Rabbi Chaim Vital (1542-1620) was the principal disciple of the great Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria (the Arizal). Three days after the death of his master, Rabbi Vital received a vision in a dream that consumed his scholarly life for decades: preserving the mystical heritage of the great Safed tradition.
We’ll be looking at the life and work of Rabbi Chaim Vital (1542-1620), the principal disciple of the great Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria (the Arizal). Three days after the death of his master, Rabbi Vital received a vision in a dream that consumed his scholarly life for decades: preserving the mystical heritage of the great Safed tradition.
We’ll be meeting as usual in the main auditorium of the Lander College of Arts and Sciences, Touro College, 1602 Avenue J, Brooklyn NY 11230.
Lecture begins at 7:00 pm promptly and is free of charge.
A community project of the Lander College of Arts and Sciences.
Free for the High Holiday Season: a free download of The Kabbalah of Forgiveness, a translation and commentary of Rabbi Moshe Cordovero’s Tomer Devorah. Especially valuable reading in preparation for Yom Kippur!
To download, visit https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/464044 and enter coupon code BQ57Y, valid through October 7, 2015.
The Jewish people experienced dramatic changes in the sixteenth century that reverberate to this day. This lecture discusses three aspects of this century in particular: 1) the demographic upheavals associated with the expulsions from Spain and Portugal as well as the Ashkenazic migration, 2) the impact of the disruptive technology of printing, and 3) the ramifications of the Safed circle.
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.