From Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, “Meditation and the Bible” (Samuel Weiser or Jason Aronson edition), pp. 94-96; excerpt from Rabbi Chaim Vital, “THE GATES OF HOLINESS” (Sha’arey Kedushah), Author’s Introduction. (Footnotes have been omitted or restored to the text.)
The Mystic Path
“I have seen men of elevation and they are few" (Talmud: Sukkah 45b). Certain individuals yearn to ascend, but the ladder is hidden from their eyes. They contemplate the earlier books, seeking to find the path of life, the way they must go and the deeds they must do in order to elevate their souls to their highest Root, to bind themselves to God. This alone is the eternal perfection.
This was the way of the prophets. All their days they would bind themselves to their Creator. As a result of this attachment, Ruach HaKodesh (the Divine spirit) would descend on them, teaching them the path leading to the Light. This would then open their eyes to the mysteries of the Torah, this being the subject of King David's prayer, “Open my eyes, and let me gaze at the wonders of Your Torah” (Psalms 119:18). They would be led along a straight path, prepared by the “men of elevation,” so that they should reach their goal.
After the prophets came the Early Saints (Chasidim Rishonim; see Talmud: Berakhot 30b, et al.), who were also called the Pharasees (Secluded Ones) (Talmud: Chagigah 18b, et al.) They sought to follow the ways of the prophets and to imitate their methods.
These individuals would travel to rocky caves and deserts, secluded from the affairs of society. Some would seclude themselves in their homes, as isolated as those who went into the deserts.
Day and night, they would continuously praise their Creator, repeating the words of the Torah, and chanting the Psalms, which gladden the heart. They would continue in this manner until their minds were strongly bound to the Supernal Lights with powerful yearning. All their days they would do this consistently until they reached the level of Ruach HaKodesh, “prophesying and not stopping” (Numbers 11:25).
Even though these individuals were on a much lower level than the prophets, we are still ignorant of their ways and methods. We do not know how these holy men served God so that we should be able to emulate them.
In the generations following these individuals, people's hearts became smaller and understanding was reduced. Masters of Ruach HaKodesh went to their final rest and ceased to exist among us. They left us bereft, hungering and thirsting, until hopelessness grew in the hearts of men and they ceased to seek out this wondrous discipline. All that were left were “two or three berries on the uppermost branch” (Isaiah 17:6), “one in a city, and two in a family”(Jeremiah 3:14). “They seek water and there is none”(Isaiah 41:17), “for every vision has been sealed off” (Daniel 9:24). All this is because there was no book teaching the method of how to come close and approach the innermost sanctuary.
Some bound angels with oaths, making use of Divine Names. They sought light, but found darkness. The angels with which they communicated were very low angels, overseers of the physical world, who combined good and evil. These angels themselves could not perceive the Truth and the Highest Lights. They therefore revealed mixed concepts, consisting of good and evil, truth and falsehood, as well as useless ideas involving medicine, alchemy, and the use of amulets and incantations (see Sefer Chasidim 205, 206).
These too “erred with wine and were confused with strong drink” (Isaiah 28:7). What they should have done was spend their time studying the Torah and its commandments. They should have learned a lesson from the four spiritual giants who entered into the Mysteries (Pardes), where none escaped whole other than the pious elder, Rabbi Akiba (Talmud: Chagigah 14b). The angels even wanted to strike him down, but God helped him, and “he entered in peace and left in peace” (ibid. 15b).
These individuals sought very high levels, close to actual prophecy, and it was for this reason that they were injured. But even we, today, can be worthy of the lower levels of Ruach HaKodesh. This can be through the revelation of Elijah, to which many were worthy, as is well known. It can also consist of revelation of the souls of saints (Tzaddikim), which is mentioned many times in the Zohar. Even in our own times, I have seen holy men attaining this.
There are also cases where a person's own soul becomes highly purified and is revealed to him, leading him in all his ways. All these are ways of approaching God, and they can be attained even today by those who are worthy. But this requires much discipline and many temptations before one arrives at the Truth. If one is not sufficiently prepared, another, unclean, spirit may enter him...
I am therefore writing a book in which I will explain these mysteries . . . as I learned them from the lips of the saintly Rabbi Isaac Luria (also known as the Arizal). Since these involve the deepest secrets and most hidden mysteries, for every handbreadth that I reveal, I will hide a mile. With great difficulty, I will open the gates of holiness, making an opening like the eye of a needle, and let him who is worthy pass through it to enter the innermost chamber. God is good and He will not withhold this benefit from those who walk in righteousness.