Rabbeinu HaAri HaKadosh (the Holy Arizal — short for Eloki Rabbi Yitzchak — the G-dly Rabbi Yitzchak) was born in 5294 (1534 C.E) in Jerusalem. From there he descended to Egypt with his widowed mother, and learned by the Radbaz (Rabbi David Ben Zimra) and Rabbi Betzalel Ashkenazi, author of the Shita Mekubetzet. There the spirit of Hashem began to arouse him and he merited to the revelation of Eliyahu HaNavi, until he merited to reveal and bequeath the entire Kabbalah. He returned to Eretz Yisrael and produced talmidim who would become the outstanding kabbalists of their generations. At the age of 38, he finished his tikkun in this physical world — and thus was “taken from us the holy Ark of the Covenant” in the city of Tzfat on 5 Av 5332 (1572 C.E.) and there he is buried.
Rabbi Chaim Vital writes: “If I hadn’t feared because of the great wrath, anger, and jealousy of [those] who overwhelm me, that there is found in our generation sages who [stay in] their opinions and stiffen their necks, not to believe that there is G-d in the world, and I feared lest because of their jealousy, upon hearing of his greatness and wonders, G-d forbid, might put a blemish in the holy and say, ‘Who is this man amongst men…Behold, Hashem also talks to us.’ If not for that I would relate a bit of his ways and wonders which my own eyes saw and not a stranger, phenomenal things which haven’t been seen in the entire world since the times of the Tannaim, such as Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his colleagues” (Introduction to Etz Chaim).
“My Rebbe z”l was a spark of the soul of Moshe Rabbeinu a”h, and there was a certain man in his neighborhood in Tzfat who would contradict everything that he would say, until my Rebbe z”l once said to him, ‘You’re still contradicting me? If I wanted to, I could make the earth swallow you, but it’s not my intention to harm any person.’ I asked him and pestered him [until] he told me that [this man] was a reincarnation of Korach and came to hear him in order to rectify himself, but he still maintains the controversy as he did at first” (Sefer Gilgulim 64, in comment).
In Divrey Yosef, it’s related: “They considered him a prophet, and his reputation was known amongst the entire city’s population, until it was heard about by two great sages who didn’t believe what was being said. They came to him and said, ‘What’s this Yitzchak, that they’re saying about you that you see the future — please tell us. Because of his great humility, he denied the matter, saying ‘I’m not a prophet, nor the son of a prophet, and I don’t know anything…And they came with another eight sages and prostrated themselves at the feet of the Arizal, saying, ‘Please don’t withhold good from us. We are prepared to be your disciples, to serve you, and to drink your Torah with thirst…’
“Rabbi Chaim Vital still wasn’t there, but in Damascus, and every night the Arizal would bring his soul and talk to him, saying, ‘Chacham Rabbi Chaim, why don’t you come to learn [by me]? Know, that I came to the world to rectify your soul, and to hand over to you the highest mysteries which haven’t been revealed since the day that the world was created. In the morning Rabbi Chaim would rise and relate these things to his students and to the sages, and make fun, because he held himself to be a greater sage and kabbalist than the Ari, and he was involved in a book which he wrote on the Zohar.
“One day, he said to himself, ‘I’ll get up and go to the Ari and visit him [and see] if he is as what’s been said,’ and he rose and went to Tzfat. Immediately upon arriving he went to the Arizal to check him out — how will he explain a particular passage in the Zohar which is not understood, but he already understood it. When Rabbi Chaim Vital asked about this passage, the Arizal told him great secrets which were alluded to in that passage. Upon hearing this, he was shocked, and his soul almost left him” (Divrey Yosef 165-7, Rabbi Yosef Sambari, from 1672 C.E.).
These are the words of the Ben Ish Chai: “Rabbeinu HaGadol [the Ari] was born in the Holy Land and afterwards went to Egypt, and there he merited to this wisdom and to the revelation of Eliyahu z”l. And there were those who didn’t recognize him when he was there, who didn’t know his greatness and the greatness of his wisdom, and his wisdom was not known and accepted by everyone when he was there. However, afterwards Hashem awakened his spirit through Eliyahu z”l and told him to go to the Holy Land. And so he did, leaving Egypt and arriving in Tzfat, and there his spiritual level and knowledge was revealed, and his wisdom became publicized and accepted by everyone. Everyone recognized him and the truth of his words, wisdom, and spiritual level were confirmed by all the sages of the revealed Torah and the Kabbalah. And all the great Sages of the generation who were found there said, ‘You are a prince of G-d amongst us’ and all the people said of him, ‘Holy, holy, he was sanctified by Heaven.’ And there’s no need to write at length in detail about the things that happened from the beginning to the end, since they are known through scribes and books.
“And I thought to find an allusion to Rabbeinu [the Arizal], regarding his spiritual level in this wisdom [of Kabbalah] in the verses of the holy Torah, because there’s nothing that isn’t alluded to in the holy Torah, as in known from the words of the Ramban z”l. And it’s what’s written in Parashat Toldot, ‘Yitzchak’s servants dug in the stream valley and found a well of living waters there. And the shepherds of Gerar argued with Yitzchak’s shepherds, saying, “The water is ours” and he called the name of the well, “Challenge” because they had challenged him. And they dug another well and they also argued over it, and he called its name, “Accusation.” And he withdrew from there and dug another well and they didn’t argue over it, and he called its name “Wide Spaces,” saying “Because now Hashem will [give] us wide-open spaces and we will be fruitful in the Land. And he ascended from there to Be’er-sheva.’ It’s not my desire to explain the entire allusion, because what truly happened from the beginning to the end is known to Tzaddikim in Gan Eden–there they will explain this allusion. And if I erred, the good G-d should atone for me, and enough of this” (Da’at U’Tvuna, Ben Ish Chai, First Introduction).
In these words, the Ben Ish Chai alludes to all the battles which the holy Ari went through until he came to the rest and the inheritance, as Rabbeinu Nachman explains in Likutey Moharan 20, that the intention of “Be’eR (well)” is “BiuRei Torah” (explanations of Torah) and its mysteries.
And so writes Rabbi Natan: “The main success of the evil inclination in each generation is to hide and conceal the true Tzaddik in that generation specifically. As we see ourselves, that the main controversy is on the Tzaddik in [his own] generation, and then afterwards when much time has already passed they also recognize this Tzaddik, saying that he was certainly a Tzaddik, but they dispute this Tzaddik [also] in the generation after him.
“Because in the days of the Arizal, there was a major controversy on the Ari, and they didn’t want to recognize that there existed in that generation a novelty such as this with such Ruach HaKodesh (Divine inspiration) as this, as is brought in the Kitvey HaArizal. Several generations afterwards, the Arizal was accepted and all admitted that he was an awesome novelty, a man of G-d, but they disputed other Tzaddikim in the generations after him, until close to our own days there was the Baal Shem Tov z”l who was an extraordinary and awesome light, and there was a great controversy about him. In the days of the Baal Shem Tov, most of his antagonists recognized the Arizal, and disputed the Baal Shem Tov z”l. And so that’s how it is in every generation, and it’s already discussed in books about this (see the end of Noam Elimelech, where it talks about this).
“All of this is because the primary purification of the imagination, which is the purification of faith, is specifically through the true Tzaddik in this generation specifically, because you only have the judge ‘in your days’ (Rosh Hashanah 25b). Because one needs to purify his faith every day anew according to the renewal of the works of creation of that day, and this isn’t purified except through the Tzaddik of that generation specifically. Therefore, the Accuser sets himself on this in all directions to hide and conceal this Tzaddik, and to arouse much controversy and questions so that people won’t draw near to him, G-d forbid, because the primary faith, which is the primary holiness of Israel, is dependent on this Tzaddik specifically.
“Therefore, everyone needs to struggle greatly to draw near to the true Tzaddik of this generation specifically. And it’s not enough to purify the imagination by receiving the Torah, and through the books of the prophets and Tzaddikim of the past, because one needs specifically to go to the true Tzaddik in this generation, in order to purify one’s faith at every moment, according to the purification which is needed in this generation every day anew” (Likutey Halachot Orach Chaim 2, Bircat HaRe’ach 4:33).
The book Eden Tzion relates: “I heard from a certain elder who saw by the Rav and Gaon Rabbi S. Heller ztz”l the book Shivchey HaAri, a manuscript much larger than what was published, in which he saw written that when the Maharshal [Rabbi Shlomo Luria, author of several important works on the Talmud and Halacha] heard news about the Ari, how he would reveal the greatest secrets in public and expound the mysteries of the Torah, and about his entirely new way in prayer and Avodas Hashem, and this way was [considered] by [the Maharshal] foreign and strange. Concerned that the masses shouldn’t stumble in this trap (as he thought then), he gathered together three [great] sages of his generation and country, and this meeting was Thursday evening, and they decided in that meeting to decree a Rabbinic ban on him and this entire new path.
“When this became known to the Arizal through Ruach HaKodesh, he feared and trembled from the wrath of the sages of the generation and immediately in the morning rose and called his student the Mekubal Rabbi Yisrael Saruk z”l and sent him in a cloud, using the Divine Name of Kifitzat HaDerech [kabbalist teleportation] to the place where the Maharshal lived. As expected, he didn’t believe Rabbi Yisrael that just today he left Tzfat, and that there he baked the Shabbat bread which he brought with him.
Rabbi Yisrael requested that he enter a darkened room with him, and when they entered there Rabbi Yisrael said the verse, “In the beginning, G-d created the heavens,” and there the heavens and all of its hosts were created, and the Maharshal fainted. He showed him more wondrous things, and when he read the weekly parasha, two times in Hebrew, and once in Targum, a pillar of fire descended from the heavens and surrounded the entire room. Then when it became clear to the Marashal the great holiness of the Arizal and his students, and that all his wisdom and conduct was received from Heaven, then he sent to him, saying that he was related to him and from the same family as him. But the Arizal responded to him that they weren’t even from the same tribe (Eden Tzion, Yud, 53, comment 5).
In the book Hallelu Avdei Hashem (stories from Rabbi Moshe Aryeh Freund, p. 494), this story is told with several variations, that the Ari sent Rabbi Chaim Vital and that he arrived Erev Shabbat through Kifitzat HaDerech, and the Maharshal gave him milk to drink, except that Rabbi Chaim Vital claimed that he didn’t see milk at all, and the Maharshal responded puzzled: “Isn’t a glass of milk placed in front of you?” And Rabbi Chaim Vital responded that perhaps it was milked by a gentile, and it was then clarified that the [gentile] servant milked the animal without the presence of a Jew. And Rabbi Chaim Vital commented on the saying of the Sages that milk that was milked by a gentile without a Jew present…that a Jew needs to be amongst those who don’t see milk such as this. And Rabbi Chaim Vital spoke to him of the greatness of the Ari, and the anger of the Maharshal was calmed.