רבי חזקיה פתח
 .כתיב כשושנה בין החורים
?מאן שושנה
דא כנסת ישראל, בגין דאית שושנה ואית שושנה
מה שושנה דאיהי בין החורים אית בה סומק וחוור, אוף כנסת ישראל אית בה
דין ורחמי
מה שושנה אית בה תליסר עלין, אוף כנסת ישראל אית בה תליסר מצילין דרחמי דסחרין לה מצל סטרהא
אוף אלקים דהכה משעתא דאדבר, אפיק תליסר תיבין לסחרא לכנסת ישראל  ולנטרא לה

“Rabbi Chizkiah opened [his discourse and said]:
It is written: ‘As a rose among the thorns, [so is my beloved among the daughters.‘] [1]
Who is the rose?
It’s ‘Knesset Yisrael.‘ For there is a rose and there is a rose.
Just as a rose, which is found amidst the thorns, has within it the colors red and white, also Knesset Yisrael has within her both judgment and lovingkindness.
Just as a rose has in it thirteen petals, so too Knesset Yisrael has within her thirteen paths of mercy,
just as there are 13 words between the first mention of the name Elokim [2] and the second [3
which surround her from all her sides.” [4]

Why does Rabbi Chizkiah begin with a quotation from “Shir ha-Shirim/Song of Songs?”
“Shir…” is traditionally read in synagogue during Pesach/Passover.
The Zohar always strongly assumes familiarity with Jewish learning and practice.
So, might it not be far out of line to find some association between the love of God for Israel that the Midrash sees as the meaning of “Shir…,” and the love that is intrinsic in the Knesset Yisrael itself (“…has within her 13 paths of mercy…”)?

“Rabbi Chizkiah opened…” —
Why Rabbi Chizkiah?
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is held as the author of the Zohar. Why begin by quoting one of his disciples?
But this is the introduction to the Zohar — so might Rabbi Chizkiah be preparing the audience for Rabbi Shimon’s presentation, like a “warm-up” act in live performances? They help the audience make the transition from thinking about their everyday concerns and instead focus their attention on what is happening in front of them at that moment.

“…a rose among the thorns…”
The Hebrew word [שושנה] here translated as “rose” is elsewhere translated as “lily.”
Given the description in this paragraph of the flower as having 13 petals, I think “rose” isrosa gallica versicolor preferable.
Lilies also don’t, to my knowledge, have thorns whereas roses do.

In some of the commentaries I read, the “thorns” are taken to represent potential dangers to or attacks on the Knesset Yisrael.
But the thorns of a rose don’t attack the rose; they protect it.

“…among the daughters…” —
This verse from Shir Ha-Shirim mentions “daughters” (banot), and the Zohar uses it as a metaphor for Knesset Israel/Malchut.
But the subsequent verse in Shir ha-Shirim compares the beloved to “sons”
(unless we take it as the beloved woman’s response to the male’s adoration).
The text of the Zohar itself only mentions the first phrase in the verse from Shir ha-Shirim; perhaps the 2nd phrase is, for the present purposes, unnecessary.

“Knesset Yisrael” —
The “gathering of Israel” is a phrase used in Kabbalah to mean the Shechinah (Divine Presence), the Sephirah Malchut, and the Divine Soul of every Israelite. The phrase also appears occasionally in Midrash Rabbah (perhaps as later interpolations added under the influence of Kabbalah).
Kabbalah, at least in its language, is not always as universalistic as found in Yoga or Buddhist philosophy. The non-Israelite is not considered to have the same Divine Soul that the Israelite has, unless and until the moment of conversion.

“…a rose and…a rose…”
A rose below and a rose above.

The meaning here becomes clear as in the next two sentences, Rabbi Chizkiah compares the attributes of the physical rose — “the rose among thorns” — with the “upper” or “spiritual” qualities of Knesset Yisrael/Shechinah/Malchut. He takes the physical rose almost as an allegory for the spiritual qualities it represents in the “upper rose.”

“…red and white”
The color “red” is held within Talmud and Kabbalah to represent Divine judgement/rigor.
The color “white” is held to represent Divine Mercy/Lovingkindness.
Thus the red and white of the “rose among the thorns” are held to represent the mixture of Divine Justice and Divine Mercy within Knesset Yisrael.

“…13 paths of mercy…”
“13” refers to the “13 attributes” of Divine mercy, based on Shemot/Ex. 34:6-7.

This is the opening section of the prologue/introduction to the Zohar.
Note that it is the introduction to the Zohar, not in the body of the text itself.

Why this introduction? Why is it important? What is it trying to tell us?

If we understand “Knesset Yisrael” only as the Divine Sephirah of Malchut, then it might seem remote from us. It’s only when we understand “Malchut” as the source of our own existence that we might glimpse what this verse is promising us: Our Divine soul(s) are surrounded by and imbued with Divine qualities.
I struggled with the seeming limitation of this to the souls of Israel. It doesn’t fit my own spiritual beliefs and understanding.
I finally understood it in its own context, as something the Zohar is saying that I, as a Jew, must understand about myself.
Taken that way, it might be a very inspiring, uplifting teaching; telling me that despite any of my own deficiencies, I have within me an unalterable Divine Soul that is surrounded and filled with Divine Love, Perhaps I could add that it teaches that the world we live in is also permeated with Divine Justice, even when it seems absent.
These are matters of faith; not reason.

When I first looked at the Zohar many years ago, I was actually “turned off” to it, because I didn’t find its spiritual discussion as easily understood as I’ve found that discussion elsewhere. I was annoyed; impatient at what I felt was unnecessary obscurity. In fact, it was until Rabbi Mosheh Cordovero (16th century) that an attempt was made to lay out the teachings of the Zohar in a more comprehensive, understandable way.
Now, I think it might be that the era in which the Zohar was written — whether that was the 2nd century or the 10th century — required or allowed for a style of presentation that could be complex and non-linear, reflecting the intuitive thought process it encourages.

Perhaps we can also understand this opening section as introducing the whole idea of a spiritual reality which is referenced by physical reality without being in any way limited to or by it. “There is a rose and [then] there is a rose.” There is the rose that whose colors and fragile petals you have enjoyed with your eyes; whose fragrance you have enjoyed with your sense of smell. But these only hint at the “upper” rose, which is far more real and incomparably more profound.

Understood this way, this introduction could be hinting of this secret reality to us, and suggesting, maybe even promising, that what is now hidden will later be revealed.

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[1] Shir ha-Shirim/Song of Songs 2:2
[2] Ber./Gen. 1:1
[3] ibid. 1:2
[4] Zohar; prologue, first paragraph