Transformation Through Self-Expression

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Sefirat Ha’omer, Part VII

By Shimona Tzukernik

The African image that most captured my imagination in school was the repeated theme of a body with a head at either end of the torso. It’s really a sculpture of a woman giving birth as the baby’s head emerges. In some ways, the two-headed torso is the exact opposite of the more Eastern image of a snake eating its tail. The latter prompts one to think about disappearing. The former is all about self-expression.

Whilst we all desire self-actualization and the ability or forum to express ourselves, on the whole we humans resist being the crowning infant. We want to be the top head, to come in first, have our name up in lights. Our sages advise us, “Better to be the tail of a lion than the head of a fox.” But seriously, how many people can you think of who pick up on that?

The “bottom end” of life is something we shun in our search for fame and importance. Our leaders position themselves as heads but are by far and wide the rattled ends not of a lion’s, but a fox’s tail. That aside, let’s not project. We needn’t look outward. We need just look at ourselves to find testimony to the predilection to take the lead no matter what, and at all costs. Whether in a personal relationship where we want to be the one dictating the rules, at work or at play, we’re consistently aiming to be the top head of the sculpture.

That’s sad. I don’t say it in a judgmental or abstractly philosophical way. I mean it for real. The orientation prevents us from becoming who we’re really meant to be. It also prevents us from fulfilling our true purpose in the word because, as we will see, it is precisely in the bottom head that our ultimate raison d’être and power lie.

The crowing head of an emerging infant epitomizes the last of the soul’s inner powers. In Hebrew, that ability of the soul is called Malchut which literally means “sovereignty.” It is the place that we first begin to reveal our inner selves to the world. Through giving expression to our self, we gain the opportunity to be a shining light. We can become leaders the moment we put ourselves out there. That’s why the sphere of Malchut is also associated with royalty and dignity. It connotes all the wonder that comes with the expression of our truest self.

Kabbalistically this soul power is associated with the bottom of the body, the very “crown” of the reproductive organs – the corona in the male and the labia in the female – and with the appearance of the head of the child.

In this light Malchut, or self-expression, embodies a contradiction. It is the lowest of the soul powers yet the birth point of an entirely new reality. This is only possible because its root is higher than any of the previous six core emotions or three minds. Its origin is the highest, most abstract dimension of the soul, our spiritual unconscious. That’s why the emergence of the baby’s head is called crowning. The top of its head breaking through the bottom of the mother’s body reflects her crown both in terms of the physical fontanel and so too the point where her consciousness is so high it ceases to function in the way we generally associate with regular awareness.

That’s the contradiction.

The newness that is born of self-expression is entirely dependent on what’s come before it. Self-expression brings us to the front door of why we’re here but cannot exist without all the other abilities that inform it. And although it manifests last, it precedes all the other abilities in terms of its spiritual source.

It is for this reason that our sages tell us that the soul power of royalty “has nothing of her own.” Like the moon who receives from the sun and illuminates the night, your ability to manifest in the world must first absorb the totality of who you. Only then can it shine outwards. Before you can be in the world in a powerful, dignified way, you’ll have to choose to open yourself to all of who you are, from the crown of your supra-conscious, through mindfulness and love and respect, all the way down to your ability to bond with another. You can reveal who you are to the world only by virtue of absorbing into yourself the other nine powers of your soul.

These nine powers need Malchut, self-expression, because they are essentially each only a part of a bigger whole. When you manage to communicate them to the world, you are synthesizing them and bringing them to actualization. In the process, you become whole and actualized because your true self is built from each of the previous abilities.

The soul powers associated with the left side of the tree of life – analysis, restraint or respect, and humility – flow downwards, guiding you to manifest and lead first and foremost on the basis of fear of heaven. In order to become the influencer and leader you are capable of being, you must first be open to receiving from the Supreme Leader, Gd. Only then, from a place of humility, is leadership of the sort that people will accept. Leadership that is built upon self-abnegation becomes powerful. It is by virtue of putting aside your ego and being willing to be the “bottom head” that your soul can ascend to its highest source.

Next comes the right axis of the tree – creative brainstorming or conceptualizing, love and ambition. They bring to self-actualization the expansive and embracing love that leadership needs in order to flourish. Without these embracing, inclusive and celebrating components, you cannot facilitate growth for others. So first comes awe, then love. When you are open to incorporating these qualities without an agenda as to “being first” or doing things one way or another then you become the kind of person others love to be around. You manifest as a leader with dignity who can inspire true renewal for others.

Finally comes the highest synthesis of all, that within the third and central column of the mystical map of the soul – the Tree of Life. It is an axis of which self-expression is itself a part. The abilities on this central branch are our supra-conscious, our ability to deeply internalize and intimately know things, our heart-empathic center and our ability to bond. Each of these needs the Malchut in order to become whole. And with the marriage of the upper and lower dimensions of your being, you are able to fully manifest who you are in potential.

It is a merging akin to that of man and woman. Just as a woman receives from her husband thereby giving birth to the child, so too your ability to convey who you are to the world now gives birth to a new reality. Think of turning the sculpture upside down. The infant becomes the crown of the mother, herself birthing a new child. Counter-intuitively, self-expression happens through putting one’s self aside. When you do that, you can give birth to a new reality both for your soul and for the world.

What you give birth to are what Kabbalah calls the “garments of the soul,” namely thought, speech and action. Now whereas we have relatively little control over our inner makeup, we have all the control in the world – and all the accountability – in mastering our “outsides.” Each of us is expected to mentally focus only on those concepts that Gd approves of. Our speech is required to be refined and holy. So too our actions.

You don’t choose to be born a person who is innately gifted in love or awe. You’re born expansive or contractive, more intellectually or emotionally inclined. Maybe you’re a rationalist or a mystic. These orientations are a result of our inner soul structure. That’s Gd given and each of us must utilize our gifts and attempt to minimize our weaknesses. But you don’t really get to choose whether to be that way or not. Yes, it’s possible to change your personality. But it’s highly improbable.

Where you do have the freedom of choice is in how you’re going to put that all out there in the world. At any given moment you can decide to think one thing or another. You can say a kind or cutting word. You can act from ego or non-ego. Thought, speech and action are called “garments” for precisely that reason. You can take them off or put them on at will. Here, in the arena of your soul garments, your “outsides,” get to exercise free choice.

This is what Malchut gives birth to – the core, the essence of why we’re here. It’s not really our inner being that’s the goal. We’re here to help Gd out and bring redemption. That’s done through refining the matter of the universe which is in turn accomplished through the commandments. We fulfill them through thought, speech and action. So it is in the garments of the soul and through self-expression that we accomplish our ultimate purpose.

We’re culturally trained to think otherwise: The “lowly commandments” are “petty details” that pale in comparison with being in the flow! But that’s just not true. Living a meaningful life is not so much about self-actualization as it is about helping Gd out, on His terms. Mistakenly, we focus on the glory of being on top, being spiritual and enlightened. We dismiss being empty, receiving, doing small acts of kindness that change the world bottom-up.

How mistaken.

It’s in the place we resist that we touch our purpose. Sure we want to be the first head and never the baby at the bottom. But right there, in the “lowest” dimension of the soul, we gain access to its highest point. More importantly, it’s through this “lowest” of soul powers that we get done what we’re here to do in the first place. Jews do not eschew the mundane. We celebrate matter and even – or rather particularly – the lowest dimensions of who we are.

I got to thinking about this some years back when one of my soul sisters celebrated her daughter’s bat mitzvah. She asked us to think about which woman in Jewish history we most admire and aspire to be like, or who had most influenced our course in life. I thought about it a lot.

As I mentally scanned the women of the Bible and Talmud, I felt humbled by how far away I am from what they embody. I was searching for the person who on the one hand stood for something beyond me but on the other was someone I could relate to in an empirical kind of way. I came to the party still undecided. As I sat at the table with all the beautiful women and their breathtaking daughters, all of us sharing our hopes and points of reference with ancient women who called to us across time, I was struck by how wondrous the “ordinary” is. How many women throughout thousands of years had sat as we were, sharing and trying to come closer to what Gd wants of us? I felt such an affinity with them. And in that moment, I felt that my personal aspiration was to be like Bilhah and Zilpah, the two half-sisters of Rachel and Leah, wives of Jacob.

These two women are also mothers of our people but not generally referred to as such. I was taken by the sense of how much they were willing to put aside an agenda, to simply receive. Thereby they became the mothers of six tribes. They are tribes that are hidden until the coming of Mashiach. I think those tribes are like their mothers, silent and non-egotistic, willing to wait and receive before giving birth to a new age.

Of course I want to be like Sarah and Esther and Miriam and Deborah and…the list goes on and on. It feels a little uncomfortable to admit it being that I’m so far from what they embody. But I’m certain that one of my biggest stumbling blocks is that I need to be more like Bilhah and Zilpah. I need to take in their lesson before I can approach something higher. The first step is to stop insisting on being at the forefront. I want to be willing to be the one given birth to. Then I’ll become a mother.

This is the intent of the words of King David. He tells us, “This is the gate to Gd, the righteous shall enter through it.”1 Self-expression is that gate. First comes the surrendering of ego, the willingness to simply receive, then comes the synthesizing of all the building blocks, and finally you get to cross the threshold of Gd’s gate.


1. Pslam 118:20

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Transformation Through Intimacy

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Sefirat Ha’omer, Part VI

By Shimona Tzukernik

Stereotypically, men are often described as physical beings detached from heart and soul. Maybe that’s born of the fact that while they certainly have intense feelings and emotions, when it comes to intimacy, men seem to be able to separate their bodily desires from their minds and hearts. And yet, contrary to popular belief, men have an intense connection between body, brain and spirit. So intense, actually, that they cannot be separated.

To understand how this is so, we need to explore the two polarities of the body: head and sacrum, specifically examining what the brain and seminal fluid have in common.

They’re not unique in that they have a connection. All organs of the body contain aspects of each other. That’s where the art of healing known as iridology comes from. The same applies to phrenology, blood letting, reflexology and the like. The body is like a hologram in that each part contains aspects of the other. Whichever angle you come at it from, you see the whole.

The brain is unique though with regard to its manner of connection to the body. Contrast it with the heart for example.

The first difference is that the heart has an on-off mode in the way it links to the body. The pulse starts and stops. One moment the heart reaches out, engaging with the body, and the next it withdraws. The brain on the other hand is continuously linked to the body through the nervous system. Here there is no stop-start dynamic, only continuous influence.

A second difference between them has to do with not just blood or neuro-impulses but with the organs themselves. Blood from the heart does move through every organ and cell. But then it moves on. In other words, it’s not the heart itself that is bound with the body. Furthermore, even the blood that makes the link keeps on moving. The brain on the other hand is at all times bound up with every cell in the body. That’s not just because of the way the nervous system works but rather as a result of the fact that the brain actually contains the body within it. The left heel, the right eye, the liver, spleen and so on exist within the brain itself.

That’s why people can feel a limb that’s been amputated. The source of that very limb within the brain becomes stimulated by some other adjacent brain activity and the individual is left with the physical sensation of having felt the limb. In reality, he’s feeling the limb-within-the-brain. Similarly, deep stimulation of the brain with electrodes can elicit memory, joy and laughter, or can slow down speech for example. In a sense, the totality of who we are – our hearts, memories, mouths, feet etcetera – is located within the brain.

No other organ in the body is like that. Except for semen that is. As the nucleus for procreation, it is encoded with all the bytes of info that allow for it to manifest as any part of the body from bone marrow to lashy brows.

So the top and bottom of the body are intimately connected. The brain atop the spine is the center of consciousness, of our ability to know G‑d and the seat of our spirituality. The base of the spine is the seat of the reproductive organs and human sexuality. Now whereas we might think that just as they are two opposite ends of the body so too are they diametrically opposed, we’d be wrong. They’re not. The base of the spine is called the sacrum – from the word sacred. It is a reservoir of spirituality. And conversely, the most fundamental organ in the body is the brain because if you’re shut down there, the rest of you will shut down too. That’s why our sages say that a child is conceived from the brain. Sacrum and brain form one continuum.

What can we learn about how to live life from all this? How is our spiritual identity and life’s mission reflected in our physiology? What can we learn about the inner workings of sexuality from the way we’re made?

The sixth of the emotional powers of the soul is called Yesod in Hebrew. Literally it means “foundation” and is often translated as bonding. It’s your ability to connect with others and the world. Just as the foundation of a building is an extension of the edifice plunging deep into the earth and enabling the building to stand, so too your faculty of bonding enables you to connect deeply with others. Sometimes you facilitate a connection by being like the metal underpinning going deep down into the ground. At others you’re like the earth itself, making space for another. Either way, you’re activating your soul’s ability to connect.1

Each of us is born with the faculty of Bonding intact. Each of us then is driven by a need for connection. We deeply want to engage with others, allow them to become part of our lives, and enter into their world in a boundaried way that enriches us all.

Bonding in and of itself is a powerful drive. However of all the relationships we pursue, probably the most powerful drive for connection is manifest in male-female relationships and human sexuality. Its power leaves other longings in the dust. What drives the desire for finding a mate and physical connection? And how does that connect back to our discussion about the physical makeup of the human being as reflecting something of our spiritual quest and purpose?

One theory of what drives us to find a partner and enter a love relationship is that the need for marriage, love, romance is all a façade. It goes something like this: Procreation lies at the heart of the survival of a species. That makes it a really powerful drive.

As humans became more sophisticated, they felt a little awkward being compelled by such strong urges. And so they invented romance, state the theoreticians! Humans came up with all the emotional connotations of “being in a relationship” – the flowers and dinners, walks in the park and gazing lovingly into one another’s eyes to maintain a sense of dignity in the face of their desire. Saying, “My passion is an outgrowth of my love,” feels more comfortable to our sophisticated notions of who we think we are. Much better than say, “My love is a by-product of lust!”

The sages would beg to differ. The compelling desire to find a partner, marry, love and be loved, bear children and build a life together, they say, is rooted in the yearning to rediscover our original Divine image. They explain that Adam and Eve were, in the primordial garden, one being with two faces back to back. They were then split into two. The split created a spiritual and psychic longing for wholeness. Ever since, male and female seek each other out physically, emotionally and spiritually in an attempt to re-attain their original unity.

Once we come together though, it is of an even higher order than the singular person with two faces that was the original Adam and Eve. Genesis gives us a hint as to the profound outcome of marriage in the verse, “Therefore a man must leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife. They shall become one flesh.” One opinion as to the meaning of the verse is that the “one flesh” refers to the child who derives from both parents.

A more mystical interpretation states that the “one flesh” is the couple united at the time of intimacy. It is precisely at that moment that we get to see what a human being looks like. Anything else, a man or woman talking over coffee at the breakfast table, say, is merely half a person.

Marital intimacy then brings us together in a manner that is even deeper than the primordial Adam and Eve. No longer one being with two heads back-to-back, nor two lonely people, at the moment of marital union we are two distinct beings come together as one. This is how Genesis takes the theorists to task. It lays out the underpinnings of romance, marriage, love beckoning us to embrace the spiritual and psychic implications of intimacy.

Our sages teach us that our desire to attain wholeness with a partner is part of a much larger desire to become one with our Creator and to re-attain our original Divine image. That’s why it’s so strong. Forget the creation of “relationship” as a means to uphold our dignity in the face of uncontrollable urges! This yearning we’re taught lies at the heart of existence. We’re here to bring male and female back together again – at every level of creation, from one man and one woman to our connection between us and our Creator, which is also seen as a masculine and feminine dynamic.

With this in mind, we can understand why people are so lonely in love. We can grasp why the world is so out of balance when it comes to sexuality. What we’re all really looking for is intimacy. We want bonding in the deepest way and a discovery of our truest self through unity with another. What we’re giving and getting are physical hookups, slick motions, quick fixes but nothing close to the psychological and spiritual underpinnings of our desires.

Contemporary culture is hooked on sexuality but knows almost nothing of intimacy. The former has to do with the body, the act alone. The latter is personal and also spiritual. Of course it’s physical and passionate too but the passion and pleasure are even more gratifying because they fit within the broader, deeper dimension of soul. The latter kind of love bears testimony to why we’re here at all. It speaks of our yearning for bonding, intimacy and a revelation of the true nature of things.

When two people are truly intimate, the rest of their relationship reflects that. And vice versa. If the act is just physical, focused on bodily gratification, the pleasure is short-lived. It doesn’t penetrate where we want to be touched. Furthermore, if there is alienation of spirit at night, it will be present in the morning. Conversely, a deep and loving connection feeds the soul. It also resonates throughout the following day, generating a different and deep intimacy with it.

This idea that what happens in the bedroom is reflected in the remainder of our daily life is to be found in the teachings of our sages.

The most intimate space in the Temple was the Holy of Holies. It housed an ark that in turn housed the tablets given to Moses on Mount Sinai. Atop the ark were golden cherubs in the shape of two angels with large wings. One was male, the other female.

The relationship between these two cherubs precisely reflected what was happening between G‑d and the Jewish people at any given moment. When things were good between us, they faced each other reaching out to one another in a winged embrace. If things weren’t so hunky-dory then the two would be back-to-back. What we see is that whatever was happening on the Temple Mount, in the backstreets of Jerusalem, in a field of Jericho, a courtroom in Akko, a Jew’s heart or anywhere in between, was reflected in the innermost sanctum of the Temple. If a Jew lied under oath, another cheated on her friend, a husband and wife argued over dinner, a teen felt hurt and misunderstood – whatever the circumstance of back-to-back relating was – then our connection with G‑d was compromised. In turn, the angels over the ark turned away from each other.

Conversely, when there was love and connection, bonding and intimacy, the angels turned to each other in face-to-face embrace. Loving intimacy, acts of charity, doing a favor to another – all these generated unity amongst individuals, within groups, and ultimately between us and G‑d.

To come back to our topic at hand, this same dynamic is reflected in our personal temple, the home. What happens during the day will affect the way husband and wife connect at night. And the way they bond at night will have a bearing on what’s going on, or more importantly how it’s going on, the next day. When there is merely a sexual act and the other’s soul and heart are not met, the morning-after will reflect that. Where there is true intimacy, real bonding will happen by day. And when that kind of holy, healthy interaction is routine by day, intimacy is possible by night.

Counter-intuitively, intimacy is not merely “tolerated” in Jewish thought. Quite the contrary, it’s mandated and encouraged. That’s because intimacy according to Torah is never an end in itself. It must always be part of a larger whole. That bigger picture is about people becoming whole. It’s about G‑d’s unity becoming manifest. Our sexuality is bound up with the deepest underpinnings of existence. It’s connected with our yearning for G‑d and G‑d’s desire for unity.

We see this reflected in our physiological makeup. Although brain and sacrum seem so far apart, spirituality and sexuality are deeply intertwined. I think that’s why there’s so much sexual abuse in cults. There spirituality is present but it’s not holy. It’s out of control. That affects everything and the sexual abuse follows as a natural consequence. It also explains why the ill of pornography abounds. Today, people are out of touch with healthy spirituality. It’s not like a cult situation where the soul dimension of life is misdirected and impure; rather, here’s a situation where there’s no attention to soul at all! The consequence is a cutting off of the natural healthy flow between soul and sex, brain and sacrum.

The fact that both the brain and serum contain every organ in the body, and the fact that they are the only two aspects of the body to do so, bears testimony to the profound connection between our highest and lowest dimensions. We serve G‑d with all of who we are. Both our brains – our consciousness and Torah learning, and our intimate lives – our passion and bonding, must bring out into the world the awareness that G‑d is the only True Existence. Everything we are and are about is encapsulated in those two arenas of our lives. Just as they contain within themselves the rest of the body, so too do the mind and sacrum encapsulate the why’s and what’s and how’s of the rest of our lives. They point out that our purpose is to rise above the limits of creation and reveal the oneness of G‑d in all the world.


1. Bonding is on the same line of the mystical Tree of Life as Knowledge and Harmony. We said in an earlier article that in the sphere of Knowledge we become one with an idea. In Harmony, we’re doing in the heart what Knowledge does in the mind. Now with Bonding, we duplicate that dynamic of connecting but this time in the interpersonal arena.

In these connections, we’re looking for intimacy of some sort. As we have discussed in previous articles in this series, that requires vulnerability, a putting aside of the ego: To know something intimately means to let go of your own way of knowing the world and look at it from every angle. You want to understand the thing as it is – not as you will it to be. To love intimately means the same thing. If you don’t get your ego out of the way, someone else is not going to risk opening their heart to you. They don’t trust you because the ego makes playthings of other’s most intimate lives. Similarly with Bonding, in order to be really intimate you can have no agenda. A vision for something? Yes. Agenda? No!

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