Meditations on the Maaseh Merkavah – I

We do science by studying nature. We study physics in a lab, peering into space, or working out mathematical models with pencil and paper to see if they fit experimental data. However, great mystics of the past were able to see how this world operates by gazing into spiritual worlds above.

On Shavuot, the holiday when we celebrate the revelation on Mount Sinai, we read the prophecy of Ezekiel (the First Vision of Ezekiel) called Maaseh Merkavah (or Ma’aseh Merkabah) – Work of the Chariot. Masters of Kabbalah have taught us that understanding the Work of the Chariot gives the initiated an understanding of the works of nature. This Shavuot, studying and thinking about Maaseh Merkavah, I came to understand some profound insights about the physics of space and time. I will endeavor to share a few insights, which I gleaned from Maaseh Merkavah, in a series of posts. This is the first post on this topic.

In his prophecy, Ezekiel (Yechezkel) speaks of four living creatures, the beasts (Heb. khayyot or chayot) – four angelic beings. Ezekiel sees them as running and returning (rotze v’shav). Kabbalah and Chasidut explain that this running and returning is what sets off the flow of time, the never-ceasing time-flux. It is explained at length in the series of discourses called Samach Vav (Yom Tov shel Rosh HaShanah) by the fifth Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch, Rabbi Sholom Dovber, the Rebbe Rashab. I explained this in my essay “On the Nature of Time and the Age of the Universe.”

Prophet Ezekiel sees the angelic beings, khayyot, as having four faces, which is highly significant. The commentators connect these four faces with four letters of the Proper Name of God, Havayah or Tetragrammaton – YHWH (alternatively transliterated as YHVH). As I wrote in my other posts (see, for example, “I Am Who I Am: Conversation at the Burning Bush”), this Name has to do with time and space. Firstly, the name Havayah connotes the timeless nature of God, as it is seen as a short form of three temporal categories: hayah (is), hoveh (was), yihyeh (will be). Secondly, as it is well known, if we square the numerical values of the letters, we get 186: (Yod)2+(Heh)2+(Waw)2+(Heh)2 =(10)2+(5)2+(6)2+(5)2 = 186. This is the same numerical value as the word Makom: (Mem=40) + (Quf=100) +(Waw=6) + (Mem=40) = 186 – “the space.” Thus, generally, Tetragrammaton hints at the unity of time and space. As we shall see, this connection runs much deeper. However, to see this, familiarity with basic concepts of Lurianic Kabbalah is required. For those unfamiliar with these concepts, I offer below a brief refresher course on sefirot and partzufim.

Let us recall that the Divine Light (Or Ein Sof) emanates through ten channels, ten Divine emanations called Sefirot (or sephirot): Keter (“Crown,” Divine Will), Chokhmah (“Wisdom”), Binah (“Understanding”), Chesed (“Kindness”), Gevurah (“Strength,” Judgment), Tiferet (“Beauty,” Compassion), Netzach (“Eternity,” Victory, Endurance), Hod (“Splendor,” Humility), Yesod (“Foundation”), and Malchut (“Sovereignty,” “Kingdom,” Shekhinah – Divine Presence). These sefirot are typically arranged in three columns – right, left, and middle:

Keter

Crown

Binah

Understanding

Chokhmah

Wisdom

Gevurah

Strength, Judgment

Chesed

Kindness

Tiferet

Beauty, Compassion

Hod

Splendor, Humility

 

Netzach

Eternity, Victory

 

Yesod

Foundation

 
 

Malchut

Sovereignty, Shechinah

 

 

In the pre-Lurianic kabbalah, Keter is usually counted as the first sefirah. As a crown that sits on top of the king’s head, the sefirah of Keter is so sublime that it is above all worlds. Therefore, in Lurianic Kabbalah, usually, it is replaced by a quasi-sefirah of Da’at (Knowledge), which is also placed in the middle column but is below Chokhmah and Binah. Da’at is a reflection of Keter and is a smaller version of it, as it were. The first three sefirot, Chokhmah (Wisdom), Binah (Understanding), and Da’at (Knowledge) comprise the three aspects of the Divine intellect. Specifically, Da’at is seen as an interface between the intellect and the emotions, which are represented by the lower seven sefirot. In this representation, the sefirotic tree looks as follows:

 

Binah

Understanding

Chokhmah

Wisdom

 

Da’at

Knowledge

 

Gevurah

Strength, Judgment

Chesed

Kindness

Tiferet

Beauty, Compassion

Hod

Splendor, Humility

 

Netzach

Eternity, Victory

 

Yesod

Foundation

 
  Malchut

Sovereignty, Shekhinah

 

 

In the universe of Tohu, “Chaos,” sefirot exist by themselves. However, in the universe of Tikun, “Rectification,” all sefirot are inter-included. Each sefirah includes all ten in a self-similar fractal pattern. For example, Chokhmah includes all ten sefirot within itself, so that we can speak of chokhmah of Chokhmah, binah of Chokhmah, da’at of Chokhmah, etc. Inter-included sefirot mature into Partzufim, “Personas,” or “Configurations”: Abba (“Father”) – Chokhmah as it includes all ten sefirot; Imma (“Mother”) – Binah as it includes all ten sefirot; Ze’er Anpin or Z”A (“Small Face,” “Visage,” or “Microprosopus”) – six sefirot that include Chesed, Gevurah, Tiferet, Netzach, Hod, and Yesod – male offspring; and Nukvah or Nukvah d’Z”AMalchut as it includes all ten sefirot – the female offspring, mate of the Ze’er Anpin. (Anthropomorphic names aside, partzufim are levels of the Divine consciousness and should not be attributed any corporeal qualities).

The Z”A and Nukva d’Z”A together are called toldot, “progeny” or “children” – they are viewed as “children,” “son” and “daughter,” as it were, of Abba (Father) and Imma (Mother). (Once again, this anthropomorphic terminology is only meant to provide an intuitive understanding of the dynamics of interaction between partzufim. Thus, Z”A and Nukva d’Z”A are called “children” of Abba and Imma only insofar as to show that two intellectual faculties, Abba (Chokhmah-Wisdom) and Imma (Binah-Understanding) give birth to the emotional faculties of Chesed (kindness), Gevurah (judgment), Tiferet (compassion), etc. Similarly, “coupling” of the Z”A and Nukvah are meant as the interaction of the abstract Divine intellect inspiring the female drive to its concretization and realization in the world.)

The quasi-sefirah Da’at is often identified with Ze’er Anpin or is seen as the interface between the intellect and the emotions, between Abba and Imma on the one hand, and Ze’er Anpin on the other.

Sefirot line up against four letters of Tetragrammaton, YHWH, as follows:

Yud י Chokhmah
Heh ה Binah
Waw ו Six Lower Sefirot: Chesed, Gevurah, Tiferet, Netzach, Hod, Yesod
Heh ה Malchut

 

(If you wonder about Ketter, it corresponds to the cusp or the apex of the yudkutzu shel yud. See my post “The Fifth Force.”)

The Sefer Yetzirah describes the pair of sefirot Chokhmah and Binah as “A depth of beginning, a depth of end,” meaning two opposite ends of the timeline – the past and the future. Therefore, in Kabbala, the past is identified with Abba-Father (Chokhmah), the future is identified with Imma-Mother (Binah), and the present is identified with Da’at. Da’at is called Toldot – children.  Metaphorically speaking, “the past impregnates the future, which gives birth to the present moment.”

The first three unique letters of the Tetragrammaton are the most important and represent a separate Divine Name on their own – YHW (or YHV).

Letter Heb. Letter Primary Sefirah Partzuf Time
Yud י Chokhmah Abba Past
Heh ה Binah Imma Future
Waw or Vav ו Six sefirot Ze’er Anpin Present

 

Ze’er Anpin, however, also represents the space. Indeed, Ze’er Anpin (Z”A) is made of six sefirot – Chesed, Gevurah, Tiferet, Netzach, Hod, and Yisod. Each of these sefirot represents a direction in space: Chesed is South, Gevurah is North, Tiferet is East, Netzach is up, Hod is down, and Yisod is West. This is exactly how these six sefirot are introduced in the oldest known book of Kabbalah, Sefer Yetzirah:

A depth of above, a depth of below; a depth of east, a depth of west; a depth of north, a depth of south.” (Sefer Yetzirah 1:5)

The first three letters of the Tetragrammaton represent a triangle:

Thus far, I described what is well-known in Kabbalah and Chasidut.

And here comes my first Shavuot insight: I suddenly realized that space is present time; space is the interface between the future and the past. The reason we cannot step into the future is that there is no space in the future – there is nowhere to step into. Likewise, the reason we cannot travel into the past is, that there is no space in the past – there is nowhere to travel. Space only exists in the fleeting moment of the present. The flow of time is nothing but a continuous updating of the three-dimensional space we live in; something akin to refreshing a computer screen. Every moment, the “screen” is refreshed, and there is another space created. Perhaps this is one possible meaning of the statement in Tanya that the world is recreated every moment (see Shaar Yihud v’Emunah, ch. 1).

Imagine a timeline. Now imagine each point on this one-dimensional line is replaced being replaced by a three-dimensional space. If the timeline is imagined as many deflated balloons tied together, each point on the timeline represented by a balloon, let’s inflate each balloon so that our timeline becomes a series of inflated balloons. In mathematics, such geometry is called a fiber bundle. I described this in my post, “Tumah and Taharah.” I have always believed that the geometry of space and time is a 3+1 fiber bundle with each point of the timeline replaced by a three-dimensional space, rather than a simple four-dimensional Minkowski spacetime. I thought so from considerations of physics. Now, I am more confident than ever that this is the right structure of the space and time.

Traveling in time is jumping from one balloon into another balloon, so to speak. Indeed, I believe that moving in time is transitioning from one three-dimensional space into another.

In the following posts, I will continue this theme and develop these concepts further, b’ezrat Hashem.

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