Helen Keller's Kabbalistic Insight

05/21/2015 02:03 pm ET | Updated May 21, 2016

"In the still, dark world in which I lived there was no strong sentiment or tenderness," remarked Helen Keller in the years before what she would subsequently describe as her "soul's sudden awakening." Around age five, she became aware of the fact that she was unable to communicate in the same manner as other people. Her need for connection and communication became so acute that daily physical outbursts and a general sense of misery became routine. During this time of loneliness and isolation, she felt as if "invisible hands were holding me, and I made frantic efforts to free myself." In the summer of 1886, these efforts bore fruit when her father consulted Dr. Alexander Graham Bell for guidance. Dr. Bell advised Mr. Keller to contact the Perkins Institution in Boston, at which the Kellers found the teacher who would forever change Helen's life -- Anne Mansfield Sullivan.

Sullivan's technique, immortalized in Keller's own accounts and the play The Miracle Worker, was to write out words on Helen's hands whenever they interacted with a physical object -- a doll, the table, her mother and so on. At first, Helen simply mimicked, without understanding. One day, while (with remarkably apt symbolism) drawing water from a well, she broke through:

"As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten -- the thrill of a returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that 'w-a-t-e-r' meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!"

The word Kabbalah is often misinterpreted to mean "reception" -- implying a body of mystical information delivered from on high to those equipped to receive. This understanding is only partially correct. Kabbalah teacher Sarah Schneider outlines a more fulsome description of the term in her book, Kabbalistic Writings on the Nature of Masculine and Feminine, in which she demonstrates that the term is derived from the word makbilot, meaning "correspondence." As is written in Exodus 26:5 "You shall make 50 loops on one curtain, and you shall make 50 loops on the second that is to join with it. The loops of each shall be opposite and corresponding to each other."

When we build a conceptual correspondence, we create a tool by means of which we can understand reality with increased acuity. When a child makes the conceptual leap that a particular sound corresponds to a particular object, that child opens a door that allows it to enter a world of greater meaning. Any parent who has observed the process will attest to how quickly a child's vocabulary grows once it has, to paraphrase Blake, opened the doors of perception. A similar effort is required to pull a human being up and out of a purely materialistic way of viewing the world. The same attention and focus that Helen Keller employed to elevate herself out of her world of isolation and into the world of interaction and communication is required to graduate from the world of the purely material into the world of the spiritual. As Schneider explains:

"Perhaps the most classic focus of correspondence meditation is called the 'Fifty Gates of Understanding.' These are fifty levels of integrating what it means that God is one, and each portal leads to a more rectified state of consciousness. When the Torah describes 'one set of fifty loops corresponding to and opposite a second set,' it alludes to this meditation." In other words, there are deeper and deeper insights that need to be grasped, level by level, in order to bridge the gap between our basic, material conception of the world and the higher, and truer nature of reality.

Helen Keller's early frustration and despondence at her inability to communicate is no different than our own daily, existential anxiety. Each of us is, necessarily, subject to limitations, and, accordingly, to limited perspective. Despite being able to gaze deeply into unimaginably distant galaxies and peer down into the tiniest wisps of matter, many of us feel hollow and lack a clear sense of understanding and purpose. Despite everything we learn, we struggle, often fruitlessly, to understand our lives, our fellow human beings and, indeed, just about everything else. Why do things occur as they do? How does it all fit together? What does it all really mean?

Ecclesiastes reminds us that regardless of our material advances and innovations, "there nothing new under the sun." The endless ebb and flow of the tides, while beautiful, never actually lead anywhere, and our eyes are never sated from seeing, nor our ears from hearing. How then, can we ever escape the material world's futility and the fundamental limitation of perspective that it causes? By remembering that while there may be nothing new "under the sun," there are realms beyond the doors of our immediate perception which relate to our truest, most fundamental needs. Beyond those doors await peace of mind, acceptance, joy, authentic meaning. We have but to open them.

The Kabbalists envisioned a future time in which the world would be so dark that we wouldn't even know how blind we were. Could we be there now? What would you give to experience the same degree of illumination that Helen Keller had the day that she climbed out of her dark world, into the light?