aleph symbol with title UNSONG

Interlude ו: There’s A Hole In My Bucket

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
— Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”

“There’s A Hole In My Bucket”, by Aaron Smith-Teller
Submitted for the June 2017 issue of the
Stevensite Standard

You’ve probably heard the old children’s song. “There’s a hole in my bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza.” A child named Henry asks his friend Liza for help with a hole in his bucket. Liza tells him to mend it with straw, but Henry needs – successively – a knife to cut the straw, a stone to sharpen the knife, water to wet the stone, and a bucket to get the water. He ends up in the same place he started – there is a hole in his bucket and he doesn’t know what to do. All of this has obvious kabbalistic implications.

Looking up “Liza” we find it derives from Hebrew Elisheba, a complicated name I have seen translated as “God is an oath”, “God is satisfaction”, “God is wrath” or – if you take it entirely literally – “God is seven”. Okay. Let’s put that one on hold for now.

Looking up “Henry” we find that it is the written form of the name spoken as “Harry”. Why write a name differently than it’s spoken? In Hebrew there is a tradition of writing the Names one way and speaking them differently – thus A—-i becomes “HaShem”. A few months ago, I jokingly told a friend that the Explicit Name was “Harold”, based on the prayer “Our Father in Heaven, Harold be thy name”. If Harold is indeed a divine Name, it makes sense that it should be written differently than it is spoken.

So the word in the nursery rhyme should be read as “Harry”, which is an unmistakable refence to the most famous kabbalist of all time: Rabbi Isaac Luria, better known by his Hebrew nickname Ha’Ari. Ha’Ari dedicated his life to the same question that consumes so many of us: why would a perfectly good God create a universe filled with so much that is evil?

Malachi 3 describes God as “like a refiner’s fire”, but only because the ancient Hebrews didn’t know the word “H-bomb”. God is infinite energy, uncontrollable power, likely to scorch and burn anything He touches. If God even touched the Universe for a second with His little finger, it would shatter like a dropped egg. So how does God create the universe? How does He sustain it?

Ha’Ari proposes a system that my 21st century mind can’t help but compare to electrical transformers. If electricity went straight from a nuclear plant to the light bulb in your house, your light bulb would blow up. Instead, the electricity goes from the plant to a huge transformer that can handle it and make it a little less powerful, then from there to a smaller transformer that can handle that level of power and make it a little less powerful in turn, and so on to your lightbulb. God’s power, then, passed through the ten sephirot as “transformers” that converted it to a voltage capable of affecting the world.

Since Luria didn’t have that metaphor, he talked about “vessels” instead. Think of those artsy fountains where the water falls into one pot, fills it up, then overflows into another pot lower down, then into another even lower pot, and so on until it reaches the bottom. Luria imagined ten vessels, gently transferring the water from God all the way down the world, making the divine energy more finite at each level until finally it reached us.

That was the plan, anyway. The first pot worked as intended. The second and third also worked as intended. The fourth was just a little too weak, couldn’t handle the sheer nuclear blast of divinity, and exploded. That meant the full power of the third pot flowed down into the fifth pot, so the fifth also exploded, and so on all the way down to the last pot, which was at least as much “the bottom of the fountain” as a pot in itself and so didn’t explode. It just cracked open a little bit.

That last cracked pot was the material world, the universe we live in. It’s filled with the shards of the six broken sephirot above it, not to mention chunks of itself pried loose in the blast. Seven pots worth of debris. And remember, these pots were designed to control divine power, so they’re made of special God-resistant material; separated from their purpose they become the klipot, powers opposed to God. We’ve got all of this high-voltage divine energy flowing into us that we’re not supposed to be able to bear, shooting off huge streams of sparks in every direction, but it’s all so choked up with God-resistant klipot that we’re missing most of it. On the human level, all of this chaos and unfiltered light and god-resistant shards and brokenness manifests as disorder. The reason evil exists is that we’re living in the middle of a pot with a crack in it.

There’s a hole in my bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza. There’s a hole in my bucket, dear Liza, a hole.

Now everything starts to come together. Harry (= Ha’Ari) bemoans the shattered nature of the universe to Liza (= “my god is seven” = the seven shattered sephirot down in our vessel with us, the only form of God accessible in our finite world).

With what shall I fix it, dear Liza, dear Liza? With what shall I fix it, dear Liza, with what?

In theory, we ought to be able to swim around the bottom of the fountain, hunt for the debris, and build it back into functional God-deflectors. Then we need to take the sparks of divine light and use them as an energy source to power the deflectors, and finally arrange the whole system in exactly such a way as to correctly channel the power of God at a human-bearable level. In practice we are sex-obsessed murder-monkeys and all of this is way above our pay grade. The debris and sparks are stuck in the spiritual world and we probably can’t even find them, let alone start building complicated metaphysical machinery with them. So Henry/Ha’Ari asks Liza/God for help: with what can we effect tikkun, the rectification of the world?

And Liza replies: “With straw, dear Henry.”

Straw is a kind of hay. Hay is the Monogrammaton, the shortest Name of God. The universe can only be made whole through divine intervention.

But the straw is too long; even the shortest Name of God is too big to fit. Any dose of God would burn the universe to ashes; that’s how this whole problem started. With what shall I cut it, dear Liza, dear Liza? How can God be channeled and applied to the universe safely?

And Liza replies: “With a knife, dear Henry.”

Knife in Biblical Hebrew is “zayin”. Zayin is also the seventh letter of the Hebrew alphabet, represented by a pictograph of a knife or sword. But on Torah scrolls the scribes add a little crown to the hilt, which has led to a whole host of alternative interpretations. Some say it represents a king, some a scepter, and some a comet – this last being aided by a Hebrew pun in which “scepter” and “comet” are the same word. All of these meanings come together in the Star Prophecy of Numbers 24:17 – “I behold him, though not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and scepter/comet out of Israel”. The prophecy goes on to explain that this will be a great ruler who conquers all of Israel’s enemies – neatly tying together the themes of king, scepter, comet, and sword.

So how to cut the straw and make divine intervention a viable option? It’s going to have to wait for the Messiah.

But the knife is too dull. Tradition says that every generation contains one person worthy to be the Messiah, if the time is right. But it never is, because tradition also says the Messiah can only come once we deserve him. The rabbis’ descriptions of what exactly we have to do to deserve him end up sounding a little passive-aggressive. The Talmud says that if the Jews ever repented even a single day, the Messiah would come immediately. But the Talmud is kind of crazy, and the more general lesson seems to be that the Messiah will not be permitted to come until people deserve him. Until then, the knife is too dull.

And this is what Liza tells Harry. The knife can only be sharpened by a rock, and the rock can only be activated by water. This calls to mind a very similar episode in the Bible. God tells Moses to ask a rock for water. Instead, Moses strikes the rock. This works, in the sense that the rock produces water, but God becomes enraged and says that He’s so sick of Moses and his rock-striking ways that He will make the Israelites wander back and forth in the desert until the current generation dies off. Only their descendants will be allowed into the Promised Land.

So getting water from a rock represents following God’s commandments and the moral law. As long as everybody is perfectly good, it will initiate the coming of the Messiah who can channel the power of God and fix the universe.

There’s only one problem: everybody is not going to be perfectly good. Because the world sucks. This was the whole point of this chain of inquiry. We want the world to be good, so we need divine intervention, so we need the Messiah, who will only come if the world is good. That…doesn’t help at all.

And poor Henry has much the same problem. He goes through this whole rigamarole – asking how to cut the straw, asking how to sharpen the knife, asking how to wet the stone, asking how to carry the water – only for Liza to tell him he should carry the water with his bucket. And so back to the beginning: “But there’s a hole in my bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza, there’s a hole in my bucket, dear Liza, a hole.”

Since Ha’Ari’s time we’ve learned some disquieting new information. We learned that a sufficiently intelligent archangel could rearrange certain things entirely on his own and create a system very different from the one in the design specs. We learned that launching a space capsule high enough could break one of the previously intact parts of the last pot and increase the flow of untransformed divine light to almost unbearable levels, sparks shooting off in every direction. We learned that Uriel, the only entity keeping any of this even slightly functional, has some serious issues of his own and does not entirely inspire confidence. And worst of all, we learned that the god-resistant debris – the klipot – manifests as an intelligent demonic force and has its own plans for what to do with the scattered remnants of the transformer system.

If the Messiah were ever going to come, now would be a good time. We thought he came forty years ago, in Colorado, but apparently we were unworthy. And we hardly seem to be getting worthier. My friend Ana informs me of a way around the paradox: some texts say the Messiah will come either in the most righteous generation or in the most wicked. Granting that we’ve kind of dropped the ball on the “most righteous” possibility, I think the wickedness option really plays to our strengths.

Still other texts say the Messiah will come in a generation that is both the most righteous and the most wicked. I don’t even know what to think of that one.

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124 Responses to Interlude ו: There’s A Hole In My Bucket

  1. Daniel Blank says:

    So now we know what Thamiel is, and possible hints that the Comet King is either the Messiah, or the “one worthy person” of his generation (unless the whole Comet-scepter-king-sword thing is a coincidence, but then again…)

  2. Sgeo says:

    This seems to be missing from the Table of Contents as of when I post this.

  3. 75th says:

    Sarah is the Messiah. We deserve her because we are smart enough to have the technology to create her and stupid enough to actually do it.

  4. Error says:

    In practice we are sex-obsessed murder-monkeys and all of this is way above our pay grade.

    I love this line. My brain is now going to change all the matching lines over on Minding Our Way to “sex-obsessed murder-monkeys” just to see how funny it becomes.

    “We’re not gods. We’re still sex-obsessed murder-monkeys.”

    “Don’t berate the sex-obsessed murder-monkey. Help it, whenever you can.”

    “The sex-obsessed murder-monkey doesn’t know exactly how to get what it wants yet.”

    “Look at them and see the fragile sex-obsessed murder-monkey trying to build a satisfactory life.”

    I am laughing way too hard at these.

  5. The Coment King says:

    So either the guy from the last interlude wasn’t the Comet King, or the “came thirty years ago, in Colorado” bit is confusing.

    Also, “Comet” and “Scepter” in Hebrew are actually a letter apart (שרביט vs שביט). Possible explanation: The letter of difference is ר, which in english is R. R is commonly used in mathematics to represent the “Reals”, so ר represents reality: the difference between Comet and Scepter is that a Specter is real, while a Comet can be seen in the sky but not reached, because it lacks that reality.
    Alternatively, comets may not be real because they’re beyond the celestial sphere and are thus only illusions.

    • Really? Bible Hub on the Star Prophecy verse translates scepter as שֵׁ֙בֶט֙ . And Google translate translates “comet” as שָׁבִיט. I don’t see a resh in either of them.

      And in the Bible translations themselves, most translate the verse with scepter, but Good News Translation uses comet.

      • Scott Elliot says:

        שבט means “staff” more generally. שרביט means “scepter” and is only used in context of royalty.

        • The Coment King says:

          Oh right. Though I’ve only ever seen it used that way as part of the phrase “חסך שבטו” (spared the rod).

        • Ram says:

          That’s obvious, when you think about it. What’s the difference between a regular staff and a scepter? Royalty, that’s what. A scepter is royal or, as the Spanish would say, real. Just add ר.

          • Mark says:

            Linguistically no, because hebrew is not at all related to spanish, except that it is made by a human brain, which does not link r and royalty.

          • GreatWyrmGold says:

            @Mark: To the untrained eye, it looks like a coincidence. If you’ve been reading the story this far, you should be able to fill in the blanks.

      • The Coment King says:

        In the other places in the bible where “sceptre” appears (e.g. the sceptre of Ahasuerus), they write it שרביט with a resh. According to wikipedia the origin of the word is “sar+shevet”, or “lord+tribe”. (I thought the added resh might have been a modern adjustment, but it goes back at least to Deuteronomy).

        In the star prophecy verse the original is “shevet”, so it seems like the translation should actually be “and a tribe shall rise out of Israel”. So either the original translation made a mistake that everyone followed, or this is one of those weird biblical missing-letter things.

        • Nadav says:

          “Shevet” means both tribe and staff (rod). And possibly also council (advice). The tribe is the biblical unit of social membership. Its leader is the essential Leader. He leads with his staff like a shepherd. He leads with good advice, but also force and threats (the rod, as per “carrot and stick”). And he also depends on his tribe, leaning on them like a walking stick. Incidentally, a more commonly used hebrew word for walking stick or staff is “mat’e”, which also means tribe or staff (of office/council (group of advisors)). The tribe-stick-advisors is a three-way underlying semantic metaphore which appears both in hebrew and english.

      • Deiseach says:

        Eh. The Good News Translation was the one we used in school for Christian Doctrine classes and I always thought it was crappy. If it comes down to it, I’m sticking with tradition and “sceptre”.

        • Deiseach says:

          And yes, looking it up on Wikipedia, “In the 1960s, Nida envisioned a new style of translation called Dynamic equivalence. That is, the meaning of the Hebrew and Greek would be expressed in a translation “thought for thought” rather than “word for word”.”

          So the guy doing the translation obviously thought “star and sceptre? Two different things, not related! Makes more sense to be thematically consistent and stick to cosmological imagery in both halves of the sentence, so I’ll just change that to ‘comet’.”

          Knowing better than God what God meant, right? 🙂

      • Daniel Armak says:

        I don’t know why they translate it that way, but it seems *obviously* a mistake. The original Hebrew is:

        דָּרַךְ כּוֹכָב מִיַּעֲקֹב, וְקָם שֵׁבֶט מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל

        In context, שֵׁבֶט מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל is *obviously* “a tribe [out] of Israel” and has nothing to do with sceptres.

        • Deiseach says:

          On the other hand, this site translates it as:

          17.I see it, but not now; I behold it, but not soon. A star has gone forth from Jacob, and a staff will arise from Israel which will crush the princes of Moab and uproot all the sons of Seth.

          And this site goes for:

          אֶרְאֶנּוּ וְלֹא עַתָּה אֲשׁוּרֶנּוּ וְלֹא קָרוֹב דָּרַךְ כּוֹכָב מִיַּעֲקֹב וְקָם שֵׁבֶט מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל וּמָחַץ פַּאֲתֵי מוֹאָב וְקַרְקַר כָּל בְּנֵי שֵׁת

          I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; a star will come forth from Jacob, and a scepter will rise from Israel. He will smite the corners of Moab and break down all the sons of Seth.

          The interpretation seems to be going for a reference to a particular individual (the king and ruler) and not a general “tribe” as in “bunch of people”. There’s plainly some kind of reason behind it, if we can get any Bible or Torah exegetes to explain it to us!

          I think the reason may be tying together “Jacob” and “Israel”; the latter is the name given to Jacob after he wrestled with the angel, so it is a single ancestral forebear that is conjoined with the star and the sceptre/staff/tribe. If “Israel” is meant as a person and not “the nation of the tribes descended from the patriarch Jacob-named-Israel”, then tying together “star” and “sceptre” as one person (rather than “star” and “tribe”) unites in the person of that descendant of Jacob-Israel both the religious and secular authority (to rule with the sceptre, to guide under the Law with the star) – the Messiah.

          Besides, picking out one tribe in particular from the Twelve Tribes descended from Jacob the Patriarch would be very contentious – which tribe and who gets to say that they are the ones destined to rule over the rest of the Jewish people? 🙂

          • dsotm says:

            “which tribe and who gets to say that they are the ones destined to rule over the rest of the Jewish people?”

            Well that one was sorta settled after the fall of the Israelite kingdom and Assyrian exile

          • Aegeus says:

            My copy of Etz Hayim, disappointingly, had nothing to say about whether “staff” or “tribe” was the better translation. It did mention that Simeon bar Kosiba, who rebelled against the Romans, was given the name “Bar Kochba” (son of a star) by Rabbi Akiva, who believed him to be the “star” of this verse. His revolt failed, though. Parallels with the Comet King, perhaps?

            As for who gets to pick which tribe is the ruler? Well, Jacob himself has something to say about that one! Genesis 49:10 – “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet.” And indeed, King David and his line are descended from Judah.

    • Fj says:

      Someone in the comments to that chapter pointed out that it was dated 6/16, and giveaways don’t come much deader than
      that, I think.

    • Sniffnoy says:

      Well, it was hardly conclusive that he was the Comet King. A number of people were suggesting he was Thamiel…

  6. Kiya says:

    The sephirot were created by God. They… evolved… into klipot. They rebelled. There are seven known former sephirot that are each broken into many shards. And they have a plan!

    Also there are, um, four archangels cool enough to associate with cardinal directions in ritual magic, and one Comet King?

  7. J says:

    That’s not to even mention the Torah, which goes on at length about cooking vessels and their worthiness. And vessels are metaphors for people, and the water for divine spirit. Once a clay vessel is unclean, it must be dashed to pieces.

  8. ton says:

    >God tells Moses to ask a rock for water. Instead, Moses strikes the rock. This works, in the sense that the rock produces water, but God becomes enraged and says that He’s so sick of Moses and his rock-striking ways that He will make the Israelites wander back and forth in the desert until the current generation dies off. Only their descendants will be allowed into the Promised Land.

    Not quite. He only punished Moses, the Israelites died off because of other stuff, like spying. The rock story was decades after the Israelites died out.

    See and (note that it happened after Miriam’s death).

    • Joseph says:

      Yeah. The rock debacle led to him not being admitted to Israel, but everyone else does off because they screwed the pooch when they didn’t want to listen to Caleb and Joshua and go directly to Israel.

  9. So… This interlude is literally a crackpot speculation?

    Will the next one be about the kabbalistic signficance of “A Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall”? Will it be followed by a discussion of “The Song That Never Ends”?

  10. ShareDVI says:

    But Thamiel is a klipot of Keter, which is the first, unbroken Sephitot. Huh.

    (Disclaimer: my knowledge of this stuff is limited by this story and The Games We Play, so I might be wrong)

    • Murphy says:

      Every time I read “Keter” in relation to this story I can only think of the SCP version:

      “The designation “Keter” is assigned to subjects that both (a) display vigorous, active hostility to human life, civilization, and/or spacetime, and (b) are capable of causing significant destruction in the event of a containment breach. Such subjects must be cataloged, contained according to special containment procedures, and destroyed, if possible.”

    • Psycicle says:

      Yeah. I think that’s an indicator that all this is a big red herring.

  11. SamK says:

    This theology is the sort of stuff middle-school me, atheist-by-default but finally giving it some thought, wanted to know about. At some instinctual level it just feels like everything should work this way.

  12. Elizabeth says:

    Thank you, Scott, you have fixed my irritation with this song (being sung at me when I tell people my name)(SURPRISINGLY OFTEN).

  13. Leo says:

    Happy Purim!

  14. That Leonard Cohen song is on of my favorites, that line is super-applicable to Unsong, and I’m very happy it was quoted.

    • dsotm says:

      Also – If Unsong is ever made into a musical I fully expect Thamiel to perform a particularly demonic rendition of ‘The future’

      • Deiseach says:

        Oh YES!

        Your servant here, he has been told
        to say it clear, to say it cold:
        It’s over, it ain’t going
        any further
        And now the wheels of heaven stop
        you feel the devil’s riding crop
        Get ready for the future:
        it is murder

  15. Deiseach says:

    Straw is a kind of hay

    NO, NO, NO, NO, NO.

    • Deiseach says:

      Argh. Posted that too early.

      What I meant was, Aaron may be the divil an’ all for brains when it comes to kabbalah, but he knows nothing about fodder.

      Straw and hay are different (as in the old joke about the army sergeant trying to teach country recruits to march. Since they weren’t able to tell their right foot from their left, teaching them “Left, right, left, right, left!” wasn’t working. So he got them to tie a wisp of hay to one foot, and a sop of straw to the other, and then he was able to get them all to march by saying “Hay foot, straw foot, hay foot, straw foot!”)

      Straw is the dry stalks of cereal plants left after the grain has been thrashed out. You can feed it to animals, but it serves the same purpose as fibre in a human diet: as roughage, not as something to live on.

      Hay is dried grasses (or legumes, like alfalfa). It is fodder (that is, food) for animals. Though nowadays, farmers have gone to silage rather than hay as stored animal feed.

      So Aaron’s exegesis drops stone dead at that point where he goes “Straw is a kind of hay”. In the same fashion as a hat is a kind of a bucket, dear Aaron (ten-gallon hats, anyone?)

      Anyway, where does Harry Krishna fit into all this? 🙂 (I can’t believe an inveterate punster like Aaron never even mentioned that one).

      • Decius says:

        Is the dried stalk of cereal plants not dried grass?

        • Deiseach says:

          While cereal grasses are indeed included in the family of grasses, the difference between the stalks of (say) wheat straw and the stalks of grass hay are distinguishable. It’s a bit “you’ll know it when you see it” kind of thing, and as hay dries out it gets lighter in colour so it looks like straw, but it’s a question of texture and dryness and stalk width and a bundle of other things.

          Hay is first and foremost fodder (though it can be used for bedding) and straw is more bedding (though it can be added to an animal’s diet for roughage).

          I wouldn’t quite say that “straw is a kind of hay”, this is definitely Aaron as a townsperson and more importantly as someone pushing a kabbalistic point saying “difference, what difference, cabbage is a kind of parcel wrapping*” 🙂

          *Yes, there are recipes for “cabbage parcels” but generally when you’re talking about a parcel, you mean “brown paper and string” not “leaves of a Brassica”.

          • Deiseach says:

            I mean, that’s why Henry is using straw instead of hay to patch the hole in his bucket – straw is tougher. You can make ropes out of it (sugán ropes), though he could have used hay as well, if that was all he had and he twisted it tightly enough 🙂

  16. Dirdle says:

    I believe the generation that is both most righteous and most wicked are, or were, skateboarders.

  17. Aharon says:

    So, what do we make of the fact that in the German original of the song, Liza’s and Harry’s roles were reversed, with Liza asking the questions and Harry giving the answers?

    • Aegeus says:

      It works both ways. One way, Ha’Ari is asking why is there evil in the world, and Elisheba is answering “God is in seven pieces.” In the other, Elisheba is asking “What are these seven pieces doing here?” and Ha’Ari answers “Because the universe is laid out in these vessels and the vessels broke.”

      And if you think about it, it makes more sense for Ha’Ari to be the one giving the answers, since he’s the rabbi in this dialogue.

      This isn’t the first time Aaron has found correspondences that only work in English. But if you work hard enough, you can find similar correspondences in every language, since it’s all based on Adam Kadmon.

    • Hiernoymus Evans-Verres says:

      Also, its “Oh – Henry and “Karl-Otto”, not Dear-Liza and (just?) Henry.

  18. I fixed the hole with ductape says:

    About a weeke ago, after I had just finished reading interlude ה, I was hanging out with a couple friends when one started singing “there’s a hole in my bucket” to annoy an other friend that can’t stand the song. You know what, this ones probably a coincidence.

  19. Quixote says:

    Fun stuff. It was good to see the very Aaron bit mentioned in the last chapter.

  20. El Duderino if you're not into the whole brevity thing says:

    king, scepter, comet, and sword

    Well swords translates directly, scepters is an alternative name for wands, comet could be pentacles or XVII Star, and king is a face. So presume the comet king is the king of pentacles, and hence we have all four suits since buckets are obviously stand-ins for cups.

    So we have seven of cups from the seven broken buckets of the half-assed Rube Goldberg machine we call existence, and three kings of swords, scepters, and pentacles.
    The Kabbalistic meaning is quite clear: the “comet king” was perfectly suited (hehe) to three of the four aspects of Time Cube, but he was still insufficiently pious, and thus bound by the broken cups of the lower sephirot.
    More expansively, the moral fibre of the world has yet to catch up with its myriad material, logical, and creative advancements; what’s worse than a sex-obsessed murder-monkey?
    A sex-obsessed murder-monkey with the means, cunning, and imagination to take its murder and sex activities to new heights without the soul necessary pour some water on the rape-parade.

    • Deiseach says:

      Or you could look at it this way: swords, wands (scepters/staves), pentacles (comet) but not cups. So we have three out of four suits represented, but the missing suit – cups – is the suit of emotions, connections, relationships, and love.

      Which is why we’re sex-obsessed murder-monkeys: we lack a fundamental element that would otherwise have mediated between intellect (swords), material desires and appetites (pentacles) and energy/ambition (wands).

      The King of Pentacles (the Comet King) is great for enterprises, for running things, for material success and prosperity – but he’s earth-bound, clogged by appetite, prone to sink into mere materialism, greed, miserliness, to the neglect of the spiritual and higher aspects of life. And so the Comet King indeed blazed like a comet across the skies – successful at first but ultimately failing at reuniting the higher and the lower by repairing what is broken. A King indeed, but not a Pontifex and so perhaps the Sceptre out of Israel but not the Star out of Jacob.


    • 27chaos says:

      Obligatory mention of possible phallic imagery from this sex obsessed murder monkey.

      Sex obsessed murder monkeys is a good band name, also.

  21. HR says:

    I wonder how many times since you’ve started this story you have been doing your daily activities and couldn’t resist playing with the kabalistic meanings of them… I wonder how often that has become… Some people say writing stories has a funny way of messing with your head. I reckon you already know that from your five thousand years on an alternative world.

  22. Jack V says:

    Oh! So THAT’S what the fuck is going on. Even as a tangled metaphor, that makes surprisingly much sense.

    Thank you for more metaphysics!

  23. The Tzelem- הצֶ֫לֶם says:

    Who would have known that fluency in Hebrew, and a college Kabbalah course would pay off. Thank you Scott, for this Jewish Kabbalistic inspired fiction! Truly enjoying it so far! I would also like to add that I wrote a nice paper a couple years back covering, among other subjects, the Kabbalistic explanation of the Sephirot and why the universe would be “destroyed” if God merges with it fully (in other words why the universe exists in the first place). It’s quite a long paper but I’ll post a small excerpt of it which I think explains the destruction (or creation, depending on whether or not you’re a cup half full kinda guy) part simply:

    “Is God not infinite if the only way to connect to Him is indirectly through his nine manifestations? Absolutely not, God is infinite, moreover one of his names widely used in the Kabbalah is En Sof, which literally means no end in Hebrew. Although God is infinite, there is a distance between En Sof and the finite world. When He manifests, “He projects nine brilliant lights that throw light in all directions” (Heschel, “Moral Grandeur” 169). We can find and connect to these nine light that appear and disappear and are the way the “Infinite assumes the form of finite existence [and are] called Sefirot” (Heschel, “Moral Grandeur”, 169). These spheres of divine emanation are the way God reveals himself and channels through. But if there is distance with the Infinite and the world and He needs the divine emanations in order to function, is God not all powerful? In short, why does He need to rely on anything to function at all?
    The answer to this mystery lies in kabbalah. It is the very base of creation, the beginning of our universe. In the beginning there was the infinite light of God “within which there was no place for anything at all to be” (Freeman). This can be thought of as an infinite ocean. If one was to take an individual drop and drop it into the ocean it is then part of the infinite ocean and cannot be retrieved back in its entirety. if one was to do the opposite, to extract many individual drops, he would need to isolate them from the infinite ocean. This is exactly what En Sof did, “Before creating any worlds, He withdrew that energy completely, resulting in a total void within the infinite light” (Freeman). Only after the void was created did God send a metered light to the void creating our universe. This metered light is his emanations. This creation of a void is called tsimtsum, which literally means reduction.”

    So pretty much that void between En Sof and our world is breaking in this story, and the universe faces and existential risk of being flooded by En Sof and merge completely into infinity (a drop into the ocean). Thinking about it rationally, it is impossible to retrieve the same H2O molecules once they dilute into the ocean. Reduction (tsimtsum, צמצום) is our friend here. If the the crack at “the bottom of the fountain” breaks open, well we can only imagine what an infinite tsunami of godly energy will do to our universe.

    • Deiseach says:

      why the universe would be “destroyed” if God merges with it fully (in other words why the universe exists in the first place)

      Yep, this is why atheist conceptions of God arising out of/becoming existent within the universe (like Dawkins’ riposte about complexity about “If God is so much bigger than us, God must be really, really complex, but how could a complex God arise out of a simple universe? Ha, gotcha!”) are not at the races at all when it comes to what religions (including traditions outside of Jewish or Christian) believe.

      Now, you can say that is total bobbins, but it is a completely different belief to the notion that “God is a really complex being from within the primordial universe”.

      • David Marjanović says:

        I think you’ve missed Dawkins’s point: as far as I can tell, it’s more like “If God is so much bigger than us, God must be really, really complex, but where does this complexity come from?” Well, religions are forced to assume that it has always existed, that it is eternal. And that’s not an explanation but an evasion, says Dawkins: a huge unnecessary assumption.

  24. RockPtarmigan says:

    Copyediting thread:

    Paragraph 4: “refence” –> “reference”

  25. John Sidles says:

    This Unsong interlude reads naturally as a Cliff Notes survey of Adam Levin’s Kabbalah-positive blackly comedic thousand-page novel The Instructions (2011).

  26. PADAM says:

    The Hebrew word for knife is “SAKIN” Not ZAYIN.
    Where he gets this from is beyond me and probably beyond sane interpetations

    • The Tzelem- הצֶ֫לֶם says:

      Scott states specifically that zayin means knife in BIBLICAL HEBREW, not modern Hebrew. In modern Hebrew zayin is slang for penis, but in biblical Hebrew it means sword, or knife.

      • The Coment King says:

        e.g. “Kley zayin” (Zayin tools) is still an oldy word for weapons.

        Random reference: There’s a scene in Amos Oz’s “A Tale of Love and Darkness” about Begin giving a speech about how everyone “Mezaynim” the arabs, but if elected, they’ll do it to us.
        (explanation: In the older hebrew of Begin’s generation, “Mezaynim” means “arming”, but nowadays it means “screwing”. Which led to ten-year-old Amos Oz’s cracking up in the middle of the old guy’s campaign rally).

  27. ripharry says:

    Foreshadowing for an important character kicking the bucket in two metaphorical ways. That is, dying and somehow upsetting the metaphysical klipot buckets.

  28. Malachi 3 describes God as “like a refiner’s fire”, but only because the ancient Hebrews didn’t know the word “H-bomb”.

    I see what you did there…

  29. Sonata Green says:

    The phrase “poor Henry” made me think of Radicalizing the Romanceless, but when I went to look it up I found that I had gotten the names mixed up, attributing the name of the abuser to the character of Dan. This may or may not have truly marvelous kabbalistic implications which this margin is too narrow to contain.

    That last cracked pot was the material world, the universe we live in.

    It strikes me at entirely appropriate that this world, unlike our own, is one accurately described by the theory of psychoceramics. It engages with exactly the kind of reasoning that we’ve seen presented as examples of kabbalistic interpretation.

  30. hnau says:

    This is my favorite Interlude yet– maybe even my favorite chapter, though 1, 5, and 8 are hard to beat.

    We just went a one-off laugh line to another virtuoso fake-kabbalah demonstration that somehow turned into a poignant meditation on the human condition that wound up with relevant and meaningful theological conclusions.

    I’m probably taking this more seriously than it was meant… but the underlying themes resonated strongly with me as a Christian. And it was posted during the most important week in the western Christian calendar, which makes me think this was Not A Coincidence.

    • hnau says:

      *went from a

      Oh, and I forgot to mention that it was advancing the plot / worldbuilding under our noses the whole time. Very nicely done.

  31. Learned a new thing today — “Harry” as a nickname for “Henry”? I’ve only encountered it used as a nickname for “Harold,” but Wikipedia and several other sources agree with Aaron on this one.

    On the other hand… where do you get the “Harold be thy name” from? My version of the Bible has “hallowed be thy name.”

    Oh, and by the way, Aaron’s understanding of transformers is inaccurate. The voltage gets boosted way UP for long-distance transmission, then only stepped down at the end.

    • Kinetic_Hugh_Reeve says:

      Prince Henry of the United Kingdom is often called Harry. Some actual English Kings Henry also get get called that sometimes, but I’m feeling too lazy to look up the details. The only one that is springing to mind is Prince Hal, which is not an example. 🙂

      • teucer says:

        Hal is a nickname for Henry.

        But it’s also H plus AL, the two shortest names of God worn together. TINACBNIEAC

  32. multiheaded says:


  33. Little Yid says:

    I gave this over as a dvar Torah at the Shabbos table last night. It was well-received. Thank you for making me excited about my faith again.

  34. Fhoenix says:

    The plot. It thickens.

  35. Sniffnoy says:

    My friend Ana informs me of a way around the paradox: some texts say the Messiah will come either in the most righteous generation or in the most wicked. Granting that we’ve kind of dropped the ball on the “most righteous” possibility, I think the wickedness option really plays to our strengths.

    I recall hearing this idea from a Hebrew-school teacher (or someone in a similar position; I don’t think it was actually a Hebrew-school teacher) once. Naturally the students (or, uh, student-analogues) were just like, “Great! A reason to be as bad as possible!” To which the original speaker, replied, no, you really don’t want that; you have no idea just how truly horrific it would have to get. And that would not bring about a nice messiah…

    I have no idea how standard this second reason not to do this is. The first reason not to do this seems to be on pretty solid ground, though, both in our world and Aaron’s, considering all the evil the world has gone through which has not sufficed to bring about the messiah…

    • The Warren Peace NFL Report says:

      What does “as bad as possible” mean exactly, to this audience, who show up regularly to religious school? I’m thinking “having a beer” might be around the worst possible bad you could do…

      • beoShaffer says:

        “What does “as bad as possible” mean exactly, to this audience, who show up regularly to religious school?” Challenging the unity of God, obviously.

  36. -_- says:

    Still other texts say the Messiah will come in a generation that is both the most righteous and the most wicked. I don’t even know what to think of that one.

    “נֹ֗חַ אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו // And Noah was very righteous in his generation” — B’reshit/Genesis 6:9

  37. Vamair says:

    Scott is evil. I mean, I don’t live in an English-speaking country, and most of my friends do not read English texts, at least not for fun. When I wanted to share something before I was sometimes able to translate it in place and once we’ve gathered a translation team (for wildbow’s Worm). And how I’m going to translate this?

    • kechpaja says:

      Which language would you need it in? There might be other readers (possibly including me) who might help. With Scott’s blessing, maybe there could even be public translated mirrors of this work.

      • Vamair says:

        I was thinking about translating to Russian, but I really don’t know how to do that in a right way. Or even if I have the time to work on it more than a few hours a week.

        • Fj says:

          Also, you’d have to be Pelevin to really do it justice.

          Which is my way of saying that at one point I wondered why don’t we have this sort of kabbala-pun-punk in Russian literature, but quickly realized that Victor Olegovich is pretty much that. All the way to punny T-shirts that are sorta related to Deep Stuff, like “Who watches the watchmaker”, to Ana protesting in front of the World’s Fair with a sign saying “NO IT’S NOT!”. Like, the latter is just like that subway advertisement from the Chapayev and Pustota saying “ХЛЕБ — ВАШЕ БОГАТСТВО” where someone smudged off the the two first letters and added an exclamation mark.

  38. Asmodeus says:

    >Still other texts say the Messiah will come in a generation that is both the most righteous and the most wicked. I don’t even know what to think of that one.

    Change focus from internal virtues to external results. The generation that does the most wicked and most righteous things will be the generation that does the most things overall. The most energetic or most enabled generation. Maybe the richest generation, who can afford the largest monuments to its righteousness and wickedness both.

  39. Aegeus says:

    How do you carry water when there’s a hole in your bucket, if you can’t plug the hole? Carry it really fast before all the water leaks out. Likewise, even if the world isn’t perfectly good and thus the Messiah can’t make a nice orderly repair job of it, maybe someone can be a good enough person to get the process started. Carry a few drops of water and sharpen the knife a little bit and so on. And it does seem that we’re racing the clock, especially after reading Chapter 16.

    Alternatively, get something besides straw to plug the hole. It’s the 21st century, can’t we plug the hole with duct tape instead? Does duct tape have any fun kabbalistic implications?

  40. kornr says:

    Humans are *sex-obsessed murder-apes

  41. Idalia says:

    Have I ever told you my theory that Wuthering Heights is not romance but actually horror, about two emotional saohdasmcoists who lay waste to everyone around them, using them as pawns in their own personal war of attrition? Because, I mean… that’s pretty much the whole theory.Well, it sure as hell isn’t a romance! I am one of the girls who hated Cathy, feared Heathcliff, never forgave Heathcliff for hanging Isabella’s spaniel, and thinks the scary Heathcliff played by Ralph Fiennes is spot-on, thanks.I kind of liked Mr Rochester, mind you.

  42. says:

    I should say that I haven’t seen “The Good German”…yet. I love Cate, but she may soon suffer from the British ailment MichaelCaineAnthonyHopkins Disease, which we medical laymen call ‘over-exposure.’ Take it easy, Limeys, you don’t have to appear in Every film. Even though you’re all amazing…

  43. says:

    · Beautiful, Shannalee! It’s a special kind of satisfaction when you pull that just-right thing from the oven, isn’t it? (And I agree with Maddie, up there, that those special apples can only have helped matters.)

  44. Rose says:

    You can’t really say that ‘knife’ translates to ‘zayin’, not even in biblical Hebrew. ‘Knife’ can be dafined as ‘kli zayin’, which means weapon in a general sense (it literally means ‘a tool of weapon’, don’t think it’s the right way to put it in English)

  45. Lynne Carol Martin says:

    My wonderful son-in-law sent me a link to this page, and I’ve just spent the last two hours reading every word (all the comments, too) and laughing, and having a really fun/profound theological discussion with my husband. Thank you for a truly enjoyable morning. Sign me up, please!

  46. Lynne Carol Martin says:

    “Still other texts say the Messiah will come in a generation that is both the most righteous and the most wicked. I don’t even know what to think of that one.”

    I do. It certainly sounds like the present, doesn’t it? But every generation is full of extreme goodness as well as extreme evil. And every generation has a Messiah, who redeems the world for those who pay attention. It’s not a one-time deal; it’s cyclical. As Dickens said, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” Now. Again.

  47. Pingback: More thoughts on the election | shakeddown

  48. mkaiww says:

    Why can’t you take the stone to the water in the literal not Kabbalistic sense

  49. erikmh says:

    Also, it’s “whet,” which means “sharpen,” not “wet,” which means “moisten.”

  50. Avigaïl says:

    I’ve long since wanted to write this comment. Aaron’s writing style irritates me. And I know that this subject has been thoroughly discussed here, and that there’s a real living person behind the character Aaron’s writing that probably doesn’t speak hebrew and that’s ok. But there are two things which I as a Hebrew just couldn’t pass over in silence (pun intended).

    I like the parable, I really do. I think it’s clever, and the analysis is mostly on point. We have the bucket, which is the vessel, made to hold, and perceive the divine knowledge/power in this realm to a degree. It’s both the physical body and the aethereal consciousness, not even the thing that thinks “I”, but what’s hosting it. But there’s a hole in the bucket, unfortunately. There’s a wont, an imperfection. A state calling for Tikun.

    Then Aaron interprets “Straw” as “Hay” as divine intervention through several other links. Personally I find ה being hey being hay is already a bit too farfetched, but let’s assume for the sake of discussion that the vocal sign holds it’s energetic charge across languages. But that God with a capital G will intervene to fix the mess that they created as an attempt to avoid intervention in the first place – puh. It’s naïve to think that daddy and mommy will come and fix everything for us. It’s the same line of thinking that brings programmers to design apps that’ll make us happy or healthy or find divine names. And Aaron is a programmer.

    Straw – in Hebrew “Kash” קש. Both a condition and a byproduct for growth, of no importance for us as it is, but takes importance when rolled onward from us and into the creation. The riffles of our deeds in this realm. The root K.Sh.Sh ק.ש.ש means carefully collecting scattered items to a purpose (straw, wood, etc.). So, a careful hard work is needed here – but there’s a catch, because such labor is deemed barren if done without awareness. In Hebrew, Kash also notates what is weightless, with no real value or meaning – routine for the sake of routine, Mitzvah without intent. Just sticking straw into the crack would not make it sealed and functional.

    So there comes the Knife – Sentience, awareness, sapience, intent, will. The tool to shape reality.
    Now I get that Aaron as a character thinks and communicates his ideas on a very high level, but I just don’t like people forcing senses and references on words which are simply not accurate, for the sake of their argument. The link between Knife סכין and Zayin זין is rather symbolic, not linguistic. Zayin זין in old Hebrew is weapon, and in modern Hebrew, male genitalia. So zayin is capable of destruction and creation, much like knife. This is a wreckless comparison though, as Aaron consecutively links “Zayin” זין to ז to scepter to king to an external authotity or leadership, thus ignores the fact that the labor of Tikun and bringing forth the Messiah consciousness is done individually, within one’s heart, by the power of inner authority.

    Likewise: “Comet”, Shavit שביט, and “Scepter”, Sha-R-vit ש-ר-ביט, are certainly not the same word. The mythical connection between knife, an aware consciousness and the Messiah is already strong enough, making the ungraceful link to comet even more redundant. Plus, according to Kabbalah, the letter Reish ר which distinguishes these two words carries qualities of leadership – but also spiritual poverty. A reminder that awareness does not necessarily mean enlightenment; hence the ever-looming risk that a ruler will bring forth destruction if not sharp enoguh (ahm Aaron), the same way the homo-sapience is destroying this world.

    So much for my annoyance, the rest I quite liked: the knife must be sharpened by a rock – the law of this world, life’s trials, friction, aided and lubricated by the divine wisdom of Torah aka divine law, that is like water. Water in turn is a conductor, means of passing information. The ideal goal-consciousness is a merge of the two. Way to go.

  51. I am who I am says:


  52. Anonymous says:

    Ah yes, the Kabbalistic significance of children’s rhymes.

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