Where the Infinite Meets the Finite
— Samach-Vav Part 9 —
Can we mortals ever achieve immortality? How high can a limited existence ever reach? Can the finite ever touch the infinite? Can heaven meet earth? Can imperfection meet perfection? And if it can, does the finite have to lose its personality in the process?
Is love of two equals truly possible – the union of two distinct entities, without one compromising (or annihilating) the other? Can we imperfect creatures ever unite with the perfect G-d without losing our individuality?
One hundred years ago this week these “big” questions were addressed by one of the foremost mystics and thinkers of modern times. A centennial ago, the Rebbe Rashab (1860-1920) delivered his powerful magnum opus, Hemshech Samach Vav, in which he laid out, in a series of 61 discourses, the dynamics of existence and the principles of discovering and living up to our higher calling.
In the previous installments Samach-Vav discussed the power of self-generated human initiative, which comes through the hard work of holding strong to our highest ideals and living a virtuous life despite the challenges of our harsh world. Immersion in material existence demands a vigilant and exerted effort, a battle, to refine the world in which we live – a world that on its own is quite dark and menacing.
The dark Egyptian exile, which we read about in these week’s Torah portions (in the beginning of the book of Exodus) is the quintessential model of both the bondage of material life and the way to find freedom from our constraints. “Mitzrayim” (Egypt in Hebrew) actually means “constraints” – referring to every type of inhibition or limitation, psychological, emotional or physical, imposed upon us (from within or without) in life. Hence the directive – “in every generation (and every day) a person should regard himself has if he just came out of Mitzrayim:” Our lifelong effort is to free ourselves from the confines of our existence.
In this week’s Torah portion the redemption from Egypt begins. Apropos, this week’s Samach-Vav discourse begins a discussion on the nature of the “Kav” – the ray of light which pierces the Tzimtzum darkness (the root source of every form of “Mitzrayim”), and opens the “window” to every ray of hope and illuminating force in existence.
What are the Tzimtzum and the Kav? They are part of the grand Lurianic doctrine that describes the process of creation. Initially the “Divine infinite light – the manifest expression of the Divine omnipresence and omnipotence – filled the entirety of existence,” and left no “space” for any independent entity to take hold. A world such as ours—finite, self-defined and independent—could not exist, for it would have been utterly nullified within the divine light. G-d employed the “Tzimtzum” – literally: concealment or contraction – which concealed the Divine light on a conscious level, creating a “void” and “empty space,” which leaves “room” for the emergence of our existence. Into this void G-d then (not in time, but conceptually) allowed a “Kav” – literally: a line, a ray, a thread – of light/energy to penetrate that begins to bring existence into being. Through this Kav flows divine energy that is meted out to every level of reality in accordance with its capacity to receive it. Unlike the initial pre-Tzimtzum infinite light that filled all of existence, the Kav is a single, narrow thread of light, which does not overwhelm the independent entity emerging. (Click here for the actual translation of the Lurianic text as cited in Samach-Vav).
The classic example for the Tzimtzum and Kav is the process used in any form of transmission from a higher level to a lower one. When a brilliant teacher wants to convey a powerful idea to a beginner student, he first conceals his brilliance and then begins to transmit piecemeal a narrow thread of information, measured and tailored to the student’s containers, slowly spoon feeding him. As the student’s mind expands he is able to receive greater measures of light. After years of hard work the student refines his mind and understanding to a point where is finally able to contain the entire brilliance of the teacher, including the pre-Tzimtzum light and beyond (see Part 1).
The purpose of existence is to build a “home for the Divine” in the lowest of worlds in the post-tzitmzum reality – our material universe which is consciously void of Divine revelation, with the capacity to turn away from and even deny its Creator. Essentially our mission in life is to transform the Tzimtzum and the void it created—to refill the “void” with divine light.
There are two ways in which this is achieved. One way is to draw into the world the divine light that was withdrawn through the Tzimtzum. This means increasing the intensity of the light that flows through the “line” by gradually increasing our world’s capacity to receive it. Every time we do a mitzvah, we make the world more receptive to the divine truth, stimulating a greater infusion of infinite light via the “line.” Ultimately, the world is elevated to the point that it can receive the full intensity of the light coming from beyond the parameters of the “void,” and the area of the “void” is as saturated with the manifest Divine presence as it was pre-Tzimtzum.
Another, deeper, way of transforming the Tzimtzum is from the “bottom up” – to refine the containers that receive the light by subjugating the “ego” and self-contained nature of the post-Tzimtzum world. The “sparks” within the material world are more powerful than the light within the “Kav” per se, originating from the depths of the “unconscious,” far higher than the “revealed” levels of the Divine. The hard work of redeeming these “sparks” energy and refining the material world generates the “ohr chozer” (reflective light) power that reaches deeper than the “ohr yosher,” the light that flows from the “top down.” Every time we battle with the very qualities that make our world “unspiritual”—its finiteness, physicality and materiality—and direct it toward a Divine end, we manifest the divine essence that brought the material world (and the Tzimtzum) into existence. By taming the coarse elements of the material ego and narcissism, we refine the “containers” thereby allowing them to absorb the highest levels of light, to the point that we actually produce a new unprecedented energy that expresses “the innermost aspect and essence of the Infinite Light” – the essence of the Divine “supra-conscious” (see Part 5).
These two ways – “direct light” from above to below, and “ohr chozer,” from below to above – manifest in general into two types of Divine service, and even more generally into two types of souls:
- Souls of the world of Atzilut. The primary nature of these select souls, even as they live in bodies in this material world, is spiritual. These unique individuals – like Moses – are completely selfless, and their service consists of revealing the absolute nullification of their souls in face of the Divine. These souls are compared to “sons” who have access to the “most intimate chambers and secrets of their father’s home.”
- Souls of the worlds of B”iya (Beriah, Yetzirah, Asiya), whose primary nature is material, and their service consists of the hard work to sublimate the “egocentric” personality of matter. These souls are compared to “servants,” who are strangers in the palace, and their access is not by virtue of their “genes” but by their hard work and dedication.
Samach-Vav then begins an elaborate discussion on the nature of the world of Atzilut and its root – the Kav – which leads into an comprehensive analysis of the nature of light, the mystical metaphor for Divine transmission and the ultimate bridge between the infinite and the finite, the Divine and the mundane.
Atzilut, the Rebbe Rashab explains, is a world of revelation: It reveals the hidden Divine light of higher levels. This “world” is essentially the interface between the Divine and the human, and like any interface it has a dual quality, one that represents the Divine and the other that speaks to the human. These two qualities are actually a fusion of opposites (see also Meat and Atzilut):
On one hand Atzilut is clearly a world of structure, with ten sefirot (Chochma, Binah etc.), each one consisting of light/energy and a container (ohr and keili) – the basic building blocks of all existence including our material universe. Atzilut in effect is the “perfect” parallel version of our universe.
At the same time the word “Atzilut” means “impart” or “emanate” [from the verse: “I will impart [emanate] from the spirit upon you”] and also “close” – it is not a new creation, but one that “emanates” and “imparts” the light of the Kav into a conscious experience. Atzilut is the state of being that reveals the Divine light and allows us to have a comprehension of the Divine.
So is Atzilut a created, i.e. “new” entity (like our universe) or is it a “revelation of the hidden?” The answer is both. Relative to the Kav, the ray of light flowing after the Tzimtzum, Atzilut is only revealing the hidden features of the Kav. But relative to the Divine light higher than the Kav, Atzilut (and even the Kav) is a “new” entity, infinitely distant from that Divine dimension. [Samach-Vav explains this idea in several different ways – to be discussed in a later article].
Why is the long discussion of Atzilut, Kav and light so necessary to understand the difficult work of transforming the dark void into a Divine home?
The obvious reason is to give us by contrast a sense of the unprecedented achievement resulting from the self-generated hard work and exertion of transforming the existential ego (of the “yesh) in a world of no inspiration (and often one that actually stifles inspiration). Because after all is said and done, Atzilut and the souls of Atzilut are in a state of revelation, revealing the hidden light of the Kav. They are inspired souls that do not require quite as much self-generated effort. So even though they too have an aspect that separates them from the higher light, yet their work is relatively easy compared to the difficult effort required to sublimate the coarse material universe. This also explains why this exertion generates a new and unprecedented light, because it is not (like Atzilut which is) about revealing a level that was previously hidden but existent; it’s about generating something entirely new, that never before existed.
On a deeper level, the personality of Atzilut and the Kav, help us understand how we can integrate the Divine into our personal experiences. It’s one thing to say that our exertion to “break” the “narcissistic” nature of matter generates a new, infinite energy that from the Divine Essence (higher than anything Atzilut or the Kav can access on their own). But the question remains: Whether this revelation actually permeates the finite nature of material existence or perhaps it compromises or annihilates our personalities?
The purpose of existence – to transform the lowest world into a Divine “home’ – includes two aspects: 1) A home for the Divine Essence, 2) That the Essence be revealed and integrated, like a “home”, in the personality, structure and parameters of our existence.
The first aspect is achieved through our self-generated hard work in transforming matter into spirit (made possible by the concealment of the tzimtzum). The second aspect is achieved through Atzilut, the Kav and all the revelations from above, which have the power to access and reveal the innermost dimensions of light. Atzilut and the Kav allow us to feel comfortable, close and intimate with the Divine (revealing the hidden). The work of sublimating matter by definition evokes a sense of awe and distance from the Divine.
Therefore, Samach-Vav elaborates how even light is comprised – subtly – of both levels: It reflects and is an extension of its essence/source, and it is a “new” and separate entity, which is not the Essence (and is infinitely and qualitatively distant from the Essence), but only a revelation of It.
Similarly, the work of refining the coarse world also is not exclusively “new” and separate from the Divine. It also includes the element of generating inspiration and revelation, as discussed in a previous article (Part 7).
This dynamic has many far reaching implications that require much more elaboration. Many lessons can be gleaned from these principles, in virtually all areas of life.
Take growth for example. Every form of growth requires two elements, and comes in two stages: First, aspiration. Then, internalization.
Initially there must be a feeling of want and desire, which is only possible if the object is distant, and not easily accessible. You have to feel and respect your distance from your intended goal. If you feel close to it, or that it’s just a matter of revealing the hidden, then you may grow somewhat, but it will be a limited form of growth. True growth is only possible when then destination is beyond you. Then comes stage two: The acquisition and the internalization of the object. When you come to “own it.”
The same is true in relationships: Every healthy relationship – whether between spouses, friends, man and G-d, you and your own self – requires both closeness and space, Obviously, a relationship by definition means that there is some relation – some measure of commonality and closeness – between the two parties. Love is not just closeness, but even a state of intimate oneness. Yet, love that obliterates any one of the parties is not love. A relationship also means that two distinct entities are relating to each other, or are in love. Their distinction dictates that each of them needs their individual space, which must be respected and honored by their partner.
And when a relationship has a balance of both ingredients, it will yield the best results: It will reveal the hidden potential in each party and also generate something new.
So too, in our relationship with the Divine: Tzimtzum defines the distance between the finite and the infinite. But that then allows the two to unite – in true unity, which is harmony within diversity: Not compromising or obliterating one or the other, but both retain their distinct identities, yet join as one.
How that is actually possible will be discussed in next week’s article.
After 210 years of painful oppression, the light begins to shine. After a Tzimtzum of epic proportions, the Kav begins to manifest in the darkness (when Moses was born his “home was filled with light”).
“Just as it was in the days of Egypt I will show you wonders.” The exodus from Egypt was the beginning – the first ray of light that pierced the confines of existence. Today, 3318 years later, the ray of light has expanded into a wide swathe of light.
We have but to finish the last touches and then the “Kav” will touch the bottom of the black hole, filling all of existence in the basking warmth of the Divine.