The model we’ll use to answer all these questions and inquiries is a vision of the culmination of things, which is to say, of the ultimate goal of creation. For we can only really understand things once they’re finished, not while they’re in process.
First off, only someone as boldly assured of the Divinity of his sources as 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.
Now, as everyone knows, 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 their objective and allows you to avoid pitfalls. Ashlag’s point is that we can only truly understand life and existence once we know the end from the beginning, too; and that not knowing it is what has us stumble.
He goes on to depict the course of all things by stating what God 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 God 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 of it 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, Ashlag goes on to explain God’s ways in the world.
Now, I know that there are some skeptical Jewish thinkers who acknowledge that God indeed created the universe 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 those such as they with their trivial, sordid ways.
Two points are being made here. First, that some who do indeed acknowledge a Creator nonetheless deny His ongoing engagement with the world as Lord. (They’re known as “Deists”. The school of thought wasn’t initiated by Jewish thinkers by any means; Ashlag particularized it to that context because he was addressing a Jewish readership.) Such individuals accept the notion of a physical, chemical, and mathematical “First Cause” but they deny a purposeful God.
The second point is that if they’d somehow be persuaded to believe in God 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 they 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 God indeed created us but then left us on our own as the people above cited first thought, then we obviously came to be who we are despite Him and on our own, not thanks to Him.
But when we argue (instead) that an utterly perfect Creator was responsible for having 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 always reflects its producer, so an inferior garment couldn’t be blamed for being so if it had been made by a second-rate tailor.
Not only is God purposeful as we’d said, He’s also utterly perfect by definition. Those two points underlie all of Ashlag’s assumptions in this work, and all else follows from them.
Now, since God is perfect it 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 God’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).
Ashlag now goes on to present a parable to that effect from the Talmud. He tells us to …
See for example the Talmudic sages’ story of Rabbi Eliezer who came upon a very ugly man and said “How ugly you are!” to which the other replied, “Just go and tell the Craftsman who made 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 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 thinkers who claim that God abandoned us (after having created us) because it’s beneath Him to keep watch over such worthless and base creatures (as we) only divulge their own ignorance (with that claim).
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, who’d then 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 God?
The truth be known, we can imagine someone setting out to do just that! — some fiendish, crazed scientist, perhaps. So Ashlag’s argument seems invalid. For that reason it would serve us better to freely translate the expression thusly: “would anyone dare imagine coming across someone purposefully setting out to create beings who’d be as tormented and tried their whole lives as we are … without being dumbstruck by the very idea.“ That’s presumably how Ashlag himself would have put it had he written it today, when we can indeed imagine such a thing.
But why didn’t he word it that way originally? It comes to this. Each generation is to be judged by its presumptions about what’s good and right, as well as by what it can’t even imagine, because it’s so far removed from those presumptions. After all, could any one of us actually imagine sacrificing children to a god, enslaving a people, submitting whole populations to political oppression and the like? Of course not, because no one presumes any of that’s good or right; those sorts of things are too unimaginably evil in our eyes, and for good reason.
Yet we can apparently still stomach the thought of someone insane “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”. Why? because we’re no longer “dumbstruck by the very idea” any more. Assumedly because the notion isn’t all that far removed from our presumptions about good and right any more, sad to say.
(c) 2010 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).