This is the last in a 4-part series of posts on the 4 levels of interpretation or understanding of Torah in traditional Jewish teaching: “P’shat,” “Remez,” “D’rash” and “Sod.”
The Hebrew word “sod” means “secret;” it’s related to the word “Y’sod,” or “foundation.” It suggests that which is “underneath” and unseen, but which supports all above it — like the unseen foundation of a building.
It’s typically said that the “Sod” level of understanding is the “esoteric” meaning, usually found in (the study of) Kabbalah. Kabbalah is “esoteric” insofar as it uses the “revealed” text of Torah as an allegory for unmanifested Divine qualities, laws and processes.
To this, though, I raise the following additional considerations:
In my discussion of “D’rash,” I stated my belief that the different levels refer to different kinds of understanding — increasingly internalized — rather than various sets of ideas. To demonstrate this, I used the example of the scholar who can teach what the “Remez” or “D’rash” level says about a Torah-text, without necessarily feeling compelled to follow it him/herself. Ideas alone are found on the level of “P’shat.” If we can pass a test of what is taught on the “Remez” or “D’rash” level, but don’t feel the commitment of which they speak, then we are still on the level of ideas — i.e. still on the “P’shat” level of understanding.
For another example of this as it relates particularly to the “Sod” level, I offer academic scholars of Kabbalistic literature like Gershom Scholem and others. Prof. Scholem probably knew more Kabbalah-texts quantitatively than almost anyone before or after him. He even developed theories about how the literature of Kabbalah evolved historically. Yet — he was not at all a Kabbalist. I once had the great opportunity to hear him speak in New York (I think it was at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism – “SAJ” – around 1980). Someone asked him why he wasn’t a Kabbalist. He responded, “I can study Geometry without being a triangle.” He not only meant that he could study Kabbalah with being an actual Kabbalist; he felt that this was a preferable kind of study for him!
Prof. Scholem was a “scholar” in the Western academic sense. He made an incalculable contribution to our knowledge about Kabbalah. Even if succeeding scholars have differed with his interpretations and findings, his “empirical” approach to the study of the history of the development of Kabbalistic ideas and literature remains seminal.
At the same time, he’s a prime example of how one can study Kabbalah and yet not have a “Sod” level of understanding of Torah. If we call any knowledge of Kabbalah a “Sod”-level understanding, then it’s just another “idea,” another “thought.”
Who would claim that there’s no difference between Prof. Scholem’s under-standing of Kabbalah/Torah and Rav Kook’s or the Ba’al Shem Tov’s? For the latter two, their study culminates in personal experience.
In fact, there’s a famous story about the 1st meeting between the Besht (Ba’al Shem Tov) and his eventual successor, the Maggid of Mezritch, that makes precisely this point:
“The Baal Shem Tov summoned his attendant and instructed him to bring a Kabbalistic work of the teachings of the holy Ari of Safed (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria) titled Eitz Chaim [actually a collection of the Ari’s teachings by his student, Rabbi Hayim Vital]. Opening the book to a certain page, he pointed to a specific paragraph and showed it to the Maggid. ‘Here,’ he said. ‘How do you explain this particular piece?’
The Maggid read the paragraph and interpreted it to the best of his ability. A look of displeasure crossed the Baal Shem Tov ‘s face. ‘You know nothing!’ he asserted.
Baffled, the Maggid reread the paragraph. After a few minutes of contemplation, he turned to the Baal Shem Tov. ‘I definitely explained it correctly,’ challenged the Maggid. ‘If, however, you are aware of a different interpretation, please let me hear it as well. Then I will decide which of us is correct.’
‘Stand up!’ ordered the Baal Shem Tov, his face aflame like a burning brand. As he began reading the paragraph aloud, dazzling light filled the house and a wall of fire encircled the Baal Shem Tov. Visions of various angels appeared in the room as the Baal Shem Tov read their names aloud from the Kabbalistic paragraph. The Maggid almost collapsed in sheer fright at the sight of this spiritual revelation.
The Baal Shem Tov finished reading and the awesome sight disappeared instantly. ‘Indeed, you read [or: interpreted] it correctly,’ the Baal Shem Tov turned to the Maggid. ‘However, your study lacks soul’.” 
That’s the difference between a “P’shat” understanding — even of Kabbalah — and a “Sod” understanding. The “Sod understanding” actually invokes the reality of which you’re reading or speaking.
Further, the traditional acronym “PaRDeS” would seem to suggest that one moves through the 4 levels in a sequential or “linear” fashion. If so, it would mean that one can’t even begin to experience the inspirational value of Torah study until one has thoroughly mastered the “P’shat” level. But it’s often the case that one has true moments of “awakening” in the course of Torah-study, that lead to changes in behavior (“Remez”) and in cognition (“D’rash”). Those inspirational moments are experiences — however brief and unclear — of “Sod.” This “final” level then can actually accompany the others. It can even precede and initiate them:
“…it is written in the Vilna Gaon prayer book that the attainment begins with the Sod. After the Sod part of the Torah is attained it is possible to attain the [D’rash] part, and then the Remez part. When one is granted complete knowledge of these three parts of the Torah, one is awarded the attainment of the P’shat part of the Torah.” 
I’d say that it’s also true that the importance of even the minutest details on the “P’shat” level are intensified when viewed from the “Sod” experience. “Highest first,” as Maharishi Mahesh Yogi used to teach.
If “P’shat” study involves facts and ideas, “Remez” involves actions and “D’rash” involves more internal, broader attitudes and feelings, what’s left for “Sod” to offer us?
“Sod” level study isn’t “study” at all. It’s contemplation. It’s a wider view of “reality.” Or — a view of a wider reality.
The Kabbalists have said that Torah is the Name of G-d. What did they mean? They meant that when studying Torah, it wasn’t words, ideas, acts of feelings that concerned them at all. It was G-d’s own Presence with and in them. Thus, any “Sod” interpretation would start with some idea about G-d — not about human behavior at all; not merely an abstract idea about G-d, but G-d’s Presence in them and in you. Even further, the “study” of it would engage the attention in G-d’s Presence, especially as It is present as our soul and Higher Self. The words or ideas of Torah are simply a starting-off point for a contemplative experience of the reality of G-d. Thus, any “interpretation” wouldn’t be “Sod” until you go beyond analyzing it and contemplate G-d in you through it.
Kabbalah might point the attention in this direction, if we read it more with our imagination rather than with our intellect. But the experience of G-d isn’t an “idea.” As Maharishi said, “The thought of G-d isn’t G-d.” It’s another level of consciousness; a qualitatively different level of experience — if the word “experience” can be used here at all.
To oversimplify my entire discussion a bit, “P’shat” requires strictly factual understanding (e.g. about the botanical qualities of acacias); “Remez” requires some self-examination of our own actions and specific behaviors (e.g. about trees and conservation); “D’rash” requires a subtler examination of our own attitudes and feelings (e.g. about how acacia wood can exemplify our own worship); “Sod” requires contemplation. Put another way: in “P’shat,” we look at the text; in “Remez,” we look at our actions; in “D’rash,” we look at our attitudes and feelings; in “Sod,” we “look at G-d,” as it were — even enter into union or “d’vekut” with what G-d is, which can only be done in contemplation or meditation, even if beginning with a text.
So, where in the “Drash” level, acacia wood represented some human quality related to Divine worship, at the “Sod” level, it must represent to us something about G-d — especially G-d’s Presence in us — in which we go beyond “understanding” to actually “contemplate,” actually experience G-d’s Presence Itself in us.
We see this in an episode of Torah itself: “So Moses made a snake out of bronze and attached it to a pole. Then anyone who was bitten by a snake could look at the bronze snake and be healed!” .
The Talmud says on this: “…could the [brass] serpent kill or…keep alive? But when Israel looked [מסתכלין — mistaklin] on high and subjected their heart to their Father in Heaven, they were healed.” 
Although the Blackburn/Judaica Press translation says “looked,” which suggests physical/visual viewing, the Hebrew — “mistaklin” — actually connotes a more mental process. It’s a reflexive form of the verb and usually means “to reflect, observe, look at, contemplate.”  The added initial “mem” means “one who…” — i.e. “one who reflects.” In the mishnah, this is plural — i.e. “When, seeing the brass serpent, the B’nai Yisrael contemplated G-d [instead], they were healed.”
Can a brass serpent heal? Of course not. But, looking at it was meant to remind the B’nai Yisrael that the Creator of the serpent is Supreme even over its power to harm or kill. Recognizing that, not with their eyes but in their hearts, was “Sod” understanding. In “Sod,” they invoked the actual expression of G-d’s Supremacy — in this case, as healing. When, perceiving a threat with their senses, the B’nai Yisrael instead spiritually recognized G-d’s Power to heal as greater and more real than the serpent’s power to harm, the healing took place. When they stopped seeing the snakes, and starting seeing (as it were) G-d, they were healed.
(The “brass serpent” was preserved for hundreds of years after this, becoming an object of worship in the First Temple! Why? The recognition of G-d had healed, not the brass serpent. But people misunderstood: They somehow came to believe that the brass serpent itself had healed their ancestors, and might heal them. For that reason, King Hizkiyahu/Hezekiah later had it destroyed — for which the rabbis of the Talmud praise him!)
In the most comprehensive, “highest” understanding and experience at the “Sod” level, there is only G-d; nothing else exists. There is no “us” and G-d. While Kabbalah expresses this in rather complicated terminology, Hasidut typically does so in simple, terse comments and statements like: “All is G-d.”
Could repeating the Hebrew words “atzei shi’tim” (acacia wood) bring us to the awareness of G-d by their sound-value alone? I have no tradition that says this. If there is one, I don’t know of it. Likewise, I know of no tradition that says that simply looking at the letters (even as mental representations) will turn the attention towards G-d. If such a tradition exists, it’s not a common practice. On the other hand, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if it has been done in the past — and might still be being done today. But in the absence of receiving this from someone who themselves has received it as a practice verified by tradition, I don’t recommend it.
Thus, in “PaRDeS,” the rabbis teach us: True understanding of Torah requires all levels. Simply experiencing G-d in contemplation or meditation is not, in itself, the whole of Torah any more than intellectual understanding or observance alone would be.
 online at ascentofsafed.com/Stories/Stories/5766/415-04.html and elsewhere. The original version can be found in the anthology “Shivchei ha-Besht” (“Praises of the Ba’al Shem Tov“), the earliest collection of Hasidic stories.
 www.kabbalah.info/eng/content/view/full/80161, quoting Ba’al Ha-Sulam, “Introduction to the Book, Panim Meirot uMasbirot,” Item 1
 Bamidbar/Num. 21:9
 Mishnah Rosh Ha-Shanah 3:8 (p. 29a)
 see Ben Yehudah dictionary and elsewhere