Fixing the Shattered Divine Light

May 7, 2018

What does it mean to accept the Torah? To what extent is a knowledge of the natural world a part of accepting the Torah?  

The Maharal wrote in 1588 “The grass and trees praise Hashem…No created thing exists in in its own behalf. Hashem created each and everything in the universe and each and everything attains significance through Hashem and without Hashem no thing would exist….no other thing exists except Hashem”

It would seem that the Maharal was saying that we should study nature in order to know Hashem. But does our obligation end there? Should we just study nature?

Do we not also have an obligation to fix nature, to change it, to correct it?

Many in our community and in the Jewish community at large engaged last night the custom called Tikun lel shevuot.

Tikun means to fix.

If nature is perfect and a product of Hashem, to what extent must we fix it?

Another Jewish sage who lived in the same century as the Maharal was the Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria. Ashkenazi on his father’s side, Sephardi on his mother’s side, he was born in 1534 in Jerusalem and lived most of his life in Cairo until moving to Zefat in about 1570. He died tragically in Zefat in 1572 at the age of 38.

Both the Ari and the Maharal are considered to be among the greatest Kabbalists in Jewish history.

The Ari’s main contribution to the concept of accepting the Torah was not just to observe and appreciate the natural work as a representation of Hashem but to fix it.

However, if it is a representation of Hashem, why should we engage in efforts to try to fix it?

Why should we not just observe and appreciate it?

This brings us to the Ari’s great contribution to Kabbalah, his view that we must act upon the world since in creating it G-d withdrew from it. Since G-d withdrew from it, it is our obligation to fix it.

Prior Kabbalists like Rabbi Moshe Cordevero, also of Zefat, whom the Ari came after, considered the 10 sephirot such as wisdom, love, justice, mercy, beauty, and so on as emanations or extensions of G-d into the world.

The Ari had a slightly different notion. To create these sephirot, G-d’s light first had to be withdrawn from the world. The strong all-encompassing light of G-d had to be removed and emptied for there to be space, so to speak, for anything else to exist.   

The repeated filling of the world with G-dliness, however, was very powerful and shattered the vessels which were supposed to contain the light.  If the vessels had not been shattered, the world would have been perfect. 

Once they were shattered, it is incumbent upon all to fix them. Our purpose in life then is to do tikkun olam, to restore them, as best we can.

Let me summarize the Ari’s ideas as set forth in the magisterial 7th chapter of Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism.

The older Kabbalah, according to Scholem, begins with G-d projecting creative power into space. Luria’s kabbalah is about G-d’s withdrawal or retreat. The existence of the world is made possible by a process of G-d’s shrinkage. G-d had to make room for the world by taking a part of the divine essence from the world.

The first act then is not one of revelation, but of limitation. If G-d did not hold back then nothing would exist.

But in the Ari’s understanding, as Scholem interprets the Ari, G-d does not retreat forever. There is a perpetual process of ebb and flow, egression and regression or in Scholem’s most beautiful metaphor, exhalation and inhalation. In each of these descents and assends G-d leaves a lasting impression. There is some remnant that is left behind.

But in making these perpetual probes and projections into the world, the impact proves too powerful for the vessels, which are supposed to contain G-d’s divine light. These vessels are shattered by the strength of the divine thrusts and penetration.  They are broken and scattered by divine movement 

The duty of Tikkun is to mend the damage that has been done, for us to restore, as best we can, the divine capabilities in the dispersed fragments.

The special obligation of humans is to take up this task in mundane history.

For Jews, it means concentration of fulfillment of the Torah and the mitzvoth with full kavanah. Engaging in this type of Tikkun signifies full acceptance of the Torah.

For the Ari, one might imagine that it would be the message of Shevuot.      

The sparks of the original light have been spread out in all directions, even in Minnensota. The problem is to reassemble them and restore them to their original splendor.

The reason that we as Jews continue to experience exile, or Galut, is so that we can engage in this holy task. So to speak, it is and has been our mission and the reason for our being. The little light to the nations.  

In Israel too, though at home, not all has been restored, not everything is fixed, not everything is in order.  We must mend the damage.

Our purpose is the lift the sparks in all locations.

The Ari unfortunately died at the age of 38 from the plague. He did not write down any of his thoughts himself. That was left to his main disciple Rabbi Chaim Vital of Zefat in his book Eitz Chaim. I just so happen have a copy and an English translation, if any of you would like to see it.

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