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H E A D S   A N D   S K U L L S

Adapted from a discourse of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi said in 1800

And G-d spoke to Moshe in the Sinai desert, in the meeting tent…. Raise the heads [of the Jewish people] to their skulls [ligulgilotam]….

The properties of the physical body mirror those of the soul. The physical head, for example, parallels the spiritual head, the “head” of the soul.

A skull—gulgolet in Hebrew, surrounds the physical head, or brain.

Correspondingly, a “skull” surrounds the head/brain of the soul—made up of the three intellectual faculties, Chochmah, Binah and Da’at. The soul’s “skull” is ratzon—desire. Just as the physical skull surrounds and envelops the physical head and brain, so the desire of the soul “surrounds,” i.e., transcends the intellectual aspect of the soul.

More specifically, there are two levels of desire: one that precedes and transcends intellect and one that is beneath and proceeds from the intellect.

[In the following discussion we will focus on the soul’s two levels of desire in the context of the soul’s desire to unite with the Divine. Let us begin with the lower level:]

Lower Desire

When a person uses the three faculties of the brain to contemplate and ponder the awesomeness of the Divine reality, he comes to a recognition of G-d in his heart and a desire to cleave to Him.

Although it is said that “no thought can grasp Him”—this is true only of G-d’s essence. One can, however, grasp G-d’s radiance. Indeed it is man’s entire purpose (zeh kohl ha’adam) to contemplate G-d greatness—that He created an infinite number of supernal and lower worlds, that He sustains them and brings them out of nothingness every moment. 

This meditation will vary according to the individual. But each person can use his capacity for mediation to expand his mind, to ignite his heart and soul, to tie his soul to G-d and cleave to Him—all according to the depth of his intelligence, his wisdom, and diligence.

(This type of knowledge of G-d is expressed in the verse (Proverbs 31:23) “noda bashiarim baalah—“her Husband is known in the gates [or by measure].” G-d is the “husband” of man and He lowers Himself and allows Himself to be known to some extent through meditation—according to the measure and individual capacity of each person. [Shaar, gate, contains the root for the word shiur, measure. See our essay on Shoftim.])

This meditation leads to a desire to do that which brings one closer to G-d and an aversion to that which achieves the opposite.

This level of desire is beneath the brain, i.e., it proceeds from the brain’s meditation and will vary in intensity according to the measure of the meditation.

Higher Desire

There is, however, a higher level of desire, one that is quite beyond the sort born of the intellect. This desire stems from the nothingness of his perception—and that of all creatures—in the face of the Divine essence and His infinite exaltedness. Here we can say that no thought grasps Him at all. He is beyond the category of being known. The terms Divine immanence and Divine transcendence (mimale and sovev) are meaningful only in the context of Divine radiance. But He Himself is beyond such categories.

The soul is thus stirred to escape from its sheath with a desire and yearning to pour herself into the bosom of her Father, the Divine essence before Whom all is naught.

This wondrous desire was felt by the souls on Shavuot, during the giving of the Torah. Thus their souls expired after each of the “Ten Commandments.”[1] Each commandment was a communication of G-d’s essence to the souls and resulted in their expiration.

[The section of Bamidbar is always read on the Shabbat before Shavuot (Tosafot on Megilla 31b). Bamidbar 5747]

The Soul’s Essence

[Man was created in the image of G-d.]

The essence of the soul, which stems from G-d’s essence, does not descend into the body and animal soul. Only a ray of the soul extends and enters the consciousness of the intellect and emotions. The soul’s core is far beyond the category of human intellect. It remains joined to its Source in the living G-d with an eternal bond forever and ever. It has only one desire and that is toward her Father in heaven alone—forever, unchanging, in a state of selflessness and nullification to Him.

The changes that the soul experiences take place only in the lower aspects of the soul, which enter the human consciousness. But the soul’s essence hovers above, “surrounding,” transcending the person [like the Divine essence in relation to the world].       

On Shavuot, through the giving of the Torah, this level of the soul was revealed, in a powerful way, within the human consciousness.

That their souls flew away after each utterance means that they were raised beyond the scale of intellect and were enveloped within the Divine.  

The First Communication

The above idea is expressed in the first statement at Sinai:

I am Havayah your G-d who has taken you out of the land of Mitzraim (Egypt).

I—the nameless I, the Divine essence which is beyond all description,

am Havayah your G-d—the Divine spark that resides within you, the essence of the soul, which remains beyond human consciousness,

who has taken you out of the land of Mitzraim—all the worlds and levels that are beneath this level of the soul’s essence are called Mitzraim (limitations) by comparison. All other states of interaction with the Divine are limited to certain confines and borders.

When this level of the soul is revealed we have the fulfillment of the Mishnaic dictum (Avot 4:2): Nullify your desire before His desire.

First let us explain a similar dictum: Make your desire like His desire. This dictum refers to a person whose desire is outside the Divine realm who nevertheless, through meditation on G-d’s greatness, conforms his will to the Divine will. This is the lower desire discussed above.

Nullify your desire before His desire, on the other hand, means that you have no desire outside of G-dliness. You allow the higher desire, the essence of the soul, to illuminate your being so that your will is G-d’s will.


Raise the heads…to their skulls….

G-d commands Moshe to take the lower desire of the soul—which is born of the soul’s head and brain and is clothed in human consciousness—and tie it, elevate it to the greatest heights, to its source and root: the soul’s essence which hovers above, transcendent. Otherwise, it does not illuminate the body because of misdeeds that separate the person from Divinity. The body is cut off from the head.

Moshe is to raise the “head” of man—the source for lower desire—and unite it with its “skull”—the essence of the soul, where the essence of G-d is fully revealed.

[Adapted by Rabbi Yossi Marcus from Likutei Torah.]      

[1] Talmud, Shabbat 88b. “Ten Commandments” is the colloquial equivalent of the Hebrew aseret hadibrot, which actually means Ten Statements (or Ten Utterances).



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