Love and Mystique: Ultimate Height and Ultimate Depth
Dear Rabbi J.,
Your article “All This Talk About G-d” moved me deeply. What especially resonated was your point that the onus is upon us to determine our destinies. I found that to be particularly empowering, fostering our human dignity as partners with G-d in the unfolding drama of our lives.
I never saw faith quite that way. Faith for me has always meant our reliance on G-d instead of on man. Your essay made it clear that faith places responsibility on man as much as on G-d, or perhaps even more on man than on G-d. That clearly is a more sophisticated and mature experience of faith: Faith that man has the Divine power to change the world.
However what remains unclear to me is the issue of us accepting G-d on “His terms” instead of our own. It’s true that we must embrace not a G-d defined by our own image but rather G-d as He is (“I Am”) and as he created us in His image. But that means that ultimately our individuality and personality will get annihilated as we adapt to G-d’s reality. Our independent existence seems predicated on the fact that G-d’s existence remains concealed. If G-d’s fundamental truth – a “Reality that must exist, in a non-existential type of existence” as you put it – is revealed, how can there be left any “space” for our inferior, mortal, arbitrary form of being?!
You alluded to this at the end of your article by saying “Don’t be afraid: our terms will not be compromised”, but how is it possible? Simply put we and G-d can’t coexist; It’s either on His terms or on our terms!
So now to the other side of the coin.
A partnership goes both ways. Just as G-d’s terms need to be appreciated so do our human terms. Every healthy relationship requires a balance between both partners. Since the Divine reality is seemingly diametrically opposite of our human condition, how can we ever have a balanced relationship, without one annihilating the other?
Indeed, mystics have always struggled with the great cosmic dilemma how to reconcile the two realities: The parameters of our defined existence and the boundlessness of the Divine.
One of the ways that this is explained is in the fifteenth chapter of a mystical/Chassidic discourse titled “Come to My Garden” which many people are studying this time of year. In it he discusses the Kabbalistic phrase (in Tikkunei Zohar): “The Divine infinite light extends upward without bounds and downward without end.”
“Downward without end” refers to Divine energy as it extends downward, with innumerable expressions and unlimited revelations in all aspects of existence, even in its lowest forms. “Upward without bounds” refers to the Divine power of concealment, concealment after concealment, elevation after elevation, inverting into His own Essence.
In the words of the Book of Formation: “Ultimate height” and “ultimate depth” (Omek rom and Omek tachat). Just as “ultimate depth” (the revelation and diffusion of Divine energy even in the lowest of levels) is an expression of the Divine’s infinite power, so too is “ultimate height” (the progressive ascent and withdrawal of the Divine energy in the form of self-concealment) an expression of His infinite power.
As they stand within the Essence both these dimensions are all one: The power to reveal and the power to conceal. Yet, from our perspective they are clearly two separate, even opposite experiences.
From these two forms of energy evolve two different states of unity: “Lower unity” (Yechuda Ila’ah) and “higher unity” (Yechuda Tata’ah). Two perspectives: The perspective from below (Daas Tachton) and the one from above (Daas Elyon).
For our perspective below our defined existence is real, and within its parameters we seek the sublime. This revelation originates from the “downward without end” revelation. From the perspective above the prominent reality is Divine, and it encompasses our existence like water engulfing all that is within. This perspective reflects the “upward without bounds” concealment.
Both perspectives are legitimate and both are necessary.
We can use our human relationships as an example of our relationship with G-d. A thriving relationship between two equals requires two dynamics: Love and mystique, closeness and space. Love is the nurturing warmth that lies at the core of the relationship – the intimacy between both partners. However, this love must be balanced by a measure of space, that respects and protects the individual boundaries of both partners. As close as two people may be they need a sense of mystique and wonder about each other to keep the relationship dynamic.
In our relationship with G-d these two dimensions are called love and awe (ahava and yirah). Love is the feeling of closeness to the Divine, relating to its blessings and revelations in our lives. Awe – bittul – is respect for the inaccessible mystery of the sublime.
The terms of our partnership are such that G-d ensures that our parameters are always preserved, and we must ensure that G-d’s perspective is preserved. Like in any healthy relationship both parties protect each other’s “interests.”
The ultimate goal is the total integration and fusion of both realities and both dimensions of “unity,” the lower and the higher.
How is it possible that these two realities can even co-exist let alone become one and the same without compromising each other? The explanation is complex and is discussed in many mystical texts. Briefly the answer requires us once again to get beyond and transcend our linear way of thinking, and appreciate that the distinction of the unity and perspective above and below only exists in the realms of “above” and “below,” where these respective definitions dominate. Their dichotomy is only in our perception.
However, from the perspective of the true undefined Essence, “I am who I am” non-existential reality, both states of being are equally distant and inclusive; both are merely expressions of the same One Reality. This undefined state cannot be defined in any fashion, not even by the word “undefined.” It therefore includes and encompasses the defined and the undefined, existence and non-existence, the higher unity and the lower unity, matter and spirit, all as one.
But for us to be able to contain this all encompassing reality we need to first travel through the lower levels, slowly climbing the ladder, step by step, gradually acclimating ourselves to integrate the deeper and the deepest states of being.
The primary analogy used to explain the process is that of teacher and student. The teacher knows that the student has a less developed intellect, and that if he presents a concept on the level of his own comprehension, the student will only be confused. To introduce a new idea to the student, he conceals the full intensity of the concept, he condenses it and uses metaphors or parables to bring it within the student’s grasp.
This concealment is not meant to separate the teacher and student, but to bring them together in a unity that does not compromise either of them. For the teacher, the complexity of the concept itself remains intact in his mind even though he has expressed it in a simpler metaphor; he perceives it from the “inside out.” The student, meanwhile, gains access to a new concept in a language that he is prepared to understand; he begins to relate to the concept from the “outside in.” The “inward” journey from metaphor to concept has begun. The concept grows and becomes integrated in the student’s mind until he or she ultimately understands the original concept just as it exists in the mind of the teacher.
The same is with our relationship with the Divine. Initially we begin with a limited perspective on reality. But in time we have the ability, just like the student, to gain knowledge of our universe step-by-step, metaphor-by-metaphor. Our perception of the “light” continues to be heightened until we ultimately achieve the perspective of the Cosmic teacher.
Just as the relationship between a teacher and student requires a delicate balance of closeness and respect, of love and awe, we must strive for a similar balance in our relationship with G-d. This creates a healthy tension, forcing us to separate the finite from the infinite, to differentiate between our limited worldly reality and G-d’s absolute reality. The very act of recognizing this distance allows us to begin uniting the two realities.
And we don’t come unarmed. Being created in the Divine Image, we contain within our beings an integral sense of the Divine. We can naturally detect and recognize undefined.
The undefined essence of “I am who I am” resonates for us, because we have a part of that consciousness in the very fiber of our beings. We therefore have the ability to transcend linear thought and relate to the circular states of higher consciousness.
Previously I discussed that our primary concern in our partnership with G-d should be: Our role in the relationship. Our focus should maturely be on our own personal accountability. However, that does not preclude G-d’s accountability for His side of the deal.
Here’s a telling story that beautifully captures this idea. The Baal Shem Tov once sent his students to observe a local innkeeper as part of their preparation work for Rosh Hashana. The students dutifully checked into the inn. Initially they observed nothing remarkable. After saying the Saturday night Selichot (special penitential prayers recited before the New Year), they went to sleep, only to be awakened by the innkeeper moving about in the lobby. They tip-toed out of their rooms to find the innkeeper opening up a cabinet and removed two big ledgers.
From one ledger he proceeded to read all his sins of the past year: he confessed that he was insensitive to his family, that he didn’t fulfill all his obligations to his community, that he didn’t study enough Torah, he once came late to prayers, etc. Then he opened the second ledger, saying to G-d, “These are my failings, now here’s what You didn’t do … I asked for a better living wage this year and you didn’t give it to me. My wife is still ill. My children need shoes. The cow stopped giving milk…”
In the end he concluded, “Look, I didn’t live up to my obligations and You didn’t live up to Yours. So let’s call it even. I’ll close my book, You’ll close Your book, and we’ll start a new year again with a clean slate.”
The relationship between us and G-d is a partnership. When G-d created human beings in His image, He invested something Divine in us. There is a partnership between us and Him to perfect the world.
G-d founded a business, and said to us: “I am the investor, but you stand behind the counter.”
Partners are accountable to each other. We can call G-d to accountability but we must equally know that we are being called upon to know how we are caring for His investment in us.
Before we confront our partner G-d it would be wise to do our part of the “deal” and show the complete effort we made. Then we can come well armed to our partner and challenge Him to reciprocate.
* * *
The two states of being – defined and undefined – are actually the central theme of this week’s Torah portion, in which we read about the parting of the Re(e)d Sea, and the song of praise which this great event evoked.
Our sages tell us that miracles do not happen in vain. This raises the big question regarding the parting of the sea: Why the need for such a bizarre miracle? Indeed, there is no sea that separates between Egypt and Israel, so there was no need to part the sea for the Jews to make their way to the Promised Land. G-d had to actually take them on a detour to lead them to the sea, so that the parting could take place!
The Midrash goes a step further. Not only the Red Sea but all the seas and water bodies in the world parted at that very moment! What is the significance of this split?
Indeed, the Talmud states that upon creating the sea G-d made a condition with it that it would part when called upon in the future, when the Jews left Egypt. Why the need for this condition?
The mystics answer all these questions in one fell swoop. Land and sea represent two realities – two forms of consciousness: The “revealed worlds” of dry land are our conscious experiences. The “hidden worlds” of the sea are our unconscious experiences. In truth these two states are one seamless whole. Thus, in the beginning of time all Earth was submerged in water, as each of us (the universe in microcosm) begins our life submerged in the embryonic fluids of our mothers’ wombs. Then, a parting took place – a parting that separated between “land” consciousness and water consciousness. The boundaries between land and sea were set in place (see Tsunami).
This division is actually only from our perspective. If you think about it, all land on Earth is actually an island jutting out of water. 75% of the globe is covered with water, leaving 25% uncovered. The same is true of the microcosm: Two thirds of the body is made up of water. Our conscious minds are just a “tip of the iceberg” (no pun intended) jutting out of our unconscious.
Yet a deep separation between land and water define our reality. We cannot see behind the curtain dividing our conscious and unconscious.
But this separation is not airtight. At the outset of creation, when G-d separated between land and sea, He did so on the condition that the sea would always remember that it would one day part and allow man to walk through its depths as we walk on land.
The parting of the sea – in which “water was transformed into land” (Hofach yom l’yabosho) – was a one-time in history demonstration of the naked truth: That sea and land are two dimensions of one reality.
The window opened up at that point, as a preparation to Sinai when the rift was bridged between spirit and matter. Until Sinai a decree dictated a “line in the sand,” which stated, “that which is above shall not come below, and that which is below shall not ascend above.”
This is also the reason that the people sang praise following the parting of the sea: Song is the language of the sea. Conventional speech (“land language”) consists of staccato-like fragments of disconnected words, separated by spaces and breaths, combining together to express an idea. Melody flows like water in one seamless stream.
The parting of the sea – an integral part of the sea’ nature from its inception – paved the way so that today we have the power to sing, the power to unite what is above and what is below, in one harmonious flow.
As we enter Shabbat Shirah – the Shabbat of Song – may we have much to sing about.
And may we sing away.