Is it possible to find a spiritual barometer with which to measure the growth of our soul? How can we even begin to define one’s spiritual level?
For many things in life, there are indications of change, growth and improvement. Whether it’s switching to a healthy lifestyle, getting closer to achieving goals at work, or recognizing whether a project will succeed or fail, there are general markers along our path to show us that yes, this change is gradually happening, and yes, we are improving.
But because our soul’s spiritual work is so widely different from everyone else’s, determining growth and positive change can become a bit of a guessing game.
The Ari, in his opening statement within The Study of Ten Luminous Emanations, writes a phrase that shines a light on our question:
Previously we studied that in the Endless Reality of the endless Light, lack cannot exist. The fact that the Ari uses a word to reflect emptiness, then, must have a deeper meaning, one that will hopefully change the way we view our study of the wisdom of Kabbalah.
Rav Ashlag in his commentary explains that everything in our world has two aspects: the essence of the thing, and the vessel which allows it to be revealed. In spiritual terms, the essence is referred to as the Light of Wisdom (Or DeChochmah) and the vessel is referred to as the Light of Mercy/Sharing (Or DeChassadim). The essence or Light of anything can never be revealed without the vessel to contain it.
In our daily lives, it is something we know well. Hardware without the software is just an empty shell. A house is simply a piece of construction, and no matter how beautifully it is designed, it’s the people who live there that make it feel like home.
In the world of spirituality this works the same way. Real Light – lasting fulfilment, joy and success – can never be experienced in life without first positive actions of sharing, mercy, kindness. They are the vessel which allows the essence of all Light to enter and stay in our life. For most of us, this is not new information. Sharing, mercy, love and kindness are the spiritual currency of our life.
Rav Ashlag, however, reveals a startling secret about the other half of this equation.
He explains that although positive actions are important because they become the container of our life’s fulfilment, without a constant deepening of our spiritual study those actions cannot bring more positivity into our own life. Because the spiritual study, the “essence” that the Ari refers to as Light of Wisdom, is ultimately the spirit of everything. Imagine the cover of a book with all the pages inside ripped out. You might be able to make out some of the plot from the jacket and reviews, but the life and heart of the story is no longer there.
This is why the force of Mercy and Sharing is referred to by the Ari as “empty air,” because it is empty of the essence of the Light. It is waiting for the Light of Wisdom to come in. Our actions of sharing, which sometimes mistakenly give us the feeling that we are connecting to the Light of the Creator, cannot bring us closer to our soul’s true work without a deepening of our consciousness, without constant study. The same, of course, is true of the reverse. Merely studying the wisdom of Kabbalah all day long will not bring us to accomplish our soul’s true work without actions of sharing, of restricting our ego and selfish desires. Without putting into practice what we study, we can never grow.
One without the other is empty air, like a balloon without breath.
But at the end of the day we must remember that the essence of it all is the study of spiritual wisdom. The more we study, the more we deepen our understanding of the study, and the more our spiritual growth will reflect that. This is how we measure our spiritual growth. By looking at something we studied a month ago or a year ago and seeing it in a new light, being inspired all over again, or becoming excited by the same teaching as if it was our first time – this is an indication of growing closer to our soul’s perfection and purpose.
This is the essence of Rav Ashlag’s meaning. Positive actions are important, but it is in consistently deepening our spiritual study that we increase our ability to bring more Light to the world.