Lech Lecha: Abraham and the Wisdom of the Book of Formation

231 Gates

God created the world with the holy language, Hebrew. Sefer Yetizrah (The Book of Formation), the very first Kabbalistic text, describes this process and mentions that gates—two letter combinations of Hebrew letters—are a central ingredient in the construction of the universe. Because Hebrew has 22 letters, there are 462 or “231 front and back,” possibilities for combining two different letters. One of the most beautiful permutations of the word “Israel,” ישראל , is יש רלא , which literally means “there exist 231,” alluding to these 231 gates. Traditionally, the wisdom of Sefer Yetzirah is attributed to Abraham. The book itself was put into its final form in the Second Temple period, a task attributed to Rabbi Akiva, the revealer of Kabbalistic wisdom in that period and the Rebbe of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.

Over the generations, many different systems have been proposed for ordering the 231 gates. If you prefer, at this point you can skip the technical details that follow, and skip to the next section heading. Of these the most exact and useful corresponds the 231 gates to the 11sefirot, from crown to kingdom (including knowledge, which makes it 11 sefirot in total), while defining a “front” and “back” side to each sefirah, which can be understood as the conscious and non-conscious attributes of each sefirah as it appears in the psyche or the inner and external aspects of each sefirah as it appears in the physical world. For quick reference, let us include the full chart indicating these correspondences, but first let us present the legend for the chart that appears on the next page:

(because of size limitations, the table appears only in the PDF version of this document)

Note the bold lettered set of 11 gates forming the diagonal of this chart. In Kabbalah these are also called the Albam (so named because of the first two gates: אל בם ) mapping, and are noted in many sources as the “soul of the 231 gates.” The final row in this table, row 11B, includes the 11 gates that make up what is also called the Atbash (again, so named for the first two gates: את בש ) mapping.

Abraham and Eliezer revisited

Without getting further into the nature of this chart, let us merely focus on what the first and last gates are. The first gate, which corresponds to the front of the crown of crown is אל ; the final gate, which corresponds to the back of the kingdom of kingdom is כל .

אל alludes to the phrase “the God of faith”1 (אל אמונה ), a connotation for God strongly related to Abraham, the father of all faithful. Indeed, in the continuation our parshah, the Torah notes that Abraham “Had faith in God, and He [God] considered it a kindness.”2 Thegematria of this phrase in Hebrew והאמן בי־הוה ויחשבה לו צדקה is equal to the value of Atik Yomin, עתיק יומין , the name of the inner partzuf of crown, to which the gate אלcorresponds.

The back of the gate כל , which therefore corresponds to back of the kingdom of the Atbashmapping, which itself corresponds to the back of kingdom, is לך . This is of course the two letter combination that gives our parshah its name: לך לך , “Lech lecha.” If we write out the first verse of our parshah in full, we see that both אל and לך appear in it:

ויאמר ה’ אל אברם לך לך מארצך ומלדתך ומבית אביך אל הארץ אשר אראך

This illustrates that both the beginning and the end of the actual building blocks of creation are included in the first verse of our parshah, exemplifying Sefer Yetzirah’s adage that “the end is enwedged in the beginning.”

Moreover, each of these two gates appears twice in the first verse:

ויאמר ה’ אל אברם לך לך מארצך ומלדתך ומבית אביך אל הארץ אשר אראך

And, together אל לך = אנכי , and therefore אל אל לך לך אנכי אנכי . The doubling of a word, even in a pronoun in Hebrew, is understood as a stress of that word3 (unlike English where normally, there is no meaning to doubling a word).

The written and oral Torah

The gate אל is not only the first of the 231 gates, it is also the root of the entire Written Torah. The Zohar interprets that the word אל , in the verse “The heavens speak the glory of God [אל ],”4 alludes to “God, the light of wisdom.”5 The Torah, as the Zohar says, “Emerges from wisdom.”6 Thus, the source of the Written Torah, which is the Torah that comes from Heaven, is in wisdom, to which the gate אל refers.

Similarly, the gate לך is not only the last of the 231 gates, it is also the beginning and starting point for the Oral Torah. The gate לך is the grammatical source for the word “halachah” (הלכה ), the legal aspect of the Torah with which the Oral Torah is concerned. The literal meaning of the word “halachah” is “a path.” All the commandments of the Torah are paths for traveling the world. Indeed, the sefirah of kingdom is usually related to the Oral Torah, as in the introduction to the Tikunei Zohar, where kingdom is describes as “the mouth. It is called the Torah transmitted by word of mouth [i.e., the Oral Torah].”

Abraham from heaven, Eliezer from earth

In Hebrew, Abraham, אברהם is equal to 8 times the gate אל : אברהם = 8 · אל . This leads us to analyze the correspondence between Abraham and his servant Eliezer and the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. Abraham corresponds to the Written Torah; Eliezer to the Oral Torah. As we have explored in length, Eliezer was the garment that Abraham donned in order to succeed in refining and rectifying the Canaanites and thereby transform the Land of Canaan into the Land of Israel, which his offspring would later inherit. Eliezer therefore represents Abraham’s connection with the mundane reality he has come to rectify.

But, since everything in the Torah appears in archetypes, Abraham’s refinement of Eliezer himself is the source of the Oral Torah, which in its essence reflects the unique ability of the Jewish people to correctly understand the manner in which the will of the Almighty should be applied to the mundane. The Oral Torah is the practical manifestation of the Divine edict that “truth will emerge out of the earth,”7 i.e., out of the Land of Canaan as it is transformed into the Land of Israel. The seal of the Almighty is truth. But, there are two types of seals: embossed and engraved. The embossed seal of the Almighty represents the Written Torah as it descends from Heaven to inform the earth. The more the Written Torah descends, the more it invites its reverse, the engraved seal that represents the Oral Torah, to fashion the yoke of Heaven by developing the Oral tradition. In fact, the engraved seal of the Oral Torah actually has more impact than the embossed seal that descends from Above, as is known from the famous idiom “Torah is not in Heaven,”8 and the Almighty’s acknowledgment to various rulings made by the sages that contradicted the verdicts arrived at in the Heavenly court.9

The spiritual energy invested in the Oral Torah originates in the elevation of the 288 sparks of holiness that fell into the mundane. To elevate these sparks of holiness one needs to be able to see the holiness trapped within the mundane. Such insight into reality can only be had from a spiritual awakening that originates in Heaven. Every day, every Jew is called upon to search for the holiness in his or her world. Finding this holiness is akin to freeing the 288 sparks from their earthly prison, as it were. Every successful such deliverance of reality leads to the further development of the Oral Torah, which is symbolized by Eliezer.

Eliezer: the symbolic source of the oral Torah

The first two letters of Eliezer in Hebrew are אל (אליעזר ). This is the first of the 231 gates and the one that we said corresponds to the source of the Written Torah. Thus the first part of Eleizer’s name, אלי , which literally means “my God,” represents the awakening from Above (the descending embossed seal) that transforms the mundane into an instrument for the Divine. This transformation is represented by the last part of Eliezer’s name, עזר , which literally means “an aid, or helper,” alluding to the role of Eve, to be Adam’s helper,10 where Adam and Eve too symbolize the first archetypes of male and female, of the Written Torah (Heavenly, masculine, embossed, descending) and the Oral Torah (mundane, feminine, engraved, ascending).

As an aside we can explain that when the awakening from Above seems to be lacking, when a person feels for whatever reason that God remains concealed from him or her, then the אליpart of אליעזר , becomes the call: אלי אלי למה עזבתני , “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me.”11 But, the words of this call exactly equal the words describing Abraham’s steadfast belief in God—“And he [Abraham] had faith in God, and He [God] considered it a kindness“—even in difficult times when it was not clear to him how God’s covenant with him would be kept:

אלי אלי למה עזבנתי = ויאמן ביהוה ויחשבה לו צדקה = עתיק יומין !

Eliezer and the Mashiach

From all of the above, we can understand why the Arizal taught that Eliezer’s soul is strongly related to the soul of the Mashiach. The Mashiach represents the consummate realization of the ascent of man from below to reach God. From the creation of Adam, the Almighty has been seeking a man after His own heart, an individual who would live his (or her) own life (and inspire others to do the same) in such a way that it would reflect the epitome of the possible relationship between the embodied soul and God, as the revealer of His will in the Torah. This individual would unify the earth with the heavens, thereby revealing the inherent holiness within the mundane. Far from giving up on the garments and vessels of the world, the Mashiach will indeed sanctify them and focus his efforts on utilizing them as instruments of holiness. The key to the Mashiach’s success is his ability to apply the Written Torah (in this context, everything that was written by the sages and the commentators of later generations, and was accepted by the entire nation as part of the normative Torah, is part of the “Written Torah”) to reality, by expanding the corpus of the Oral Torah.

As such, the Arizal identifies the various (Jewish) reincarnations of Eliezer’s soul with various great figures in the Oral Tradition. The most important rectification of Eliezer’s soul appeared in the life of Benayahu ben Yehoyada,12 the head of the Sanhedrin in King David’s court. The name “Benayahu” בניהו literally means, “the son of Yehu,” where Yehu are the first three letters of God’s essential Name, Havayah (spelled: yud hei vav). His father’s name,Yehoyada, יהוידע , literally means “the one who knows Yehu,” where again Yehu are the first three letters Havayah. Thus, the Arizal taught that Eliezer’s soul was reincarnated in both father and son.

The numerical value of “Benayahu,” בניהו , is equal to “wisdom,” חכמה . The first part of his name בנ is the connotation of the filling of God’s essential Name, Havayah that corresponds with the sefirah of kingdom and the Oral Torah (יוד הה וו הה = בן ). Together, the two parts of his name mean that he was the one who added lower wisdom, the wisdom of the Oral Torah, into the first three letters of God’s essential Name, which correspond to the Heavenly, Written Torah. Indeed, his full name בניהו בן יהוידע בן איש חי equals 611, the numerical value of Torah תורה , alluding to his contribution to the expansion of the tradition of the Oral Torah here below.

If we add the gematrias of these three incarnations of Eliezer’s soul—Eliezer, Benayahu, and Yehoyada—we find that the sum is the value of the world “kingdom,” which is also twice the value of “Abraham”:

אליעזר בניהו יהוידע מלכות = אברהם אברהם !

The initial and final letters of these three names are: אר יע בו , whose numerical value is 289, or 172, or ברא אלהים (“[In the beginning] God created…”). The rest of the letters ליעז ניה הויד = אור , “light,” the first thing that God created, and of course alluding to the Torah itself whose Hebrew name stems from the word “light.” The value of these letters also equals the Hebrew words for “infinite,” אין סוף , alluding to the infinite nature of the light that God created, as well as the infinite nature, wisdom, and applicability of the Torah.

Amazingly, later this same soul was reincarnated in the figure of the prophet Zachariah. The numerical value of “Zachariah” in Hebrew is exactly that of “Abraham”: זכריהו = אברהם !


1. Deuteronomy 32:4.

2. Genesis 15:6.

3. See Isaiah 43:11, 43:25, and elsewhere.

4. Psalms 19:2.

5Zohar III, 31a. See Pardes Rimonim 20:5.

6Zohar II, 121a.

7. Psalms 85:12.

8. Deuteronomy 30:12.

9Baba Metzi’a 59a-b.

10. See Genesis 2:18.

11. Psalms 22:2.

12. See II Samuel 23:20-23.