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Kabbala #13: The Interplay of Matter and Form

May 8, 2009 | by Rabbi Shimon Leiberman

Creation of raw matter is an act of chesed-kindness. Giving form to creation requires the restraint of gevurah-strength.

Matter and form are concept familiar to anyone with a passing acquaintance with Greek philosophy. The most familiar example of their interaction is a sculpture -- the stone is the matter and the chiseling the form. Another example is a room decorated in a meaningful way with furniture –- the individual pieces of furniture are the matter and the arrangement and the atmosphere it projects are the form. Simply summed up: the matter is the physical material, and the form is the concept imprinted on the matter (or material).

But let us take a closer look at this interplay. Matter is the material that is there, while form is that which is not there. The stone that is present in the statue is the material, while the form is created by chiseling away and removing the stone. The more sharply the lines are delineated, the more form we have. In Hebrew, the word for form is tzurah and it is related to tzar, meaning "narrow" or "constricted."

This relationship can readily be traced to the chesed-gevurah interaction, which we began to discuss in the last installment to these series.

The true form of the world is brought into being by using the raw material in a meaningful way.

The act of creation was for us an act of chesed, as we mentioned, and as such produced that which "is" in the world. The world is full of things: earth, rocks, trees, animals, oceans, forests, etc. This is not the content of the world that was meant to be, but rather the raw material from which the true world is meant to be sculpted from. This is the matter. The true form of the world is brought into being by using the raw material in a meaningful way.

Torah is form -- it tells us how to use each and every element in the universe to create the Divine picture. The Torah restrains mankind and defines man’s scope of activity, giving shape and form to the world. This is parallel to the sefira of gevurah, which, as was explained, often manifests itself as restraint.

A child who receives a box of 92 crayons, takes them all out and makes lines with each color. This is how the child initially sees the beauty of all the colors. The teacher then instructs the child how to use the colors -- that this color be used only lightly, this one for outline, this one for shading, etc. The teacher is showing the child to impose form on these various colors. At first the child may feel constrained by the various rules and regulations imposed on him. But then he realized that this discipline brings out the true beauty inherent in these colors.


Torah does the same for us. We come into the world and look around us, and our senses urge us to "take it all." The Torah then imposes a discipline on our desires -- this is for purpose A, this is for purpose B, this is used only in certain specific occasions. At first the discipline of the Torah seems restrictive. But then we realize that God is teaching us to build ourselves in His image from the raw materials at hand.

Clothes that are droopy suggest lack of care, no discipline, no control; crisp tailored lines suggest the opposite.

Our senses give us the same feeling. Clothes that are loose, baggy, droopy, for example, suggests a lack of care, no discipline, no control. On the other hand, sharp creases, well-defined lines, tailored-fitting suggest control and discipline.

This perspective on the relationship between chesed- gevurah gives a new dimension to the structure of Torah commandments.

Nachmanides, a 13th century Kabbalist and commentator explains the commandment structure as divided into two categories: positive and negative. Positive commandments include activities such as blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashana, the study of Torah, the wearing of the tallit, etc. Negative commandments include the prohibition against eating non-kosher food, the prohibition against promiscuity, the prohibition against desecrating the Sabbath, etc. Nachmanides explains that the positive commandments have their roots in the chesed of God, while the negative commandments are from the gevurah of God.

As people brought up in modern Western society, we chafe at restrictions.

This is a definition that is very important to us. We personally find it much easier to perform the positive commandments than the negative ones. It is relatively easy to study Torah occasionally, to give charity, to listen to the shofar, etc. But as people brought up in modern Western society, we chafe at restrictions. We might grudgingly recognize some of the reasons for certain restrictions, but a general life style that is so restrictive runs counter to our basic cultural upbringing.

The truth, however, is that it is these restrictive prohibitions that give us "form and shape," similar to the chiseling of the sculpture. A person is not defined as knowledgeable, by getting a hundred questions right on a test, if the test consists of five hundred questions. Similarly if a person does ten acts of kindness, we do not call him a person of kindness or goodness, unless this is a real percentage of his activities. More so, if the person refrains from doing unkind acts. For then the goodness describes the entire person. All of his activities are cut to the pattern of kindness.


The relationship of matter and form is reflected, according to the teachings of our rabbis, in the 248 positive commandments, which parallel to the 248 "limbs" and "organs," and by the 365 negative commandments, which parallel the 365 giddim in a person. Giddim refer to many types of connective tissue, i.e. sinew, tendon, ligament, even certain visible nerves that are of considerable length.

This parallel helps us understand the role of positive versus negative commandments. The positive commandments are the actual substance of Judaism. They are the limbs. Therefore, the negative commandments shape the overall structure of Judaism and the Jewish person.

When Adam was placed in the Garden of Eden, he was charged with "working" and "guarding" the Garden. These two tasks were the forerunners of the positive and negative commandments. "Working" a garden is an act that encourages the growth of the positive elements, i.e. the fruits. "Guarding" the garden is an act that repulses the negative forces. Some of the negative forces such as fire and flood simply destroy the garden and its fruit. But there are also negative forces, such as weeds and animals that do not so much destroy the fruit, but destroy the structural appearance of a garden. A garden that is neglected does not so much cease to bear fruit, as it loses its shape and form. Less and less does it look like an organized, unified purposeful entity, and more and more it looks like a hodgepodge of random fruit sticking out from a mess of rocks and brambles.

We recognize that the purpose of our lives is not merely to do good things, but rather to become a good person. A good person is one who is shaped by goodness. Goodness directs what he does and dictates the limits of what he may do. We realize that it is the prohibitions that shape and define our person and mold us in the image of God.

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