I mentioned that one way I understand “poor in spirit” is “empty of breath,” referring to meditation techniques that lead us out of the false and limiting notion that we are apart from God, and reawaken us to the reality that we are part of God. So the poor in spirit are blessed or, if the original Aramaic was based on the Hebrew ashrei, happy because they have overcome the state of achad, uniqueness in the sense of being a part from God, and returned to the greater wisdom of shalem, Divine Wholeness.
As you said, knowledge of first century Jewish meditation techniques is not widely known, and what we do is sketchy. The mysticism of the time is called Ma’asei Merkavah (Account of the Chariot), and practitioners were called Yordei Merkavah, Riders (literally, Descenders” of the Chariot. One aim of Merkavah mysticism was to induce the vision of God’s Chariot given to Ezekiel (1:4-26). How one did this is not at all clear. One method seems to use the mantra-like repetition of a sacred Name of God or Hebrew phrase. Another is a yogic-like inversion posture that places your head below your knees and uses the rush of blood to the head to alter consciousness. Another, which is derived from Ezekiel himself, is water gazing.
Ezekiel opens his book saying, “In the thirteen year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the river Chebar, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God,” (Ezekiel 1:1). The rabbis understood this to mean that Ezekiel, unlike the other exiles who saw nothing, was practicing water gazing, allowing his eyes to rest softly on the flow the water and the sunlight dancing on its surface, and in so doing to enter into a trance state where the limited mind (mochin d'katnut) dissolves into the larger mind (mochin d'gadlut) that knows itself to be part of God.
We all know something of this trance whenever we sit and watch a body of flowing water, whether it be a river, a sea, or an ocean. I become similarly entranced even when sitting by a small brook or stream. Maybe it is because we are made mostly of water ourselves that water is a powerful tool for expanding consciousness. In any case, these states are always accompanied by and deepened by a slowing of the breath. Jesus, if he is referring to his inner circle, and if those in that circle practice such techniques (which I realize requires a lot of speculation), is saying to them, "There is an intrinsic blessedness, happiness, and joy that comes from practicing poverty of the breath and thereby shifting your awareness from ego to soul, and remembering your connection with God."
What is discovered through these practices is not new. You are not connecting to God, but realizing you are never disconnected from God. The rabbis found confirmation of this in the name of the river into which Ezekiel gazed. Chebar is Hebrew for “already” (kvar), suggesting to the mystics that what we see in meditation is what is already and always present. The notion that Yordei Merkavah, those who descend to the Chariot in fact experience their awakening as a descent rather than an ascent suggests that they realized that Heaven was not a place “up there,” but rather a state of awareness “in here,” meaning in the human mind. Does this shed light on Jesus’ notion that the Kindgom of Heaven is within us?
Bruce Chilton, author of Rabbi Jesus, makes a big deal of Jesus connection with Merkavah mystics, and I would suggest that book to anyone who wishes to explore this more fully.
On to Beatitude number two?