The Book of Redemption
— Samach-Vav Part 11 —
I have been following with great interest your Samach-Vav series [the classic Chassidic discourse delivered by the Rebbe Rashab one century ago]. As a physicist by profession, I especially found powerful the discussion on light and its essential role in bridging spirit and matter. This is my first exposure to Hassidic thought and for that matter to Jewish mysticism in general. I have, as many of my generation, explored Far Eastern mysticism and other schools of thought. And I must tell you that your erudite and accessible presentation has captivated me and speaks to my soul more than anything I have ever experienced.
In the titles of your weekly classes of the past few months I have also noticed an interesting progression regarding light: Exile: The Dark Tzimtzum Descends; Exodus: The Kav-Light Emerges; Parting of the Sea: The Light Expands; Sinai: The Light Descends; Mishpatim: The Light Permeates; The Temple: The Light Finds a Home. I am quire intrigued by this progression, and was wondering if you can elaborate a bit more on this evolving light.
As we move (in the Northern Hemisphere) from the cold winter into the warming spring, as the nights get shorter and the days longer, the Torah’s plot appropriately progresses from the story of oppression to that of freedom, from darkness to light.
You see, in its truest sense Torah is a reflection, nay, a blueprint, of existence. And therein lays its relevance to our lives. If you see the Bible, as its name implies – a diminutive of the Greek word for papyrus – as simply a book of stories, history or ancient myths, then its relevance will obviously be quite limited to random inspiration; but if you see it as Torah, which means instruction and light (from the root ohr) then it serves as a relevant guide for life. Indeed, the sages describe Torah as an architectural blueprint, used by the Cosmic architect to create the universe. Torah is thus the ultimate life “operators manual” how to best live our lives – given to us by the One who created life with all its complexities. If life is an intricate machine, Torah is its “user’s guide.”
As such, Torah reflects the events and experiences of our lives, including the annual seasons, with the intention of illuminating the inner crevices of our psyches – as well as of the cosmos (which are embodied in the microcosm of the “small universe” which is the human being) – and serving as a guiding light that helps us fulfill our life’s purpose and face all our challenges.
This week we conclude the second book of the Torah – the book of Exodus. Nachmanides calls it the “Book of Redemption.” In it we read the story of the redemption of the Jewish people from the oppressive Egyptian bondage.
Though the actual story of the Egyptian exodus is related in only one or two of the chapters of this book, the entire book is called “Book of Redemption,” because the central theme of the book is all about redemption.
As discussed in the previous installment of this series, the Torah’s account of the exodus from Egypt is a study about our own personal passage from darkness to light – from fear to courage, from pain to joy, from confusion to clarity.
Oppressive Egypt is the quintessential model of the bondage of material life (“Mitzrayim” (Egypt in Hebrew) means “constraints”) – every type of inhibition or limitation, psychological, emotional or physical, imposed upon us in life.
The dark 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). Essentially conscious life as we know it is initially a state of darkness, and we must search for light and for meaning. 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.
The purpose of this concealment is to bring the best out of us to fulfill the purpose of existence, reflected in the redemption from Egypt: 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.
And this redemption consists of four general stages – the content of the entire “Book of Redemption:” 1) Exodus. 2) Parting of the Sea. 3) Sinai. 4) The Temple. Each step, which in microcosm is reflected in our life’s journey, expresses another stage in the process of illuminating and transforming the void and the tzimtzum, and turning the universe into a Divine home.
1) Stage 1 – Exodus: The Light Emerges. The first step is to become free from the constraints that bind us. To do this requires two key elements: Awareness – recognizing that we are locked, blinded or in some other way limited. Action – to make a behavioral change that breaks a bad habit or pattern that keeps us enslaved.
We don’t travel alone. Each of us is given Divine power through the “Moses” within our souls – humility and Torah wisdom – to lift us out of any form of material constraint. Through our commitment to study and virtue (Torah and Mitzvot) we have the ability to transcend material confines and achieve a level of spiritual freedom.
2) Stage 2 – Parting of the Sea: The Light Expands. Exodus was not complete until the Jewish people walked through the receding sea and the pursuing Egyptians drowned in the swelling waters. The parting of the sea opened a door between the infinite light (sea) and the finite light (land), and bridged the two, giving us a taste of the seamless pre-tzimtzum reality, as discussed in the previous article.
But even when we are freed from our personal “Egypt” and have a taste of the bridge between the finite and the infinite, how do we maintain redemption?
3) Stage 3 – Sinai: The Light Descends. At Sinai we formally received the Divine mandate called the Torah, which empowers us with the ability to permanently fuse spirit and matter. Before Sinai there was an impenetrable rift between heaven and earth. A decree, a schism separated between above and below. “That which was above could not descend below, and that which was below could not ascend above.” At Sinai this breach was bridged, marrying in effect heaven and Earth.
Sinai then extended into Mishpatim (the next chapter) – the Divine light permeated the logical laws. Even the intellect connected to the infinite reality.
4) Stage 4 – The Temple: The Light Finds a Home. Now begins implementation of all that was given at Sinai – “Build Me a temple and I will rest amongst you.” Following the Torah guidelines we build a home for the Divine in our lives – in our homes and in our work. We transform every aspect and fiber of our material beings to becoming a comfortable and intimate home for the Divine.
Apropos, the Samach-Vav discourses delivered 100 years ago these weeks progresses as well from the initial thin ray of light (the kav) which pierced the darkness of the Tzimtzum into its source before the concealment (tzimtzum).
The initial step of redemption from Egypt is the first stage of emerging light following so many years of darkness – the first 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.
The parting of the sea was a revelation of the Essential Divine Infinite Light into our finite existence, preparing the ground for the revelation at Sinai, which married the infinite and the finite, the pre-tzimtzum light with post-tzimtzum one (as discussed at the end of Vayeilech Samach-Vav).
Sinai in turn is consummated nearly a year later with the building of the Temple, which created a home for the Divine from the material universe, “gold, silver, copper, etc.”
Building a Temple from physical matter is the essence of all our efforts to refine and redeem this unlit world, drawing light from the kav and refining 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 of redemption when matter gets reunited with spirit, in one seamless flow, and in turn introduces new unprecedented dimensions of the Divine.
As discussed in the previous installment of this series, the Rebbe Rashab elaborates on the nature of light and its relationship with the Source in order to explain how we can integrate our limited existence and the Divine non-existential Essence, without compromising either.
Achieving this symmetry requires a delicate balance between respecting both the distinct parameters of existence and the undefined nature of the Divine. On one hand all that exists is infinitely distant – like a new entity (yesh me’ayin) – from the Divine Source; on the other hand, the selfless bittul of light, which is nothing more than a reflection of its Source, allows us to feel comfortable, close and intimate with the Divine.
To demonstrate these two properties (distance and closeness) the Rebbe Rashab delves even deeper into the nature of light. He explains that light itself has different levels, and by climbing the “ladder” of the kav through our work in refining the “containers,” we access ever higher levels of the light, and as we do we get closer to the Essence.
Generally, in relation to the post-tzimtzum reality the light prior to the tzimtzum concealment is only a state of potential light. It is called the “light contained in its Source” where it does not yet have an “identity;” at this stage the light is nothing more than the Source’s ability to emanate.
More specifically the pre-tzimtzum state consists of two levels: 1) The abovementioned “light within the Source,” and 2) an actual state of light, which is “closer” to ultimately becoming the source of existence. This latter level too breaks down into two levels: 1) The light prior to the Divine “will” to create, which does not have any parameters of sefirot (or the parameters are infinite ones), 2) The light once the will arises, which has a potential structure of the ten sefirot.
Each of these levels of light, especially the highest one (within the Source, which has no identity), has no “personality” of its own; light is essentially only a reflection of its Source, to the point that it is completely one with the Source, assuming and expressing the Source, thus bridging existence with the non-existential nature of the Essence.
In the language of the Torah narrative in the Book of Redemption (Exodus): We have the power not only to leave our constraints (Egypt), to taste the interface between the finite and the infinite (parting of the sea), 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.
And now, after Book Two comes to a close with the Temple standing, we begin the next stage: The detailed service in the Temple – the content of Book Three, the book of Leviticus, Vayikra.
To conclude on a practical note:
The world today is basking in an abundance of light. Our standard of living has never been as high. Light and energy in all forms – physical, electrical, atomic and nuclear – have transformed virtually every aspect of our lives – medicine, communications, and technology. We live in a world of unbound energy.
But high tech cannot conquer the final frontier of light: The personal frontier. As comfortable and advanced as our lives may be, our home and family lives, our psychological and emotional lives, love, intimacy and relationships seem to be suffering wherever we look.
We have one final step to achieve in generating light into our lives: To become intimate with light – to build an intimate home for our souls, a home where we can commune with the Divine and with each other; a place of comfort and security where love can thrive.
We do this by not just by being light/energy consumers, but by becoming ourselves energy reactors and light generators: Walking candles and candle lighters that illuminate everything and everyone around us.
We always have two choices in every one of our activities: to serve ourselves or serve a higher cause. You become radiant light through selflessness (bittul) – through committing to a cause greater than yourself, to becoming a channel for the Divine.
When we become light, we become intimately one with the Source of light.
This is our calling today: Build me a Temple, and I will rest among you.