Famed author of the Lecha Dodi hymn sung on the eve of the Jewish sabbath, Rabbi Alkabets was one of the founding members of the 16th-century school of Kabbalists based in Safed (Tsfat), Israel.
Next week’s lecture: Gluckel of Hameln!
Love Yiddish culture? Check out the new poster for the 2015 Kultur Festival in Boca Raton! I’m really proud to be doing a book reading (The Kabbalah of Forgiveness) there on March 6. Main event, as always, will be Maestro Aaron Kula’s phenomenal Klezmer Company Orchestra concert on March 1!
This concludes the Thirteen Levels, by which a human may imitate the Creator, which are the Higher Levels of Mercy. Their precious value: if one behaves according to them in this world, this will open up the corresponding level on high. Precisely as one behaves, one will cause the flow from above, and cause that level to illuminate the world.
Therefore one should not lose consciousness of these Thirteen Levels, and the verse should not leave one’s mouth, so that it will serve as a reminder. When one encounters a situation when one needs to employ one of the levels, let one remember and say “behold, this matter requires the use of this level, and I do not wish to move away from it, such that this level not be hidden or removed from the Universe.”
The Thirteenth and final Level of mercy carries an absolute guarantee: one who masters this level can forgive anyone. The Thirteenth Level renders all the earlier levels unnecessary, but there’s a big catch: the Thirteenth Level is spiritually exhausting, and can only be sustained for brief periods of time. It requires phenomenal concentration and a massive investment of personal energy, and as such it should only be invoked when all other levels prove insufficient.
The theory is simple, the technique complex. The basic idea of the Thirteenth Level is that no matter how despicable a person has become, there was certainly a time when that person was completely innocent. No matter how damaged the relationship, there was a time when it was new and healthy. Contemplating that moment of innocence is the essence of the Thirteenth Level, which Rabbi Cordovero calls “the level that contains all previous levels.”
Behold, this is a trait of God for the Jewish people: when they have exhausted the merit of their ancestors and the like, what does God do? Behold, based on merit alone, they are unworthy. It is written: I remembered you, the kindness of your youth, the love when you were a bride.
God literally remembers the early days, the love that once was, and shows mercy to the Jewish people. In this manner God recalls for their benefit all the commandments they performed from the day they were born, and all the positive attributes through which God causes the universe to function for them. Out of all this, God creates a special method to show them mercy, a level that includes all of the previous levels, as is explained in the Idra. So too should a person perfect one’s dealings with other people. Even if one cannot find any reason from all of the preceding, one should say, “there was once a time when this person did not sin. At that moment, or in those early days, this person was good.” One should think of the good things the other person did as a child, and recall the love that one has for a child who is yet nursing. With this method, one will not be able to find a person who is undeserving of benefit, unworthy of prayer and mercy.
The final element of the triad is Level Twelve. In Level Ten we discussed how to forgive ordinary people and in Level Eleven we examined how to forgive especially good people. Level Twelve deals with forgiving people who seem to be beneath our consideration, having failed habitually to live up to moral challenges. How can such people, who have a long history of wrongdoing, merit our forgiveness? Even after considering the previous eleven strategies, it may be difficult to find a path to forgiveness for these people.
The Twelfth Level suggests a shift of focus, from the offender to his or her family background. Rabbi Cordovero, writing for a Jewish audience, places this level in the context of Jewish peoplehood. Even when a Jew behaves inappropriately, and little excuse for the behavior may be found, nevertheless that Jew is still a child of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and deserves forgiveness purely out of respect for their ancestral merit. Rabbi Cordovero’s argument may be extended to the family of the entire human race.
There are those people who do not behave correctly, yet God shows mercy to all. The Talmud explains the verse, I will show kindness to who I will show kindness: God says, “I have a storehouse for those who are unworthy.” There is a storehouse of kindness, from which God dispenses freely to those who are unworthy, because God says, “behold, they have the merit of their ancestors. I swore to their ancestors! Even though they are unworthy, they receive merit because they are the descendants of their ancestors, ‘to who I swore,’ and I will lead and guide them until they address their imperfections.” So too should a human being act. If one encounters wicked people, one should not be cruel to them, insulting them and the like, rather one should show them mercy and say, “in the end, they are the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Even if they are not proper, their ancestors were proper and good. One who derides the children derides the parents, and I do not wish to be the cause of derision of the ancestors.” One should protect their dignity and help them as much as possible.
The second part of the triad of Levels Ten, Eleven and Twelve refers to how we must forgive people who have a long history of helping others. In the Tenth Level, we examined how we must extend just a little bit more credit to people as a matter of course, regardless of their moral character. In the Eleventh Level, we see how we must go still further to forgive people who habitually put others before themselves. They, like all of us, experience moral challenges and sometimes fail. Their prior demonstrated commitment to helping others, however, means that they deserve an additional measure of mercy. Like the patriarch Abraham, known for his generous hospitality and caring for others, people who behave selflessly earn an additional measure of forgiveness.
There are those whose conduct in this world is beyond the letter of the law, like Abraham our father, and God treats them beyond the letter of the law. God does not insist that they suffer the full force of the law, and not even that which would be correct, rather God goes beyond the letter of the law just as these people conduct themselves. This is “kindness to Abraham.” God uses the Level of “kindness” with those who are like Abraham in their own behavior.
So too should a person behave. One should always treat others with righteousness, in an upright and just fashion. Nevertheless with those good and pious people one should go beyond the letter of the law. If one is a little patient with most people, one should be more patient with these people, showing them mercy beyond the letter of the law, more than one would with others. One should consider such people exceptionally important and dear, and they should be among one’s associates.
The Tenth, Eleventh and Twelfth Levels together comprise a triad of strategies for forgiving others, particularly people with whom we have more casual relationships. The Tenth Level addresses the average person, with neither elevated nor stunted morality, the Eleventh Level describes forgiveness for the person who habitually goes beyond the minimum requirements to help others, and the Twelfth Level focuses on forgiving people who typically fall short of our moral expectations.
The Tenth and Eleventh Levels are also associated with the Patriarchs Jacob and Abraham, respectively. Jacob, whose tribulations frequently involved suffering at the hands of cruel and deceitful individuals like his brother Esau and his father-in-law Laban, learned strategies for coping with challenging people without sacrificing the fundamental trait of Truth. The Tenth Level therefore addresses this issue of truth in forgiveness, and just as Jacob’s deception of Isaac is understood as appropriate despite its manipulation of apparent truth, so too does forgiveness require a slight but intentional deviation from the apparently just. Simply put, even though an individual might deserve a strict retribution for a hurtful act, nevertheless one should just ease that response slightly in favor of mercy, tempering judgment with kindness even though the situation may not otherwise warrant a forgiving response.
This Level refers to those members of the Jewish people who have a certain quality: they are intermediates, meaning they do not know how to behave beyond the letter of the law. Such people are called “Jacob.” This is because they only behave according to principles which are demonstrably true.
God also has this trait of truth, which refers to that which is apparently just and upright. Those people who behave in this world in a correct fashion are treated by God with truth. God shows them mercy out of justice and righteousness.
So too should a person behave with others, justly and with righteousness, without perverting judgment. One should show another mercy in truth, just as God shows mercy to the average creature with the Level of truth, to address their imperfections.
The Ninth Level of Mercy addresses a principal common to both Kabbalah and physics: energy never dissipates of its own accord; rather it is redirected and absorbed into something else. If a stone is dropped into the middle of a still lake, the ripples will extend to the shoreline, gradually decreasing in size as the circle of their impact increases. Once they reach the land, the energy represented by the ripples is transferred to the earth itself, shifting the pebbles and grains of sand until the force of the original stone is completely exhausted. The same phenomenon is true of human sin. Sin releases the forces of judgment into the world like a stone dropping into a lake, and the energy of these forces of judgment can only be redirected and absorbed elsewhere. It will not simply stop and return to its source.
The Ninth Level acknowledges God’s mercy as it is expressed in the redirection of forces of judgment. Rabbi Cordovero illustrates the phenomenon with several Biblical examples, including the punishment of Pharaoh (Exodus 4), Haman (Esther 7) the scapegoat (Leviticus 16), and Daniel’s interpretation of the dream of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 2). The Ninth Level concludes with a treatment of how we may internalize and emulate this aspect of mercy in our own lives.
“And cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.”
God expresses goodness in this Level. When the Jewish people sinned, God handed them over to Pharaoh. Why was Pharaoh punished when the Jews repented? The same question may be asked of Sennacherib, and Haman, and their ilk. God does not say, “the Jews repented, and therefore no more evil will befall them,” and simply removing the threat of Haman, or Pharaoh, or Sennacherib. This is not enough. Instead, God causes Haman’s plans to redound upon his own head, and so too Pharaoh, and so too Sennacherib. The principle is based on the secret of and the goat will bear upon itself all their sins to the land of Gezerah. The goat literally bears the sins, a very difficult concept. Should the goat be held responsible for the sin of the Jewish people? Yes, as follows: when a person confesses, the confession is uttered with the intention of attaining purity, as David said “wash me, cleanse me of my sins,” and we say, “erase in Your great mercy.” We pray that our punishments be light, and not cause us to neglect the study of Torah. This is the significance of the continuation of that prayer, “but not through difficult tribulations,” and the intent behind the concluding phrase, “and You are righteous regarding all that happens to me.” There are sins that are nullified by tribulations, while others are nullified by death, and thus one cheerfully accepts atonement through tribulations. As soon as one confesses in prayer, the confession becomes the goat, the portion of Samael, as the Zohar explains in Parashat Pekudei. What is this portion? God visits punishments upon the person, and Samael immediately appears to collect his debt. Samael received permission from God to collect, but the transgression has devolved onto the goat, and thus the Jewish people are purified while Samael receives his due. Ultimately, God’s decree was that anyone who performed this service in the world would be nullified, which is the meaning of and you will kill the animal. Similarly the rock used for stoning and the sword used for execution require burial in order to eliminate both their existence and power after the sentence has been performed. This is precisely the secret of the Nebuchadnezzar’s statue. The Jews were handed over to the King of Babylon, the head of gold. When this head was bowed, they were handed over to Persia, a chest and arms of silver, which was ultimately replaced, until the Jews arrived at the legs of bronze and feet of clay. What will be the final, positive end? God will force them to rise and face justice, as it is written: I will expend My arrows on them. My arrows will destroy, but the Jewish people will not be destroyed. The pieces of iron, clay, brass, silver and gold will be destroyed. The verse begins, and he struck the image to its legs, meaning that the only parts left of the image were the legs, because their power had already been nullified by the destruction of the head, arms and chest. Nevertheless, at the end it is written they will be destroyed as one, meaning that in the future God will force even Samael to stand up along with the wicked people who carry out his various deeds, and God will judge them.
This is the meaning of and cast all their sins into the depths of the sea, meaning God will send the power of justice to bring down all those who are like the depths of the sea—the wicked are like a stormy sea, it cannot be silent and its waters churn up silt and mud. The verse refers to those who execute judgment upon the Jewish people. God will ultimately cause their actions to redound upon their own heads.
Once the Jewish people accept their punishment, God reconsiders even what came before. God demands retribution for the sake of their dignity. Moreover, God says I was but a little angered, but they compounded the evil.
One must employ this level when dealing with others. Even if a wicked person is afflicted by punishments, one should not hate him, for after he is lashed he is like your brother. One should draw close those who rebelled and those who were punished, and have mercy upon them. One should save them from an enemy, and not say, “his sin caused this to happen.” Rather, one should show him mercy with this level, as I have explained.
Rabbi Cordovero expands upon the metaphysics of forgiveness in the Eighth Level. God preserves a core region of positive regard for every human being, a place where every positive deed that person ever performed is recalled, cherished, and protected. Even when a person commits some act of transgression, the impact of that inappropriate behavior cannot affect the core of love. In other words, God does not keep a running tally of pros and cons regarding each individual, subtracting the blame for transgressions from the reward for good deeds to arrive at a kind of score for each individual. Rather, God is like a king who maintains two halls for his servants. One is beautifully decorated, filled with luxurious furnishings under a lofty ceiling and illuminated with chandeliers. In this hall, servants are received and rewarded for performing the king’s will, and the king frequently returns to this hall to review the record books and rejoice in the memory of their contributions to the kingdom. The second hall is a plain room, devoid of any luxuries, in which the king reviews the records of servants who have failed to perform their duties appropriately, and they receive punishment. The kingdom has yet to see a servant who is not called to both chambers, yet the king maintains a strict policy: no misdeeds are to be mentioned in the glorious hall of reward.
So too, God maintains a chamber where the positive actions of a person are stored, and no matter how poorly a person may behave, he or she will never lose their place in this holy chamber. Rabbi Cordovero describes the meaning of this Level, and provides direction on how we may apply it in our own lives.
God behaves toward the Jewish people in accordance with this level, which is the secret of “subduing the transgression.” Behold, a commandment is like a budding vine that bursts forth and rises without limit to enter the very presence of God. Transgressions, on the other hand, do not reach that place, Heaven forbid; rather they are subdued so they do not enter. This is as is written (Psalms 5:5): “no evil will dwell with You,” meaning, no evil will reside in Your dwelling place.
No transgression enters the inner abode. Thus “this world cannot contain the reward for a commandment,” because the commandments are before God, and how can God grant people spiritual reward in a physical world? Behold, this entire world is not fit to receive even a kernel of what is before God! For this reason, God does not accept a bribe that consists of the performance of commandments. For example, God does not say, “this person performed forty commandments and committed ten transgressions. Take ten commandments away for the ten transgressions, leaving thirty commandments.” Heaven forbid! Rather, even a completely righteous person who commits a single sin is considered as if he burned the Torah. He must make good the debt, and afterward receive the reward for the commandments, which is a great kindness that God does for the righteous. God does not subtract, for observance of the commandments is extremely precious and valued before God—how could God delete the rewards because of transgressions? The consequence of sin is a share of the horrible Gehinom, but the reward for the commandments is the glorious radiance of the Shekhinah—how could God subtract the former from the latter? Rather, God collects the obligation incurred by the transgressions and provides the reward for the commandments. This is what is meant by “He will subdue our transgressions,” that the transgressions do not overpower the commandments. God “subdues” the transgressions so they do not rise up and enter God’s presence. Even though God observes all the ways of a person, good and evil, nevertheless God does not subdue the good. God allows the good to fly upward without limit, joining commandment to commandment, building from them an edifice, a garment of glory. Sins do not have this power; rather God subdues them. Sins do not enjoy this success and do not enter the inner presence of God.
Even this level must be emulated by a human being. One should not subdue the good of a person and recall the evil that he caused. On the contrary, one should subdue the evil, obliterating it from memory and casting it away: “no evil will occur in Your place.” The good that he did must always be held in consciousness, remembered and overpowering whatever else he might have done. One should not subtract in one’s heart, saying, “if he did this good thing for me, behold he also did me harm,” forgetting the good. One should not do this! Rather, one should make peace with the harm with whatever means available, and the good should never be cast out of consciousness, while ignoring the evil as much as possible, just as God subdues transgressions, as I have explained.
Rabbi Cordovero begins the Seventh Level of Mercy with a well-known teaching from the Talmud (Berakhot 34b): “in a place where penitents stand, not even the completely righteous may stand,” a statement that counterintuitively affirms the power of repentance. Not only is the penitent accepted back into Divine favor, the penitent is drawn still closer than before the transgression! Rabbi Cordovero derives the reason for this phenomenon from another Talmudic passage connected to the Hebrew letter he (pronounced “hey”), which is shaped like a kind of covered patio: roofed overhead, a wall to the right, a half-wall to the left, and open at the bottom (ה). The repentance process takes place when a person falls out the bottom of the he. It is impossible to climb back along the same path of descent; rather the penitent must ascend on the outside of the letter, finally entering through the tiny opening at the top left. This arduous process gives the penitent greater strength, and renders the penitent more beloved to God than even the completely righteous individual who has never fallen.
From the human perspective, the Seventh Level of Mercy addresses the damage done to a relationship through betrayal. Even after tearful apologies are spoken and accepted, the natural tendency is to hold back a certain degree of affection or respect as a result of prior harm, regardless of how intensely and sincerely the other may repent. The Seventh Level dictates that not only should the relationship be restored to its earlier strength, it should even be improved as a result of the commitment to renewal.
God does not behave as human beings behave. After someone angers another, forgiveness is usually partial and they do not love each other as they once did. When a person sins and repents, however, God holds him in even higher regard. This is as it is written: “the place where penitents stand, not even the completely righteous may stand.” The reason is explained in the Talmud regarding the Hebrew letter he (ה). Why is it shaped like a covered patio? This to teach us that anyone who wishes to leave this world may leave.
God created the world created with the letter he. God created it with a wide bottom facing the side of evil and sin, a side that cannot be free of materialism, the desire to do evil, and imperfection. This is like a covered patio. There is no protective fence below, just a great opening to the side of evil. If one wishes to leave this world—there are so many exits for such a person, and one cannot turn without encountering sin and transgression, an opening to the outside. There is also an upper opening, such that if a person returns, he or she will be accepted. One might ask, “Let the person return the same way?” The answer is “this would not help.”
The penitent cannot rely on standard defenses against sin as the righteous may. Since the righteous have not sinned, a light fence is sufficient for them. A sinner, on the other hand, needs robust and multiple fences, since the light fence has already been destroyed. If one were to approach this fence, it would easily be destroyed again by the evil inclination. Such a person needs to maintain maximum distance. Therefore it would be insufficient for this person to re-enter the patio in the way he exited. He must climb up and enter via the small opening, and suffering and self-denial will seal up the gaps. For this reason, “the place where penitents stand” is higher because they did not enter via the portal of the righteous to be with the righteous. Rather, they mortified themselves and rose up to the higher opening, practicing self-denial and separating from sin so much more than the righteous. Therefore they rise up and stand in the level of the he, the fifth chamber of he that is in the Garden of Eden. This is called “the roof of the he.” The righteous, meanwhile, are in the opening of the he, the entrance to the patio. Thus when a person repents, this brings the he back into its place, returning the Shekhinah to God. This return is not characterized by the earlier love alone, rather a far deeper love. This is the meaning of “He will again show mercy,” that God will invest greater mercy in the Jewish people, healing them and drawing them closer.
So too should people behave with one another. One should not retain the hatred from an earlier anger. Rather, when a person sees that someone desires love, the level of mercy should be increased and love should be deepened to an even greater degree than before. One should say, “behold, this person is to me as a penitent, and even the completely righteous cannot stand in his or her company.” One should draw the penitent close with the greatest of affection, even more than one would lavish on the completely righteous, who never gave offense.
The Sixth Level begins with a deeply mystical passage in Ezekiel, set in the years immediately prior to the 6th century BCE destruction of the first Temple. God is angered by the sins of the Jewish people, and sends the archangel Gabriel to destroy them utterly, once and for all. Gabriel takes the glowing coals from a space called the galgal, located beneath the altar, and prepares to shower devastation upon the people. Gabriel is delayed in place for six years until the image of a human hand appears in the galgal, a symbolic representation of the acts of human kindness that the otherwise sinful Jews do for each other. With the appearance of this hand, God cancels Gabriel’s mission. God’s mindful delay to act from anger for six years, followed by a recollection of an unrelated kind deed, ultimately averts punishment.
Rabbi Cordovero goes on to describe how this level may be applied on a human scale, offering an exceptionally practical suggestion to promote forgiveness. When angered or frustrated by the behavior of another, one should focus on a single redeeming characteristic or activity of that person. This small technique places a momentary deterrent in the path of angry reaction, allowing forgiveness to take hold and ultimately blunt the full force of one’s wrath.
I have explained elsewhere that there is a certain chamber where angels are appointed to collect the acts of kindness that people perform in this world. When Justice denounces the Jewish people, these angels immediately draw forth a particular act of kindness, and God forgives the Jews. This is because He desires kindness. Even if they are guilty, if they nevertheless do kindness with one another, God forgives them. This is as it was during the destruction of the Temple. God told the angel Gabriel, go into the space of the galgal. Gabriel took burning coals to cast upon the Jewish people. Gabriel, the officer of justice and power, was given permission from God to take the forces of Justice from the galgal, located below the cherubim, forces derived from the fires of the altar, the executive power of justice through sovereignty. Justice demanded the destruction of absolutely everything, extinguishing the future of the Jewish people because they deserved annihilation. The passage continues, and Gabriel looked to the cherubim, and under their wings he saw the form of a human hand. God said to Gabriel: “They do kindness to one another. Even though they are undeserving, save them and allow a remnant to remain.” The reason is because of this Level, for He desires kindness. The Jewish people perform acts of kindness, and this stands to their merit, even if they are not worthy in some other aspect.
If so, then this Level is appropriate for people to emulate. Even if a person does harm and angers another, as long as the offender has some positive aspect—helping others, for example, or some other proper behavior—then that positive behavior should be sufficient to nullify one’s anger, achieve reconciliation, and even good will. A person should say, “It is enough for me that this person performs this one kindness.” This is especially true regarding one’s spouse, as the Rabbis of Blessed Memory taught, “it is enough for us that our spouses raise our children and rescue us from sin.” A person should say, “it is enough for me that this person did me a certain kindness, or did a certain kindness for someone else, or has a certain good quality.” In this manner a person may emulate for He desires kindness.