull their own senses to make them forget reality, that these scrolls are really the essence of what we celebrate tonight and tomorrow. Nonetheless, remembering the Zohar’s insight (3:73a), “…Oraita v’Kudsha Brich Hu Chad Hu“, that the Torah and God are One, inseparable, we remember that we’re celebrating this one specific form in which The Almighty chose to reveal Himself to the Jewish People.

When we dance with the scroll, and later when we read the timeless closing and then opening lines, we celebrate our intimate connection to The Creator.

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Israel Really Is Real

There’s very little whimsy in your average Israeli. They tend to speak plainly and directly and brook very little nonsense. This isn’t to say that Israeli’s lack a sense of humor, but the humor around here doesn’t at all resemble the  New York “Woody Allen” irony so typical of the American Jewish experience.

Perhaps it’s because of the very real existential threats than hang over everyone’s head here, but I think it goes much deeper than that. In fact, it’s related to the major difference in feel and style between the Jerusalem and the Babylonian Talmuds.

In the diaspora, we’ve romanticized and fantasized and imagined Eretz Yirael from a distance of space as well as time. It was always The Promised Land and not the land we actually inhabit and experience on a daily basis. The lives of the Tannaim, those sages of the Mishna, and the last generation to be concentrated in Eretz Yisrael, studying and discussing and revealing the deepest meanings of Torah, read like fables. We learn about the fantastic wealth of Rabban Gamliel, the Nasi, the President, and of Rabbi Elazar Ben Azaria, his part-time successor. We learn of the wondrous cave which sheltered Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son as the wisdom of the Zohar was revealed to the world through them. We learn of the miracles that occurred at the Bet HaMikdash, The Holy Temple, and we even refer to our debating champions, our leading sages, as Ba’alei Trisim, Gladiators.

Although, to be sure, we also learn of the savagery against us and the periodic slaughters of our people, the poverty and hardship, as well as endless mundane matters of civil law and torts, kashrut and more, there is still an almost magical glow the Babylonian Talmud wraps around that land from which the Talmudic sages of Babylon had been exiled.

The Jerusalem Talmud has a different feel, entirely. Down-to-earth, it lists the relevant halachot in a straightforward, business-like way. It is dry in comparison to it’s Babylonian counterpart. It sets and reflects the tone of actual life, not imagined, in The Land of Israel.

Although I lived in Jerusalem for seven years almost thirty years ago, and I should, therefore, know better, I arrived here on Aliyah several weeks ago with a full set of unrealistic, non-realizable expectations. In place of experiencing a chain of epiphanies, one rapidly following another, I was faced with a seemingly unending round of government offices and bureaucratic errands. It’s a common experience to arrive early in the morning at the appointed building only to learn that it’s only open later in the afternoon, and when you finally talk to someone in the afternoon you learn that the only person who can help you isn’t there at all that day. You need one piece of paper to be able to open a bank account, but you can’t obtain that certificate without a bank account to begin with. The stories are familiar to every oleh, new immigrant, to Israel. On one hand, it’s paying dues–Israel, along with Torah and The World To Come are only acquired through hardship (TB Brachot 5a).

But they are more than a mere initiation rite. Rather, these challenges present a unique opportunity for us to expand our idea of “holy” and “spiritual”. Of course we try to elevate our prayer and our Torah study from mere rote-repetition to making a deep connection with The Creator, and we also extend this outlook to a certain, very limited set of ritual acts we call mitzvot, but while we often recite M’lo Kol HaAretz Kvodo, He fills all of reality with His Presence, and Eyn Atar Penuiy Miney, There is no place wherein He is absent, most of us divide our lives into the “spiritual” and the “mundane”. We leave our spirituality behind in the study or the prayer hall.

The reality of being in Israel is, we are taught, one of the highest, most spiritual states of existence available for a Jew. It often doesn’t feel that way at all–it’s hard to reconcile that teaching with sitting in a crowded bus stuck in traffic or while waiting in line at a bus or an office. Nonetheless, if we believe in the integrity of the Torah and our spiritual tradition, these experiences, as well, are not merely holy, but filled with an overwhelming degree of holiness not found in our highest experiences outside The Land.

Thus, it’s time to get down to business, to finally understanding that every single moment of life that has been granted to us by The Creator is holy, only awaiting our opening our eyes and hearts and bringing our neshamot, souls, to the party.

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The Deepest Groan

No sound is more quintessentially Jewish than “Oy Vey!”/”Woy Woy!” At its deepest, it expresses speechless surrender, a hopelessness beyond words.

The Netivot Shalom (Parshat Ki Tetze) distinguishes between an “optional” war and a defensive one. (Please note that in this drash he is talking about the wars we wage against our own overwhelming emotions and drives towards denying our highest natures.) In an offensive war, when we attack deep-seated issues we’ve ignored up-to-now, we take one tack (which can parallel a number of current therapeutic systems, but that’s not the point here). But in the defensive war, when we’re attacked by and overcome with irresistible  emotion or desire for something we know will only, in the end, drag us down, we need a totally different, and much simpler approach.

The archetype of the defensive war, milchemet chovah, is presented in Parshat B’Ha’alot’cha, where is states (BaMidbar 10:9) that when an enemy brings a war into your land (i.e. when an overwhelming emotion strikes us), our first step is to cry out with our trumpets (V’Hareiotem b’Chatzotzrot), but not to merely rally the troops, but to be recalled by The Creator so the He will rescue us. While this is, of course, especially relevant in the current weeks preceeding Rosh HaShanah which centrally features the Shofar, it’s not merely a guide to a single Jewish Holyday but, rather, constant advice to each of us in our lives.

In a personal note, I’m running the “home stretch” of my return to Eretz Yisrael. Having dismantled my home of the last many years, slowly making my way to my upcoming departure to Israel, I’m overwhelmed with fear and insecurity as well as with sweet anticipation. I’ve taken all the measures I can, prepared and pre-planned, packed and re-packed, discarded and regretted, existed in even-more-than-usual limbo for months, culminating in a full month of rootless “couch-surfing” my way across the US. It would be more than understandable to just let it all fall apart at the last moment. And how tragic….

Rather, without quite understanding it until seeing this great insight from the Slonimer, I’ve followed my instinct, an instinct I suspect is deeply ingrained in all of us, and cried out many bitter “Oy“s. My heart and soul have joined together (always a good thing no matter the motivator) to cry out in my own wordless speech, making my breath and voice into a primordial “shofar“, confessing to The Creator and to myself that I have no strength to continue save that which He, in His Infinite Mercy, provides.

Although I will already find myself in Jerusalem for this year’s shofar, I pray that, in my sense of relief and joy, I don’t forget the lesson my experience has taught me.

Shana Tova

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Brief Thoughts On V’Etchanan

The gematria (numerical equivalent of the letters of the word) for V’Etchanan (ואתחנן) is 515, which is also the number of special prayers, actually more kabbalistic meditations, composed by Ramchal, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto in his book תקט”ו תפילות (Taktu Tefillot)–the gematria of Taktu also 515.

We learn that Moshe prayed 515 times for a reprieve from the decree against him entering the Holy Land, before he stood down. We’re told that God told him to not ask again even one more time, because if he did make that one more request God would have had no choice but to grant his wish. Various answers are proposed to what great negative for Bnei Yisrael and humankind in general would have occurred had he led the Jewish People into their land. Perhaps he understood that he had to choose between his own fulfillment or the fulfillment of the nation (there are textual hints that either he could have entered or the people might have entered, but not both). Another idea is that Moshe, leading the nation into Eretz Yisrael, would have immediately assumed the role of Mashiach, thrusting the world into Olam HaBah, the world-to-come, the final and stable reality-mode, but at an “inferior” state of perfection than were it to occur in its proper historical context (for which we still await and pray). In either event, Moshe chose for Bnei Yisrael rather than for his own benefit.

There is something very unique about Judaism. Unlike many other religions, we don’t elevate our greatest prophet to an unrealistic pedestal. We don’t declare Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our teacher, as “the perfect human being”, as “god”-like or in any way divine. Rather, the highest praise The Creator gives to Moshe is, “The man Moshe was very humble, more humble than any man on the face of the earth.” (Bamidbar 12:3). His very greatness was his profound self-understanding that as a human being, by definition, he was imperfect. Perhaps the one quality that is shared by every single person who has ever lived and who ever will live is imperfection. As such, Moshe was the most effective teacher and prophet because his commonality with all humanity was always in the front of his consciousness.

515 is a unique number. “5”, at the right side, represents the ה׳ חסדים, the five elements of love, while the “5” on the left represent the ה׳ גבורות, the five elements of strength and awe. Between them, nourishing both as well as supported by both of these “wings”, is “1”, אחד (Echad), the One God Who unifies all reality.

אחד יחיד ומיוחד (Echad, Yachid U’Meyuchad), One, Alone  and Unique.

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