When Ezekiel stood on the banks of the River Kvar and saw the heavenly "Chariot", it was a vision of the same heavenly order that had existed continuously from long, long before. The Hebrew word Kvar in fact means "before" or "already". When Ezekiel looked up at the sky, he saw the same stars and constellations at which Abraham had gazed. When the skies and heavens "opened up" for Ezekiel giving him a glimpse of the realm beyond physical space and time, it was through his use of methods of prophetic prayer and meditation that also went back to the author of Sefer Yetzirah.
Abraham's search for the power-source behind the manifest plurality of the world led him to the underlying coordinates and elements of creation as expressed in the letters of the Aleph Beit. From earliest childhood Abraham had faith that all the different powers in creation are interconnected as part of a single, unified, purposeful system or order. The stars and planets are governed by "angels" which in turn are governed by higher angels. Everything in creation is a manifestation of the power of the Sefirot, which are the ultimate coordinates and elements of creation, brought into being through the "Word of God", the letters of the Aleph Beit and their combinations. The purpose of Abraham's letter-manipulations was to connect with the Creator and harness the power of the letters so as to channel beneficial influences to the world.
Abraham transmitted his wisdom to Isaac, who taught it to Jacob. Jacob transmitted it to his sons, and especially Levi, who became chief guardian of the tradition. Levi passed it on to his son, Kehat, who passed it on to his son Amram. And Amram was father of the Lord of all the Prophets, Moses.
The plan of creation is that God should be revealed to all His creatures on all levels. Moses' greatness lay in his power to rise to the highest levels of prophecy ever achieved and bring his vision "down" so as to make it accessible to people on far lower levels. Thus Moses brought the Children of Israel to a state where "at the crossing of the Red Sea a simple maid saw more than Ezekiel", while at the Giving of the Torah at Sinai, God "opened up" all seven heavens to the Children of Israel (Mechilta on Exodus 15:2 and 19:11).
The "soul" of the Torah revealed at Sinai was the prophetic vision of the inner workings of the universe together with the prayer-power it gives to those who attain it. The Sanctuary that Moses built and the Temple that later took its place stand at the center of the Torah system as a holographic model of those inner workings and the principle focus of devotion and prayer. At the peak of Jewish life in
But with the moral degeneration that started to set in, the pursuit of prophecy began to be abused by "false prophets" and practitioners of foreign cults. The voice of true prophecy was increasingly forced to become that of reproof, while faithful practitioners of Abraham's methods of prayer-power had to conceal much of their knowledge from the wider public.
Thus it was that the mystical dimension of the Torah tended to become hidden from view, leaving meticulous study and observance of the outer forms of the Law as the distinguishing hallmark of Judaism in the eyes of the majority of Jews and gentiles alike.
Nevertheless the mystical tradition or "Kabbalah" was pursued in a continuous tradition from biblical times onwards. Key figures in the transmission of the Oral Torah - from David, Solomon, Ezra and the Men of the Great Assembly to Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, Rabbi Akiva, and the other great talmudic sages - were at the same time supreme masters of mystical wisdom and devotion. Maaseh Bereishit, the "Work of Creation", dealing with the secrets of creation, and Maaseh Merkavah, the "Work of the Chariot", which is more concerned with devotion, meditation and prophecy, were the two main branches of the esoteric wisdom pursued in the private study chambers of the sages of Israel. However, in the public study halls and synagogues it was the "Revealed Torah" of practical observance and moral improvement that was stressed, while the secrets of Torah were hinted at allusively in the wordplays and parables of Midrash.
A body cannot live without a soul. The outer body of Torah law is truly alive only when it has inner spiritual meaning. The destruction of the Second Temple in the time of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and the intensification of the exile under ruthless Roman persecution turned the Jewish dream into a horrendous nightmare. Precisely then Divine Providence decreed that the esoteric wisdom of the Torah should begin to shine forth beyond the confines of closed circles in order to sustain the nation and advance the world towards its ultimate goal.
At the height of the Roman persecution, permission was granted to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, outstanding student of Rabbi Akiva, to begin unveiling some of the secrets of Maaseh Bereishit and Maaseh Merkavah in his mystical discourses and those of his disciples as transcribed in the Zohar and related literature. Yet even after this, many aspects of the esoteric wisdom were still kept completely secret, and the Zohar itself was for centuries available only to relatively restricted circles of scholars.
The tribulations of exile have characterized many of the historical periods in which the secret wisdom of the Kabbalah was successively revealed to ever wider circles. This was the case in the 16th century, in the chaotic aftermath of the Expulsion of the Jews from
The teachings of the ARI were put in writing by his outstanding student Rabbi Chaim Vital, in Etz Chaim, the "Tree of Life", and numerous other volumes. What emerges is a most complex, subtle, highly ramified system of multiple categories, subcategories, holy names and devotions.
The writings of the ARI contain all the keys to the celestial vision of Kabbalah as witnessed at Sinai and by all the prophets and embedded in the Bible, Midrash, Talmud and Zohar. But despite the increasing availability of kabbalistic literature, anyone who wanted to grasp the system required vast scholarship as well as strong resolve. There was no such thing as an introductory primer. The Zohar and writings of the ARI are voluminous and highly diffuse. In both cases the way the teachings are presented presupposes a grasp of the entire system. Even experienced Talmudists are likely to find these works quite baffling without the help of a reliable guide.
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by Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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