R’ Ashlag’s “Introduction To The Zohar”: Chapter 11

1.

The (supernal) worlds devolved downward (in intensity) to this physical world, which is the environment for body and soul, and (encompasses) the period of (both) ruin and repair. The individual (literally, “the body”) who is the ratzon l’kabel (incarnate) devolves downward from his root in the thought of creation and passes down through the defiled-worlds system [1]. And he remains subservient to that system (i.e., the defiled-worlds system) for his first thirteen years, which is the period of ruin (rather than repair).

Ashlag had promised to explain what “defilement and the husks (were) all about” so as to spell out how they “could … ever have been culled from and created by (God)”, and so we begin.

We’re taught here that the supernatural worlds “devolved downward”. Understand that the supernatural worlds are utterly unearthly, thus the phrase “devolve downward” is likely to confuse us since they imply space, time, and relative distance. But since we’ve always been granted the right to draw analogies between the upper realms and our own one, we’ll offer this one now to explain the concept.

The idea of the supernatural worlds devolving downward is comparable to what we experience when our plans become less and less abstract and more and more concrete the closer they get to fruition. Let’s take the example of committees set up to accomplish a certain goal. As most know, members of such committees enter the first meeting with a lot of ideas and expectations but precious little sum and substance. The further along the process goes, though, the more concrete the details become, until the original committee itself ceases to function and the project-come-alive is taken over by functionaries with all their gear and fittings.

As Ashlag puts it, this world is where “the individual … devolves downward from his root in the thought of creation and passes through the defiled worlds system” to dwell in the material world in much the same way. He then depicts the material world as encompassing “the period of (both) ruin and repair”. What he means to say is that what the physical world is at bottom is the stage upon which freewill plays itself out, which then allows for either spiritual ruin and debasement or repair and elevation (as we’ll see).

We’re then told that the individual then remains tied to un-holiness for his first thirteen years — before his yetzer hatov (i.e., one’s innate drive toward holiness) appears; and that those thirteen years constitute “the period of ruin” because the individual has no hope yet for elevation since he hasn’t yet been introduced to the mitzvah system that will provide him the means to elevate himself (as we’ll see).

So far Ashlag has explained how the soul devolves into this world. He’ll now illustrate what the individual soul can do to improve its lot here.

2.

But once he engages in mitzvot from the age of thirteen onward (with the intent) to please his Creator, he begins to refine his inborn ratzon l’kabel and to very slowly transform it into a ratzon l’kabel al m’nat l’hashpia (i.e., a willingness to take in, in order to bestow). And that enables him to draw a holy soul downward from its root in the intentions behind creation, which passes through the system of holy worlds and garbs itself in the individual (literally, “the body”). This is the period of repair (rather than ruin).

The individual then continues to acquire degrees of the holiness of the Infinite’s intentions for creation, which then help him turn his ratzon l’kabel to a ratzon l’kabel al m’nat l’hashpia and to please his Creator rather than himself. And He thus gains an essential affinity with his Creator, since a ratzon l’kabel al m’nat l’hashpia is tantamount to out-and-out bestowance.

As Ashlag points out many times in his writings, mitzvot are depicted two different ways in the Zohar: as “pieces of advice” offered to us, or as “deposits”. He maintains that they’re both actually, since they first advise us how to draw close to God (they say, “do this to draw close to Him, and avoid that to not draw away from Him”), and then, once we take drawing close to God as the whole point of fulfilling mitzvot (rather than to accrue reward or for any other reason) the mitzvot deposit God’s Light in our being and we indeed draw close to Him.

Thus once a person begins to fulfill mitzvot from bar or bat mitzvah age and onward (in the course of the “period of repair”) for the express purpose of pleasing and drawing close to God, he or she ceases to be self-centered, and begins the long process of replacing his or her own self-serving desires with the desire to please God alone. That’s to say, the individual starts to transform his usual and quite normal willingness-to-only-take-in into a willingness-to-take-in-so-as-to-give-back-in-return. Having started that process, he then merits a soul.

But that calls for some explanation; for don’t we all have souls?

As we’ll find later on (starting in Ch. 34), there are actually five degrees of “soul”. The lowest is the Nephesh, higher than that is the Ruach, higher yet is the Neshama (the best-known Hebrew term for the soul), higher yet is the Chaya, and then there’s the Yechidah, which is the most sublime degree. As we’ll find, one has to earn a Neshama (to say nothing of a Chaya and a Yechidah), and one only comes to earn it by transforming his ratzon l’kabel to a ratzon l’kabel al m’nat l’hashpia.

Once one does that, he gains an affinity with God, who only bestows. Understand, though, that we humans aren’t expected (or even encouraged) to achieve an out-and-out ratzon l’hashpia (a willingness to only bestow) and to thus be Godly; we’re encouraged to achieve the aforementioned willingness-to-take-in-so-as-to-give-back-in-return. And once we do, we will have become Godly for all intents and purposes.

3.

After all, as it’s written in the Talmud (Kiddushin 7a), when it comes to a prominent man, a woman can offer (a betrothal pledge) and the man can agree to confirm the betrothal (and the marriage is legitimized). That’s because it’s an instance of someone accepting something in order to please someone else, which is deemed a (i.e., an act of) complete bestowance and giving.

Ever the Talmudist and originally addressing himself to a readership that is well versed in Talmudic reference, Ashlag offers a classical (albeit obscure) Talmudic reference to shore up his argument. Here’s the entire rather knotty and convoluted statement meant to explain Ashlag’s contentions along with Ashlag’s remarks (and our explanation).

Raba asked: What if she says (i.e., what would be the halachic outcome if a woman would say to a prominent man) ‘Here’s a maneh-coin (as a betrothal pledge — when it’s the man who usually offers the betrothal pledge to the woman — and she then says) … ‘I am hereby betrothed to you’? (Is she in fact betrothed to him?)

Mar Zutra ruled in R. Papa‘s name that she is…. (But, how could that be? Because) he’s a prominent man whom she completely abdicates to (in great joy, and she thus agrees to his “offer to marry her”, so to speak) because of the satisfaction (that she derives) from the fact that (someone of his caliber) would accept a gift (i.e., a betrothal pledge) from (someone like) her.”

Rabbi Ashlag terms that whole transaction “an instance of someone accepting something in order to please someone else”, and he equates it with out-and-out bestowance.

Let’s now explain the reference in terms we’re more familiar with by now. We’d learned that while we’re all very ready and willing to take-in and hardly willing to bestow, there are nonetheless instances in which we’re indeed willing and even eager to bestow — when we benefit from our “generosity”. The Talmudic example makes the point that if someone truly important were willing to take something (a betrothal pledge in this instance) from me, I’d be so honored by his deigning to acknowledge my offer that his taking it from me would be tantamount to his bestowing me with something.

Thus we see that one can indeed take-in as we’re inclined to do, and yet do so with the other person in mind — when he bestows in return. Ashlag’s final point is that doing that is in fact the best that we could hope for as human beings who always need to take in, unlike God who has no need to take-in, and always bestows.

For when one does that (i.e., takes-in with the other in mind), he comes to be utterly attached to God, since Devekut on a spiritual level comes about with an affinity of tsurot (as we’d indicated).

For as our sages put it, “One cannot attach himself onto God (per se), but (he can attach onto or align himself with) His attributes” (Sifre to Deuteronomy 11:22). And when one does that, he merits receiving the delight, pleasure, and pleasantness that lie within the (original) thought of creation.

In sum, when we take-in so as to give-back we align ourselves with God’s being as much as we can as humans, and we thus come to cling unto His Presence. This will prove to be a major thesis of Ashlag’s and one of the primary ways he indicated we can fulfill our roles in life en toto and God’s wishes for us.

Ashlag offers a cogent parable for this elsewhere. A certain Mr. A was hungry when he arrived at his friend Mr. B’s house, and whether knowing that or not, Mr. B offered him a meal. Mr. A declined despite his hunger, because he didn’t want to put Mr. B out by eating at his expense. As any good host would do though, Mr. B insisted on serving Mr. A something, and Mr. A finally accepted so as not to upset his host.

The point is that though Mr. A did indeed benefit from his friend’s largesse, he did as much good for Mr. B by accepting his meal as he did for himself by satisfying his own hunger; and so Mr. A also became a benefactor in the process like Mr. B. So we see that we can indeed bestow even as we take-in; and that that’s essentially equivalent to out-and-out bestowing.

(c) 2010 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman

Feel free to contact me at feldman@torah.org

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