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Every once in a while, a unique and remarkable soul is sent into the world to renew mankind with a previously unrevealed light.

Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, known as the Arizal, was one such soul. During his brief two years in Tsfat five hundred years ago, he succeeded in revolutionizing the understanding of the Zohar, the classic work of kabbalah. The constellation of kabbalah, the Arizal and Tsfat, made redemption almost irresistibly imminent. Against the historical backdrop of the Spanish expulsion and widespread messianic expectation, everyone living in Tsfat at the time awaited the final redemption. The only problem was, at the last moment, it was suddenly rescheduled for some unspecified date in the future.

Today, much mystery and misconception surrounds Jewish mysticism, the wisdom of the kabbalah, as well as those who profess knowledge of its secrets. The Zohar, the most famous book of kabbalah, was authored by R’ Shimon bar Yochai, who lived two thousand years ago during the Second Temple era. According to Rebbe Nachman of Breslev, every word of the holy Zohar has but one theme: how the upper worlds connect with each other in order to draw down shefa, the “oil of abundant holiness” into the world. Shefa is the fundamental spirtual vitality upon which the entire physical world depends for its sustenance. In order to understand the significance of the Arizal’s time in Tsfat, we must understand a little about the true nature of kabbalah and the anatomy of redemption.

THE SOURCE OF THE KABBALAH

Many people think kabbalah is a mysterious book of magic used by Jewish wonderworkers. The truth is, kabbalah is an ancient body of wisdom that was primarily transmitted orally.

However, Sefer Yetzira, a kabbalistic work that predates even the Zohar, was attributed to the patriarch Abraham. Later, the wisdom of kabbalah was handed down directly from God to Moses on Mount Sinai as part and parcel of the Torah. It was then maintained as a secret oral tradition passed from teacher to student for generations under the strictest of guidelines for fear of its holy power being misused. This tradition took written form during the era of the Second Temple when R’ Shimon bar Yochai garbed its wisdom within the book called the Zohar, literally meaning the “Book of Splendor.” In so doing, he drew the holy light of kabbalah further down into the world. Some time later, the book disappeared and remained concealed until the late thirteen century when it was rediscovered by R’ Moses de Leon, and much controversy arose about its disappearance and reappearance. The Zohar itself was originally a collection of midrashim which was later organized according to the weekly parsha. Thus today, it is a detailed commentary on the Five Books of Moses and contains extensive discussion on the elements that comprise life in this world. It speaks about creation, the soul’s anatomy, the Messiah, suffering, the destruction of evil, reincarnation, tikkun, the Shechina, the system of ten sefirot, fulfillment of the 613 commandments, and Torah study. One of the benefits of learning Zohar is that it gives a person the desire to learn all parts of the Torah (Sichot HaRan 108). After the Zohar resurfaced, it became more widely available and thus more difficult to understand correctly for those lacking a high level of Torah knowledge. When the Arizal arrived in Tsfat for his brief sojourn, he introduced an entirely new system to understand the complexity of the Zohar, today know as “Lurianic Kabbalah”. He succeeded in condensing and systemizing the wisdom of the kabbalah even further, making it more accessible to a greater range of people. For this reason, the Arizal was considered the greatest kabbalist since the days of R’ Shimon bar Yochai.

THE ARIZAL

R’ Yitchak Luria was given the appellation “Ari”, which means “lion” in Hebrew. The final three letters “zal” represent a Hebrew acronym, zichrono l’vrocha, “may his memory be a blessing”. “Ari” is also an acronym standing for “Eloki Rabbi Yitzchak”—the godly Rabbi Yitzchak. Concerned that this name might be taken out of context, later generations said that the Hebrew letter aleph at the beginning of the acronym stood for Ashkenazi, a reference to his family’s Germanic roots.

The Arizal was born in Jerusalem in 1534 and moved to Egypt in his early childhood. By the time he was eight years old, he was recognized as a prodigy, expert in all areas of the revealed Torah including the Bible, Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash, and Aggada. At the age of seventeen, he obtained a written manuscript of the Zohar and spent days, even weeks, engrossed in a single passage until he had grasped its deepest meaning.

In time, after tremendous exertion, he understood the conversations of both trees and birds, as well as the speech of angels. By looking at another’s face, and even by one’s odor, he could discern everything the individual had done and what they would do in the future. He knew people’s thoughts, often before the thought even entered their minds. He knew the future, and was aware of everything happening here on earth, as well as what was decreed in heaven. He knew the mysteries of reincarnation, who had lived previously, and who was here for the first time.

The life story of the Arizal took a intriguing turn when he made his appearance in the Holy City of Tsfat. It was here a relationship was forged between him and another fascinating individual that was meant to catalyze nothing less than the redemption of the world.

R’ CHAIM VITAL

Concealing his gifts completely, the Arizal moved to Tsfat from Egypt during the summer of 1570. He came with the express purpose of teaching a young scholar by the name of R’ Chaim Vital who, the Arizal knew, was to become his main student and disciple. It wasn’t until six months after the Arizal arrived in Tsfat that R’ Chaim Vital finally met him. R’ Chaim, an acknowledged master in kabbalah himself, later wrote that one reason it took so long to meet his master was because he initially thought his own knowledge of kabbalah surpassed that of the Arizal. R’ Chaim Vital was a most unusual individual, an esteemed Torah scholar and an outstanding expert in alchemy, astronomy, astrology, and kabbalah, even before he met the Arizal. At the time of their first meeting, R’ Chaim was only twenty-seven years old; the Arizal was thirty-six.

It is astounding that according to his own account, R’ Chaim was a disciple of the Arizal for less than eighteen months, yet during this brief period, he managed to gain an astonishing mastery of the Arizal’s kabbalistic system. Given their short-lived relationship, the amount of information that must have passed between them defies imagination. Like many great masters, the Arizal rarely, if ever, recorded his own teachings, instead entrusting the task to a close follower. In this case, R’ Chaim Vital. He was the great organizer of the Arizal’s system and spent decades writing, organizing, rewriting and reorganizing countless versions and editions. R’ Chaim’s writings comprise over a dozen large volumes, each intricately compiled and written in an extremely terse style. Known collectively as the Kitvey HaAri, the volumes include the Etz Chaim (Tree of Life) and Pri Etz Chaim (Fruit of the Tree of Life), as well as the Shemoneh Shaarim (Eight Gates), and deal with everything from Torah commentary to Divine inspiration and reincarnation. The sheer quantity of R’ Chaim’s writings is immense, and if not for him, little if any, of the Arizal’s teachings would have survived.

One of the biggest challenges posed to R’ Chaim, was that the Arizal would suddenly start revealing secrets to him with no introduction, or clear sequence. Since the key in learning kabbalah is knowing where and what is being discussed—which world, which construct—the Arizal’s revelations were a dizzying mass of cryptic unorganized material. R’ Chaim was the only one who was able to successfully present the entire system with proper introduction and sequence. Even so, he intentionally wove into the text stumbling blocks to prevent the uninitiated and unworthy from improper understanding.

Kabbalists are extremely careful to use only the writings of R’ Chaim Vital. A relatively contemporary kabbalist from Yemen, R’ Shalom Sharabi (known as the “RaShash”, d. 1777) was particularly strict, warning in extreme language to completely avoid anything other than the writings of R’ Chaim Vital, since among all the students of the Arizal, only he understood his master’s teachings properly.

THE RESCHEDULED REDEMPTION

Yet, the relationship between the Arizal and R’ Chaim Vital possessed an even deeper dimension. Sometimes, when two people unite in a relationship, one of them may experience a personal redemption. In some cases, both sides experience the same. There are also relationships which effect the redemption of a town, a people, or even a country. In the case of R’ Chaim Vital and the Arizal, their union was meant to catalyze the redemption of the entire world, the advent of the Messiah, and the ultimate perfection of mankind. It was all meant to happen in the city of Tsfat.

R’ Chaim Vital could be termed a “microcosmic man”. He was what the kabbalists call a neshama klalit, a general all-encompassing soul. Usually, a Jew is spiritually from one of the original twelve tribes, the sons of Jacob. But a neshama klalit, or all-inclusive soul, has the spiritual root of all twelve tribes encompassed within one soul. This is a specific quality found in certain souls, and it was true in the case of R’ Chaim Vital. The repair, or tikkun, of R’ Chaim’s soul would blaze a spiritual pathway back to God through which others would be perfected. In this way, the entire world could be drawn back unhindered to God in repentance, ushering in the Messianic era. He was the mysterious paradigm upon which all mankind depended, without anyone knowing. This was the secret to the world’s redemption during the time of the Arizal and the significance of the deep relationship between these two extraordinary individuals.

Since the Arizal had come into the world only to teach and perfect the soul of R’ Chaim, he repeatedly cautioned R’ Chaim not to reveal his teacher’s greatness to anyone. If the Arizal’s true greatness was revealed prematurely, it would prevent him from accomplishing what was needed with R’ Chaim. Untold damage would be caused not only to him and R’ Chaim, but to the entire world. Yet feelings of unworthiness persisted within the heart of R’ Chaim. He felt compelled to reveal his teacher’s sublime level to the great leaders in Tsfat at the time, who were older than he, including R’ Moshe Alshich, R’ Moshe Cordovero (the Ramak) and R’ Yosef Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch.

As the Arizal’s fame quickly spread, he was sought by those far and wide for the wonders he performed and spiritual guidance he provided. Others were seeking rectification for their souls. Because of the Arizal’s humility he refused no one.

The Arizal continued to plead with him to be more discreet, even revealing awesome secrets about R’ Chaim’s soul in an attempt to convince him that their relationship served a unique purpose in the world, but to no avail. R’ Chaim was unable to overcome his feelings of inadequacy and continued to publicize the Arizal’s greatness. Within a short while, his time spent with R’ Chaim was greatly compromised.

ALL TOO SOON a deadly plague struck the idyllic holy city. At a mere thirty-eight years of age the Arizal passed away suddenly in the summer of 1572 (5 Av 5332), only two years after the Arizal arrived in Tsfat. No one understood the true significance of the loss more than R’ Chaim. The redemption had been foiled, the dream shattered, at least for then.

During the funeral, Rabbi Chaim almost went mad with grief. When the Arizal’s body was lowered into the grave, he jumped in as well, clinging to it tightly. With great difficulty, others separated him from his master’s body and lifted him out from the grave.

R’ Chaim later wrote, “In my transgression, I wanted to be a ‘foolish chassid’ so I said to my master, ‘If these great scholars aren’t able to learn from you, then neither will I. I want no accusations in heaven leveled against me that I was concerned only for myself and not for these great tzaddikim who also want to learn from you.’”

After the death of his master, R’ Chaim often saw him in dreams, but as the years passed, these visits became less frequent. He settled in Damascus in 1594, teaching and inspiring Jews to return to a Torah-based life, but he was plagued until the end of his life with profound regret and sorrow that the final redemption had not yet come. With the exception of occasional visits to Tsfat, R’ Chaim remained in Damascus until his own death in 1620.

TWO EARTHQUAKES and a series of plagues subsequently devastated the city, and Tsfat went into a deep spiritual and physical slumber, essentially freezing her healing redemptive powers for another time in the future.

Thus the gates of redemption temporarily closed in sixteenth-century Tsfat, home to some of the greatest tzaddikim in Jewish history. Although the Arizal’s time in Tsfat was brief, the spiritual levels attained during this period sustain us until today, as we await the final redemption when we are destined to reach these levels and beyond.

SOURCES: Shivchei HaAri; Shivchei R’ Chaim Vital

I would like to explain the concept of Man, Adam, according to the kabbalah and the teachings of Rebbe Nachman of Breslev. There are two things in the world in which everyone is familiar. One is a matter of belief, and the other, a matter of perception. The matter of belief is that there is a Creator of all, Whose existence is absolute. There was never a time when He did not exist. The matter of perception is that we perceive that creation exists. The creation’s existence is based on “possibility” because there was a time when it did not exist. These two things are opposites.

On one hand, the Creator is without end. He is One in the most absolute sense of oneness and there are no limitations to Him. On the other hand, creation is limited by both time and space. It is known that between any two opposites, there is a connecting midpoint. For example, the colors of black and white stand at opposite ends of the color spectrum. The midpoint between them is the color sky-blue, techelet, which combines both black and white. Likewise, in the concept of space, there is a midpoint between right and left, as well as up and down. So too with the Creator and creation. There is a midpoint which connects them both.

This midpoint is called the Shechina, the feminine aspect of God that dwells within creation. The Creator, Who exists as a unity unlimited by space or time, decreed that in order for the creation to receive the abundance of life and blessing from Him, called shefa, the Shechina will act as the intermediary to transmit this abundance from an unlimited to a limited realm. In this way, all the separate worlds that exist beneath Him, limited by time and space in all of their complexity and detail, are able to be nourished and supported.

The Shechina is the mother and root of the one all-inclusive Soul, which is the storehouse for each individual soul. This individual soul, which comes from the storehouse of the Shechina, was given to the last thing created in this world, man, known in Hebrew as Adam. Our soul yearns for us to be conscious of the tremendous favor and goodness the Creator has granted us. It wants to tell us about our awesome ability and power to unite from this lowly and limited world with our Creator, Who is One, endless and unlimited. Just as the Shechina is the intermediary between the Creator and creation, so is her daughter, the soul, a midpoint between good and bad, holiness and impurity.

Impurity is an extremely fine and subtle concept to understand, since impurity itself actually comes from a pure source. For this reason, it is easy to be confused and think that impurity is holiness, even though it is, in fact, impure. Therefore, the concept of purity, the opposite of impurity, is related to the soul. This is expressed every morning in our prayers when we say, “God, the soul you have given me is pure.” The soul serves as a protective fence to purity since it acts as the midpoint between holiness and impurity. In other words, the fact that we have a pure soul, which stands midway between holiness and impurity, means we have the ability to choose between the two.

THE POWER OF FREE CHOICE

Mankind possessed the ability to choose between holiness and impurity immediately after God breathed the soul into the body of the first man. If one wants, a person can choose to become one with everything good and holy. Or one can choose to become a partner and slave to all that is bad and impure.

If he decides to bind himself with goodness and holiness, then from this lowly world he can ascend to the highest of heights, even rising above the angels with the authority to rule over them. However, if he hands himself over and enslaves himself to that which is bad and impure, he descends to the lowest of depths. He sheds his beautiful spiritual clothing and becomes darkened. At this point, even the smallest and lowliest creature in creation is above him and can be the messenger to bring judgment upon him.

At the beginning of creation God wanted man, who is limited by space and time, to choose goodness and holiness. He wanted man to bind himself to his Creator from this lowly physical world, elevating himself above the entire creation, and rule over it. What happened back then is history. Man was not able to pass the test. Unable to overcome the obstacles, he sinned and fell from his lofty level. Afterwards, he felt tremendous regret and repented, still mankind has not yet achieved the will of God which was to unify Him with His creation. Yet God’s will can never be nullified since it is eternal and without limitation. Therefore, His desire that man ultimately elevate himself will come about in the future when he will become purified. The time will certainly come when man will be elevated above the entire creation, even ruling over the angels.

Delving a little deeper, we can discern that the will of the Creator exists even now. From our limited view we perceive that we have fallen and that our ultimate perfection and purification has been delayed to another time in the future. However, the Creator is above time and exists in a sphere where past, present, and future are one. What we perceive as the future, is for Him the same as the present. This means that our eventual completion and perfection exists now. But to us, bound to the realm of time, we live temporarily amidst awesome pressures coming from two opposite sides: holiness and impurity, light and darkness, good and evil.

As we have said, man has free choice. He is built with strength as well as weakness. With his strength he has sufficient power to overcome all tests, even the most difficult. Yet in his weakness, he can fall from the breath of the smallest wind, from the push of a leaf, and stumble over the most meaningless things.

HOPE FOR THE FUTURE

What can give man hope and strength? When he looks deeply forward into time and yearns greatly for the shining future destined to come, it can vitalize him even now by inspiring him to overcome every obstacle and remove them from his path. As a person progresses step by step, winning another battle with his evil inclination, he becomes further purified and shines more and more. He then tastes everlasting life right now in the present. Furthermore, he has the capacity to purify and enlighten his fellow man, bringing to them the taste of eternal life as well. In contrast, if he becomes influenced by temporary brilliance and things which bring only momentary pleasure, his horizon is narrowed and he enters into a type of prison where he lives with great difficulty, confusing others. His portion in life is then only anger and pain. When he finishes his life, he leaves behind nothing.

It is very hard to describe exactly what spiritual satisfaction means to the person who lives with his soul as opposed to one who lives with his body. However, it is easy to understand when looking at one’s way of life. The first allows his body to control his soul. The second makes his soul dominant over his body. The man whose body controls his soul, dims her light, empties her of all content, and removes her glory. She becomes enslaved and is forced to eat the bitterness of moral impurity. The end of this is only nothingness. But the person whose soul dominates his body, polishes and purifies his soul, revealing her radiant points. He elevates his soul to the Garden of Eden, illuminating her with a wondrous upper divine light until even the physical radiates with light and is attached to everlasting life.

RETURNING TO LIFE

This is the secret of the resurrection of the dead. At that time, those whose bodies were vessels for the soul and acted according to the Will of their Creator, will rise from the grave together with the soul. They will be purified and ready to serve the Creator forever. Therefore, even those living presently who make their bodies subservient to their souls, and act in accordance with God’s Will, can taste eternal life now. When the time comes for them to die, they are not frightened and it does not cause them pain. On the contrary, they are happy because they know that this is the Will of the Creator, and that the time has come for them to return the gift that was entrusted to them—the soul. Likewise, their burial in the earth does not frighten them because they understand that it is like one who goes from one room to another, a narrow room to a much wider one. By entering the grave, he enters into a type of “laboratory” designed to purify his body from all of its gross physicality, removing all vestiges of impurity. In this way, he will be able to come to life again in order to completely serve his Creator.

This is the meaning of the word Adam, man. The complete Man is one who has reached perfection by purifying the physical matter of his body with divine light while in the world, just as it was in the Garden of Eden.

It is easy to villainize others. Global wars are waged because of this. On a more intimate level, a simple personal affront can besiege the victim’s heart for years with quiet burning anger. Both levels, collective and individual, are part of a single whole, since everything has an outer and inner reality—a physical and spiritual aspect. Every created entity in the world has a root from which it draws vitality. Anything formed after the root, draws its sustenance from it. Consider a plant: pluck its flower and it is cut off from its source, quickly withering away. Uproot the plant entirely and it dies. The same is true in the spiritual realm, since anything material has a spiritual source. This is one reason why the wisdom found in the Kabbalah is significant, since it identifies the spiritual root of everything in creation.

In mystical writings, Amalek is described as the fundamental root of impurity and the antithesis of faith. When Amalek is condemned in such harsh terms, modern-day sensibilities cringe. On Purim, there is a special commandment to remember who he is—even more importantly, what he is beyond a mere characterization. Yet, in order to remember something, it must be clearly identified.

Haman, the arch-villain of the Jews in the Purim saga, is rooted in the force called “Amalek” (of whom he was an actual descendant). This is why we speak of “Haman-Amalek” in the same breath, since it is the same power. There is no other force in creation that is so unrelenting in its evil. At the highest level, it is considered the antithesis of the Jewish people because it is the spiritual force that actively seeks to obstruct Divine light and blessing to the world. When this happens, it brings a sense of estrangement from G-d, Who is the source of life.

The root of Amalek’s power is deeper than even the first human being, since it precedes creation entirely. The genesis of Amalek originated in the vacuum of the “Vacated Space” that came into being before the world was formed. For this reason, Amalek is called “first”. “Amalek was first among the nations” (Numbers 24:20). The void of the Vacated Space is the source of all doubt and negative characteristics that drive evil in the world. The primordial nature of the Amalek energy is what imbues it with the extraordinary ability to climb so high and “grasp the throne”, so to speak.

The first mention of Amalek in the Torah occurs in Genesis 14:7, when a battle takes place that causes mass destruction by obliterating a large civilian population. This occurred in a location called the “Plains of the Amalekites” despite the fact that Amalek himself would not be born for over a century later. The Midrash explains that death and destruction on such a large scale could only take place on a site connected to Amalek.[1]

On a physical level, the force of Amalek entered the world through Esau, Yaakov’s twin brother, who was blessed with the power of the sword: “By your sword you shall live” (Genesis 27:40). Eliphaz, the oldest son of Esau, had a concubine named Timna who gave birth to Amalek. Haman was a descendant of Agag, king of the Amalekites in the time of King Saul. During the days of Mordechai and Esther, Haman distinguished himself through his intricate plan to exterminate the Jews in the kingdom of Achashverosh.

Cycling through generations, the spiritual force of Haman-Amalek operates anywhere ambitions of large-scale genocide and annihilation rear their head. Although modern-day examples are not difficult to find, what is less known are the inner characteristics of Haman-Amalek. Why is this important? Because despite being rooted elsewhere, a person can be nursing vitality from an entirely different place without even knowing it. We are affected by Amalek’s influence any time we entertain negative thoughts or are party to evil actions, even in the smallest way.

Herein lies the work of every individual to begin to identify these characteristics as alien to goodness in order to disengage and separate from them. Since their influence on the mind and heart can be extremely subtle, the first step is to become more aware of their existence and identify them for what they are.

  • There is no greater trademark of Haman-Amalek than anger, self-importance, and arrogance—different expressions of a single attribute. An arrogant person angers easily, particularly from personal affronts and insults to their honor.
  • Feelings of jealousy and hatred.
  • Status-seeking and being obsessed with “only the best.”
  • Extreme materialism expressed as love of money and material objects, particularly the quality of hoarding.
  • Haman-Amalek seeks to hide and obscure the good point.[2] Feelings of worthlessness are the biggest symptom of this effort. Stubbornly seeking the positive in yourself and others in difficult situations is the only antidote. This also includes finding the good point in any given moment, even in the lowest of places. On a higher plane, it is manifested as forgetting there is purpose to life.
  • Just as Amalek attacked the weary and enfeebled Jews on their journey through the wilderness in the time of Moses, in every generation the same force repeatedly targets and pursues those who are “lost” and on the fringes, injecting them with a sense of hopelessness and despair.
  • It includes the following thoughts: “Everything is the ‘same old story,’” “Prayer is pointless,” and most of all, “There is no hope.”
  • Haman-Amalek is the source of all subtle thoughts of doubt and denial of G-d, including lack of faith in oneself. The name “Amalek” bears the same gematria (numerical value) as the Hebrew word for doubt, safek.

Anytime these things are felt, one is subject to the influence of Haman-Amalek. The main spiritual work in life is to realign oneself and draw vitality from the source of light, life, and goodness. This is not only possible but mandatory, and called tikkun olam.

The tenacity of “Haman-Amalek” comes from the fact that its influence is woven into the fabric of creation itself, because it predated the world—well before the advent of humanity. Although the work of uprooting this force entirely is ultimately G-d’s war, everyone must do their part by eradicating the “Amalek” within. When it is finally nullified in the world, all barriers to perceiving the Divine will automatically fall away. What was previously concealed will then be revealed for every eye to see, which is the essence of the messianic tikkun.

1. Breishit Rabbah 42:7

2. Otzar HaYirah, Purim 38