The Rubin Vase


Regardless whether we recognize the name, many of us recognize the picture:

rubin vase

The Rubin Vase is a classic example of an ambiguous figure/ground illusion, because the picture can be perceived either as two black faces looking at one another or as a white vase.  Whether a person perceives the faces or a vase at each moment depends on whether that person’s mind interprets black or white as the “background” — if one sees a black background, then the perceived-image is a white vase; but if one sees a white background, then the perceived-image is two faces.

Although the picture does not change, and thus the image on our retina remains constant, the perceived-image that we “see” at any moment can fluctuate between the faces and the vase as our neocortex regroups the elements in the image.  The way our neocortex groups the elements at any moment is impacted by the shape of the “vase” in a particular image, where one focuses attention within the image, and each person’s perceptual biases and interests.  Because our neocortex perceives the faces or vase by “moving” one color to the foreground and the other to the background, it is difficult to perceive the faces and the vase at the same time. . . .  difficult, but not impossible.

And so it is with seeing the Light of the Infinite G-d within our finite material world . . .  difficult, but not impossible.

Mystics speak of G-d as the “ground” of all that exists in in the finite world.  For example, as Hillel Zeitlin explained:

Whatever a person sees, he sees it only by the power of the life energy flowing forth from the blessed Creator.  If you see people, for example, you notice their form, hear their voices and speech, learn from their wisdom–all this is the life-force flowing through them.  This is true of everything you see or hear, for each thing has the structure and purpose befitting it, a particular appearance or smell.  All of this is the life-energy of the Creator within each thing, since all is from Him, just dressed up in diverse garments.

The Fundamentals of Hasidism, as translated by Rabbi Arthur Green, Hasidic Spirituality for a New Era: The Religious Writings of Hillel Zeitlin, pp. 81-82.  Other mystics discuss seeing a web of light or energy that connects all living and non-living things.

And, yes, I understand that there is a section of the Tanya that has been interpreted to assert that “becoming able to see and acknowledge the divine life force in the material world would necessarily nullify the material world.”  Alter Rebbe, chapter 3, Shaar HaYichud VeEmunah (Book of the Gate of Unity and Faith) (emphasis added).  However, as HIllel Zeitlin explained, the Alter Rebbe was not suggesting the material world would, in fact, be “destroyed;” rather, he was suggesting that our eyes would not be able to perceive the material world, while perceiving G-d’s life-energy.  Hasidic Spirituality for a New Era at 82.  . . . This, it seems to me, is no different than the way it can be difficult to see objects around us after looking in the direction of the sun on a bright summer day . . . and, just as we continue to live, work, and play outside of buildings on blindingly bright sunny days, I fail to see why we should avoid looking for the light of G-d as we wander about in this finite existence that we all share.

Regardless how hard it may be to see Divine Light, I believe each of us must train ourselves to acknowledge and respect the divine life-force that flows through every material being and object.  As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said: “A religious man is a person who holds G-d and man in one thought at one time, at all times . . . .”

And, contrary to what some people imply, learning to “see” that divine spark in other living and non-living things will never negate the existence of the material world!! Rather, one who truly sees will be inspired to begin acting in accordance with the knowledge that all finite beings and objects are portraits of The One.  That person will stop being selfish and start caring about others.  It compels one not to deny the material world, but to keep looking for more of G-d’s Light in the material world . . . to be on the lookout for blessed moments in which the mind can perceive the Infinite G-d that is the ground of our existence, rather than seeing only the finite objects . . .

Praying you allow yourself to “see” and acknowledge the Infinite, jen



The Star of David


Jews refer to a six-pointed star made of two interlocking equilateral triangles, like the one on the Israeli flag, as a “Star of David.”


The symbol’s name in Hebrew, Magen David, means “Shield of David,” and I presume it was so named because, historically, the Star was inscribed inside a circle, making it look more like a “shield” than simply a “star.”


Despite having been named for King David, this star was not a Jewish symbol during the time of David.  In fact, much to my surprise, it has been a Jewish symbol for less than 800 years!!

In 1897, the First Zionist Congress chose the Star as its symbol.  A few decades later, the Nazi regime chose to use that star to identify and segregate Jews during the Holocaust.  And then, the Star was chosen for inclusion on the Israeli flag.

But the first Jews to use the symbol were 14th century Kabbalists, who gave it the name Magen David.  While there are multiple explanations for the star’s meaning, some Kabbalists taught that the two triangles represent the intersection of Heaven and Earth.  One triangle fills with Heaven’s needs, the other fills with Earth’s needs, and the over-lapping portions of the triangles remind us that we must balance and honor those competing needs.  The “key” to living a well-lived life, then, lies in keeping yourself in the center of the star.

So . . . where did the Kabbalists get this star that has become the most widely recognized Jewish symbol??

It appears the Kabbalists “borrowed” both the shape of the star and its meaning from Hinduism, in which the symbol represents the heart chakra.

heart-chakra (last visited 1-19-2014).

Hinduism teaches the heart chakra is the fourth of seven energy centers, or chakra, in the body and is located near a person’s heart. The three chakra above the heart represent Heavenly concerns — speech, intuition, and connection to the Divine — while the three chakra below the heart represent Earthly concerns — groundedness, creativity, and sense of self.  “And right there in the middle is the heart chakra, which has to mediate between heaven and earth.”  Id.

I don’t know whether the Jews who chose to include the star on the Israeli flag knew about the meaning ascribed to that star by Hindus and Hasidim.  But could there be a more appropriate symbol for the State of Israel?

Israel is, after all, the land to which the Jewish heart longed to return for two-thousand years, and now it is the place where, as a nation, Jews attempt to balance the needs of heaven and earth, to remember our obligations to G-d and “the stranger,” while also living in the reality of the present day.

And, regardless whether each of us agrees with the way the State of Israel handles any particular problem that arises, the State’s existence, and the Star on that flag, can be reminders for us that we each have an individual obligation to balance the demands of heaven and earth, to do our best to walk a path that honors our immediate earthly needs and the Divine spark that glows inside us and everyone else, to become warrior-poets like King David . . .

Praying each of us strives for (and finds some) balance, jen



“How Long” or just “How”?


In the twenty-fifth section of Honey from the Rock — a small, easy to read, yet profound book of Jewish Mysticism — Rabbi Lawrence Kushner says:

“How long must someone look at a burning bush to know whether or not it is being consumed?  Certainly longer than most people look at anything.   Longer, in other words, than you need to.  More than to see it.   Or to use it.  Long enough to see if it will be for you an Entrance.  Such a man was Moses, our teacher.  And likewise, anyone who is able to gaze at a place long enough without being distracted.”

Kushner implies that Moses was able to meet G-d thru the burning bush because of “how long” Moses could look “without being distracted.”   . . . And, with a bit of trepidation about whether I have the credentials to challenge Rabbi Kushner, I’m going to admit that I disagree with his assessment of why Moses found G-d in that bush . . . .

First, Moses was tending sheep in an arid rocky area, where a bushes wouldn’t grow very big.  Odds are that bushes there would have been dry and burned as quickly as dry pine trees.  So, it seems to me, Moses wouldn’t have had to look at the bush more than a few seconds to realize it wasn’t being consumed like typical bush.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, if someone sees something amazing in nature like, for example, last evening’s sunset:

sky-sevenA person either “sees” in that sky an Entrance to a holy moment with G-d, or a person is too distracted by other mental and/or physical tasks to see the Entrance.  Not only do I doubt that a distracted person could find an Entrance by staring at that sky for a long time, but . . . less than ten minutes later, the sky looked like this:


. . . that Entrance was closing . . . .  But fear not, my friends, one if not many other Entrances were opening at that very moment — the stars in the sky, the sliver of moon reflecting the sunlight, the crunch of my shoes against snow, the call of the birds, the beating of my heart, the sound of children laughing, a smile filled with love, the sound of a child breathing as he falls asleep, etc., etc. . . .

Moses didn’t need to look a long time.  He had to know “how” to look.  Moses had constant awareness that G-d was the essence of Being, that G-d filled the Earth with G-d’s Glory.  Moses knew to expect an Entrance at any moment, and he knew those Entrances usually would not be marked with blinding lightening and deafening thunder, but with the subtle call of a still, soft voice, trying to coax him from the distractions of life into Awareness of Life.

And, my friends, we can become like Moses.  We need not stare in any one place for a long time.  We simply need to remember that Entrances are everywhere, and we need to permit ourselves a few seconds here and there to acknowledge those Entrances, to momentarily connect to the Unity of all Creation, to the beauty that unfolds around us and from which we are inseparable, to the eternity that we can know that we live if we acknowledge our Oneness with G-d.

I’ll be praying you see Entrances as they open around you . . .

Shabbat shalom, jen