Rabbi Chezkiah opened [his discourse] and said: "It is written: 'As a rose among the thorns, so is my beloved amongst the daughters'. (Songs 2:2) Who is the rose? This refers to 'Knesset Yisrael' - the Collective soul roots of Israel, malchut. (For there is one level of a rose and there is another level of a rose.) Just as a rose, which is found amidst the thorns, has within it the colors red and white, also Knesset Yisrael has within her both judgment and loving kindness. Just as a rose has in it thirteen petals, so too Knesset Yisrael has within her thirteen paths of mercy which surround her from all her sides. (Zohar I, Intro. pg 1) All the things that G‑d creates in the lower realm…are expressions of their spiritual roots, forces, and divine archetypes in the upper realms…
It is a fundamental principle of the Kabbala that all the things G‑d creates in the lower realm, i.e. this physical existence, are expressions of their spiritual roots, forces, and divine archetypes in the upper realms. Therefore, to the extent that it is possible, we may see and use parts of the physical world as a parable for different aspects of divinity.
In its opening discourse, the Holy Zohar explains how the Shechina (otherwise known as the Divine Presence, referred to as Knesset Yisrael, the "Community of Israel") is compared to a rose that has the two colors, white and red, within it. In addition, the rose has thirteen petals and five sepals surrounding her to protect from the thorns. Similarly, the Shechina possesses two general qualities: loving kindness and judgment corresponding to white and red, respectively.
She receives thirteen qualities of mercy from above (channeled from G‑d in a way which will be explained), represented by the thirteen petals and also five loving-kindnesses represented by the five sepals, which guard her from the dark forces, represented by the thorns. So here we see the Zohar unlocking the secret to a supernal root with the reflective key of the rose. When a person embarks on the voyage of traversing the vast ocean of Kabbala he is assured divine assistance…
"Rabbi Chezkiah…": The commentary Damesek Eliezer explains that the Zohar chooses to start with a lesson by Rabbi Chezkiah because his name hints to us a message: "Chezkiah" can be read as "chazak Y-ah" which in Hebrew means "strength of the divine name 'Y-ah'". The message is that when a person embarks on the voyage of traversing the vast ocean of Kabbala he is assured divine assistance.
The name Y-ah is used in reference to spiritual energies above nature. This divine energy will be given to the student as he delves into the supernal secrets.
"…opened": This term issued frequently in the Zohar to indicate that the teacher opened himself up as a vessel to experience the spiritual. After this he trail-blazed to open up a new pipeline of Torah which he poured forth through his lesson.
"It is written…": Normally the Zohar excludes this phrase and just says, "Rabbi So-and-So opened", followed by the verse. The message here is that we must write these words on the heart. Rabbi Chezkiah's opening teaching is of fundamental importance in helping us cope with our present situation. By taking this lesson to heart we show that this teaching is not merely an intellectual one, but also an emotional one. We must really feel the pain of exile, and use it to fire our efforts towards redemption. By opening ourselves up in the same way as Rabbi Chezkiah, we can discover the inner truth which is engraved upon the heart.
It is of great significance that the start of this section of the Zohar, which is a commentary on the Torah, should begin by quoting not from the Torah, but from the Song of Songs of King Solomon. The space in between the Cherubim in the Holy of Holies in the Temple is the place of the closest, most intimate relationship between G‑d and His People; this level of relationship is expressed in the Song of Songs, a love-song pouring out the intimacies of the heart. By opening up its revelation of the Supernal mysteries with this quote, the Zohar hints to us that this relationship is its driving theme. With this we can understand why the Zoharic system of giving over its knowledge revolves around the masculine-feminine relationship. This same relationship pervades the Song of Songs in its every verse. The inner level of the Torah which expresses itself in the form of song…
Also the fact that the Zohar starts by quoting from the Song of Songs hints to us that its special goal is to reveal the inner level of the Torah which expresses itself in the form of song.
"Knesset Yisrael - the Collective soul roots of Israel…": This term, used throughout the Zohar, refers to the Shechina. Why are these two seemingly disparate concepts, the collection of fragments and the indivisible whole, used interchangeably? Visualize a mountain from which small rocks are hewn. They become separate pieces, each one rooted (conceptually and spiritually) in the mountain from which they are hewn. Similarly the souls are, as it were, pieces hewn out of the Shechina.
"…malchut": In brief G‑d, who is infinite and ungraspable, expresses Himself and relates to man through His supernal attributes, which He also created. Malchut is both the last of the ten sefirot, and the vessel through which the other nine express themselves in the world. This results in the revelation of the kingship of G‑d.
Malchut is alluded to by the term Knesset Yisrael (which also connects with the Shechina, as mentioned above), and therefore the student can absorb the idea of malchut through the filter of the Collective soul roots of Israel. In terms of this discourse, this is meant to bring out to us that the revelation of the divine Kingship depends upon Knesset Yisrael. All this is symbolized by the rose.
"For there is one level of a rose and there is another level of a rose": The Arizal was the first person to really reveal the deep secrets of the Zohar from an understanding of its esoteric text. He explains as follows: this phrase hints to two states of malchut; a higher state and a lower state. Before we can understand this explanation of the verse, we must explain briefly the concept of the Shechina: G‑d…wanted to dwell in the lower realm. He created the spiritual realm as a pathway to reach the lower realm…
The word "Shechina" derives from the Hebrew word "shachain", which means "dwell". This helps to explain the English term "Presence", as the Shechina is the state of G‑d's Presence manifest in the world, i.e. His Imminence. The kabbalistic teaching is that there are two general areas where this occurs; the upper realm and the lower realm. The Rabbis teach that G‑d created the world because He wanted to dwell in the lower realm. He created the spiritual realm as a pathway to reach the lower realm. So much so that He wanted His Presence to be manifest in the lower realm in the same manner as in the upper realm. In this way His omniscience becomes apparent everywhere, thus revealing His absolute unity.
His Presence above is manifest in bina and is therefore called the "Upper Shechina" or the "Upper Rose". His Presence below is manifest in malchut or the "Lower Rose".
The Spiritual Realm is beyond "place". However, as discussions about the nature of this realm include this concept, "place" needs to be understood. Within this context, closeness depends on similarity and not distance. When the intensity of the revelation in malchut rises toward that of bina, this is called "malchut ascending to bina". This is the higher state of malchut that the Zohar is referring to, and this gives us a first step in the understanding of spiritual space.
Let us try and understand how the mechanism of "malchut ascending" works: The intensity of revelation within malchut can increase from above or below. An example of this increase from above is the closer proximity to G‑d that we are able to feel on Shabbat. This is really a gift from G‑d which allows the revelation of the Divine to build and build throughout the day. Malchut fills with more divine light and thus gradually rises to its higher state. This is somewhat like a hot air balloon. The more you use the burners, the higher you rise.
An example of this increase from below is the spiritual work which we do on this earth by doing good deeds, thus bringing a flow of "positive energy" to the world in general. Each act which we perform has the potential to add another quantum level of divine light to malchut, thus propelling it up to its higher state. This can be likened to the simple quantum model of the atom; when the right packet of energy zaps an electron, it will jump straight up to a higher pre-defined orbit around the nucleus.
Let us now review the scriptural verse. A "rose amidst the thorns" connotes the Shechina-malchut in its lower state. "My beloved" refers to malchut in its higher state. Even though "beloved" usually refers to bina, when malchut arises to bina, it too can be so-called, in accordance with the Zoharic principle: "like mother-bina, like daughter-malchut". Malchut is…the vessel through which the aspects of the self establish themselves…
Until this point we were explaining the two states of malchut in terms of the sefirot. The next step is to see what this means in terms of man's soul. The verse states: "And the Lord created man in His image." (Gen. 1:27) The great kabbalistic principle derived from this is that just as G‑d has ten divine attributes so does the soul. And furthermore the workings of the soul's sefirot can be paralleled to the mechanisms of the sefirot above. From this comes the guiding principle expressed in the verse: "And you shall walk in His ways" (Deut. 30:16). As the Rabbis explain: just as He is merciful, so we too must be merciful; just as He is full of loving-kindness, so too must we be full of loving-kindness, and so on.
Malchut is the lowest sefira, which is the vessel that receives from all those above, and brings them to expression. The reason that it is a manifestation of kingship is that the unified workings of the sefirot together show G‑d's hallmark in the underlying creative power and providence, and hence to His sovereignty and rulership. In terms of the soul we can explain malchut as self-realization, i.e. the vessel through which the aspects of the self establish themselves.
When a person expresses himself in action, all the sefirot of his soul (whether openly or in a hidden manner) come together. This is an example of the sefirot coming to malchut and expressing through her. There are two ways that this can happen: sometimes you find yourself doing something with great enthusiasm driven by a crystal clear image in your heart and brain of all the exciting ideas behind your action - this is "malchut ascending to bina"; at other times you may do the same thing without vigor, unable to muster that dynamic vision, your mind and heart clouded by distractions, your feelings lying dormant - this corresponds to malchut in its constricted state below.
From the verse we see that in a sense both states are equal: "As a rose…so is my beloved..." - this teaches us that one should not withhold himself from serving G‑d, even when he is not inspired. G‑d knows that one goes through ups and downs, and He derives pleasure from our service in both states.
In a sense, then, we see a great aspect of our relationship with G‑d. We said before that "G‑d created the world because He wanted to dwell in the lower realm". It's all very well to love G‑d when you are flying on a spiritual high, but what happens when you touch down and have to maintain the relationship through the daily grind of existence? The true test of such a relationship is whether it can withstand the pressures of the bad times. When two people have a deep and loving relationship it expresses itself in absolute fidelity in the bad times as well as in good. And when it maintains itself through the difficulties, it gives further strength to those bonds of love.
[This series became the basis for the recently compiled "Zohar - translation and commentary" by Peretz Auerbach. Part One is available as an e-book.]