By Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer, Guest Torah Columnist
Torah Portion: Vayechi (Genesis 47:28–50:26)
Several weeks ago, I was visiting my friend Danny who was recuperating from hip surgery at the Whitehall. While we were talking, a Hasidic rabbi with a long beard, peyas, and black suit stopped by, bringing Chanukah greetings to the community. He recognized me from my picture and articles in the Chicago Jewish News. As we stood next to each other, shaking hands, my friend said, “It’s hard to believe you are both rabbis. You look so different from each other. Rabbi Doug, you don’t look like a rabbi on the outside, but I know you are one on the inside.”
That statement reminds me of many people who say to me, “Rabbi, I’m not religious, but I am spiritual.” What they really mean is that they are not observant Jews – they don’t keep kosher, they don’t observe all the commandments. But, they do intuit the truth that there are certain spiritual laws that govern the universe. And, G-d Himself is bound by these laws. Each of us is hardwired to these spiritual principles that govern this universe and everything in it.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, we learn of the impending death of Jacob (or Israel). The text tells us “And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years; so the days of Jacob, the years of his life, were a hundred forty and seven years. And the time drew near that Israel must die….And Jacob (Israel) said to Joseph,’ Take an oath to me.’ Then Israel bowed at the head of the bed.” (Genesis 47:28-31)
Rashi, the greatest of all Torah interpreters, maintains that, when Joseph swore his allegiance to his father, Israel turned toward the Divine Presence. When the text says, “Israel bowed at the head of the bed,” Rashi suggests that this teaches that the Divine Presence is above the head of a sick person.
The great Maharal of Prague, the Gur Arye, reminds us, in his commentary on Rashi, that Jacob’s illness is mentioned in the next verse, “And it came to pass after these things, that one said to Joseph: ‘Behold, thy father is sick.’”(Gen. 48:1) Yet, other commentaries don’t call Israel ill, but rather suggest Jacob had “a weakening of energy,” because he was worried about his death and burial. He feared that the Pharaoh would not allow Joseph to take him to the home of his ancestors for burial. This inspired the Presence of the Shechina over his head. As a matter of fact, when I see Jacob bowing his head, under the Shechina, I see this as Jacob embracing the healing love of the Shechina over his head.
G-d created the Five Sounds, which were the origin for all the healing that G-d introduced. In other words, G-d created all the healing of every disease that would ever occur, before He created the illness. And, Abraham Abulafia and Moses Cordovero created healing meditations based on the sounds of the Five Primary Hebrew vowels, together with respective head movements, together with the alef, which is a very holy name of G-d. And, by pronouncing the alef with any Hebrew vowel, we are expressing the mystery of the unity of G-d. Our Jewish tradition teaches that each of the five primordial vowels in the Hebrew language is considered to be primary: cholam, kibbutz, chirik, tsere and kamatz. The sounds of these five vowels spoken by G-d, have tremendous creative power.
Abraham Abulafia and Moses Cordovero created unique healing meditations based on the sounds of the five primary Hebrew vowels, concommittant with respective head movements (moving the head up, moving the head to the left, moving the head to the right, moving the head down, and moving the head forward and backward). The vowels are combined with the alef, and the letters of the Tetragrammaton, and specific head movements to create powerful healing meditations. When you combine these elements, and you do this modality with all four letters of the Holy Name, you have access not only to Hashem, but also to the healing of any disease or discomfort. Just as G-d created the healing of every disease at the beginning of creation, we can access these healing meditations through the use of Abulafia’s and Cordovero’s healing meditative practices. Using specific head movements, pronouncing of the five primordial vowel sounds and articulating the alef and the four letters of the YHVH, I believe this is what Jacob was doing when the text says, “And Israel bowed down upon the bed’s head.”
Twice a month at Congregation Bene Shalom, we have Kabbalistic Shabbat services and we practice these kinds of meditations, which bring us into Unity with G-d. In our regular, traditional prayers, we talk to G-d. But, at our Saturday Kabbalistic Meditation services, we don’t talk to G-d, we do what Jacob did – we bow our heads and we listen to G-d.
Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer is senior rabbi of Congregation Bene Shalom, Skokie, and president and professor of Jewish Mysticism at Hebrew Seminary, Skokie.