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.