Mysticism and its meaning

Even a stone that appears to be dense and dumb contains secrets about the structure of matter.

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed ,

Rabbi Melamed
Rabbi Melamed

To understand the value of mysticism, it's necessary to explain that there's nothing in the world that doesn't contain a secret. Even a stone that appears to be dense and dumb contains secrets about the structure of matter, which is composed of tiny particles that are constantly moving. This applies all the more so to flora and fauna.

Human beings hold secrets in their minds and feelings that are not fully visible even to themselves. Someone decides to choose a profession for himself, and he believes that he chose it due to his interest in the profession. When he delves deeper into his motives years later, he'll find that there were deeper reasons which are connected to his childhood values. And if he continues to delve deeper, he'll find even deeper reasons, sometimes related to his parents' home or that of his grandparents.

And even after he understands those secrets, he'll still only be aware of his relatively superficial secrets, because within those secrets are even more secrets. At times, when the deep reasons are partially contradicted by the obvious reasons, all of a person's choices fail, and he doesn't understand why. The more a person understands his secrets, the more he will be able to direct his life.

Secrets of the Torah

It's not enough for a person to delve into himself to understand the depth of secrets. He must also understand the deep secrets that drive the whole world, of which he himself is only one link. This is what mysticism deals with.

Since these are very deep secrets, beyond simple consciousness, it's difficult to explain them. Therefore, most of the sages of Kabbalah used parables built on worlds, sefirot (spheres) and partzufim (faces). There are great sages like Maimonides who explained the profound secrets they discovered in a different way. But there is no great Torah scholar who doesn't seek the deep foundation of every issue. This principle is the beginning of mysticism.

The distance between mysticism and ordinary life

It is not by chance that a person is usually unaware of his secrets. They contain terrible powers that, if he's exposed to them suddenly, he'll collapse. The more a person establishes himself and his self-confidence through his mind and emotions, the more he'll be able to withstand deeper secrets.

The secrets also contain the abyss, such as the complexes and dark desires which Sigmund Freud described. Without proper training, one who is exposed to mysticism may be sucked into the abyss and lose his faith in God and himself. Therefore, the deep ideas are secrets that, although very influential, are not visible, so as not to interfere with the course of life. But the secrets cannot be blocked, and so are gradually revealed. When we choose good and follow the path of Torah and mitzvot, they are revealed in a good and moderate way. When we don't choose good, they are revealed in a negative way that gives rise to crises, which then require great repentance or suffering in order to restore them to good.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai

Most of the sages of Israel tended toward the middle path, which reconciles the secret and the revealed between the ideal and the difficulties found in this world. But Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Rashbi) was so closely tied to mysticism that he couldn't compromise with the reality of this world.

The livelihood of Torah scholars

In Rashbi's view, a Torah scholar can occupy himself with only Torah without worrying about his livelihood at all. Since he's connected to the Torah by which God created his world, and by teaching Torah in its depth, the world is elevated to its corrected state, in which a person doesn't need to work for a livelihood. The Torah scholar earns a livelihood in one way or another without having to work

Therefore, when Rabbi Yishma'el said that the opinion of most of the sages of Israel is that even Torah scholars should behave like others do and make an effort to earn a livelihood, Rashbi opposed him. He said, "A person can plow during the plowing season, and sow during the sowing season, and reap during the reaping season, and harvest during the harvesting season, and thresh during the threshing season, and winnow during the windy season - what will be with the Torah? But rather, when the Jewish people do the will of G-d, their work is done by others. And if not, then the work of others is done by them" (Berachot 35b).

The conclusion of the majority of the sages is that although ideally, if Adam had not sinned - there would have been no need to work for a livelihood - after his sin - part of our rectification is achieved through working (see Kiddushin 82b).

This is what Abaye said: "Many did as Rabbi Yishma'el did and did not succeed." Rava also instructed his students to work during those months when there was a lot of work in the field so that in the rest of the months they would be free to study Torah (Berachot ibid).

Although Rashbi's approach did not suit the reality of this world, miracles were performed for him, and he didn't have to waste any time from studying Torah to earn a livelihood.

The attitude of the sages to the rule of the Gentiles

The accepted attitude of the sages toward the empires who ruled Israel was cautious. On one hand, they maintained an independent spiritual position and endeavored to educate the public not to be influenced by foreign culture. On the other hand, they recognized the power of the government and tried to prevent clashes between the Jewish people and the empires which ruled over them. They even ordered the Jews to pray for the welfare of the empire "for if it wasn't for the fear of the government, each man would swallow the other alive" (Avoda Zara, 4a). Only at a time of shmad (spiritual annihilation), when the government forced Jews to transgress the Torah - out of a lack of choice - they instructed the Jews to rebel against the government.

According to mysticism, Rashbi stood up for Israel's central role in the world - that through Israel, God influences life for the entire world, and even during Israel's exile the world exists through them. As Rashbi said: "Every place that Israel was exiled to, the Shechina (Divine presence) was exiled with them" (Megillah 29a). Through mysticism, Rashbi connected to complete faith, to the chosenness of Israel, to faith in redemption and thought it permissible to provoke the wicked in this world (Berachot 7b).

Out of Rashbi's adherence to the mystical teachings, he couldn't tolerate the external reality in which the wicked ruled Israel. It says in the Talmud (Shabbat 33b) that the sages once spoke about the kingdom of Rome. Rabbi Yehuda bar Elai preferred to focus on the good side of its rule and Rabbi Yossi preferred to remain silent but Rashbi couldn't stand the words of praise towards the kingdom of the wicked. He said: "All that they established, they only established for their own sake. They established marketplaces - to set up prostitutes in them, bathhouses - to indulge themselves, bridges - to collect taxes."

Rashbi's words spread to the Roman government and they decreed: "Rabbi Yehuda, who praised us, will be promoted. Rabbi Yosi who was silent - will be punished with exile. Rashbi who spoke negatively about us will be killed."

Rashbi ran away and hid with his son in a cave, and his wife provided them with water and food. The Romans searched extensively for them and they were forced to move to another cave which no one knew about. A miracle was performed for them there and a carob plant grew there and a spring arose, from which they derived nourishment for 12 years. At the end of 12 years, they learned that the Roman emperor had died and his decree was annulled.

Rashi and his son grew so much in their absolute belief in the truth that when they emerged from the cave, they weren't able to withstand the dealings of this world, and everything they laid their eyes on burned. They had to return to the cave for another full year in order to deepen their understanding of the Torah until they could withstand the value of this world, and then they left the cave again (Shabbat 33b).

A way of individuals

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai's approach is not suitable for everyone, and Jewish law follows the opinion of the majority of the sages that one should not rely on miracles and that the limitations of the world must be taken into consideration. Since this is the ruling by most of the sages, it proves that this is G-d's will, that we act to spiritually correct the world while taking into account the reality of our lives in this world.

Nevertheless, there is great value in the reality of a great Torah scholar who lives his life according to the values ​​of eternity without compromise, who rebelled against the curse that was decreed on Adam following his sin, who clung to the Torah with great diligence and relied on miracles and Hashem helped him. Individual Torah scholars like these bring great light into our world from the world of eternity, from their vision of Israel's redemption. This is why the nation of Israel revered Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai for his devotion to the Torah and the faith of Israel.