The Arizal: Revealing the Yechidah in the Soul

The Arizal: Revealing the Yechidah in the Soul

 

The holy Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (the Arizal) was born in Jerusalem in 5294 (1533). When he was a young boy, his father passed away and he moved with his mother to the home of his uncle in Egypt. In Egypt, he learned Torah from Rabbi Betzalel Ashkenazi, author of the Shitah Mekubetzet, and from his rabbi’s rabbi, the Radbaz. While in Egypt, he delved deeply into the holy Zohar. Elijah the Prophet was revealed to him and he discovered a new, deep method in Kabbalah. As per the instructions of Elijah, the Arizal made aliyah to Tzfat and taught his method of Kabbalah to Rabbi Chaim Vital, who wrote his teachings in book form. The Arizal’s most famous book, which includes the main points of his method, is Eitz Chaim. The Arizal passed away at the early age of 38 and is buried in Tzfat. The Arizal’s method and teachings of Kabbalah have been accepted by all branches of the Jewish people until this very day.

When the holy Ari came to Tzfat toward the end of his life (at the age of 36) the Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero), the greatest Kabbalist of that time, passed away. There are a number of stories about the Ari and the Ramak and about the connection between them. The famous version says that the Ari arrived in Tzfat for the first time during the Ramak’s funeral. After the Ramak’s passing, the Ari felt that the crown of Kabbalah and the inner dimension of the Torah had moved to him. Until that point, the Ari had not dared to teach in public. It is not that he lacked holy boldness, but he knew that he did not have permission from heaven to teach.

After the Ramak’s passing, the Ari understood that the permission had been granted. For the first time, he began to teach the inner dimension of the Torah. His rabbi’s rabbi, Rabbi David Ben Zimra (known as the Radbaz) was elderly already and also lived in Tzfat. He called for the Ari to come to him immediately and forbade him from continuing to teach Torah. Time passed and the Ari once again taught in public, despite the prohibition of his rabbi’s rabbi. This angered the Radbaz, who called him to come again. We do not know what the Radbaz intended to say or do, but before the Ari had returned to him, Elijah the Prophet appeared to the Radbaz (who was also a great Kabbalist and prolific author on Kabbalah) and revealed to him just a touch of the Ari’s greatness. By the time the Ari arrived, instead of reprimanding him, the Radbaz gave him complete authorization to teach the secrets of the Torah. “Go forward with this strength of yours,” the Radbaz told him, “and reveal the secrets of the Torah to the Jewish people, for the Mashiach’s coming is contingent on it.”

Doing the opposite of what your rabbis instruct you is highly unusual. Why did the Ari do this? First of all, the Arizal understood that his rabbi did not know him completely. This is also novel. One would think that a person’s preeminent rabbi would know his disciple, as Rabbi Akiva said to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai that only he and God know his value. Nonetheless, there are exceptions to the rule. In this story, the Arizal knew that his rabbi would not know his value until Elijah the Prophet would reveal himself to him. What was the source of the Arizal’s strong and focused self-knowledge? This is actually his innovation—that the manifestation of the yechidah,[1] the manifestation of the true essentialness, is the highest level that a person can attain, higher even than the revelation of Elijah the Prophet. The boldness required to expound upon the secrets of the Torah to the chagrin of a great tzaddik who is also one’s rabbi is more than self-knowledge. It is deeper: the manifestation of the yechidah in the soul.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught in a number of his discourses that when a person’s yechidah manifests, he cannot oppose it; he is even forbidden from doing so. The essence of Chassidut is “Do not fool yourself.” A person should not imagine that he has reached the level of manifestation of the yechidah. But a person who has merited this level has reached a level higher than the manifestation of Elijah the Prophet. If Elijah the Prophet appears to someone and instructs him to do something, he still has to consider whether to do it or not.

How do we know this? It is told that the Ba’al Shem Tov was the reincarnation of a hidden tzaddik from Tzfat. Elijah the Prophet appeared to this hidden tzaddik and asked him to tell him what he did on the day of his bar-mitzvah—what special mitzvah he had fulfilled on that day. The tzaddik refused to tell Elijah, explaining that he had done what he had done strictly for God’s honor alone and that he refused from revealing it and turning it into a source of honor for himself. This approach created so much noise in heaven that it was decreed that the tzaddik would return to the world as the Ba’al Shem Tov.

From this we learn that one does not have to do what Elijah says. When the yechidah in the soul manifests, however, one cannot oppose what it says. It is he himself—and he and God are one. This is the deep explanation for why the Arizal could do the opposite of what his rabbi had instructed him. The yechidah in his soul is God’s own word. As the sages teach, “To whom should we listen? To the rabbi or to the disciple?”

Chabad calls this level of manifestation of the yechidah, atzmee (essential or absolute). If a person is only a pnimi (inner-oriented) and not atzmee, then he should not budge a hair’s breadth from what his rabbi tells him to do. But a person who is atzmee can be the exception to the rule, as was the holy Ari.

 

Notes:

[1] Literally, the “single one”, the highest level of the soul. The yechidah relates to the ultimate unity of the soul in God, as manifest by pure faith, absolute devotion and continuous readiness to sacrifice one’s life for God.

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