Aryeh Kaplan’s classic book, Jewish Meditation presents many techniques for focusing one’s attention in order to perceive dimensions of reality that are otherwise hidden. I love his discussion of the letters shin and mem. The sound we make with sin/shin is a hissing noise, a chaotic cacophony. In contrast, the mem, Kaplan writes, “is pure harmonic sound, the epitome of order and regularity.” He continues, “the shin denotes a hot, chaotic state of consciousness (fire=aish), while the mem denotes a cool, harmonic state (water=mayim).” The idea is to move from a normal unfocused state of consciousness, of shin, to a focused stated of mem, which is associated with prophecy (as in the story of Elijah and the kol demmama of prophecy). The two letters combine to form the words sheim (name) and sham (there) which are associated with the “transition from the chaos of the general to the harmony of the particular.” (130) I might add that the splintered shape of the shin (ש) and the round shape of the final mem (ם) further indicate their respective associations with chaos and harmony.
You can practice meditating on these letters with a simple exercise. Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Exhale with the sound of shin, inhale, and then exhale with mem. You can visualize these letters if you like. You may also add the ayin to complete the word shema. As Kaplan notes, ayin is valued in numerology as 70, a number associated with the creation. Saying the shema in a meditative state, we can share in the creative transition from chaos to cosmos.
On a weekly basis, and sometimes every day, we hear of horrid incidents when a person’s internal state of jealousy, anger or hatred is expressed in violence. Until that moment there is the possibility that their rage may subside or be sublimated in a non-destructive fashion. That decision point, when a person either pushes back at the darkness, or plunges fully into it, is a fateful moment which can lead to life or death for them and their neighbors. Dark thoughts may lead to dark deeds, but until they do, there remains the chance that light can banish darkness, and calamity can be averted.
One of the most poetic and profound examples of the link between jealousy and violence is the speech made by God to Cain prior to his murder of Abel. Cain is jealous that his brother’s sacrifice has been preferred to his own, and his “face falls.” Robert Alter translates the divine poem thus: Why are you incensed, and why is your face fallen? For whether you offer well, or whether you do not, at the tent flap sin crouches, and for you is its longing but you will rule over it. Of course, Cain does not rule over his sin—his jealous rage—but allows it to rule over him. Sin longs for Cain, and Cain longs for sin, so it wins and the earth absorbs Abel’s blood. The rest of Genesis builds upon this theme of jealousy and violence between brothers, offering only tentative steps towards reconciliation. The culmination of this theme is the saga of Jacob’s twelve sons.
From the outset of Parashat VaYeshev, Joseph inspires jealousy and hatred in his older brothers. The striped tunic given him by Jacob becomes a symbol of his beloved status and of their rage. It is no accident then that the moment when rage turns to violence involves the tunic. When Joseph arrives in Dothan, seeking “the peace of his brothers,” they instead “strip Joseph of his tunic, the ornamented tunic that he had on him.” This attack is not the beginning of their hatred, nor is it the first clue to the inner state of the brothers. They had earlier challenged Joseph on his dreams of domination. But this moment is the point of no return, when they grab their brother, rip off his despised tunic and throw him into a pit. Continue reading