Sunday, June 13, 2004

R' Ashlag Ch. 4

Rabbi Yehudah Ashlag's "Introduction to the Zohar"

-- as translated and commented on by Rabbi Yaakov Feldman


Chapter 4.


"The device we'll use to answer all these questions and inquiries is to look at the culmination of things, which is to say, at the ultimate goal of creation. Since we can only understand things once they're finished rather than while they're in process."

-- First off, only someone as boldly aware of the Divinity of his sources as R' Ashlag could ever claim to cite "the ultimate goal of creation". More importantly for our purposes, though, is the fact that we'd all do well to know that goal, since nothing gnaws more rancorously at our being than the dread thought that we -- and life itself -- are meaningless. Thus knowing the goal and meaning of life would be a great antidote for a lot of what ails us, and we'd be fortunate to know it.

-- Murder mysteries become more understandable when you read the end at the beginning, for example; and it's always easier to solve a maze by starting it at its conclusion. For knowing how things come out from the first helps explain its intentions and allows you to avoid pitfalls. R' Ashlag's point is that we can only truly understand life once we know the end from the beginning, too; and that not knowing it is what has us stumble.

-- (Should you object and say that knowing the end from the beginning takes all the fun out of reading mysteries and working at mazes you'd be right. Since the fun in both cases lies in your first experiencing, and then personally relieving the tension the work brings up. But the sort of existential and cosmic tension brought on by not knowing the meaning of life is too great to bear, and we ourselves aren't capable of relieving it -- we need someone of the caliber of R' Ashlag to do that for us. So his point is well taken.)

-- R' Ashlag goes on to depict the course of all things by stating what G-d had in mind when He created the cosmos. After all, He had to have had plans or an agenda, if you will, when He created and set everything in order, since ...


"It’s clear that no one other than a madman does anything without a particular goal in mind."

-- ... that is, since utter extemporaneousness and abandon is either a product of a person of unsound mind or of an entity devoid of free will, and G-d is neither.

-- (Now, some might argue that art is a product of abandon and non-rationality. But the truth of the matter is that while the artistic process is impulsive and "mindless" or non-rational, the preparations and actual outcomes are anything but. For as any artist knows, a lot of thought goes into each moment of magic and quick genius.)

-- That having been said, R' Ashlag goes on to explain G-d's ways in the world.


"I know that there are some irreligious and unbelieving scholars who acknowledge that G-d indeed created the world but who also claim that He then left it to its own devices. 'After all', they reason, 'His creations are so worthless that it wouldn't befit so exalted a Creator to keep watch over such as they with their trivial, sordid ways'".

-- Two points are being made here. First, that there are indeed those who acknowledge a Creator, who nonetheless deny His ongoing engagement with the world as L-rd. Which is to say that they accept the notion of a physical, chemical, and mathematical First Cause but they deny a purposeful G-d.

-- The second point is that if they'd somehow be persuaded to believe in G-d in theory they'd still and all think it absurd to believe we could engage with Him since (they'd argue) it would be beneath one such as He to interact with anyone such as we.


"But the truth of the matter is that those scholars don’t know what they’re talking about. For it’s absurd to argue that we’re base and worthless without then arguing that we made ourselves that way."

-- In other words, if G-d indeed created us but then left us on our own as they'd first thought, then we obviously came to be who we are despite Him and on our own, not thanks to Him. Because He would have created us utterly neutral, and our "baseness" and "worthlessness" would have come about after the fact and of our own volition.


"But when we argue (instead) that an utterly perfect Creator created and designed us -- and that He made us with both good and bad inclinations -- (then we’re forced to admit that such) a perfect producer wouldn't produce a shoddy and inferior product. After all, a product only reflects its producer, so an inferior garment couldn't be blamed for being so if a second-rate tailor made it."

-- Not only is G-d purposeful as we'd said, He's also utterly perfect by definition. Those two points underlie all of R' Ashlag's assumptions in this work, and all else follows from them.

-- Now, since G-d is perfect it thus follows that everything He does is done perfectly, just-so, and with His purpose in mind. It likewise follows that we, His creations, must be just-so, too. (We couldn't say we're perfect, because we're not; though we could say that we're prepared and even primed to be "perfect" when G-d's purpose is realized -- but that's far beyond the subject at hand).

-- In any event, anything about us that appears to be off and unbefitting a product of a perfect Creator must actually not be off, but just-so and in-process instead (the way sculptured works are before they're finished). It follows then that our "bad" inclinations must be purposeful, too, and that we really can't be blamed for them (though we can be blamed for not improving and perfecting ourselves as we're able and bidden to).

-- R' Ashlag now goes on to present a parable to that effect from the Talmud. He tells us to ...


"Refer to the sages' story of Rabbi Eliezer who came upon a very ugly man to whom he said 'How ugly you are!' to which the ugly man replied, 'Just go and tell the Craftsman who formed me how ugly the vessel He made is!' (Ta’anit 20)."

-- The Talmud reports there that Rabbi Eliezer called the ugly man a "reika" (from the term "reik", empty) which would thus either be translated as "dunderhead" or "good-for-nothing". But it has been explained that the man was ugly both inside and out -- that he was coarse and vulgar (see Maharsha's comments), and that's why he was called reika, or "flawed" in this instance. Thus R' Ashlag's point is again that our failings are there by Divine will; so "just go and tell the Craftsman who formed me how ugly the vessel He made is!" if you think we're anything other than just-so.


"Thus those scholars who claim that G-d abandoned us (after having created us) because it’s beneath Him to keep watch over such worthless and base creatures only divulge their own ignorance (by claiming that)."

"After all, could anyone ever imagine coming across someone purposefully setting out to create beings who'd be as tormented and tried their whole lives as we are, and who'd utterly abandon them and not even bother to look after them or help them besides? How loathsome and despicable a person he'd be! So how could we ever imagine such a thing of G-d?"

(c) 2004 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman

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