He pondered our world from every side and every angle, and he realized something must have gone wrong.
Something at the very beginning. Something before Time had begun and there were moments to count; before the laws of nature had been established and matter had yet a chance to form. Something at the very core of reality, and if he could find it, all the cosmos could be healed.
He continued his meditations on the banks of the River Nile, his fasting, his recitation of Psalms and his sleepless nights poring over and over the scrolls of the Zohar his teacher had left him. He received wisdom from ancient souls, as had Rabbi Shimon and his son when they hid in the cave. He gazed upon the river wildlife at day, the stars of the Egyptian sky at night. He pondered all that he learned. But most of all, he pondered existence.
There is wisdom here, he thought, but wisdom gone mad. There is beauty, magnificent beauty, but she is shattered. If all the world is an epic novel, the words have been tossed in the air and scrambled; if it is a grand symphony, the musicians have lost sight of their conductor, each playing his melody on his own time. As though an explosion had occurred, blowing
apart the pieces that were meant to create a harmonious world, creating instead a cacophony of melodies, a chaos of fragments.
How he discovered the secret, we do not know. A human mind, writes his protégé, Rabbi Chaim Vital, could not have unlocked this knowledge. Perhaps it was Elijah that revealed it to him; for Elijah, the Zohar says, was to reveal the deepest truths in preparation for the light of Moshiach at the end of days. Perhaps he received from beyond even there. But when he looked in Genesis and in the Holy Zohar, he saw it clearly: Olam HaTohu—“the World of Chaos.”
Rabbi Yitzchak Luria—also known as Ari, “The Lion”—was a Kabbalist, and the Kabbalist seeks a deeper reality. To the Kabbalist, the mass of humanity lives in a dream. There is wisdom here, he thought, but wisdom gone mad. There is magnificent beauty, but it is shattered.Truth lies on a higher plane, and the Kabbalist’s soul yearns to soar to that place. He separates himself from the commotion of society to sit in solitude and contemplation. He meditates until he can perceive beneath the veneer of our reality a deeper world—perhaps the World of Formation, or deeper to the World of Creation, or even to the divine World of Emanation beyond the angels.
But the World of Tohu is entirely beyond the finite being. It is a world emanated from the Source of All Worlds before finitude existed, before bounds were set to reality. The only bounds of Tohu are the ten luminous emanations, and they too are without bounds. Infinite light in ten discrete modalities.
That was it, he realized. That’s where things went wrong. For that is the first impossibility: the place in G‑d’s mind where His boundlessness meets with His desire to be found. The place where G‑d comes face to face with His own paradox: His passion to be infinity within a finite world.
And so, it shattered. The very core of reality is G‑d’s shattered dream, waiting for us to pick up the pieces.
The fire of the sun, the air we breathe, the roaring waves of the oceans and all that lives in them; When we perceive beauty, it is because we have found that window to the infinite . . .the Earth and the plants and animals that live upon it; even the human flesh, its vital soul and the angels above—everything we find in our world and in the worlds deeper within—all are no more than artifacts of the sparks that fell in the explosion of that primordial world. But the essence of the human being, the breath of G‑d within us, that is G‑d Himself, gathering, refashioning and piecing back together an impossible dream.
He is like the father who fashions a castle from his child’s wooden blocks, only to say, “See? Like this!” and then to knock it all down—so now the child can build it on his own. Because that is the purpose: that we should build it on our own. That we should redeem that boundless light of Tohu and fit it into the boundaries of human everyday life. For that is the only way His paradoxical dream can become real: through those who live within it.
As for the Ari, he was like one who scales a colossal wall, convinced that a treasure lies at its summit—only to discover that his prize has fallen to the mud below. Just how are these sparks of infinite light to be redeemed from their captivity?Which changed everything. Because if so, the entire focus of human spirituality is misled. The greatest light, the highest beauty, is not “up there.” It has fallen down here. And it is humankind, not the angels, who can pick it up and reveal it.
Rarely does an idea so radical become so readily accepted. Yet, in a relatively short time, the teachings of the Ari became the standard reading of the Zohar. Not just because they made sense of many otherwise recondite passages, but because they made so much sense of reality and the place of Torah in that reality.
To the Jews of the East and to the Sephardic communities, the Ari has the stature of a prophet. The chassidic movement of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov that revitalized the Jewry of Europe would have been impossible without the teachings of the Ari. The most common Jewish liturgy today follows the form of the Ari’s custom. Even the voluminous discussions of the nitty-gritty halachah—Jewish law and practice—are speckled with the authoritative clause, “the custom of the Ari was . . .”—and if that is what the Ari did, then most often that’s the end of the discussion.
Not just Jews, but also philosophers among the gentiles studied his ideas and were profoundly affected by them. Leibniz’s monads can easily be traced to the Ari’s partzufim-which we know he read about in Count van Helmont’s Kabala Denudata, as did Henry More, John Locke and Anne Conway. There is even evidence to suggest that the modern idea of social activism to better our world owed much to the impact of the Ari’s teaching. For the Ari truly provided the strongest basis for the spiritual person to be involved in the material world. In a way, the Ari can be called the first modern revolutionary—for he stood the entire focus of the enlightened individual on its head.
That the Infinite Light is everywhere is an axiom of the Kabbalah, but the Ari made that light immanent, almost tangible, by declaring it to be held captive within every object, every event, even within evil itself.
Think again of the analogy of a jumbled text. If the Ari lived today, he would have a more ready metaphor: the e‑mail that occasionally slips through without decoding, turning up in your inbox as a jumble of nonsensical letters. You see that there are patterns, that this was meant to say something—but that meaning has been lost in the encoding.
In technical jargon, data without meaning is called “noise.” When it happens in our own reality, we call it “evil.” Confusion unarrested and running wild. The Ari concluded that within this evil must be the relics of that primal explosion, fragments that fell below, yet still glow from the infinite light they once contained. The sparks are G‑dliness, but like us Jews, they are exiled in a world where they are out of context, held captive within their own confusion.
Evil is then an artifact, essentially fictitious, arising from the temporary state of disorder. Reorder the world, and evil disappears as though it never was.
And this is where the Ari and his students after him glued together the
revealed and the hidden faces of Torah, where they made the Kabbalah into an
effective theology of the halachah—and at the same time a theology of human endeavor. They asked: just how are these sparks of infinite light to be redeemed from their captivity? Where is the decoder that will return each spark back to its context, so that the artifact of evil will vanish?
To find infinity within each event of our world takes no more than an
objective human mind. When we perceive beauty, it is because we have found that window to the infinite. When we investigate any detail of our world as a
scientist, we discover infinite information—we can continue for a lifetime and
never fully understand a single organism or cell or molecule or atomic
But to piece together all that infinity and reconnect it to its source—for that, we must have access to the encryption code of the manufacturer. Which is exactly what we were provided when we received the Torah at Mount Sinai.