Recently I got to see a “butterfly release” in the park. A woman and her daughter who grow a butterfly friendly garden, had raised Monarchs and were releasing them into their native habitat. From there, the butterflies would live for two weeks, but the third generation would live for eight months and migrate from New York’s Hudson River to a mountain top in Mexico that they had never seen or known.
Nature is full of wonders!
Butterflies are both a natural amazement and a spiritual symbol. Shortly after my mother passed away in Texas, I met a friend who was a Jungian analyst. She was wearing a large pin shaped like a butterfly. When it caught my eye and I complimented her, she explained that the butterfly is a symbol of the soul’s transformation beyond the physical body.
Later, back home in California, I was pondering her words as I looked at some mementos of my mother. There was a photo that I had taken of Mom with my teacher Reb Zalman (Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi) at Elat Chayyim retreat center. Suddenly I noticed that she was wearing a black dress with colorful butterflies embroidered all over it! It was what Jung himself would have called a synchronicity, a coincidence from which we derive psychological or spiritual meaning.
Although I can’t find much about butterflies in ancient Jewish sources, in many cultures these beautiful flying creatures who were once ungainly caterpillars are viewed as symbols of transformation and even of the survival of the soul beyond the body. A few years after my mother died, a close family friend was killed in a mountain climbing accident. At the second anniversary of his death, we stood with his parents beside his grave and I said the 23rd Psalm in Hebrew. As I prayed, there was another synchronicity moment, as everyone saw a giant butterfly flying over my head.
While Judaism tends to be focused on this world and our obligation to make it a better place for all, we are not lacking in teachings of the afterlife. The beautiful thing is that you can almost have your pick, because over the centuries Jews have believed in heaven (gan eden), resurrection, reincarnation (gilgul nashamot, a belief from Kabbalah), and/or a more humanistic outlook of living on in one’s offspring, students, or deeds. (My friend Dr. Simcha Paull Raphael literally “wrote the book” on this topic with his Jewish Views of the Afterlife and other resources and teachings about death, dying, and the journey of soul.)
Want to go further in the understanding of soul? Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) describes five levels of God consciousness , or levels of the soul. But think of them more like nesting globes than a ladder, for the most embodied dimension is surrounded with the more ethereal ones.
The first three levels are Nefesh (life force of the body), Ruach, (spirit/emotional soul), and Neshamah (higher soul/intellectual soul). Imagine an athlete who glows with physical energy, an artist who inspires, or a sage who radiates gentle and powerful wisdom, and you have an idea of how these three qualities of Soul can manifest. Beyond these are higher levels: Chaya (Transpersonal Soul, the destiny that we glimpse at certain key moments in a lifetime), Yechidah (beyond our usual comprehension, the level of Soul unified with God).
Personally, deep spiritual experiences have taken me from agnosticism on the afterlife to a firm conviction that our soul, the divine conscious energy within us, transcends our current identity. I believe that our lives are unique and each moment is precious beyond compare, but there is more to us than our current physical form. The transitory nature of life makes me humble, but it also makes me appreciate every moment and relationship, while also striving to fulfill my unique and God-given mission on earth.
And sometimes, it might take a tiny butterfly to remind me what it’s all about.
Encores: Butterfly Video and Dragonfly Post
Enjoy a butterfly moment:
Dragonflies are also enchanting winged creatures that symbolize transformation and self-realization in many cultures. Perhaps it’s the association with water, wind, or a lightness of being, as well as their beautiful colors. Looking at this gorgeously glowing Ebony Jewelwing was a moment of pure enchantment for me:
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The encounter with this intensely luminous, aptly named Ebony Jewelwing, was a moment that leaves me struggling for words. I made sure to gaze and be fully present to absorb its tiny, shining teal on jet black beauty, not just snap photos. What’s the word to describe those few seconds of perfection: Magical? Sacred? Glowing? Aura? Or just Beautiful? (I do my best to capture the ineffable with my humble camera.) #ebonyjewelwing #damselfly #insectsofinstagram #naturephotography #macros #macroperfection #naturespirit #wingedcreatures #naturephotography #lumixphotography @rockefellerstatepark @rockysparkfriends #wellspringsofwisdom
Featured Image: Monarch Butterfly after release at Rockefeller State Park Preserve, New York, Julie Hilton Danan