Searching for symbol in a world of number
It has been years since I’ve enjoyed the sweetness of a symbolic life, since the time when the world spoke to me like a metaphor. In those youthful days of spiritual awakening, the world was strangely transparent, and every chance encounter, every passing sight, held out the promise of deeper meaning. All of life pointed to the existence of a higher reality. It was a time of openness and wonder, and of deep contemplation.
And so I became religious, for religious life is symbolic life, devoted to uncovering the truths that lie beneath the surface of the world. Every symbol carries some inner meaning, whether simple or complex. In all cases, a symbol is an entity whose content is greater than its form, for with just a few lines or gestures, it conveys a message that would otherwise require many words. But precisely because of this meager form, because their meaning is not overt, symbols demand that the viewer reconstruct the original message within himself. As such, they are vehicles for inner transformation, and are among the primary tools of the religious life, which seeks to convey truths that are altogether beyond words. Symbols are points of contemplation, for only by dwelling upon them, do they reveal their contents. And the more one contemplates them, the more meaningful they become. Furthermore, religious symbols, whose subject is the Infinite, have the potential to convey infinite meaning.
In Judaism, symbols give expression to every facet and stage of life: symbols of covenant, of renewal, or redemption—from the bitter herb eaten Passover night, symbolizing the harshness of exile, to the blast of the shofar on the New Year, symbolizing the great horn of Messiah. The Torah puts such emphasis on symbols because it understands that, ultimately, all life is symbolic, and that the entire creation is only a vehicle through which we relate to God. Torah study is above all an exercise in interpretation. Texts are endlessly examined for their inner meaning, and new interpretations are put forward constantly. For by learning to uncover the inner meaning of a text, one can eventually learn to uncover the inner meaning of the world. And when the world is understood as a symbol in the Divine-human relationship, then its every detail is also seen to contain the potential for infinite meaning.
Yet, while all things can be meditated upon to discover God’s presence, ultimately, the most important symbol is the human form itself, which reflects the Divine Image. “From my very flesh, I will behold God,” says the prophet. (Job 19:26) According to Kabbalah, contemplation upon the different aspects of the human dimension—one’s thoughts, feelings and actions—can lead a person to an understanding of the Divine attributes. For the human arm is only a symbol of God’s “arm”—His power and influence in the world. The human heart is only a reflection of the Divine heart; yet through it, we can learn about His infinite love for creation.
Within the human dimension, the richest symbol of all is the self, and contemplating the self is the primary means of apprehending something of the Divine Being. The beauty of contemplative life is that it allows a person time to engage in a pure act of self-reflection, until the self yields up its secrets as the very expression of God’s Being—His malchus—in the world. Through contemplation upon the “I” of the self, one can achieve knowledge of the true “I” of creation. On the verse, “I am Pharaoh” (Genesis 41:44), the Midrash comments: “From the ‘I am’ of flesh and blood, one can deduce the ‘I AM’ of the Holy One.” Even the “I am” of Pharaoh—the Biblical paradigm of selfishness and egotism—can eventually bring a person to the realization of the true “I AM” of creation.
However, all that was years ago. Today I am lost in a world of numbers. The great challenge of a life devoted to symbols is the constant need to penetrate ever deeper into their hidden meaning. No symbol remains relevant forever. After a time, the personal meaning found in the symbol begins to lessen: words of prayer become empty, religious images become hollow. What is called for now is a new act of contemplation, a further opening of the mind and heart to God. But at this important juncture, there lies the possibility of a mistake, that a person will look elsewhere for fulfillment. To do so is to leave the world of symbols and enter the realm of numbers, where quantity, rather than depth, serves as the criterion for meaning. It is not a question of how many symbols a person has at the center of his life, but in which direction he turns when the meaningful elements of life fall silent. This can be thought of in terms of a relationship. What do you do when the relationship with a loved one fails? Do you look elsewhere for love, or do you look deeper? Eventually, the new symbol will also lose its meaning, as will all those that follow. But once this horizontal movement has been established—this constant pursuit of the novel—one soon forgets the intrinsic value of things, and judges them solely in relative, external terms. Worth becomes a product of amount, of “how much,” and “how many.”
I do not remember when I fell away from the symbolic life—it must have happened gradually—but I am aware of the consequences. It is the difference between feeling fulfilled in life and feeling empty, between a sense of closeness to God, and the fear that one is never doing enough. On the lowest level, it manifests itself in the pursuit of meaning through material acquisition. On the highest level, it means a spirituality based upon accomplishment and attainment, and the constant desire for spiritual experiences. This is the story of our society. We have long ago lost the symbolic approach to life, as we have lost a truly religious perspective. Today, we are looking desperately for symbolic meaning in a world based on quantity.
Yet there is a solution. Not a way back, but a way through the numerical to something higher. When one looks at the Torah as a spiritual document deeply concerned with the unity of God, one is immediately struck by its fascination with numbers. Everything is listed: people, places, date, chattel. This is especially evident in the Biblical passages describing the building of the Mishkan, the portable desert Sanctuary. Six chapters are devoted to its design and construction, which entailed two years of work, three tons of silver and two tons of gold, 600 square yards of curtain, forty-eight standing boards, ninety-six sockets, in addition to incense, oil, skins and dyes. After listing all those details, the Torah relates the moment of its assemblage:
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: On the first day of the first month you shall set up the tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting. And you shall put in it the Ark of the Testimony, and hang the veil before the Ark. And you shall bring in the table, and set in order the things upon it; and you shall bring in the candlestick, and light its lamps. And you shall set the altar of gold for incense before the Ark of the Testimony, and put the screen of the door to the tabernacle. And you shall set the altar of the burnt offering before the door of the tabernacle of the Tent of the Meeting….
Thus did Moses, according to all that the Lord commanded him, so he did….Then a cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud rested on it, and the Glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. (Exodus 40:1-7, 16, 33-38)
An almost identical scenario is recorded in the Books of the Kings, occurring five centuries later with the building of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Again, after four chapters of detailed descriptions, the verses conclude:
And Solomon made all the vessels that belonged to the house of the Lord: the altar of gold, and the table of gold, upon which the showbread was, and the candlesticks of pure gold, five on the right side, five on the left, before the inner sanctuary, with the flowers, and the lamps, and the tongs of gold, and the bowls and the snuffers, and the basins, and the spoons, and the firepans of pure gold; and the hinges of gold, both for the doors of the inner house, and the most holy place, and for the doors of the outer house, namely,
So was ended all the work that King Solomon made for the house of the Lord. And Solomon brought in the things that David his father had dedicated: the silver, and the gold, and the vessels, he put in the treasuries of the house of the Lord….And the priests brought in the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord to its place, into the sanctuary of the house, to the most holy place, under the wings of the Cherubim.
And it came to pass, when the priests came out of the holy place, that the cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud: for the Glory of the Lord had filled the house…. (1 Kings 7:48-51, 8:6, 10-11)
This is number redeemed! These verses tells us that when the elements of creation are incorporated into a structure with the single goal of serving God, a shift can occur that transforms number into something higher—into a vessel for revelation. Kabbalah teaches that the Temple was a microcosm of creation, in which all the components worked together to reveal the will of God. It also compares the Temple to the human body, with the Divine Presence filling it like a soul. What is implied here is a harmony so great that it can only be defined by the word “organism.” For the nature of an organism is that it exists only through the unity of its parts, with each part deriving life only to the degree that it is connected to the whole, and through the whole, something greater than all the parts—soul—becomes revealed.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz sees this as an integral aspect of the entire Torah:
The system of the mitzvos [commandments] constitutes the design for a coherent harmony, its separate components being like the instruments of an orchestra. So vast is the harmony to be created by this orchestra that it includes the whole world and promises the perfecting of the world. Seeing the mitzvos in this light, one may understand on the one hand, the need for so great a number of details and, on the other, the denial of any exclusive emphasis on any one detail or aspect of life, from the time one opens one’s eyes in the morning until one goes to sleep, from the day of birth to the last breath.
This is the great mystery at the heart of all true religious traditions: the fallen state of number is redeemed precisely in terms of its flaw, and out of diversity, the greatest unity can emerge. Likewise, on the individual level, when a person devotes all of his talents and resources to the service of the spirit, he can be lifted above his own divided nature and produce in himself something much more whole. Even when his practice is based upon selfish motivations, the very act of moving in a Godward direction can deliver him from his flaws. “Let a person study Torah even for self-centered reasons, for eventually this will lead him to study it selflessly,” says the Talmud.
This brings us to our present time. Never in human history has there been a generation more obsessed with achievement and acquisition, with number and detail. Never have people had to deal with so much information and specificity of knowledge. Logically, this should result in a fragmentation of society and a decreased ability for human beings to interact. Yet, we see the opposite occurring; there has never been a greater potential for communication between people and ideas, never have distant territories been more interdependent.
These two contrasting forces are propelling our civilization forward. Certainly, in all our hearts, we dream that their interaction will produce a larger whole—an era of world peace and harmony. All of creation is God’s Temple, and every individual can be a holy vessel. When all the parts have been put into place, God’s glory can once more fill His house. However, without a clear statement of this goal, without the basic religious perspective that leads to transcendence, it is almost unthinkable that this should occur. For the self is valid as a framework of meaning only when it operates in the symbolic mode. When it finds meaning in the realm of number, in its own strength and autonomy, there is no limit to its potential for avarice and destructiveness. Only within the context of a religious system, where self-interests are harnessed as motivation for personal growth and transformation, can the fallen world of number be redeemed. If our society is to reach its goal, we must re-envision human life and social organization in terms of cooperation and community—as an organism moving toward God—rather than in terms of quantification, with the egoism and competition that result.
Day by day, I am driven by forces that I do not understand—striving to be better, longing for God, moving toward a goal that I cannot foresee. Sometimes, a person can be so obsessed with the parts that he does not see the whole he is slowly building. Perhaps, it is precisely the search for the symbolic in the world of amount that transforms number into something higher. My deepest hope is that before the last day, God will assemble the disparate pieces of my life into a structure that reveals His will. “And the Lord, whom you seek, will come suddenly into His Temple.” (Malachi 3:1) For in the end, only God can create this whole, shining His light from above to bring unity out of diversity. “Who can bring the pure out of the impure?” asks the prophet. “Only the One.” (Job 14:4)
This is something the human mind cannot comprehend, how the world of multiplicity derives from God’s simple unity. For God, in His wisdom, creates countless species, each one unique, yet all deriving from His perfect Oneness.
Nevertheless, it is precisely by means of the multiplicity of creation that we can come to know God. For this is the entire purpose of creation; yet this is something we cannot understand. We have only to rely upon our faith.
R. Nosson of Breslov
Likutey Halachos, Kelai Behemah 4:1 ♦
Reprinted by permission from Eliezer Shore’s The Face of The Waters (Tehiru Press, 2017: www.eliezershore.com)