Living in the Material World - The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism - Daniel Chanan Matt

The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism - Daniel Chanan Matt (1996)

Living in the Material World


THE PURPOSE of the soul entering this body is to display her powers and actions in this world, for she needs an instrument. By descending to this world, she increases the flow of her power to guide the human being through the world. Thereby she perfects herself above and below, attaining a higher state by being fulfilled in all dimensions. If she is not fulfilled both above and below, she is not complete.

Before descending to this world, the soul is emanated from the mystery of the highest level. While in this world, she is completed and fulfilled by this lower world. Departing this world, she is filled with the fullness of all the worlds, the world above and the world below.

At first, before descending to this world, the soul is imperfect; she is lacking something. By descending to this world, she is perfected in every dimension.


YOU CAN mend the cosmos by anything you do—even eating. Do not imagine that God wants you to eat for mere pleasure or to fill your belly. No, the purpose is mending.

Sparks of holiness intermingle with everything in the world, even inanimate objects. By saying a blessing before you enjoy something, your soul partakes spiritually. This is food for the soul. As the Torah states: “One does not live on bread alone, but rather on all that issues from the mouth of God.” Not just the physical, but the spiritual—the holy sparks, springing from the mouth of God. Like the soul herself, breathed into us by God.

So when you are about to eat bread, say the motsi: “Blessed are you, YHVH our God, sovereign of the world, who brings forth bread from the earth.” Then by eating, you bring forth sparks that cleave to your soul.


WHEN YOU eat and drink, you experience enjoyment and pleasure from the food and drink. Arouse yourself every moment to ask in wonder, “What is this enjoyment and pleasure? What is it that I am tasting?”

Answer yourself, “This is nothing but the holy sparks from the sublime holy worlds that are within the food and drink.”


WHEN YOU desire to eat or drink, or to fulfill other worldly desires, and you focus your awareness on the love of God, then you elevate that physical desire to spiritual desire. Thereby you draw out the holy spark that dwells within. You bring forth holy sparks from the material world. There is no path greater than this. For wherever you go and whatever you do—even mundane activities—you serve God.


WE CONSTANTLY aspire to raise the holy sparks. We know that the potent energy of the divine ideal—the splendor at the root of existence—has not yet been revealed and actualized in the world around us. Yet the entire momentum of being approaches that ideal.

The ideal ripens within our spirit as we ascend. As we become aware of the ideal, absorbing it from the abundance beyond bounded existence, we revive and restore all the fragments that we gather from life—from every motion, every force, every dealing, every sensation, every substance, trivial or vital. The scattered light stammers in the entirety, mouthing solitary syllables that combine into a dynamic song of creation. Sprinkling, then flowing, this light of life is suffused with holy energy.

We raise these scattered sparks and arrange them into worlds, constructed within us, in our private and social lives. In proportion to the sparks we raise, our lives are enriched. Everything accords with how we act. The higher the aspiration, the greater the action; the deeper the insight, the higher the aspiration.


WE CANNOT identify the abundant vitality within all living beings, from the smallest to the largest, nor the hidden vitality enfolded within inanimate creation. Everything constantly flows, vibrates, and aspires. Nor can we estimate our own inner abundance. Our inner world is sealed and concealed, linked to a hidden something, a world that is not our world, not yet perceived or probed.

Everything teems with richness, everything aspires to ascend and be purified. Everything sings, celebrates, serves, develops, evolves, uplifts, aspires to be arranged in oneness.


THERE IS a secular world and a holy world, secular worlds and holy worlds. These worlds contradict one another. The contradiction, of course, is subjective. In our limited perception we cannot reconcile the sacred and the secular, we cannot harmonize their contradictions. Yet at the pinnacle of the universe they are reconciled, at the site of the holy of holies.


THERE IS one who sings the song of his soul, discovering in his soul everything—utter spiritual fulfillment.

There is one who sings the song of his people. Emerging from the private circle of his soul—not expansive enough, not yet tranquil—he strives for fierce heights, clinging to the entire community of Israel in tender love. Together with her, he sings her song, feels her anguish, delights in her hopes. He conceives profound insights into her past and her future, deftly probing the inwardness of her spirit with the wisdom of love.

Then there is one whose soul expands until it extends beyond the border of Israel, singing the song of humanity. In the glory of the entire human race, in the glory of the human form, his spirit spreads, aspiring to the goal of humankind, envisioning its consummation. From this spring of life, he draws all his deepest reflections, his searching, striving, and vision.

Then there is one who expands even further until he unites with all of existence, with all creatures, with all worlds, singing a song with them all.

There is one who ascends with all these songs in unison—the song of the soul, the song of the nation, the song of humanity, the song of the cosmos—resounding together, blending in harmony, circulating the sap of life, the sound of holy joy.


SEXUAL UNION is holy and pure, when performed in the right way, at the right time, and with the right intention. Let no one think that there is anything shameful or ugly in such union. The right kind of union is called knowing. It isn’t called that for nothing. Unless it were very holy, it would not be called knowing.

This matter is not as Rabbi Moses Maimonides; of blessed memory, imagined and thought in his Guide of the Perplexed, where he praises Aristotle for stating that the sense of touch is shameful. This matter is not as that Greek said; what he said smacks of subtle heresy. If that Greek scoundrel believed that the world was created with divine intention, he would not have said what he said. But we, who possess the holy Torah, believe that God created everything as divine wisdom decreed. God created nothing shameful or ugly. If sexual union is shameful, then the genitals are too. Yet God created them! How could God create something blemished, disgraceful, or deficient? After all, the Torah states: “God saw everything that he had made, and behold: very good!”

The evidence is clear. In the account of Creation we read: “The two of them were naked, the man and his wife, yet they felt no shame.” Before they ate from the Tree of Knowledge, they were contemplating the pure forms, and their intention was entirely holy. To them, the genitals were like eyes or hands or other parts of the body.

When sexual union is for the sake of heaven, there is nothing as holy or pure. The union of man and woman, when it is right, is the secret of civilization. Thereby, one becomes a partner with God in the act of Creation. This is the secret meaning of the saying of the sages: “When a man unites with his wife in holiness, the divine presence is between them.”

Human thought has the power to expand and ascend to its origin. Attaining the source, she is joined with the upper light from which she emanated. She and he become one. Then, when thought emanates once again, all becomes a single ray: the upper light is drawn down by the power of thought. In this way the divine presence appears on earth. A bright light shines and spreads around the place where the meditator is sitting. Similarly, when a man and a woman unite, and their thought joins the beyond, that thought draws down the upper light.

You should welcome her with words that draw her heart, calm her mind, and bring her joy. Then her mind will be linked with yours, and your intention with hers. Speak with her in words that arouse desire, love, and passionate union—and in words that draw her to the awe of God.


I ONCE heard a chaste man bemoaning the fact that sexual union is inherently pleasurable. He preferred that there be no physical pleasure at all, so that he could unite with his wife solely to fulfill the command of his Creator: “Be fruitful and multiply.”

What he said helped me understand a saying of our rabbis, may their memory be a blessing: “One should hallow oneself during sexual union.” I took this to mean that one should sanctify one’s thought by eliminating any intention of feeling physical pleasure. One should bemoan the fact that pleasurable sensation is inherent to this act. If only it were not so!

Sometime later, God favored me with a gift of grace, granting me understanding of the essence of sexual holiness. The holiness derives precisely from feeling the pleasure. This secret is wondrous, deep, and awesome.


HOLINESS IS twofold. It begins as service to God, but it ends as a benefit. At first it is effort, then a gift. In other words, if you strive to be holy, you are eventually endowed with holiness. The effort consists in separating and removing yourself from the material aspect of things and linking yourself with the divine. Even when dealing with your body and its needs, your soul should not stir from her union.

But it is impossible to attain this state on your own. After all, you are physical—flesh and blood. So ultimately, holiness is a gift. What you can do is strive to pursue true knowledge. Be persistent in learning how to sanctify what you do. In the end, the Blessed Holy One will guide you on the path that it wishes and impart holiness to you, so that you become holy. Then you will succeed, attaining union continuously. Even your bodily actions are transformed into holy deeds. You are walking in the presence of God while being right here in this world. You become a dwelling place of the divine.