But you needn’t raise the issue of our free choice being taken from us, seeing that we’ll inevitably be perfected and experience the third era that already existed in the first.
Human free choice is a fundamental of the Jewish Faith. And Ashlag is suggesting that we needn’t bother wondering or not what he’d said till now about the inevitability of our reaching the third era would seem to deny our freedom to choose to do the sorts of wrongful things that would seem to deny us a right to the third era (better known as a place in the World to Come: the era of cosmic perfection that will be achieved after the institution of the Messianic Era and the eventual resurrection of the dead). But let’s explain free choice before we get into the conundrum. The immortal Jewish philosopher, moralist, physician and legalist, Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), laid it out as follows in his definite work of Jewish practice and belief, Mishne Torah:
“Every person has been granted the capacity to either incline himself in the direction of goodness and to be righteous, or, if he so chooses, in the direction of evil and be wicked …. That means to say that … man, of his own volition, consciously and with his own mind, can distinguish between good and evil, and can do whatever he wants to do, either good or evil, without anyone stopping him. Don’t think that God decrees at birth whether a person is to be righteous or wicked; … that simply isn’t so. In truth, everyone is capable of being as righteous as Moses, or as wicked as Jeroboam (a reprehensible renegade and idolater who reigned from 922 to 901 bcE; see 1, 2 Kings; 2 Chronicles); wise or obtuse, compassionate or cruel, miserly or generous, and the like. No one forces, decrees or draws a person in either direction. He alone, of his own volition, consciously inclines himself in the direction he so chooses” (Hilchot Teshuvah 5:1-2).
What that means to say, among other things, is that while all other things in the world are fixed and static in their essence, and the greater part of our being is itself fixed and static, too (i.e. our own personal biology, chemistry, and physics), our ethical stature is malleable and always in flux. After all, as the Talmud puts it, “Everything is in the hands of Heaven but the fear of Heaven” (Megillah 25a), which means that God furnishes us with everything, but our ethical response to it is entirely up to us.
Now, we’re to be judged in the end as to whether we used our free choice for good ends, to be sure. And we’re to earn a place in the World to Come/the third era if we’re found to have done that (see Hilchot Teshuvah 3:1, 7:1).
Yet much of what Maimonides has said about the World to Come seems to fly in the face of what Ashlag had said above. For Maimonides implies that we don’t each necessarily earn a share in it. But we’ll now see, though, that everyone will in fact enter the World to Come/third era one way or another. So, are we free to make ethical choices (with all their concomitant consequences) or not? We are; but in unthought-of ways, as we’ll see. For …
The point is this. God readied two ways for us here in the course of the second (i.e., the present) era to reach the third one. One is the path of Torah observance, and the other is the path of trials and tribulations, which (while daunting, nonetheless enables us to) cleanse the body (of its dross), and (thus) forces us to transform our ratzon l’kabel into a willingness to bestow and to attach ourselves onto God’s Being.
That is, what we’re free to choose is the path we want to take to secure a place in the World to Come; but we’ll all inevitably reach that destination. For, we can either choose the longer way that’s actually shorter, or the shorter way that’s actually longer. But let’s explain.
We’re taught in the Talmud (Eruvin 53b) that Rebbe Yehoshua ben Chananiah once reported that he’d “been on a journey when (he) noticed a little boy sitting at a cross-road”. He asked the boy which road he should take to get to town, and the boy offered that “this particular road is short — but long” while the other one is “long — but short”.
Rebbe Yehoshua decided to take the apparently short road. He discovered after a while, though, that the boy was right. Because the apparently short road was blocked and thus really was a long one; and that the apparently long road was actually a short one because there were no impediments. This story suggests a number of things, but the point most applicable to our subject is this.
Each one of us could either live a life of relative moral restraint based on higher values, or one of moral unrestraint and license (or a combination of the two, which is the most popular choice of all). According to the Ashlag and the Jewish Tradition that means to say that we could either follow the mitzvah-system, or the dictates of our ratzon l’kabel.
The wise would determine, though, that while a life of license seems to be a readier, more direct path to happiness and satisfaction, it will actually prove to be a very long, convoluted, and painful one. For it will result in tribulations. And that while the mitzvah-system seems to inhibit our happiness and thwart our interests, it will actually prove to be the greatest, most delicious and “heavenly” shortcut of all to the ultimate human goal, since it would enable us to avoid the tribulations involved in the other choice.
But know that the suffering one undergoes for having chosen the ostensibly shorter path to happiness isn’t the sort of vengeful, priggish slap across the face we might take it to be. Ashlag depicts it instead as a means of cleansing the body of the dross of the ratzon l’kabel which then allows us to attach onto God’s presence (thus making it akin to the pain we’d willingly — albeit hesitantly — be willing to suffer in order to scrub off some very deeply embedded dirt that exasperates someone we love).
There’s yet another point to be made about this, though. As many know, life becomes clearer at its end, when we start to sense where we’ve succeeded or failed. As such, some old people in ill health simply want to die and actually say as much. They feel they have nothing to live for and that they’re nothing but dry lumber. Now we have found that few elderly, spiritually-centered and observant Jews who are ill say that, and fewer-yet elderly, observant and learned Jews who are ill say it. For they know that they can serve God as long as they’re alive (if only on a pallid and wan level), which gives each moment meaning and pith.
We have found that they (and their families) thus come to know that without the richness and call of Torah-reflection and mitzvah-observance in one’s life, all there often is, is the bitter and gnawing, trying reality of meaninglessness. And they come to realize how true that had been all along, though they’ve only come to see it so clearly at the end. They know that life comes down to a choice between the search for God which is embodied in Torah, and tribulation. And their knowledge of that isn’t abstract, but learned; indeed, rather than being rooted in pat theology, it’s grounded in having finally caught sight of life at its end.
For as the (ancient Jewish) Sages put it, (it’s as if God said to the Jewish Nation) “If you repent (i.e., if you eventually adapt the mitzvah system so as to draw close to God), fine; but if you don’t, I’ll (eventually) place a king like (the evil) Haman (the influential chief minister of the Persian King Achasuerus in the 6th century BCE, who set out to destroy the Jewish Nation as per The Book of Esther) over you who’ll force you to repent (i.e., to adapt the mitzvah system after all)”.
That is, we’re free to adopt the mitzvah system with all its inscrutabilities and mystical locutions on our own, either from the first or in retrospect as an act of awakening; otherwise its alternative (tribulation) will be thrust upon us instead. There’s simply no third option.
And as the Sages likewise said of the verse (that speaks of the redemption), “I God will hasten it — in its time” (Isaiah 9:22): (the curious discord between the idea of God “hasten(ing) it” on the one hand, and only allowing it to come about “in its time” on the other comes to this) “If they’re worthy (i.e., if they follow the mitzvah system), I’ll “hasten (the redemption — i.e., the World to Come and the third era)”; but if not, it will only come “in its time” (after a lot of tribulation)”.
What that means to say is that if we become worthy by following the first path of Torah-reflection and mitzvah-observance, we’ll speed up our reparation and thus won’t have (to suffer) harsh and bitter tribulations, or endure the time it would take us to be compelled to better ourselves.
On the other hand, though, if we don’t (take that path, the redemption will come despite us, but only) “in its time”. That is, only after tribulations — which includes the punishment that souls suffer in Gehinom (i.e., “Hell”). For, those tribulations will complete our reparations; and we’ll thus (and inevitably) experience the age of reparation (i.e., the third era/World to Come) despite ourselves.
In any event, the rectification — the third era — will surely come about since it must, for the existence of the first era demands that. Thus the only choice we have is the one between the path of tribulations and the path of Torah-reflection and mitzvah-observance.
We’ve now thus demonstrated how all three eras of the soul are interconnected and necessitate one another.
Yet as we’ll soon discover, there’s a lot more to clear up vis a vis all the questions we raised at the very beginning of our efforts. Once we do all that, though, we’ll finally discuss the Zohar itself (which is the subject of this work after all, don’t forget).
(c) 2011 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman
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Rabbi Yaakov Feldman has also translated and commented upon “The Path of the Just” and “The Duties of the Heart” (Jason Aronson Publishers).