Kabbalah in the Pursuit of Pleasure


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Kabbalah and Pleasure, the Jewish Way

By Yechezkel Gold

It seems you only live once. Whether this is true or not, most of us can only manage one life at a time, anyway. Intuitively, life is very important, so it has to be lived properly this time around. There is something about time. We are always in the present, even when, as is too often the case, we are thinking about the past or the future. So if life is going to be done right, that has to happen in the present. What about the afterlife? When it comes, it will be the present, too.

Going out of the present in one's mind, learning from or dwelling on the past, and working for the future, does not really take you out of the present. It just makes the present sort of grim.

Of course, focusing on the present is not always so great, either. That is why one bothers with the past or future at all: maybe some improvements can be made. Working on those improvements, though, is often the reason why the present is not so much fun!

It sure is difficult to escape the plodding humdrum! The whole thing is so unsatisfying! The best one can manage is a cycle of pleasure alternating with pain. It is like Shabbat compared with the workdays. Obviously, the point of the whole work week is Shabbat. If there were only weekdays, it would be unbearable!

Still, even the alleged fun is not always so wonderful. Pleasure just is not all it is supposed to be. Usually, gourmet food does not send one into lengthy raptures of delight. A good massage is great, but you would not take them three times a day. Ego-trips may be pretty good, but a whole day of panegyric would be sickening.

In short, if we want more than this, we look for glamour and kicks. In fact, almost nobody is really satisfied with what they have. If CD players were so great, nobody would jump at the next super-duper invention.

It is not just a matter of economics, either. Entertainment is probably more important than wealth. Adventure is the real goal! Not only can you brag about it after it is over, it is even exciting in the PRESENT! Of course, real adventure is pretty difficult to find. Often, it involves greater risks than one cares to take, too. So we are left with the next best thing, "kicks".

Everyone is hunting for more. After a while, old kicks become shabby, and one looks for a newer style. The market is impelled to find a better mousetrap. It is the driving force of our universe.

Is the Pain Worth the Pleasure?

Most people do tolerate this grim frenzy even though it is mostly a pain. Not that you really do have to eat; there is an alternative, you know. We endure it because in spite of all the drudgery, we feel it is worth it for the fun part.

Here, there is cause to sit and think a little. Is the pleasure part really enough fun? It seems there is not enough fun for everyone. To make matters worse, the other guy seems to have taken more than his share.

Usually, pleasure is sweetest before you try it out. You hope, at least, that everyone else thinks you're having a really good time. Too much "image", with too little satisfaction, tends you leave you pretty empty, though.

Besides, real enjoyment comes mainly as a tease. It ends too quickly, leaving you frustrated. Having tasted it, at least, you know that this was what you were looking for, and you live with hope.

Hope sustains a person more of the time than anything else. When you realize that, though, things get really bad. Who wants to survive on vain hope?

Since thrills usually end up not so thrilling, and pass before one can even get warmed up, but one can not accept living only with hope, something drastic can happen. It is enough to make somebody serious. There has to be a way to make the fun last!

Might there be a better way? Instead of making the present gray for the sake of a dubiously rosy future, maybe the whole process could be fun. Even if it takes effort, that would be worth it.

Kabbala and the Pleasure Principle

Believe it or not, this is a modern restatement of the central problem of the universe and the purpose of the creation, according to an important current in Kabbalism:

The Tetragrammaton, the mystical Name of God, is commonly translated as the Eternal. More specifically, the Talmud says it denotes God as Being Past, Present, and Future, simultaneously. This means that the revelation of God, ultimate reality, is always in the present. Past and future are also present in the Present!

Also, it means that God is called the Supreme Being:

Though calling mystical experience fun is a tremendous understatement, it is the right direction, sort of. Ordinary being is grim. Living by habit lacks spiritual content; experientially, we enter a state of limbo, where uninvolvement takes us out of the present. Reality becomes an "it", because we turn away from it. In short, we submit and succumb to the overbearing emptiness. This has merit only because (if!) it tends to drive us to seek something better.

When experience is fun, it is a superior state of being, in comparison to ordinary being. Truly sublime, meaningful experience is beyond this, too. It is the mystical state, the encounter with Supreme Being.

To the extent something is extraordinary, more than mundane, it is meaningful. Otherwise, it does not, or barely matters, experientially. The experience of pure, common physicality is that matter does not matter, and material is immaterial. Our battle with life - the purpose of our existence - is to triumph over the emptiness, to fill the void with meaning.

Spirituality and Value in Enjoyment

Spirit focuses on the present, where it finds true, experiential value. When meaning lacks, we enter, in our minds, the past or future. The ideal is to find value - enjoyment - in each moment, so as to be ever in the present, the eternal present. The soul battles to fill each moment, each incident, with the Divine message of meaning, of superior or even Supreme Being, contained in that particular, special moment. This is not theology, but experiential fact. Just beneath the surface of life, is religion.

Once we are aware that higher being is the purpose of life, the next step is to investigate what gives value to our time, to the present. There are degrees of pleasure. Eating scrambled eggs is a pleasure, but, for many people, can not be compared with listening to good music. Nevertheless, one eventually tires of good music, too. To get the most value out of time, there must be variety. Especially, though, one must concentrate on what gives the most real pleasure.

One can usually depend on one type of enjoyment, although it is not usually considered pleasure: freedom.

Freedom and Enjoyment

Freedom is not usually considered pleasure because it is different from ordinary pleasures. Most enjoyment comes from something outside: a tasty treat, a fun film, a good friend.

Freedom is different. It is joy coming from itself, from pure, unrestricted being.

Freedom is so wonderful that it is worth great effort to hold on to it. In fact, living freedom is always an effort: liberation is an active state, not a passive one. It means rising above circumstances.

We are only human, so it is difficult to remain perpetually active, even while we are awake. But the sheer joy of being free - intellectually, emotionally, and physically - makes effort pleasure, too. Preserving and living freedom is a way to experience almost continually the pleasure of the present.

The effort of the joy of freedom can bring important results, too. Overcoming difficulties adds the pleasure of accomplishment: "I did that!" In fact, this satisfaction in accomplishment is the real goal of freedom. We exult in freedom mainly in anticipation of what we can do with it.

The Dangers to Freedom

There is a danger, though, of becoming too oriented toward accomplishment. Then, one loses one's freedom, gets stuck in the mire of this world, and caught up in the future.

The Passover Hagadda, (the document celebrating the freedom of the Jewish people), highlights this idea. The text describing how Jacob and his descendents went dointo Egypt, states: "And he sojourned there." The Hagadda comments: "This teaches that our forefather Jacob did not descend into Egypt to remain there." The mystical message of this passage is that in descending into worldly matters, we should not allow ourselves to become permanently absorbed by practicality.

It is necessary to actively preserve freedom. Otherwise, it vanishes. Passover, and especially Seder night, function as a living, active reminder that the foundation of the Jewish people - their belief - is freedom, and we must cherish and preserve it. We remind ourselves of this freedom twice daily. By reciting the Shema morning and evening, we rededicate ourselves, and renew this perspective, above the tyranny of physical existence.

Generally, all Torah practice reflects a higher outlook, not dictated by only physical, practical considerations. After all, it contributes nothing to our practical well-being to eat matzo and refrain from Chometz to light Shabbat or Chanukah candles, or to sit in a Sukka Rather, these rituals turn our attention to, and keep us focused on, higher matters, which emerge from the perspective of being free. As the Torah states, regarding the ritual wearing of tzitzis, (the ornamental knotted strings we wear on four cornered garments): "And you will see it, and you will remember all of the commandments of God...."

Kabbala and Freedom

The sanctity of freedom is expressed in the Kabbalistic idea of Keser, the Supernal Crown. A crown on someone's head imparts to him or her significance beyond their level and worth as a human. Similarly, the Supernal Crown, mystical, infinite freedom, towers above all the worlds, granting them a significance beyond their intrinsic worth. Without freedom, our labor is meaningless. The attachment to God which we attain through freedom gives our labor in the physical world, expressing that attachment, great spiritual value.

Though freedom is a lofty, wondrous matter, we are still not entirely satisfied. The purpose of life is not merely to guard our liberty, and to see how much we can accomplish with it. More important, we want what we accomplish to be worthwhile, not just challenging.

This idea, too, is found in Kabbala. Keser ( the Supernal Crown) has two levels. The lower level, called Arikh Anpin (lit: the long face, a Kabblistic term ) parallels the idea of freedom we discussed. The higher level, called Atik Yomin (lit: the Ancient of Days, a Kabbalistic term) source of a still more profound pleasure, is the ultimate purpose of creation. Stating this idea more explicitly: mystically and experientially, a sense of purpose is higher than the pleasure of freedom and accomplishment.

We do not experience the ultimate purpose of creation in our present state. If the means were identical with the end, involvement with this world would no longer be merely a means to an end. This is our ultimate goal, to be always in the present. It is the state of Messianic redemption, not our present condition. Mainly, we become involved with the world for what we can get from it. However, experience of something worthwhile in its own right, not needing extrinsic justification, does reflect Atik Yomin: life as it has value for its own sake.

A reflection of something is not the thing in itself, but does reveal something of its source. We call the experiential reflection of Atik Yomin inspiration. It is the highest, most overwhelmingly valuable experience we have. When we are inspired, we glimpse - for lack of better word - the reality of God.

Enjoyment, Experience and Inspiration

We do not always associate inspiration with religion. People have been inspired by the ideals of patriotism, ideology, science, art, and much more. However, when we are inspired, we glimpse - experientially - ultimate value, and valid, unquestionable meaning. Whether we choose to admit it or not, inspiration is a mystical, religious experience. When any idea inspires us, then that idea has mystical meaning and a religious message for us.

In this sense, the ideals of science, communism, and patriotism are really religions, though they may not care to use this term. Of course, the practical expression of these ideals must be consistent with the spiritual content which gave rise to them. In this sense, the ideologies we mentioned are not religions, of course.

The true content of inspiration, undisguised by ideology, is religious. During inspiration, one knows, at that moment, that one has connected with the ultimate, with what really matters. One is totally absorbed in the present. All else is secondary, as if it does not exist, in comparison. Ultimate, transcendent reality becomes manifestly clear at that moment. The person may not recognize having this awareness, but it is the character of inspiration. This mystical reality underlies human experience.

Inspiration automatically brings commitment to the cause, although this dedication may erode when we cease to be inspired. When we are inspired, we know the cause is too important to be ignored, and one must dedicate one's entire being - perhaps even give one's life - for it.

This means that at the moment of inspiration, people realize that their short, personal life, important as it is, is insignificant compared to what truly matters, which is transcendent. The experience of inspiration is rooted in the perception of Eternity. Experientially, at least at that moment, Eternity is revealed as the basis of all reality. It is the Name of God, revealed as the eternal present.

Life, Eternity and Significance

When life springs from and reflects Eternity, it has true significance. Otherwise, it does not really matter. At best, it is a means to an end. We realize that we must labor to connect every instant of our lives to the Ultimate Source.

At least occasionally, the miracle of inspiration enters virtually everyone's life. It draws Godliness into the creation, which is quite ordinary, otherwise. Through it, reality, even physical reality, is elevated into a different realm, into a higher state of being:

When something does not inspire us, it is experientially ordinary. Sometimes, though, we view the same matter in a new light. The miracle of inspiration transforms something entirely prosaic into something of wonder and magic. Through inspiration, an idea acquires the power to influence masses of people, mobilizing them to serve the ideal, directing their energies accordingly, and attaching them to God.

In Kabbala, the world of Atzilus, the Divine realm, contrasts with the lower worlds. Atzilus contains ten sephiros, ten operations through which Divinity affects the world. The lower worlds also each contain ten sephiros, but they are not Godly. The ten sephiros are called:
1) keser = crown2) chochma = wisdom
3) bina = understanding 4) chesed = kindness
5) gevura = power6) tif'eress = beauty
7) netzach = triumph8) hod = acknowledgment
9) yesod = basis10) malchus = kingdom

Infinity and Divinity

Divinity is infinite, having no image, characteristics or limitations. In the divine realm of Atzilus,(the highest of the four worlds) then, the idea of sephiros (the Kabbalistic term meaning eminations) which have definite parameters, even having parallels on a non-Godly level, seems contradictory. This, though, is the miracle of inspiration, which transforms the mundane into Godliness. The sefiros of Atzilus, such as inspiring wisdom, kindness, and power, evoke our sense of the ultimate and of Eternity, thereby transporting something limited into a transcendent state. Glimpsing a morsel of God's overwhelming wisdom, our experience connects reality with its Creator, and we are enraptured and awed. God's wondrous kindness and goodness captivate our hearts and souls. We tremble before the infinite Divine power, and know our insignificance. This true perspective cures us of vapid self-centeredness.

This does not contradict the notion of the great sanctity and value of humanity, however:

When a sefira of Atzilus is revealed, it transmits Godliness to the lower world. Mundane reality is transformed into a state of higher being. Thiis also true of the last of the sefiros, Kingdom. This sefira reveals God as being king. The sefira of Kingdom gives rise to the lower worlds, which exist by virtue of being God's subjects. Accordingly, the sefira of Kingdom has an inner and an outer level. The inner one is God's majesty, and it resides in Atzilus. Its character is inspiring and divine. The outer level is the immediate source of the creation, of God's subjects. Appropriate to that role, it must have a non-Godly character.

Interestingly, Kabbala considers the Congregation Of All Of Israel to occupy the inner level of the sefira of Kingdom.

This means that the purpose of Israel is to be Godly, to transform mundane creation into higher reality. Israel is a Divine function, analogous to God's wisdom, kindness, and power. Its inner character is from Atzilus.

The Congregation of Israel

The Congregation of Israel is comprised of each one of the souls. This means that each person has, at least potentially, a meaningful, individual relationship with God. This is a level of very profound, personal truth, of touching honesty and inspiring poignancy. At the foundation of one's being, the inspired, personal revelation of Godliness is the core and purpose of existence.

As we have discussed, inspired experience overwhelms the individual with the greatness of God. This transcendent reality, at the core of one's existence, is a powerful, implicit mission, each person according to his character and circumstances, to express Godliness, the exalted inner experience of the soul, through one's life.

To express Godliness means being inspiring, and for that, one must be dedicated. Dedicated, continual effort, in the eternal present, to express Divine inspiration, is the ideal of life, the purpose of creation. Constantly giving of oneself is the ultimate fulfillment of a person's being.

With all the talk about souls and upper realms, one might be tempted to break with this world entirely, in favor of a life of study and contemplation. However, this is not the Divine purpose. Our purpose is to transform this world, not abandon it. We arrive at this conclusion, too, through experience.
Inspiration and Mission

The sense of mission which inspiration creates is not solely to come to some state of mystical bliss. Rather, we feel powerfully the importance of elevating the world, and that purpose is more compelling to us, at least while we are inspired, than personal gain. Making reality Godly is the true purpose of our existence.

This mission will bring us to refuse those elements of life which are ordinary and lifeless. If we value life, then we will avoid whatever hides God's revelation. This is a general reason for negative commandments: to refrain from whatever leads to accepting the pathetic emptiness of pure materialism.

Excessive self-indulgence diverts us from the cause, and induces us to settle for passive, banal existence. People become infatuated with materialistic narcissism only because they are afraid, at least subtly, of true, active vitality. Forbidding this escapism - entirely ruling it out - forces one to deal with what really counts.

Living Inspired

A serious problem remains. What about when we are not inspired, which is most of the time? This entire panacea-approach relies on inspiration, a rare occurrence!

Dedication to inspiring ideals is the way to maintain at least a reflection of inspiration. As we discussed above, even inspiration affords only a glimpse of the superb, transcendent, absolute, eternal present which is called the Name of God. We feel impelled to do something about the inspiration, to express it in the reality of this world. This is the source of our dedication.

According to Kabbala, as we mentioned above, there are several different worlds. They are not independent of each other, though; the descent from one world to the next is an evolutionary process. All worlds ultimately receive their energy from the Godly light, their source. This light is revealed in Atzilus, which has, therefore, a Godly, inspiring character. The lower worlds are not Godly, because the Divine light is hidden, there. Nevertheless, they do receive a reflection of this light, because without this connection to the Source, they would cease to exist. What distinguishes one world from another is the level of the reflected light which constitutes their inner content.

In this context, the term, "reflection", means that though the light does not extend from one realm to another, something of its essence is translated into the terms of the lower level.

So, the Godly experience of inspiration is confined to a higher realm, but the ideals also can be grasped through understanding. On the level of mere understanding, one is much less impressed with the matter, since the Godly light is absent. However, if inspiration is sufficiently powerful, one feels impelled to come to terms with it, and to react to it, even when the initial revelation recedes. The first step is to understand what the inspiration meant. This understanding is only a reflection of the inspiration, but it does reflect - it is true to - it's source.

Understanding and Attitudes

Understanding leads to certain attitudes. While attitudes are based on one's grasp of a matter, they generally rely only on the conclusions of understanding. Also, pure understanding is objective, while attitudes are subjective.

For example, understanding friendship includes, at least implicitly, all sorts of subtleties about human needs and interactions. Facts are not affected by personal involvement; understanding tries to be objective. If one concludes that friendship is good, though, an attitude emerges from the understanding: one regards friendship favorably.

Attitudes are close to emotion: they are subjective. They are different from their source, understanding, because they are only a reflection. To approach friendship favorably, it is unnecessary to retain the entire intellectual process leading to this attitude. Staying on an intellectual level probably interferes with developing a friendship. Only a reflection of understanding - a simple conclusion - is transmitted to the attitudes and accompanying emotions.

In turn, decisions like "give positive feedback", or "smile", are practical conclusions of a general attitude that friendship is good and should be cultivated. Only a reflection of attitudes is transmitted to conclusions: a simple, mental command to act, which energizes the ensuing actions.

Since the overwhelming energy of inspiration does not reach lower worlds, one has free will to choose whether or not to comply with the ideas remaining after inspiration ceases. After inspiration, only a reflection of the experience is left. To express the conclusions of the inspiration, one must be committed. Dedication makes it possible to overcome obstacles to expressing the ideal. Commitment to ideals is the way inspiration can influence lower levels that are not automatically, directly affected by the inspiration.

Of course, the energies of inspiration are tremendously difference from the energies of commitment. Inspiration overwhelms the person. Connection to the ideals and actions they imply is profound, meaningful, automatic, and effortless. Commitment, though, is deliberate and arduous, and often entails banal, experientially uninspiring toil. Dedication seems almost the opposite of inspiration, the ideal of the eternal present with which this essay began.

Really, however, inspiration never entirely ceases. It remains implicit, as a memory, commanding genuine dedication. Maintaining commitment is an effort, but the strength of the underlying inspiration impels us to persist even when the inspiration no longer overwhelms us.

If one vigorously persists in acting consistently with the inspiration, selflessly pushing to realize the goals of the ideal, then this dedicated effort is inspiring, as well, and eventually acquires its own overwhelming energy.

When involvement for the cause is entirely self-generated, effortlessly coming from within, it has no risk. This is less exciting than deliberately overcomidangers and obstacles, internal and external. It lacks the degree of inspiring selflessness manifested when persistence demands great dedication. So, although committed action is experientially lower than inspired action, encountering formidable opposition makes commitment more spiritual. Subtly, the soul is sensitive to this distinction.

Commitment and Inspiration

Commitment is just a small reflection of the Godly light of inspiration. Nevertheless, it is inspiring. Deliberate, dedicated, toil can transform the world - even the physical world - into a state of Atzilus. Despite its focus on the mundane realm, and its deliberate, arduous, experientially uninspiring character, this energy is Godly, too. Because Godliness is transcendent, not defined or limited by levels, we can transform all of experience, all of reality, into an inspired present. Sustained, dedicated effort expresses and reveals the Divine Source of inspiration in the mundane realm, elevating that realm to Godliness.

In fact, effort focuses perpetually on the present. It requires continual renewal, a continuous act of will, a perpetual reconnection to the Source of inspiration. This constant, inspired renewal involves one vividly with the eternal present, the transcendent ground of reality. This is true connection to God, greatly surpassing meditation, and certainly beyond any intellectual grasp of Godliness. By remaining determinedly and selflessly in the present, one is miraculously transported into Eternity, above time because one does not allow time to lessen one's attachment to God. More, through committed, constant effort, each instant of time is grounded in, even transformed into Eternity.

This situation is like the World To Come, which the righteous glimpse already in this world. In the quickly approaching days of Moshiach, the time of unrestrained Godliness, we will experience it.


from the November, 1997 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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