The Palm Tree of Devorah
By Rabbi Moshe Cordovero
Two books by two men called Moses describe proper behavior from the two ends of polar reasoning: Moses (Hebrew, Moshe) Cordovero tells what he considered how God wants people to act and think from a mystical perspective in his “The Palm Tree of Deborah (Hebrew, Devorah),” while Moses Maimonides offered a totally rationalistic approach in his “Eight Chapters.” I will summarize Cordovero’s view here, and Maimonides view in a separate review.
We have no idea what Cordovero meant by the title of his book. Rabbi Moshe Miller who translated and annotated this book, suggests that the title was taken from Judges 15:27 which states that the prophetes Deborah “sat under the palm tree of Deborah” and the title “clearly suggests an oasis. Perhaps [the author] intended [his] Kabbalistic works to quench the thirst and satisfy the appetites of those searching for ‘the sweet and goodly light’ of Torah.” Miller’s edition contains the Hebrew text and English translation, a thirteen-page Introduction to Cordovero the man and his writings, and 67 pages of notes which give sources and explains mystical and other concepts.
In his Introduction, among much else, Miller tells readers about the basic principles of Cordovero’s mysticism. God is made up of ten parts called sefirot. Each sefirah, the singular of the plural form sefirot, “performs a distinctive function.” The sefirot became disjointed, separated, causing God to be no longer whole. Humans can aid God to be rejoined by performing acts on earth. When God is rejoined, the messianic age will begin. (Cordovero does not say so, nor does Rabbi Miller, but rational thinkers consider the disjointed God with each part having a separate function as polytheism and the ability of humans to aid God to be rejoined as sympathetic magic, a performance on earth causes a similar act in heaven, such as pouring water from a jug causes rain to fall. Mystics answer, as do Christians who believe God is a trinity, that the ten are really one.)
Cordovero was born around 1522 and died at about the young age of 48 in 1570. He wrote several treatises in which he pointed out what he considered the fallacies of philosophy. His mysticism in “Palm Tree” is based on his understanding of Deuteronomy 28:9’s “you shall go in his [God’s] ways,” which the Midrash Sifrei explains means we should copy the behavior of God as they appear in the Torah. For example, God is described as compassionate, so humans should be compassionate. Cordovero sees the prophet Micah describing thirteen divine behaviors in Micah 7:18-20.
Micah states in the 1917 Jewish Publication Society translation nine statements, but Cordovero sees thirteen divine attributes:
“Who is a God like unto Thee, that pardoneth the iniquity,
And passeth by the transgression of the remnant of His heritage?
He retaineth not His anger for ever,
Because He delighteth in mercy.
He will again have compassion upon us;
He will subdue our iniquities;
And Thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.
Thou wilt show faithfulness to Jacob, mercy to Abraham,
As Thou hast sworn unto our fathers from the days of old.”
Cordovero teaches that the thirteen divine attributes of mercy tell people, using Rabbi Miller’s translations of Micah and Cordovero: (1) “Who is God like you”: tells us to be tolerant. (2) “Who pardons iniquity”: instructs people to be tolerate to one who sinned against him until the sinner mends his ways or the sin disappears of its own accord.” (3) “And forgives…transgression”: we should pardon sinners, just as God does. (4) [And forgives the transgression] of the remnant of His heritage”: has the prophet saying in essence that a person should not desire to see his fellow’s disgrace, suffering, or downfall. (5) “He does not maintain His anger forever”: people should not remain angry, even if the improper behavior persists. (6) “He delights in kindness”: even if a person is doing something bad to you, you should not judge the person by what the person is doing to you, but look for some good quality in the person and judge him by that good quality. (7) ”He will again show us compassion”: “when he sees that his fellow desires his friendship, [even though he was once angry at him] he should show him even greater compassion and love than before.” (8) “He will vanquish our iniquities”: “he should turn a blind eye to his faults as much as possible.” (9) “You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea”: have compassion on those who act improperly, “and save them from their enemies.” (10) “Show faithfulness to Ya’akov [Jacob]”: He “should not pervert the justice due his friend.” (11) “Kindness to Avraham [Abraham]”: “his conduct should go beyond the strict requirements of the Law.” (12) “Which you have sworn to our fathers”: “Even if he meets wicked people, he should not behave cruelly towards them or abuse them.” (13) “From days of old”: even if one cannot find a reason to show a bad person compassion, imagine that there must have been a time when the fellow was good.
In the remaining chapters of this book, Cordovero explains each of the ten sefirot and instructs his readers to copy the unique behavior of each sefirah and he tells what qualities one should develop to do it. For example, the first sefirah is Keter, and there are eight qualities that one must develop to emulate it: be humble, always have good thoughts, never show a harsh face, only listen to good things, never look at something despicable, receive people with a cheerful countenance, and never utter ugly words.
Readers of this mystical volume may reject the notion that God is made up of sefirot, and feel that Micah did not list thirteen distinct behaviors, for many repeat what has already been stated to emphasize the behavior, and some behaviors that Cordovero derives from Micah’s words are not implied in the words. Be this as it may, Rabbi Moshe Miller has given readers a prize with his translation of and notes to a Jewish classic.