Tiferet: Beauty in the Realm of the Divine
PARABOLA Vol. 35, No. 4, (Beauty), Winter 2010 – 11
The Torah tells the story that as a young man Jacob was sent away from his family to avoid confrontation with his brother, Esau, and to find a wife from among his mother’s kin. Immediately upon arriving in the center of the city of Haran, he beheld Rachel the shepherdess standing by the well, seeking to draw water to refresh her father’s sheep. ”…And the stone over the mouth of the well was large…” Jacob came forward and rolled the stone from the mouth of the well.
Instantly attracted to Rachel and overcome by her beauty, he kissed her and wept. Then he introduced himself as a relative. (Genesis 29:10)
This was no ordinary well. Jacob’s mother, Rebecca, once stood at that very spot when Eliezer, the servant of Jacob’s Grandfather Abraham, sent to find a fitting wife for Isaac, Jacob’s father, came upon her. How did Eliezer knows whom among all the maidens gathered at that popular watering hole was the intended one for his master’s son? He asked God for help and was given a sign. As Rebecca approached the well, rather than her lowering a bucket to its depth, the water level rose miraculously to the mouth of the well. Eliezer observed this and knew that Rebecca was the one.
Upon experiencing Rachel’s beauty and falling in love with her at first sight, Jacob’s heart softened, preparing him for prophecy. Prophecy, the kabbalists say, is not necessarily seeing the future, but rather seeing the world through the eyes of God. To fulfill that mission, the prophet needs a compassionate, expanded heart. The Prophet Ezekiel proclaimed, “I will remove the heart of stone.” (Ezekiel11:19) This stone, as understood in kabbalistic tradition, is the sitrah achra, the force of evil that rests on the heart of the people, preventing the experience of prophecy from gushing up.
“… And Rachel was beautiful of form and beautiful of appearance; and Jacob loved Rachel. ” With these mysterious gifts — two distinct elements of beauty — Rachel attracted and captured Jacob’s heart. These qualities — her physical form and what we might term her “presence” –work together to forge the attraction necessary to bring the story to its culmination. These are the dominant attributes of the sefirah Tiferet, one of the “realms of divinity” represented in the Eytz Chayim / Tree of Life. The realm of Tiferet encompasses the qualities of beauty and harmony.
Translating kabbalistic words such as “sefirah” for a non-specialist audience presents numerous challenges. Scholars have developed a number of technical terms in English that may grate on or mystify the ordinary ear, such as “attributes” and “emanations”. Here we will mostly retain the Hebrew term, occasionally rendering it in poetic form as a “realm of the Divine.”
In their most typical kabbalistic rendering, there are ten sefirot (the plural Hebrew form), often visually and diagrammatically represented in a tree-like form (see illustration). The kabbalists refer to this as the Eytz Chayim, recalling the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden.
The two qualities of beauty mentioned in this verse are significant since both, as we shall see, lead to harmony. To live infused with Tiferet / beauty is to experience the harmonious blending of love, awe, truth, kindness and respect. Tiferet will lead Jacob and Rachel, and their progeny, toward their individual and collective destinies.
Now more than ever Tiferet is the sefirah for the future of humanity.
jacob’s vividly symbolic act of rolling the stone from the mouth of the well is understood by the tradition as removing the stone from his own heart, and thus establishing the foundation for intimacy with Rachel and also with the Divine. For Jacob, falling in love and opening his heart allowed higher perceptions and feelings – traditionally understood as a yearning for wisdom and Torah — to flood into him, and subsequently to flow forth through his being and actions in his life.
It is interesting that the Hebrew verb itself yagel / to roll off, points also to the mystery of life. Yagel shares root consonants gimel-
lamed- lamed with words like galgal / wheel / cycle and gilgul / reincarnation or the cycling of souls. As the story evolves both Jacob and Rachel go through many cycles. Tiferet, in charge of new souls, is a constant source of creativity and surprise. You never know what you can find once the stone is rolled off.