21 June 2017
A Kabbalistic Model of the Oceans and Continents Part 4
The Panama and Suez Canals
In modern times, man has created two great canals to connect all the oceans of the earth. The earlier of the two is the Suez Canal, which connects the cities of Port Sa’id on the Mediterranean Sea and Suez on the Red Sea. The Canal was officially opened for traffic on November 17, 1869 and is 163km long and 300m wide at its narrowest point.
The area expanded to make the Suez Canal was replete with small lakes and riverbeds, one of which according to some authorities was the Reed Sea that split for the Children of Israel when they came out of Egypt. In fact, the entire Red Sea is called the Reed Sea in the Torah. So, the original Reed Sea that split now makes part of the Suez Canal.12
Now, the Red Sea is an offshoot of the Indian Ocean pointing north towards the Mediterranean Sea. The Mediterranean Sea is an easterly offshoot of the Atlantic Ocean. So the Suez Canal is essentially creating a connection between the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. When we translate this into Kabbalistic terminology we find that the Suez Canal connects the sefirot of knowledge (the Indian Ocean) and understanding (the Atlantic Ocean). This essential link is captured in the sages’ saying: “If there is no knowledge there is no understanding; if there is no understanding there is no knowledge.”13
The second great canal constructed in modern times is the Panama Canal, which connects the Pacific Ocean with the Atlantic. The Panama Canal is considered one of the largest and most complex engineering projects ever undertaken.
Before the construction of the Canal the only route between the two oceans was around the tip of South America, around the infamously treacherous waters of Cape Horn. Before the Canal, the journey from New York to San Francisco over water was about 22,500 km. With the Canal, the distance is cut to 9,500km only. The Panama Canal is 77km long and was officially open for traffic on August 15, 1914.
Extending our analogy, we can envision the Panama Canal as acting like a connecting bridge between the mother and father principles, between the sefirot of understanding and wisdom. The link between wisdom and understanding is considered one of the most important in Kabbalah. The Zohar describes the two as “two friends that never part.”14
Northern and Southern Hemispheres
In order to discuss the continents we need to begin with a passage15 from the Zohar which sheds light on the relationship between the northern and southern hemispheres. In this particular passage, the Zohar discusses the essential nature of the elements and the four directions: north, south, east, and west. It is important to know that though the Zohar was well aware of the complexity of the Earth (as were all the sages, and most wise men of the ancient world), that it is a sphere and that the equator divides it into two hemispheres, its frame of reference is the northern hemisphere alone.
In order to orient ourselves correctly, we need to think of a person standing facing east (sunrise). To his left will be the north and to his right will be the south, and the west will be behind him. Now, as the Zohar states, normally, because the north is to the left it is identified with might, the sefirah that corresponds to the left hand. Likewise, the north will be identified with everything else that might is understood to correspond to. For instance, in terms of the four elements that we mentioned before, might corresponds to fire, so north would be associated with fire. South, which is to the right, is therefore identified with the sefirah of loving-kindness, since it corresponds to the right hand. The element corresponding to the right is water, so south is normally understood to correspond with water.
Each of the elements has a primary (essential) and secondary (accidental) quality,16 summarized in the following chart:
The two qualities of water are cold and wet. Let us say another word about water. Most people think that water is primarily (essentially) wet and only secondarily (accidentally) cold. But Kabbalah teaches that it is the other way around: water is primarily cold and secondarily wet.
One way to see this is by noting that much of the water in the world is in a frozen state as ice—in this state, it is not wet, but it is cold. The characterization of the primary and secondary characteristics of water is not purely academic; it has legal, or halachic ramifications. For instance, in regard to a mikveh—a pool of spiritually purifying waters—the question raised is: if we heat the water up so that it is more comfortable to immerse in, does the water still purify, or whether because it has lost its primary natural characteristic—coldness—it no longer purifies? The Alter Rebbe ruled in his time a novel ruling that even warm water purifies.
In any case, returning to the elements, according to the sages, water is cold and wet, while fire is hot and dry. Since, north corresponds to left and fire and south corresponds to right and water, it would seem that the south should be cold while the north should be hot. Throughout history, most of the people on earth have lived in the northern hemisphere, while even today only a small fraction of people live south of the equator. Now, the Zohar poses the following question: According to this correspondence, we would expect that the further north we go—relative to most of the world’s population—the hotter it should get, but in reality, we all know that this is not the case. The further north you go the colder it gets. And the opposite is also puzzling, because theoretically, the farther south you go (again relative to the vast majority of the world’s population which lives north of the equator) the cooler it should get, but clearly this is not the case because as you go south and get closer to the equator, the hotter the earth is.
The answer that the Zohar gives is (and there is a great deal of in-depth commentary on this topic17) that here we see the most important manifestation of the Kabbalistic principle called “they reversed places” (אחליפו דוכתייהו ) in a geographical context. This principle exhibits the essence of what a rectified state of reality is like. It is very similar to the later notion of 'inter-inclusion'. It means that two powers or forces have switched places. Each has left its natural vessel (in this case, its natural location on the globe) and entered into the vessel of the other. The locations where I expect to find cold and hot are reversed. The Zohar says that this is a very important phenomenon of the inhabited part of the Earth.
As mentioned above, the Zohar also knows that there is land south of the equator, but it says that this is the reason that most of mankind, from its very beginnings to date, lives in the Northern hemisphere, because only the northern hemisphere manifests this state of inter-inclusion. However, if you live in the southern hemisphere, the south is indeed cold and the north is indeed hot. In this sense, the southern hemisphere is natural. But, because it exhibits nature in its raw, still unrectified form, the southern hemisphere is considered less developed or less sophisticated than the northern hemisphere. You might say that the way that nature presents itself in the southern hemisphere is like the way an elementary school teacher presents things—everything fits exactly as it should and there are no surprises, no complexity. But, the land of the northern hemisphere, because of the inversion of the innate properties of north and south, is better suited for habitation in the sense that it is more amenable to reaching a state of mature rectification. You might say that the way that nature manifests in the northern hemisphere is the complex and multi-faceted presentation of a topic offered in an advanced graduate course.
Parts 5, 6 and final will continue after Shabbat