In order to understand this, one must realize that true perfection is G-d's essence. Every [deficiency] is merely the absence of His good and the concealment of His presence. The closeness of G-d and illumination of His presence is therefore the root and cause of every perfection that exists.
The concealment of His presence, on the other hand, is the root and cause of every fault, the degree of deficiency depending on the degree of concealment.
Here the Ramchal is briefly addressing a question that he will examine more deeply in Chapter 5: the idea of deficiency. We're not dealing with the question of why deficiency exists. We already know, on a basic level, that the purpose of life – mastering pleasure through free will – cannot exist if there are no options in this world to choose from. But how can a perfect G-d create imperfection?
In this paragraph, the Ramchal defines deficiency as "the absence of His good and the concealment of His presence." In other words, G-d doesn't create a reality called deficiency. Deficiency is really a non-existence. It's a shadow. G-d's nature is such that inherent in creation is perfection. G-d has to "go out of His way," so to speak, to create an imperfect world with deficiencies. It's like a perfect piano player, whose perfect talent just flows naturally from his fingertips, holding himself back to allow for imperfect music.
In this case, though, the analogy is more subtle. And that's because these deficiencies seem, in our world, to be actual realities. It's more than just a mirage; a mirage is a distortion of sand that appears as water – but at least it's a distortion of some reality. Deficiency, on the other hand, is a non-existence. It's looking at a hole and thinking of it as a tangible thing. It's grasping at nothing.
It is perhaps for this reason that when we pursue things that are unhealthy – mentally or ethically – we often describe the resulting feeling as "emptiness." We have a fantasy in our minds that cheating to get ahead, or acting on an unhealthy addiction or impulse, will give us satisfaction. It never does. The "high" is temporary and the "low" puts us further back, because not only did the high not last, moreover it was a vain pursuit. It was either a waste of time, putting us right back where we started, or worse, it damaged our self-esteem, strengthened an addiction, or engendered greater frustration and a sense of unfulfillment.
The Maharal, in a number of his writings, uses this idea to describe the afterlife. While there are Jewish sources that metaphorically describe the afterlife as shame, or a burning pain, other sources describe it simply as "a feeling of emptiness and lack." For someone who spends a lifetime relishing in the deficiencies, there are enough opportunities to get distracted from the lows and keep us focusing on the next high. But after a lifetime of pursuing these black holes, what is a person left with? When they move to the afterlife and experience their spiritual nature, they'll see the reality of what they failed to accomplish in this world. And they'll be stuck spending eternity with a huge mountain of nothingness.
The Ramchal explains that this setup of perfection and deficiency operates with "the degree of deficiency depending on the degree of concealment." In other words, few things in this world are truly black and white. True, certain acts are utterly good and holy, and a few are absolutely evil and deficient. But most real decisions that we make in life, and most options that we find G-d presenting us with, are not that clear.
Of course, this is part of the plan to allow us to have free will. Giving money to a needy person is generally the right thing to do. What about if he's a drug addict just using the money for the next fix? What if he could be working for a living but he finds it easier just to beg others to support him? What if I give him the money but at the same time make him feel bad for asking for it? Is it better not to give?
We know that exercise is important for a healthy, balanced life. Is that value an absolute? Should exercise take priority over social obligations? Spiritual needs? Is there such a thing as too much of a good thing?
So we see that one of the ways that free will comes into play in our world is by sorting out the confusions. The world is full of these tools to gain perfection and hopefully avoid the black holes of deficiency. But there are many subtleties that we need to be able to discern. It's all part of the process of becoming, in the Ramchal's words, the "master" of our own good.
Now, the Ramchal summarizes everything said until now:
This creature then stands balanced between perfection and deficiency, which in turn are the result of this illumination or deficiency. When he grasps the elements of perfection and makes them his inner gains, he actually grasps Him [G-d], as He is their Root and Source. The more elements of perfection he gains, the greater becomes his grasp and bond of closeness to Him.
Finally, as he attains the goal of earning perfection, he thereby attains the goal of an ultimate grasp and bond of perfection to Him, and he thus becomes attached to Him, deriving both pleasure and perfection from His own goodness, while he is himself the master of his own good and perfection.
One idea here may seem a bit perplexing: "...he thereby attains the goal of an ultimate grasp and bond of perfection to Him, and he thus becomes attached to Him." This seems to imply that a person can choose good, so consistently, that he actually becomes completely attached to G-d. It seems to ignore the fact that in this world, there seems to always be a struggle to connect, and necessarily so. If a person gets so attached to G-d in this world that they have "an ultimate grasp and bond of perfection to Him," that would seem to negate any free will.
Answering this question requires understanding the Ramchal's approach to death and the afterlife, which is something he will deal with at length in Chapter 4. Suffice for now to say that the picture the Ramchal is presenting us is not life as we experience it – given the nature of man, the dynamics of free will, and the body and soul. All these topics, coming up soon...
- What do we mean by saying "deficiency is a non-existence"?
- Give an example of the emptiness we feel when "choosing deficiency" in our own lives.
- How is the Ramchal's picture of deveikut (spiritual attachment to G-d) the polar opposite of the Eastern conception of removing attachment to the material in order to access the spiritual?
- Why does evil exist in the world?