Jewish Thought

Giving: The Essential Teaching of the Kabbalah

Essays by Rabbi Yehuda Lev Ashlag, “Baal Hasulam” with Commentary and Insights for Living the Kabbalah

By Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Gottlieb

Translation by Aryeh Siegel 

Urim Publications

Jerusalem, 2020

224 pages 

Reviewed by Rabbi Yisrael Isser Zvi Herczeg

The Torah-observant Jew views life as an ongoing process of change and growth aimed at developing a deeper relationship with G-d—becoming more aware of His presence and directing the course of one’s life accordingly. This process takes place within the framework of the commandments of the Torah, but that framework leaves the individual great leeway to choose an approach to developing intimacy with G-d that is suited to one’s character and needs.

The usual Kabbalistic approach requires years of study of difficult texts that employ abstract terminology to describe the relationship between the Infinite One and the finite world He created. However, even mastery of the information in these arcane texts may not guarantee its application toward the refinement of the Jewish soul.

It was the unique task of the modern master Kabbalist Rabbi Yehuda Lev Ashlag (1885–1954), author of the Sulam commentary on the Zohar, to demonstrate that the esoteric teachings of Kabbalah contain within them not only the key to the structure of the universe but also the key to the microcosm that is man. He interpreted them in terms that explain the human soul and psyche, and thereby, what man must strive for in order to attain emotional, psychological and spiritual fulfillment. The Baal Hasulam’s approach to Kabbalah enables each individual to experience the gradual refinement of his soul.

In 1933, Rabbi Ashlag wrote Matan Torah, short Kabbalistic treatises in which he extracted from the daunting corpus of the Kabbalah its most practical and quintessential concept. Aimed at all Jews, even non-believers, Matan Torah attempted to present the Torah’s conception of human perfection in a way that appealed to both the heart and the intellect: the portrayal of G-d as engaged exclusively in giving, His perfection not allowing even for the possibility of receiving. Man must model Himself after his Creator and become someone who receives only out of necessity and whose actions are always with the intention to give. He thereby aligns himself with the Creator and makes possible the fullest perception of His Presence and the most intimate relationship with Him. This is the pinnacle of human perfection, which is accompanied by the greatest satisfaction possible.

Giving: The Essential Teaching of the Kabbalah consists of the first four essays from Matan Torah, along with the glosses of Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Gottlieb, the greatest contemporary expert on the thought of Rabbi Ashlag. An appendix consists of ten brief essays by Rabbi Gottlieb, elaborating on ideas contained in the main text.

In his essays, Rabbi Ashlag does not pretend that pure altruism is an easy task. As Rabbi Gottlieb notes, the goal Rabbi Ashlag sets for all of us is expressed in the words of the Vorker Rebbe, “Until I reach the point that I love the worst sinner of our nation just as I love my own son, I haven’t yet fulfilled the mitzvah of ‘Love your fellow as yourself.’ To fulfill this mitzvah, I must not feel any preference for my son over any other.” Rabbi Ashlag brooks no compromises: G-d demands that we always give priority to the needs of others over our own. This is the work of a lifetime. Rabbi Ashlag explains how it can be achieved only within the context of keeping all the mitzvot of the Torah, both the interpersonal and those that deal with the relationship between G-d and man. The gradual transformation of our character from our natural love of ourselves alone to love of others is the single objective of the Torah and of life itself.

Although the mysterious secrets of the Kabbalah bubble beneath the surface of Giving, the reader encounters no mention of sefirot, olamot or other terminology from the world of Jewish mysticism. Rabbi Ashlag’s language is flowing and clear, and indeed, accessible to its intended readership. How pleasantly surprising it is, then, to see that Rabbi Gottlieb uncovers ideas within it that would likely go unnoticed by most readers. He takes a sentence or phrase that seems unremarkable, and shows that it contains a wealth of ideas. His mastery of the works of Rabbi Ashlag allows him to expand on concepts mentioned in the text only briefly. His own essays elaborate on concepts touched upon in the book, some of which are especially timely, such as those that explain the deeper meaning of “women” and “non-Jews” as they appear in certain philosophical contexts in Torah literature. Taking these terms at face value can be missing the point entirely—they refer to aspects of the personality of every human being, which one must be aware of and deal with properly.

Giving contains within it a clearly explained and organized program for making one’s entire life a process of growth and fulfillment. One aspect that could have been dealt with in greater detail is the role of Torah study in development of character. Although Rabbi Ashlag does have a unique approach regarding Torah study “for its own sake,” we find no discussion of this in Giving. But that is understandable, as these essays are directed primarily at those who do not yet sit inside the walls of the beit midrash.

Aryeh Siegel’s elegant translation befits a work of such importance. His language is clear and articulate, as well as faithful to the original text. In addition, at the end of every chapter, Siegel presents a list of questions for review, focusing the reader on the chapter’s main points. The format of the book is especially user-friendly. Rabbi Gottlieb’s glosses do not appear as footnotes or endnotes. Rather, they are interspersed after every few paragraphs of Rabbi Ashlag’s text. The words of the two authors are clearly differentiated, but they mesh beautifully with each other to form a single coherent work.

To find his own path to G-d, every Jew must search the Torah and examine his life experiences with open eyes. We have been blessed with many teachers, both those who are living and those who have left us their instructive works, to help us find our way. It is unfortunate that Rabbi Ashlag’s ideas have not been more widely disseminated, for they would surely have resonated with many, bringing them guidance and clarity. Giving serves to make Rabbi Ashlag’s precious jewels accessible to a wider public. 

Rabbi Yisrael Isser Zvi Herczeg is the author or translator of many Torah works including Keren David to tractates Arachin, Nazir and Makkot. He teaches at Sha’alvim for Women.

This article was featured in the Summer 2024 issue of Jewish Action.
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