Joy and Spirituality


Joy and Spirituality


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Rejoice, You Righteous, about God!

By Yechezkel Gold

Happiness may not be everything, especially for principled people, but it certainly is very important, something underlying and motivating everything we do or even think. It may be true that our souls value God and His ways more than good cheer. However, the principled portion of our personalities that prefers to be good and right does have spiritual pleasure from following Torah and Mitzvot. This spiritual pleasure may be - indeed, often is - deeply sequestered within the soul and not felt as tangible delight. If so, then something significant is missing. Spiritual pleasure is not gladness. If you don't actually feel happy, you are not happy. We are often conflicted about the difficulty feeling really glad serving God.

The experience of happiness has to do with you, meaning each one of us personally. If we are not positively affected by something at some level, it will not make us happy. Such a situation might make us feel guilty choosing what gratifies us or resentful while choosing to do the right thing. This conflict sounds like the proverbial struggle between good and bad but intuitively the issue is not so simple. We acknowledge that we should overcome our evil inclinations. Does that mean though that life has no room for self? This question is particularly germane for the mystically inclined. A sense of self separate from, especially opposed to God seems to counter the mystical ideal of rapturous spiritual union. We yearn to serve God that way, but it often eludes us. We feel caught in ourselves. Sometimes we yearn so powerfully for joyful mystical union that we may be tempted to fake it, though we know that affectation is not our real goal. Really, we seek genuine spiritual happiness.

In the mystical literature, joy is associated with the sefira of bina. Bina means understanding. When presented with an idea, even an internal flash of insight, we don't necessarily "get" it automatically. Often we have to think about it, analyze it, formulate it in words and otherwise process it. Even when we can repeat what we have read or heard, we might not really comprehend. Often, we even find eventually that our initial understanding was superficial or simply wrong. Only when we have really connected with the idea, grasped it in a way that we feel to be true and right, then we understand. This process of analysis leading to grasping the basic point is bina.

This indeed makes us feel good, but many people do not associate an intellectual operation with happiness. Indeed, Hasidut's associating bina with gladness needs explanation. Among contemporary Jewish mystical approaches, Hasidut is probably the one that most emphasizes simple joy and lauds genuine, unsophisticated delight in Torah and Mitzvot. It often cites the great cabalist, the Ari, and his teaching based on the verse (Deuteronomy 28, 47) "in retribution for your not having served God with gladness ... ": The Ari said that they may have served God but since it was not happily they were punished. Hasidut derides an overly philosophical approach and pseudo intellectualism. So, Hasidut's associating happiness with bina and intellect may seem puzzling.

Bina exists on many different levels, though. It is called bina when our mental faculties rise from a state of confusion and disconnection from an idea to a state of grasping it, of unifying with the idea by having thoughts and feelings congruent with and appropriate to the central thought. This gives an intellectual sense of rightness. However, when it is the soul that rises from the state of disconnection to a state of connection and unification with a greater reality by having thoughts and feelings congruent with God and Torah, that is called bina too. For example, going from doubt to faith expresses a deep level of the soul's bina. This is not mainly an intellectual process; it is the self connecting to a higher reality. The internal state of rightness this brings is called happiness. It is bina operating on a more cosmic level than individual intellect.

Hasidut teaches that all creations depend for their existence on a flow of Godly Light from above. Bina functions at the beginning of independent existence, in the internal aspect of the "vessels". When bina connects independent existence to the Godly Light (which take the form of spiritual inspiration and insight, thereby), it is gladness. Being severed from that source, i.e. lacking bina, is bleak doubt. Hasidut teaches that we become particularly glad by accepting God as our King in a manner rooted in the lofty level called RADLA, characterized by utter simplicity and innocence in which there is no sense of self. This is a special form of bina in which the soul merges so powerfully with the Godly Light that all sense of self and independent existence is dissolved. Instead, the soul's existence becomes so subsumed within the Godly Light as to be nothing but an aspect of Godly Light.

[In the following, we emphasize that we are speaking about Godliness, and not strictly about God. Godliness refers to the Divine Light, the reflection and expression of God, as it were, His manifestation in the universe. It is what we mean about God: absolute good, omniscient, omnipotent, and generally, what cabalists call Divine attributes, the sefirot. All these attributes reflect God; they are Godly. But they are not God Himself. Of course, God Himself is beyond description.]

The reality of the (ideal) perfect tzaddik (righteous person) is very similar to this merger of the individual person, even his self, with Godliness. Cabala considers the sefira of yesod to refer to the tzaddik. This means that the tzaddik is considered an extension of Godliness through whom Godly Light flows into the God's kingdom, the creation. As the recipient of that flow, God's Kingdom experiences itself as having independent, created existence, but yesod, the tzaddik , is part of the arrangement of supernal sefirot before the level of God's Kingdom. Yesod is part of Godliness and does not experience independent existence. This is so even though the tzaddik too has a body and lives in our world. The tzaddik 's soul is really a part of Godliness above, as Tanya states many times. The form in which the soul finds expression is the rest of the perfect tzaddik 's inner faculties: mind and feeling in their various forms. Since his desires, thoughts and feelings are true expressions of his soul, they are not really separate from his soul. Even his body is exquisitely sensitive and ready to do God's will in each circumstance. Still, one might object, how could inner faculties and even the body be part of Godliness?

As we saw above, created entities attach to Godliness through the sefira of bina, and bina has a special relation to the sefira of yesod. This is illustrated in the first bendiction of the Amida prayer, where we praise God, saying (among other praises) that He koneh hakol. The simple meaning of this phrase is that God possesses everything. However, the word koneh really means to acquire, not to possess. In Jewish mysticism, the word kol refers to yesod. If we understand this to mean that God acquires yesod, we can understand that the elements of yesod were originally not in " God's domain ", i.e. not attached to Godliness. Rather, they pertained to the separate, created realm. This would apply too to the tzaddik 's body, thoughts and feelings before they merged with his Godly soul. This process of the " acquisition " is the operation of bina as outlined above. Through the tzaddik 's Torah study, prayer, and Mitzvot, all these elements of the tzaddik 's being are gradually elevated to Godliness until they lose their separateness and are subsumed in the Divine Light. An ecstasy of good.

In this state, the tzaddik 's whole being is a vehicle to bring Godliness into the world. This is a very high level to which bina can ascend. Rebbe Rashab points out that the numerical value of the letters of kol which refer to yesod is 50. The letter Kaf is 20 and Lamed is 30. 50 is also the number associated with the highest level of bina, the 50th gate of bina . This means that yesod, the tzaddik , comes from the highest level of bina.

According to Tanya, being a tzaddik is a gift from above. We can not attain this level by ourselves. This is consistent with the notion of ecstasy: If it is deliberate, it is contrived and not ecstasy. Nevertheless, this does not mean that serving God with true joy is entirely beyond our reach. Hasidut relates that the number 50 associated with bina also comes from above. However, it comes from above only after we have worked on the 49 steps leading to 50 by ourselves.

Again, we will use the functioning of bina on a cognitive level to illustrate how our efforts in serving God contribute to eliciting a powerful flow of Godliness from above that brings the tzaddik to ecstasy. In cognitive terms, when we encounter new material, we first submit it to analysis. After examining the material from a variety of perspectives and reconciling it with facts and other ideas we know and comparing and trying to achieve an integration of its various details, the central point unifying all this begins to emerge. This emergence is the 50th "gate" of bina for the matter at hand. It emerges as a result of our efforts, but what emerges and how it emerges comes from above, often compared to an intellectual "lightning bolt". We cannot force that to happen. Our volitional analysis pertains to the 49 gates of bina. This is particularly germane if we arrive through our analysis to a conclusion that does not make sense to us. This means we lack insight: the 50th gate is missing. Insight appears by itself, from above, and we cannot force it but if we have prepared ourselves for it, we are ready to receive the insight.

As mentioned above, the level of bina we are seeking here is not exclusively cognitive. The preparation to receive the 50th gate meaning spontaneous happiness in serving God is to work on our personal attitudes and qualities. This entails working on Torah and Mitzvot, prayer and meditation. Hasidut describes seven different essential personal qualities. Refining each one means integrating it with all the other qualities so that we have seven times seven = 49. Having arrived at this point, we can only pray that God will grant us the 50th gate of spontaneous joy in serving Him, as well.

Counting the omer, the 49 days between the first day of Passover and Shavout, pertains to this process. Spiritually, we relive the 49 days between the archetypal exodus from Egypt and receiving the Torah each year, each year and each individual in their own unique manner. For 49 days we prepare ourselves by refining our personal qualities with our own efforts, in order to receive the Torah from above on Shavout, the 50th day. This 50th aspect of bina unifies us created entities with the insight and inspiration that connect us to Godly reality. A flash of insight comes from above, as in the verse (Job 28) " and insight will arrive from nothing ", meaning that it is purely spontaneous. Nevertheless, when this lightning bolt of inspiration appears from above after the effort of preparing the 49 gates of bina, inspiration and bina are unified.

Uniting inspiration with bina is greater than having inspiration alone. Godly insight alone is, indeed, transcendent and sublime but it does not descend by itself to lower levels. Bina on the other hand is called the "mother of the children" and is powerfully oriented to bringing the Divine Light revealed in inspiration into expression in good personal qualities and thereby to actualize the inspiration in action, in the realm of entities in the created world, figuratively called bina's children. That is, after ascending to unite with the insight, bina works powerfully to actualize that inspiration tangibly.

Earlier, we referred to RADLA, characterized by utter simplicity and innocence in which there is no sense of self. A spontaneous flash of inspiration reflects the utter simplicity and innocence of RADLA. The first stage in the process whereby bina brings this supernal light to actualization is to translate and express this utter simplicity and selfless innocence into the form of personal qualities. That is, selfless inspiration is a sublime awareness that all reality is God. Expression of this selflessness comes as kindness, friendship, commitment, objectivity, truth and the other qualities that are the way selflessness connects to the world. In this manner, selflessness takes a particular form. This is an example of the Zohar's notion that " bina gives form ". It gives form to the utter simplicity and innocence of RADLA as reflected in spiritual inspiration. Generally speaking, this form is called Torah. Torah is the form Godliness assumes when extended to life in this world. Torah study brings Godliness to our internal world. Mitzvot bring Godliness even to the world around us.

In order to give this form, and particularly to draw it into the separate, created worlds, bina needs great power. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi ties this powerful effort by bina to actualize the inspiration, to the term "with all of your might" in the second verse of the Shema. This power derives from the discomfort and anguish of separation from Godly reality. This anguish makes us intensely aware of self, greatly dissatisfied and powerfully determined to improve our situation. In this vein, the Midrash tells us that when God separated the upper from the lower waters on the second day of creation, the upper waters (symbolizing the supernal realms) rejoiced but the lower waters (symbolizing the lower, separate realms) wept. This weeping provides the power for bina to ascend and unite with inspired insight and then draw down this supernal light to "her children". Here, our self contains the energy for bina to reunite with Godliness and bring us to true, spiritual joy.

From one perspective, this evolution of the Godly Light from sublime, utterly selfless inspiration reflecting (i.e. being overwhelmed by and merging with the Infinity of ) the Divine Light , to bina connecting to and grasping and giving finite form to the light of that spiritual insight, to drawing this light still further and translating it into appropriate personal qualities, and still much further into action in the world, is a graduated reduction in the level of the light. After all, dutifully acting properly based on good personal qualities can feel far from inspiring whereas inspired insight is tremendously moving and exciting. However, from another vantage, for this sublime, otherworldly light to penetrate even to created, mundane reality bespeaks Infinity, the level of the Supernal Crown through which "there is no place (or situation) void of Him", a level still higher than inspired insight. Though spiritual revelation is less in our deliberate actions or even attitudes than in more exalted, inspired levels of insight and soul, nevertheless the importance and significance of the Divine Light reaching even those lower levels is greater than the inspired revelation is. In fact, Hasidut teaches that the purpose of supernal reality is to elevate the created worlds. Indeed, all levels of reality constitute a unified whole and the same Divine Light is present in all.

By our accepting the yoke of heaven and subordinating and nullifying and accommodating our desires, thoughts, speech and actions to God's will and attributes as expressed in the Torah, those thoughts, speech and actions ascend and unite with the Divine Light. Since it is the soul's efforts that cause this to happen, the soul, a created being, also ascends and unites with that Godly Light. This can be done in a variety of manners. If done and out of fear or desire for reward in the world to come, the degree to which the soul unites with Godliness is considerably less than if the person's intentions are wholehearted and purely selfless and altruistic, like the tzaddik is.

All of this happens as a result of bina bringing the Divine Light to her "children". The result is the state of perfection called Tikun. Whole and part are integrated and (at least part of) the light of the whole is grasped by and reflected in the part. This contrasts with the situation before the work of bina in which the created being experiences and lives mainly its own separate existence and self. When the person truly becomes wholeheartedly altruistic and selfless, it expresses more than the form and qualities of Torah. It attains even the 50th gate of bina in which the lofty level of RADLA is reflected, characterized by utter simplicity and innocence unfettered by sense of self. Accepting the yoke of heaven and serving God selflessly is self transcendence. This leads to RADLA, which is simply transcendence. Through the self transcendence of accepting the yoke of heaven, bina receives a reflection of RADLA. This is Divine ecstasy.

To come to spiritual ecstasy through self transcendence, a person must first admit and accept the truth and importance of God and Torah. This admission comes from the sefira of hod. Since hod has such a crucial role in the process leading to spiritual ecstasy, it is proper to understand what it is. As opposed to higher rungs of sefirot that connect more manifestly with the Divine Light, hod merely acknowledges God and Torah. This contrasts for example, with bina that grasps and understands Godliness. Also it differs from Gevura that feels and expresses the power of Godliness. However, the more remote connection hod has with the Divine Light is the immediate source of the creation within the 10 sefirot. Thus, the verse (Psalms 148) teaches: "His hod is upon land and heaven". This is because hod's more remote connection with Godliness creates a potential for separate, individual existence in the lower, created worlds.

On the other hand, hod also creates a potential for us finite creations that can not unify directly with supernal Godliness in the manner of bina or even gevura, to connect nevertheless and even be unified with the Divine reality. Through hod, we created beings acknowledge the truth even though we do not fully grasp it, accept the yoke of heaven, and labor to unify and perfect the world. After all, connection with God and Torah ultimately is above and beyond understanding. After all of our thought and searching, the final step remains: to decide to believe. We need to decide because understanding alone does not suffice to bring us to positive action that is the true connection to God and Torah.. For that we need hod, to acknowledge the truth and importance of God and Torah. Only then will we decide to actively believe and live accordingly. Thereby, the Hasidic literature informs us, hod unites with its root in the 50th gate of bina, higher than the 49 gates, potentially even ascending to the lofty level of RADLA. In this sense, hod has a higher root than bina or gevura: its connection with Godliness transcends understanding or feeling Godliness upon which bina and gevura rely.

A common theme in Hasidut is that lower levels have a higher spiritual root. Hod, sincere acceptance, achieves simplicity and certainty that are beyond the ken of bina and gevura. It is rooted in the innermost aspect of bina uniting with inspiration, and beyond that to still more exalted levels. For this reason, hod draws down a more absolute level of Divine Light not conditional on feeling inspired. It extends the Divine Light even to the lower, created worlds. Indeed, this light of the Supernal Crown, higher than inspired insight, is the source of the created worlds; because of hod's root in that lofty realm, hod is the sefira through which creation occurs. Moreover, through hod a higher Tikun is achieved: integration of inspired reality and the nether worlds so that Godliness is expressed even in the separate, quasi independent mundane creation. Hod renders this world holy.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi taught that integrating supernal, mystical reality with the nether worlds expresses the Divine Light of the level called Adam Kadmon. The holy Ari taught that before any notion of creation existed, the original thought of God's directing the world and being its purpose and inspiration was conceived. This means that not only the world was conceived of in Adam Kadmon; even God's in His role and manifestation, His being omniscient, omnipotent, etc.were conceived of in Adam Kadmon. Higher than Adam Kadmon, in the Infinite Light, God's role and manifestation did not exist. Manifesting Adam Kadmon through bina and hod integrates the reality of Creator and created worlds. This is the true state of Tikun whereby the whole is grasped and reflected in the parts.

It is obvious that for true Tikun there must be joy. Tikun is a state of perfection and without joy the creation is not perfect. Hasidic mysticism teaches that bina of the supernal world nestles, i.e. is the inner content of the world of bri'a, the start of separate existence. Above, we discussed bina's being the sefira associated with happiness. When we created beings follow the Torah, which is the form and delineation of supernal bina, and achieve whole hearted altruistic selflessness, we become happy. This is so because the gladness of bina is the inner content of Torah life. Selfishness, characteristic of (perceived) separation from God, interferes with connecting with the joyous light of bina and being happy. Divine service brings joy.

Hod is also the sefira closest to yesod, the level of the tzaddik . Through truly accepting God and Torah in a manner that intellect and feeling can not attain, a person becomes a conduit for the Divine messages of Torah and Mitzvot, wholeheartedly devoted to living and expressing ecstatic Godliness.


from the May 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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