Back to the Tzimtzum


Joseph could not control his emotions… [He asked everyone to leave his presence]. No one else was with him when Joseph revealed himself to his brothers. He began to weep with such loud sobs that the Egyptians could hear it…

His brothers were so startled, they could not respond. ‘Please come close to me,’ said Joseph to his brothers. When they came closer he said: ‘I am Joseph your brother. You sold me to Egypt. But don’t worry or feel guilty because you sold me, for G-d has sent me ahead of you to save lives. There has been a famine in the area… G-d sent me ahead of you to insure that you survive in the land and to sustain you through great deliverance. It is not you who sent me here, but G-d. He has made me Pharaoh’s vizier, master of his entire government and ruler of all Egypt – Genesis 45:1-11

  Jacob might have had to be brought down to Egypt in chains, but he merited that [it should come about as described by the prophet:] ‘I shall draw them with human cords, with ropes of love.…’”(Talmud, Shabbat 89b). There was a cow that needed to be placed in a yoke that did not allow herself to be yoked. What did they do? They took her calf from her and led it to the place that they wanted her to plow. The calf began to bleat. When the cow heard her calf bleating, she went, in spite of herself, for the sake of her calf. In the same way, G-d wanted to fulfill the decree [of the Egyptian exile], so He contrived all these things so that [Jacob and his family] should come down to Egypt. (Midrash Tanchuma, Vayeishev 4). G-d said: ‘My firstborn child I shall take down [to Egypt] in disgrace? … I shall lead his son before him, and he will follow, in spite of himself.’ (Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 86:1)

Hemingway wrote: Life breaks all people, but some are stronger in the broken places.

What type of world do we live in? So many bad things happen around us that one cannot help but ask whether we live, after all, in a cruel world, with little hope for improvement?

Is Hemingway right: Does life break all people? What hope can we then look forward to? Are we just victims of circumstances with no real control of our destiny: If we’re lucky we’ll make it through, and if not, G-d forbid, then tough luck?!

In a fascinating and twisted sense of cosmic irony, the Biblical Joseph’s suffering illuminates for us one of the most powerful messages we will ever hear: By facing the true nature of our dark existence, we access the deepest form of light.


Twenty-two years passed from the time that Joseph was sold by his brothers into slavery until the moment when they reunited. 22 years!

One could have expected that Joseph would have been so angry that he would never forgive his brothers. Think what you would do if your siblings tried to kill you and then sold you into captivity as a pitiful slave, abandoning you for the rest of your life! I could only imagine the hours of therapy any one of us would be going to, and the enormous anger that we would be venting the rest of our lives.

What did Joseph do?

When Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers, instead of fury and revenge, Joseph ends up calming his mortified brothers: “Do not feel guilty,” he tells them, “for it is not you who sent me here, but G-d,” in order to save lives!

I mean, Joseph should have been livid and his brothers should have been soothing him. Instead, it is Joseph who is the calming voice!

Was Joseph so detached that he forgot all the pain that his brothers caused him? Hardly. Joseph was anything but detached. It was Joseph that “could not control his emotions;” it was Joseph that had dedicated his life to managing Egypt’s crops in the seven years of plenty, directing the sale of grain that served as the region’s food supply in the years of hunger that followed; and finally, it was Joseph who saved the life of his father and family. One could hardly call this detached. Joseph was quite invested in what he saw as his Divine mission: To use his position of power to save lives, the lives of his family.

What was unique about Joseph that allowed him to transcend all the anguish that his brothers caused him?

The fascinating question is this: What was unique about Joseph that allowed him to transcend all the anguish that his brothers caused him, and have the presence of mind and heart to recognize that “it is not you who sent me here [to Egypt], but G-d”?! How did Joseph have such power and clarity? Above all, how can we access this power?

Ostensibly we can explain that Joseph’s descent into Egypt (V’Yosf hurod mitzraymoh’ – Genesis 39:1) heralded the beginning of Jacob and his family’s descent, which ultimately led to the entire Egyptian exile. This descent was foretold to Abraham (Genesis 15:13-14), and was surely known to Joseph, as being part of the Divine plan.

As such, Joseph clearly understood that his descent into Egypt was destined by G-d, not by his brothers. Had his brothers not sold him into slavery, G-d would have found another, perhaps a more painful way, to get him and his family into Egypt.

What was the significance of the descent into Egypt? Mitzrayim (Hebrew for Egypt) means constraints. The descent into Mitzrayim represents the spiritual plunge each of us takes when we enter into this material world, with all the limits and inhibitions that life on earth imposes upon us. On a cosmic scale it reflects the very nature of our existence – which is a result of a quantum leap from the Higher Reality of Divine Unity into the confines of a dualistic and pluralistic world.

Joseph understood the big picture, that his predicament reflects the challenge of life itself – the radical descent into a material world.

Yet, we still need to understand how this knowledge and awareness helped Joseph get beyond the pain of his brother’s atrocity toward him. How was he able to so calmly declare that they should not feel guilty, for it was G-d and not them that sent him to Egypt?

Joseph understood the process intellectually. And perhaps each of us can glean a lesson from Joseph how we must deal with our own challenges, not to blame others, even the perpetrators, but to recognize the reasons G-d may have placed us in a particular situation.

But how did Joseph deal with it emotionally – how was he able to get beyond the fact that his brothers perpetrated his sale into slavery, and they did so out of their own free will, for which they were unquestionably responsible? And how are we to deal with our challenges emotionally: Even when our minds know that our predicament is meant to be, how do we get beyond our feelings of rage and unfairness at those that may have hurt us?

To answer this question, we need to probe into Joseph’s mind and try to figure out his perception of life and existence as a whole, and especially of darkness and difficult life experiences, reflected in his descent into Egypt.

There are essentially two ways one can tackle a problem: 1/ Deal with the symptoms, 2/ Deal with the roots.

By nature, most of us gravitate to symptomatic solutions. First of all, we don’t usually deal with a problem until it hits us in the face. Secondly, even when we do seek out a cure, we look for band-aids and painkillers to rid ourselves of the immediate and presenting symptom.

There may be nothing wrong with this approach when dealing with short term and immediate problems. The trouble begins when dealing with a long-term problem, one that has deep roots, and cannot be remedied with a quick fix. Of course, any long-term challenge requires short-term intervention, but that’s just for the moment; it can never replace the need to get to the root cause of the disease.

Similarly and much more so is this true about the dark areas of our lives – our so-called shadows. Darkness by definition is shrouded in obscurity. When we have a dark experience – something that causes us pain, grief or the likes – we can tackle it in two ways: 1/ We look at the immediate cause and try to eliminate it, 2/ We search for the root cause that allowed the darkness in the first place.

Joseph understood that for him to make any sense of his predicament he must search not for the symptoms of his problems, but for their roots. He must understand the very nature of existence that allows for people, even brothers, to hurt each other in awful ways.

True, each person is responsible for his or her behavior. But the real question is what kind of world did G-d create allowing the possibility that people can harm each other? If the underlying truth is that all people are but different parts of an integral unity, how is it that one part can intentionally hurt another? Is it possible that one hand would attack another on the same body?

The answer lies in understanding the very nature of existence as we know it, the nature of the descent into the confines of mitzrayim. What is the essential nature of existence: Darkness or light?

On a personal and psychological level, most people would say that life is darker rather than lighter.

In the Talmudic words of the School of Shammai: “It is more pleasant for a person to not be created than to be created” (Talmud Eiruvin 13b).

According to Science magazine, the greatest scientific breakthrough of the year 2003 was the confirmation that “dark energy” and “dark matter” is the stuff that makes up the overwhelming majority of our universe. This is a major development in physics, and quite a surprising one at that. Because until this discovery, all the objects scientists knew about shared one attribute – they gave off light. Now we know that the particles that we’re all familiar with (like electrons and protons) make up only 4 percent of known matter. The rest is either “dark matter” or “dark energy,” called by that name because it represents the bulk of the universe that cannot be seen.

The universe is first and foremost a dark place.

Fascinatingly, this confirms what every mystic, and for that matter, any Bible reader, always knew: The universe is first and foremost a dark place. The first description of the universe in the opening verses of the Bible states that “the earth was empty (or chaotic) and void and darkness prevailed over existence.” Only afterwards does G-d say, “There shall be light,” and light came into existence.

On its own this Biblical opening is cryptic.

The opening line of the Zohar (Genesis) begins: “In the beginning of the King’s authority, the Lamp of Darkness engraved a hollow in the Supernal Luminescence.”

This too however is quite cryptic. The great 16th century mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria (the Arizal), in the opening of his classic work the Etz Chaim (Tree of Life), explains this primal darkness with what is called the Great Primordial Tzimtzum: In the beginning (conceptually, not in time) the light of the Ein Sof (the infinite light) filled all of existence; G-d then concealed His omnipresent light (energy) in order to allow “room” for the consciousness of an independent existence.

In other words there are two types of consciousness, or two dimensions of reality: Pre-Tzimtzum and Post-Tzimtzum. The Higher reality (Daas Elyon) is a Divine consciousness that is all encompassing. The lower reality (Daas tachton) is an existential consciousness that sees its own existence as primary and can barely sense a reality outside of its own.

The tzimtzum is “dark energy” – a type of negative energy or negative light, void of matter. The letters of the “reshimu” (a type of “residue” that remains after the tzimtzum) is “dark matter,” which would “later” evolve into the containers (“keilim”) of existence. (More on this in a future column).

The fact that these classic works – the Bible, the Zohar and the Etz Chaim – all open up with a description of the nature of existence as a dark place, tells us that this information is critical and fundamental to understanding the nature of existence. We cannot understand our universe and our lives if we don’t know that the beginning of the universe is rooted in a state of primordial darkness.

Furthermore: Ironically, we can never overcome the darkness and difficulties of our lives if we don’t face and respect the fact that the essential stuff of our existence is rooted in darkness.

However, with one critical qualification: Darkness alone is not the goal nor the ultimate essence of existence. It is only a means to allow existence to come into being. Beneath – or within – the darkness lies light, indeed, the deepest light of all. In other words: Darkness is just another form of light/energy, and its purpose is to reveal light. But in order to uncover the light we must first recognize the darkness for what it is. This then allows us to illuminate the darkness with light, “let there be light.”

During his 22 years in Egypt Joseph came to understand this essential truth – the fundamental nature of the existential confines of Mitzrayim. Joseph learned that life does not become cruel because people do bad things to you. Life is cruel because G-d created a universe that shrouds its true purpose and feels disconnected from its source. A world in which people do not sense their inherent unity allows the potential for people to hurt each other. Darkness is not just about having a bad experience (the symptoms), but about a dark world that allows us to have bad experiences (the root cause). Negative life experiences are symptoms of a dark world that does not feel connected to its source.

A simple example: You buy a computer and you don’t follow the manufacturers instructions. A year passes without incident. One day your entire computer crashes, with no reversible way for you to retrieve all your valuable information. When did the problem begin: When the computer crashed, or on day one, when you didn’t follow the instructions?

The Bible, as explained by the Zohar and the Arizal tells us that the world is a dark place from the very outset, even if its symptoms manifest at a later stage.

To master this secret, we ought not wait until something bad happens to us. Rather, we need to confront the root cause of what makes it possible for humans to hurt one another.

That’s what Joseph figured out. And this vital point gave him the power to transcend that darkest chapter of his life. Joseph learned to focus on the root of the problem, not its symptoms. His brothers did sell him into slavery unjustifiably; they did deserve to be punished for their behavior. But, at the same time Joseph appreciated a deeper fact: Life itself – existence by its very nature – is a dark place. Dark – as in having no idea which is the right path to happiness, to the extent that we can spend a lifetime traveling on a wrong and even self-destructive course; dark – as in the fact that our existence is disconnected from its source, that we don’t feel rooted in our mission, that we can live our lives and convince ourselves that we are happy even when we have no idea what the purpose of our life is and that we even have a purpose.

22 years in Mitzrayim gave Joseph enough time to discover that darkness didn’t begin and end with his brothers’ actions. Joseph knew that his being in Mitzrayim came from G-d; that his suffering had purpose and meaning, and was not just a random result of other people’s crimes. He did not blame his problems on his brothers, on himself or on any other scapegoat; he understood that the true challenge of life is about the darkness of existence, regardless whether your life is working out or not, regardless whether you feel the darkness or not. And he knew that G-d created the dark world in order for him, and for us, to illuminate it, to use our opportunities to sustain life and save life, to transform Mitzrayim into a source of sustenance and life for the entire world – a fertile ground that brings “great deliverance.”

This was the only way for Joseph to redeem his being sold into slavery, to redeem the 22 years of hardship and being so brutally severed from his beloved father – that the purpose of the darkness itself is that Joseph discover the deeper light within, and bring it to the surface.

That is why Joseph didn’t get angry with his brothers. On the contrary, he had the unique opportunity to teach them – and all of us – that the darkness of life that we all experience is not just on the surface, symptomatic level of grief we feel at the moment, but the darkness of life itself, of existence itself – the darkness that G-d Himself created. Once we know that, we can begin to free ourselves of its traps and shadowy dark tentacles.

People may have hurt you, situations may have disappointed you, circumstances may have been unfair.

But remember, Joseph said, “it is not you who sent me here but G-d.”

It is not people, events and circumstances that create a dark world where there is always potential danger, but it is G-d who created it.

To hear the sound of darkness, we need to first recognize the true darkness of our lives. That darkness is not the immediate pain and despair we may be experiencing at the moment; those are only symptoms. It is the state of affairs – the state of being – of existence that ALLOWS such pain to exist in the first place.

In other words the nature of existence as we know it – even if your life is going perfectly – is a natural state of darkness: Disconnected from its source.

The darkness of your immediate pain can perhaps not have a sound; but the larger backdrop of darkness that frames all our life experiences definitely has a sound.

But to hear this sound of (dark) silence we need to first hear the silence of sound – to recognize and be fully cognizant of the fact that the sounds of our lives, even the most pleasant ones, are all but part of the cosmic “matrix” that encases us in a glass box with a glass ceiling. It may be fancy and expensive glass, or even stained glass, but it’s still a box.

Once we are aware of the walls that confine us, and we hear the resounding silence of these loud but hollow walls, how insignificantly quiet it is in contrast to the higher reality, we then can begin to perceive what lies beyond the glass doors, and sense the sound within the silence of the tzimtzum and beyond.

This is turn allows us into the pre-tzimtzum “universe” (reality and consciousness), which is beyond silence and beyond sound, beyond darkness and beyond light – a place where it all makes sense, because it doesn’t have to make sense. A place where all our experiences meld into one seamless whole – everything as an extension of the ultimate Unity and its infinite manifestations.

But these are just words. It’s easier said than done. Yet the words are necessary in order to provide us with a point of reference. We MUST know that our perceived reality is not the entire picture. We MUST know that this box in which we live is precisely that: A confined box, shrouded in layers upon layers, concealing anything beyond or within. The mystics call it a kelipah – a shell, that protects but also conceals the fruit within.

Once we know that, we have the power to puncture the invisible curtain that doesn’t allow us to experience all of reality.

Astounding! G-d’s mysterious infinite power created silence; we have the power to pierce the Divine silence. But only after we recognize the reality of this silence, and that requires that we first realize that the sounds we hear and think are so loud and powerful are truly very silent and concealing.

The sound of the tzimtzum echoes throughout history. Its reverberations felt in every loss, in every tragedy, in every injustice. But even without tragedy, the tzimtzum is the force that allows us to exist but also locks us into a steel trap where we think that this is where it’s at. It would be comical if it weren’t so tragic to one day realize that you have been living a lie. You thought you were where it’s at, and then you discover that this is not where it’s at. Our reality is a limited box that cannot see out of its own window. Cannot even see that there is a window, that there is a curtain, a door, an opening. And doesn’t even feel the need for an opening – we are self-sufficient and have everything we need. With three cars, four homes, 8 tv sets, two dogs, three cats and some fish, throw in a spouse or two – what else do we need?

So, after all is said and done, what is the root of all our problems? The root is the existential detachment created by the tzimtzum.

Yet, as powerful as this cosmic “black hole” may be, it is not airtight. If you look closely, you can discern subtle particles within “dark energy.” If you listen intently you can detect faint sounds within the “dark matter.”

Can you hear them?


Did you enjoy this? Get personalized content delivered to your own MLC profile page by joining the MLC community. It's free! Click here to find out more.

Notify of
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Bracha Ahuva Judith
16 years ago

Dear Brother Simon,

You invite us by saying, add your comments…but how can one add to perfection?…magnificent indeed.

Bracha AHuva Judith

15 years ago

Its very interesting to learn that darkness reverberates through sounds. Can light do the same?
When I need to find a solution for a problem, each option is perceived as a single tune that may sound either correctly or phoney.
Can we be attuned to the sounds of light if there are any?

6 years ago

I think there are many people on this planet who feel that “something’s missing”.. or maybe put a better way is that many can feel there’s something false going on here.

Esther Sarah Evans
6 years ago

b”H can’t help but remember how Yitzchak Avinu sent Yosef “meEmek Chevron” —which according to the commentary was referring to a dark place too (paradoxically, for Chevron is on a hill).

Malka Forshner
5 years ago

I didn’t read the article yet, since I got stuck on the title. Really, Rabbi Jacobson? The last word in your title… As we used to say in Crown Heights, the “s” word? I’m Esther surprised. Maybe some else wrote the title. It didn’t sound like you.

mike fishbain
5 years ago

This discourse is so way beyond my (and I presume many others) ability to grasp these esoteric concepts.

What I concluded, after reading it over again, is the suggestion that the world is a DARK place and all this negativity and pain we experience is what we’re supposed to experience in this life??!!
Our ‘goal’ is to see thru this reality?
Without the spiritual guidance of a Rebbe or some very learned teacher, how would one ever come to the realizations Joseph did? He had so much more ‘connection’ due to his closeness to his parents and grandparents who guided him.

I surely hope that a perfect, benevolent, and merciful God would allow the torment, psychological pain, and frustrations we all experience on our ‘voyage’ to be the ‘norm’!

Doesn’t this contradict what I thought was a truly Jewish perspective that man is ultimately ‘good’ not the evil soul other religions maintain?

For those of us trying to learn more about our faith and what it is really all about, without a knowledge of the Zohar or intense study, the ‘typical’ Jew will never understand this stuff and continue to ‘wander’ thru his life missing it’s try meaning???

disturbing to say the least.

shoshana s.
5 years ago

So deep. This was very special. Thank you.

5 years ago

Why did Joseph go to such an extent as he did so to require that Benjamin come see him in Egypt? Probing Joseph’s mind, what can be seen…? If Humans are constructed of atoms, why should we humans be interested in atomic structure?
I think this is the approach to Joseph’s thought…how did Joseph know the TzimTzum which he must have known.

(We cannot understand our universe and our lives if we don’t know that the beginning of the universe is rooted in a state of primordial darkness.) This is the pathway Joseph took to know the TzimTzum.

Why do we find a way into the light? Where did Joseph go – from complete restriction to the divisions of knowing…which they all contain, hence, the storage, the food is the seed of beginning. Read the TzimTzum again…from beginning to beginning.

part of God’s self energy podcast

American Weil Society

susan zimmerman
4 years ago

Wow what an awesome article!!!

The Meaningful Life Center