Many of us have dreamed of the moment when we will receive the light of God. When our deepest longings, our emptiness, our feelings of disconnection, will all be assuaged and the greatest joy known to the human being, the revelation of the light of God, will be given to us.
Such a state of enlightenment was given to Rabbi Yehudah Leib Ashlag, who later in his life became known as “Master of the Ladder.”
From a very young age, the young Yehudah worked on himself, correcting all the traits of his personality. He later told that whenever he read a book of musar, ethical conduct, he never left off reading it until he had completely put its teaching into practice. Furthermore, he received instruction from his teachers, the great sages Rabbi Meir Shalom of Kalozhin, the Sage of Porisov, and Rabbi Issachar Dov of Belz, who taught him how to serve God truly.
With incredible labor on himself, practicing Torah and mitzvot through giving to God unconditionally, Rabbi Ashlag cleaned up all his vessels of receiving until he achieved a state of dvekut, unity with the Creator. Thus it happened that on a certain occasion he merited to receive a revelation of the light of God, the great light of wisdom, the Or d’ Chochmah, which constitutes the goodness that God wishes to give all created beings according to His purpose of creation.
Rejoicing in his enlightened state and knowing that he was receiving this great light only in the way of receiving it for the sake of giving pleasure to the Creator, Rabbi Ashlag then sets out to visit his teacher, the Rabbi of Belz. But when he arrives at the Beit Midrash Rabbi Ashlag discovers to his dismay that his Rabbi is not at all pleased to see him in this enlightened state. On the contrary, he rebukes him and is sarcastic to him. Hurt and surprised Rabbi Ashlag cannot understand why, on the one hand, God is clearly giving him this great light —a state that cannot happen unless He wished it, but on the other hand the Rabbi of Belz, Rabbi Ashlag’s teacher, clearly disapproves. This leaves Rabbi Ashlag in a dilemma, which he has to resolve for himself.
Distressed, Rabbi young Rabbi Ashlag tosses and turns throughout the night, going over, again and again in his mind, all he has seen and experienced, checking again and again that the vessels he was using were completely fit and that his receiving of this great light was only for the sake of giving. But since that is the case, and he can taste the joy and light as a physical reality, then why does his teacher, who he reveres, not agree, even when God is clearly showing him that he has reached dvekut with him? Why is the Rabbi of Belz not only not happy for him, but on the contrary, he has spent all Shabbat showing Rabbi Ashlag his displeasure? After hours of agonizing questioning, Rabbi Ashlag reaches a decision: if his teacher demonstrates to him that he clearly knows the state and spiritual level that he, Rabbi Ashlag has reached, yet he still says it is inappropriate, he will abide with the instructions from his teacher.
The following day, the great Sage, the Rabbi of Belz, demonstrates to Rabbi Ashlag that he did indeed recognize this great level of light. And then he teaches him that even when a person is receiving this great light of Chochmah only for the sake of giving, nevertheless, the way of the Jew is to let go of this great light and instead to desire to give unconditionally, requesting the lesser light, the Or d’Chassadim, the joy of giving.
This teaching of the Rabbi of Belz, namely, not to chase after enlightenment but to prefer the light of giving unconditionally was one that changed Rabbi Ashlag’s life. It is a theme that in his work with his own students in later years he was to repeat many times in may different ways.
On the brink of emigrating to Israel, when his teacher, the Rabbi of Porisov warned Rabbi Ashlag that he would lose all his spiritual achievements in Israel, he simply answered quietly, “I am not looking for lights, I am looking for work.”
Through focusing on the desire to give unconditionally to his students and to the world Rabbi Ashlag became a channel for the Torah of the holy Ari and for that of the Zohar for the benefit of all humankind.
May his holy memory be for a blessing.
A full description of Rabbi Ashlag’s enlightenment experience told in his own words appears in the new biography, “The Master of the Ladder, the Life and Teachings of Rabbi Yehudah Leib Ashlag” by Rabbi Avraham Mordecai Gottleib, Translated and Edited by Yedidah Cohen
At long last! The printers sent me a photo of the finished book, bound and printed. Seven years of translating, editing, and collating, had fulfilled their promise.
Finally, a biography of the great Tzaddik and Sage of our time, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Ashlag, known as “Master of the ladder”is available for the English-speaking world.
To translate doesn’t mean just going from one language to another— there are now quite sophisticated apps that will do that, but to translate means to grasp the spirit of the work, it means to try and discover what it was that Rabbi Ashlag really wanted to say. What did he want to communicate? And what language did he use to say it with?
The first great translators of the Torah, Onkelos and Yonaton ben Uziel, who translated the Torah from its original Hebrew into Aramaic, the language spoken in daily life at the time, are widely considered the first commentators of the Torah. They were channels that brought the wisdom of the Torah to the people of their time.
In this sense, Rabbi Ashlag may also be considered a translator. He translated the language of Kabbalah— the language of Sephirot and partzufim— into ideas that can be understood by the ordinary person. Many people mistakenly think that if you know what the Sephirot stand for and you have some knowledge of the four spiritual worlds that makes you a Kabbalist. But Rabbi Ashlag taught that the Sephirot are simply the bricks to build with, they are the consonants and the vowels of a language of feeling, of intention, and of relationships; aspects of ourselves that, in our day- to- day language, we have no words for.
It was in his seminal work on the Torah of the great sixteenth-century Kabbalist the holy Ari that Rabbi Ashlag first developed his understandings of the language of Kabbalah. Looking at life as arranged according to vertical connections between this world and the higher worlds, the Ari discerned the flow of light and vessels as a dynamic dance of giving and receiving between us and the Creator. Thus was born a language that can describe processes that take place beyond our ordinary senses in a consciousness of the eternal present; processes in which our ordinary perceptions of time and space don’t function.
Rabbi Ashlag, in opening up the Zohar in his Perush HaSulam, the Ladder – his great commentary on the Zohar, gave us access to wisdom that helps us connect with the Creator. By giving us a language to aspects of ourselves for which we previously had no language, we can become aware of ourselves and our motives with greater ease and accuracy. We can begin to discern the murky regions of Torah shelo lishmah, Torah that is carried out with ulterior motives mixed in, and we can begin to clarify them, bringing them into a real service of God and to our fellow human beings, springing from a true and honest place within ourselves, Torah l’shmah, Torah that we practice unconditionally, with love.
The Master of the Ladder, the Life and Teachings of Rabbi Yehudah Leib Ashlag translated by Yedidah Cohen is available now in Israel from www.nehorapress.com