Giving: The Essential Teaching of the Kabbalah is a conceptual overview of the teachings of Rabbi Yehuda Lev Ashlag, author of the Sulam commentary on the Zohar, with extensive explanations and interpretations by his living student, Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Gottlieb (“with commentary and insights for living the Kabbalah”), translated into English by Aryeh Siegel.
This is a book of substance because it presents in a popularized form the teachings of an authentic master of Kabbalah. As such, it is an intense and demanding book. And it is in many ways the opposite of most such popular explanations of Judaism because it is unyieldingly and uncompromisingly dedicated to explaining that a person must set aside expectations and desires of receiving and focus as completely as possible solely on giving.
The fact that we are living in material bodies in a material world adulterates all absolute systems of selflessness. Thus, in practical terms Giving recommends that a person form a society of at least three people who will meet regularly to inspire each other and who will give to and support each other as lovingly and selflessly as possible.
It is not through outreach programs and mitzvah campaigns but by internal change in a person that will naturally have an effect on the environment that a messianic atmosphere will be created: one in which everyone is concerned with giving to and assisting everyone else. This is a spirit that will go beyond the people of Israel and that will be shared by all people across the world, because all people have an intrinsic value and are not mere backdrops to the drama of the people of Israel. Only then will it truly be possible for the human being to live fully as a human being.
And that is not only to be a moral person interpersonally but to realize one’s full potential of clinging to God, to His ways and to His light.
Only an untiring drive to have a dynamic relationship with the Divine suffices, and even complete mitzvah observance without that is mere egocentrism that is incapable of bringing a messianic age. And only an untiring drive to selflessly give to others can help lead to that goal, because only in a relationship with other human beings, in which one continuously receives responses from others, can one see if one’s giving is authentic.
If I may include in a review an excerpt of another review, Rabbi Aryeh Ben David (founder of Ayeka: Center for Soulful Education) writes, “If I were to recommend one book to commence the study of Kabbalah, it would be Aryeh Siegel’s Giving. This is not only an introduction to primary Kabbalistic ideas, but also a redirecting of how to live a life of Torah. With this scholarly and graceful translation, Aryeh Siegel offers us the opportunity to transform ourselves.”
As said above, this is largely a book of an intense conceptual overview of the world and its dynamics. This book therefore has little discussion of many of the terms or ideas usually addressed in such books: the sefirot, and so forth.
Is following the path this book recommends the way to attain the goals that this book proposes? I would say yes, if that way is congenial to you. However, one might argue, based on this book’s insistence on going against one’s natural inclinations, one should follow its path precisely if one finds that the way is not congenial—if it is not self-serving. But in my view, that way lies madness.
This book may certainly stir up your brains and challenge you deeply. Should you then allow its ideas to seep into you and remain a Giving dilettante as you continue in other ways to be a good Jew (or human being) or seek two fellow-searchers to form a Giving mini-society? Can you end up, as an individual or as a member of a mini-Giving society, fooling yourself, growing more ego-inflated as you think that you are becoming a more rarefied, superior being—and to which teacher will you then go for correction? Is there a sort of Giving school, just as students preparing to be psychologists must undergo therapy and training?
The answer is of course blowing in your spirit–or, I am reliably informed, in Telzstone at Rav Gottlieb’s bet midrash (and, so long as the Covid-19 virus is “viral” – on the ברכת שלום youtube channel).