Monday, December 19, 2011

Hot-Ice for Channukah

A Lesson in Metaphysics from a Street Drain, Hot Ice, and the Chanuka Flames

Marion Place surrounded a wild field where scorpions roamed and hardi-ha birds nested. We lived at number 66 and the field was our other playground. I loved the rawness of the place. There were large stones on which to sit and dream, and places to hide in play. The street circled the field like a belt. Beneath it ran a drain gutter. Etched in my memory like scratches in the tar is the recollection of lowering my body into the channel, raising my hands to receive the pushcart passed to me, taking my seat and gazing down the tube whose only light came from rain drains up above. G-d knows what could have been if the heavens opened and flooded the intestine of the road. But time and again I took off, racing faster and faster down the hill, fleeting beneath the slatted light, and finally curving to a halt at the bottom of the hill. Then the long walk back and the haul out. Each ride was always a first!

The upside of the street held its pleasures too. Sitting on the rubber tire swing, we read stories about children who sold lemonade on the curb. They were stories of other lands. No one really passed Marion Place other than the people who lived there. And no one was interested in buying lemonade, or the biscuits we baked. But that didn't stop us from setting up our stand. And then we'd wait, like Charlie Brown, for the elusive customer who never came.

What children did buy was ice-cream. The ice-cream man rode by most afternoons. His skin burnished deep and dark. He rode a bike to which a large box was attached at the front. It was filled with hot ice. Playing on the front lawn, shaded by a garden-bed packed tight with aloes and stralitzias, we'd hear his bell. It was a tin manual one, strapped with string to the handlebar. Inside the darkness of the box his ice smoked, its metallic smell mixed with that of the sugars and chocolates of the ice creams. Oh how good it was to dip my hand into the black space and pull up wrappers of different colors, searching for the chocolate cone, the orange sorbet, the milky bar…

It was a Sunday when I learned how hot the cold was. Dad offered the ice-cream man some extra pennies for a chunk of the stuff and cut a deal. He pulled on the work gloves tucked into his pocket and lifted the ice from the darkness. It smoked white and hard against the backdrop of his shirt, then past the shrubbery and along the red brick wall that skirted the driveway.

“Come see,” he said, walking towards the pool.

He was our Pied Piper, leading us to the water that glistened beneath the sun. Smells of chlorine and fermenting peaches mingled in the air.

“Let me touch Dad, let me touch”

“Careful, it burns”

“No ways,” I bounced, reaching my hand out.

It sure did, sticking to my skin and holding it as I pulled back in surprise.

“Step away,” he said, flinging the ice into the water.

Boom! It exploded in an instant, a white volcanic eruption right there in the very water we splashed about in noon-after-long-African-afternoon. Our mild pool, reserved for gentle play, or spirited dives and games of Marco-Polo at most, was spewing forth hot vents as if it were a deep dark ocean bed. Bubbles burst to the surface and popped open from the blue below. It fascinated me that something so cold worked like fire. The ice burned a memory within me.

It was one of those days you don’t get the full significance of until later. I frequently return to the black tar and the open veld. To the street’s underbelly with its slatted light. To memories of my father. I am standing poolside and the ice is burning, bubbling. It frightens me. And it excites me. Was it that even then at the age of ten I intuited the questions I would only articulate with the weight of a couple more years? Are things as they appear to be? Or is everything also its opposite? Is heat hot? Or is it cold as well? Is ice fire? And am I no-thing?

I think of that day and ponder most deeply how each thing contains its opposite as I sit before the fluttering glow of the Chanuka lights and our children twirl their dreidels, tossing hazel nuts at each other across the floor. I gaze at the flames. They are born of oil rather than wax and glow gold against the doorway, luminously balancing the mezuzah which shines behind my back. They pull me in to their glimmer. At the epicenter float black cords – silent charred strands blacker than night. Yet it is this darkness that feeds the fire. Each wick is framed by a purple light itself surrounded by a pale light, and then ephemerally framed by a halo hovering between matter and spirit. I look at the flames and then I’m standing at the pool watching the ice burn. Just as that moment was soaked with contradiction; it jars my mind that the black wick is the core of the plasma and halo. How is so much light and such radiance born of the charred stuff? And how is it that the fire is hottest right there where the wick is dying?

In some way gliding on my rocker with the lights on low as the flames multiply night to night, I sense I am sitting before the secrets I spend my life in search of. The flames are a parable not only of my body and soul but also of my purpose. The black wick is my body, the flame is the G-dliness my labors of love generate, and the oil the Divine deeds enacted each day that fuel the fire.

The body sweats and excretes, desires pleasure, decays and dies. Even in its prime it proclaims its limits. It is black in death and albeit pink, is black in birth. But the inner dimension of that darkness is brilliance. It is shining luminescent G-dliness. With my body I birthed our children. My wick is the fulcrum from which I host guests, give charity, wipe a bleeding nose, sweep the floor, light the lamps. My body serves my life just as the wick serves the flame. In the same way that the cotton cord is the anchor for the light so too is my physical existence the anchor and support for my entire existence.

The world itself, the very matter I engage with, is also a wick. Black beans. Black table. Black fruit which even in its robust sweetness is decaying. A world of wicks. The universe is matter that in and of itself is dense and dark even as it is pleasurable. But – and this is the crux of it all – when I use that world in service of the Divine, it becomes a source for Divine radiance. This is our deepest purpose. To be lamplighters.

Lest the light die quickly, I feed the flame with oil. The fuel for G-dly light is the acts my Creator charges me with: Take a citron with a palm frond, some willows and a sprig of myrtle. Wave it just so. And lo and behold, Divine light. Take the skin of an animal, tan it fine. Take ink and write the following words on the leather. Lo and behold, Divine light. Take money and give it to someone in need. Lo and behold, Divine light!

So dark is light, and black matter is G-dliness. Each thing is transmutable. The principal holds true for every act mandated by G-d. A mitzvah is a candle. But the two mitzvot that most embody this principal are the Shabbat and Chanukah candles. Both shine forth the secret that counter-intuitively each entity holds within itself its contrary dimension. Each shines forth the message that the darkness of matter is in essence Divine light when properly channeled. Beside the menorah, our children play. The dreidel spins…Everything is in motion, each thing is itself and simultaneously its opposite. The oil has become flames and the flames are light and the light is the desire of G-d. G-d’s presence is hovering manifest in our dining room, shining at us from the cups of oil.

This notion that matter can be transformed is uniquely Jewish. That’s why it so irked the Greeks. “You want to philosophize? Fine. Go ahead and indulge in pleasure. But don’t come telling us that you can take a wick and turn it into a holy flame. Don’t spew nonsense proclaiming that oil squeezed from a bitter olive can be sacred!” And so, in violent reaction to the radical notion that ice is fire and black is light and matter is Divine, they ransacked the Temple looking for…for what?! For cruses of oil! They would not, could not have us calling out that either physical pleasure or philosophical inquiry or anything in between can be G-dly.

A small group of radicals persevered. They were the visionaries of their generation. They knew the secrets of ice and fire and light. And their entirely non-logical relationship to reality undid an entire army bent on their destruction. They lived from the place of the impossible. Their grasp of the contradictions inherent in reality enabled them to re-invent the way people saw themselves. They gave us back our access to the wondrous principal, “Let there be light.” At the very outset of the creative process, “in the beginning,” G-d told us our mandate was to bring forth the light from all the chaos. The Maccabees took that command and ran with it. The G-dliness they generated captured the primordial vision of G-d and still shines forth from each Chanukah candelabra lit anywhere on the globe. Let there be light.

With this point I can risk the death of my ego. Let it burn! The death will be a birth. Through the surrender of selfhood and in giving over our personal willfulness to the will of G-d, we generate light. We do not have to hold on to the external form of reality. Entering the hidden opposite dimension sets us free. Existence is transmutable. When I think of Marion Place, I realize that the drain belly of that crescent was as sweet for me as the ice-cream lying in the box above. And the tar was as black as the belly. It was always the same street, just top and bottom. Both were dark and both were sweet. Even in the bowels, there was a thrill. Even in the cold, damp darkness the pushcart raced beneath the grids of light and filled my heart with heated joy.

This article was originally published on If you're a writer, submit your work to the editor Sarah Esther Crispe here.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Birthing Light

Illuminating the Month of Kislev

I once birthed a woman through a mental breakdown much as a midwife would deliver a baby. Our time together began as a conversation but a blackness in the woman was on its way out. Talk turned to tears and quickened to a deep mourning. Her body heaved with the burden and force of a secret that for over a decade had cost all her mental health to hide. And when she could no longer hold it in, she knelt on all fours, wailing, her pain spewing forth with such force it flashed her limbs outward. My impulse was to jump to my feet and run. I was young. The sounds in her throat frightened me. But I stayed, kneeling beside her, one hand on her back and the other on the ground, like the earth element in an electric circuit. When it was over, she slumped into the rug. Her cries became softer and her body limp. I waited a while, then left for help.

That dark evening, it struck me that perhaps it is not our descents that fill our heart with fear. Rather, the coldest terror is in not knowing where the bottom of the descent is. We turn and flail in a gyre of pain. We sense things falling apart but cannot identify the precise moment at which they actually disconnect. Our dark moments are rarely as dramatic as my friend’s. They run the gamut of human experience: a relationship in bad shape, finances in worse, ill health or a state spiritual dis-ease. But regardless of the specific issue at hand, it is only once we reach the bottom that we can actually be present to the new reality we are faced with. Only when we become present to a reality can we begin to move on from it. So “hitting rock bottom” is not the worst thing after all. The fear that our fall is possibly into an endless pit is, it seems to me, worse than lying on the gravel we finally fall on. For it is precisely when we sink to the lowest level, at the very moment we are furthest, that we can begin to return.

Living takes skill. Getting toilet trained and learning how to hold a pencil is a starting point. And then there’s the rest of it. There’s the skill of laughing at ourselves, of delaying gratification, of introspecting and demanding that we step up to the plate, and even the skill of knowing when to neglect an ideal in order to keep it. Long lists of life-skills that all the coaches in the world cannot embed in our hearts. Could it just be that we don’t grasp the other stuff because we know neither how to run nor return?

Each of us has to discover the secret of “running and returning.” “When I grow up,” we tell ourselves, “Well…when I grow up I’ll run and run. To tinsel town and the bank. I’ll run errands. I’ll run my household, the office, my very self! I’ll run for President of My Own Life!” Schools train us to gallop ambitiously forward. But if I’m running for the wrong reasons then I’m not truly moving forward. And if that’s the case, then I’ll never learn the secret of coming back. If ego is what compels me forward, I am blind to the deep mysteries that can free me when I fall. I become so locked into moving on that I lose access to the very skill that makes “moving on” possible under any circumstance. I need to acquire the ability to say, “I’ve made a mistake. A big one. And this is where I’m at. But beneath the mistake lies my true G-dly identity. With this I can begin to return and rebuild.”

Being that learning how to return is the key to going forward, it is vital to know how to discern the point of the deepest darkness. Many times we think we’re in that darkest moment of the night when the shadows are thick and indigo black. But we’re not sure. And the uncertainty fills us with fear. We fall into a depression. But if I can recognize the bottom, I can begin to navigate my way out.

It takes more than that though. I also have to know, even when I’m all the way down in the pit, that Darkness comes from Light: When G-d began to form existence, there was much light. So much, in fact, that nascent reality couldn’t hold it all. Much as a crystal goblet would shatter at the bottom of a waterfall, the vessels of the emerging creation burst in their inability to hold onto the radiance – and darkness was born…So darkness is the product of too much light, or at least that highest luminescence which exceeds the capacity of our vessel! I must absorb this knowledge in order to acquire the skill of returning. As we navigate our journeys and encounter the challenges G-d has prepared for us, we can open avenues of redemption through remembering that the concealment around us is pregnant with this primordial light.

That’s the reason the first commandment given to us as a nation was to sanctify the moon. As Jews, we must watch the night waiting for the light. Regardless of who we are and what our circumstances are, each must take to her hill or hideout and look to the sky in search of emerging rays. Correct, we don’t want to “go gently into the night,” but our approach is not so much to “rage against the dying of the light” as it is to await the dawn. And with the intensity of our gaze to hasten its coming. Whatever news the day has brought us, no matter the feelings that well up within us – and no matter the elegance and eloquence with which our thoughts and feelings impress upon us that things are bleak and hopeless – we must gaze into the darkness, looking for the glow it conceals, while we await the new moon. Through doing that, we actually birth it into being.

As we gaze at the blackened sky looking for the moon, we must remember yet another secret. Namely, that not only is the night permeated with a luminous essence, but that the moon is darkest precisely when it’s closest to the sun. Counter-intuitively, just as the earth is closest to the sun in the dead of winter, so too is the moon when it disappears. The closer it moves to the shining source of all its light, the smaller the moon is.

Life is like that, too. Have you observed the silence of someone in the presence of a remarkable person? To experience the greatness of another, is to be a moon up close against the sun. And then, if the other is truly great, she doesn’t swallow you up like a black hole sucking stars into its core. If the other is truly great, she empowers you to slide outwards on your orbit and gather light as you go. Similarly, all learning has its new moon phase. It happens when you’re sitting before a master, and what you knew becomes effaced and a new understanding is born. True healers, the redeemers, help us navigate these dark intervals. They remind us that darkness is pregnant with light. But even more so, they teach us that in the very moment that we disappear, we are born afresh. And thereby, we become a sun that lights up the heavens.

That’s why we were given the commandment to sanctify the moon at the time of our liberation from Egypt. The two are one – the moon being born of nothingness, and our people emerging in freedom from dismal servitude. When we reached the forty-ninth level of impurity, that’s when we could find the light. Just like the moon that has to turn squid-ink black before its crescent can appear. Our point of deconstruction is the very moment when our movement back to G-d and Truth began. It is the moment we were born as a nation. It is our new moon phase. That point delineates the secret of all our returns.

Every new moon encapsulates this paradoxical truth. But the dark new moon that is most pregnant with light is that of Kislev. In the Northern hemisphere we’ve turned the clocks back. The sugar red leaves of autumn crunch underfoot. Tree barks are white and pinkish grey against a darker sky. Afternoons are cut short, and indoors steam hisses at the cold. The whole month of Kislev calls out, Kes, Kes!, “Concealment, concealment!” It’s a month when darkness around us is on the ascendency. And yet Kislev is the month of Chanukah, the festival of light. It’s winter. The earth is closer to the sun. And on Kislev’s New Moon, the moon is closer still. All that blackness bespeaks an infinite revelation. The last two letters of the Hebrew name of the month, the lamed and the vav, call forth “Light! Revelation! Manifestation!” Lo, they can be read in Hebrew. To him! Bring out the light and shine it to the other, out into the world. Kes-lo. From the concealment comes revelation. From within a new moon pregnant with light, come the thirty six lights of eight nights, the flames of Chanukah.

It’s one thing to look back and know that my friend, in her most painful moment, was being set free. It’s one thing to know that from kes comes lo, from concealment comes revelation. It’s another thing entirely, to get that in our own lives. But if we meditate on the secrets of “returning” and remind ourselves that G-d is, after all, the One who directs our waxing and waning, we might just find ourselves born into a consciousness and world of light. It is the light that the darkness has held in utero since the outset of creation. It is the radiance of our future. It is our most natural state.

This article is based on a teaching of Rabbi Nachman of Breslev, Likkutei Halachot, Rosh Chodesh, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Sefer HaSichot 5752, Shabbat Parshat Vayishlach. It was originally published on (And if you're a writer with something meaningful to say, email the editor Sara Esther Crispe with your offering.)

Friday, November 18, 2011

I was Duped by an Anti-Israel Videographer

I've been wanting to share this with you since it happened. Pushing it off hasn't just been about not making the time though. In a way, I didn't want to bring it up 'cos I don't want to give this guy any publicity at all!! Yet, as we stand on the eve of reading the Torah Portion of Chayei Sara (The Life of Sara), I decided to seize the moment.

As any of you who are my friends on Facebook know, I spent two weeks in Israel this summer. You saw the pictures. And I imagine you saw the love. For the past few days, I've been reviewing the trip in my mind with added intensity. That's because this Shabbat we read of Abraham's purchase of the field and cave in Hebron as a burial place for Sarah. There's no older title deed than this week's Torah portion! Abraham rebuts all of Efron's niceties and falsities; and pays top dollar for the property.

Being in Hebron zooms ancient Biblical events into a present-tense that's flush with the tip of your nose. History is right there, in the dust and sky. My trip aroused my love for the land, and my indignation over how I'd been had.

Here's the scoop.

I often get calls from people asking if they can visit my home to interview me about something or other. And I pretty much always say yes. When I got this particular call, I was living in a building. In fact, the building was the reason (or so I thought) the caller wanted to interview me. You see, we had the ill fortune of many tenants whose landlord is only too happy to make a mint by plonking cell towers on the roof of the building.

I will refrain from telling you my opinion of my one-time landlord. What I will tell you is that the roof of that building is littered with cell towers which face the school my three sons and hundreds and hundreds of other children attend. I was NOT a happy camper.

So when Leonore called me asking if I'd be interviewed by a videographer making a movie about the dangers of cell towers, I gave an exuberant "Yes!"

Talal walked in to my apartment dressed down, with blond hair and blue eyes.

"What's your name?" I asked.

"Talal," he said.

"Talal? Are you from Israel?" I asked.

"No," he said.

"Oh. Do you know that tal means "dew" in Hebrew?" I continued.

No response.

I ought to have paid attention to a teensy-tiny voice right then. But then I'd have been out of character. And so I naively plunged right in to an extensive interview wherein I decried the dumping of cell towers on the proletariat by those with the cash flow and clout to do what they want, at the expense of their tenants! We finished the interview, I signed off on rights to use my image, and said goodbye all smiles.

As soon as I closed the door, I took the guy's business card and googled him. Talal Jabari. HAH!! Silly old me. Jabari the web would have me know, was a Palestinian/American journalist who had started his career with the second intifada. He'd worked for Al-Ahram Weekly and produced content for Al Jazeera's Documentary Channel called (surprise?) "Israel from Within."

Not from Israel heh? I guessed Mr. Jabari felt uncomfortable with the name. I did feel concerned about what he might do with a Chassidic woman's testimonial. But just for a minute. I mean, what could the guy do with cell phone towers that might be anti-Jewish or anti-Israel right? This was a documentary, a scientifically driven film giving voice to the people. Right?


His movie came out and was called "Full Signal." I was updated in mailings from jabari that it had won a number of prestigious awards. "Best Documentary" 5th Myrtle Beach International Film Festival; "Audience award-best documentary"
4th Gasparilla International Film Festival, Tampa, FL...Stuff like that. The little voice was back. I mean, really, what was so exciting about cell towers that they trumped sex and food? And at festival after festival!

Then one fine day, Jabari emailed me to verify my address and inform me of the good news that a video of the film was on its way. Honestly, I don't know how many months it sat in my home. I kept looking at it and thinking, "I really should watch it." Until finally I did!

I'm guessing it's two-thirds of the movie in that I got the creeps. Sure, the film starts off with info about cell towers, interviews with knowledgeable and passionate individuals, and yours truly thrown in there. I was watching - and waiting. And then, Jabari switched gears. Two-thirds through, gone were the scientific analyses, the interviews conducted in offices, or on stairwells or even on the couch of someone's home. Gone were people speaking about cell towers from an intellectual, albeit passionate, point of view. Enter the tenderly told story of an Arab village in Israel whose residents rise up in protest against their oppressors. Gone were the accents of those interviewed, enter subtitles to explain the Arabic being spoken. The entire style is so different I was amazed that other film-makers had not noted it, had not found it jarring. But only for a moment - because the real story the film is telling, the subtext, is about bad-old Israel and its poor victims.

Inside I knew that the interview with the people of that village had not grown out of a movie about cell towers. I knew the movie had grown out of the village!

I wrote to Jabari telling him how impressed I was with the (beginning of the) movie. Truth is, he'd interviewed some interesting people and raised the issues at hand. I decided to ask him my real question obliquely, making the issue about style and language.
"I wondered why you took the example of a non-English speaking (read Arab) village apropos the fight against the companies. I was taken by how cosmopolitan the movie is (interviewees are of a very diverse background) and yet that it was entirely in English. So the switch to subtitles was strange at first," I wrote.

To which he replied, "It's quite an interesting story why I ended with that village, other than the fact that the mother's story is so heart-rending is that when I first started this film, it was supposed to be a short documentary based in Israel about the struggle between activists in various towns and a government policy not unlike that of almost any other country. I actually chose to keep it (especially since it wasn't in English) to accentuate the global-nature of the issue. While we were finishing off post-production there were a couple stories, one in the UK, one in India, that had I had enough money, would have also gone out to film to further show how international this topic really is."
Yeah really.
With time, someone apparently began to talk out against "Full Signal" and post comments on the web stating things like, “the real purpose of this repugnant documentary is to vilify Israel." Or that it was “Anti-Israel Propaganda disguised as Junk Science” or “the technology version of the blood libel”
I was unaware of all that, being busy with other interviews and such, but Jabari faithfully kept us all in the loop. An email in my inbox informed those of us who had been interviewed that these comments were out and about and that we might want to respond to them.
In Jabari's words, "My main concern here is not the attacks on my journalistic integrity (everyone has the right to their own opinion), but rather that this is a blatant effort to discredit the science in this film by turning it into an Israeli/Palestinian issue."

Turn it into? And what of, "When I first started this film, it was supposed to be a short documentary based in Israel about the struggle between activists in various towns..."

I let it go. I figured my voice was insignificant. And I certainly didn't want to bring public attention to Talal Jabari. But now holding back my thoughts feels like too much of a betrayal. Jabari has commented to others that his movie is certainly not anti-Jewish. After all, he features a Chassidic woman, and even includes footage of little boys in Jewish garb! So let this Chassidic woman say this: Thousands of years ago, G-d gave the Land of Israel to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob (Israel.) In addition to the promise, the Bible records the purchase of the cave in Hebron, and so too that of Shechem and of Jerusalem. It is our title-deed. Whether Jabari likes it or not, Efron signed on the dotted line. And whereas he may find it an inconvenient truth, G-d promised the Land of Israel to the children of Israel.

You can watch some videos of my recent visit to Hebron on YouTube.
If you have seen Full Signal and would like to respond, visit Amazon here.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Transformation Through Self-Expression

Sefirat Ha'omer, Part VII

By Shimona Tzukernik
The African image that most captured my imagination in school was the repeated theme of a body with a head at either end of the torso. It's really a sculpture of a woman giving birth as the baby's head emerges. In some ways, the two-headed torso is the exact opposite of the more Eastern image of a snake eating its tail. The latter prompts one to think about disappearing. The former is all about self-expression.
 Whilst we all desire self-actualization and the ability or forum to express ourselves, on the whole we humans resist being the crowning infant. We want to be the top head, to come in first, have our name up in lights. Our sages advise us, "Better to be the tail of a lion than the head of a fox." But seriously, how many people can you think of who pick up on that?
The "bottom end" of life is something we shun in our search for fame and importance. Our leaders position themselves as heads but are by far and wide the rattled ends not of a lion's, but a fox's tail. That aside, let's not project. We needn't look outward. We need just look at ourselves to find testimony to the predilection to take the lead no matter what, and at all costs. Whether in a personal relationship where we want to be the one dictating the rules, at work or at play, we're consistently aiming to be the top head of the sculpture.
That's sad. I don't say it in a judgmental or abstractly philosophical way. I mean it for real. The orientation prevents us from becoming who we're really meant to be. It also prevents us from fulfilling our true purpose in the word because, as we will see, it is precisely in the bottom head that our ultimate raison d'ĂȘtre and power lie.
The crowing head of an emerging infant epitomizes the last of the soul's inner powers. In Hebrew, that ability of the soul is called Malchut which literally means "sovereignty." It is the place that we first begin to reveal our inner selves to the world. Through giving expression to our self, we gain the opportunity to be a shining light. We can become leaders the moment we put ourselves out there. That's why the sphere of Malchut is also associated with royalty and dignity. It connotes all the wonder that comes with the expression of our truest self.
 Kabbalistically this soul power is associated with the bottom of the body, the very "crown" of the reproductive organs – the corona in the male and the labia in the female – and with the appearance of the head of the child.
 In this light Malchut, or self-expression, embodies a contradiction. It is the lowest of the soul powers yet the birth point of an entirely new reality. This is only possible because its root is higher than any of the previous six core emotions or three minds. Its origin is the highest, most abstract dimension of the soul, our spiritual unconscious. That's why the emergence of the baby's head is called crowning. The top of its head breaking through the bottom of the mother's body reflects her crown both in terms of the physical fontanel and so too the point where her consciousness is so high it ceases to function in the way we generally associate with regular awareness.
 That's the contradiction.
 The newness that is born of self-expression is entirely dependent on what's come before it. Self-expression brings us to the front door of why we're here but cannot exist without all the other abilities that inform it. And although it manifests last, it precedes all the other abilities in terms of its spiritual source.
 It is for this reason that our sages tell us that the soul power of royalty "has nothing of her own." Like
the moon who receives from the sun and illuminates the night, your ability to manifest in the world must first absorb the totality of who you. Only then can it shine outwards. Before you can be in the world in a powerful, dignified way, you'll have to choose to open yourself to all of who you are, from the crown of your supra-conscious, through mindfulness and love and respect, all the way down to your ability to bond with another. You can reveal who you are to the world only by virtue of absorbing into yourself the other nine powers of your soul.
 These nine powers need Malchut, self-expression, because they are essentially each only a part of a bigger whole. When you manage to communicate them to the world, you are synthesizing them and bringing them to actualization. In the process, you become whole and actualized because your true self is built from each of the previous abilities.
The soul powers associated with the left side of the tree of life – analysis, restraint or respect, and humility – flow downwards, guiding you to manifest and lead first and foremost on the basis of fear of heaven. In order to become the influencer and leader you are capable of being, you must first be open to receiving from the Supreme Leader, Gd. Only then, from a place of humility, is leadership of the sort that people will accept. Leadership that is built upon self-abnegation becomes powerful. It is by virtue of putting aside your ego and being willing to be the "bottom head" that your soul can ascend to its highest source.
Next comes the right axis of the tree – creative brainstorming or conceptualizing, love and ambition. They bring to self-actualization the expansive and embracing love that leadership needs in order to flourish. Without these embracing, inclusive and celebrating components, you cannot facilitate growth for others. So first comes awe, then love. When you are open to incorporating these qualities without an agenda as to "being first" or doing things one way or another then you become the kind of person others love to be around. You manifest as a leader with dignity who can inspire true renewal for others.
Finally comes the highest synthesis of all, that within the third and central column of the mystical map of the soul – the Tree of Life. It is an axis of which self-expression is itself a part. The abilities on this central branch are our supra-conscious, our ability to deeply internalize and intimately know things, our heart-empathic center and our ability to bond. Each of these needs the Malchut in order to become whole. And with the marriage of the upper and lower dimensions of your being, you are able to fully manifest who you are in potential.
It is a merging akin to that of man and woman. Just as a woman receives from her husband thereby giving birth to the child, so too your ability to convey who you are to the world now gives birth to a new reality. Think of turning the sculpture upside down. The infant becomes the crown of the mother, herself birthing a new child. Counter-intuitively, self-expression happens through putting one's self aside. When you do that, you can give birth to a new reality both for your soul and for the world.
 What you give birth to are what Kabbalah calls the "garments of the soul," namely thought, speech and action. Now whereas we have relatively little control over our inner makeup, we have all the control in the world – and all the accountability – in mastering our "outsides." Each of us is expected to mentally focus only on those concepts that Gd approves of. Our speech is required to be refined and holy. So too our actions.
 You don't choose to be born a person who is innately gifted in love or awe. You're born expansive or contractive, more intellectually or emotionally inclined. Maybe you're a rationalist or a mystic. These orientations are a result of our inner soul structure. That's Gd given and each of us must utilize our gifts and attempt to minimize our weaknesses. But you don't really get to choose whether to be that way or not. Yes, it's possible to change your personality. But it's highly improbable.
 Where you do have the freedom of choice is in how you're going to put that all out there in the world. At any given moment you can decide to think one thing or another. You can say a kind or cutting word. You can act from ego or non-ego. Thought, speech and action are called "garments" for precisely that reason. You can take them off or put them on at will. Here, in the arena of your soul garments, your "outsides," get to exercise free choice.
 This is what Malchut gives birth to – the core, the essence of why we're here. It's not really our inner being that's the goal. We're here to help Gd out and bring redemption. That's done through refining the matter of the universe which is in turn accomplished through the commandments. We fulfill them through thought, speech and action. So it is in the garments of the soul and through self-expression that we accomplish our ultimate purpose.
 We're culturally trained to think otherwise: The "lowly commandments" are "petty details" that pale in comparison with being in the flow! But that's just not true. Living a meaningful life is not so much about self-actualization as it is about helping Gd out, on His terms. Mistakenly, we focus on the glory of being on top, being spiritual and enlightened. We dismiss being empty, receiving, doing small acts of kindness that change the world bottom-up.
 How mistaken.
 It's in the place we resist that we touch our purpose. Sure we want to be the first head and never the baby at the bottom. But right there, in the "lowest" dimension of the soul, we gain access to its highest point. More importantly, it's through this "lowest" of soul powers that we get done what we're here to do in the first place. Jews do not eschew the mundane. We celebrate matter and even – or rather particularly – the lowest dimensions of who we are.
 I got to thinking about this some years back when one of my soul sisters celebrated her daughter's bat mitzvah. She asked us to think about which woman in Jewish history we most admire and aspire to be like, or who had most influenced our course in life. I thought about it a lot.
 As I mentally scanned the women of the Bible and Talmud, I felt humbled by how far away I am from what they embody. I was searching for the person who on the one hand stood for something beyond me but on the other was someone I could relate to in an empirical kind of way. I came to the party still undecided. As I sat at the table with all the beautiful women and their breathtaking daughters, all of us sharing our hopes and points of reference with ancient women who called to us across time, I was struck by how wondrous the "ordinary" is. How many women throughout thousands of years had sat as we were, sharing and trying to come closer to what Gd wants of us? I felt such an affinity with them. And in that moment, I felt that my personal aspiration was to be like Bilhah and Zilpah, the two half-sisters of Rachel and Leah, wives of Jacob.
 These two women are also mothers of our people but not generally referred to as such. I was taken by the sense of how much they were willing to put aside an agenda, to simply receive. Thereby they became the mothers of six tribes. They are tribes that are hidden until the coming of Mashiach. I think those tribes are like their mothers, silent and non-egotistic, willing to wait and receive before giving birth to a new age.
 Of course I want to be like Sarah and Esther and Miriam and Deborah and…the list goes on and on. It feels a little uncomfortable to admit it being that I'm so far from what they embody. But I'm certain that one of my biggest stumbling blocks is that I need to be more like Bilhah and Zilpah. I need to take in their lesson before I can approach something higher. The first step is to stop insisting on being at the forefront. I want to be willing to be the one given birth to. Then I'll become a mother.
This is the intent of the words of King David. He tells us, "This is the gate to Gd, the righteous shall enter through it."1 Self-expression is that gate. First comes the surrendering of ego, the willingness to simply receive, then comes the synthesizing of all the building blocks, and finally you get to cross the threshold of Gd's gate.
1. Pslam 118:20
 This article was originally posted on