The last weeks of summer are a primordial state of mind. Summer has happened. The year is over, but the next one has yet to begin. We yawn our way through the yawn-like days waiting to be reborn, thrown back into the world. In the meantime, we might catch a minute of sweetness here and there as happy hour keeps getting a few minutes earlier each day.
In one of those amorphous moments of sweetness this week I got to read a 13th century poem, which describes the time before we existed.
טֶרֶם הֱיוֹתִי חַסְדְּךָ בָאִָני
הַשָּׂם לְיֵשׁ איִן וְהִמְצִיאָנִי
She who makes something out of nothing,
She conceived me
Her kindness came to me
Before I came to be.
It’s tempting to hear in this a poem about a mother. That is probably your humble translator’s fault. Solomon Ibn Gabirol, the Paytan who penned the words was likely thinking about God. The period of time in question is probably not the 9 months of pregnancy, or even the months or years before it, but the unquantifiable, primordial end of the summer of the never-ending cycle of being and dying. “Before I came to be,” we learn, is a time of chesed, enduring love, ever-present kindness.
The early Kabbalists also tended to talk about primordial, pre-creation moments as sweet, or sublime. In Sefer Yetzira, the most ancient of the Kabbalistic books we find the following description of primordial chochmah, or wisdom:
“a pure and completely unalloyed light of life, inscribed and sealed in the splendor of the supreme vault, which is called The Naught, devoid of any notion.”
Before wisdom came to be it was not pieces of thought, ideas floating around with no form. It was a completely thought-free light. This sounds right to me. Most of the meaningful insights about my life come from a place of quiet, rather than from a place of busy internal conversation. Inhabiting such a place of quiet is a rare gift, a moment of chesed, out of which further gifts sometimes come.
In the 12th century in Provence, the practice of Kabbalah began to take its first baby steps toward becoming. Still close to its primordial time, these early Kabbalists seem to retain a memory or instinct for…