From Baghdad to New Zealand: Thoughts on Pesach, 2004

 

Hillel Goelman, 5 April 2004

 

 The Ben Ish Chai

 

                There is a teaching by the Ben Ish Chai, a 20th century rabbi and mystic from Baghdad, on the ways in which Pesach teaches us about the unification of and openings between the four kabbalistic worlds. The first world is the world of the "domem" or inanimate which includes rocks, stones, minerals, etc. The second world is the world of the "tzomeach" or vegetative and the third world is "behaymah", or animal. The fourth world is us: the "midaber", the world of human creatures that have language and speak. The fifth of the four worlds (the one we don't really know much about so rarely gets mentioned) is "chiya", from the same root as "chai" or life force. "Chiyut" transcends our reality so we can only infer its existence and perhaps, sometimes, maybe, see its manifestation.

 

                The Ben Ish Chai focuses on the central biblical ritual, the "Korbon Pesach", the sacrificial lamb that is slaughtered and offered to God. The lamb itself is from the world of "behaymah", the animal world. It feeds on the grasses of the world of the "tzomeach", the world of vegetation. The grasses grow from the earth, soil and minerals of the world of the "domem", inanimate. And the human being, the "medaber", brings these together, slaughters the lamb and prepares the sacrifice in accordance with the spoken and written language of the text. The Korbon Pesach, then, is a profound spiritual statement about the unification of the four worlds and the flow of spiritual energy between the worlds.

 

Briefly: The four worlds in New Zealand

 

I've been thinking a lot about this teaching over the past months that we've been in New Zealand and with Pesach about to arrive here in a few hours, my experiences here seem to be resonating a lot with this teaching of the Ben Ish Chai.

 

One thing that has continued to inspire awe in me almost daily is the incredible physical beauty of this country. I can't compare the physical beauty of one country to another and I'm not trying to say that NZ is "more beautiful" than, say Canada.  But the beauty stands out in sharp and dramatic contours of land and sea, wet land and mountain, rainforest and pasture land all compacted with a very small landmass located on the North and South Islands of NZ. The coast line changes every few kilometres, the road gradient changes from flat to steep within moments.

 

One thing this has done for me is to teach me a lot about a world I've never thought of much: the domem, the inanimate. My friend Frank Haakart who makes clay for a clay factory in Dunedin was explaining to me why they had to import a lot of the raw materials for clay from other countries. "New Zealand", Frank explained to me, "is just too young geologically to produce good quality clay." Ok. What does "young" geologically mean? Well, the land mass that is now New Zealand began to separate from a larger continent that included Antarctica, Australia, South America, Africa and India "only" 300 million years ago. The volcanic activity that shaped what became New Zealand is "fairly recent", that is, only in the past 25-30 million years ago. And the 2 islands of New Zealand in more or less their current shape took place "very recently", in the past 5 to 10 million years. You can see layers upon layers of millions of years of geological movement right in front of your eyes. And when you drive through the North Island you can still see thermal activity of a seething, underground movement of tectonic plates with steam rising from pools and lakes. New Zealand sits astride the Pacific Plate and the Australasian Plate which are slowly grinding into one another. In other words, the geological story, the world of the domem, is not over, not by a long shot. Welcome to a glimpse of the world of the domem, Hillel.

 

And the world of the vegetative, the tzomeach, is similarly astounding. There are so many species of ferns, flax, palms, algae, conifers, flowers and other things that grow only here. The animal world is distinct in that there are very few mammals native to New Zealand but a huge number and large variety of the most colourful birds you've ever seen (and heard) in your life. Our favourite is the "bell bird" whose call has the clarity and delicacy of a tiny silver bell. The world of the medaber, the human, has greeted us with grace and hospitality. We also have been starting to learn about the original inhabitants of this magic land, the Maori, about their past and culture. Maori make about 24% of New Zealand's population. There is a strong attempt to teach and learn Maori languages and a continuing struggle to ensure the future well-being of Maoridom. (I can't help but here echoes of Hebrew in much of their language. "Maori" sounds to me like "mash ore?" or, "what is my light?")

 

Starting to pull it together.

 

                So, here is what I am starting to learn about Pesach, the four worlds and New Zealand.

 

1)       Pesach is a time not just to acknowledge the four worlds of creation but to try and listen attentively to what each world can teach us. When I see the crash of the surf on a rocky beach and witness the fantastic shapes of rocks and cliffs over thousands of years; when I see albatrosses with 3 meter wingspans and penguins whose feathers are moulting; when I hear the bell bird - when all of this happens I feel the power of the "chiyut", the fundamental life force of the universe asserting itself, expressing itself. I look at my fingernails, my skin and realize that it is exactly the same life force, the same "chiyut", that causes the winds to blow, the seas to crash and the rocks to stand defiant.

 

2)       The world of the domem, the inanimate, is also full of "chiyut", and expresses its own reason for existence in its own language, shape and form. "Domem" is also translated as "silent", but not because that world of rock and stone and is silent but because we have not yet learned how to listen to the language of the domem.

 

3)       We have much to learn from each of the four worlds and from the flow of spiritual energy among those worlds.

 

When I take a bite of matzah

 

When I take a bite of matzah - or celery or fish or - I am participating in my own Korbon Pesach of unifying the four worlds. I am part and parcel of the expression of chiyut in the universe.

 

But when I take a bite of matzah, I'm not just filling in my place in a cosmic food chain. The four worlds are also part of my own psycho-spiritual reality that is an expression of my own personal, unique, singular and idiosyncratic chiyut, We know that eating matzah, the smallest possible baked food the separates existence from non-existence, reminds us that our own existences are essentially just as precarious and fortunate and God-giving as this tiny little piece of baked flour.

 

But it's more, I think, too. We all have within us aspects of our own domem, tzomeach, behaymah and midaber. I am asking myself this year:

 

a.        Hillel, where is your domem? That is where are the parts of yourself that are foundational to your being but appear to be silent? What parts of your being are still, like New Zealand, "geologically young", still shifting and moving? What is unique in your own personal ecosystem of light, water

 

b.       Hillel, where is your tzomeach? What parts of your self are in need of attention, cultivation, tending, and nourishment? If you don't tend your own psycho-spiritual garden, who will?

 

c.        Hillel, why does the word "animalistic" have to have a negative connotation? True, Rebbe Nahman and others have instructed us to be aware of our "animalistic" drives, instincts, lusts and desires. But they have also instructed us to pay careful attention to these things and to understand the ways in which the chiyut, the life force is expressed through them. They couldn't be bad, because they are part of the way in which we are created. More: What can we learn from different representatives of the animal world? Penguins stand perfectly still for weeks while their feathers moult, fall off, an essential part of their yearly cycle of growing new feather to allow them to return to the sea to eat. Can I possibly learn something about standing still - stopping - making myself vulnerable, allowing my external layers to drop off, fall away and make room for new growth?

 

d.       Hillel - you're a midaber. Boy, can you talk. But can you actually say anything? Are you paying attention to what the chiyut is telling you about why you were born, what God wants from you? You're a person. But are you Hillel?

 

e.        Chiyut. The life force. Hillel, stop. Just stop. You've stopped but your chiyut has not stopped. It's pulsating within you in, well, your pulse. With each breath. With each blink of the eye.

 

 

I want to send the sweetest brachot to everyone for a happy and freilich and joyful Pesach. May your sedarim be full of light and joy, stories and jokes, laughter and arguments. And may our prayer for "Next Year in Jerusalem" be answered with peace in the holy city for its inhabitants and peace in all places in the world that are suffering the oppression of modern-day Pharohs. "Shalom, shalom la'rachok v'la karov", peace to those who are close and to those who are far,

 

Much love,

 

Hillel and Sheryl

 

 

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