Wednesday, June 09, 2004

R' Ashlag Ch. 1

Rabbi Yehudah Ashlag's "Introduction to the Zohar"

-- as translated and commented on by Rabbi Yaakov Feldman

Chapter One


"What I want to do in this work is clarify certain ostensibly simple things that everyone contends with and which a lot of ink has been spilt over trying to explain, which still-and-all haven’t been spelled out clearly or adequately enough."

-- R' Ashlag wrote a number of very technically exact and well-ordered works on the "nuts and bolts" of Kabbalah, with all the "laws of supernature" laid out plain. The most prominent of them is his Talmud Esser Sefirot (“A Study of the The Ten Sefirot”) which is an encyclopedic laying-out and explanation of the Ari’s writings; and there are several other shorter works, including his P’ticha L’Chochmat HaKaballah (“An Opening to the Science of Kabbalah”) and others.

---In point of fact, most people don't know that Kabbalah is a very technical subject of study that’s rooted in capturing the principles G-d used in creation, laying them out in order, then using that information to experience a sort of re-enactment of all that deep in one's being.

-- So there's a world (and more) of data to contend with, a wealth of principles to internalize, and a staggering amount of worldly and other-wordly interactions to explicate. But this short book doesn't touch on very much of that at all. Instead, it’s a philosophical work rooted in the experience of having gone through all the above already; and it tries to express that all in earthly, experiential terms.

--As such, R' Ashlag sets out here to solve things that have bothered thinking people for millennia, including the meaning of life, our role in the universe, our relationship to G-d, and the like.

-- He terms them "ostensibly simple" because we tend to think we know the answers already. And he says that "everyone contends with" all this (though most of us don't think we do) because both those steeped in religion and others think that the things they believe to be true do enough to explain the meaning of life on one level or another. But in truth, he adds, these questions "still-and-all haven't been spelled out clearly or adequately enough" and, as we'll find, he has an entirely different approach.

-- So we now come to R’ Ashlag’s questions. There are five in all. Understand, though, that these five questions are the work’s most basic, underlying ones. There’ll be others, too, but they’ll be secondary (and tertiary) to these. So we’ll need to be sure to follow the sequence.

-- We’ll find that often enough there’ll be an underlying question, a sub-question, then a sub-sub-question, which is followed by a sub-sub-answer, a sub-answer, then finally an underlying answer. And other points will be made in-between that will be dealt with, too. It may get confusing at times.

-- In any event, we’ll take each point on its own and do our best to “connect the dots”, but we'd all do well to not concentrate on the sequence itself so much as the points being made.


"First of all, what are we essentially?"

-- There’s no question asked more often than this on one level or another both by each one of us about ourselves and by society at large about humankind.

-- We all know what we are basically. We’re this body, this mind, with these feelings, these opinions, this sense of truth, these experiences, etc. But those aren’t us our selves. They’re our “outright self” -- the combination of this and that with which we greet others, and which we take into consideration when we think about ourselves.

-- But don’t assume that R’ Ashlag is going to say that our souls are our essential self, as so many do. He’ll contend that we’re defined by some other phenomenon; and that while we do indeed have souls, we’re to know that they too are part of the “outright self” (albeit a deeper, more abstruse and subliminal, immortal aspect of it).

-- But now we turn to the rest of R’ Ashlag’s underlying questions, which touch on our place in the grand scheme of things, our stature, G-d’s intentions for the universe, the place of pain and suffering, and our relationship to G-d.


"Second, what role do we play in the great course of events which we’re such minor players in?"

-- We’d only be expected to wonder where we fit in, once we know who we are at bottom, which was the gist of the first question. After all, given that G-d is all-powerful, all-knowing, purposeful (by definition), and well-intentioned too (as we’ll soon determine), it follows that everything and everyone must play some role or another in His creation. So, what role do we humans play?

-- Is it a major or a minor one? We’d imagine we’d only be expected to play a minor one, seeing how thick in the midst of so much matter and so many events and phenomena far more colossal and portentious than us, we seem to be.


"Third, when we look at ourselves closely we get the sense that we’re somehow tainted and as lowly as can be, and yet (conversely) when we look at our Creator we can’t help but praise Him for how utterly exalted He is! But wouldn’t a perfect Creator’s creations be expected to be perfect themselves?"

-- And besides, we seem to be so base and garish at bottom, while G-d Almighty our Creator is so grand and sublime -- which then raises the question of why one such as He would create us as we are.


"Fourth, logic would suggest that G-d is all-good and benevolent. So, how could He have purposefully created so many people who suffer and are tried their whole lives long? Wouldn’t an all-good Creator be expected to be benevolent -- if not at least less malevolent?"

-- G-d has no needs. After all, He's perfect, utterly self sufficient, independent of everything, and fully contained (by definition). Thus everything He does is for "the other". And since a being who does things only for "the other" is benevolent (again, by definition, since there’d be no need for him to harm the other, which is only a self-serving need), then why does G-d indeed allow so many of us to suffer? It seems so “out of character” for Him.

-- Understand the ramifications of this question, if you will.

-- Indeed, nothing lies deeper beneath the surface of human consciousness than the fact of suffering and the distinct possibility of sudden, virulent suffering at that. After all, who hasn’t heard of quick car accidents “out of the blue” that maimed their victims? Or of sudden gunshots rushing through windows and mangling chance targets?

-- There are two broad reactions to that fear overall, though. The first is based on a deep and primal conviction that no Divine Entity would ever allow such a thing to happen; so when it does, that proves that there’s no G-d.

-- And the second is based on the equally deep and primal conviction that nothing is as it appears to be (which, ironically, is confirmed by science everyday), and that while G-d’s ways are largely inexplicable, He still-and-all has our best interests in mind. Those who believe that draw comfort from the idea that when we suffer, we do so for some “good” reason. Yet they’re still thrown by their pain and misery, and left in an emotional -- if not a philosophical -- quandry.

-- So we’d need to understand the underpinnings of suffering in fact if we’re to be steadfast in our faith.


"And fifth, how could finite, mortal, and ephemeral creatures (like us) ever derive from an Infinite Being who is without beginning or end?"

-- In other words, how did we manage to be products of an Almighty Creator who’s so unlike us, as we indicated.

-- Let’s begin to offer R’ Ashlag’s responses to these and other questions.

(c) 2004 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman

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