Most of the time, we’ve been quoting the Arizalbecause he’s the most well-known Kabbalist who not only synthesized the system of Kabbalah we know, but also popularized it. There are very few rituals in Jewish that don’t have the Arizal’s “hand” or his explanations on them. However, equally important to our studies is another great Kabbalist who preceded him, called Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, the Ramak.
The Ramak is the author of the well-known Mussar (self-discipline) treatise Tomer Dvorah (the “Palm Tree of [the prophetess] Dvorah”), which is present in virtually every Yeshiva and Midrasha. RavChaim Vital studied under him before being taught by the Arizal. He writes that the Arizal came to Safed to study under the Ramak, whom he referred to as "our teacher", right when the Ramak passed away in 1570and was the only one who saw a pillar of fire leading the Ramak's coffin during the funeral procession. This is brought in Sefer HaChezionot (“Book of Visions”).
It could be said that the Kabbalah of the Ramakcomplements that of the Arizal. Rav Chaim Vital writes, not in a demeaning way, that his teachings are compared to the “shattered vessels”, while the Arizal’steachings are compared to their “rectification”. This is merely a reference to the fact that the Ramak’sKabbalah is more primordial.
The difference in approaches
One of the key differences between Rabbi Moshe Cordovero and the Arizal's teachings is their approach to the structure of Creation. The Ramak’s Kabbalah emphasized the idea of the ten sefirot, which as we well known, are the divine emanations that make up the universe, while the Arizal's Kabbalah introduced the idea of the four worlds.
Another important difference is their approach to the nature of evil. The Ramak taught that evil is a necessary part of the divine plan, while the Arizalintroduced the idea of the "shattering of the vessels," which refers to the breaking of the vessels from “Adam Kadmon” that contained the divine light and the resulting dispersion of that light into the universe. This event was seen as the source of evil and the Arizal'steachings emphasized the importance of repairing the vessels and restoring the unity of the divine light.
The Ramak clarifies many teachings of the Zohar and adds his own insights. For example, in one verse in Tehilim we learn that the prophet Shmuel was compared to Moshe and Aharon. This is because he restored the prophecy to all the prophets that followed him once it had been taken away when the guardian angel of Esav hit Yaakov Avinu on his tight (a reference to the Sephira of Hod).
However, this is difficult, as we learn in PardesRimonim from the Ramak:
Moshe and Aharon are above, Shmuel is below. What is meant by "above" and "below"? Because the prophecy of Shmuel is superior, and [The Sephirah of] "Hod" (glory) is the rank of Moses and Aaron[...]. However, this matter itself is difficult for two reasons: firstly, who appointed Sama-el (not to be pronounced) to a level of holiness so high that he blemished the Sephirot? And secondly, Sama-el is the ministering angel of Esau, and the ministering angels are below Metatron (not to be pronounced). Moreover, the sefirot do not belong to this realm, and even holy angels cannot fully grasp them, let alone unholy ones. Therefore, it is certain that Sama-eldidn’t blemish the Sephirot (when he hit Yaakov Avinu in the tight), and this notion is completely unacceptable.
Finally, the Arizal's Kabbalah emphasized the importance of meditation, Yichudim (unifications), and visualization techniques as a means of effecting Tikkunim, while the Ramak’s teachings focused more on ethical behavior and character development as a means of achieving spiritual elevation. This is, of course, what everyone who learns Tomer Dvorah finds.
Tomer Dvorah’s Light
Few works can be said to have such a positiveimpact on people as much as Tomer Dvorah. We are not going to delve on its ethical teachings because everyone can read that online.
Rather, Tomer Dvorah’s great innovation is explaining how each of the Tikkunim of Arich Anpin(the Sephirah of Keter) of Atzilut is relatable to us on a very practical level. We learned before that, the Partzuf(spiritual system) of Arich Anpin is pure compassion and is composed of 13 “rectifications of the beard”. These rectifications could be said to be barriers for Din (judgments) that are used on a constant basis.
Therefore, Hashem many times “overlooks” sins, “holds” the sin, “mitigates” the sin, and doesn’t exact retribution in one go but rather in small portions so the person has time to repent. All of these, among many others, are expressions of his awesome compassion for us.
Just as Hashem uses these barriers (the 13 Attributes of Compassion) to “let go” of our faults, so too, if we want to merit them, we need to also treat others with compassion. More important than letting go is realizing that this is the process of acquiring these incredibly lofty lights that come from Arich Anpin.
In one of his teachings from the Shaar Hagevanim(Gate of Colors) chapter, Rabbi Moshe Cordoveroemphasizes the importance of not taking the allegorical use of colors in Kabbalistic texts too literally. The Zohar teaches that each Sephira has a color. This is not meant to be taken literally, rather, they are associatedwith a specific color.
The Ramak cautions against the mistake of attributing physical properties to spiritual concepts, which can lead to the destruction of the entire system. Instead, the colors allude to the results that are transmitted from the highest roots. For example, red represents the Sephirah of Gevurah (might), because it is associated with victory in war and bloodshed, while white represents the Sephirah of Chessed because it is associated with peace.
These teachings and insights by Rabbi Moshe Cordovero offer valuable guidance for those studying Kabbalah and emphasize the need for careful interpretation of allegorical language to gain a deeper understanding of spiritual concepts.
Perhaps, one of the most important teachings for us from Ramak’s works is that compassion is always the preferred way to go in life. Anyone aspiring to reach the great levels of divine service needs to understand that Hashem is compassionate to all, and it behooves us to follow him. Reb Natan, student of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, used to say that “Even if someone transgressed the entire Torah 800 times I could still find good points in him”!
This obviously doesn’t mean to give carte blanche to evil or that there’s no judgment in the world. It means that sometimes reality is a lot more complex than we think, and if we really want to receive Hashem’s compassion, we should strive to be compassionate as well.
As one would expect, the great Ramak is buried in the Tzfat cemetery next to the Arizal. This is one of our Prayer Treks and if you are interested in sponsoring a trip there, please let me know!
May we merit all these exalted levels.
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