Freedom by Rabbi Yehudah Ashlag (Ba’al ha-Sullam)
“Inscribed on the tablets (Exodus 32:16). Do not read חָרוּת (ḥarut), inscribed, but rather חֵרוּת (ḥerut), freedom—they are liberated from the Angel of Death” (Shemot Rabbah 41:7). These words need to be clarified, because how is the matter of receiving the Torah related to one’s liberation from death? Furthermore, once they have attained an eternal body that cannot die due to receiving the Torah, how did they lose it again? Can the eternal become absent?
חֵרוּת הרָצוֹן (Ḥerut ha-ratson), free will
To understand the sublime matter of “liberation from the Angel of Death,” we must first understand the matter of freedom as it is normally understood by all of humanity.
It is a general view that freedom is deemed a natural law, which applies to all of life. Thus, we see that animals that fall into captivity die when we rob them of their freedom. This is a true testimony that providence does not accept the enslavement of any creature. It is with good reason that humanity has been struggling for the past several hundred years to obtain a certain measure of freedom of the individual.
Yet, this concept, expressed in that word, “freedom,” remains unclear, and if we delve into the meaning of that word, there will be almost nothing left. For before you seek the freedom of the individual, you must assume that any individual, in and of itself, possesses that quality called “freedom,” meaning that one can act according to one’s own freedom of choice.
Pleasure and pain
However, when we examine the acts of an individual, we shall find them compulsory. He is compelled to do them and has no freedom of choice. In a sense, he is like a stew cooking on a stove; it has no choice but to cook. And it must cook because providence has harnessed life with two chains: pleasure and pain [cf. Freud, Eros and Death].
The living creatures have no בְּחִירָה חָפְשִׁית (beḥirah ḥafshit), freedom of choice [or: right to choose]—to choose pain or reject pleasure. [Man’s advantage over the beast is naught (Ecclesiastes 3:19)]. Yet, man’s advantage over the beast is that he can aim at a distant goal, meaning to agree to a certain amount of pain today by choice, for future benefit or pleasure, attained only after some time.
But in fact, there is no more than a seemingly commercial calculation here, where the future benefit or pleasure seems preferable and advantageous to the agony they are suffering from the pain they have agreed to assume presently. There is only a matter of deduction here—that they deduct the pain and suffering from the anticipated pleasure, and there remains some surplus.
Thus, only the pleasure is extended. And so it sometimes happens, that we are tormented because we did not find the attained pleasure to be the surplus we had hoped for compared to the agony we suffered; hence, we are in deficit, just as merchants do.
And when all is said and done, there is no difference here between man and animal [cf. Ecclesiastes]. And if that is the case, there is no freedom of choice whatsoever, but a pulling force, drawing them toward any bypassing pleasure and rejecting them from painful circumstances. And providence leads them to every place it chooses by means of these two forces, without asking their opinion in the matter.
Moreover, even determining the type of pleasure and benefit are entirely out of one’s own freedom of choice, but follow the will of others, as they want, and not he. For example: I sit, I dress, I speak, and I eat. I do all these not because I want to sit that way, or talk that way, or dress that way, or eat that way, but because others want me to sit, dress, talk, and eat that way. It all follows the desire and fancy of society, not my own freedom of choice.
Furthermore, in most cases, I do all these against my will. For I would be a lot more comfortable behaving simply, without any burden. But I am chained with iron shackles, in all my movements, to the fancies and manners of others, which make up the society [cf. Freud, Civilization and its Discontents].
So you tell me, where is my free will? On the other hand, if we assume that the will has no freedom, then we are all like machines, operating and creating through external forces, which compel them to act this way. This means that we are all incarcerated in the prison of providence, which, using these two chains, pleasure and pain, pushes and pulls us to its will, to where it sees fit.
It turns out that there is no such thing as selfishness in the world, since no one here is free or stands on his own two feet. I am not the owner of the act, and I am not the performer because I want to perform, but I am performed upon, in a compulsory manner, and without my awareness. Thus, reward and punishment become extinct.
And it is quite odd not only for the orthodox, who believe in His providence and can rely on Him and trust that He aims only for the best in this conduct. It is even stranger for those who believe in nature, since according to the above, we are all incarcerated by the chains of blind nature, with no awareness or accountability. And we, the chosen species, with reason and knowledge, have become a toy in the hands of the blind nature, which leads us astray, and who knows where?
The law of causality
It is worthwhile taking some time to grasp such an important thing, meaning how we exist in the world as beings with a “self,” where each of us regards himself a unique entity, acting on its own, independent of external, foreign, and unknown forces. And does this being—the self—appear to us?
It is true that there is a general connection among all the elements of reality before us, which abide by the law of causality, by way of cause and effect, moving forward. And as the whole, so is each item for itself, meaning that each and every creature in the world from the four categories—mineral, vegetable, animal, and human—abides by the statute of causality by way of cause and effect.
Moreover, each particular form of a particular behavior, by which a creature is led while in this world, is propelled by ancient causes, pushed to accept that change in that behavior and not another whatsoever. And this is apparent to all who examine the ways of nature from a pure scientific point of view and without a shred of bias. Indeed, we must analyze this matter to allow ourselves to examine it from all sides.
Bear in mind that every emergence occurring in the beings of the world must be perceived not as emanating something from nothing, but as something from something, through an actual entity that has shed its previous form and has enclothed in its current one.
Therefore, we must understand that with every emergence in the world there are four factors that together give rise to that emergence. They are called by the names:
- The source
- The unchanging conduct of cause and effect, related to the source’s own quality
- Its internal conduct of cause and effect, which change by contact with external forces
- The conducts of cause and effect of external forces, which affect it from the outside
I will clarify them one at a time:
First reason: the source
The “source” is the first matter, related to that being. For there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9), and anything that happens in our world is not something from nothing, but something from something. It is an entity that has stripped off its former shape and taken on another form, different from the first. And that entity, which shed its previous form, is defined as “the source.” In it lies the potential destined to be revealed and determined at the end of the formation of that emergence [cf. BT Menaḥot 29a: “All was given to Moses at Sinai”]. Therefore, clearly, this is considered its primary cause.
Second reason: cause and effect that stem from itself
This is a conduct of cause and effect, related to the source’s own quality, and which is unchanging. Take, for example, a stalk of wheat that has rotted in the ground and arrived at a state of sowing many stalks of wheat. Thus, that rotten state is deemed the “source,” meaning that the essence of the wheat has stripped off its former shape, the shape of wheat, and has taken on a new aspect, that of rotten wheat, which is the seed, called “the source,” which has no shape at all. Now, after rotting in the ground, it has become fit for enclothing in another form, the form of many stalks of wheat, intended to emerge from that source, which is the seed.
It is known to all that this source is destined to become neither cereal nor oats, but only equalize with its former shape, which has left it, being the single stalk of wheat. And although it changes to a certain degree in quality and quantity, for in the former shape it was a single stalk and now there are ten stalks, and in taste and appearance, too, the essence of the shape of the wheat remains unchanged.
Thus, there is a conduct of cause and effect here, ascribed to the source’s own quality, which never changes. Thus, cereal will never emerge from wheat, as we have said, and this is called “second reason.”
Third reason: cause and effect
This is the conduct of the internal cause and effect of the source, which change upon encountering the alien forces in its environment. Thus, we find that from one stalk of wheat, which rots in the ground, many stalks emerge, sometimes larger and better wheat than prior to sowing.
Therefore, there must be additional factors involved here, collaborating and connecting with the force concealed in the environment, meaning the “source.” And because of that, the additions in quality and quantity, which were absent in the previous form of wheat, have now appeared. Those are the minerals and the materials in the ground, the rain and the sun. All these act on it by administering from their forces and joining the force within the source itself. And through the conduct of cause and effect, they have produced the multiplicity in quantity and quality of that emergence.
We must understand that this third factor joins with the internality of the source, since the force hidden in the source controls them. In the end, all these changes belong to the wheat and to no other plant. Hence, we define them as internal factors. However, they differ from the second factor, which is utterly unchanging, whereas the third factor changes in both quality and quantity.
Fourth reason: cause and effect through external forces
This is a conduct of cause and effect of external forces that act upon it from the outside. In other words, they have no direct relation to the wheat, like minerals, rain, or sun, but are external to it, for example nearby things or external phenomena, such as hail, wind, and so forth.
And you find that four forces adhere in the wheat throughout its growth. Each particular state that the wheat is subject to during that time becomes conditioned on the four of them, and the quality and quantity of each state is determined by them. And as we have portrayed in the wheat, so is the rule in every emergence in the world, even in thoughts and ideas.
If, for example, we imagine some conceptual state in a certain individual, such as the state of being religious or nonreligious, or extremely orthodox or not so extreme, or midway, we will understand that that state is determined in that person by the above four factors.
The cause of the first factor is the source, which is its first substance. Man is formed something from something, meaning from the minds of its progenitors. Thus, to a certain extent, it is like copying from book to book. This means that almost all the convictions that were accepted and attained in the fathers and forefathers are reproduced here, as well [see BT Baba Metsi’a 85a, cf. Nedarim 81a; Genesis 30:32-43].
But the difference is that they are in an abstract form, much like the sowed wheat, which is not fit for sowing until it has rotted and shed its former shape. So is the case with the drop of semen from which man is conceived: there is nothing in it of its ancestor’s shapes, only abstract force.
For the same ideas that were convictions in his ancestors have become mere inclinations in him, called “instincts” or “habits,” without even knowing why one does what he does. Indeed, they are hidden forces he inherits from his ancestors in such a way that not only do material possessions come to us through inheritance from our ancestors, but the spiritual possessions and all the convictions that our fathers engaged in also come to us by inheritance from generation to generation.
And from here surface the manifold inclinations that we find in people, such as a inclination to believe or to criticize, a inclination to settle for material life or desiring only ideas, despising a life without aspirations, stingy, yielding, insolent, or shy.
All these images that appear in people are not their own property, which they have acquired, but mere inheritance that had been given to them by their ancestors. It is known that there is a special place in the brain where these hereditaments reside [cf. Ibn Ezra, Perush al ha-Torah on Exodus 31:3, cf. Posidonius of Byzantium, Aetius, 1534, 1549, 6:2: “Imagination is due to the forepart of the brain, reason to the middle ventricle, and memory to the hind part of the brain”]. It is called, medulla oblongata (the elongated brain), or the ‘subconscious,’ and all the drives appear there.
But because the convictions of our ancestors, acquired through their experiences, have become mere inclinations in us, they are considered the same as the sowed wheat, which has taken off its former shape and remained bare, having only potential forces worthy of receiving new forms. In our matter, these inclinations will enclothe the forms of convictions. This is considered the first substance, and this is the primary factor, called “source.” In it reside all the forces of the unique inclinations one inherits from his progenitors, which are defined as “ancestral heritage.”
Bear in mind that some of these inclinations come in a negative form, meaning the opposite of the ones that were in his ancestors. This is why they said, “All that is hidden in the father’s heart is openly revealed in the son.”
The reason for it is that the source takes off its former shape in order to take on a new form. Hence, it is close to losing the shapes of the convictions of his ancestors, like the wheat that rots in the ground loses the shape that existed in the wheat. However, it still depends on the other three factors.
Influence of the environment
The second reason is an unchanging, direct conduct of cause and effect, related to the source’s own quality. Meaning, as we have clarified with the wheat that rots in the ground, the environment in which the source rests, such as soil, minerals, and rain, air, and the sun affect the sowing by a long chain of cause and effect in a long and gradual process, state by state, until they ripen.
And the source retakes its former shape, the shape of wheat, but differing in quality and quantity. In their general aspect, they remain completely unchanged; hence, no cereal or oats will grow from it. But in their particular aspect, they change in quantity, as from one stalk emerge a dozen or two dozen stalks, and in quality, as they are better or worse than the former shape of the wheat.
It is the same here: man, as a “source,” is placed in an environment, meaning in the society. And he is necessarily affected by it, as the wheat from its environment, for the source is but a raw form. Thus, through the constant contact with the environment and the society, he is gradually impressed by them through a chain of consecutive states, one by one, as cause and effect.
At that time, the inclinations included in his source are changed and take on the form of convictions. For example, if one inherits from his ancestors an inclination towards stinginess, as he grows he builds for himself convictions and ideas that conclude decisively that it is good for a person to be stingy. Thus, although his father was generous, he can inherit from him the negative inclination—to be stingy, for the absence is just as much an inheritance as the presence.
Or, if one inherits from one’s ancestors an inclination to be open-minded, he builds for himself ideas, and draws from them conclusions that it is good for a person to be open-minded. But where does one find those sentences and reasons? One takes all that from his environment unknowingly, for they impart to him their views and preferences in the form of gradual cause and effect.
Hence, man regards them as his own possession, which he acquired through his free thought. But here, too, as with the wheat, there is one unchanging part of the source, which is that in the end, the inclinations he had inherited remain as they were in his ancestors. And this is called “the second factor.”
Habit becomes second nature
The third reason is a conduct of direct cause and effect, which affect the source and change it. Because the inherited inclinations in man have become convictions, due to the environment, they operate in the same directions that these convictions define. For example, a man of frugal nature, in whom the inclination for stinginess has been turned into a concept, through the environment, perceives frugality through some reasonable definition.
Let us assume that with this conduct, he protects himself from needing others. Thus, he has acquired a measure of frugality, and when that fear is absent, he can waive it. Thus, he has substantially changed for the better from the inclination he had inherited from his ancestors. And sometimes one manages to completely uproot a bad inclination. This is done by habit, which has the potential of becoming second nature.
In that, the strength of man is greater than that of a plant. For wheat can change only in its private part, whereas man has the ability to change through the cause and effect of the environment, even in the general parts, that is, to completely uproot an inclination and invert it.
The fourth reason is a conduct of cause and effect that affects the source by things that are completely foreign to it, and act on it externally. This means that these things are not at all related to the source’s growth conduct, to affect it directly, but rather act indirectly. For example, monetary issues, burdens, or the winds, and so forth, have their own complete, slow, and gradual progression of states by way of cause and effect, and change man’s convictions for better or for worse.
Thus, I have established the four natural factors of each and every thought and idea that appears in us is but their fruit. And even if one were to sit and contemplate something all day long, he would not be able to add or alter what those four factors impart to him. Anything he can add is only in quantity; whether a great intellect or a small one. But in quality, he cannot add one bit. This is because they are the ones that compellingly determine the nature and shape of the idea and the conclusion, without asking our opinion. Thus, we are at the hands of these four factors, as clay in the hands of a potter.
בְּחִירָה חָפְשִׁית (Be-ḥirah ḥafshit), freedom of choice
However, when we examine these four factors, we find that although our strength is not enough to face the first factor, the “source,” we still have the capacity and the freedom of choice to protect ourselves against the other three factors, by which the source changes in its individual parts, and sometimes in its general part, as well, through habit, which endows it with a second nature.
The environment as a factor
This protection means that we can always supplement in the matter of choosing our environment, which are the companions, books, teachers, and so on. It is like a person who inherited a few stalks of wheat from his father. From this small amount, he can grow dozens of stalks through his choice of the environment for his “source,” which is fertile soil, with all the necessary minerals and raw materials that nourish the wheat abundantly.
There is also the matter of the work of improving the environmental conditions to fit the needs of the plant and the growth, for the wise will do well to choose the best conditions and will find blessing. And the fool will take from whatever comes before him, and will thus turn the sowing to a curse rather than to a blessing.
Thus, all its praise and spirit depends on the choice of the environment in which to sow the wheat. But once it has been sown in the selected location, the wheat’s absolute shape is determined according to the measure that the environment is capable of providing.
So is the case with our matter, for it is true that with will there is no freedom. Rather, it is acted upon by the above four factors. And one is compelled to think and inquire as they insist, denied of any means to criticize or change, as the wheat that has been sown in its environment.
However, there is freedom for the will to choose from the outset such an environment, such books, and such guides which impart to him good convictions. If one does not do that, but is willing to enter any environment that appears to him, reading any book that falls into his hands, he is bound to veer into a bad environment or waste his time on worthless books, which are abundant and easier to come by. Consequently he will be forced into bad convictions making him offend and renounce, perish the thought. He will certainly be punished, not because of his evil thoughts or deeds, in which he has no choice, but because he did not choose to inhabit a good environment, for in that there is definitely a choice.
Therefore, he who strives to continually choose a better environment is worthy of praise and reward. But here, too, it is not because of his good thoughts and deeds, which present themselves against his will, but because of his effort to acquire a good environment, which brings him good thoughts and deeds. It is as Rabbi Yehoshua son of Peraḥya said, “Get yourself a Rav, acquire a companion [and give everyone the benefit of the doubt]” (M Avot 1:6).
The necessity to choose a good environment
Now you can understand the words of Rabbi Yose son of Qisma, who replied to a person who offered him to live in his town, and he would give him thousands of gold coins for it: “Were you to give me all the silver and gold and precious stones and pearls in the world, I would not live anywhere except in a place of Torah” (M Avot 6:9) [cf. BT Sukkah 56b; Zohar 2:38b; 3:218a (RM)]. These words seem all too sublime for our simple minds to grasp, for how could he give up thousands of gold coins for such a small thing as living in a place where there are no disciples of Torah, while he himself was a great sage who needed to learn from no one? A mystery indeed.
But as we have seen, it is a simple thing, and should be observed by each and every one of us. For although everyone has “his own source,” the forces are openly revealed only through the environment one is in. This is similar to the wheat sown in the ground, whose forces only become apparent by means of the environment, which is the soil, the rain, and the light of the sun.
Thus, Rabbi Yose son of Qisma correctly assumed that if he were to leave the good environment he had chosen and fall into a harmful environment, in a city where there is no Torah, not only would his former convictions be compromised, but all the other forces hidden in his source, which he had not yet revealed in action, would remain hidden. This is because they would not be subject to the right environment capable of activating them.
And as we have clarified above, only in the matter of the choice of environment is man’s reign over himself measured, and for this he should receive either reward or punishment. Therefore, one must not wonder at a sage such as Rabbi Yose son of Qisma for choosing the good and refusing the bad, and for not being tempted by material and material things, as he deduces there: “Whe a person departs from the world, neither silver nor gold nor precious stones nor pearls accompany him, but only Torah and mitsvot” (M Avot 6:9).
And so our sages warned, “Make for yourself a Rav and acquire for yourself a friend.” And there is also the choice of books, as we have mentioned, for only in that is one rebuked or praised—in his choice of environment. But once he has chosen the environment, he is at its hands as clay in the hands of the potter.
The mind’s control over the body
Some foreign contemporary sages, after contemplating the above matter and seeing how man’s mind is but a fruit that grows out of the events of life, concluded that the mind has no control whatsoever over the body, but only life’s events, embedded in the physical sinews of the brain, control and activate man. And a man’s mind is like a mirror, reflecting the shapes before it. And although the mirror is the carrier of these shapes, it cannot operate the shapes reflected in it.
So is the mind. Although life’s events, in all their aspects of cause and effect, are seen and recognized by the mind, the mind is nonetheless utterly incapable of controlling the body, to bring it into motion, meaning to draw it closer to the good or remove it from the bad. This is because the spiritual and the physical are completely remote from one another, and there is no intermediary apparatus between them to enable the spiritual mind to activate and operate the material body, as has been discussed at length.
But where they are smart, they disrupt. Man’s imagination uses the mind just as the microscope serves the eye: without the microscope, he would not see anything harmful, due to its smallness. But once he has seen the harmful element through the microscope, man distances himself from the dangerous factor.
Thus, it is the microscope that brings man to distance himself from the harm, and not the sense, for the sense did not detect the dangerous factor. And to that extent, the mind fully controls man’s body, to avert it from bad and draw it near the good. Thus, in all the places where the quality of the body fails to detect what is beneficial or detrimental, it needs only the mind’s wit.
Furthermore, since man knows his mind, which is a true conclusion from life’s experiences, he can therefore receive knowledge and understanding from a trusted person and take it as law, although his life’s events have not yet revealed these convictions to him. It is like a person who asks the advice of a doctor and obeys him even though he understands nothing with his own mind. Thus, one uses the mind of others no less than one uses one’s own.
As we have clarified above, there are two ways for providence to make for certain that man achieves the good, final goal:
The path of pain and the path of Torah
All the clarity in the path of Torah stems from that. For these clear conceptions that were revealed and recognized after a long chain of events in the lives of the prophets and the men of God, there comes a man who fully utilizes them and benefits from them, as though these convictions were events of his own life. Thus, you see that one is exempted from all the ordeals one must experience before he can develop that clear mind by himself. Thus, one saves both time and pain.
It can be compared to a sick man who does not wish to obey the doctor’s orders before he understands by himself how that advice would cure him, and therefore begins to study medicine. He could die of his illness before he learns medicine.
So is the path of pain versus the path of Torah. One who does not trust the convictions that Torah and prophecy advise him to accept without self-understanding, must arrive at these conclusions himself by following the chain of cause and effect from life’s events. These are experiences that greatly advance and develop the sense of recognition of evil in them, as we have seen, without one’s choice, but because of one’s efforts to acquire a good environment, which leads to these thoughts and actions.
Freedom of the individual
Now we have come to a thorough and accurate understanding of the freedom of the individual. However, that relates only to the first factor, the “source,” which is the first substance of every person, meaning all the characteristics we inherit from our ancestors and by which we differ from each other.
This is because even when thousands of people share the same environment in such a way that the other three factors affect all of them equally, you will still not find two people who share the same quality. This is because each of them has his own unique source. This is like the source of the wheat: although it changes a great deal by the three remaining factors, it still retains the preliminary shape of wheat and will never take on the form of another species.
The general form of the progenitor is never lost
So it is that each “source” that had taken off the preliminary shape of the progenitor and had taken on a new shape as a result of the three factors that were added to it, and which change it significantly, the general shape of the progenitor still remains, and will never assume the shape of another person who resembles him, just as oat will never resemble wheat.
This is so because each and every source is, in itself, a long sequence of generations comprised of several hundred generations, and the source includes the aspects of them all. However, they are not revealed in it in the same ways they appeared in the ancestors, that is, in the form of ideas, but only as abstract forms. Therefore, they exist in him in the form of abstract forces called “inclinations” and “drives,” without him knowing their reason or why he does what he does. Thus, there can never be two people with the same quality.
The necessity of preserving the freedom of the individual
Know, that this is the one true possession of the individual that must not be harmed or altered. This is because the end of all these inclinations, which are included in the source, is to materialize and assume the form of convictions when that individual grows and obtains a mind of his own, as a result of the law of evolution, which controls that chain and prompts it ever forward, as explained in The Peace. Also, we learn that each and every inclination is bound to become a sublime and immeasurably important concept.
Thus, anyone who eradicates a inclination from an individual and uproots it causes that sublime and wondrous concept to be lost from the world, intended to emerge at the end of the chain, for that inclination will never again emerge in any other body. Accordingly, we must understand that when a particular inclination takes the form of a concept, it can no longer be distinguished as good or bad. This is because such distinctions are recognized only when they are still inclinations or immature convictions, and in no way are any of them recognized when they assume the shape of true convictions.
From the above we learn what a terrible wrong inflict those nations that force their reign on minorities, depriving them of freedom without allowing them to live their lives by the inclinations they have inherited from their ancestors. They are regarded as no less than murderers.
And even those who do not believe in religion or in purposeful guidance can understand the necessity to preserve the freedom of the individual by watching nature’s systems. For we can see how all the nations that ever fell, throughout the generations, came to it only due to their oppression of minorities and individuals, which had therefore rebelled against them and ruined them [cf. Marx, Communist Manifesto, 79: ‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles’]. Hence, it is clear to all that peace cannot exist in the world if we do not take into consideration the freedom of the individual. Without it, peace will not be sustainable and ruin shall prevail.
Thus, we have clearly defined the essence of the individual with utmost accuracy, after the deduction of all that he takes from the public. But now we face a question: “Where, in the end, is the individual himself?” All we have said thus far concerning the individual is perceived as only the property of the individual, inherited from his ancestors. But where is the individual himself, the heir and the carrier of that property, who demands that we guard his property?
From all that has been said thus far, we have yet to find the point of אָנֹכִית (anokhit), “selfhood,” of man, which stands before our eyes as an independent self [cf. Ibn Ezra, Perush ha-Torah on Exodus 3:11]. And why do I need the first factor, which is a long chain of thousands of people, one after the other, from generation to generation, with which we framed the individual as an heir? And what do I need the other three factors for, which are the thousands of people, standing one next to the other in the same generation? In the end, each individual is but a machine to the public, forever ready to serve the public as it wishes. Meaning, he has become subordinate to two types of צִבּוּר (tsibur), public: From the perspective of the first factor, he has become subordinate to a great age, from past generations, standing one after the other. From the perspective of the other three factors, he has become subordinate to his contemporary generation.
This is indeed a universal question. For this reason, many oppose the above natural method, although they thoroughly know its validity. Instead, they choose metaphysical methods, or dualism, or transcendentalism, to imagine for themselves some spiritual essence and how it sits within the body, in man’s soul. And it is that soul that learns and that operates the body, and it is man’s essence, his “self.”
And perhaps these interpretations could ease the mind, but the problem is that they have no scientific solution as to how a spiritual essence can have any contact with material atoms, to bring them into any kind of motion [cf. Rabbi Yehudah Ashlag, The Wisdom of Kabbalah and Philosophy]. All their wisdom and delving did not help them find a bridge on which to cross that deep and wide canon spread between the spiritual entity and the material atom. Thus, science has gained nothing from all these metaphysical methods.
The desire to receive—something from nothing
To move a step forward in a scientific manner here, all we need is the wisdom of Kabbalah. This is because all the teachings in the world are included in the wisdom of Kabbalah. Concerning spiritual lights and vessels, we learn that the primary innovation, from the perspective of Creation, which He created something from nothing, applies to one aspect only, defined as the “desire to receive.” All other matters in the whole of Creation are not innovations at all; they are notsomething from nothing, but something from something. This means that they emanate directly from His essence, as the light emanates from the sun. There, too, there is nothing new, since what is found in the core of the sun emanates outwardly.
However, the desire to receive is completely novel. Meaning, prior to Creation such a thing did not exist in reality, since He has no aspect of desire to receive, as He precedes everything, so from whom would He receive?
For this reason, this desire to receive, which He extracted as something from nothing, is completely novel. All the rest, though, is not considered an innovation that could be termed “creation.” Hence, all the vessels and the bodies, both of spiritual worlds and of physical worlds, are deemed spiritual or material substance, whose nature is the desire to receive.
Two forces in the desire to receive: the attracting force and the rejecting force
You need to determine further that we distinguish two forces in that force called the “desire to receive”:
The attracting force and the rejecting force
The reason is that each body, or vessel, defined by the desire to receive is indeed limited, meaning the quality it receives and the quantity it receives. Therefore, all the quantity and quality that are outside its boundaries appear to be against its nature; hence, it rejects them. Thus, that desire to receive, although it is deemed an attracting force, is compelled to become a rejecting force, as well.
One law for all the worlds
Although the wisdom of Kabbalah utters nothing of our material world, there is still only one law for all the worlds [see, The Essence of the Wisdom of Kabbalah: The Law of Root and Branch]. Thus, all the material entities in our world, that is, everything within that space, be it mineral, vegetable, animal, a spiritual object or a material object, if we want to distinguish the unique self of each of them, how they differentiate from one another, even in the smallest of particles, it amounts to no more than a “desire to receive.” This is its entire particular form, from the perspective of the generated creation, limiting it in quantity and quality. As a result, there is an attracting force and a rejecting force in it.
Yet, anything other that exists in it besides these two forces is deemed abundance from His essence. That abundance is equal for all creatures, and it presents no innovation, with respect to creation, as it emanates something from something.
Also, it cannot be ascribed to any particular unit, but only to things that are common to all parts of creation, small or large. Each of them receives from that abundance according to its desire to receive, and this limitation defines each individual and unit.
Thus, I have evidently—from a purely scientific perspective—proven the “self” of every individual in a scientific, completely criticism-proof method, even according to the system of the fanatic automatic materialists. From now on, we have no need for those lame methods steeped in metaphysics.
And of course, it makes no difference whether this force, being the desire to receive, is a fruit resulting from the material that had produced it through chemistry, or that the material is a fruit resulting from that force. This is because we know that the main thing is that only this force, embedded in every being and atom of the “desire to receive,” within its boundaries, is the unit where it is separated and distinguished from its environment. And this holds true both for a single atom or for a group of atoms, called “a body.”
All other aspects in which there is a surplus of that force are not related in any way to that paricle or that group of particles, with respect to itself, but only with respect to the whole, which is the abundance emanated to them from the blessed Holy One, which is common to all parts of Creation together, without the distinction of specific created bodies.
Now we shall understand the matter of the freedom of the individual, according to the definition of the first factor, which we called the “source,” where all previous generations, which are the ancestors of that individual, have embedded their nature. As we have clarified, the meaning of the word, “individual,” is but the boundaries of the desire to receive, embedded in its collection of molecules.
Thus you see that all the inclinations he has inherited from his ancestors are indeed no more than boundaries of his desire to receive, either related to the attracting force in him, or to the rejecting force in him, which appear before us as inclinations for stinginess or generosity, an inclination to mingle or to stay secluded, and so on.
Because of that, they really are his self, fighting for its existence. Thus, if we were to destroy even a single inclination of that individual, it is as though we severed an actual organ from his essence. And it is also considered a genuine loss for all creation, because there is no other like it, nor will there ever be like it in the whole world.
After we have thoroughly clarified the just right of the individual according to the laws of nature, let us turn and see just how practical it is, without compromising the theory of ethics and statesmanship. And most important: how this right is applied by our holy Torah.
Follow the many for good
And look Scripture says: follow the many (Exodus 23:2). That means that wherever there is a dispute between the many and the individual, we are obliged to rule according to the will of the many. Thus, you see that the many has a right to expropriate the freedom of the individual.
But we are faced with a different question here, even more serious than the first. It seems as though this law regresses humanity instead of promoting it. This is because while most of humanity is undeveloped, and the developed ones are always a small minority, if you always determine according to the will of the many, which are the undeveloped, and the reckless ones, the views and desires of the wise and the developed in society, which are always the minority, will never be heard and will not be taken into consideration. Thus, you seal off humanity’s fate to regression, for it will not be able to make even a single step forward.
However, as explained in The Peace: Necessity to Practice Caution with the Laws of Nature, since we are ordered by providence to lead a social life, we have become obligated to observe all the חֻקִּים (ḥuqqim), statutes, pertaining to the sustenance of society. And if we are somewhat negligent, nature will take its revenge on us, regardless of whether or not we understand the reasons for the statutes.
And we can see that there is no other arrangement by which to live in society except following the חוֹק (ḥoq), statute, of follow the many which sets every dispute and tribulation in society in order. Thus, this statute is the only instrument that gives society sustainability. For this reason, it is considered one of the natural commandments of providence, and we must accept it and guard it meticulously, regardless of our understanding [see BT Baba Metsi’a 89b; Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed 3:31].
This is similar to all the other mitsvot in Torah: all of them are nature’s laws and His providence, which come to us from above downward. And I have already described how all the stubbornness we detect in the conduct of nature in this world is only because they are extended and taken from laws and conducts of upper, spiritual worlds [see Rabbi Yehudah Ashlag, The Essence of the Wisdom of Kabbalah: The Law or Root and Branch].
Now you can understand that the mitsvot in the Torah are no more than laws and conducts set in higher worlds, which are the roots of all of nature’s conducts in this world of ours. The mitsvot of Torah always correspond to the laws of nature in this world as two drops in a pond. Thus, we have proven that follow the many is the statute of providence and nature.
A path of Torah and a path of pain
Yet, our question about the regression, which had emerged from this law is as yet not settled by these words. Indeed, this is our concern—to find ways to mend that. But providence, for itself, does not lose because of that, for it has enveloped humanity in two ways—the path of Torah and the path of pain—in a way that guarantees humanity’s continuous development and progress toward the goal without any reservations [see Rabbi Yehudah Ashlag, The Peace: Everything is in Deposit]. Indeed, obeying this statute is a natural obligation.
The many’s right to expropriate the freedom of the individual
We must ask further: things are justified when matters revolve around issues between people. Then we can accept the statute of follow the many through the obligation of providence, which instructs us to always look after the well-being and happiness of the companions. But the Torah obligates us to follow the statute of follow the many in disputes between man and the blessed Holy One, as well, although these matters seem completely unrelated to the existence of society.
Therefore, the question still stands: how can we justify that statute, which obligates us to accept the views of the majority, which is, as we have said, undeveloped, and to reject and annul the opinion of the developed, which are always a small minority?
But as we have shown, in The Essence of Religion and its Purpose: Conscious Development and Unconscious Development, Torah and mitsvot were given only to purify Israel, to develop in us the sense of recognition of evil, embedded in us at birth, which in general is defined as our self-love, and to come to the pure good, defined as “love of others,” which is the one and only passage to love of the blessed Holy One.
Accordingly, the decrees between man and the blessed Holy One are considered tools that detach man from self-love, which is harmful for society. It is thus obvious that the topics of dispute regarding mitsvot between man and the blessed Holy One relate to the problem of society’s sustainability. Thus, they, too, fall into the framework of follow the many.
Now we can understand the practice of distinguishing Halakhah and Aggadah. This is because only in halakhot, does the statute, “Individual and many—Halakhah as the many” apply. It is not so in the Aggadah, since matters of Aggadah stand above matters that concern the existence of society, for they speak precisely of the matter of people’s conduct in matters concerning man and the blessed Holy One, in that same part where the existence and physical happiness of society has no consequence.
Thus, there is no justification for the many to annul the view of the individual and every man did what was right in his eyes (Judges 17:6). But regarding halakhot that deal with observing the mitsvot of Torah, all of which fall under the supervision of society, since there cannot be any order, but through the statute, follow the many.
In social life: the statute of follow the many
Now we have come to a clear understanding of the sentence concerning the freedom of the individual. Indeed, there is a question: “Where did the many take the right to expropriate the freedom of the individual and deny him of the most precious thing in life, freedom?” This is seemingly no more than brute force.
But as we have clearly explained above, it is a natural stature and the decree of providence. And because providence compels each of us to practice a social life, it naturally follows that each person is obligated to secure the existence and well-being of society. And that cannot exist but through imposing the practice of follow the many disregarding the opinion of the individual.
Thus, you see evidently that this is the source of every right and justification that the many has to expropriate the freedom of the individual against his will, and to place him under its authority. Therefore, it is understood that with regard to all those matters that do not concern the existence of the material life of the society, there is no justification for the many to rob and abuse the freedom of the individual in any way. And if they do, they are deemed robbers and thieves who prefer brute force to any right and justice in the world, since here the obligation of the individual to obey the will of the many does not apply.
In spiritual life follow the individual
It turns out that as far as spiritual life is concerned, there is no natural obligation on the individual to abide by the society in any way. On the contrary, here applies a natural law over the many, to subjugate itself to the individual. And it is clarified in The Peace, that there are two ways by which providence has enveloped and surrounded us, to bring us to the end:
A path of pain, which develops us in this manner unconsciously. A path of Torah and wisdom, which consciously develops us in this manner without any agony or coercion.
And since the more developed in the generation is certainly the individual, it follows that when the public wants to relieve themselves of the terrible agony and assume conscious and voluntary development, which is the path of Torah, they have no choice but to subjugate themselves and their physical freedom to the discipline of the individual, and obey the orders and remedies that he will offer them.
Thus you see that in spiritual matters, the authority of the many is overturned and the statute of “follow the individual” is applied, that is, the developed individual. For it is plain to see that the developed and the educated in every society are always a small minority. It follows that the success and spiritual well-being of society is bottled and sealed in the hands of the minority.
Therefore, the many is obliged to meticulously guard all the views of the few, so they will not perish from the world. This is because they must know for certain, in complete confidence, that the truer and more developed views are never in the hands of the many in authority, but rather in the hands of the weakest, that is, in the hands of the indistinguishable minority. This is because every wisdom and everything precious comes into the world in small quantities. Therefore, we are cautioned to preserve the views of all the individuals, due to the many’s inability to tell wrong from right among them.
Criticism brings success, lack of criticism causes decadence
We must further add that reality presents to our eyes material things, convictions, and ideas with regard to the aforementioned matter which are drastically different. For the matter of social unity, which can be the source of every joy and success, applies particularly among bodies and bodily matters in people, and the separation between them is the source of every calamity and misfortune.
But with convicitons and ideas, it is the complete opposite: unity and lack of criticism is deemed the source of every failure and hindrance to all the progress and didactic fertilization. This is because drawing the right conclusions depends particularly on the multiplicity of disagreements and separation between opinions. The more contradictions there are between opinions and the more criticism there is, the more the knowledge and wisdom increase and matters become more suitable for examination and clarification.
The degeneration and failure of intelligence stem only from the lack of criticism and disagreement. Thus, evidently, the whole basis of physical success is the measure of unity of the society, and the basis for the success of intelligence and knowledge is the separation and disagreement among them.
It turns out that when humankind achieves its goal, with respect to the success of the bodies, by bringing them to the rung of complete love of others, all the bodies in the world will unite into a single body and a single heart, as written in The Peace. Only then will all the happiness intended for humanity become revealed in all its glory.
But against that, we must be watchful to not bring the views of people so close that disagreement and criticism might be terminated from among the wise and scholarly, for the love of the body naturally brings with it proximity of views. And should criticism and disagreement vanish, all progress in convictions and ideas will cease, too, and the source of knowledge in the world will dry out.
This is the proof of the obligation to caution with the freedom of the individual regarding convicitons and ideas. For the whole development of the wisdom and knowledge is based on that freedom of the individual. Thus, we are cautioned to preserve it very carefully, so each and every form within us, which we call “individual,” that is, the particular force of a single person, generally named the “desire to receive.”
All the details of the pictures that this desire to receive includes, which we have defined as the “source,” or the first reason, whose meaning includes all the inclinations and customs inherited from his ancestors, which we picture as a long chain of thousands of people who once were alive, and who stand one atop of the other. Each of them is an essential drop of his ancestors, and that drop brings each person all the spiritual possessions of his ancestors into his medulla oblongata (the elongated brain), called “subconscious.” Thus, the individual before us has, in his subconscious, all the thousands of spiritual legacies from all the individuals represented in that chain, which are his ancestors.
Thus, just as the face of each and every person differs, so their views differ. There are no two people on earth whose opinions are identical, because each person has a great and sublime possession inherited from his ancestors, and which others have no shred of them.
Therefore, all those possessions are considered the individual’s property, and society is cautioned to preserve its flavor and spirit so as to not be blurred by its environment. Rather, each individual should maintain the integrity of his inheritance. Then, the contradiction and oppositeness between them will remain forever, to forever secure the criticism and progress of the wisdom, which is humanity’s advantage and its true eternal favor.
And after we have come to a certain measure of recognition in man’s selfishness, which we have determined as a force and a “desire to receive,” being the essential point of the bare being, we have also made thoroughly clear, from all sides, the original possession of each body, which we have defined as “ancestral heritage.” This pertains to all the potential inclinations and qualities that have come into his “source” by inheritance, which is the first substance of every person, that is, the initial seed of his ancestors. Now we shall clarify the two aspects in the desire to receive.
Two aspects: potential and actual
First, we must understand that although this selfishness, which we have defined as the “desire to receive,” is the very essence of man, it cannot exist in reality even for a second. For what we call “potential,” meaning before it emerges from potential to actual, exists only in our thought, meaning that only the thought can determine it.
But in fact, there cannot be any real force in the world that is dormant and inactive. This is because the force exists in reality only while it is revealed in action. By the same token, you cannot say about an infant that it is very strong when it cannot lift even the lightest weight, but you can say that you see in that infant that when it grows, it will manifest great strength.
However, we do say that that strength we find in man when he is grown was present in his organs and his body even when he was an infant, but that strength had been concealed and was not apparent. It is true that in our minds we could determine (the powers destined to manifest), since the mind asserts it. However, in the infant’s actual body there is certainly no strength at all, since no strength manifests in the infant’s actions.
So it is with appetite. This force will not appear in a man’s body in the actual reality, when the organs cannot eat, meaning when he is satiated. But even when one is satiated, the force of appetite exists, but it is concealed in man’s body. After some time, when the food had been digested, it reappears and manifests from potential to actual.
However, such a sentence, of determining a potential force that has not yet been revealed in actual fact, belongs to the conducts by which the thought perceives. But it does not exist in reality, since when satiated, we feel very clearly that the force of appetite is gone, and if you search for it, you will find it nowhere.
It turns out that we cannot display a potential as a subject that exists in and of itself, but only as a predicate. Thus, when an action occurs in reality, at that time the force manifests in the action.
Yet, we necessarily find two things here, in the perceiving process: a subject and a predicate, that is, potential and actual, such as the force of appetite, which is the subject, and the image of the dish, which is the predicate and the action. In reality, however, they come as one. It will never occur that the force of appetite will appear in a person without picturing the dish he wishes to eat. Thus, these are two halves of the same thing. The force of appetite must dress in that image. You therefore see that the subject and the predicate are presented at once, and become absent at once.
Now we understand that the desire to receive, which we presented as selfishness, does not mean that it exists so in a person, as a craving force that wishes to receive in the form of a passive predicate. Rather, this pertains to the subject, which dresses in the image of the eatable object, and whose operation appears in the form of the thing being eaten, and in which it clothes. We call that action, “desire,” meaning the power of appetite, revealed in the action of the imagination.
And so it is with our topic—the general desire to receive, which is the very essence of man. It appears and exists only through dressing in the shapes of objects that are likely to be received. For then it exists as the subject, and in no other way. We call that action, “life,” meaning man’s livelihood, which means that the force of the desire to receive dresses and acts within the desired objects. And the measurement of revelation of that action is the measurement of his life, as we have explained in the act we call, “desire.”
Two formations: the human and the living soul
From the above, we can clearly understand the verse then YHWH God fashioned the human, humus from the soil, and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה (nefesh ḥayah), a living soul (Genesis 2:7). Here we find two creations: the human himself and the living soul itself.
And the verse says in the beginning, the human, humus from the soil—a collection of molecules in which resides the human essence, meaning his desire to receive. That force, the desire to receive, is present in every element of reality, as we have explained above. Also, all four types: mineral, vegetable, animal and human emerged from them. In that respect, the human has no advantage over any part of creation, and this is the meaning of the verse in the words: hummus from the soil.
However, we have already seen that this power, called “desire to receive,” cannot exist without enclothing and acting in, on a desired object, and this action is called, Life. And accordingly, we find that before man has arrived at the human forms of receiving pleasure, which differ from those of other animals, he is still considered a lifeless, dead person. This is because his desire to receive has no place in which to enclothe and manifest his actions, which are the manifestations of life.
This is the meaning of the verse, and blew into his nostrils נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים (nishmat ḥayyim), the breath of life (Genesis 2:7) which is the general form of reception set for the human. And the word נִשְׁמַת (nishmat), breath, is cognate with, שָׂמִין (samin), ‘setting, the ground for him,’ which is like עֵרֶך (erekh), value. And the source of the word נְשָׁמָה (neshamah), soul, is discerned from: God’s spirit has made me, and Shaddai’s נִשְׁמַת (nishmat), breath, has quickened me (Job 33:4). And see the commentary of the Malbim [Rabbi Meir Weisser] there: נְשָׁמָה (Neshamah), soul, has the same syntax structure as נִפקָד (nifqad), missing, נֶאְשָׁם (ne’esham), accused, and נֶאֱשְׁמָה (ne’eshmah), accused.
And the meaning of the words, and blew into his nostrils (Genesis 2:7), is that He instills a נְשָׁמָה (neshamah), soul, in his internality and an appreciation of life, which is the sum of the forms that are worthy of reception into his desire to receive. Then, that power, the desire to receive, inhering in his very molecules, has found the place in which to enclothe and act, meaning in those forms of reception that he had obtained from the blessed Holy One. And this act is called Life, as we have explained above.
And the verse ends, and the human became a living creature. This means that since the desire to receive has begun to act by the measures of those forms of reception, life instantly manifested in it and it a living creature. However, prior to the attainment of those forms of reception, although the power of the desire to receive had been embedded in him, it is still considered a lifeless body, since it has no place in which to appear and to manifest in action.
As we have seen above, although man’s essence is only the desire to receive, it is still taken as half of a whole, as it must enclothe in a reality that comes its way. For that reason, it and the image of possession it depicts are literally one, for otherwise it would not be able to exist for even a moment.
Therefore, when the machine of the body is at its peak, that is, until his middle-age, his “ego” stands upright in all the height embedded in him at birth. Because of that, he feels within him a large and powerful measure of the desire to receive. In other words, he craves great wealth and honor, and anything that comes his way. This is so because of the perfection of man’s ego, which attracts shapes of structures and convictions that it enclothes in and sustains itself through them.
But when half his life is through, begin the days of the decline, which, by their content, are his dying days. This is because a person does not die in an instant, just as he did not receive his life in an instant. Rather his candle, being his ego, withers and dies bit by bit, and along with it die the images of the possessions he wishes to receive.
He begins to relinquish many possessions he had dreamed of in his youth, and he gradually relinquishes great possessions, according to his decline over the years. Finally, in his truly old days, when the shadow of death hovers over all his being, a person finds himself in “times of no appeal,” since his desire to receive, his ego, has withered away. Only a tiny spark of it remains, hidden from the eye, from enclothing in some possession. Therefore, there is no appeal or hope in those days for any image of reception.
Thus, we have proven that the desire to receive, along with the image of the object expected to be received, are one and the same thing. And their manifestation is equal, their stature is equal, and so is the length of their lives.
However, there is a significant distinction here in the form of the yielding at the time of the decline of life. That yielding is not a result of satiation, like a person who relinquishes food when he is satiated, but a result of despair. In other words, when the ego begins to die during the days of decline, it senses its own weakness and approaching death. Therefore, a person lets go and gives up on the dreams and hopes of his youth.
Observe carefully the difference between that and the yielding due to satiation, which causes no grief and cannot be called “partial death,” but is like a worker who completed his work. Indeed, relinquishment out of despair is full of pain and sorrow, and can therefore be called, “partial death.”
Freedom from the angel of death
Now, after all that we have learned, we find a way to truly understand the words of our sages when they said, “‘Harut (carved) on the stones,’ do not pronounce it Harut (carved), but rather Herut (freedom), for they have been liberated from the angel of death.”
It has been explained in Giving Torah and The Pledge, that prior to the giving of the Torah, they had assumed the relinquishment of any private property to the extent expressed in the words, a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6) and the purpose of the whole of Creation—to cleave unto Him in equivalence of form with Him: as He bestows and does not receive, they, too, will give and not receive. This is the last rung of דְבֵקוּת (devequt), cleaving, expressed in the words, and a holy nation (ibid.), as is written at the end of The Pledge.
I have already brought you to realize that man’s essence, meaning his selfishness, defined as the desire to receive, is only half a thing, and can only exist when enclothed in some image of a possession or hope for possession. For only then is our matter complete, and can be called “man’s essence.”
Thus, when the Children of Israel were rewarded with total cleaving on that holy occasion, their vessels of reception were completely emptied of any worldly possession and they were cleaved unto Him in equivalence of form. This means that they did not have any desire for any self-possession, but only to the extent that they could bestow contentment, so their Maker would delight in them.
And since their desire to receive had enclothed in an image of that object, it had enclothed in it and bonded with it into complete oneness. Therefore, they were certainly liberated from the angel of death, for death is necessarily an absence and negation of the existence of a certain object. But only while there is a spark that wishes to exist for its own pleasure is it possible to say about it that that spark does not exist because it has become absent and died.
However, if there is no such spark in man, but all the sparks of his essence clothe in bestowal of contentment upon their Maker, then it is neither absent nor dead. For even when the body is annulled, it is only annulled with respect to self-gratification, in which the desire to receive is dressed and can only exist in it.
However, when he achieves the purpose of Creation and the Creator receives pleasure from him, since His will is done, man’s essence, which clothes in His contentment, is granted complete eternity, like Him. Thus, he has been rewarded with freedom from the angel of death. This is the meaning of the words of the Midrash “They are liberated from the Angel of Death” (Shemot Rabbah 41:7). And in the Mishnah “And the tablets, God’s doing they were, and the writing, God’s writing it was, inscribed on the tablets (Exodus 32:16). Do not read חָרוּת (ḥarut), inscribed, but חֵרוּת (ḥerut), freedom, for the only person who is truly free is one who occupies himself with Torah study; and whoever occupies himself with Torah study will be exalted” (M Avot 6:2).