This past week, our grandson had his upsherenesh, the first haircut for three-year-old boys, a cause for celebration in many Jewish communities, including Chabad’s. In one sitting, Izzy and Devorah’s son, Schneur Zalman, known as Shnay, was warmly welcomed into the world of male mitzvos; he now wears fringed tzitzis and a yarmulke on his newly shorn head, reminders that G-d is everywhere around him. By simply leaving peyot (Hebrew for earlocks), he has already fulfilled a Biblical commandment that prohibits a Jewish man from totally removing the hair at the side of the ear where the skull meets the jawbone.
If you want to to know the simple reason for this prohibition, it’s that G-d tells us to do it. If you want to learn the mystical significance of leaving peyot, suffice it to say there’s a lot there. Rabbi Yosef Y. Jacobson’s extensive article on Chabad.org explains the significance of the hair on the head (connected to keter, or crown, representing his deepest yet highest source, his soul’s connection to G-d) and the hair of a man’s potential beard (representing his subconscious psyche, one rung down the spiritual ladder), with peyot serving as a filtering channel to ensure optimum function between a man’s soul, brain and body. (Good news for girls if I haven’t lost you yet: the reason women don’t need facial hair to access this part of their cognitive subconscious is that women are naturally more attuned to this spirituality.)
As I read the article, and I read it quite a few times, I was astounded by many things. How much Rabbi Jacobson knows, how much there is to know, and how much I don’t know. Did you know that the lower energy stemming from the subconscious cognitive impressions of the human psyche, located within the higher and lower brain, is known as Mocha Stima’a, which means “the hidden cognition”?
I didn’t. No matter how many times I read it, the layers and levels were not coming together for me in a way that I could make it come together for you.
Then I thought, maybe I need to brush-up on my psychology. Could it be that I wasn’t clear exactly what “cognition” means? I always thought it meant “thought,” but Wikipedia said that cognition is “all mental abilities and processes related to knowledge” and went on to list twelve examples of things your brain does, followed by “etc.”
I just wanted to know, are we aware of our “sub conscious cognition” or not?
Somehow, my grasp on the significance of male hair was feeling pretty tentative. I guess you could say I felt stranded.
But I understood enough to be overjoyed that Shnay was entering a Jewish world so rich with depth and meaning.
Especially since so much of that Jewish world was enlightened by his namesake, the first Rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, known as the Alter Rebbe.
Just prior to his passing on the 24th of Teves in 1812, (his upcoming yahrtzeit corresponds to January 15th), the Alter Rebbe wrote a discourse, which, fortunately for me, I was able to at least think I could grasp.
It discusses the connection between G-d and the physical world:
G‑d is the ultimate self-defined being—a being not preceded by any cause, a being who exists to no end other than itself. This is how He perceives Himself—for this is what He is. Other than G‑d, there is only one other being that sees and presents itself as such—the physical object. But the physical object sees and presents itself as such only because it was instilled with this self-perception by its Creator. And in granting it this self-perception, G‑d has imbued the physical object with a quality that is uniquely His. Only G‑d, who Himself possesses absolute being, can create something that exudes such absoluteness of being—something that regards itself as having no other cause preceding it.
So the great lie of the material reality is also a great truth. It is a great lie, because it presents itself as a true existence when the only true existence is G‑d. It is a great truth, because the truth it so falsely appropriates to itself is a representation, imprinted in its very being, of the truth of its Creator.
If we take the material world at face value, it is a challenge to the exclusivity of G‑d. But if we delve deeper into its essence and origin, it is the ultimate attestation to His truth. If we listen to what the physical object says about itself, we hear a blatant denial of its Source; but if we look at what it is, we see an analogue of the divine being.
This is why the mitzvot—the building blocks of G‑d’s home in creation and the ultimate facilitators of our relationship with G‑d—are physical deeds enacted with physical objects: not only because the material world is the greatest challenge to the divine truth (making its conquest the greatest proof of its potency), but also because, in the final analysis, physical matter is the most divine of G‑d’s creations.
Nothing is simple in Jewish life–not even a little boy’s haircut. And it’s a gift from G-d to be able to recognize and celebrate that.