Printed from kabbalaonline.org
Mount Sinai was a revelation of both an ascending and descending Returning Light

Sinai Up in Smoke

Sinai Up in Smoke

Advanced Advanced
 Email
Sinai Up in Smoke
Mount Sinai was a revelation of both an ascending and descending Returning Light

Holy Smokes

Smoke played an integral role when G‑d gave Moses the Torah.
"And Mount Sinai was completely asmoke because G‑d descended upon it in fire" (Ex. 19:18)
"And all the people saw the thunder and lightning, and the sound of the shofar, and the mountain in smoke; when the people saw it, they became uneasy and stood far away" (Ex. 20:15)
"And Moses approached the thick darkness where G‑d was" (Ex. 20:18)

Kabbala reveals the secret of "smoke" (in Hebrew, "oshan"). The three letters of its Hebrew spelling are themselves the initial letters of three other words: "olam", which means "world"; "shana", which means "time"; and "nefesh", which means "soul". These three fundamental components of creation correspond to the Three Lower Worlds of Creation (Beriya), Formation (Yetzira), and Action (Asiya).

Smoke then, portrays the three building blocks of reality: space, time and soul. Space refers to the lowest world, Asiya; time represents Yetzira; and soul corresponds to the world of Beriya.

Physical smoke provides an illustration for this concept. What produces smoke? A piece of wood is composed of aspects of the four elements. It's predominate components, though, are air, water and soil. When a flame is put to wood, the element of fire consumes its spiritual elements of air, water and soil. Unable to persevere inside the wood, the three elements return above to be subsumed within their particular spiritual sources. Wood serves as an analogy for the Three Lower Worlds…

The wood's rising smoke is actually its former elements of air, water and soil. Nature's fourth element of fire, burns up the wood. Only ashes, derived from the element of soil, are left behind. Absolutely nothing remains of the wood's aspects of air and water.

Wood serves as an analogy for the Three Lower Worlds. The world of Beriya corresponds to the element of air. Below Beriya stands the world of Yetzira, which represents water. And the bottommost world of Asiya manifests the element of soil.

Fire, though, refers to the supernal world of Atzilut where infinite divine light shines. Hence the aforementioned verse says, "G‑d descended upon it in fire". Divine fire descended into the Three Lower Worlds and affected their purification and nullification. Then, in a refined state, they ascended above.

Each of the Three Worlds returned to its original source in Atzilut. There they merged into Atzilut's revealed light. What remained below? Only the coarsest aspect of Asiya, which corresponds to the most elementary aspect of soil, stayed behind.

Now the Mount Sinai verse can be understood: "And Mount Sinai was completely smoking because G‑d descended upon it in fire." (Ex. 19:18) What does "completely" denote in relation to fire? After G‑d's flame affected the spiritual incineration and cleansing of the Three Lower Worlds, they "went up in smoke". Smoke manifested their post-purification aspect. Only the Worlds' residue remained on earth.

What's more, the Three Lower Worlds utterly ceased to exist as independent entities. For, by means of G‑d's fire, they rose into Atzilut. There they became one with Atzilut's infinity. Even their spiritual state of being didn't persevere.

As mentioned earlier, the Hebrew spelling of "smoke" stands for world, time and soul. What do these terms actually refer to? G‑d emits a diminished life-force to enact the creation-process. Each created realm receives its appointed measure of life-force necessary for its existence. The spatial extension of that life-force into a particular created realm is called "world". The duration this life-force continues to operate there is called "time". This means space-time is really a radiated G‑dly light.

"Soul", generally speaking, refers to an aspect of divinity which is so transcendent that it is beyond the possibility of shining below. It pertains to the ultimate source of the descending life-force: the attribute of malchut of the world of Atzilut.

Atzilut…remains, even after Creation, adjacent to G‑d's infinity…

Atzilut, as we have seen, remains, even after Creation, adjacent to G‑d's infinity. That's why its lights and vessels illuminate endlessly. It's just that a veil - representing the leap of value from finitude to infinity, separates Atzilut from the Three Lower Worlds. In order to provide them with life-sustaining power, infinity must be metamorphosed into a lower-level "finite" light (space-time). Following sundry constrictions and coverings, malchut of Atzilut's life-force reaches the created Worlds. But the sefira of malchut, itself, doesn't abandon its position in Atzilut.

An allegory for malchut of the world of Atzilut and the life force that descends from it is provided by reincarnation. Sometimes a soul must endure rectification for misdeeds and the like. So G‑d sends it back into the world inside a plant or an animal. The entire essence of the soul is trapped within the animal.

Souls are constructed of many levels, one enveloping the next. For example, souls possess all the faculties of intellect and emotions. They have spiritual powers such as the ability to think, speak and act and direct these faculties together with life empowering light, down into the body. What occurs when the soul enters an animal's body? Animals don't think, speak or write compositions. What happened to the soul's powers?

In such circumstances, the hostage soul does not radiate its life-force or attributes. Rather, the original core-state of the soul is, so-to-speak, squeezed into the animal. It remains helpless, unable to illume forth its life-force.

Every Jew's essence of the soul remains above. Only a slight radiation descends to enliven a body. Once inside, both body and soul radiation are united as one. But its original source - the soul's essence - remains existentially aloof from even the possibility of emitting life-force.

As mentioned earlier, the soul's source is in the attribute of malchut of the world of Atzilut. Since Atzilut precedes the creation of space-time, soul essences encompass a person's consciousness. Sometimes, pangs of repentance "trickle down" from the soul essence. This is especially true during the Days of Repentance, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

In its sublime state, the soul source resembles malchut of Atzilut. It too is abstracted above the world: only its radiation forms space-time.

But Mount Sinai's incineration, symbolized by the Hebrew word for smoke, included the aspect of soul. If soul is beyond Beriya, how was it transformed into smoke?

Mount Sinai manifested the corporeality of the Three Lower Worlds. Their existence, we have seen, is actually the external aspect of malchut's life-force. And when Mount Sinai "completely" smoked - space, time and soul ascended to their source.

The downward expansion of life-force into each particular realm refers to "world"; its duration is "time." And the life-force itself is called "soul". This doesn't refer to the essence of the soul; just it's radiated life-force. So life-force accomplishes three simultaneous tasks. Its effluence is space-time. And it re-creates that space-time every instant from a state of absolute void into the appearance of separate reality.

The Zohar describes this state as being one with One

G‑d's Light, symbolized by fire, consumed the worlds. Space-time and its life-force, rose upward to their source in the essence of malchut of Atzilut. Previously radiated life-force rejoined its ultimate origin - the essence of the soul. That, which had been combined with the Lower Three Worlds now became nullified, enveloped and unified with the "Supernal Oneness" of Atzilut. The Zohar describes this state as "being one with One".

Radiant Return

How did the Jews react to this revelation of divine unity? They told Moses, "You approach and listen to everything G‑d would tell us". (Deut. 5:24) They witnessed the nullification of the external dimension of the world in the brilliant Light of the world of Atzilut. And they wanted no part of it! Rather, Jews preferred to keep their physical bodies intact. It was fine if their souls ascended, but their bodies had to stay just where they were. So as everything around them became subsumed in Infinite Light, the Jews told Moses "you handle it".

Mount Sinai resembled the state of the world in the Future Era, when people won't eat or drink. This, despite the fact their physical bodies will exist. It's just that bodies won't be nourished from physical meals. Rather, they will obtain their sustenance from supernal lights.

Jews' bodies in the Future Era compares with angels today. Certain angels residing in the spiritual realms are called "entrails" and "intestines". Divine life-force is brought into the physical world through them . They themselves obtain sustenance from the life-force as it travels through their spiritual bodies. This is analogous to the function of intestines that remove nutrients from physical food.

Moses'…body metamorphosed into the world's future state…

Similarly, in the Resurrection, when Jews' bodies will be rarified, their intestines will receive nourishment from supernal "foodstuffs". Resurrection's condition existed atop Mount Sinai during Moses' forty-day sojourn. His body metamorphosed into the world's future state. Moses neither ate nor drank; yet at the same time his physical body continued to function. Divine life-force, processed by the "entrails" angels, entered his intestines to keep him alive.

What is the secret which enabled Moses to transcend normative rules of nature? The Baal Shem Tov and the Magid of Mezrich taught the principle that the origin of externality is higher than that of internality. Just as if one fells a wall, its highest stones fall further than the bottom ones, so too, the more elevated the spiritual source, the farther it falls. G‑d's external light descended all the way into the physical world. Hence corporeality must possess the loftiest of sources.

Materiality's exalted origin is alluded to in the Mount Sinai verse: "And Moses approached the thick darkness where G‑d was". Moses, symbolizing the physical world, came close to G‑d. This alludes to the loftiest aspect of divinity, called "darkness". King David said in Psalms, "He made darkness His secret place". (Psalms 18:12)

Why is G‑d's Absolute Being called "darkness?" It is abstracted above the possibility of revelation, even to G‑d himself! Mount Sinai's "thick darkness", then, refers to the ultimate source of physicality: the innermost essence of G‑d. And Moses' submersion into darkness represents the world's nullification in its true source.

Moses was ahead of his time. While every Jew will experience this unity in the Future Era, at Mount Sinai, only Moses could. What was unique about Moses? Recall that in the time of the Resurrection of the Dead, the refinement of Jews' bodies will enable direct divine nourishment. Moses had already accomplished this: he expunged coarseness from his body.

Earlier, at the burning bush, G‑d commanded Moses "remove your shoes from your feet". (Ex. 3:5) Kabbala teaches that shoes allude to the physical body. Moses, then, succeeded in extricating externality from physicality. That's why he alone, and not the Jews, could go toward the darkness. So they told him, "You approach and listen to everything G‑d wants to tell us."

Above Mount Sinai a three-colored rainbow came into view. It resembled the rainbow described in Ezekiel's vision, read on Shavuot. "Like the appearance of a rainbow that is in the cloud on a rainy day, so was the appearance of the encompassing radiance. This was the appearance of the likeness of the Glory of G‑d. And when I saw this, I fell upon my face". (Ezekiel 1:28) We know a cloud formed over Mount Sinai. The verse informs, "A thick cloud upon the mountain". (Ex. 19:16) But what caused the rainbow?

Recall that the external element of the Three Lower Worlds went up in smoke. Their rising above was due to the Returning Light. Upon striking the cloud, a splendorous rainbow appeared.

There are two opposite kinds of light. Ordinary light is called "Direct Light". Its vector is downwards - from above to below. The gradual downwardly progression of Divine life-force into every spiritual realm manifests this Light.

The second Light is inestimably more powerful. Termed "Returning Light", its movement is from below to above. At Mount Sinai, the Lower Worlds' external life-force, stripped of its encasement in corporeality, returned to its source. That's why smoke - the rarefaction of space-time-spirituality - exemplifies the Returning Light.

Returning Light's nature, as its name indicates, is to go up. It never stops rising. Its ascent is infinite, reaching the highest realms of G‑d. Direct Light, on the other hand, sustains diminishment. At every stage of descent, its light is further constricted and decreased.

A shofar blast illustrates the power of the Returning Light.

A shofar blast illustrates the power of the Returning Light. A shofar is narrow at one end and wide on the other. When its narrow aperture is blown, sound amplifies through the expanding horn, like King David said, "From the straits I called G‑d". (Psalms 118:5) Out of the depths of despair, the repentant call out to G‑d.

The vector of repentance - from below to above - demonstrates the might of the Returning Light. For it ascends above, ever widening, until attaining Absolute Infinity (Ein Sof). This is a principle regarding upward motion: as spirituality soars higher, it expands wider and wider. The conclusion of David's verse makes this clear, "G‑d answered me with his expanse". (Psalms 118:5)

Now an enigma in Ezekiel's vision is solved. Ezekiel beheld the entire wondrous heavenly process with all of its angels and Divine lights. Every detail was revealed. He saw, for example, "the likeness of a throne, in appearance like a sapphire stone". (Ezekiel 1:26) How, then, could he continue to observe, noting each and every detail? Why didn't he at once fall on his face, as he did later?

The answer is he was able to endure these revelations. It was only when he reached the appearance of a rainbow that he fell upon his face. Ezekiel couldn't withstand its brilliant light. For the ever-ascending rainbow, powered by the Returning Light, realized Absolute Infinity. What's more, as the externality of existence became nullified, Ezekiel could only 'shed his body'.

A paradox occurred on Mount Sinai. The verse informs us, "And the sound of the shofar grew increasingly louder". (Ex. 19:19) This connotes an expanding Returning Light. Yet, the very same verse concludes, "Moses speaks, and G‑d answers him with a voice", alluding to the function of a Direct Light. What's more, the shofar's blare was a divine sound, descending from above. Nevertheless it broadened infinitely as the verse relates, "grew continuously louder!" What happened?

As the purified state of the Lower Worlds went up in smoke, in a manner of Returning Light, they elicited a corresponding response from G‑d. He, then, revealed His Returning Light - but from above! It's called "returning" since it is a response.

G‑d's Returning Light begins from an apex, as the prophet informs, "His arrow goes forth like lightning". (Zechariah 9:14) It travels in a downward path, expanding to all sides. Job sums up, "And though your beginning was infinitesimal, yet your ending will greatly increase". (Job 8:7)

Mount Sinai was a revelation of both an ascending and descending Returning Light. Like two halves of a sphere, they met upon the mountaintop. Then, perfect unity was achieved. A glimpse into the Future Era, which is a state of "being one with One".


Adapted by David Rothschild from a discourse of Shavuot, 5564-1804

Copyright 2003 by KabbalaOnline.org. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this work or portions thereof, in any form, unless with permission, in writing, from Kabbala Online.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (18 Elul 1745-24 Tevet 1812), known as "the Alter Rebbe," was one of the main disciples of the Maggid of Mezritch, and the founder of the Chabad Chassidism. He is the author of Shulchan Aruch HaRav and Tanya as well as many other major works in both Jewish law and the mystical teachings.
Rabbi David Rothschild is a veteran scholar of the Tzemach Tzedek Kollel in Safed, Israel. He is the compiler of "Holiday Maimorim," based on his translations originally commissioned for KabbalaOnline.org.
 Email
Join the discussion
1000 characters remaining
Email me when new comments are posted.

The larger, bold text is the direct translation of the classic text source.

The smaller, plain text is the explanation of the translator/editor.
Text with broken underline will provide a popup explanation when rolled over with a mouse.