Last night I had a dream. I gave birth, in my living room, to a long and very pink baby. The puzzling nature of her birth, the elusive—or nonexistent—nine months of incubation, the surprise of it, didn’t disturb so much as the question of how to separate her body from mine. The long umbilical cord stretched between us, and I just stood there flailing my arms. And then my baby bit through the cord, and launched herself into the world as an independent being.

Months earlier . . .

What I encounter is a matter of life and death

Before me is a text. Rows of tight Hebrew letters printed in black “Rashi script” vertically bisect the page in two wide columns. A question is posed. The question is textual, an attempt to understand a biblical passage and its grammatical construction. However, the answer to that question raises a profound philosophical and spiritual issue. It is an issue of religious revelation and relevance. Is the religious/mystical experience reserved for iconic religious figures of the past, or is it something that can be relevant to every person? And by implication, to me, reader of this text?

If I have the answer, I have the key to religious experience. I continue reading. It seems unlikely that I will walk away satisfied. The state of non-revelation is so much more probable than the alternative, and it is difficult to imagine how the author, having opened the question of revelation, will answer it.1

As I read on, I am launched on a visual and linguistic journey, an extended metaphor of birth, and emerge on the other side to find that the gap between abstract mystical concept and personal experience has been slightly narrowed. The veil that divides between the personal and the national, the immediate experience and the historic and global one, has been made slightly more transparent.

What I encounter is a matter of life and death. Not death as an end, but as non-life, a state of dormancy. The potential for life is unexpressed. It is curled up, head lying lifeless between its knees. Complete in formation, but inactive and unthinking. It has “eyes, but cannot see; ears, but cannot hear, lungs, but cannot take a breath.” And then? A cry, a breath drawn in, the “opening of what had been closed, and the closing of what had been opened.” An unfurling of the fetus into the light and air of our world, born from one reality into another—the direction of life.

The image of the fetus conveys something beyond an individual birth. “All this . . . is analogous to the Jewish people when they are in exile.” It is an exile that is defined by the problem of non-revelation. The departure of revealed G‑dliness after the destruction of the Temple creates an illusion: “it appears to our flesh-and-blood eyes as if the world is something of its own,” and we cannot see the “light of G‑dliness, that in the heavens above and in the earth below there is none but Him.” The personal problem of non-revelation is only a piece of a broader historic reality, the individual experience an expression of a national one.

Who does not relate to the image of birth? As mysterious a transition as it is, and as unconscious as we are (or not) through it, we are all born. It is a universal fact. Even this pre–ultrasound era text can clearly visualize this image. I might not relate at all to the concept of divine revelation, but I can certainly relate, on a fundamental level, to the concept of birth. And, if not consciously in its direct experience, then to the particulars as they are described in the text.

There is the shape of the fetus. It is collapsed and tightly curled up, “like a rolled-up parchment.” The fetal position conveys a sense of safety, but also tightness, smallness, and oblivion to the larger world around. One curls up in comfort, but also in fear, also to contain the small world of self, and to protect it against the often hostile largeness of the world. The womb is a place that is safe, but not in any way the ideal end-state of man.

The fetus receives its food directly from its mother through its umbilical cord, but the nourishment bypasses its higher faculties, its mind and its heart. Similarly, the author says, the food of a Jew in exile—i.e. good deeds, “soul food” – doesn’t necessarily send life to our hearts and minds, but rather goes straight to our “digestive system.” In other words, life is sustained, but the quality of the vitality provided is primal and unconscious. “Life” is defined as knowledge of G‑d, love of G‑d, and service with a complete heart and longing. Exile is defined by a cold service, one of action alone, without the passion that would give it life. Spiritual exile, the essay tells me, is unfeeling service, where the heart and mind are inactive and unengaged in the deeds that are meant to bring a person closer to G‑d.

In other words, one can give birth to oneself

Redemption, on the other hand—a national as well as a personal one—is not just an end to something; it is the culmination of exile in a birth, the revelation of the “light of G‑d” in man’s heart and mind. It is seeing what could not previously be seen, the dispelling of the illusion. That is, revelation—and its equivalent, redemption—is not something “out there.” It is something one can create in oneself by drawing the reality of unity into the illusion of multiplicity, and expressing unity in heart and mind through prayer and meditative contemplation. This deep knowledge of unity brings one to love and joy, a service that is alive. In other words, one can give birth to oneself.

The equivalences created in this birth metaphor are conceptually instructive and visually rich, but they are also experiential. The aspects of this particular metaphor that relate to light and the opening of eyes create in the reader what you might call an “aha” experience. The reader can relate to the common experience of seeing at last something that was there all along: in grasping a concept, discerning a shape in the clouds, finding one’s glasses on one’s face—experiences of revelation, a dawning upon, the proverbial lightbulb.

The description of the furled fetus and its unclenching into the light of day is the experience of release. Birth is the most primal experience of “foundness” and release, of something having been there all along, only to be freshly found in a fully manifest way at the moment of birth. Revelation, this text tells me, is something that can be achieved not because of any particular merit, or because of some theological rule, but because like birth, or opening your eyes, it is a natural process.

My question might not have been resolved in the traditional sense, but as I lift my attention away from the page I find that I have experienced the hint of an answer. I have experienced at least the possibility to know something I haven’t known, be somewhere I haven’t yet been. The possibility for spiritual revelation has become immediate and personal, even as it has become a national concern. The metaphor of birth, in its universality, bridges the gap there may be between what I have already experienced and what I might experience in the future.

What is it exactly that gives this metaphor its power? Some rhetoricians suggest that the images generated in our imagination through language work on our passions, motivating us to take action.2 The action here could be as subtle as a desire or hope for birth in oneself, or as concrete as an increase in contemplative meditation on G‑d’s unity, as suggested by the author.

Or, perhaps, the action here is even more subtle than that . . .

I don’t know why I had this dream. But I like to think I do. I am giving birth to myself. I am moving from one constricted level of consciousness to a higher, more expanded one. My new self is smart, likeable and swift. She is powerful and can act where the old one was at a loss. I move from a sense of powerlessness in a troubling world towards a sense of strength and possibility. My pre-birth life played out over the course of the dreary winter months. They were dark and clenched; the world was closed to me. Now the world blooms, greets me with early almond blossoms and red poppies sprinkling the fields. Life stretches before me, long and wide and enticing. There is space, there is movement, there is color and life. There is a satisfying parallelism in the rebirth of the natural world, a heartening match of inner and the outer experiences, the personal and the communal.

I am the author of my life, or at very least, the interpreter. I write the captions. Or, am I merely in the grips of a particularly powerful spring fever?

The texts clear a channel between the natural world and the spiritual one, the world of everyday events and experience and a world of national, historic and cosmic significance

In the fetus-as-exile, birth-as-redemption extended metaphor, I have an organizing principle, one of movement from pre-birth to birth and all that is alive. This movement is also one of dark to light, obliviousness to full consciousness, blindness to sightedness. In this construction, all the fragmented particulars of my experience have somewhere to go, and drop into place in a meaningful narrative sequence. So, while the text may ignite a will to act based on its specific content, perhaps there is a more subtle effect at play, and one with wider implications.

The birth metaphor does not merely answer a question. It is not only that birth teaches me about redemption, or a fetus about being in exile. Knowing the experiences of exile and redemption, I can transfer that knowledge onto the concept of birth. Each aspect of the metaphor then becomes wider and fuller with associations borrowed from both. The act of metaphor-making, especially conscious metaphor-making, teaches me how to look at all events, concepts and things with eyes more open to the relationships between them. It is this ability to communicate a richness of thought that makes metaphor such a valuable form of speech.

In the ability to make immediate the abstract, and to carry the reader or audience from point A to point B, the language of metaphor can contain concepts and experiences that cannot be held in a more direct approach. This makes it a powerful tool to facilitate movement between constructions of reality, from less knowledge to more, from limited perspective to expanded awareness, from psychic blindness to sightedness. But, taking the audience from one place to another, conceptually as well as experientially, is effective not only in conveying meaning, but in restructuring a way of perceiving meaning.

As I learn more chassidic texts, I begin to see the influence of the content, but also the form, the metaphors and the means by which the content is conveyed. The texts clear a channel between the natural world and the spiritual one, the world of everyday events and experience and a world of national, historic and cosmic significance. The lines between different segments of life begin to blur, and I start to see life-as-I-know-it as an extended metaphor. I acquire the specific language of metaphor used, and reframe the contents of my world to fit with that language, to correlate with that narrative. I become an author in the story, or at the very least, an interpreter. Metaphoric readings of Torah are brought to bear on my living reality. I learn not only how to read the text at hand, but how to read the text of my life.

A flower blooming in early spring is full with meaning, resonances of birth, revelation, redemption. All the associations that have been made in the map of language are stimulated. I feel spring, not only fever, but rebirth. In other words, the fragments of my experience, the unnamed movements, have a new frame in which to be placed, becoming part of a symphonic and meaningful orchestra. My personal birth becomes a piece in a national birth, the birth of humankind into a new and better reality. Small redemptions are metaphors for, and flavors of, the ultimate historic redemption as described in these texts.

The origin of the word “metaphor” is from the Greek, meaning “carry between.” While all language can be conceived of as a vehicle for meaning, metaphor is particularly adept at carrying between different aspects of language and meaning. By answering a difficult question with a metaphor, as Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s text did, the speaker enables the reader to actually experience the answer to a small degree. The dense pages of letters come alive with rich and primal metaphors that transport me to another perspective of reality. In its content and its form, this one page takes me from point A to point B, from an experience of remoteness to one of relation.

According to one foundational chassidic essay, called “The Gate of Unity,” by the second Chabad rebbe, the Mittler Rebbe, the ability of a teacher to weave analogies and metaphors is a litmus test for effective education. And the ability to create metaphors to transmit a concept is in proportion to the ability to visualize and “see” the concept with the eye of the intellect. A metaphor is thus a conceptual rather than a linguistic capability, and one that can be developed through deep contemplation. The metaphor is the means by which a teacher carries a student from not knowing to knowing. This ability of metaphoric language to transport a person from one state to another, as well as the resulting reorganization of meaning that takes place, has, it would seem, huge implications for education and emotional/psychic healing.