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Kabbalistic Wisdom in the Face of Evil

We need to read the canon, including the Zohar, to ward off violence

The Zohar, considered the most authoritative text of Jewish mysticism, provides much commentary on matters of good and evil, including Korah, a demon. Perhaps, the greatest evil of Korah, who swoops up from the pit to tempt mankind to the dark side, is when he tries to disrupt the Sabbath. He enlists his accomplices to wreak havoc on the day of rest, a day set aside by Jews to honor God. When the shooter murdered 11 Jews last Saturday at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, he committed his evil at morning Shabbat services In so doing, he, like Korah and his minions, disrupted the holiest day of the week, a day not only of rest and of devotion to God, but also a day of contemplation, reflection, unwinding, celebration and atonement. Besides its commentary on evil, the Zohar, which no one is supposed to read until he or she reaches the age of 40, spends a great deal of time discussing how to live a life of meaning, of soulfulness, of goodness, of wisdom. Those who adhere to the precepts of the Ten Commandments, who honor God, may earn a place in The World To Come, which, as one would expect, is located in the heavens above.

While Korah orbits the Earth looking for prey, looking to flip humans from goodness to evil, God, who, according to the Zohar, has both male and female characteristics,  counters with the Shekinah, His female essence. The Shekinah patrols the firmament and comes down to Earth to protect us from Korah, who attempts not only to disrupt the Sabbath, but also to destroy the planet, to divide and conquer, to fill the world with noise as opposed to music. 

We have had much noise of late, many disruptions of the Sabbath, many attempts to divide and conquer our country and the world. One wonders how people like Donald Trump can live with themselves given all the noise he has produced, all the hateful lies he has spewed about the press (whom he calls the “enemy of the people”), about George Soros (whom our commander-in-chief defames by implying that Soros is funding an “invasion” of our country), about the asylum-seeking migrants from Central America (whom Trump has threatened with violence and whom he hints include gang members and terrorists).  Then, there are Trump’s ploys to strike fear in citizens of this country when he says that he can erase their citizenship with an executive order. That such an executive order could never be enforced in a court of law due to its obvious violation of the 14th Amendment does not diminish the reality that Trump is  terrifying many immigrants and their children. In the process, he is also attempting to rile up his base. 

But what Trump is really doing is Korah’s work, by stoking anger, hatred and paranoia, and by providing the basis or the cover for Korah’s minions to wreak havoc with the world, to disrupt the Sabbath and to commit acts of violence and evil.  As I read the Zohar, which means “the radiance,” earlier this year, I, now 53 years old, was struck by Korah’s name, how close it is etymologically to Korei, which is the first person, singular form of the verb, to read, in Hebrew.  It is ironic indeed that the Hebrew verb, to read, so clearly associated with prayer and singing, could possibly share a root with the demon, who disrupts the Sabbath.  Reading, which may be a dying pursuit, can be a holy act.  It requires deep levels of concentration and empathy to enter a world of the highest imaginative, aesthetic and cognitive power, the world of the sublime.  The Zohar points out that writing a literary work of such transcendence and light is akin to creating the world anew, or creating “new heaven, new earth,” as Antony says to Cleopatra about the unlimited nature of their love. Harold Bloom has noted that by reading, with such love, our greatest writers, the geniuses who have composed canonical literature, we can help to “prevent violence,” as he theorized in his book, The Daemon Knows

Every Jew knows how central reading is in the history of our people. We read, of course, to educate ourselves; but that is not the only reason why we read. The Zohar emphasizes that reading or studying the Bible, specifically the Torah, is the key to living a godly life. That is why reading, praying and singing from the book are featured so prominently in Jewish services on the Sabbath. 

Jewish worshipers need only recall the phrase, anachnu korim, which means “we read,” a phrase that is often chanted at Sabbath services and is traditionally accompanied by the davening of congregants. But Korah, the demon, intends to disrupt us from such reading, from prayer, from our devotion to God.  The ironic linkage between Korah and Korei mirrors the close proximity between good and evil that has existed since the beginning, since Genesis and the Fall of Man, when Adam and Eve partook of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. We all remember that the Garden of Eden had two trees, The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, as well as the Tree of Life, which happens to be the name of the synagogue in Pittsburgh, which lost 11 of its members to a mass murderer last Sabbath morning. Perhaps, we should all accept that good and evil are on intimate terms, that the one is never far from the other. They are commingled not just in the Garden of Eden, not just in the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, but in every human being and in every word. John Milton made such a point in Paradise Lost when he suggested that language, like mankind, can be fallen.  And consider how Edmund, the villain of King Lear, who is perhaps the most evil character in Shakespeare, shares a first syllable with Edgar, one of the more decent characters in that tragedy. It is possible that the Bard and Milton read the Zohar, which was probably written in the Middle Ages, though the text itself asserts that it was written by a famous rabbi about 2,000 years ago.  It is also possible thaShakespeare and Milton intuited aspects of the Zohar’s Kabbalistic wisdom.  Either way, they were geniuses, who wrote canonical literature, to which Harold Bloom has referred when he has spoken of the sublime. Of course, there are those who foolishly go around touting themselves as geniuses. Just as good and evil have been around since the beginning of time, so have frauds. We can’t legislate away evil or hatred or fraudulence or lies. But we can vote this upcoming Tuesday for candidates, who do not disrupt the Sabbath, who do not deluge us with noise, who do not damage our body politic, and who do not taint our language. We might also spend more time reading the canon, secular as well as ecclesiastic.  That is the best way to gain wisdom.  If we don’t, we may be plagued with Korah and his minions, who could proliferate and destroy our planet. 

It goes without saying that these hatemongers have no place in The World To Come. Rather, they will end up in Gehinnom, a term in the Zohar that means the pit below or Hell. That Gehinnom sounds similar to Geonim, a word that refers to Jewish sages, strikes me as another sublime irony. There aren’t any geniuses, a possible and even more deliciously ironic cognate, down there in Gehinnom. No, Gehinnom is a place filled with hatemongers, angry, violent people, who disrupt the Sabbath, who fill our day of rest with noise and fear, who try to divide and conquer our country, and who damage the planet with chaos. 

Those hatemongers, like Korah and his disciples, certainly don’t read or write canonical literature, though they may read a few bullet points, especially ones that mention their name. Still, there is room even for hatemongers to change.  But that requires willpower, a fierce love. We all have it within us.  We just have to reflect deeply, to take time off so that we can decompress and atone. We all screw up.  We all succumb sometimes to temptation and hubris. That is why the Sabbath, not unlike the Day of Atonement, offers us a weekly opportunity to reflect, to rest, to commune with God, and to ask for forgiveness. Then it is up to us to honor God’s commandments. The future of the planet may depend on it. As the Zohar says in its Jethro section about the Book of Exodus: “he who bears false witness against his neighbor lies against the Sabbath — the witness of truth; and he who lies against the Sabbath lies against the whole Torah.” Kabbalistic scholars know that the Torah is often referred to as the Tree of Life, whose fruit, as the Zohar notes, “gives life to all.  It is everlasting.” As for the “other side,” those who lie, who bear false witness against a neighbor, who disrupt the Sabbath and the Torah, they have “no abode within” the Tree of Life. 

Shabbat Shalom! 

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