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Yehuda Leib HaLevi Ashlag (Baal HaSulam)

The Essence of Religion and Its Purpose

In this article I would like to resolve three issues:

A. What is the essence of religion?

B. Is its essence attained in this world or in the next world?

C. Is its purpose to benefit the Creator or the creatures?

At first glance, the reader might be surprised by my words, and will not understand these three questions that I have set before me as the topic of this essay. For who is it who does not know what religion is, and especially its rewards and punishments, which are destined to come primarily in the afterlife? And we need not mention the third issue, for everyone knows that it is to benefit the creatures and to guide them to delight and happiness, and what else need we add to that?

Indeed, I have nothing more to add. But because they are so familiar with the three concepts from infancy, they do not add or further examine them for the rest of their lives. And that shows their lack of knowledge in these exalted matters, which are necessarily the very foundation upon which the whole structure of religion is based.

Therefore, tell me how it is possible that a child of twelve or thirteen years of age, can already thoroughly grasp these subtle notions, and so sufficiently that he will not need to add any further concepts or knowledge of these matters for the rest of his life?

Indeed, here lies the problem! For this rash conjecture brought with it all the recklessness and wild conclusions that have come into our world in our generation! And it brought us to a state where the second generation has almost completely slipped from under our hands.

The Absolute Good

To avoid tiring the readers with long discussions, I have relied on all that I wrote in previous essays, especially on the essay, “Matan Torah” (The Giving of the Torah), which are all like a preface to the exalted topic ahead. Here I shall speak briefly and simply, to make it understood for all.

First, we must understand the Creator—He is the Absolute Goodness. This means that it is utterly impossible that He would ever cause any sorrow to any person. And this we take to be the first concept, for our common sense clearly shows that the basis for any evil-doing in the world stems only from the will to receive.

That means that the eagerness to benefit ourselves makes us harm our fellow persons, due to our will to receive self-gratification. Thus, if no being would find contentment in favoring itself, no being would ever harm another. And if we sometimes find some being that harms another, without any will to receive self-gratification, it does that only because of an old habit that originated in the will to receive, which now rids it of the need to find a new reason.

And because we realize that the Creator is, in and of Himself, complete and needs no one to help Him to completion, since He precedes everything, it is therefore clear that He does not have any will to receive. And because He has no will to receive, He is fundamentally devoid of a desire to harm anyone; it is as simple as that.

Furthermore, it is completely agreeable to our mind as the first concept, that He possesses a desire to bestow goodness upon others, meaning to His creatures. And that is evidently shown by the great Creation that He has created and set before our eyes. For in this world there are beings that necessarily experience either a good feeling or a bad one, and that feeling necessarily comes to them from the Creator. And once it is absolutely clear that there is no aim to harm in the nature of the Creator, it necessitates that the creatures receive only goodness from Him, for He has created them only to bestow upon them.

Thus we learn that He has only a desire to bestow goodness, and it is utterly impossible that any harmfulness might be in His domain, which could emit from Him. Hence we have defined Him as “The Absolute Good.” And after we have learned that, let us take a look at the actual reality that is guided by Him, and how He bestows only goodness upon them.

His Guidance Is Purposeful Guidance

By observing nature’s systems, we understand that any beings of the four types—still, vegetative, animate and speaking—as a whole and in particular, are found to be under purposeful guidance, meaning a slow and gradual growth by way of cause and effect, as a fruit on a tree, which is guided with favourable guidance to finally become a sweet and fine-looking fruit.

Go and ask a botanist how many phases the fruit undergoes from the time it becomes visible until it is completely ripe. Not only do its preceding phases show no evidence of its sweet and fine-looking end, but as if to vex, they show the opposite of the final outcome.

The sweeter the fruit is at its end, the more bitter and unsightly it is in the earlier phases of its development. And so it is with the animate and speaking types: for the beast, whose mind is little at its end, is not so wanting while it grows. Whereas man, whose mind is great at his end, is very wanting while developing. “A day-old calf is called anox”; that is, it has the strength to stand on its own legs and walk, and the intelligence to avoid hazards on its way.

But a day-old infant lies seemingly senseless. And should one who is not accustomed to the conducts of this world examine these two newborns, he would certainly conclude that the human infant will amount to nothing and the calf will turn out to be a great hero, if he were to judge by the wisdom of the calf compared to the senseless and mindless child.

Thus, it is evident that His guidance over the reality that He has created is in the form of purposeful Guidance, without taking into consideration the order of the phases of development, for they deceive us and prevent us from understanding their purpose, being always opposite to their final shape.

It is about such matters that we say, “There is none so wise as the experienced.” Only one who is experienced has the opportunity to examine Creation in all its phases of development, all the way through completion, and can calm things down, so as to not fear those spoilt images that the Creation undergoes in the phases of its development, but believe in its fine and pure end.

Thus, we have thoroughly shown the conducts of His Providence in our world, which is only a purposeful Guidance. The attribute of goodness is not at all apparent before Creation arrives at its completion, its final ripeness. On the contrary, it rather always takes a form of corruption in the eyes of the beholders. Thus you see that the Creator bestows upon His creatures only goodness, but that goodness comes by way of purposeful Guidance.

Two Paths: A Path of Pain and a Path of Torah

We have shown that God is the Absolute Good, and that He watches us in complete benevolence without a hint of evil, and in purposeful guidance. That means that His guidance compels us to undergo a series of phases, by way of cause and effect, preceding and resulting, until we are qualified to receive the desired goodness. And then we shall arrive at our purpose as a ripe and fine-looking fruit. And we understand that this purpose is guaranteed for us all, or else you flaw His Providence, saying it is insufficient for its purpose.

Our sages said, “Divinity in the lower ones—a high need.” That means that since His guidance is purposeful and aims to eventually bring us to adhesion with Him, so it would reside within us, this is considered a high need. Meaning, if we do not come to that, we shall find ourselves, regarding His Providence, flawed.

This is similar to a great king who had a son at old age, and he was very fond of him. Hence, since the day he was born, he thought of only good things for him. He collected the finest, wisest, and most precious books in the kingdom and built him a school. He sent after the finest builders and built palaces of pleasure. He gathered all the musicians and singers and built him concert halls, and called the finest bakers and chefs to provide him with all the delicacies in the world.

But alas, the son grew up to be a fool, with no desire for education. And he was blind and could not see or feel the beauty of the buildings. And he was deaf, unable to hear the poems and the music. And he was ill, permitted to eat only coarse flour bread, arising contempt and wrath.

However, such a thing may happen to a flesh and blood king, but that is impossible to say about the Creator, where there cannot be any deceit. Therefore, He has prepared for us two paths of development:

The first is a path of suffering, which is the conduct of development of Creation from within itself. By its own nature it is compelled to follow a way of cause and effect, in varying, consecutive states, which slowly develop us, until we come to a resolution to choose the good and reject the bad, and to be qualified for the purpose as He desires.

And that path is indeed a long and painful one. Therefore, He has prepared for us a pleasant and gentle way, which is the path of torah and Mitzvot, which can qualify us for our purpose painlessly and quickly.

It turns out that our final aim is to be qualified for adhesion with Him—for Him to reside within us. That aim is a certainty and there is no way to deviate from it, since His guidance supervises us in both paths, which are the path of suffering and the path of Torah. But looking at the actual reality, we find that His guidance comes simultaneously in both paths, which our sages refer to as “the way of the earth” and “the way of Torah.”

The Essence of Religion Is to Develop in Us the Sense of Recognition of Evil

Our sages say, “Why should the Creator mind whether one slays at the throat or at the back of the neck? After all, the Mitzvot were only given to cleanse people.” That cleansing has been thoroughly clarified in “Matan Torah” (Item 2), but here I would like to clear up the essence of that development, which is attained through Torah and Mitzvot.

Bear in mind that it is the recognition of the evil within us. That engagement in Mitzvot can slowly and gradually purify those who delve in them. And the scale by which we measure the degrees of cleansing is the measurement of the recognition of the evil within us.

Man is naturally ready to repel and root out any evil from within him. In that, all people are the same. But the difference between one person and the next is only in the recognition of evil. A more developed person recognizes in himself a greater amount of evil, and hence repels and separates the evil from within to a greater extent. The undeveloped senses in himself only a small amount of evil, and will therefore repel only a small amount of evil. As a result, he leaves all his filth within, for he does not recognize it as filth.

To avoid tiring the reader, we shall clarify the general meaning of good and bad, as it has been explained in “Matan Torah” (Item 12). Evil, in general, is nothing more than self-love, called “egoism,” since it is opposite in form from the Creator, who hasn’t any will to receive for Himself, but only to bestow.

As we have explained in “Matan Torah” (Items 9,11), pleasure and sublimity are measured by the extent of equivalence of form with the Maker. And pain and intolerance are measured by the extent of disparity of form from the Maker. Thus, egoism is loathsome and pains us, as its form is opposite from the Maker.

But this loathsomeness is not divided equally among all souls, but is given in varying measures. The crude, undeveloped person does not regard egoism as a bad attribute and uses it openly, without shame or restraints. He steals and murders in broad daylight wherever he finds it possible. The somewhat more developed, sense some measure of their egoism to be bad, and are at least ashamed to use it in public, to steal and kill openly. But in secrecy they still commit their crimes.

The even more developed feel egoism to be a loathsome thing indeed, until they cannot tolerate it within and reject it completely, as much as they detect of it, until they cannot, and do not want to enjoy the labor of others. Then begin to emerge in them the sparks of love for others, called “altruism,” which is the general attribute of goodness.

And that, too, evolves gradually. First develops love and desire to bestow upon one’s family and kin, as in the verse, “thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh.” When further developing, one’s attribute of bestowal expands to all the people around him, being one’s townspeople or one’s nation. And so one adds, until he finally develops love for the whole of humanity.

Conscious Development and Unconscious Development

Bear in mind that two forces serve to push us up the rungs of the aforementioned ladder, until we reach its head in the sky, which is the purposeful point of equivalence of form with our Maker. And the difference between these two forces is that the first pushes us from behind, which we defined as “the path of pain” or “the way of the earth.”

From that path stems the philosophy of morality called “ethics,” which is based on an empirical knowledge, through examination of the practical reason, whose essence is but a summation of the visible damages that result from the nucleons of egoism.

These experiments come to us by chance, not as a result of our conscious choice, but they are certain to lead us to their goal, for the image of evil grows ever clearer to our senses. And to the extent that we recognize its damages, we remove ourselves from it and then climb to a higher rung on the ladder.

The second force pushes us consciously, that is, of our own choice. That force pulls us from before, and that is what we defined as “the path of Torah and Mitzvot.” For engaging in Mitzvot, and the work to bring contentment to our Maker rapidly develops that sense of recognition of evil, as we have shown in “Matan Torah” (Item 13).

And here we benefit twice:

A. We do not have to wait for life’s ordeals to push us from behind, whose measure of goading is gauged only by the measure of agony and destructions. On the contrary, through the subtle pleasantness we feel when working sincerely to Him, to please Him, there develops within us a relative recognition of the lowliness of these sparks of self-love—that they are obstacles on our way to receiving that subtle taste of bestowal upon the Creator. Thus, the gradual sense of recognition of evil evolves in us from times of delight and great tranquility, through reception of the good while serving the Creator, out of our sensation of the pleasantness and gentleness that reach us due to the equivalence of form with our Maker.

B. We save time, for He operates to “enlighten” us, thus enabling us to increase our work and hasten time as we please.

Religion Is Not for the Good of the People, But for the Good of the Worker

Many are mistaken and compare our holy Torah to ethics. But that has come to them because they have never tasted religion in their lives. I call upon them: “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” It is true that both ethics and religion aim at one thing—to raise man above the filth of the narrow self-love and bring him to the heights of love-of-others.

But still, they are as remote one from the other as the distance between the Thought of the Creator and the thought of people. For religion extends from the Thoughts of the Creator, and ethics comes from thoughts of flesh and blood and from the experiences of their lives. Hence, there is an evident difference between them, both in practical aspects and in the final aim. For the recognition of good and evil that develops in us through ethics, as we use it, is relative to the success of the society.

With religion, however, the recognition of good and evil that develops in us, as we use it, is relative to the Creator alone, that is, from the disparity of form from the Maker, to equivalence of form with Him, which is called Dvekut (adhesion), as clarified in “Matan Torah” (Items 9-11).

And they are also completely removed from one another regarding the goal, for the goal of ethics is the well-being of society from the perspective of practical reason, derived from life’s experiences. But in the end, that goal does not promise its follower any elevation above the boundaries of nature. Hence, this goal is still subject to criticism, for who can prove to an individual the extent of his benefit in such a conclusive manner that he will be compelled to even slightly diminish his own self in favor of the well-being of society?

The religious goal, however, promises the well-being of the individual who follows it, as we have already shown that when one comes to love others, he is in direct Dvekut, which is equivalence of form with the Maker, and along with it man passes from his narrow world, filled with pain and impediments, to an eternal and broad world of bestowal upon the Lord and upon the people.

You will also find a significant difference regarding the support because following the ethics is supported by the favor of people, which is like a rent that finally pays off. And when man grows accustomed to this work, he will not be able to ascend in degrees of ethics, for he will now be used to such work that is well rewarded by society, which pays for his good deeds.

Yet, by observing Torah and Mitzvot in order to please his Maker, without any reward, he climbs the rungs of ethics precisely to the extent that he pursues it, since there is no payment on his path. And each penny is added to a great account. And finally he acquires a second nature, which is bestowal upon others without any self-gratification, except for the bare necessities of his life.

Now he has really been liberated from the incarcerations of Creation. For when one detests any self-reception and his soul loathes the petite physical pleasures and respect, he finds himself roaming free in the Creator’s world. And he is guaranteed that no damage or misfortune will ever come upon him, since all the damages come to a man only through the self-reception imprinted in him.

Thus, we have thoroughly shown that the purpose of religion is only for the individual who engages in it, and not at all for the use or benefit of common people, although all his actions revolve around the benefit of people and are measured by these acts. But this is but a passage to the sublime goal, which is equivalence of form with the Maker. And now we can understand that the purpose of religion is collected while living in this world, and examine closely in “Matan Torah,” regarding the purpose of the whole and of the individual.

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