The Zohar, which literally means “glow” or “radiance,” is named for the inner layer of reality, the layer in which, according to Kabbalah, G-d can be found. The Zohar directs its readers to identify the world’s underlying glow with G-dliness, and to seek to encounter it – an encounter which leads to enlightenment. One of the Zohar’s greatest messages for humanity is that the Divine can be found in life itself: in our selves, in our relationships and in all people.
As opposed to other mystical paths which demand that a person disconnect from the world in order to arrive at a transcendent “true reality” beyond this one, the Zohar offers a path to G-d which connects the earthly experience with the heavenly one. The journey to G-d, according to the Zohar, traverses through human relationships: from the intimate relationship between a woman and a man to the relationship a person conducts with his community. Much of the Zohar is written as a conversation between friends studying, traveling, living their lives, and through all this, interacting with Torah. The monastic concept, in which a person isolates himself from the world in order to connect with G-d, is foreign to the Zohar and to Judaism in general.
Broken Vessels, Broken People
Parshat Vayera concludes with the story of the Akeidah, the binding of Yitzchak. The Torah does not explain why the Master of the World found it necessary to test Avraham. Both the Zohar and the Midrash explain what provoked G-d to test His trusted servant. A contemplation of the difference between the explanations of the Zohar and the Midrash serves to demonstrate the unique and wonderful message of Kabbalah. Both of the interpretations see the Akeidah – which ultimately brought Avraham closer to Hashem – as a response to Avraham having withheld something from G-d, damaging his relationship with Him. In response G-d requests from Avraham the ultimate sacrifice – his only son. Let us briefly examine the sources to see what they hold Avraham’s sin to be and what he withheld from G-d.
According to the Midrash, Avraham celebrated the day that Yitzchak was weaned yet throughout the festivities he didn’t offer any sacrifice in thanks to Hashem. Avraham’s sin lay in his ingratitude to the Creator. The Satan takes advantage of this mistake to call Avraham’s dedication into question, and in response, G-d tests Avraham with the Akeidah.
The Zohar explains Avraham’s sin differently:
Rebbe Shimon opened and said: Anyone who is happy during the holidays and does not give a part to the Holy One, the Evil Eye of the Satan hates him and prosecutes him and drives him out of the world… [How does one give a] part to the Holy One? By cheering the less fortunate ones as much as he can. For in these days, Hashem comes down to the world to visit his broken vessels, and he sees them and sees that they have nothing with which to rejoice, and he cries for them, and he ascends heavenward to destroy the world. [The angels] who dwell on high come before Him and say, ‘Master of all worlds, merciful and compassionate you are called, have mercy on your children.’ He says to them, ‘I have not fashioned the world except out of kindness, as it is written, ‘a world of kindness he will build’ (Tehillim 89:3), and the world exists on it.’ (Introduction to the Zohar 10b).
Later, the Zohar tells that the Satan arrived at Avraham’s party disguised as a poor beggar. No one paid any attention to him, and so he ascended back to heaven and accused Avraham before G-d: “Master of all worlds, you said: ‘Avraham who loved Me’ (Isaiah 41:8), but here he makes a feast and gives nothing to you and nothing to the poor.” Avraham’s sin is not only against G-d, it also against society: he failed to consider the poor. Unlike the Midrash, which focuses only on the direct dialogue between Avraham and G-d, the Zohar describes the wider human picture, a picture through which the infinite G-d is revealed.
The concept of the “broken vessels,” which was mentioned in Parshat Noach, has a slightly different connotation here. The breaking of the vessels is the reason for the imperfect nature of reality. Before the vessels were broken, they received a constant flow of direct light from G-d, and reality was a perfectly balanced harmony. But something went wrong in the cosmic creation process and the vessels exploded, sending shards of light all over the world (thereby infusing the entire world with veiled divinity.) Man’s purpose in the world is to fix the broken vessels, reveal the hidden sparks and elevate them. The broken vessels are the humans themselves – every one contains a fallen divine spark, and Man’s work is to mend this human lacking, which is really a divine lacking. The Zohar explains that giving tzedakah is not only a mitzvah “ben adam lechavero,” between a person and his fellow, but is really giving to G-d. The mortal realm, with all its shortcomings, is part of the G-dly realm. For Avraham to be considered a lover of G-d, he must show himself to be a lover of humans, especially the “others,” the beggars and the broken.
Wealth and Joy
The Zohar demands of a person not only to give money to poor people, as would be convenient to think, but also to make them happy. The Zohar’s definition of social justice does not end at the economic level, it extends to a more general human awareness. As Douglas Adams puts it in the opening to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:
Most of the people living on [planet Earth] were unhappy for pretty much all of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movement of small green pieces of paper, which was odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy. (Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, pg 1)
This can also be seen from the Satan’s story about dressing up as a beggar and finding that no one paid any attention to him. His complaint was not only because of the food that was withheld from him but even more so because of the feeling of being ignored and excluded. The Talmud Bavli states that one who comforts a poor man with kind words is greater than one who gives him money (Bava Batra 9b).
Unfortunately, all the modern-day debates about social justice, even those motivated by the best of intentions, tend to restrict themselves to questions of finances and budgets, and conclude with the established collective sigh of dismay at the plight of the poor. The value of happiness is not included in the economic equation, and there, I think, lies one of the main shortcomings of the communist movement: It is not enough to distribute wealth among the people, we must find a way to distribute happiness as well.
There are millionaires and billionaires who are sad, lost people, broken vessels that need healing. A proper approach to social consideration must take into account how all human resources – physical and spiritual – can be made accessible to society. Spiritual resources include closeness between people, acceptance of the strange or different, happiness, responsibility, giving to others and spiritual pursuit.
The key to happiness is not found in heaven. We must not forget that the responsibility for this world lies with us. The verse, “A world of kindness he shall build,” (Tehillim 89:3) is usually interpreted as a request to G-d that He build the world in kindness, but the Zohar here places the responsibility for building a world of kindness on humanity. The existence of the world depends on us, on the kindness and compassion with which we treat one another. The G-dly reality, the Zohar constantly reminds us, depends on Man.
This article was translated from the Hebrew by Netzach Sapir.
Rav Dr. Yakov Nagen (Genack) is Rosh Kollel at the Hesder Yeshiva of Otniel and holds a Ph.D. in Jewish Philosophy from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He also published several books on Jewish philosophy, and numerous articles on the Talmud, the philosophy of Halacha, and Jewish spirituality. Rav Dr. Nagen is a member of Beit Hillel.
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