Of the fifty gates of understanding, there are only forty-nine gates that a human being can attain, as the sages teach us, “Fifty gates of understanding were created in the world and all of them were transmitted to Moses except one, as it says, ‘He lacked a little from God.’” Referring to the fiftieth gate of understanding, God told Moses, “You cannot see My face, for no human can see Me and live.” The forty-nine gates that reveal God’s control over the world manifest in our knowledge of God through our human intellect. However, intellectual knowledge of God is referred to as knowing God from His “back,” as Moses was told, “You shall see My back.” But, the fiftieth gate of understanding, knowing God from His “face,” of which it says, “My face will not be seen,” is above all the powers of our intellect. Knowing God’s “face” is an innermost knowledge that derives from one’s vital essence.
The forty-nine gates of understanding that can be attained by the intellect correspond to the forty-nine days of counting the Omer. During the Counting of the Omer we acquire more and more gates of understanding, which elevate and refine the seven attributes of our hearts―seven-times-seven. These seven attributes include the entire world of our emotions and our behavior that our minds should control. But, after attaining these forty-nine gates we reach the entrance to the unattainable fiftieth gate. This is the gate that we are not permitted to enter and even Moses, “the master of all prophets” did not merit to enter it in his lifetime.
Nonetheless, the inner dimension of the Torah explains that the fiftieth gate was revealed to us at the moment of the Giving of the Torah, when it was revealed to Moses, and through him to the entire Jewish people. Similarly, the light from that fiftieth gate illuminates the world every year on Shavuot, the Time of the Giving of our Torah. During the period while we count the Omer, we only count forty-nine days, yet the fiftieth day also participates in the count, as indicated by the commandment to, “count fifty days.” Even though we only count forty-nine days in practice, the fiftieth day is counted of its own accord.
Into the inner heart
Does this mean that the fiftieth gate is attainable, or not? Chassidut explains that although our normal intellectual faculties cannot attain the fiftieth gate it can be sensed and integrated in the inner point of the heart. This means that the heart’s exterior manifestations (the emotive attributes) lie beneath the intellectual faculties of the soul, therefore “the mind [can and should] control the heart.” But, the hidden inner point of the heart is above our intellect and we are usually unaware of it. Only at special moments in one’s life can one sense the delicate pulse of the fiftieth gate of understanding.
The first forty-nine gates of understanding are attainable through concentrated meditation and by contemplating God. This is the service by which we refine the external manifestation of our emotive attributes during the Omer Count. But, as this service reaches its culmination, I realize that after all that I have attained through my own intellect and knowledge, I actually know nothing at all. Then the inner point of the heart, the fiftieth gate suddenly sparks in our consciousness. This revelation is no longer dependent on our service, but it is a gift from above, that may be attained only after a long climb up the mountain. After we have counted forty-nine days, the Almighty Himself counts the fiftieth day and bequeaths us the gift of the Torah, “Moses rejoices in his gift legacy.”
Moses – the mind’s eye in the heart
By connecting to three righteous individuals whose personalities illuminate the festival of Shavuot in particular, we will gain some indication of the types of God’s service that enable us to sense the inner point of the heart where the fiftieth gate is hidden.
First and foremost, is Moses, our Teacher. “Moses received the Torah from Sinai,” and it is impossible to imagine the Giving of the Torah without Moses featuring at its focal point; Moses is the one who commanded the Torah to us. Moses personifies the Jewish people’s wisdom. He climbed the ladder to knowledge of God, he merited prophecy through “a clear lens” and in his merit the Torah’s infinite wisdom is now available to every Jewish soul. All this he achieved through his awe and his total selflessness (the inner experience of wisdom), “If there is no fear there is no wisdom.” Yet, the Zohar describes a dialogue between Moses’ soul and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s soul in which Moses complains that he did not realize the privilege of seeing God’s glory, “For no man shall see Me and live” and Rashbi responds, “in the mind’s eye of your heart you saw everything.” Although the normal eye of the intellect is unable to visualize God’s glory, the inner point of Moses’ heart certainly did envision it; even the fiftieth gate of understanding! Attaining this level is an intellectually taxing task. One must first hear a lot before one merits the insight of that hidden eye; “the mind’s eye of the heart.”
Thus, from Moses we learn the attribute of fear and the service of meditation, through which we can aspire to “know the God of your fathers and serve Him” and to learn about God and His ways.
David – the call of the heart
The second figure is King David, who was born and passed away on the festival of Shavuot and on Shavuot in his honor we read Megillat Ruth, the account of David’s genealogy. In general, King David attained the inner point of his heart by pouring out his soul in prayer and more specifically, through the prayers and supplications that he bequeathed us in the Book of Psalms.
Above all, David revealed the highest level of the heart’s inner point through his service of teshuvah(repentance). After he fell and acknowledged his sin, he cried out to God from the depths of his heart; embittered, he beseeched God and voiced his prayer, “Create me a pure heart, God, and a correct spirit renew within me. Do not cast me away from You and Your Divine spirit do not remove from me.” From the depths of his broken, weeping heart, David revealed the extraordinary power of repentance, and thus paved the way for each and every individual to return to God in heartfelt teshuvah. The lesson we learn from King David’s teshuvah is that if it is possible to break something, then it is possible to mend it. In the Zohar, teshuvah is associated with the sefirah of understanding, and from here we realize that the innermost level of teshuvah touches on the fiftieth gate of understanding.
Through honest prayer, “from the depths of the man and from a profound heart,” and through our service of teshuvah from which no-one is exempt, each and every one of us is able to identify with King David at some level.
The Ba’al Shem Tov – faith in the heart
Our third figure is that of the Ba’al Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, who also passed away on Shavuot.
The Ba’al Shem Tov told his disciples that his soul was sent to this world to arouse the Jewish people from the deep slumber of exile. One sure charm to waken a sleeping person from his sleep is to whisper his name in his ear, and so too, the Almighty whispered “Israel” in the ears of the entire Jewish people when he sent down to the world Rebbe Israel Ba’al Shem Tov’s holy soul. The Ba’al Shem Tov revealed how much every Jewish individual is connected to God in any circumstance, not only when he rises on the ladder of attaining Divine levels of spiritual insight, like Moses’, and not only when he cries out and returns to God like King David, but every Jew manifests an unchanging bond with God, because “the Jewish people and the Almighty are one.”
Empowered by the Ba’al Shem Tov’s Torah teachings, we can reveal our “Jewish essence”; that vital point of our souls that is always connected to God’s essence, of which the verse states, “I am asleep [in exile] but my heart is awake.” The moment that we successfully make contact with this point in our souls, our entire persona is aroused to God. In particular, this point reveals the power of faith that is above the mind. Faith is the legacy of the simple Jew just as it is the heritage of the greatest righteous individuals, and it is the point where it becomes clear that “Your people are all righteous.” Faith is the super-conscious crown of the soul that every Jew has upon his head, above all the conscious powers of his soul. The crown of faith reaches up to touch the unfathomable depths of the fiftieth gate of understanding.
On Shavuot we can identify with Moses’ wisdom and with his awe of God, with King David’s prayer and with his teshuvah, and with the simple faith of the Jewish people and the essence of the Jewish soul which the Ba’al Shem Tov revealed. In this way, we too may be privileged to experience a spark of the fiftieth gate of understanding that we merited at the Giving of the Torah, that very same fiftieth gate that will be completely revealed to us in the days of Mashiach; speedily and in our days. Amen.