The Sulam A Spiritual Biography of Rabbi Yehudah Lev Ashlag
This biography of Rabbi Ashlag, which tells of his spiritual roots and life is being translated from the Hebrew by Yedidah Cohen on behalf of Ohr Baruch Shalom,the study center of Rabbi Gotlieb the author of HaSulam. To continue this important work Ohr Baruch Shalom, a registered charity, are looking for contributions to cover the cost of the further translation.
If you would be interested in participating in this great work your merit would be very great. Please contact Yedidah Cohen
To read the author's preface and chapter one of Rabbi Ashlag's life please scroll down.
The Sulam by Rabbi Avraham Mordecai Gottlieb
translated from the Hebrew by Yedidah Cohen
"I give thanks to the Lord with all my heart, I will tell of all Your wonders" (Psalms 9:2)
When I saw that the students of the holy Sage of Israel, Rabbi Yehudah Lev Ashlag, known as the Baal haSulam, “the Master of the Ladder,” may his memory protect us, were departing this world, as their generation was leaving us, I became anxious lest Torah may be lost from Israel, because the deeds of the righteous are actual Torah. So I said: “It is time to act for the Lord’s sake,” and I set to the task of compiling this book.
Actually, even prior to this, whenever I heard my holy teacher, Rabbi Baruch Shalom Ashlag, tell a story, or say something of moment, I would write it down immediately. Likewise, when the holy band, the students of Rabbi Baruch Shalom Ashlag, would meet and tell a story, or discuss a saying attributed to the Baal haSulam or his students, I noted it down immediately. However, once I had made the decision to write this book, I, and some of my pupils, went specifically to meet with the descendants of the students of the Baal haSulam and we listened to their words over many hours. Through all these notes became woven a web of life, wondrous with fortitude and holiness. We found a texture of life that was made up of sacrifice and dedication emanating from the power of the desire to fulfill the will of the King, the holy Blessed One.
One needs to remember, however, that this is not a book about people who lived in some remote age, but about living people, some of whom I had the privilege of knowing personally, and it is from such near acquaintance that I was able to attest to their great spiritual stature. What was common to them all was that they walked in the way of our holy teacher, the Baal haSulam.
The reason I wrote this book was so that all those who seek God should see the way of truth that the Baal haSulam taught, and how important this way is for the spiritual progress of this generation. I wrote this book in order to show the superhuman dedication of the Baal haSulam and that of his pupils, and to let people understand that this is not beyond our reach, but that we may each of us make meaningful efforts in our lives to come to unity with the holy Blessed One. My purpose then, in compiling this book was not to write a memoir or an historical document, but through this book to awaken all of our hearts to serve God.
In a world which is so involved with externals, with the rottenness of animal appetites and of self-interest, in a world where even those who do practice Torah and mitzvot do not know their right hand from their left hand when it comes to the innermost part of Torah, in a world full of people who are sick with the disease of seeking honor and power over others, in a world which is complicated with politics and stinking intrigues, in a world filled with the miscarriage of justice and corruption, in such a world the Godly light of our teacher, Rabbi Yehudah Lev Ashlag shines forth. His bright and clear light radiates out, from the higher worlds to our world, in order to disperse the fogs of confusion and dismay, and in order to prepare us for our redemption.
I found the following excerpt in the book Meir Einai haGolah (Enlightening the Eyes of the Exile), which tells of the life and works of the Rabbi of Gur: 1 (paragraph 647)
The holy chassid Rabbi Bunam of Lublin told, “Once our holy Rabbi of Gur was walking in the courtyard of the study house, and I was walking with him. It was then the month of Elul. My teacher asked if they had sounded the Shofar that day in the study house. After that he added in this language: ‘When a person becomes the leader of the generation then all the trappings required for leadership come into place. The need arises for a study house, with rooms and tables and benches; one person gets appointed to be the treasurer, another the organizer, and so forth. But then the ego comes and snatches the innermost spark, leaving the rest revolving around as previously. One needs to fear this: that the time may come when everything will run exactly as it does now, but the innermost spark will be missing.’ Then he cried out in a loud voice, “May God help us!”
The concern of the Rabbi of Gur has come true before our very eyes. We see a generation impoverished and orphaned; a generation that has everything—except for the true spark of a real connection with our Creator.
However, we have a remedy, and that is the teaching of Rabbi Yehudah Lev Ashlag, the Baal haSulam, which, with the help of God, may shine a light directly upon our way and show us the path which ascends to the house of God.
A solution to the problems of our generation through the innermost aspect of the Torah
There are a number of problems that we need to note that are occurring in the reality of our present time:
1) There is a tendency amongst the religious to immerse themselves in the practical aspects of the mitzvot alone, practising them without any intention. Neither are they given guidance how to carry out the mitzvot with intention and with feeling. This leads to a reality in which those who practice the mitzvot go to extremes, even “tithing the salt”, for they have no awareness of their lack in turning their heart towards the Creator, and therefore, when they want to increase their level of holiness they add yet another aspect to the practical side of the mitzvot alone. So they continue to add more and more strictures. But the holy Baal Shem Tov already warned, “Do not be over punctilious” 1 צוואת הריבש because over involvement with too many strictures causes the most important thing, the innermost spark of Torah and mitzvot—the Creator— to be forgotten.
Torah, without its innermost aspect, leads both young and old to feel a great dryness in their practice. The practice of Torah and mitzvot becomes more and more external, carried out without enthusiasm or attraction towards the Torah. The practice becomes ritual, practised without happiness or pleasure, but out of social obligations only, or from the habits engendered by education. This is what the Sages have termed “commandments of men carried out by rote”. This phrase is taken from the scriptural text, “And the Lord said, ‘For this people draw near to Me with their mouth and their lips in order to honour Me, but they have removed their heart far from Me; their fear of Me is that of a commandment of men, learned by rote. Therefore, behold, I will proceed to do a marvellous work and a wonder: for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish and the understanding of their men of sense shall be hid” (Isaiah 29:13-14).
2) When a person learns the scriptural portions of the Torah he cannot see any connection between them and himself. It is hard for him to understand the connection between the lives of our fathers and his own daily life. For example, it is hard for him to see the connection between the servitude of our forefathers in Egypt and his life here and now. This lack of connection leads to lack of interest and apathy.
Through the learning of the innermost part of the Torah, the dryness caused by the performance of the commandments by rote, that we noted above, simply disappears. The study of the innermost aspect of the Torah, as the Baal haSulam taught, stabilizes a person’s life. Education in the innermost aspect of the Torah leads a person to be absolutely meticulous in his ethical behavior and thus gives principles by which the whole society may run with integrity and honesty.
When a Jew occupies himself or herself with the innermost aspect of the Torah he amplifies the soul aspect that is within him of loving his fellow-man above his egoistic side of himself. By this means he causes an increase of all of the positive forces in the world. He increases the forces of love of one’s fellow and of loving-kindness. Furthermore, he neutralizes all the forces of violence and egoism. He brings about a lessening of the anti-Semitism in the world, and a lessening of the attacks against the religious within the context of Israeli society. For the inner state of the individual Jew broadcasts a telepathic message to the whole world, and according to his inner state so does he give light to the entire world.
If God forbid, a Jew does not occupy himself with the innermost part of the Torah, but sticks only to the outermost part of the Torah, not making efforts to acquire vessels with which to amplify his altruism, but he remains with his egoism, such that all his actions are carried out for his own utility, he causes an increase of egoism in the world at large. This is the source of the various attacks on religion and on the religious, and all the forces of anti-Semitism in the world raise their heads and batter the Jewish people, working to destroy us. Thus we see that the practice of the innermost aspect of the Torah is critical for the general state of both religious people and of the Jews in the world.
The innermost aspect of the Torah uncovers the deep beauty and precision of the Torah, so that even people who are not religious can clearly see the truth of the Torah. The innermost aspect of the Torah reveals the reason within the Torah and the mitzvot so that the Divine web of system and logic becomes manifest. We see that everything comes about in order to move a person from an egoistic state to an altruistic state. The Torah and mitzvot are set forth with complete exactitude to pluck on the strings of the soul of the man to transform him. It is no wonder that when people who were not given a religious education get exposed to this wonderful knowledge they draw closer and closer to the religion as the true godliness of every mitzvah and its necessity becomes apparent. The pursuit after the spirituality of other peoples, such as Buddhism, Hinduism and others becomes completely superfluous.
Likewise, non-Jews become aware that the laws of the wisdom of the Kabbalah bring sanity to the world. These laws cause human society to be arranged in a more just and whole manner. They bring about consciousness, such that the phenomena of violence will be utterly uprooted, and they remove the despoiling of life and corruption from our daily fare. They even give a possibility for the world to function without ecological disasters and without devastation from natural causes. The laws of the Kabbalah reveal that the principles of the sciences stem from the spiritual worlds; the rules governing mathematics, physics, music and biology did not come into our world through chance, but cascaded down into our world from the rules governing the higher spiritual worlds. As we become cognizant of these facts we come to internalize the exalteness of the Torah and its absolute necessity for humankind. Then the phenomenon of the world’s hatred for the Jewish religion and for the Jewish people will vanish as their value for all humankind is recognized.
The Messenger of God
In this book we have brought two pieces of writing which particularly fill me with awe. In one the Baal haSulam writes that he merited the soul of the holy Rabbi Yitshak Luria, (the Ari). In the other he tells of a prophetic revelation, in which the Divine revealed His light to the Rabbi, telling him, “I have chosen you to be the Tzaddik and Sage for all this generation in order that the crisis of humanity may be healed with a lasting salvation.”
These words are clear evidence of the great role that the holy Blessed One designated to Rabbi Ashlag. Such a role only becomes apparent gradually and over a period of time. As we have seen with other famous sages such as Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon (Maimonides), the Baal Shem Tov, and Rabbi Moses Chayim Luzzato, (the Ramchal) it was the case that in their own generation they faced enormous opposition, but later, through the years their greatness became recognized and their light shone forth, bringing the hearts of thousands of Jews to turn to their Creator.
In the book, Meir Einai haGolah, I have found words which the holy Sage of Gur said, through which it is possible to understand the Divine Providence concerning the souls who are sent to lead the generation.
The chassid Rabbi Hirsh Leib from Warsaw heard the Rabbi of Gur himself say, at the time when the Sage, Rabbi Mendel of Kotsk lay dying, “As the generations unfold, we are given, from Heaven, a greater leader. Because as the generations grow sicker they require a greater man to lift them up.” This is similar to the situation of the sicker the patient, the greater is the need for a specialist doctor. 1 (paragraph 479)
Thus we do not need to wonder why the Master of the Universe saw fit to send us such a holy soul, which, at first sight seems to be unsuited to the lowly level of our generation. However, we can now understand that it is because of the great lowliness of this generation that we need such a great light to deliver us from the pit of our exile. This light encourages us to strive and labor in the true way so that we may come into affinity of form with the Creator of the world.
However, I certainly knew that there would be sceptics who would say, “Who says that these matters are true?” However, such people were also around in the generation of Moses our Teacher, and would ask the same question, if Moses were to go and say to them “Ehyeh sent me”! As Moses said, (to God at the burning bush), “But they will not believe me, neither will they listen to my voice, but they will say that God did not appear to you” (Exodus 4:1). Therefore, God needed to give Moses signs and miracles in order to quell such doubters so they would not place obstacles in the way of God’s work.
Such sceptics were also present in the times of the Ari, the Baal Shem Tov, and Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, who tried to cast doubt and aspersions on their holy work. Because who could prove that these great souls were sent to us from Heaven and who could prove that all their words were true? Nowadays anyone who would question these sages would hardly be considered as sane. But at the time these Tzaddikim lived, such sceptics troubled them. The opposition to them in some cases being so great that they or their followers were threatened with excommunication.
However, the true test lies according to the words of the Zohar, “A false god is sterile and does not bear fruit,”1 (parshat Mishpatim mamar HaSaba para 166 in the Perush haSulam) This means that those who walk in the ways of uncleanness do not bear fruit, but those who cling to the ways of holiness bear fruit.
What is this fruit? The meaning of fruit is not social standing, or money, but success in the ways of clinging to God. Certainly this matter is hard to put to the test, especially since most of these sceptics do not understand anything at all about how to cleave to God. For if they would understand that, they would not be asking theoretical questions. As the verse says, “Taste and see that God is good” (Psalms 34:9). They could try to follow the instructions of our teacher and then they would see how they would be lifted up above materialism to the happiness and eternity of oneness with God. This, in fact, is what in the end defeated the opposition to the Baal Shem Tov, the Ari, the Ramchal and the Rambam, once their light was clearly manifest in the world, that their way raised up the person and brought him to connect with the One.
The Rabbi Yehudah Lev Ashlag, the Baal haSulam, brought the light of the holy Zohar out, from the hidden to the revealed, in writing his work the Perush HaSulam, a twenty-one volume commentary on the Zohar. Likewise he clarified the works of the holy Ari in the six volumes of the Talmud Eser haSephirot and in the three volumes of his work the Panim Meirot uMasbirot. Anyone who learns these works deeply comes to the conclusion that these commentaries are not products of the thought of Rabbi Ashlag but they are actual Divine light that God wanted to be revealed in this generation.
Sufficient is the evidence that Rabbi Baruch Shalom Ashlag, Rabbi Ashlag’s first-born son, brings when he tells that his father never needed to use drafts when writing, but he wrote the Perush haSulam directly onto the paper in front of him and that paper was taken straight to the printers. This testifies that the Baal haSulam had an enormous spiritual perception of the higher worlds and his works are descriptions of what he grasped and saw in the higher worlds. He had no need to edit or arrange his thoughts.
To conclude, we bring the words of the Baal haSulam (Pri Chacham first part of article “Commandment one)
The main success of the prophetic utterance is to draw the highest light right down to those who dwell on earth. The one who is most able bring it down to the lowest level is the most successful.
The issue of above and below is seen both in spirit and in practical good. For the practical good that is achieved by the prophecy is the point which gives a grasp for the human being. And it is known that the hardest part of serving God is in getting hold of the first part.
It is clear that these words are testimony to the light of our teacher himself. The wondrous light that shines from his books makes real for all people, religious and secular, Jews and non-Jews that there is no possibility for the human race to survive unless we all take upon ourselves the commandment of “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). Not, however, in the way that was tried by Marx and Engels, the founders of communism, who placed their ideas on a secular basis, but through the Divine light of Torah, which has, as its goal, the unity with God for all humankind.
Sheltering within the shade of our teacher
It was before I was fifteen years of age that I first came into the presence of the Sage, the holy teacher Rabbi Baruch Shalom Ashlag of blessed memory. I remember the first time I saw him. It was on the Sabbath at three o’ clock in the morning. I went into the room where the lessons were given, and already the young men were poring over the book, the Talmud Eser haSephirot. The atmosphere in the room was saturated with holiness and purity; one could really feel it in the air. My teacher, the Rabbi, entered and sat on his chair. Even before he began to teach I had the feeling that I could seek wisdom and knowledge of spiritual matters from him. The spiritual stature of this holy man of God was very pronounced, even without any word being spoken by him. When he entered the room a spirit of great strength entered with him. His face expressed tremendous fortitude. His whole being spoke of determination and decisiveness, of great strength of will, of resolve to establish all the actions of his life according to the will of God, may the One be blessed.
Since then I have cleaved with all my life and my spirit to my holy teacher, never removing myself from him. He raised me as a loving father and supervised my path with great watchfulness, as a father supervises his son in all ways. He taught me all I have learned in Torah and gave me my understanding, so that nothing that I have originates from me. All my knowledge and understanding, both in the learning of the Kabbalah, and in the practical way of serving God, I learned from him, according to his instruction and his guidance.
Day by day I saw him; his face filled with majesty. His ability to serve God in such an exalted way was really incomprehensible to normal human intelligence. If you were not privileged to witness this it is impossible to comprehend. His way was that of faith that transcends knowledge, the way of giving benefit to the other person—a way that demands great fortitude. When we, his students, gazed at his face, we would immediately get the desire to dedicate our life for God from love.
With the mercy of God I merited to serve him and become one of the students who were closest to him. I spent many hours in his presence, and from this closeness I learnt a lot—sometimes more than what was possible to learn in the study sessionsthemselves. Being in his presence gave me understanding, in the most concrete way possible, of what it means to be a person who truly believes in God. He considered all his ways, his words and his thoughts according to the one criterion, am I in accord with the will of God or not? This was the one single rule to which he adhered throughout his life.
In his last year he related to me, more than once, the events of his life. He told me of his childhood, and of the period after his marriage, when he became a student in the Beit haMidrash (study hall) of his great father. He told me of his very deep connection with his father and of his affinity with him. He spoke of the texture of the relationships which the students had enjoyed with his holy father and between each other. He also told me of the many trials of his life—most of which I do not want to retell here—and how they strengthened his longing for affinity of form with the Creator, may the One be blessed.
It is now clear to me that it is the years in which I merited to spend in his presence that have given me the chief inspiration for the writing of this book. All the explanations that I have written in this book spring forth from the life teaching of my teacher, the Sage Rabbi Baruch Shalom Ashlag
I would like to apologize to the reader, in that sometimes the topics in this book are not polished in a literary sense. For really I am not a writer, but I didn’t want to put this holy work into the hands of a professional writer, because, however good he may be, he is still an outsider and will see the matters only from an outsider’s perspective, and I did not want this. Therefore, I preferred to do this work myself, with the purpose of giving the reader, as much as possible, an inner view on our holy Rabbis.
Naturally I haven’t been able to convey that much of the inner spirit which permeated the reality of our holy teachers because these matters aren’t easy to pass on. It is a case of “Taste and see that God is good.” I couldn’t pass on the day-to-day difficulties of the students in rising before dawn, in loving the friend, in self-negation before the Rabbi. This is a whole way of life which is possible to understand in real terms only when one walks that path in practice. But I have tried as much as I can to pass on the wonderful spirit that ruled in the Beit haMidrash of our holy Rabbi, the Baal haSulam and in that of his son Rabbi Baruch Shalom Ashlag. I have also endeavoured to make clear their true principles and how they were put into practice in every step of their lives.
I hope that this book will bring about a change in the thought of those who seek to come close to God. This is my real purpose in putting these matters onto paper, to show the way of serving God in its true form.
In our generation, to my very great sorrow, the issues of how to serve God have become very blurred, people who are not qualified to do so purporting to teach others the way of serving God. But the truth is in fact lacking and the confusion and the darkness is very great indeed.
I wish to point out that whilst undertaking this research on the lives of our holy Sages I occasionally came across instances when they rebuked their students. I tried to understand the reason for these rebukes and in what way the students erred, in order to find guidelines for our own lives and in order to understand the true principles of serving God without compromise. However, on the other hand, one must remember that the students themselves were men of great spiritual stature; men who served God with incredible devotion and self-sacrifice. They were of an entirely different dimension to that of ourselves, and, even though we do not in any way measure up to their standards, yet we may learn from them.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank my honoured father Rabbi Sharaga Gottlieb and my dear mother Mrs Rachel Gottlieb who were faithful messengers of God and raised me in the ways of the holy Torah. They did not spare any labour or toil throughout their lives in fulfilling the will of God. May God grant them health and much joy from their children and may they merit so see success in the service of God.
May we all merit soon to the complete redemption and to the revelation of God’s divinity in the sight of all.
Abraham Mordecai Gottlieb,
Disciple of Rabbi Baruch Shalom Ashlag.
Chapter One: Foundations
Rabbi Yehudah Lev haLevi Ashlag was born in Warsaw to Rabbi Simchah haLevi Ashlag on the fifth day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei 5646; 14th September 1885.
(Rabbi Simchah haLevi was the son-in-law of Rabbi Leib of Lekow, a great friend of the renowned Rabbi Yoseph Baer of Brisk. Together they studied the writings of the holy Ari and composed a book based on their studies, haIlan “The Tree”. Unfortunately, to our sorrow, this work was lost in the holocaust.)
Right from the time of his childhood Rabbi Yehudah Lev Ashlag was destined for greatness. His son, Rabbi Baruch Shalom Ashlag tells that once, when his father was but seven years old he was lying on his bed when suddenly a book fell off the bookshelf onto his head. When he asked his father what that book was, his father replied that it was a book intended for angels, not for human beings. The young boy answered, “Since this book has been printed, that implies it is meant for every person.” His father however insisted, saying, “but it is not for you.” The child, however, did not accept his father’s answer, but felt that if the book had been printed then it was surely intended for anyone. From that time on he began to study the book, which was a book of the Kabbalah, and its holy light illumined his heart and soul.
His mother of blessed memory was a firm educationalist and she would never beat her children when they were naughty for she felt that at the time when the incident happened, because of her anger she was involved, to some extent, with her own ego. So she would wait some days, and then she would mention to the child his wrongdoing, at which time she would hit him in order to educate him. This was the educational framework into which Rabbi Ashlag was born and certainly it must have influenced his incredible personality.
Mrs Batsheva Reichard, a daughter of the Baal haSulam, relates: “Until the age of ten my father had been an only child. He was exceptionally gifted. His parents spoiled him to some extent; however, they took care to ensure that he was brought up nicely. They would make him go to bed on time, but he would only pretend that he was asleep, and once his parents slept he would get up, light a lamp and study until the dawn.”
So our teacher grew in the way of holiness and purity. His soul yearned for God from the earliest age, longing for the hidden, the exalted, the concealed. He rejoiced in feelings and thoughts that it was possible for a person to come to unity with God. He yearned to know that which is truly important—the way of faith in God.
Rabbi Ashlag, as a youth, studied in the Yeshivah (Seminary) of Gur which is in Warsaw, and from the dawn of his youth breathed only the atmosphere of Torah. His labour in Torah was really superhuman, his perseverance and labour was renowned, and he would sleep very little. He would not let his body dictate how much sleep he got, but fought with himself to subdue the demands of the body, so that he could progress on the pathway to affinity of form with the Divine. His brilliance in his Torah studies was such that by the time he was fourteen years old he was proficient both in the Talmud and in the commentaries.
His son, Rabbi Baruch Shalom tells, “My father, the Baal haSulam, began to study the Kabbalah in his youth. Since he did not want anyone in the Yeshivah to notice, he would pull pages from the book, the Etz Chaim (Tree of Life) of the Ari, and slip them between the leaves of his Talmud. When someone would come he would turn over the page and continue learning the Talmud… .”
Once he told of himself that when he was fifteen he was so devoted to the attribute of truth that he was incapable of telling a lie. His work on his attributes was continuous—always exerting himself to behave as a person behaves who is in the presence of a great King.
Rabbi Azriel Chayim Lemburger: “One time, our teacher, the Baal haSulam, told me, ‘At eleven years of age I began to learn books that taught ethics (musar). I did not move from one book to the next book until I had put the first book into practice and it had become second nature to me. By the age of eighteen I was already an “Adam” (Man).’ ”
The meaning of the concept “Adam” is explained by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in the tractate Yebamot in the Talmud: “You are called ‘Adam’, whereas those who serve false gods are not called ‘Adam’. This is explained by the Baal haSulam as follows: “ ‘Adam’ is from the phrase ‘Adameh laElyon’—‘I will resemble the Most High.’ A person who seeks to emulate God in His mercy, and in His compassion, is called ‘Adam’.”
Rabbi Azriel Lemberger’s father, Rabbi Moshe Baruch Lemberger, of blessed memory, once told that the Baal haSulam had informed him that by the age of twenty-four he no longer had any desire to receive for himself alone.
So he continued to progress in the knowledge of Torah and in work on his virtues with a great and awesome labour, but with modesty and without any fanfare.
When he reached the age of nineteen he was appointed to the rabbinate by the great Rabbis of Warsaw. At that period, the Polish authorities required the Rabbis to know Russian in order for them to obtain their Rabbinical certificate. This did not bother him at all; he learnt the Russian language in a short time and received the certificate. He served as a Judge (Dayan) in the Rabbinical court and served as a Rabbi for the next sixteen years in Warsaw, which at that time, was a great center for Torah learning. During this period he published his first book, Sichot Chayim “Living discourses” in which he wrote about the works and teachings of the great Sage of Morgalintzia.
In the year 5666 when Rabbi Yehudah Ashlag was twenty years of age he married Rivkah Raiza Abramovitz to whom he was distantly related. His wife was sixteen years old at the time of their wedding. She came from the township of Prosov. She bore him eleven children, of whom eight survived. Their firstborn became our teacher, Rabbi Baruch Shalom Ashlag; the other children being Rabbi Yaakov Ashlag, Rabbi Shlomo Binyamin Ashlag, Rabbi Moshe Menachem Aharon Ashlag, Mrs Sara Bodchek, Mrs Batsheva Reichbard, Mrs Devorah Weizman and Mrs Menuchah Verdiger.
Mrs Batsheva Reichbard tells, “In Poland at that time, it was the custom for the young married Talmudic students to be supported by their father-in-law, if the father-in-law was a man of means. This left the young scholars free to carry on with their intensive study of Torah. Indeed, my mother’s parents, who were very wealthy, supported the young couple in Prosov. However, the behavior of their son-in-law-seemed very strange to them; he would arise every night at one in the morning to serve the Creator. This was unlike a normal householder who would arise at the dawn. My father was totally engrossed in Torah and in prayer; he did not pay attention to anything else. My grandparents began to show their displeasure openly and tried to turn my mother against her husband. My parents suffered greatly from their opposition and so they decided to leave Prosov and move to Warsaw.
“Whilst in Warsaw my father continued his study of Torah and his practice of intense service to God. From time to time he would travel to his teacher, the Sage of Kaloshin, with whom he would stay for three months at a time, completely engrossed in his learning, before returning home. In practice, all her life, my mother was the one who financed the household. She took care of the children’s needs, and of their clothing; she even found the money for their dowries herself. Later on she helped sell my father’s books. She did everything on her own, because even though her parents were wealthy, they did not wish to help at all. My father never held money in his hand and never knew what a coin was.”
This next story, told by Rabbi Baruch Shalom Ashlag, tells of the great poverty that reigned in the household. “At that time in Warsaw, when it came to the festival of Succot (Tabernacles) no one built their own private succah (festive booth), but they would build large succot that were used by the whole community together. Naturally, only the men sat in the communal succah and my mother would send in food for her husband via one of the children. However, the fact was that there was hardly anything to eat.
Since my mother did not want their great poverty known by all the community, she used to make a tremendous effort to get a little extra money with which she would buy good food, so she could send a nice portion to my father in the succah. My father, who knew the real situation, would just taste a tiny bit and then send the whole portion back home so that the children could have something to eat.
Mrs Batsheva Reichbard, the daughter of Rabbi Ashlag relates: “At the Sabbath table, at which my father presided, there was absolute quiet, even awe. My revered father would sit at the head of the table like a burning flame; the holiness of the Sabbath burning within him as if he was an angel of God. Are there people like this today, who sit at the Sabbath table, with absolutely no interest in food, but with mystical union with God gushing through their veins? Food for my father was only a means by which to fulfill God’s commandments. Aside from this it held no interest for him. All of the children, from the very youngest to the eldest, knew not to talk, not to say anything, so as not to disturb our father. Even children as young as a year old already understood they should be quiet. If a child was late for the Sabbath meal, his place was not kept for him.“The disciples would come to my father’s holy table, at which point he would discourse on the Torah, his entire being burning with the fire of holiness.”
Sheltering in the shadow of his teachers: The Sages of Kaloshin, Prosov and Belz
In his youth our teacher was a disciple of the Sage of Kaloshin, Rabbi Meir Shalom Rabinovitz (a grandson of the holy Jew, Yitzhak Yaakov Rabinovitz). Rabbi Ashlag would come every night, at two in the morning, to learn with the Sage. He told that the holy Sage of Kaloshin would be awake all through the night of Sabbath eve pacing up and down in his room, filled with the love of God, saying one sentence throughout the night, HaShem hu HaElohim, Ein Od Milvado! (The Lord is God, there is none other than the One!)
Following the death of the Sage of Kaloshin, the young Rabbi Ashlag became the student of his son, Rabbi Yehoshua Asher of Prosov. Since he recognized the holy stature of Rabbi Ashlag, the Prosover Rebbe would often sit Rabbi Ashlag near him.
On the last festival of Succot of his life, Rabbi Ashlag told that even though the son of the Sage of Kaloshin had been made a spiritual leader following the death of his holy father, nevertheless he did not immediately become his disciple. Three years later, following a dream he had, that unusually for him he felt was significant, he decided to change his way. He saw, as in a vision, the Sage of Kaloshin with his son the Rebbe of Prosov, and he, Rabbi Ashlag, was sitting between them. The Sage of Kaloshin pointed to his son and told Rabbi Ashlag to go to him.
Rabbi Ashlag’s granddaughter, Mrs Rachel Levi tells that when her first son was born she asked her holy grandfather to name the child. He told her that he would give the child’s name on the day of the Brit (circumcision ceremony at which the male child receives his name). On the day of the Brit he told her that the name was Yehoshua Asher, naming him for his spiritual father, the holy Sage of Prosov.
Amongst the disciples of the Sage of Prosov were, broadly speaking, two types of people: There were people for whom the propensity to search within themselves for their inner truth was not developed, and therefore it was not relevant to teach them how to serve God according to this path of giving to God, which is designated as being “the way of truth.”. These people the Sage of Prosov taught according to the generally accepted way. This is in accordance with the teaching of Maimonides (chapter ten Hilchot Teshuvah), “When teaching minors, women, and the general population, one only teaches them to serve God from Yirat HaShem (the fear of being separate from God) and with the intention of receiving a reward, until they have grown in wisdom. Then one gradually teaches them, and little by little accustoms them to working for the Torah’s own sake.”
The Prosover Rebbe explained that this dictum of Maimonides refers to people who are only using the female aspects of their personalities and/or their aspect of the child. The feminine principle within a person is that which expresses lack. This is clear from the Hebrew term for the feminine, nekevah—from the word nakev meaning a vessel, implying lack. Thus, a person, whose life is mainly concerned with fulfilling his lacks, that is to say his desires center on how he may receive pleasure and joy, is termed “a woman” or “feminine” in the language of the Sages. The well-known saying: “his strength grew weak as a woman’s” (Rashi Bamidbar 11: 15) refers to a person who does not have the strength to gain control over his will to receive for himself alone, but his will to receive for himself alone rules him, and his concern is taken up with how to fulfill his lacks and his appetites.
As regards the aspect of the child within the person, this aspect is emphasized in people who do not take their spirituality seriously. Just as in the physical world it happens that a child cries a lot because he wants something very much, but after he has been given it he gets tired of it quickly and is soon crying for something else, likewise, in spirituality. The term “minors” as used above indicates people who do not have a strong desire for spirituality; they are like the chaff that is blown before the wind.
However, amongst the disciples of the Rebbe of Prosov there were also a handful of people who were real workers for God, who understood for themselves the meaning of working on oneself. The Rabbi of Prosov instructed these disciples in the true path, the way of giving unconditionally, which is designated as the path of the individual. Amongst these few was our teacher, Rabbi Yehudah Lev Ashlag. The Sage of Prosov taught these outstanding disciples according to the way of Peshiscah-Kotzk and it was in this method that Rabbi Ashlag was educated. These were schools of chassidism which emphasized modesty, learning, strict adherence to the halachah, honest introspection with no self-deception whatsoever.
Rabbi Ashlag’s son, Rabbi Baruch Shalom Ashlag tells that the way of the Sage of Prosov was to keep his real disciples at a distance, not spoiling them or flattering them. The closer the student really was to the Rebbe, the more he pushed him away. When the Sage of Prosov would give out food at the tisch (chassidic gathering) he would routinely skip over the Baal haSulam telling him, “I do not give to you!”
The explanation of this behavior is that people who follow the way of the general community come to look for honor; they imagine that they are working spiritually, but in actual fact they are not prepared to invest their entire life, to the point of self-sacrifice, for the sake of the inner work. Therefore, to such people the Sage of Prosover would give the honor they were looking for. But those disciples, who were sincere in their desire for instruction on how to follow the path to achieve affinity of form with the Almighty, and were prepared to give their all for this purpose, weren’t interested in honor or flattery, on the contrary, they found honor repulsive, since they knew that it only kept them at a distance from the holy Blessed One. So the Sage of Prosov would test them, treating them with disdain to see whether they would nevertheless stay, or whether they would get insulted and leave.
Rabbi Ashlag would travel together with the Sage of Prosov to visit the great Rabbi Yissachar Dov of Belz. On one occasion the Sage of Prosov expressed to him that the Sage of Belz had a soul whose root was in the spiritual world of Atzilut, ( the highest of the spiritual worlds). In those years Rabbi Ashlag progressed greatly in his service to God achieving extremely elevated spiritual. This was through his great self-negation with respect to the Prosover and Belzer Sages.
Rabbi Baruch Shalom tells: “When my father was eighteen years old, the Sage of Prosov once took him to spend the Sabbath with the Sage of Belz. On the Sabbath eve, when the Sage of Belz was about to make Kiddush (welcome the Sabbath with the sanctification over the wine), it was suddenly discovered that one of the children was missing. Straightaway the members of the household searched for the child; when they found him outside they brought him to the Sabbath table. The Belzer Rebbe reprimanded the little child severely on that he had disappeared, and even as he did so he raised his cup and began to make Kiddush. After the meal the Prosover asked Rabbi Ashlag, what did he think about the Kiddush that the Sage of Belz had made? The young Rabbi Ashlag was astonished and said, “How could one make Kiddush without any preparation, and after dealing out such a severe reprimand? The Prosover answered him saying, ‘This is the greatness of the Sage of Belz, that nothing separates him from his union with God.’ This was only a tiny example, but even when much bigger and much more serious incidents happened, the Rabbi of Belz would not budge, by even a hairs’ breadth, from his union with the light of God.” Then Rabbi Baruch Shalom Ashlag added, “and in truth so we saw with my esteemed father, the Baal haSulam, he didn’t require any preparations for study or for prayer,… . Does a person have to prepare to breathe?”
In connection with the above story we can tell what Rabbi Azriel Chayim Lemburger heard from Rabbi David Minzberg: “One Sabbath Eve Rabbi David was present at the house of the Baal haSulam after the service of Kabbalat Shabbat (the special hymns with which we welcome the Sabbath). Only when the Baal haSulam was preparing to make Kiddush did Rabbi David leave to go home. When he got downstairs he found the father of one of the disciples of the Baal haSulam furiously angry, on his way to shout at the Rabbi, because he was drawing his dear son to the “errant” way of the learning of the Kabbalah and the study of the innermost aspect of the Torah. So Rabbi David went up again to the apartment of the Baal haSulam, because he wanted to defend the honor of his holy teacher. But he found this to be unnecessary, as he saw his holy teacher rebuking the father. Then straightway, without missing a beat, the Sage started to make Kiddush. One saw, with one’s own eyes, how all the Rabbi’s acts and his words were taking place whilst in total union with the holy Blessed One, and that nothing moved him from this union.”
On the seventh day of the month of Shvat in the year 5667, (January 1908) a sign of the redemption occurred with the birth of Rabbi Ashlag’s first-born son, the great Sage to be, Rabbi Baruch Shalom. As he grew, his father would take him with on his journeys to the Sages of Prosov and Belz for his education.
Rabbi Baruch Shalom Ashlag told, “Once I travelled with my esteemed father, the Baal haSulam, to Galicia, to visit the Sage of Belz, Rabbi Yissachar Dov, of blessed memory. Whilst we were staying with him the first world war broke out. We stayed a while at the Belzer Rebbe’s because all the roads were blocked; madness and chaos reigned everywhere. No-one knew what the next day would bring. There was no organized transport at all. After some time the Belzer Rebbe told us that we could journey to our destination. There did not seem any logical way to find a safe passage back to Warsaw. But my father had total trust in the words of the holy Sage, and we set out. And it happened that we found a train of soldiers, with which we returned to Warsaw.”
We can bring here a passage written by Rabbi Yehudah Lev Ashlag which was found amongst his papers that touches on his relationship with the Belzer Rebbe, to whom he was devoted.
This passage is one of importance as it describes the high stature that Rabbi Yehudah Lev Ashlag achieved in holiness, and how he began his work for humanity under the direction of the Rabbi of Belz. It is written in an extremely cryptic style and is therefore followed by a detailed teaching by Rabbi Avraham Mordecai Gottlieb explaining it.
It is known that this was a great principle of mine: Can a person who desires to reach his full spiritual potential live without service to God? Or can the desired service to God also be expressed by giving glory to God and by giving thanks to God?
At that time I had no desire to go to the Sage, yet I went even though I was without desire or even connection with the Rabbi of Belz, for I went to see how the Prime Cause would be.
At the very moment that the Sage saw my reality he knew that I was coming.
And remember this amazing thing, that even when Rabbi Ashlag was not connected with the Rebbe of Belz, nonetheless the moment his feet moved outsidehe was filled with wondrous glory and great delight.
I arrived in the middle of the prayer and when the prayer was over, the Sage looked for me amongst the crowd, which was not at all according to his custom. And mockingly he asked, “It seems you have come to receive blessings on leaving the inner wisdom?”1 (Trans. note possibly you are leaving because you are in the spiritual stage of Chayah,)1 And I didn’t understand.
But actually, even whilst I was still in my house I had wondered: How is it possible to grasp the fact of the light ceasing after the Seder night, that makes it possible to start counting the Omer, so that one can prepare oneself for the Receiving of the Law? And a candle at noontime, what significance can it have? (As in the lessening of the moon compared with the sun)) Hullin 60b) Because the state had happened to me that the Scripture describes: “I will keep My loving-kindness for him for ever, and My covenant is certain for him, and I have placed his seed for ever, and his chair as the days of heaven” (Psalm 89:29-30); “And My loving-kindness I will not break from him and I will not betray My faith” (Psalm 89:34). In all possible ways.
And this is what the Sage hinted to me in his parting blessing above. Because really I received it as in a state of mind as on the morrow after the first day of Pesach. Later on in the morning I felt the Sage (that he was alluding to me) when he said the stages were like death and parting.
Following the prayers he gave me the Kiddush cup of wine, wondering at me that I had not left any over from the Kiddush of the Sabbath eve. After that he said that a lion has no need to fear; a bear has need to fear, but not a lion, he has no need to fear. And I was distressed by his words. At the time of the third Sabbath meal following the afternoon prayer, I felt a little doubt concerning him, and I was ashamed.
Following the Melavah Malkah, (a special gathering in chassidic circles following the end of the Sabbath) I felt tremendous sorrow. Chiefly I wondered, are my ways acceptable to God or not? And if they are acceptable to God, why are they not acceptable to my teacher? Can it be possible that God should give me so much praise and my teacher not, but he even denigrates me? I couldn’t sleep all that night. I pondered my ways to see if they were mistaken in any way. I wondered, am I fooling myself, and that aspect, of which there is nothing else higher in reality, really wasn’t present? But there was no other aspect present, other than that of which there is nothing else higher in reality. Therefore, I went over again in my mind, hundreds of times, these three Names that were shining so brightly for me, and I couldn’t see any possibility at all that I could incline after something that was outside holiness. This being the case, it was impossible to deny what I could taste in my mouth and feel in actual physicality.
Yet my faith in my teacher was strong, and since this state was not pleasing to him there must be some defect. So I pondered my ways yet again and I found them to be beautiful. And so it went on, round and round all through the night. And then I made a clear agreement with myself to listen to his words carefully on the matter. If he well recognizes these paths in spirituality, according to their quality and their measure, and he nonetheless decrees not to use them, then I will straightaway obey.
When I arrived at his doorway I felt him stand up from his chair and he began to pace this way and that, this way and that, and I was alarmed. For I knew with absolute certainty that he was doing this spiritual work for my sake. This carried on for about half an hour until I was nearly fainting from the tremor and the dread, from the sound of his sighs caused by his inner work at that extremely high level at that time. And then he straightaway opened the door, and asked me into his room and he asked me what do I want? And I couldn’t open my mouth. And then he said to me, as if he was answering his own question, that I must arouse him in what I want from him. And then I blurted out that I want to receive the light in the right way. Then he sat on the chair and expounded the Torah of “one for the sin-offering and one for the burnt-offering” (Parshat Mezora) and he said, that it seemed to him that he had expounded this Torah on that Sabbath afternoon specifically for me. After that he asked me if I felt his persecution of me during the Sabbath and he said to me that it is not correct to go either with enlightenments or with words (transitory stages of holiness). Then he told me the Torah on, “When I lay down at night” (Song of Songs, also Perush HaSulam Parshat Tazria para one). And he asked me if I understood, and I answered that I didn’t understand, and he told it to me a second time and I said that I didn’t understand at all. (And really I couldn’t understand the issue of the night because the sun was shining for me.) And then he said, “Search here well and you will find, because here is to be found this whole secret.”
And whilst he said this he said to me, “Have you forgotten what I have taught you several times, that it is forbidden to use any enlightenment?” And he began to tell me that same article concerning the seed from which much good springs because of the way that wheat is sown. And then I could no longer refrain. I knew that the light I had received was an eternal light and it was like a kosher animal that is eaten. And I interrupted his holy words—which is the first time in my entire life that such a thing happened to me—and I said to him that was it not so that he had already promised me according to the Scripture that we read on Rosh HaShanah (Genesis 21:24) “I have sworn it.” At that moment he stood up from his chair and said, “I have no more strength.”
Here is Rabbi Avraham Mordecai Gottlieb’s teaching on this article:
It is known that this was a great principle of the Baal haSulam, who had come to a state of unity (dvekut) with the Creator, may the One be Blessed, and was in a conscious state of great light. Yet can a person who desires to reach his full spiritual potential live without service to God? For if a person is in union with the great light, then he is at a stage where there is no work, for the most important work take place when the person is in the modality of faith, which belongs to a higher paradigm than that of knowledge. In the spiritual state the Baal haSulam was in, the state of faith is not applicable. (This is because when a person has reached dvekut he no longer has to believe in God, because he can now experience the light of God as a living reality. That is he now using the modality of knowledge.) Or can the desired service to God also be expressed by giving glory to God and by giving thanks to God? The Baal haSulam raises up the possibility that when a person is in unity with the highest light then the only service to God one can do is to bless and praise the Creator, and there is no work here that belongs to the paradigm of faith above knowledge?
At that time I had no desire to go to the Sage, that is the Rabbi of Belz. Rabbi Ashlag had no desire, because the Rabbi of Belz had already warned him not to attract the Or Elyon (the light that comes directly from the Creator and is associated with the Purpose of Creation) Yet he went and journeyed, even without desire, and even without any aware connection with the Rebbe of Belz, because he was not in the same conscious state as the Rabbi of Belz, for he went to see how the Prime Cause would be able to join together his conscious state, which was completely illuminated with the Or Elyon, with that of the Sage of Belz, who had already warned him not to attract this state of consciousness.
At the very moment that the Sage saw my inner reality he knew that I was coming. The Rabbi of Belz saw the inner spiritual state of the Baal haSulam with his divine insight, even though the Baal haSulam had not yet arrived physically. Nevertheless the Sage of Belz had already comprehended the inner reality of Rabbi Ashlag and knew that he was journeying towards him. And remember this amazing thing, that even when Rabbi Ashlag was not connected with the Rebbe of Belz (because of the difference in their states of consciousness) nonetheless, the moment his feet moved outside he was filled with wondrous glory and great delight. That is, once he had made the move to go to his Rabbi, he was filled with great joy, because his great love for his Rabbi, especially since it was founded on faith, brought him to this joy.
When Rabbi Ashlag arrived in Belz they were in the middle of prayer, that is to say that they were in the state of consciousness associated with lack (that arouses prayer); but our teacher, the Baal haSulam, was completely filled with light and was thus not in a state of pain or suffering (that causes a person to pray). When the prayer was over, the Sage looked for him amongst the crowd, which was not at all according to his custom. And mockingly he asked, “It seems you have come to receive blessings on leaving the inner wisdom?” The Rabbi of Belz uses the language of separation to the Baal haSulam because of the separation between them. The Rabbi of Belz was in the state of consciousness which is characterized by faith and by the Or d’Chassadim, the (light of loving-kindness —the light which pertains to the tikkun of the creation), whereas the Baal haSulam had attained the Or d’Chochmah, (light of wisdom, synonymous with the Or Elyon—the light that pertains to the Purpose of Creation). And I didn’t understand. Because, from his part, the Baal haSulam couldn’t see any separation, as he was not receiving the light for himself alone, God forbid, but all his receiving of the light was completely with the intention of giving pleasure to the Creator. But actually, even whilst I was still in my house, —the Baal haSulam here hints at his state of consciousness, that he had attained the Or d’Chochmah, the light of wisdom, according to the Scriptural phrase, “the house will be built through wisdom” (Prov. 24,3)—I pondered, “How is it possible to grasp the fact of the light ceasing after the Seder night?” The Ari teaches1 (shaar hakavanot) that the light of the Or d’Chochmah is manifest to the full on the first night of the Passover (Seder night). This light is the spiritual light of Chayah. But it does not remain present for the second night of thePassover,because on Seder night it comes from Above,irrespective of the spiritual state of the souls. But the Most High wants the souls to rectify themselves from their part, and therefore this high light leaves and we have the work of the counting of the Omer, which is the fifty days’ preparation, starting from the second day of the Passover, leading up to the Giving of the Law on the festival of Weeks (Shavuot). So the Baal haSulam asks, “How is it possible to grasp the fact of the light ceasing after the Seder night, that makes it possible to start counting the Omer so one can prepare oneself for the Receiving of the Law? A candle at noontime what significance can it have? In other words, the little lights of rectification (Or d'Chassadim) that come in the vessels of the Counting of the Omer are not even worth mentioning when compared to the mighty light that the Baal haSulam had attained as a permanent state of consciousness. Because the state happened to me that the Scripture describes: “I will keep My loving-kindness for him for ever, and My covenant is certain for him, and I have place his seed forever and his chair as in the days of heaven” (Psalm 89:29-30); and “My loving-kindness I will not break from him and I will not betray My faith”( Psalm 89:34) The Baal haSulam had reached his complete tikkun (rectification of his soul) according to the inner meaning of the phrase, “the Knower of all secrets testifies for him that he will never again revert to his foolishness” (Hilchot Teshuvah 1, Rambam). He had merited to attain the light of Chayah of the world of Atzilut, and now the framework of evil had no power over him at all, since his entire being was directed solely in the modality of receiving with the intention of giving pleasure to the Creator. In all possible ways.—This implies that whatever the situation, the Baal haSulam’s state of dvekut (unity) with the Creator could never leave him. It had become eternal.
And this is what the Sage hinted to me in his parting blessing above. The Sage hinted to the Baal haSulam when he gave him a blessing that this was a blessing of parting. It appears that as the Baal haSulam had achieved this high level of light of the Or d’Chochmah he had become separated from the state of the Rabbi of Belz, because he no longer need him as a teacher.
The issue is that there are stages of a person’s spiritual journey: one is called “the embryonic state” and the other the state of birth. So long as the student is self-effacing with respect to his teacher he receives the vessels of his teacher and needs to obey his instructions. This is designated as being the state of the embryo. But once he is born, he discovers for himself what his own lacks are, then he is separated from the teacher as he works to correct his own lacks himself, through his own work. Because really I received it as on the morrow after the first day of Pesach.
Later on in the morning I felt the Sage (that he was alluding to me). He said these spiritual stages were like death and parting. The Sage of Belz hinted to him that these spiritual levels could bring the one who receives them to spiritual death, similar to that which occurred at “the shattering of the vessels”. The shattering of the vessels was an event in the evolution of the spiritual worlds wherein the vessels inadvertently attracted to themselves more light than they were able to receive for the sake of giving benefit, and thus they received for themselves alone, which is the spiritual equivalent of death and separation. A similar event occurred with the sin of Adam, who had the intention of doing all the necessary rectification that would bring the creation to its final tikkun. But this was the counsel of the snake, because Adam did not have the capability to direct his intention that his receiving should only be for the sake of giving benefit on such a huge vessel of receiving and thus when he ate the apple brought separation on himself.
Following the prayers, the Rabbi of Belz gave me the Kiddush cup of wine, wondering at me that I had not left any over from the Kiddush of the Sabbath eve. The Kiddush cup of wine hints at the light of Chayah. The Belzer Rebbe when he remarks that our teacher, the Baal haSulam, had not left anything over from the Sabbath eve he implies that he had drunk it all. This was incorrect in the view of the Sage of Belz, as his view was that one should not use the high spiritual states associated with the Purpose of Creation, (symbolized here by drinking all the wine) but our teacher was sure that he was acting correctly since his receiving of the light was entirely with the intention of giving.
Then the Belzer Rebbe said a lion has no need to fear; a bear has need to fear, but not a lion, he has no need to fear. “Lion” refers to the Baal haSulam whose middle name “Leib “ means a lion, and the bear refers to the Sage of Belz whose name was Yissachar Dov, “Dov” means a bear. The Belzer Rebbe spoke with sarcasm, saying that it appears that the Baal haSulam is not afraid of any defect happening in his work, and the proof of this is that he receives the light of the Purpose of Creation, whereas he, the Belzer Rebbe does not draw to himself such great lights, and is satisfied with the light of the tikkun of Creation, expressed by the fear of being separated from God. And I was distressed by his words. The Baal haSulam saw that his teacher did not agree with his spiritual state and he could not understand why this was, since his work was entirely with the intention of giving benefit. At the time of the third Sabbath meal following the afternoon prayer, I felt a little doubt concerning him, I wondered if my teacher had actually apprehended these high spiritual states, and I was ashamed.
Following the Melavah Malkah, (a special gathering in chassidic circles following the end of the Sabbath) I felt tremendous sorrow. Chiefly I wondered, Are my ways acceptable to God or not? And since they are acceptable to God, and the proof of this is that God had given to the Baal haSulam such great divine lights, why are they not acceptable to my teacher? Can it be possible that God should give me so much praise and my teacher not, but he even denigrates me? I couldn’t sleep all that night. I pondered my ways to see if they were mistaken in any way. I wondered, am I fooling myself? Maybe I am not receiving the light solely with the intention of giving benefit to the Creator, and that aspect, of which there is nothing else higher in reality, really wasn’t present? Therefore I went over again in my mind, hundreds of times, these three Names of God that were shining so brightly for me. These are the aspects of the left-hand line, the right-hand line and the middle line of the light of Chayah, and I couldn’t see any possibility at all that I could incline after something that was outside holiness, that is that this great light should go out to external forces, in other words, that I could possibly receive this light for myself alone. And this being the case, it was impossible to deny what I could taste in my mouth and feel in actual physicality.
Yet my faith in my teacher was strong and since this state was not pleasing to him there must be some defect. So I pondered my ways yet again and I found them to be beautiful, that is all the receiving was only for the sake of giving benefit, and so it went on round and round all through the night.
And then I made a clear agreement with myself to listen to the Rebbe of Belz’s words on the matter. If he well recognizes these paths in spirituality according to their quality and their measure that is if he knows them entirely, including all three lines, and he nonetheless decrees not to use them, then I will straightaway obey.
When I arrived at his doorway I felt him stand up from his chair that is the Rabbi of Belz pulled towards him the great light of the Purpose of Creation and he began to pace this way and that, this way and that, which refers to the right-hand line and the left-hand line and I was alarmed. For I knew with absolute certainty that he was doing this spiritual work for my sake. This carried on for about half an hour until I was nearly fainting from the tremor and dread, and from the sound of his sighs caused by his inner work at that extremely high level at that time. All this the Rabbi of Belz did in order to show the Baal haSulam that he himself did know fully the light of Chayah that was shining for the Baal haSulam.
And then he straightaway opened the door, and asked me into his room and he asked me what do I want? And I couldn’t open my mouth. And then he said to me, as if he was answering his own question, that I must arouse him in what I want from him. And then I blurted out that I want to receive a the light in the right way. The Baal haSulam is asking the Rebbe of Belz to draw to himself the light of Chayah in the correct way so that he could know if the light of Chayah that he himself had apprehended was drawn to him in the right way.
Then he sat on the chair and expounded the Torah of “one for the sin-offering and one for the burnt-offering” (Parshat Mezora) These are the sacrifices of which neither the priests or the owners of the animals, who had brought the sacrifices, eat any portion. This means that the Rabbi of Belz is telling him that he must give up this great light. And he said that it seemed to him that he expounded this Torah on that Sabbath afternoon specifically for me. So that the Baal haSulam would know that he should offer up this great spiritual attainment as one offers up incense on the altar and burn it entirely, as was done with these particular sacrifices in the Temple. After that he asked me if I had felt his persecution of me during the Sabbath, and he said to me that it is not correct to go with enlightenments or with “words”. That is, not to remain with spiritual stages which are temporary (in the sense that sooner or later the vessel has to let go of this particular spiritual stage in order to carry on with the spiritual work) and that it was more correct to work with the Or d’Chassadim (light of loving-kindness and faith which are permanent lights and never have to be let go of.) And after that he told me the Torah on “When I lay down at night, I sought that whom my soul loves, I sought him but I did not find him” (Song of Songs, also Perush HaSulam Parshat Tazria para one). And he asked me if I understood and I answered that I didn’t understand, and he told it to me a second time and I said that I didn’t understand at all. (And really I couldn’t understand the issue of the night because the sun was shining for me). “Lying down” implies the light of the tikkun of Creation, which is a lesser light, whereas the Baal haSulam felt the Divine light to the utmost. And then he said, “Search here well and you will find, because here is to be found this whole secret. That is to say that a person has to agree to only use the light of the tikkun of Creation, even if he has the ability of attaining the lights of the purpose of Creation for the sake of giving benefit, which are much greater lights. And whilst he said this he said to me, “Have you forgotten what I have taught you many times, that it is forbidden to use any enlightenment?” And he began to tell me that same article which talks of the inner work that is carried out in the same way that seed is sown for growing wheat and this way is a way which brings about much good. Sowing the seed implies letting go and tikkun, as all seed needs to rot for the new wheat to germinate from it. Likewise in spirituality, we need to let go and start afresh to allow the new to come forth.
And then I could no longer refrain. I knew that the light I had received was an eternal light. The Baal haSulam knew that all he had received was for the sake of giving and that from its essence he knew that it was eternal and it was like a kosher animal that is eaten and not, God forbid, like a non-kosher animal from which it is forbidden to eat. And I interrupted his holy words—which is the first time in my entire life that such a thing happened to me—and I said to him was it not so that he had already promised me according to the Scripture that we read on Rosh haShanah “And Abraham said, ‘I have sworn it?’” (Genesis 21:24) The inner meaning of the verse implies a total commitment to dvekut that has come through complete purification and cleansing which are not liable to cease. At that moment the Rabbi of Belz stood up from his chair and said “I have no more strength.”
The end of this amazing article is missing to our sorrow. However it is certain that our teacher, the Baal haSulam accepted the way of the Rabbi of Belz, as we see that he committed to letting go of this great light if he saw that his teacher did not approve. Furthermore, we know that when he planned to emigrate from Poland to Israel, the Sage of Prosov told him that in the land of Israel one loses all one’s spiritual lights. But the Baal haSulam answered him saying that he was not looking for spiritual lights, but for work. This is in accordance with the teaching of the Sage of Belz above.
It is for such a man who, acting entirely with the modality of faith according to the verse, “not so my servant Moses, in all my house he is faithful” (Numbers 12,7), to the extent of foregoing the greatest possible joy, that the highest lights of all are revealed.
End of Tikkun
Rabbi Azriel Chaim Lemburger tells of an incident he heard from Rabbi David Minzberger, one of the Baal haSulam’s closest pupils in Jerusalem: Towards the end of the Sage of Prosover’s life, his three greatest disciples approached him, one of whom was the Baal haSulam. They told the Sage, by way of a hint, that they had finished all their own personal inner work for their self-rectification. The Sage asked them, “And what do you intend to do?” The other two students stayed silent, but our holy teacher answered, “I intend to find other work for myself.” Then the Sage of Prosov responded, “It is true that you have finished your work, but only you, (and he pointed to the Baal haSulam) may take on pupils.” When they were outside the Sage’s room, the other two students turned to our teacher saying, “After all that we have been through, laboring so hard, what, to start all over again?! We have nothing left to look for in this world, because we have finished all our work.” And it happened that within less than a fortnight these two pupils of the Prosover Rebbe passed away. But our holy teacher gathered a band of young students around him and began to give over the teachings.”
At this time the Baal haSulam was already assiduously learning the wisdom of the Kabbalah until he was familiar with the writings of the Ari, the book of the Zohar and the writings of Rabbi Moses Cordovero. Quietly, he began teaching lessons on these writings to a band of young men who were dedicating their lives to serving God. They would learn, starting at one o’ clock in the morning. Rabbi Ashlag made the condition that they should not reveal to anyone that they were learning from these books and that he was giving over such lessons.
The holy Sage of Prosov died on 19th Tishrei, during the festival of Succot (Tabernacles). His yarzheit (anniversary of his death) is the day on which, by tradition, Aaron the High Priest is the holy spiritual guest in the Succah. So the Baal haSulam, as did his son Rabbi Baruch Shalom Ashlag after him, always held a large gathering with many participants on that day. Furthermore, that day is also the yarzheit of the holy Jew of Pschischa who was the grandfather of the Prosover Rebbe and the founder of the school of chassidism that the Baal haSulam adhered to.
“Walk modestly with your God,” (Michah 6:8)
Rabbi Baruch Shalom tells that his father had the custom of awakening every night and learning until dawn. If he would fall asleep he would “punish” his body by putting his feet in icy water. He preferred to suffer physically than to fall asleep.
He also told of an incident thst occurred when the members of the congregation in Warsaw noticed there was this holy man in their midst, and they started to admire him. When our teacher saw this he decided to act to put a stop to such admiration, because he wanted all his deeds to be carried out according to the principle of “walking modestly”. So when he got to the Beit haMidrash (study-house) and heard the men praising him, he got up and said in a loud voice, “And do you think that I just follow my animal instincts like you do, and spend all my nights asleep? I awaken the dawn and the dawn does not awaken me! And not just this night, but every single night…!” When people heard this, they grew angry and straightaway lost their reverence for him, because they all understood that he was a man of great pride… .
Rabbi Azriel Chayim Lemburger told: The Rabbanit, Mrs Rivkah Raiza, the wife of our holy teacher told me: “The Rabbi was hidden from the world completely. The world did not recognize him at all, because he was modest in all his ways. But I knew him, and I can tell you that at midnight, when he would get up to study, he would put sharp stones from the oven in his shoes, or he would put his feet in a water with ice so that he wouldn’t fall asleep.”
Mrs Bathsheva Reichbard, the daughter of the Baal haSulam added: “My holy father was physically a very strong man, and therefore he actually needed a lot of sleep. However, he did not give in to his body and would do every possible tactic in the world so that he would awaken at one o’ clock in the morning. And I remember many times, when my brother, Rabbi Baruch Shalom, as a youth, would stay awake until one o’ clock in the morning, in order to awaken his father for his daily work and learning.”
We must ask ourselves, How is it possible to achieve such a high level of dedication to spiritual work? But it all hinges on one thing: the more a person considers the Creator as important, the more he or she is ready to sacrifice in order to do the will of the One. Thus the purpose of one’s spiritual work is to be able to hold the Creator in high esteem, and it is on this that a person needs to focus his work on, whether during prayer or study or in any other situation he or she finds himself or herself in. A person needs to pray that God should help him, that the Creator should grant him or her the capacity to believe in His greatness.
Rabbi Moshe Mordecai Shultz, the great pupil of our teacher
Outstanding amongst the students was a Jew named Rabbi Moshe Mordecai Shultz, may his memory be for a blessing.
Rabbi Moshe Mordecai studied with our teacher in the Yeshivah of Gur when they were still only youths. Subsequently, as a young married man he became one of the most important of the chassidim of Gur and he sat at the holy table of the Sage of Gur, Avraham Mordecai Alter, the author of the work Imrei Emet. (Gur at that time was a great center for chassidism; before the holocaust it had more than one hundred thousand adherents.) Rabbi Moshe Mordecai was the leader of a band of about forty disciples in Gur, which testifies to his great standing amongst the chassidim of Gur. In due time Rabbi Ashlag received him as a pupil and as a study partner (chevruta). He was outstanding. Rabbi Ashlag made one request of him, and that was not to divulge anything of their learning to anyone. After they had commenced learning together he recommended him to continue to go to Gur as always. Rabbi Moshe Mordecai cleaved to our teacher with all his heart and soul, but from his great love for him simply could not refrain from revealing about him to the chassidim of Gur. Because of his promise to the Baal haSulam he managed to restrain himself for a couple of months, but on the third month, while he was waiting with the other chassidim for the Sage of Gur to come to the table, he stood up, banged on the table, and cried out, “My fellow Jews, why are you asleep? We have such an important and holy Jew in the world! If you want to see him you must come with me.” Naturally, these words provoked a great storm amongst the chassidim. When the Baal haSulam heard what had happened, he straightaway packed up and went to live in another city. But from then began all the persecutions that he suffered subsequently.
So enormous was the wave that Rabbi Moshe Mordecai’s proclamation made, that many years later, when Rabbi Avraham Mordecai Alter, the Sage of Gur was in Jerusalem, (he miraculously escaped from Poland in the middle of the second world war,1) the students of the Baal haSulam came to him to request an endorsement for their Rabbi’s holy books, his son, Rabbi Israel Alter, who was present, remarked, “I still remember the incident with Rabbi Moshe Mordecai… .”
Rabbi Moshe Mordecai used to carry out ascetic practices in order to negate his bodily appetites. When this became known to the Baal haSulam he instructed him to desist from these practices, because practices that are connected with limiting one’s eating and drinking tend to increase a person’s pride. He told him that if he desired an ascetic practice he could give him one of a different nature. He instructed him to go into the city (Warsaw) and collect alms. Rabbi Moshe Mordecai was a very respected Jew in Warsaw, and this instruction that he got from our holy teacher was a real ascetic practice for him, to such an extent that after a few times of going out begging he had to stop, because he couldn’t stand it anymore.
Rabbi Moshe Mordecai remained in connection with our holy teacher who he loved and revered with all his heart. After the Baal haSulam had emigrated from Poland and had gone to the holy Land they constantly communicated by letters. From the handful that have come to us we can see a beautiful web of love and unity between the Rabbi and his pupil, woven in true service to God in depth and in infinite delight.
Here follows an excerpt taken from one of the letters which Rabbi Ashlag wrote to Rabbi Moshe Mordecai Shultz. From the advice that Rabbi Ashlag gives him we can understand that Rabbi Shultz had attained an extremely high level of spirituality indeed. Rabbi Gottlieb explains the process:
A person must first of all arrive at a spiritual state wherein he lives a healthy and natural life, in which he has a healthy and good self-esteem and in which he feels happy with himself. This is a state of mind which is associated with the spiritual state called the right hand line, or the line of faith. (See further on in the book for explanation of the right-hand line.) In order to acquire this state a person works on his faith that God created the world as being whole, including himself, and that all his qualities are ultimately good and full of worth, and that he has positive and good virtues. Only once this right-hand side is well established then he comes to the left-hand line. The left-hand line consists of the side of self-criticism and of truth.
Then a person needs to learn that the whole purpose of the spiritual work is to come to the love of one’s fellow man. Gradually he begins to perceive that he is far from this, until finally at the end of a very gradual process he sees just how far away he is from this in reality until he comes to the feeling that he is the worst person in the world. But of course this is a very gradual process because we are not talking about information but about an actual feeling. One cannot come to this understanding until the healthy self-esteem of the right-hand side is well established.
Rabbi Ashlag wrote to Rabbi Moshe Mordecai in a letter dated from the year 1927 (Pri Chacham part two page 75)
You should know that I am your most faithful and constant friend. And I counsel you that you should not in any way rectify the outer aspects of your self but only the innermost aspects of yourself which require tikkun. And the main reason why the innermost aspect of a person gets spoilt is from the sins which heap up—that is the will to receive for oneself alone, the sign of which is the ego and the pride. And this ego is not afraid of all the ascetic practices in the world! On the contrary it loves them, because the pride and the ego increase and are strengthened by these ascetic practices. However, if you want to purge away your sins you have to deal with the negation of the ego instead of carrying out ascetic practices. That is to say you need to feel for yourself that you are lowest and worst of all the inhabitants of the world. One needs to learn and have great wisdom in order to understand this. And one has each time to test oneself to check he is not deceiving or misleading himself, and it is helpful also to humble oneself in actual practice before one’s companion. (Rabbi Ashlag is referring to a study companion).
(Translator’s note: The reader here has to understand that Rabbi Ashlag is giving advice to a student of great spiritual attainment. This is not advice for the average person. The understanding required here is that only when the person has truly attained free choice, that is to say he now has understanding and control over his will to receive, in all its manifestations, yet he still he falls, then he knows and feels himself to be the worst person in the world. Since we judge everybody else mercifully we must assume that when other people stumble and fall it is because they are unconscious or have no free will in the matter. Only for himself can the person know that he is in separation from the Creator, and thus he feels himself to be worse than his fellow human-being.)
There is a letter which our teacher wrote whilst in Warsaw, (after he had emigrated to the holy land he journeyed once to Warsaw) in which he tells Rabbi Moshe Mordecai how he tried to organize for him a visa to get to the holy Land via Beirut. Unfortunately Rabbi Moshe Mordecai Shultz perished in the Holocaust as did most of the Gur Chassidim. (Pri Chacham letters page 53).
Fish for the Sabbath
Rabbi Baruch Shalom Ashlag tells that his father was very particular about obtaining fish for the Sabbath table despite his extreme poverty. It happened one time in 1915, that he was unable to obtain fish in honour of the Sabbath. Then he heard that it was possible to obtain fish from the Vistula River where it flowed in a part of Poland that was, at that time ,under the rule of the Germans. Despite all the dangers, he went, accompanied by a translator, and when he got there they allowed him to get fish from the river.
One needs to ask, what is this about? Of course there is a halachah which states that a person should take pains to supply the necessities for the Sabbath. There are two questions we need to ask: 1) Why did the Rabbi go to such extreme lengths to get fish for the Sabbath day, even though it is a mitzvah to supply the needs of the Sabbath, surely this implies doing what is reasonable. 2) In what way is his action different from any other Jew who wishes to supply the needs for the Sabbath in the best possible way?
A similar question arises in the life of Rabbi Baruch Shalom Ashlag when his daughter was taken ill with cancer, he recited Psalms for her. Again we need to ask, what greatness is shown here? Surely every Jew in a similar situation would do as much!
In order to answer this we will look at a parable that Rabbi Baruch Shalom used to relate: Levi met his old friend Reuven. Levi asked Reuven where he lived now. Reuven answered him, telling him his present address. Levi’s eyes grew round with surprise when he heard where his friend was now living. “Surely that’s where Shimon, the infamous criminal is living. He must be making your life a misery! Reuven replied, “I really don’t know what you are talking about … I have no complaints at all about my good neighbor Shimon. I don’t know why you are telling such stories about him! Levi grew astonished, “But surely Shimon’s wickedness is known by everyone. Tell me, how do you manage between you?” Reuven replied, “Whenever I go to the grocery store I ask him if he needs me to bring him something from there, also when I go to the vegetable store, actually, wherever I go anywhere I always ask if there is anything I can do for him, such that I try to fulfil his needs and even give his wants priority over mine.” Levi laughed, “Now I understand… since you serve him with all your heart, of course he doesn’t make trouble for you, but just try one time to do something contrary to his will and just see what will happen… .”
The moral of the story is as follows: When a person keeps Torah and mitzvot in order to receive a reward, either in this world or in the next world, then his will to receive for himself alone doesn’t bother him at all, on the contrary, it encourages him to fulfil the mitzvot in the best possible way. It feels content, because it is profiting by the person’s acts. But when a person wants to fulfill Torah and mitzvot not in order to get a reward, then the will to receive starts to oppose him and begins to wage war on him. Then the wickedness of the ego becomes obvious in that it doesn’t want to give anything to the framework of holiness and even over small issues it wages war on the person. Concerning this the Sages said: The greater a person is, the greater his evil inclination is.” (Succah 52a) Therefore, our teacher, Rabbi Baruch Shalom Ashlag writes in his articles that for servants of God who walk in the way of truth, whihc is the way of giving unconditionally, there is a an inner battle over even simple acts, since the ego becomes very smart and questions, “Who is God that I should listen to His voice?” and “What does this service give you?” (These are the questions asked by Pharaoh of Egypt and by the wicked son in the Haggadah of Pesach). All this only occurs when a person wants to fulfil the Torah and mitzvot because he believes in God as the root of all and that he has faith in the Creator and not in order to fulfill his self-love. However, those who fulfill the Torah and mitzvot because they feel they will gain personally from so doing have great strength and forces available for them to call on, as the ego participates in their work, and so they are able to do many good deeds with wonderful energy… .
And this is what is written: “I remember God and I sigh when I see every city built, standing on its hill, but the city of God is cast down to the depths.” (Poem from the prayers at the close of Yom Kippur) Explanation: “A city” (עיר) is from the language of awakeningto the service of God (ער) and therefore one who serves God looks at himself and wonders: Why is it when I awake up to serve God on the basis of self-serving I have energy, but when I wake up to do God’s work on the basis of serving the One on the grounds that He is the root of all and lets me come to Him in faith, then it feels like ashes in my mouth?
This is acting according to the saying of the Sages “though they are subtle in knowledge as humans, yet they place themselves like the beast.” (Rashi on Psalms 36,7) That is to say the will to receive for oneself alone, of those who wish to serve God in the true way, that is the way of giving unconditionally, is as subtle as a human, that is it becomes extremely clever, and each time asks the person searching and difficult questions in order to disturb him in his spiritual work. However, those who serve God simply carry on as if they are beasts, that is to say they carry on doing the mitzvot and their deeds unquestioningly as if they don’t possess such subtlety—like the beast. This is designated as walking the path of faith which is in the paradigm above that of knowledge. And thus these holy men were diligent in fulfilling these small acts even more than an ordinary person would be. An ordinary person would not undertake such difficult journeys only in order to obtain fish for the Sabbath.
The revelation of the hidden
In the year 1918 there appeared to our holy teacher a hidden Master who opened to him the gates of holiness and purity in the wisdom of the Kabbalah. He wrote of this to his cousin, Rabbi Abraham Mendel Bronstein:
10th Tevet 5688
… I shall describe to you everything that happened from beginning to end through which I merited this wisdom by virtue of the great mercy of God.
On the twelfth day of the month of MarCheshvan, on a Friday morning, a certain man came and introduced himself to me. It became clear to me that he was wondrously wise in Kabbalah and also in many other disciplines. As soon as he started to speak, I began to sense his Divine wisdom. All his words had a wondrous quality to them, a sort of glory. I really trusted my feelings in this regard. He promised to reveal to me the true wisdom. I studied with him for three months, meeting him every night after midnight in his home. Mostly we talked about matters of holiness and purity. However, each time I would implore him to reveal to me a secret from the wisdom of Kabbalah. He began to tell me chapter headings but he never explained any concept fully. So I was left with tremendous yearnings. Then one time, after I had greatly implored him to do so, he fully explained a concept to me and my happiness knew no limits.
However, from that time I began to acquire a little ego, and as my self-assertion increased, so my holy teacher began to distance himself from me. But I did not notice this happening. This continued for around three months, at the last days of which I could no longer find him in his home at all. I searched for him but I could not find him anywhere.
Then I truly became aware of how he had become distanced from me. I was extremely sorry and began to mend my ways. Then in the morning of the ninth day of the month of Nisan, I found him and apologized profusely for my behavior. He forgave me and related to me as before. He revealed to me a great and deep teaching on the subject of a ritual bath that is measured and found to be too small. I once more experienced tremendous joy.
However, I saw that my teacher had become weak. I stayed at his house and the next morning, the tenth day of Nisan, in the year 5679 (1919), he passed away, may his memory shield us and all Israel. There are no words to describe the greatness of my sorrow, for my heart had been full of hope to merit this great wisdom of Kabbalah, and now I was left naked and with nothing. I even forgot at that time all that he had taught me on account of my extreme sorrow.
From then on, I prayed with all my heart and soul with untold longing, I did not rest a single moment of the day until I found favor in the eyes of my Creator, may the One be blessed. Then, the merit of my holy teacher and his Torah stood by me and my heart was opened to the higher wisdom ever increasingly, like a flowing spring. Through the mercy of the One, I also remembered all the deep teachings that I had received from my late teacher, may his memory be for a blessing. Blessed be the One who has kept me alive and sustained me! How can I, poor in deeds as I am, have any way to thank the One? From the beginning God knows my poverty that I have neither intelligence or wisdom to thank and praise Him for His mighty goodness. However, who can say to Him what He should do, or how He should act?
My holy teacher was a very successful businessman and known throughout town as an honest trader, but no one at all knew that he was a Master Kabbalist. He did not give me permission to reveal his name.1
Rabbi Azriel Chayim Lemburger heard how the letter came to light from Rabbi David Minzburg of blessed memory (one of the earlier students of the Baal haSulam): “This letter was discovered by the help of God by Rabbi David Minzberg whilst travelling in Poland. He arrived in Warsaw in the middle of the night when the city was completely dark and he searched for a place to stay the night. Suddenly he saw a light shining from one of the houses. He knocked on the door and entered. There sat an elderly Jew learning the Talmud. It transpired that he was the cousin to whom our teacher, the Baal haSulam had written this letter. When the cousin heard that Rabbi Minzburg was a disciple of our holy teacher he straightaway took out the letter and showed it to him. Thus the letter was found by Divine Providence. But if you think that this letter made any impression on Rabbi Minzburg then you are wrong.”
Explanation: The disciples of the Baal haSulam did not look for miracles or wondrous signs to help them serve God. The opposite is correct. They looked for ways of giving to the Creator unconditionally. Their self-negation with respect to their teacher is based on faith which is of the paradigm above that of knowledge, above intellect, and therefore they did not search for signs or proofs such as these in order to verify the greatness of their teacher.