Reading about some of the myths of Kabbalah I am once again reminded of the power of myth to hold and support us in life and on the spiritual path. I recognize this containment in Rabbi Isaac Luria‘s myth of the broken vessels, in the practice of tikkun ha-nefesh and most especially in the practice of tikkun olam. In many ways, tikkun olam seems to be a jewish version of the Bodhisatva ideal which is often presented as the highest ideal of the spiritual path. And yet, I find myself more easily able to connect to tikkun olam than the ideal of the Bodhisatva.
According to Lurianic myth, during the creation of the world God poured a ray of light into several vessels created to hold this divine light. Some of the vessels, unable to contain the owner of this divine light, shattered and spilled the divine light into the heart of creation. Most of this light returned to the source but some of the sparks were left behind, trapped in this world. By living the holy life, acting righteously and recognizing the divinity that is in everyone and everything we can help elevate those sparks and unite them back with the source; this is the work of tikkun olam.
In tikkun olam we are each asked to take a small part in the big, perhaps infinite, project of collecting the sparks of divine light. I feel invited to participate to the best of my ability in this massive project and to do my part along with everyone else. I see this as an invitation to recognize and to support the light in everyone around me, to bring about healing in small ways as well as large. It appears to be a task that everyone can participate in, and in fact we do even without knowing. This myth has the power to inspire which I can feel to a degree and yet, at the same time I still feel as if there is something missing.
There’s an internal resistance to allowing Luria’s myth in. It is as if there’s an internal conflict between the rational mind and the mythic mind. While the mythic mind enjoys and even craves the kind of support it gets from myth and story, the rational mind resists and is unwilling to let go of its own ways of making sense in the world. Paradoxically, I know that the more I’m able to lean into the myth, the more I’ll be able to let go of the need for rational understanding but this is not enough to resolve the conflict. I can see two ways out: one way is finding or creating a mythology that is acceptable to the rational mind; the other way involves relaxing the rational mind’s need to hold on to old stories and trusting that things will still work out.
This conflict between the rational and the mythical is the same conflict that kabbalists of all ages had to contend with. In their case it was the conflict between established religious organization and the mythical/mystical world that they’ve been exploring. Kabbalah survived partly because it managed to follow the second solution I outlined above; it managed to find a way to combine both worlds, to walk the seemingly narrow path of religious doctrine while at the same time creating a larger context through myth and symbols. In this way, I see the path of Kabbalah as integrating myth and rationality and I wonder once again about my own capacity to integrate those forces in my mind as well.