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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
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 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
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,
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
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
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
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
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 = crown||2) chochma = wisdom
|3) bina = understanding
||4) chesed = kindness|
|5) gevura = power||6) tif'eress = beauty
|7) netzach = triumph||8) hod = acknowledgment
|9) yesod = basis||10) 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
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
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
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
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
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
from the November, 1997 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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