Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzato, better known by his acronym ‘Ramchal’, was an enigma. He was a master at making the mysterious world of Lurianic Kabbala a good deal less mysterious, yet he was prohibited from openly teaching it for most of his adult life. He wrote over 40 books, most touching on Kabbalistic themes, yet his most famous work is not even considered to be a work of Kabbala.
He was born in Padua, Italy, in the year 1707. His study of Kabbala began at the age of 20, following an education in which he mastered everything he studied, from Talmud to poetry to playwriting. Kabbala became his life’s mission. Needless to say, when the local rabbinic authorities heard that he was teaching some of these secrets to his small group of followers, their suspicions perked up immediately. This was only a few decades after the Shabbtai Zvi debacle, and another Kabbalistic messianic pretender was all the Jewish world needed. Under the threat of excommunication, they managed to force him to agree to not teach any of his mysterious revelations. After much turmoil, he headed to Amsterdam hoping to find a more open environment to teach Kabbala.
While in Amsterdam he did succeed in writing a good deal of his books, including his masterpiece, Mesilat Yesharim (The Path of the Just). It was written as a Jewish guide to spiritual perfection, with the final goal of reaching a state of prophecy and the ability to resurrect the dead. To the reader unfamiliar with Ramchal’s heavy Kabbalistic leanings, the book appears to be a work of Jewish ethics, laid out in very organized and systematic manner. One can read it in this way and lose nothing of its deep content. In fact, the Mussar Movement, which by unofficial consensus adopted it as its primary text, did exactly that.
But when taken in context of Ramchal’s broader goals for the purpose of life – that human beings were created to experience God’s goodness and to become like God – the Mesilat Yesharim takes on an entirely different tone. This is the path to experience God; it is the path to ultimate goodness:
“The blessed sages taught that man was only created to delight in Hashem and to enjoy the splendor of God’s presence – this is the ultimate delight, and the greatest pleasure to be found. The true place of this joy is the World to Come (Olam Haba), which was created for this reason. As the rabbis said: ‘This world is an entryway into the next world’. The means of achieving this goal are the mitzvot that God commanded us to do. This world is the place to do them. Therefore, we were first placed in this world so that through these means that are available to us, we could achieve our place in Olam Haba, to partake of the good that we acquired through these means…When we look deeper into this we see that true fulfillment is only found in fusion with God (d’vekut in Hebrew)…for this only is good and everything else that people consider to be good is worthless and empty. But to merit this good we first must earn it by exerting the effort to achieve it, meaning to struggle to fuse with God through deeds that result in this, namely the commandments…”
Before we begin to dissect this rather long paragraph, it must be noted that the above is a slightly loose translation. The interested reader should check out the original Hebrew for clarity. With that out of the way, one thing we see from this introduction is that Ramchal was absolutely sure of his take on the deepest questions of life, and showed no hesitation in drawing wide-sweeping conclusions. The following sums up the main conclusions of this paragraph:
1. We were created to delight in Hashem
2. This true place of this delight is Olam Haba
3. We were put in this world to earn a place in Olam Haba
4. Fusion with God is the only true good
5. We must struggle to achieve this fusion with God
There are few things that need clarification in this rather complete spiritual picture of reality. First off, it appears that the first three items form one subgroup and the final two another. The first group basically paints a pretty straightforward diagram of things – spiritual achievements in this world are valuable because they give us a place in the next world, which is where we attain our real purpose of delight in God. In the final two items (when we look deeper into things) we see a different end goal – fusion with God. There is no mention about the next world. Are there two different goals or are they somehow the same?
Second, being created to delight in Hashem, as heavenly as it sounds, does seem a little self-centered. Is that really what it’s all about – just enjoying God’s presence in Olam Haba? What about random acts of kindness, saving the world, gaining knowledge, sharing love, peace on earth, or any of the million other things that make the world go round? For that matter, is this world really nothing more than a gateway? Doesn’t it have some inherent value of its own?
Third, what is this business of ‘fusion with God’? The Hebrew word d’vekut, can be translated in many ways, including ‘clinging’, ‘joining’, ‘closeness’, and several others. In recent years it has become a sort of all-purpose term for Jewish spirituality. Most Jews who use the term prefer to avoid translating it, feeling that it loses something in the translation. But translation is a step-in understanding. If the word isn’t translated it very likely isn’t really understood. We chose the unorthodox word ‘fusion’ as the translation of d’vekut, fully aware that it would alienate some and disappoint others. But it hits on the essence of d’vekut like no other translation, namely the idea of union, or oneness, which is the ultimate goal. While it is true that as long as we retain our independent identities (our egos) such a union is impossible, the goal remains the same. Fusion is the process by which two distinct things merge and form one. This is the goal of d’vekut.
Getting back to those first two questions, it certainly appears that the goal of delight in the Olam Haba does not really match up with the goal of fusion. But perhaps this merely reflects on an improper understanding of the Jewish view of heaven. It is not pleasure in the usual sense at all. It is delight in God, something that is accessible during our lifetime but only with constant effort. It is only through the struggle to try to find God in all aspects of our lives, to discover the godliness that lies underneath all the layers of superficiality and self-centered living, that we can ever hope to truly delight in God. Delight in God means to seek only that which enables one to become like God, and to avoid that which doesn’t. To truly delight in God is a refined sense, somewhat akin to the acquired taste of fine wine. It takes a lifetime of searching and revealing – it is nothing less than a quest.
When looked at this way, the goal of delighting in God in the next world is not at all antithetical to either the goals of kindness and love or the goal of fusion with God. Kindness, love, knowledge, self-awareness, spiritual refinement – these are all paths to learn to appreciate the goodness inherent in God and to instill that goodness internally. The goal is not really to get a good seat in the heavenly stadium. That wouldn’t be delighting in godliness at all. It would be trying to transfer the superficial temptations of this world into heaven. When really examined, such a heaven would be a kind of hell. It is eternal meaninglessness. Olam Haba is the world we build during the spiritual quest of our lifetimes. We can build a world permeated by God, a world in which our identity fuses with God’s. Or we can build a world that has us perpetually chasing after shadows and illusions. Which world would you want?
In reality, we can get a taste of our world to come during our lifetimes. We all have some idea of the world we are building. We may ignore that awareness, or dismiss its nagging guilt trips, but we all know that it is there. That hidden awareness is a like a sixth sense, an ability to detect godliness in our lives, and a barometer to gauge if we are doing all that we can to find it. Delight in all things godly is that scale. If this is our delight then we are experiencing heaven in this world. If it is not, then we are falling pray to the myriad of distractions that keep us from knowing the goal and how to get to it. It is all a matter of delight – delight in fusion with God.
Once in a while you have to ask yourself what you really want out of life. You have to really question whether you want sex, drugs, and rock and roll, or if you’ve grown out of that. You have to ask if all the worrying about money and looks and prestige is really getting you anywhere in the long haul. You have to examine your goals, and reconsider if they are goals that are truly worthwhile or if they are just socially imposed idols that have no ultimate value.
You have to question your ultimate goals – are they worthy of the label ‘ultimate’, or are they just the same old thing in an ‘ultimate’ package. If your goals go beyond the confines of this lifetime, and concern your standing in the next world, you must ask another question. Is your heaven really heaven, or is it a glorified version of Las Vegas? Even if your heaven is really heaven, you must delve deeper and wonder if the goal of personal salvation is really just a well-meaning sell out. Is it really possible that God wants to you save yourself but not really care about anyone else? If you think this may be possible, you must ask if this is the image of God that you want to meet up with in the next world.
These are tough questions. They are serious, mind-absorbing, hammering-out questions that everyone needs to face at some point in life. Most people never really do this, and they may be selling themselves short. But if you can face these questions, and if you have the courage to deal with the unsettling thoughts they awaken, you may be ready to for a new quest in life. This quest has nothing to do with fame, fortune, or security. It is the quest for meaning. It begins with these questions and it inevitably turns you in the direction that points towards something that religious people call God. Be warned: this quest is addicting and all-consuming. It is never really over. Its progress is not measured in dollars or ‘likes’ or envious looks. It is measured by how much you want to steer your life towards a higher cause. Some people, perhaps you, would identify the quest as a union with God, a fusion between you and your God.
Food for Thought
Fusion with God sounds great when read in a spiritual guide like Mesilat Yesharim. But when actually attempted it seems downright impossible. Is this goal really achievable, or is it chasing some impossible dream?
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