April 23, 2014
Archive for Books
The Middle Ages through the Prism of Kabbalah
The Middle Ages is a very peculiar period in history. views on when it began and when it ended seem to range from 2nd-5th century to 15th-18th century respectively, depending on the researcher’s field of expertise. Some mark the fall of the Western Roman Empire as its beginning and the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire as its end. others see the beginning of the Middle Ages as the time when Emperor Constantine the Great summoned the first Council of Nicaea, in 325 CE, and its end as the time when Martin Luther was excommunicated (1521) and the ProtestantChurch was established.
Kabbalah does not define any age as being in “the middle,” but it does consider the period between the writing of The Book of Zohar and the writing of The Tree of Life as a distinct period in the evolution of humanity. In a sense, the term, “The Dark Ages,” would be more suitable to describe this period in history, since this is roughly the period during which Kabbalists concealed their knowledge and made it a secret teaching, known to only a few.
Within this period, we will relate more to the processes that occurred between the writing of these books than to specific events. This should make it easier to see how desires, which on the human level appear more as ambitions, steer the processes that form the history of humanity.
The Cure for Humanities Ills
In Kabbalah, the period between the writing of The Book of Zohar and writing of The Tree of Life has a crucial role. Without it, the purpose of creation would not be achieved. To reiterate in a word, the purpose of creation is for every person to know the Creator and become like it. Abraham’s group was the first to achieve that. Yet, Abraham’s goal was not only for his group to achieve it, but for every person in the world. Moses helped Abraham’s cause by expanding the attainment of the group into the attainment of an entire nation.
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Let us examine the sub-surface processes that unfolded between the writing of The Book of Zohar (also called The Zohar for short) in the 2nd century C.E. and the writing of the Tree of Life in the 16th century. These dates (very) roughly parallel the period between the Roman conquest of Judea and the onset of the Renaissance, or what we now call “the Middle Ages.” The goal is not to focus on particular events, but to provide a “bird’s-eye” view of history, showing how processes correspond to the evolution of desires. In the case of the time frame just mentioned, it is probably best to begin with the Roman conquest and the ruin of the SecondTemple.
How Unfounded Hatred Destroyed the Unity of Israel
The defeat of the Jewish revolt against the Romans (66-73 CE) caused the ruin of the SecondTemple and the dispersion of Judea. (The first Temple was built by King Solomon in the 10th century BCE, and was ruined by the Babylonians in 586 BCE.) This dispersion signified something far more important than the conquest of one nation by another. It reflected the extent of the Israeli nation’s spiritual decline. The Hebrew word Yehudi (Jew) derives from the word Yechudi (“united,” or “unique”), referring to the state of the Israeli nation of the time: perceiving (and adhering to) the unique force of bestowal that governs life.
Yet, the desire to receive is an ever-evolving force and requires constant adaptation. Constant effort is required to harness the newly emerging desires to work in unison—with the intention to bestow, and adhering to the law of yielding self-interest in favor of the interest of the host system. And because the desires evolve, the means to harness them must evolve accordingly.
Unlike animals, humans must constantly realize their place in Nature and choose to be constructive parts of it. However, if we act to the contrary, the negative outcome will not be immediately evident. This leaves us room to maneuver and to calculate.
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Know the Law of Giving Like Abraham
When desires evolve in Nature, they create increasingly complex structures. Each new level rises to a higher degree of desire to receive when creatures of the current level join to form an aggregate of collaborators. By so doing, the creatures of the current (and presently highest) level create a system to which they can yield their self-interests, which provides them with sustainability and adherence to Nature’s law of giving. When this happens in humans, we, too, start from the smallest structure—a single person—and work our way toward increasingly complex societies. The only difference is that we must create these social structures that adhere to the law of giving by ourselves.
Abraham’s family was actually the first group to create that system, and then harness its members into a system whose parts were united by dedication to their host system. As Maimonides narrates, this initial system grew into a group. Yet, only in Egypt—when their number sufficed—did the system grow into a nation. When Moses brought Israel out of Egypt, the family of 70 that had gone into Egypt now consisted of several millions (there are many views on precisely how many came out of Egypt, but the common figures are between 2 and 6 million men, women, and children, excluding the mixed multitude).
Who Else Wants to Conquer Hatred?
Clearly, Moses’ job was far more challenging than Abraham’s. He could not gather the entire nation in his tent, as did Abraham with his family and few disciples, and teach them the laws of life. Instead, he gave them what we refer to as the Five Books of Moses, known in Hebrew as the Torah, which means both “Law” (of bestowal) and “Light.” In his books, Moses provided depictions of all the states that one experiences on the way to becoming like the Creator.
The first part of the way to emulating the Creator was to exit Egypt, venture into the Sinai Wilderness, and stand at the foot of Mount Sinai. According to ancient sources, the name, “Sinai,” comes from the Hebrew word, Sinaa (hatred). In other words, Moses gathered the people at the foot of Mount Sinai—the mountain of hatred.
To interpret the mountain-of-hatred allegory, Moses’ teachings showed the people how hateful they were towards each other, how remote they were from the law of bestowal. To reconnect with the law of bestowal, or the Creator, they united, as described by 11th century commentator and Kabbalist, Rashi, “As one man in one heart.”
Baal HaSulam elaborates on this process in his essay, “The Arvut (Mutual Guarantee),” where he explains that in return for their pledge to care for each other, Moses’ people were given the Torah. They attained the law of bestowal and obtained the light, the altruistic nature of the Creator. In Baal HaSulam’s words, “once the whole nation unanimously agreed and said, ‘We shall do and we shall hear,’ …only then did they become worthy of receiving the Torah, and not before.”
The First Mass Discovery of the Creator
Now we can see how important Moses’ mission was, and why free choice is a prerequisite to accomplishing it. The leaders of Abraham’s group were all family and were naturally united. But Moses had to unite a nation. To achieve that, the entire nation had to agree on a path. By making a free choice to unite, despite the evident egoism (allegorically described as “standing at the foot of Mount Sinai”), a nation was admitted into the law of giving. This was the first time in humanity’s history that people en masse attained the quality of the Creator, and from this point forward, choosing unity in the face of growing egoism will be the only way to achieve the Creator.
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In ancient Mesopotamia, in the face of growing egoism Abraham developed a practical method of balancing this unique human trait. In truth, Abraham’s method was very simple: in the face of heightened egoism, unite and thus discover the quality of bestowal—the Creator. Every element in nature behaves in this way.
- Atoms: The initial levels of desire to receive require very limited organization and form small systems where each element dedicates itself to its host system. We call these elementary systems, “atoms.”
- Molecules: The more evolved levels of desires place atoms within systems we call “molecules.”
- Cells: As the desire evolves further, these systems organize within even bigger systems called “cells.”
- Multicellular Creatures: These group into multicellular creatures, finally leading to the creation of plants, animals, and humans.
In all of this, there is only one principle: the desire to receive in all the elements wishes to receive, and the only way to create balance and sustainability in the system is to unite under a higher-level system. This is what Abraham’s method sought to consciously emulate.
The desire to receive in humans becomes egoism because of our sense of uniqueness. Hence, the antidote to egoism is the exact same cure applied by Nature—the construction of a system to which all parts will contribute and yield their self-interests. In return, the system will guarantee the well-being and sustainability of its elements. Scientists today wish to discover the conditions that existed in the early universe by recreating those conditions on a miniature scale in facilities such as the CERN Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Similarly, by imitating Nature’s “natural” conduct, we will discover its law of bestowal.
Gain the Greatest Delight & Ultimate Goal Out of Life by Not Making the Same Mistake that Was Made in Babel
In truth, the modus operandi is really quite simple: If you think like a giver and act like a giver, we have to at least consider the possibility that you have a small amount of giving in your nature, to paraphrase Douglas Adam’s celebrated quote from Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.
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The Pyramid of Desires
The top of the pyramid is also the part that governs it,
and hence the part that has free choice in how to do it,
and the responsibility to do it right.
Mesopotamia, the Cradle of Civilization, was also the birthplace of Abraham, the harbinger of Kabbalah. The conflict between Abraham and Nimrod, ruler of Babylon, stands for much more than a conflict between a ruler and a defiant subject. It is a conflict of perceptions. To Nimrod, reality is a “federation” of forces that he must please, serve, and appease by sacrifice. To Abraham, there is only one force, and worshiping it means living by its law—the law of giving, as simple and as straightforward as that. Considering this contrast of views, it is no wonder that Nimrod had to either destroy Abraham or expel him.
But Abraham’s departure from Babylon did not quiet the polis. The trends that had prompted Abraham’s search for life’s secret continued to intensify and to spread through the bustling city, fueled by the same forces that power the process of evolution. Yet, in Babylon, these trends began to manifest a conduct that is uniquely human—egoism.
Baal HaSulam explains that egoism is a natural trait for humans. He declares that it is human nature, and that Kabbalah offers a way to turn its evident detrimental consequences into positive ones. In “Peace in the World,” he writes, “In simple words we shall say, that the nature of each and every person is to exploit the lives of all other people in the world for his own benefit. And all that he gives to another is only out of necessity; and even then there is exploitation of others in it, but it is done cunningly, so that his neighbor will not notice it and concede willingly.”
The Need to Learn How to Govern & Nurture the Pyramid of Desires
But before we delve into the solution that Kabbalah offers to human egoism, we need to understand how the desire to receive, initially created by the desire to give—the Creator—has become egoism. “The reason for it,” continues Ashlag, “is that … man’s soul [desire] extends from the Creator, who is one and unique. … Hence, man, too … feels that all the people in the world should be under his governance,” just as the whole of nature is governed by the law of bestowal, the Creator.
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