Where the Existential Meets the Non-Existential
-- Samach-Vav Part 11 --
When we read the story of Exodus in these
weekly Torah portions many questions come to mind. The most
obvious one being: why in the first place did G-d want the
Jewish people to be enslaved and oppressed by the Egyptians
(as foretold to Abraham)? After all, it was G-d that created
a situation that forced Jacob and his family to Egypt, which
ultimately lead to the Egyptian bondage. Why would G-d want
to cause such countless suffering to a nation that He loved?
Which of course is the eternal question of
all time: Why is life so difficult? Why do each of us have
to endure “Egyptian enslavement” (Mitzrayim
constraints) in our personal lives? Why do we have to be
“foreigners in a land that is not” ours?
Even if the actual bondage and subsequent
exodus can be explained, the ensuing events that followed
the exodus seem equally unfair. Okay, after 210 years under
Egyptian oppression the Jewish people finally leave Egypt.
But before they can even catch their breath, Pharaoh and
the Egyptians regret letting the Jews go, and they pursue
them to the point where the Jewish nation is stuck between
the pursuing Egyptians behind then and the unrelenting sea
before them. Why did G-d lead them to the sea – completely
out of the way of travel toward the Promised Land?! Haven’t
they suffered enough? They barely leave Egypt, broken, worn
out by over two centuries of persecution, let them be –
take them to the Promised Land. Why do You – G-d –
have to lead them out of the way, knowing that they would
now be trapped between the sea and the Egyptians?!
Even if this too can be explained, it doesn’t
end there. The Egyptians drown in the sea, but the difficult
journey of the Jews just begins. 43 days after the parting
of the sea, they receive the Torah at Sinai. Over the next
nine months they build the portable Temple (Mishkan), which
is erected on Rosh Chodesh Nissan (almost a year after they
left Egypt). Then they begin a long, arduous wandering through
the Sinai Wilderness.
And after all the forty years of wandering
– which comprises the rest of the entire Torah (all
the four books from Exodus through Deuteronomy) –
one would think that the story has a happy ending. But no
– that would be asking for too much… The entire
generation that left Egypt (save two people), including
the great Moses, never enter the Promised Land. They all
perish in the wilderness.
The only “comfort” we perhaps can glean from
these events is that reading the story of the Bible makes
our own lives look not that bad. Challenge after challenge,
from one darkness to the next, disappointment after disappointment
– even when you feel you have found redemption you are thrown
right back into the lions’ den – and then some.
The Bible is an incredible reflection of real
But is this our destiny? Are we doomed to
a life of constant struggle? After all our great achievements
will we ever enter the “Promised Land”?
What is Torah? The word Torah means instruction,
and also light. As discussed many times, the Torah is not
a story or history book. It is a blueprint for life –
bestowed to us by the Cosmic Architect of life.
The Torah’s account of the exodus from Egypt
(which begins in these weekly chapters and continues till
the end of the five books) is actually a fascinating study
that can teach us volumes about our own personal passage
from darkness to light in every which way – the journey
from fear to courage, from pain to joy, from confusion to
clarity, from tension to resolution, from insignificance
Above all – beginning from the root of all
existence – the Torah narrative describes the process of
creation and the very dynamics of existence. The characters,
places and events in the Torah lay out the basic building
blocks of reality. In essence, the Torah is as spiritual
map, which evolves and manifests into a historical narrative
that transpires in a particular time and space. The rule
is that things always begin in the spiritual and then take
shape in the material.
The Egyptian exile is the physical manifestation
of the great tzimtzum – the original “black hole”
created by the concealment of the Divine light, as explained
in Lurianic Kabbalah. Every form of darkness – every misaligned
state and displacement, every form of injustice and oppression
– is a result of the tzimtzum. When the Divine light/energy
emanates, everything knows its place in the big picture;
everything feels part of one integral whole. Man would be
unable to raise arms against man if we sensed that we are
Essentially conscious life as we know it is
initially a state of darkness, and we must search for light
and for meaning. We begin with our eyes closed, and work
toward opening them.
The purpose of this concealment is not to
torture us, but to bring the best out of us to fulfill the
purpose of existence: To reveal the light and transform
the very darkness of matter into a luminous source of spiritual
energy – creating a Divine home in the lowest of worlds.
Following the tzimtzum, Luria continues,
comes a kav,
a thin ray of light that transmits energy into the “black
hole” and begins to bring existence into being, as
discussed last week.
Our hard work of refining this unlit world
draws light from the kav and refines the “containers”
of materialism. As the “containers” become more honed and
the light grows in intensity we come closer to filling the
“dark space” until the point when matter gets reunited with
spirit, in one seamless flow, and in turn introduces new
unprecedented dimensions of the Divine.
This process, which in microcosm is reflected
in every life’s up and down journeys, is the entire
story of the exodus from Egypt and the subsequent events,
the parting of the sea, Sinai, the Temple, and the forty
year trudge through the Wilderness. Each step expresses
another stage in the process of illuminating and transforming
the void and the tzimtzum, and turning the universe
into a Divine home.
After the Jewish people leave the dark Egyptian
exile – and after the kav begins to illuminate
the great dark void left by the tzimtzum– the light
of redemption begins to expand.
Once could argue that perhaps we should be
satisfied, relieved that we escaped from the clutches of
darkness; why ask for more? But no. Simply to get out of
the constraints is not enough reason and cannot justify
the pain caused by the enslavement. As G-d told Abraham,
after your children will be “enslaved and oppressed”
as “foreigners in a land that is not theirs,”
they will “leave with great wealth” –
they will come out stronger and greater than when they entered.
Thus, we move from Egypt to the Re(e)d Sea.
The sages explain that the parting of the sea was an unprecedented
Divine revelation. In Kabbalsitic terms: Sea reflects the
“hidden worlds” originating from the Divine
infinite light (ohr Ein Sof). Land manifests the
“revealed worlds” stemming from the Divine finite light.
These two dimensions, on a lower level, express the two
levels of “lights” and “containers,” the inner and the outer
– soul and body, spirit and matter.
The parting of the sea – when the “sea
was transformed to land” – opened a door between
the finite and the infinite, and bridged the two, giving
us a taste of the seamless pre-tzimtzum reality.
This too, however, is not enough to justify
all the pain. “Great wealth” includes much more
than a taste, and even more than a full meal even of the
pre-tzimtzum unity. Because after all, this seamlessness
existed before the tzimtzum, so what is ultimately
achieved by returning to square one?
And so – we go from the kav into the
light before the tzimtzum. In perhaps the single
deepest Chassidic discourse ever delivered, the Rebbe Rashab,
100 years ago this week, takes us on a fascinating journey
into the pre-tzimtzum reality. The Rebbe takes us
on a trip – as only a Rebbe can – into the vortex
of reality, as it was at the moment of the first “bang”
and even earlier (conceptually, not in time).
And how far can we go? How deep does the “rabbit
hole” really go?
Come let’s find out.
So, working our way from existence upward
– deconstructing, as it were, the process of creation
– first we have a tzimtzum, a profound concealment
that is the very nature of existence as we know it. We feel
alone; a sad state of existential loneliness. Separate form
each other, separate from ourselves – a lonely dark
world, which has potential for inflicting great pain and
misery. All rooted in disconnection.
But this tzimtzum is not airtight.
It has a purpose, and is driven by a concealing force –
to allow space for our independent consciousness, so that
we can build the Divine home in the lowest of levels.
Following the tzimtzum comes the kav
– the ray of light transmitting light and transcendence.
The kav is a paradox: It is only a ray, but a ray that touches
and is rooted in the pre-tzimtzum light. As opposed
to the tzimtzum which is a state of detachment, that
conceals the light, the kav is a state of attachment that
reveals the light; albeit, a very thin ray, but a ray of
Now we move upward, into the light itself
and its source.
Here the Rebbe Rashab cites the differing
opinions among Kabbalists as to the nature of the Divine
Source of all existence and its relationship with our experience
“Ein Sof” – literally, “no end” – is
the term used to describe the Infinite Source. The question
is: what exactly is Ein Sof?
Ibn Gabbai and other Kabbalists maintain that
Ein Sof is not the Divine Essence but a level “below”
the Essence – the level of Keter (the crown), or the
level of Divine Will (Rameh of Pano). The Ramak (Rabbi Moshe
Kordovero) however disagrees, and holds that Ein Sof
can be attributed only to the Divine Essence and nothing
else, not even the most sublimes levels of spirit. Keter,
according to the Ramak, is the loftiest level, but still
one of the defined Sefirot – the building blocks of
The Rebbe Rashab explains that each opinion
has its strengths and weaknesses. The first opinion explains
how the creation process does not affect and change the
Divine Essence, because the process begins and is related
not to the Essence but to the state of Ein Sof (Keter
or will), “below” the Essence. It also explains why we call
it “Ein Sof” and not “Ein Techilo” (no beginning),
because this level is infinite in its extension, but it
has a Source (a beginning) – the Essence from where
the Ein Sof” stems.
The obvious flaw in this opinion, as the Ramak
emphasizes, is that we are attributing a state of absoluteness,
permanence and eternity to something other than G-d alone.
Only the Divine Essence, as the Ramak correctly explains,
can be called true Ein Sof – an absolute reality
that has no source and no beginning, one that is undefined
by any definition, including the term “undefined;” a non-existential
existence.” As opposed to everything else that exists, including
Keter and the most sublime states of spirit, G-d has no
cause other than Himself; nothing preceded Him; His being
derives from His own self. G-d’s existence must exist,
for it is true reality. And therefore the Ein Sof
power to create comes only from the Essence, and not from
any other level.
But according to the Ramak, we are still left
with the question how creation (which comes only from the
Ein Sof power of the Essence) has no effect and causes
no change in the Essence.
Comes the Arizal and reconciles between the
two opinions. The Arizal says (Eitz Chaim gate 42) that
Keter has two dimensions: The higher one (Atik) manifests
“the lowest level of” Ein Sof. The lower
level (Arich) is the “highest level of the”
defined states of the sefirot.
Explains the Rebbe Rashab that the Arizal
clearly recognizes that there is some “entity”
outside of the Essence which is called Ein Sof (unlike
the Ramak). Yet, this level is higher than and beyond Keter
and will (unlike Ibn Gabbai and the Rameh).
What “state” can be called Ein Sof
and yet not be the Essence?
The answer is given by Rabbi Schneur Zalman
of Liadi. In perhaps (if one can be bold enough to say)
his greatest contribution, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, states
that this is the level of “light” – ohr.
Light combines both substance and no substance: it has no
substance of its own; it always reflects its (luminary)
source. Yet, precisely because of its transparent bittul
(selflessness), light purely reflects and channels the
deepest ‘substance’ of the source, with no ‘personality’
of its own to get in the way.
Thus, the Divine Light is Ein Sof,
not by its own virtue, but because it is merely a reflection
and emanation of the Ein Sof of the Essence, with
no substance and existence of its own. (see The Physics
of Chanukah and Chanukah
This state of ohr (light) allows us to reconcile
between both opinions: Ein Sof is attributable only
to the Essence (as the Ramak explains), but since light
has no reality without the Essence and is a mere reflection
of its source, the Divine Ein Sof extends into its
reflected light. This also explains how creation causes
no change in the Essence, because the process is implemented
not through the Essence itself (as Ibn Gabbai and the Rameh
explain), but also not by a force outside of the Essence:
Creation is possible only through the Ein Sof power
of the Essence, carried through the power of light, which
is a mere emanation of the Essence.
In effect, light “carries” the non-existential
Essence into existence. Light is a bridge between the non-existential
and the existential, and serves as a backdrop – like an
invisible blanket – where the entire process and all of
existence plays itself out.
So this completes the circle: Light is the
manner by which the Essence imparts its Ein Sof quality
to existence. This light will go through many stages of
evolution – it will divide into the infinite light
and the finite one, and then undergo further levels concealment
and revelation, and finally become the source of the narrow
kav following the tzimtzum, which in turn will go
through further stages of concealment and revelation.
And this light is also the manner by which
we climb the ladder, reversing the steps and returning from
matter to spirit, from the containers to the light. We climb
via the kav into the pre-tzimtzum light, and that
in turn leads us into the Ein Sof of the Essence
reflected in the light. Since light is completely selfless
and only reflects its source, it also bridges the final
gap between the existential and the non-existential Essence.
In the language of the Torah narrative: We
have the power not only to leave our constraints (Egypt),
and to taste the interface between the finite and the infinite
(parting of the sea), and then to marry heaven and Earth
(Sinai), and then to build a home below for the Divine (Temple)
– but above and beyond all that: we actually have
the power, through light, to fuse the existential and the
non-existential, the most conscious states of our defined
lowly existence with the undefined Divine Essence.
However, this fusion is achieved through a
process -- the journey through the "wilderness"
of life and all its challenges, trials and tribulations.
At times we may feel stuck, confused or wandering. But these
difficulties are a manifestation of the tension between
matter and spirit, the finite and the infinite and the existential
and the non-existential. And all the work we do to bridge
the two helps pave the way toward the "Promised Land"
-- when we mortals become united with the Divine.
To do so we must become like light, and transform
our containers into light; we must become embodiments of
absolute bittul: An existence that clearly exists,
but is nothing more than an extension of a reality greater
And once we suspend ourselves and become channels
to the Higher Reality – we can become extensions of
the Ein Sof of that Reality. Bittul cannot
become botul. The invisible cannot disappear.