I wrote this poem while in Tzfat, one of Israel's four cities that are holy to Judaism. The mikveh -ritual bath- of Rabbi Isaac Luria is a pool inside a cave at the lower end of the old city of Tzfat, that I presume is fed by en underground spring. I go there to immerse myself every time I am in the city.
Isaac Luria (Egypt and Israel, 16th century) was one of the most important figures in the history of Jewish mysticism, whose greatest contribution to religion is a creation myth that explains the existence of evil and imperfection in a radical way.
Put in very simple terms, Rabbi Luria’s teaching seeks to understand the hidden reality behind the story of creation that is found in the book of Genesis and cherished by Western religions. In his view, God, who is endless in time and space, (Ein Sof--"without end") “pulled back” to open a “space without God” in which some “thing” other than God could be created. God then sent God’s light (or creative energy) into that space by placing that light into vessels --kayleem-- in Hebrew- which could contain and organize it. The original divine plan of creation was for the light in those vessels to bring about a perfectly created world modeled upon God, who is infinite and perfect. But a terrible thing happened. Because God’s light is so powerful and overwhelming, the vessels were unable to hold it and they shattered. After this cosmic accident, God reorganized the creative process and brought the universe into existence. However, the universe as God finally ordered it was a mixture of sparks of creative light and shards of the broken vessels blocking and trapping those sparks: a tangle of light and dark, life and death, ugliness and beauty, good and evil. This is the world that we have inherited in nature as well as human affairs: broken and beautiful. Luria believed that human beings have the power to release those original sparks that are still trapped, to repair those original vessels for God’s light, and to return the sparks to their source in God. For instance, when a Jewish person performs one of the mitzvot –the ritual and ethical commandments of Judaism- that action releases some of those sparks and brings us closer to perfection and redemption from evil. Thus, human beings are important actors in the great cosmic struggle for healing and wholeness that began before there was reality as we know it and that will only end when we and God heal and perfect that reality.
My poem draws upon Luria's ideas as well as the simple beauty and mystery of the mikveh where he would purify himself.
IN TZFAT (At The Mikveh Of Isaac Luria)
The bulb, dim and naked,
-A weak, dying emanation of Ein Sof-
Hung over the frigid, murky water
Of the damp stone pool.
Standing naked and cold,
I briefly considered my options:
Let the light fan its pallid rays
Over the still,
Perfectly dull liquid surface?
Or create a wet commotion with my body
That dispersed the light and the dark water
In endless jagged directions
Until they came to rest, trapped,
In the enveloping blackness
Of the shell-like cave?
I was freezing;
I had places to go.
I reasoned: anything is better
Than stagnating in static serenity.
Banking on a moment of purity
Before the long trek back
To inevitable dirt,
I plunged in.
© 2010 By Rabbi Dan Ornstein