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As the generations unfold, greater secrets become revealed

The Torah has a revealed as well as an esoteric dimension. The revealed side, the Written and Oral Torah, is transmitted in the form of letters. The letters are like vessels containing the light, condensing it to fit their size and quality. Yet, since the mysteries of the Torah are the very essence of the Infinite Light, the finite quality of the letters cannot represent this source of wisdom in all its complexity. The wisdom cannot be captured in words, but remains in the aspect of "sight and perception" - a seeing with the heart, which means a direct perception of the ideas.

This helps us to understand what the Ari taught. The Ari explained that the mysteries of the Torah are a " kabbala"- literally "something that is received". It is not a knowledge that can be attained through the finite quality of the letters, but a perception that must be "received" from a master who himself received from one before him. The perception of the esoteric tradition is then a merging of spirits with the Divine which, by its very essence, cannot be condensed into letters.

The revelation of the secrets of Kabbala was first entrusted in written form to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, known as "Rashbi", a second-century sage, who composed the Zohar. Although there were many sages before him who had gained a level of expertise in the esoteric teachings of the Torah, only Rashbi was given permission to transmit the Zohar in the form of letters because he lived after the destruction of the Temple.

As long as the Temple stood, a divine light permeated the world.

The secrets of the Torah could remain in the form of "sight and perception", a form that went beyond the boundary of letters. However, after the destruction of the Temple, the light was dimmed. Yet, Rabbi Shimon received permission from Heaven to transmit a few of these secrets in writing, so that a choice body of students could receive the light through the conduit of letters.

As later generations decreased in holiness, the light was further dimmed. Once again, Heaven gave permission for a sage, the Ari, to commit a greater proportion of Torah secrets to writing. This was a condensation of the light, but was nevertheless permitted because the heart-vision of each generation was diminishing, necessitating the conduit of letters in order to transmit the divine light.

A few generations after the Ari came the Baal Shem Tov, who fulfilled the same function. Yet, interestingly enough, neither the Ari nor the Baal Shem Tov was able to confine their overwhelming perception of the Infinite Light to writing. They transmitted their teachings orally; it was their students who wrote them down. Even Rabbi Shimon wrote only the first "Mishna" of the Zohar , the main body of the Zohar being written down by his disciples some seventy years after his death.

As the generations continued to decrease in wisdom and holiness, more and more Torah secrets had to be presented in written form, otherwise people would have been unable to perceive the light.

By Simcha H. Benyosef, from "Living the Kabbala: A Guide to the Sabbath and Festivals in the Teachings of Rabbi Rafael Moshe Luria"]