Transcending the self through Kabbala

As the En Soph constituted man the microcosm, and as the Deity is reflected in this epitome of the universe more than in any component part of the creation, all things visible and invisible are designed to aid him in passing through his probationary state here below, in gathering that experience for which his soul has been sent down, and in returning in a pure state to that source of light from which his soul emanated. This destiny of man—i.e., the reunion with the Deity from which he emanated—is the constant desire both of God and man, and is an essential principle of the soul, underlying its very essence. Discarding that blind power from our nature, which governs our animal life, which never quits this earth, and which therefore plays no part in our spiritual being, the soul possesses two kinds of powers and two sorts of feelings.

As a necessary condition of free existence and of moral being, the souls are endowed by the Deity, from the very beginning, with the power of adhering in close proximity to the primordial source of infinite light from which they emanated, and of alienating themselves from that source and pursuing an independent and opposite course. . . . So complete is their independence that even in their pre-existent state souls can and do choose which way they intend to pursue. “All souls which are not guiltless in this world have already alienated themselves in heaven from the Holy One, blessed be he; they have thrown themselves into an abyss at their very existence, and have anticipated the time when they are to descend on earth. . . . Thus were the souls before they came into this world.” (Sohar, iii, 61 b.)  (“The Destiny of Man and the Universe”, Ginsburg, pp. 118-119)

Gain for yourselves, ye sons of Adam, by means of these transitory things which are not yours (the mind and body), that which is your own, and passeth not away. (Mead, p. 599) 

The Kabbalistic Way of Character Refinement

By Rabbi DovBer Pinson (

It only takes a short glimpse into the work of the great masters of the theoretical Kabbalah to notice that the mass majority of the texts do not deal at all with transformation of character. While it is true that Chassidic mystical literature is geared toward taking the highly theoretical and relating it to one’s day-to-day life, the Kabbalah itself seems not to care so much about the person. But rather, it seems to be interested in explaining the heavenly spheres, angels, souls, and ‘things’ of this sort, not how one is to conquer negative behavior.

Notwithstanding, this does not imply that the Kabbalah is not interested in the person per se. To the contrary! In fact, there are countless remarks throughout all the works of Kabbalah regarding the negativity of bad character traits, such as anger, laziness, depression, and others. The harshest condemnation of depression, anger, and other negative counter-productive emotions are found within the works of Kabbalah. Yet, the Kabbalistic method of character refinement is quite a different approach than the approaches that we are accustomed to encountering. It is not a head-on battle of countering negativity on its own turf, but neither is it to overwhelm the negative with the positive. Its approach is to come from another vantage point and see things from another perspective.

[T]he world as we tend to perceive it, as separate, independent of a creator, is but an illusion, and in reality there is nothing other than the infinite light

The primary objective of mystical thought is to make the person understand that there is nothing else besides the Infinite. Reading the various configurations, maps, and diagrams the Kabbalah presents, the person is supposed to be awakened to consciousness that all that really exists is the Ein Sof. There is a feeling tone that is to be aroused when we penetrate the truths of Kabbalah, and that is the feeling that the world as we tend to perceive it, as separate, independent of a creator, is but an illusion, and in reality there is nothing other then the infinite light. Having this notion in mind, consciously or even subconsciously, we are then able to conquer all our personal negative emotions and traits.

The Ego / False Sense of Self, as the Source of all Negative Emotions

It is the ego which give rise to all negative emotions. For example, when a person becomes angry, it is the ego’s way of showing its objection that it is not happy. The ego, when it feels it is threatened, is the one who protests: ‘How can you do this to me!’ which arouses the anger. The fear of annihilation is the constant condition with regards to the ego. Anger is but a manifestation of a person’s preoccupation with his imaginary presumptions of survival. The total involvement with the illusory ‘self’ is the root of all negative emotions.

The total involvement with the illusory self is the root of all negative emotions.

R. Eliyahu ben Moshe Di Vidas, a 16th century Kabbalist, posits that there are three primary negative traits, which may be considered the ‘principal traits’ from which all further dissension occurs. They are haughtiness, stubbornness, and anger, all of which claim origin in the same source, that is, the ego. Ego is the fountainhead from which all negativity stems. The core of all corruption is that false sense of self/ego, which lives in an incessant state of [grasping for] what it thinks will ensure its survival.

By overcoming this false sense of self, which stems from one’s false estimation of survival, one’s negative emotions are conquered. Through the study of the Kabbalah, we come to the realization that the false sense of self/ego is but a masquerade of our true and inner dynamics, our transcendent soul. The feeling tone we get when contemplating Kabbalah is that all that exists is Ein Sof. We ought to feel this on a cosmic level, and then understand it on our own level. Consequently, the illusion of separateness/ego and the preservation of this mirage will slowly begin to fade, and with it will fade the negative emotions which are the ego’s manifestation.

Instead of seeing the ego as a real enemy who needs to be engaged in battle in order to be overcome, we begin to realize that there is nothing besides the Light, and everything else is simply a concealment of that truth. Such is the Kabbalistic approach for self-perfection. It does not deal with the negative head-on, nor does it deal with it at all. Rather it goes to the source of all problems, the I/ego, and by extension, the entire physical reality, and it demonstrates how, in fact, these seemingly independent realities are but a camouflage. By realizing this, our negativity is more easily overcome.

Rabbi DovBer Pinson, Rosh Kollel of IYYUN, is a world-renowned scholar, kabbalist, and spiritual teacher. Through his books and lectures he has touched the lives of tens of thousands, and serves as a mentor to many across the globe. He has authored over 30 books, many of which have been translated into multiple languages.

* * *

The Kabbalah was first taught by God himself to a select company of angels, who formed a theosophic school in Paradise. After the fall the angels most graciously communicated this heavenly doctrine to the disobedient child of earth, to furnish beings with the means of returning to their pristine nobility and felicity. From Adam it passed over to Noah, and then to Abraham, the friend of God, who emigrated with it to Egypt, where the patriarch allowed a portion of this mysterious doctrine to seep out, and the other Eastern nations could introduce it into their philosophical systems. Moses, who was learned in all the wisdom of Egypt, was first initiated into it in the land of his birth, but became most proficient in it during his wanderings in the wilderness, when he not only devoted to it the leisure hours of the whole forty years, but received lessons in it from one of the angels. He covertly laid down the principles of this secret doctrine in the first four books of the Pentateuch, but withheld them from Deuteronomy. Moses also initiated the seventy elders into the secret of this doctrine, and they in turn transmitted them mouth to mouth. Of all who formed the unbroken line of transmission, David and Solomon were most initiated into the Kabbalah. No one, however, dared to write it down till Simon ben Jochai, who lived at the time of the destruction of the second Temple. (Ginsburg, pp. 84-85)

From what has been said it will be seen that the followers of this secret doctrine claim for it a pre-Adamite existence and maintain that, ever since the creation of the first man, it has been received uninterruptedly from the hands of the patriarchs, the prophets, etc. It is for this reason that it is called Kabbala, which primarily means reception, and then a doctrine received by oral tradition.

The cardinal doctrines of the Kabbalah are mainly designed to solve the grand problems about (I) The nature of the Supreme Being, (II) The cosmogony, (III) The creation of angels and man, (IV) The destiny of man and the universe, and (V) To point out the import of the Revealed Law. Assenting and consenting to the declarations of the Hebrew Scriptures about the unity of God, his incorporeity, eternity, immutability, perfection, infinite goodness, the creation of the world in time according to God’s free will, the moral government of the universe and special providence, and to the creation of man in the image of God, the Kabbalah seeks to explain the transition from the infinite to the finite; the procedure of multifariousness from an absolute unity, and of matter from a pure intelligence; the operation of pure intelligence upon matter, in spite of the infinite gulf between them; the relationship of the Creator to the creature, so as to be able to exercise supervision and providence. It, moreover, endeavours to show how it is that the Bible gives names and assigns attributes and a form to so spiritual a Being, how the existence of evil is compatible with the infinite goodness of God, and what is the Divine intention about this creation. (Ginsburg, pp. 86-87)

The Supreme Being

Being boundless in his nature—which necessarily implies that he is an absolute unity and inscrutable, and that there is nothing without him, or that the το παν is in him,1—God is called En Soph, meaning Endless, Boundless. In this boundlessness, or as the En Soph, he cannot be comprehended by the intellect, nor described in words, for there is nothing which can grasp and depict him to us, and as such he is, in a certain sense, not existent, because as far as our minds are concerned, that which is perfectly incomprehensible does not exist.

  1. This doctrine, however, that everything is in the Deity is not peculiar to the Kabbalah. It has been propounded by the Jews from time immemorial,  as may be seen from the following passage in the Midrash:

The Holy One, blessed be he, is the space of the universe, but the universe is not his space. R. Isaac submitted: From the passage (Deut. xxxiii, 27), we do not know whether the Holy One, blessed be he, is the habitation of the universe or the universe his habitation; but from the remark Lord thou art the dwelling place (Ps. xc, 1), it is evident that the Holy One, blessed be he, is the dwelling place of the universe, and not the universe his dwelling place.” (Bereshith Rabba)(Ginsburg, pp. 87-88)

Ginsburg, Christian D. (2005). The Essenes: Their History and Doctrines and the Kabbalah – Its Doctrines, Development and Literature (pub. 1864). New York: Cosimo (pp. 84-88).

Mead, George Robert Stow (1900). Fragments of a Faith Forgotten. London: Theosophical Publishing Society.

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