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Beshalach: Light

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Where the Existential Meets the Non-Existential

— Samach-Vav Part 10 —

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 life.

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 to purpose.

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 all one.

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 light nonetheless.

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 of existence.

“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 existence.

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 Lite).

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 than ourselves.

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.

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Frank Roberts

My response may seem to minimize or trivialize the explanations and insight you reveal. My belief is that God purposely created man to be imperfect – along with all of its hardships. This appears contradictory for a loving God. One of our roles in life is to endure and to occasionally suffer. Years, or even centuries of difficulties are overwhelming to man, but our Creator uses a different clock. We are placed in our hard circumstances (loss, pain, temptation, etc.) so that we may learn, and therefore grow from the experience. All mankind has hardships and they may all slightly… Read more »

Eric S. Kingston

Why in the first place did G-d want the Jewish people to be enslaved and oppressed by the Egyptians (as foretold to Abraham)? We were all together as one people, one together as many people, seeing, witnessing, experiencing the same things. As one we were enslaved. As one we received the Torah. In between, hundreds of thousands crossed the desert. What a sight that must have been! G-d does not want us enslaved, He is asking us, Where do we want to be, in egypt or at the Mountain? He is asking each of us, and at the same time… Read more »