I started a personal study of the Sefer Ha-Bahir, also known as The Book of Illumination because I am fascinated and curious about mystical writing. The first painting in the series (above) is based on the first 16 verses. I’ve pondered about the symbolism and have written out some thoughts on the first four verses:
1. Rabbi Nehuniah ben HaKana said: One verse *(Job 37:21)* states,
“And now they do not see light, it is brilliant *(Bahir)* in the
skies…[round about God in terrible majesty].” Another verse, however,
*(Psalm 18:12)*, states, “He made darkness His hiding place.” It is
also written *(Psalm 97:2)*, “Cloud and gloom surround Him.” This is
an apparent contradiction. A third verse comes and reconciles the two. It is
written *(Psalm 139:12)*, “Even darkness is not dark to You. Night
shines like day – light and darkness are the same.”
My thoughts: There is a point in the act of creation where one’s heart reaches away from the world “That Is” to seek the world of origin, the world “That Was Not”. One can reach and reach but one’s vision is obscured by the “cloud and gloom”. If gloom is “a state of partial or total darkness” then one can only reach as far as the abyss at the edge of memory. By peering into the abyss one can sense the presence of a great Mystery, the boundless. Far too big too comprehend intellectually It pulses with such love that one yearns for It. Feeling both close to and distant from God leaves us struggling in the darkness. Due to the perceived separation of oneself from one’s Beloved the clouds of gloom grow thicker.
If we could see beyond the clouds, what would we see?
“Was neither Being nor Non-Being then, Neither Air nor Space beyond. What
was it, forcefully stirring? Where? In whose keeping?…” (Rig Veda X)
At this stage of thought we are infants. The womb is our sanctuary where “light and darkness are the same.” What we don’t realize is that God too, made “darkness His hiding place” and that He too is surrounded by “cloud and gloom”. How is the Light of God hidden? “It is hidden and sown like a seed that gives birth to seeds and fruit. Thereby the world is sustained.” (The Zohar) A Sufi saying also indicates: “I was a hidden treasure and desired to be known: therefore I created the creation in order to be known.”
When the clouds lift we will be able to see the hidden treasure. We will discover God’s Light, once we awaken from our infant slumber.
Notes regarding the painting: The place where “Night shines like day-light and darkness are the same” is represented by the womb.
2. Rabbi Berachiah said: It is written *(Genesis 1:2)*, “The earth was Chaos
*(Tohu)* and Desolation *(Bohu)*. What is the meaning of the word “was” in
this verse? This indicates that the Chaos existed previously [and already
was ]. What is Chaos *(Tohu)*? Something
that confounds *(Taha)* people. What is Desolation *(Bohu)*? It is something
that has substance. This is the reason that it is called Bohu , that is, Bo
Hu – “it is in it.”
My thoughts: If Tohu is, “that which lies waste, without inhabitants or activity” and Bohu is an “empty void” then Tohu and Bohu together may be a place that lies barren, an “uninhabited void”. A void full of potential, mind you. Wonderful, mystifying, life giving potential! (could it be the hidden mystery of Kether?) An empty womb is a barren place soon quickened by the stirrings of primeval chaos, or our own primeval state of existence before our cells start swirling into the shape of a human body. If primeval means
“having existed from the beginning” it might explain why Bohu is something that has substance. Ie. “it is in it”.
Notes on the painting: Again the womb imagery comes into play.
3. Why does the Torah begin with the letter Bet ? In order that it begin
with a blessing
*(Berachah)*. How do we know that the Torah is called a blessing? Because it
is written *(Deuteronomy 33:23)*, “The filling is God’s blessing possessing
the Sea and the South.” The Sea is nothing other than the Torah, as it is
written *(Job 11:9)*, “It is wider than the sea.” What is the meaning of the
verse, “The filling is God’s blessing?” This means that wherever we find the
letter Bet it indicates a blessing. It is thus written *(Genesis 1:1)*, “In
the beginning *(Bet Reshit)* [God created the heaven and the earth."
BeReshit is Bet Reshit .] The word “beginning” *(Reshit)* is nothing other
than Wisdom. It is thus written *(Psalm 111:10)*, “The beginning is wisdom,
the fear of God.” Wisdom is a blessing. It is thus written, “And God blessed
Solomon.” It is furthermore written *(I Kings 5:26)*, “And God gave Wisdom
to Solomon.” This resembles a king who marries his daughter to his son. He
gives her to him at the wedding and says to him, “Do with her as you
My thoughts: If our yearning for God has us teetering at the edge of the abyss, feeling the presence of a boundless something/someone, it could be that we are experiencing the mystery of Kether, the concealed. As the clouds of gloom part with the first rays of intellect we become as a chalice and we fill with Light , (“The filling is God’s blessing”).As it travels the path of Aleph through to Chokmah we are gifted with Wisdom. Bet, Berachah, a blessing. Bet, Bayit, a house. On second thought, perhaps chalice is not the word I should be using. If the womb is our home in the beginning(BeReshit), then perhaps *we* are the dwelling place of God. (Bet: House, Resh:Head…Bet Reshit ) The filling of our head with Wisdom is God’s blessing.
Notes regarding the painting: The womb is represents BeReshit, our home in the beginning. The Sea is symbolized by the watery realm of the womb itself where we dwell while awaiting our birth. The light from the Sun moves to the face of the infant to awaken it from its slumber. (the light rays are as if through water…if you have ever been swimming in the depths of the ocean and looked up to the sky you will recognize the green gold colour that is light moving through watery darkness) Thebeam of Light entering the top of the infant’s head is the Divine Light of God entering the house that is us.
4. How do we know that the word Berachah [usually translated as blessing]
comes from the word Baruch [meaning blessed]? Perhaps it comes from the word
Berech [meaning knee]. It is written *(Isaiah 44:23)*, “For to Me shall
every knee bend.” [ Berachah can therefore mean] the Place to which every
knee bends. What example does this resemble? People want to see the king,
but do not know where to find his house *(Bayit)*. First they ask “Where is
the king’s house?” Only then can they ask “Where is the king?” It is thus
written, “For to Me shall every knee bend” – even the highest – “every
tongue shall swear.”
My thoughts: While doing extra research I found the words baruch: blessed, kneel down, berach: knee, barak: lightning…..(stay with me..this gets a little convoluted…I have a tendency to think in broad, spiralling, circles) When do we bend? To pray, to plant, to kneel, to be blessed? Lightning appears to move down to earth, we kneel to be close to the earth, we plant seeds in the earth, roots move downward into the earth…..
What if the kneeling has more to do with *downward motion as a metaphor *of God/Spirit moving down into matter. (we being the matter, thus kneeling to receive the blessing, thus being blessed?)
“Where is the king?” “Where is the king’s house?” If the king refers to God and we are blessed, then we are the king’s house.
Notes on the painting: “For to Me shall every knee bend…” The infant in this case symbolizes the “every knee”. While in the womb *every* man or woman regardless of station in life, religion, colour of skin etc. begins in the fetal position of humble prayer. Clasped hands and bent knees. We begin our journey to embrace the Light of God on bended knee.
If you are interested in adding the Sefer ha-Bahir to your book collection, please click on the following link: Sefer Ha-Bahir : Selections from the Book of Brilliance, the Classic Text of Early Kabbalah