Kabbalistic Concepts

The Protective Layer of the Negative Side

The portion Acharei Mot is a discussion of the death of Nadab and Avihu, the two sons of Aaron.  In one of my favorite sections in the Or ha’Hayim, the great kabbalist, Rav Chaim Ben Attar, speaks about what is not so much their death, but really, their parting of this world. It tells us Nadab and Avihu became close before the Light of the Creator, and they died. And the Or ha’Hayim explains that Nadab and Avihu came so close to the pure essence of the Light of the Creator, with so much holy desire, that this closeness is what brought about their death. This is something that is mentioned in the writings of the kabbalists called the “Kiss of the Creator” that removes the soul from the body.

There is a difference in this kiss, however, between when righteous people die and Nadab and Avihu do. For the righteous person, it says that the kiss comes towards them, meaning that person had lived their life in the way that connected them more and more to the Light of the Creator by finishing their work in this world, so the Creator comes close to them in a kiss and unifies with their soul. But Nadab and Avihu were different, because they did not complete their task in this world; rather, they chose actively to go towards the Light of the Creator in such a way that would remove their soul from their bodies. That is the secret of the words, “They came close to God.” It means that they chose to continuously move closer to the Light of the Creator, even though they knew that kind of closeness would make it impossible for their souls to remain in their bodies.

Even though Nadab and Avihu were having a spiritual experience by entering into the Tabernacle, and they felt the love and beauty of the Light of the Creator, they had the consciousness that if they continued down that path connecting to the Light in that way, their souls would not remain in their bodies. Therefore, Nadab and Avihu made a conscious choice; they desired that closeness more than they desired the life within their bodies, and they actively chose to completely reunify with the Light of the Creator, even though they still had work to do in this world.

So, that’s what Rav Chaim Ben Attar explains about the conscious elevation of the souls of Nadab and Avihu out of their bodies. And the great kabbalist, the Arvei Nachal, Rav David Solomon Eibenschutz (1755-1813), who is buried in Tzfat by the Ari, takes this teaching and then gives us a deeper understanding. Each one of us, he says, is created with what’s called a positive inclination and a negative inclination. We all have a desire to do good, and a desire to do negative things, because we have free will. In order to allow for free will, there needed to be a creation of the negative inclination that exists and resides inside every single one of us. 

There’s a deeper secret about the necessity for each of us to have this negative inclination within us, however. Just as we could not exist without the positive desire, we also could not exist without that negative desire. The positive inclination that we have within us is an energy that gives us life, and so, too, is the negative inclination within us necessary to give us life. But how can we understand that we receive life from the negative inclination?

As we learned from Nadab and Avihu, if a person is truly involved in the spiritual work, is really growing in their connection, it is the nature of the soul to not want to reside in the body. That’s why, for instance, it says in the Tehillim, Book of Psalms, that with every breath we take, the soul wants to leave. The soul does not want to remain in this body, especially if it is awakened again to feel a connection with the Light of the Creator. We know it is the desire of everything to go back to its source, and the source of the soul is the Light of the Creator. As such, if there had not been a system built that almost forces the soul to stay within the body, the soul would leave the body all the time.

So, in order to stop the soul from leaving the body any time it senses the Light, the Creator took our essence, our soul, that positive nature which is really at the core of who we are, and enveloped it in the most negative desire, in the one thing that is exactly the opposite of the Light of the Creator: the Desire to Receive for the Self Alone. And what we call the negative inclination is, therefore, actually the protector. If not for the negative inclination that each one of us has, our soul would be out of our body.

The Negative Side isn’t there just to give us free will. Of course, that’s one of the reasons, but it’s also there to allow for life in the human body. Because if not for the fact that the soul was forcibly covered by this Desire to Receive for the Self Alone, the soul would not remain in the body. The Negative Side is always there to intervene and make sure that we don’t get too spiritual or connected; what happened to Nadab and Avihu, therefore, is that the protective layer of the negative inclination was broken.

With this understanding, we can begin to see that when we’re feeling disconnected, it is part of the protection, part of what keeps us alive. Any time we feel any type of lack, certainly a spiritual lack, what we’re feeling and connecting to is the protective layer that is allowing our soul to remain within the body. The soul, by nature, wants to go back to its source, so in order to allow us to do the work we need to in this world, the Creator gave us a gift that allows us to live: the negative inclination. It builds a layer, a shell, around the soul, and doesn’t allow it to connect 100% and completely get to the state where it wants to leave the body. Being enclosed within this negative inclination is what allows us to do the work in this world. It is truly a beautiful teaching, and gift. 

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