The stories of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai from Tractate Gittin in the Talmud shed a lot of light on how difficult the situation of the Jews was prior to the destruction of the Second Temple. Roman domination was brutal and Torah observance and knowledge was waning quickly. Many sages were being killed. In a quick-witted moment, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkaimanaged to get out of Jerusalem during the siege (by pretending to be dead in a coffin), and ask the future emperor Vespasian to save the Yeshiva in Yavneh, Rabban Gamliel’s family (who descended from the Davidic dynasty) and a doctor for R’ Tzadok who’s been fasting for 40 years.
With the Holy Temple destroyed, this Yeshiva became the new center of Jewish life in exile and the seat of Sanhedrin. As such, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai enacted many new laws to ensure tradition could continue and the memory of the Temple never cease from the minds of people. Two examples are the taking of the 4 species on Sukkot throughout the 7 days of the festival (instead of only 1) and that the testimony of the New Moon should be accepted the entire dayinstead of only until midday.
The Workings of Chariot
But perhaps less well known is that the Talmud (Tractate Chaguigah) also reveals a lot the Ma’assehBereshit (“Workings of Creation”) and Ma’assehMerkavah (“Workings of the Chariot”) through Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai. These are the mystical vehicles through which a person can experience Hashem’s gloryand needless to say, it requires and incredibly high level of divine service. Ma’asseh Merkava in particular is a mode of meditation in which the meditator becomes a chariot for the Shekhina (Divine Presence) and can really perceive the spiritual worlds.
The modus operandi of such experiences ismentioned generally not only in the book of Yechezkeland developed further in other later works such as the Sefer Yetzirah and Sefer HaBahir. The methods for achieving “transcendence” are also well explained later in the works of R’ Avraham Abulafia and the fourth chapter of Sha’arei Kedusha by Rav Chaim Vital(which is generally omitted and definitely not translated to other languages).
This is definitely not an easy feat, but as a person achieves the requisite state of consciousness, he can know the past, present and future, receive knowledge directly from his soul, purify himself, see angels, and gain many other superhuman abilities such as super strength, as was the case of King David. Nowadays most of these abilities are difficult, but the wisdom and transcendence behind is what most people would be seeking.
Rav Chaim Vital’s Quest For Enlightenment
Very few people know that one of the most distinguishing characteristics of Rav Chaim Vital wasthe quest for enlightenment. In many places throughout the Kitvei Ari (writings of the Arizal), he reveals his intent of “experiencing” Hashem and achieving perception. Many Rabbis nowadays shun the idea of “experiencing” Hashem. They mistakenly believe that you should do what Hashem says, be happy with it and not seek experiences. In a very basic level, they are correct, but this is actually the end goal and actually a very accurate measuring stick to one’s success (when this was widely available). We should definitely not strive to serve Hashem to “get high”, but having a full blown experience of his glory is actually a positive thing as this not only shows a person is on the right path, but he will also be more motivated to serve Him better.
People interested in understanding more RavChaim Vital’s path to enlightenment are advised to read Sha’arei Kedusha in full. There, he explains the different rectifications a person should strive for.
And, there’s no shortcut to this, but we must also make a very serious public service announcement. Some people who are prone to have “spiritual experiences” may claim that they “saw God” or “became prophets”, or have the “chosen complex”. These experiences may be real as far as the person may believe, but they certainly do not come from the side of holiness. The fact that nowadays it’s impossible to have prophecy and “see” Hashem should be giveaways that something is off.
But the real problem is the fact that a person may see, for example, group of sages dressed in white inviting him to come in, then tell him he has a great mission and is “the chosen one”. While the feeling might be great, the reality is that these visions may in fact come from the Sitra Achra (“other side”, evil) and that these “sages” are actually demons. These demons are able to entice a person especially because this person is so far away from Hashem, but thinks otherwise. They are very shrewd and wise, and their power should not be underestimated. This is why a person needs to purify himself with the Mitzvot (whether from the Torah or for the Bnei Noach), in order to make himself a suitable vehicle for the divine presence to rest in. Only when he/she’s achieved this level, he should start taking his experiences more seriously.
This is because there’s a general rule that in the spiritual worlds, closeness means likeness. If you are a rectified, holy person, you will attract holiness. Some people however are so conceited and think so highly of themselves (sometimes just because of their ability to meditate) that they cannot see how impure they are and that they are falling into a trap.
However, it’s important to understand that this path is available for everyone wishing to purify themselves. If a person is honest about it in his dealings, he will certainly attain it because Hashem does not withhold good for those who walk in His path.
Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai is one bright example of how a person should strive for holiness as the sages say no one ever saw him not studying! May we derive inspiration from him and become also vehicles for Hashem’s divine presence!
This article was written in the zechut of Michelle bas Barbara, Amy bas Nancy Ruth, & Tiffany bas Donovan, may HaShem help them attain all their hearts desires speedily!
In the merit of the study of this book - the book of the Zohar - the Jewish People will leave the Exile in a merciful manner. (parashat Naso, 124b). Studying Kabbalah is a huge source of merit that can bring all sorts of salvation to a person’s life. If you want to sponsor to have me study in-depth Kabbalah from the Arizal or the Rashash in your merit and receive its blessings, especially for sustenance, children and health.