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By Yecheskel Gold
One can study Kabbalistic literature for a long time and still not know what really is
going on. Resignedly, one might conclude that this world is closed to the uninitiated.
Doubtless, this is somewhat true. However, many of the great Kabbalistic masters of the
last four or five centuries, like Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Baal Shem Tov, and the Gaon of
Vilna, felt that this profound study is meant to be the primary occupation of these latter
generations. They encouraged dissemination of Kabbalistic thought, which automatically
would make esoteric doctrine the property of the masses.
As in any discipline, some people are more talented than others. Nevertheless, anyone
sincerely interested in the subject can come to worthwhile insights if he is patient.
While intelligence is important for dealing with Kabbalistic literature, the main
criteria for success are otherwise. According to the Talmud (BB 12), prophecy has been the
realm of fools and children since the destruction of the Temple. Maharal explains that
this proclivity derives precisely from their lack of intellectual development. An overly
developed mind-set desensitizes people to the reality above human rationality. Natural
openness to experience is necessary to genuinely find the Godly in one's own life.
Accordingly, the Ramban called Kabbalism "the way of truth". Rather than
being an analytical system, it is a subtle description of reality as perceived by a
sensitive soul, adding nothing speculative.
This does not mean that intelligent people are less gifted in these areas. The same
Talmudic passage states that though prophecy has been lost to the prophets, the wise have
retained it. But for Maharal, this wisdom, too, is natural and intuitive, and this
insight, a gift from God.
This openness is more than a readiness to experience new things. One must be ruthlessly
honest about oneself, how one really feels and thinks, resisting rationalization and
illusion. Subjugation to passions and self-interest, obviously, interferes with one's
ability to see life clearly.
Few people are perfect in these areas. Accepting that one is imperfect, and exploring
how, is an important part of being genuinely honest and humble.
Working in these directions will help anyone come closer to the world of Kabbala.
Clearly, study is necessary, too. The terms and concepts seem bizarre and artificial at
first, because they are far removed from the rational world view to which we are so
accustomed that we are unaware of it.
Besides, ideas are presented fully developed. We feel we have entered a reality quite
separate from our own. In part, this is because much of what is exciting in these ideas is
perceived only after one has mastered them enough to apply them further. This is what the
Kabbalistic books do, mostly.
To a great extent, though, insight into the world of Kabbala comes from garnering many
small, clear insights. With patience, the sublime and awesome reality comes into view.
Zohar means radiance. This name tells us a primary concern of that work, which is the
core book of Kabbala. For the uninitiated, too, light has positive connotations. We would
rather not be in the dark. But for Kabbalists, the notion of light is very highly
developed and quite specific.
Light is different from other forms of existence we know. It is real, but ephemeral.
For all practical purposes, it has no weight and no duration. Unlike matter, light always
has an identifiable source. Travelling great distances virtually instantaneously, it is
barely bound by physicality.
These descriptions are approximate for physical light, which does have a tiny mass and
a measurable speed. Material manifestation imposes certain limits on phenomena. Mystical
light is spiritual. In fact, it is the spiritual ideal.
Let us examine one aspect of light, its deriving from an identifiable origin. This does
not mean only that we know the light has a source, but that it reveals its source. Looking
directly at the sun, we actually see only the sun's radiance. Nonetheless, by seeing the
sun's light, we are aware of the sun, and not of light as something existing
independently. Light is nothing but how the sun is revealed.
This way of being is very pertinent to Kabbalists, because it describes almost exactly
the spiritual ideal. One of the principle tenets of mysticism is that God is revealed in
the creation. While everything exists in order to show God's greatness, this ideal is not
always realized in practice. We mostly experience the mundane, not the divine. This means
that God is hidden from us. Unlike light, the material world seems to exist in its own
right, not revealing its source. When God is revealed, he is revealed through spiritual
There are a number of ways in which God is revealed, and we plan to deal with them in
later articles. There are also different levels of revelation, from vague awareness of His
being through mention of His name, to overpowering, full blown, mystical experience, and
more. The former level is quite minimal, not really divine, whereas the character of the
mystical experience is divine.
Usually, people do not have full blown experience of the divine, but most people do
have intense religious feelings sometimes. We may use other words to describe our
feelings, but a proper explanation should show that these are really experiences of the
divine. There are events that inspire us. Although the individual components of the event
are banal and physical, the message of what happenned so overwhelms us, that the
individual components lose their separate existence and take on a significance beyond
their individual identity and character. An inspiring experience evokes something great,
eternal, beyond the scope of the material world. Through it, we glimpse, no matter how
fleetingly, the divine. Momentarily, the physical creation is transformed, through this
experience, into spiritual light; it radiates from its divine source, and God is suddenly
THE IDEA OF SEPHIROT
The ten sephirot are vessels that God used in creation. For thoughtful people, the idea
may seem outrageous. Creation was ex nihilo (from nothing), so where did vessels come
from? Also, God's omnipotence, surely, requires no outside help!
Besides, what are these "vessels", anyway? Kabbala compares them to
"colored glass through which the light shines". Such imagery is not very helpful
unless one experiences it. There must be a way to understand this fundamental concept.
The universe's structure suggests something about how it was made. Behavior is lawful,
indicating that principles precede and govern the details of creation. Forming and
following principles is called intelligence. There are beneficial and detrimental
interactions between creations. In directing the universe, God "relates" to his
creatures, analogous to various emotions. Finally, the creation has an inside and an
outside; the universe manifests only part of what is potential. There is a purpose of
creation, too, not revealed in the physical world. Its reality is "inside".
These modes of being, of which our universe has ten, are the sephirot.
Let us replace the word "vessel" with "tool". A tool enables us to
do certain jobs, like hammering or holding. It leaves its mark on what it was applied to;
hammers drives in nails, while pliars hold things fast. We have mental tools, too. Logic
is a different tool from intuition, and yields a different kind of product. Similarly,
each part of the creation reflects the particular vessels used to create it.
Humans relate to their surroundings according to various modes. Each is a general
approach to things which can produce an array of behaviors. We approach some situations
intellectually, others, emotionally. Love is one emotional mode. Fear, beauty, triumph,
and gratefulness are other human attitudes.
Behaviors express the modes we adopt. They do not arise independently of a mode. The
kindness mode can be expressed in the behavior of giving a gift, aggression, in striking
someone. We give the gift to be kind, not just because we want to perform this action.
Bestowing a gift or striking someone are comparable, on a molecular level. Their differ on
a spiritual plane, in their significance. The meaning of the first act was
"kindness", and of the second one, "aggression". These modes exist in
a sphere above the physical, only finding expression in the physical.
We infer someone's attitudes from his actions. By analogy, we attribute these sephirot
to God based on the form of the universe. For example, we ask Him to treat us mercifully.
Human behavior, and even the various modes of relating, arise from something deeper.
Intuition and analysis, love and fear, aesthetics and sincerity, each expresses an aspect
of a more profound level of humanity, the soul, which subsumes all of them. Similarly, the
course of the universe expresses a deep level of Divinity. This is the Light, radiating
through the various colored glasses, the sephirot, each revealing a different aspect of
the whole, yet none containing the whole.
THE LUNAR CALENDAR
Sometimes, the Jewish holidays come out early, sometimes late. This is because our
calendar follows the moon, not the sun. After waning to nothing, the new crescent moon
appears on the first day of the new month. Twelve lunar months make three hundred fifty
four days, eleven days short of the solar year. We add an extra month seven years out of
every seventeen to compensate, so Passover will always fall in spring.
This seems somewhat incongruous. We would like an exact fit between solar and lunar
years, and the divergence seems an imperfection in the universe, a departure from the
ideal. It is hard to see a hand of the Creator in this discrepancy.
This topic has wide implications. We expect God's creation to be neat and simple.
Seeming flaws, like good suffering while evil prospers, or fossils, challenge our faith.
The problem is that many people's faith is simplistic. Obviously, God did not have to
create a simple world. He can make a very complicated one, both physically and morally,
like this one. By pondering the complexity of the creation, one gets an inkling of how
little we grasp God's greatness.
Still, Torah obliges us to relate to God, and to base moral choices on our
comprehension of God and Torah. These being so complex, one understands why religious
people spend so much time studying. Torah reveals how all of this complex universe is
connected to God.
Reality has two main aspects: 1)Torah, the ideal, moral, or spiritual, and 2)the real,
or material world. The mind can grasp ideals. Thinking processes, by nature, generalize
and abstract. They operate in a non-material world. Concepts are only in the mind. For
example, the category of doors is spiritual; materially, each door is separate from all
others. Only the mind links all individual doors through a concept. Similarly, goals and
plans are the motivation and basis for our activities. Through them, reality feels
worthwhile and has meaning. Reality is always more complicated than we imagined, though,
and we must struggle to realize our ideals. This is because our minds idealize matters.
The ideal, basic to our functioning, is best revealed in simplicity. Material reality is a
different, and usually a more complicated realm.
The discrepancy between solar and lunar years parallels the structure of creation. The
sun symbolizes the ideal. Like light from the sun, which reveals and is true to its
source, the ideal reveals the Godly in the creation. (See our article on mystical light).
The moon represents materiality, which is not like light, not revealing its divine Source.
Rather, it gets light from the ideal, the sun. The material world connects to God through
the ideal. Through moral choices in the real world, we connect to God. The real world is
imperfect, though, not quite fitting the ideal. Thus, it is a struggle to comply with the
commandments. Just as the material world tends to diverge from the ideal, and we must
correct for the divergence, so the lunar year falls short of the solar one, so one must
periodically compensate for the difference.
Mazal tov! The standard Jewish blessing for weddings and other simchas might make us
wonder how to reconcile the idea of luck, or even fate, with orthodox beliefs in a world
directed by God, where everything has a purpose.
The Talmud (Nedarim) states that "there is no mazal for Israel", but that
this applies only when we follow God's will. If so, then saying "mazal tov"
implies an insult!
The passage we are discussing relates how God took Abraham outside and showed him the
stars. Abram and Sarai were fated to have no children, but now that they are renamed
Abraham and Sarah, they will have. We remark that new names merely brought them to a new
mazal. Changing mazal is not the same as being totally free of it!
Really, "everything has a mazal, even a Torah scroll in the ark". Some
scrolls are used often, others rarely. If our parents somehow "deserved" to get
children just like us, we did nothing to get these exact parents, order in the family,
place of birth, height, and talents. Matters like these, determined before we have merits,
belong to mazal, and greatly influence our identity and the course of our lives.
For Kabbalists, mazal is the spiritual pathway bringing the Divine plan down from the
upper worlds, to be realized in the creation. The heart of the Divine plan is the ideal,
the true purpose of the whole course of the universe. In order to reveal the Divine plan
in the physical world, decisions must be made about the circumstances, time, and locale in
which each bit of the "meaning of it all" comes to life.
Such matters may have significance, like banishing Jews from Spain on the fast day of
Tish'a b'Av, or concluding the Gulf War on Purim, but they are often arbitrary and
inconsequential. A soul, for example, is given the life-mission of dealing (properly) with
certain moral issues. These issues have Divine significance, but countless other
meaningful possibilities must exist. Why were these issues singled out? Doubtless, many
different scenarios could present the same moral problem. Why was this specific context
The term mazal describes choices we can not understand or predict. Balls landing on a
peg have equal chances of falling to right or to left. Statistically, half go to each
side, but we can not foretell which way a given ball will go. This uncertainty, a major
factor in science, in quantum and particle physics, for example, is regarded as an element
of randomness in the universe. Intuitively, though, something must cause the ball to fall
the way it does. For Kabbalists, the reason we can not predict each choice is because it
is made on a level above causality. God is totally free.
Mazal gives the universe great flexibilty; natural laws are just approximations. We can
change our mazal-fate by pleasing God, since He is free. God directs the world as He
chooses. The Divine plan can be accomplished in many ways, each greatly meaningful. The
choice is not an accident, but we can still wish our dear ones a good mazal.
THE MEANING OF RIGHT AND LEFT
"Rescue Your right hand, and answer me!", we beseech God in the
conclusion of every Amida prayer. In blessing Joseph's sons, Jacob placed his right hand
on Ephrayim's head, as a mark of special favor. "For Your right hand is extended to
accept the penitent". There is a long list of verses and other quotes where the right
hand is viewed as the way of dispensing love, kindness and leniency.
The left hand denotes judgment and power. We regard it with fear and dread. As the
Talmud sums it up: "The right hand draws people near, and the left hand rejects
We may wonder how this imagery came about. For "righties", the left hand
seems no stronger, perhaps weaker, than the right. About a quarter of the population is
left handed, and we discern no reflection of these distinctions in their character.
The Jewish literature must be looking at things differently. Let us begin by remarking
that in Halachic terms, left handed people are often regarded as being different from the
others in having their "right" hand on the left side. The left hander puts
Tefillin on "his" left hand, which is on the right side. So the expressions,
"right" and "left", refer to the more and the less dextrous hands.
Dexterity is identified with the "right" hand, and, hence, with love,
kindness and leniency. Power, justice, and fear, then, would be expressions of manual
If we think in terms of the experience of right and left, we will be closer to
understanding them spiritually. We use our dextrous hand when we need to do something
requiring sensitivity. Our "right" hand follows our mental instructions much
better than the "left" one, so we employ it for fine detail and close work. It
cooperates nicely when we want to do something, mediating comfortably and effectively
between our minds and what we're working on.
The left hand is a little clumsy, though, and is best used for keeping something steady
while we work on it. If we want it to do something more subtle, we have to force it to
obey us, and we have to control it consciously.
We are relaxed with our right hand, but our left hand is rather like a stranger to us,
and we can not quite deal with it comfortably.
In like fashion, when we ask God to deal with us with His right hand, we are begging
for the sense of rightness, for the closeness and comfort, harmony and peace, associated
with His kindness.
Power and control are hallmarks of the left, because that is the only way we can do
anything with our clumsy hand. If God's will just does not seem to fit us, and we can not
seem to conform to it, then He is automatically dealing with us with His left hand. The
demand to conform to a standard is the definition of the attribute of justice.
When we do "measure up" to the attribute of justice, then left is converted
ANTHROPOMORPHIC DESCRIPTIONS OF
"And guard yourselves very well, for you saw no image on the day God spoke to
you at Horeb" (Deut. 4,15). This verse embodies Torah's strong opposition to
idolatry. Yet we read: "And God created man in His image". Isaiah and
Ezekiel had prophetic visions of God sitting on a throne. Anthropomorphic imagery fills
both Biblical and Kabbalistic literature.
Moderners relate better to the idea of an unknowable, infinite God, totally without
limit or form. Descriptions of "an old man with a white beard" seem primitive,
and, being too ubiquitous to be just dismissed, tend to repel us.
Kabbalists, though, find conceptions of God as infinite and unknowable an incomplete
view of the reality. God reveals Himself through the finite, too, by creating. When we say
nature, we mean God. So, the numerical sum of the letters of His name, Elohim, is eighty
six, the same as haTeva, nature.
The universe reveals something about how it was created. There are consistent patterns
of physical behavior. Energy is conserved, and actions cause opposite and equal reactions.
We infer that laws underlie behavior. Creation is not random; it follows certain
principles. Nature behaves intelligently, not randomly. This is not human intelligence, of
course. We can not fathom its character or depth. However, it is real.
Distinct entities, like plants, animals and humans, make up the creation. Relations
between an entity and the rest of the universe can be either beneficial or detrimental to
the entity. Nature is, variously, "kind" or "harsh" to creatures.
For the Talmud (Berachot), these Divine "relations" to creatures are not
feelings (see Ramban, Deut. 22, 6). Since the Talmud concludes that there are reasons for
the commandments, though, God's actions do reflect kindness and mercy, for Rambam. That
is, the commandments are not mere, arbitrary directives we must follow. Divine
"kindness" or "justice" motivate them. We can plausably apply this
logic to God's direction of creation: He relates to His creatures.
Perhaps the main element of modern religious sentiment is our sense that life has
purpose. This notion attributes anthropomorphic features to the Creator, too; He operates
on two different levels, an "inner" level of purpose, and an "outer"
one of "creation". This perspective is central to our conception of God. Because
life has purpose, we must follow the commandments. If the universe has no purpose, it does
not matter that one believes, or what one does.
This means that God's direction of the universe is intentional. The consistent,
intelligent patterns of creation, and nature's relation to individual creatures, derive
from the divine purpose. If not, life has no purpose.
We can not relate to a totally unknowable God. Merely submitting because one fears His
power is not genuine religious feeling. Through Kabbalism, we can see and relate to God's
ways, even coming to share, somewhat, His perspective. This is true religion.
THE MYSTICAL GROOM AND BRIDE
A story of passionate yearning and love, the "Song of Songs" was almost
excluded from the Bible, even though King Solomon was its author. Rabbi Akiva objected,
dubbing it a parable of the love between God and Israel, and secured its inclusion. All
biblical works are holy, he said, but this one is "holy of holies".
Male and female symbolism abound in Kabbala, denoting a spiritual relationship. In the
physical realm, a fetus forms inside the female. Equally the child of the male, its link
to the father is less obvious. After developing, it emerges into the world. Similarly,
spirituality is seen to originate from a "male" source, but must be received and
developed by a "female". The result is that spirituality, whose character is
really other-worldly, is expressed in the material world.
For example, a flash of insight originates in a source beyond our ability to grasp or
control. That source is "male" to our conscious mind's "female". The
insight develops in our mind as we analyze its implications. Finally, conclusions emerge,
bringing us to act on our insight. Originating in a spiritual state, the insight has
materialized in the form of acts expressing the conclusions that we developed about it.
God is considered the groom of Israel, the bride. They reunite each week, when the
spiritual ideal is manifested on earth, in the delight and tranquility of Sabbath on
The groom and bride were married at Mount Sinai. Israel received the Torah, which
developed and continues to develop within our people, producing spiritual offspring, the
wise and righteous. The words of Torah come to life in a sensitive mind and soul, giving
rise to an inspired existence.
The Groom and Bride love each other, and see their own fulfillment through the other.
For us earthly beings, life lacks meaning and direction unless we are committed to
something higher and more ideal than ourselves. We long to be inspired, and to do
something truly worthwhile. Spirituality needs us, too, though. An ideal is finer and more
significant when it is realized in practice. Otherwise, it is sterile. The mystical groom
and bride need each other.
This is not mere poetic imagery. It accurately describes an important aspect of our
reality. A goal, for example, is spiritual; it has not yet been accomplished, after all.
If we imagine eliminating all goals, how drab and unenergetic our existence would be! In
that case, we would long to be uplifted from the banality of our existence. Looking
forward to the future, which does not yet exist, makes life much more pleasant. We need
Some serious thinking will show just how central to our lives are matters that are only
spiritual, like goals and ideals, or even the anticipation of pleasure. It is the very
source of our motivation to live. Usually, we are too caught up in the events of our lives
to recognize this underlying, basic pattern. It is there, though, behind the scenes. This
is the inner sanctuary, the holy of holies.
THE BODY LIVES FROM THE SOUL
Man is essentially spiritual. Personality, ideas and emotions are not physical. Losing
a limb does not mean losing some of one's identity. Nobody can be described adequately as
meat with a certain weight and dimensions.
True, spirituality is unscientific. So is art. Whatever is not objectively measurable
is outside the domain of science. They really exist, but not in the realm of science. We
need no better proof than our own experience.
For some, the evident has become non-obvious. They demand proof. In fact, the concept
of soul exists already in science, with different terminology.
The biochemical definition of life is: a stable, dynamic system maintaining a higher
level of enthalpy (organization and energy) than its environs by exchanging material and
energy with the outside.
A system is not material. Operating in material, it acquires energy and matter, but the
system itself is really a dynamic organization. Matter is not dynamic; its arrangement can
be. The organized pattern itself is not the material; it is the way the material is
arranged. A system is spiritual.
During a certain time (about seven years for humans), all the material in an organism
is exchanged. The carbon, oxygen, and phosphorus atoms are gone, replaced by identical
substitutes. The system is essentially the same, yet all of its matter is new. A human,
after seven years, retains his identity. This is so because the essence of a living system
is not material. It is spiritual, a soul.
A system can take different physical forms. The soul manifested in bodily organization
is the same as what was implicit in the undifferentiated embryo's genes. In theory, it
could be programmed into a computer, too. Lacking physical life, then, it would be just a
potential life. The computer, genes, and the body are just containers for the soul.
A physical lack can interfere with the expression of some part of the system. For the
soul, the part continues to exist, but it does not function physically. Damaging an eye
impairs sight, but does not reduce the system's potentially having vision. Even if brain
lesions affect vision, the system's intrinsic sightedness remains. Therefore, it is
profoundly affected by lack of sight. A lack exists only in terms of an ideal state, which
is spiritual. Plants are not blind, they are sightless. People are intrinsically sighted.
Without vision, they are blind. This potential for vision, like all of the system, is
spiritual. Think about it.
There are, then, dynamic spiritual entities capable of material manifestation. We call
these entities souls.
When its material no longer allows the system physical expression, the organized matter
loses it dynamic quality, and becomes static. The soul has departed the world, returning
to a purely spiritual state.
MORALITY AND RITUAL
Torah has been on the defensive through all generations. For idol worshippers, an
intangible God seemed ludicrous. Idol worship came out of vogue, but the Temple was
destroyed and our exile began. Medieval Jews faced reconciling being the true religion
with persecution by other creeds claiming supremacy. As weaknesses in rival beliefs
appeared, other challenges arrived. This is all in the grand design.
Confidence that Torah can pass this test is not enough. We must prove our detractors
wrong, not simply outlive them.
Modern western man has a moral sense. For many, this has replaced religion as an
approach to life. Ethics have become the standard for evaluating religion. Seeing no moral
value in, say, waving a lulav, people dismiss ritual as irrelevant.
Ritual is effective in promoting socially desirable activity and eliminating antisocial
behavior. Someone lacking moral misgivings can be taught proper conduct as rituals to
follow for eternal reward or punishment. This works even in private, when threat of
societal punishment is absent, so its social value is immeasurable. However, this seems
unnecessary for ethical people. Also, it does not justify waving a lulav.
Kabbala describes two levels of fear of God, lower and higher. We described the first
level regarding people lacking moral insight. The second fear is an internal ethical
feeling of the importance of God's plan. Thus, people have intrinsic worth, and harming
them is wrong. Implicitly, this is awareness of physical actions existing in a moral or
spiritual context. Someone with this sense is spiritual; his sense of right and wrong, and
feeling of responsibility for others, reveal that intangible, non-material matters are
real to him.
For such people, study of Kabbala develops spiritual insight, because they can relate
what they learn to personal, inner experience. A broader, truer view of reality develops,
and one sees that spirituality is as real as physicality, just different. For example,
purpose is spiritual; actions exist in the physical realm, but their purpose exists only
for the mind. Life's having purpose is a spiritual insight.
If purpose is real, ritual makes sense. Our problem with ritual is that we see no
purpose in it. This is because our standards are materialistic. Materialism is a very
limiting, unimaginative outlook. When the purpose of life is our standard, we become
spiritual. Clinging to our sense of purpose gives us energy to face life's vicissitudes
better. It also provides new perspectives. Ritual expresses a view of our deeds not in
terms of how they fit the world, but in terms of what the world is for.
By making rituals obligatory, Torah shows that it sees us in terms of our purpose,
insisting that we embrace that outlook, too. This loosens the hold of materialism, so we
can develop spiritually. An important moral statement of man's purpose in its own right,
ritual also reinforces man's ethical nature by emphasizing his spiritual side. As the
Talmud states: Torah was given only to refine man.
HUMANISM AND RELIGION: IN GOD'S
We might think that our ancestors exalted God only because they felt so dependent on
Him; they pacified Him so it would rain, so they would stay healthy, and for the myriad
other matters which they were helpless to affect directly. With greater control over
nature, we no longer feel so compelled to exalt God, so our religious side turns
automatically turns to humanism, the ideal of humanity. This view does explain why many
people turn away from formal religion, but it has two serious faults. It assumes that our
religion is not humanistic, and that a focus on God is not humanistic.
This is how they misunderstand the point of Torah: Halacha, imposing a set of rules,
does not seem humancentered. It seems bent, instead, on making us accommodate God. This is
especially true of the laws called "chukim", which we must follow without
understanding. Humanists would prefer more genuine and spontaneous spiritual expression,
like art and music, which allow participants more freedom.
Torah views these matters differently. The Talmud asks: "What does it matter to
God if we slaughter an animal from the neck or from the throat? Rather, Torah was given
only to refine man." Torah is structured like man, with two hundred forty eight
positive commandments corresponding to the human limbs, and three hundred sixty five
negative commandments, to the veins. This means that Torah was made for man, as we see,
simply, from the concerns of Torah: everything about how man lives. Rather than forcing
God's way upon man, Torah is how true humanity is God's way. He chose us as the way of
fulfilling His purpose for the universe.
Following Torah maximally realizes man's potential. Serious study makes man profound,
and following the commandments renders him kind, just, brave, and spiritual. Though most
people deviate from the ideal, they usually still are better than they would be if they
did not have Torah, and the few who do realize the ideal - the righteous - are a striking
example to us of the wisdom of God, because we see in them, palpably, how life is really
meant to be lived. They waste no time, and involve themselves with what really ought to be
done with life. People can be truly holy, as the verse states: Man was created in God's
By making the commandments obligatory, God forces us to operate on a higher level than
our natural inclinations. Torah is a moral imperative to realize our human potential, and
not to be content with the easy way. It renders the humanist ideal a religious one. Being
the best person we can be is the way we come closest to God, and that is God's
Even "chukim", which demand us to subordinate our human perspective to God's,
are strongly humanist, religious statements. They elevate us by emphasizing that we are
human. This will be the subject of the next article. Briefly, though, by exalting God, we
come tangibly, mystically closer to Him. Torah wants us to be Godly.
MYSTICISM AND HUMILITY
Moses, the greatest of prophets, was the humblest of men. This is no accident. God
praised Moses about these two traits, and about faithfulness, in the same context (Numbers
12). They must be linked.
In that passage, we learn the difference between Moses' prophecy and that of all other
prophets: Moses prophecied in full daytime awareness, while the other prophets were
overcome by visions. Moses' normal consciousness could accommodate even a powerful
mystical experience. This is because Moses imposed nothing on reality, but took it as it
is. We often impose our assumptions on experience, forcing our perceptions to fit our
preconceptions. Besides cultural bias, we are motivated by ego to see reality in a certain
way. The stark truth is often too disconcerting. When a very powerful experience impinges
on us, disrupting our world view, we lose our grasp of reality. This is a vision. But
Moses was able to accept everything that God showed him of reality because he was the
humblest of men, and able to acknowledge the truth. Humility is realism, and pride is
It is no wonder we refuse to look at the truth. Most of us have emotions too powerful
to express spontaneously without getting into trouble. We are always dissatisfied. All of
us are ashamed of certain negative feelings and motivations, and prefer not to deal with
Moreover, we fake competence. Really, everyone is helpless, but this is an
uncomfortable feeling. Awareness of how much we must trust is painful to most people. We
must not wallow in self-pity, but deal with reality. Few of us work out their own values.
We often base decisions on a false self image because we do not know what we want. We are
groping, but rather than facing our uncertainty, we often cover it with a facade of self
assurance. Admitting the truth would be giving up our pride. But God is truth, and
pretending in this way distances us from the contact with God called realism.
Concomitantly, we lose the ability to see the greatness of God and His creation, being
too absorbed in ourselves. We are far from mystical contact.
Torah, too, is truth. Its aim is to make us utterly realistic. Study should not lead
only to ideas and knowledge; it should bring insightful realism. This is not mere
materialistic pragmatism, of course. Reality is bigger than that.
Commandments help preserve the true shape of reality. We learn that that they are all
to be followed as "chukim", regardless of whether we understand the reason for
them or not. This should not be covered up with a veneer of selfassurance; the point is
that one is supposed not to know why one is doing it. This brings us face to face with
reality: that we are groping, that we do not know why we are here and what it is all
about, and that we trust in God and hope for the best. This is the most realistic, direct
experience of life there is, and it is how we can see God most clearly. If we are genuine,
it is close to prophecy.
GOD, MORALITY AND PRACTICALITY
Freedom of choice is one of the biggest intellectual problems for modern man. If we are
created and controlled by God (or nature, for those opposed to religious terms), how can
we direct our own lives? Some people cop out, denying that we are free, but experience
denies this. We even could not decide to act as if we had choice, if we did not have it.
Nor are our choices purely practical. We are more free than just having to decide
between ice cream flavors. There is an actual interruption in the flow of causality from
God's creating us to our actions, and we have to choose how to direct that energy. For
this, we require a set of values, explicit or implicit, to determine what are proper
Freedom gives us access to a spiritual realm. As the biblical serpent said, by eating
the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and receiving the ability to choose (see Ramban), we
become Godlike, knowing good and bad. Rashi comments that through this, we gained the
Godlike ability to create and destroy worlds. These worlds are spiritual realms, born of
knowledge and imagination.
Responsibility is a result of having choice. Society may punish criminals simply as a
practical way of preventing offences, like it keeps dangerous animals off the streets, but
morality and responsibility start when one is free.
Determining what is good and bad is no simple matter. Doing the job properly requires
wisdom and careful analysis. Also, we must recognize that we are smaller than the task,
and must check our results with others. If we do not take it seriously, we are
irresponsible, and that is bad. Nor is the problem limited to what we must do. There are
good and bad attitudes, too. Grimness and irresponsibility are examples of bad attitudes
that could lead to many bad actions.
This is the function of Torah study. Obviously, everyone can not be a scholar. However,
people should have sufficient knowledge of the Law to be on the right track. The Talmud
(Maccot) does not exonerate someone who murdered through ignorance that it is forbidden.
"He should have learned!", we say, meaning that not learning is morally wrong.
Since we have moral responsibility, we might think that our concerns should be entirely
spiritual. We could even think that having a practical attitude might be somewhat
sacrilegious. After all, practicality turns its back on moral matters, ignoring the most
important issues of life.
In fact, the opposite is true. Practicality is part of morality.The flow of causality
from God's will to action is interrupted, so we have moral choice. To limit our concerns
to spirituality would be entirely irresponsible. Life is too important for us to rely on
its spontaneous development. Someone who does not labor, practically, to improve the world
is abdicating his ethical responsibility. If religion is not also practical, it is
immoral. True spirituality and morality require deep, practical involvement in life.
from theNovember 1998Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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