The Golden Chai: A Creative Meditation on Life and Jewish Mysticism
by Rev. Gina Rose Halpern, D.Min.
Though I was born into a Jewish family post-Holocaust, post-Russian pogroms, I knew very little of my Jewish roots. We were secular Jews. Later when I was in my 30’s I met with my great-aunt. I was stunned when she told me that our great-great-great-grandfather was the Baal Shem Tov, Master of the Holy Names, and the founder of the Jewish Hasidic movement.
“How is it,” I asked, “that no one ever told me about this before?” My great-aunt replied, “We were persecuted. We were slaughtered. We were exiled. We came to America to assimilate and leave the past behind.”
In recent years a strong connection to Judaism has reawakened in me, further deepened by teachings from two Judaism modules that CHI offers.
Not long before the beginning of the Mystical Judaism module, in search of an image to paint, I was moved to light my great-great-grandmother’s Shabbos candlesticks. I prayed, “Oh God, I open myself to you. If it be your desire, give me an image to paint for our seminary about mystical Judaism.”
The next morning I awoke with two images. One was the Star of David (Mogen David) that sprouted into a tree, a Tree of Life, reminding me of the Song of Songs in the Jewish scriptures. Inside the golden star was the symbol Chai, which in Hebrew means ‘life’. It is a combination of two letters, including the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Yod, which looks like a teardrop.
I began to sketch out the image and quickly found myself entering into a state of prayer as I drew:
The Tree of Life became the Burning Bush that Moses knelt before when God spoke to him.
The golden Chai at the center of the star began to be a stream of life, watering the tree, watering all of Judaism—and beyond, watering all of life, infusing life with vitality. I placed a second Chai underneath the star, as if it was tapping into the deep underground wellspring of spirituality that nurtures all creation.
The letter Yod, which is part of the two-letter word Chai, is like a seed—similar to the Om in Sanskrit. As the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet, it still holds the great power of germinating. Small golden Yods began to appear in my painting as fruit falling from the Burning Bush.
The painting began to fill with vibrant color. Remembering the passage of the Jewish people fleeing Egypt through the sea as it parted, making way to the Promised Land, the image moved from a thought into an expression of the spark of Chai… and of CHI .
In Mystical Judaism it is said that once upon a time, great vessels of light were shattered, and that our work is to gather together those sparks of light and re-ignite the spirit in the heart of all beings and all creation. The painting began to take on the shape of a golden vessel, a golden egg, the womb of life, drawing the sparks back together, re-knitting them into a whole fabric of vibrating renewal.
As I continued to paint, I felt a deep connection to my heritage. I felt the waters of life bubble up in me. I felt the golden spark of Chai kindled in my heart. I felt reconnected to my tribe.
When my friend Hana Matt viewed the completed painting, she said it was as if I had captured an essential teaching of my ancestor the Baal Shem Tov, which flowed through me into the painting. Hana offered this visualization, which I will now share with you. Called the Light Meditation, it was recommended by the Baal Shem Tov in the 18th century:
“The Feminine Divine Presence, Shekhinah, rests on your head as light. Focus on this. Now imagine this light flowing down all around you and through you, filling you. You are sitting immersed in the midst of the light, sitting in the pure air. Imagine yourself filled with light. By this, you sanctify your place. Then you become a throne for the light of the Divine Presence.” (Source: Keter Shem Tov)
To Life! May we each experience the kindling of Yod—that germinating golden spark, that golden seed, the spark of life, the bursting forth of Chai.