A Visitor From Tohu


“Love your fellow as yourself.” Said Rabbi Akiva: This is a cardinal principle in the Torah.

Sifra on Leviticus 19:18

A gentile once came before Shammai and said: “Convert me to Judaism, on the stipulation that you teach me the entire Torah as I stand on one leg.” Shammai drove him off with the builder’s measuring stick in his hand.[1]He then came before Hillel, who converted him. Said Hillel to him: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary—go and learn.”

Talmud, Shabbat 31a

The Human Universe

Before the world we know was created, before time and the very concept “before” were created,[2] G-d created another world—a world which collapsed under its own weight. A world of such single-minded intensity that its own parameters could not contain it. The Kabbalists call this world the world of Tohu (“chaos”).

The Tohu reality was comprised of the same elements that make up our present reality—only their configuration was different. Our sages[3] speak of ten “divine attributes” (sefirot) that G-d emanated from Himself to serve as the ten basic spiritual building blocks of creation, from which every object, force and phenomenon in existence is derived. The universe can thus be compared to a human being, whose basic intellectual faculties and character traits are the essence of countless millions of ideas, feelings, motives and deeds. Indeed, the Talmud makes this comparison, stating that “as the soul fills the body, so G-d fills the world.”[4] Man, elaborate the kabbalists, who was “created in the image of G-d,”[5] also possesses ten basic attributes (conception, comprehension, perception, attraction, rejection, synthesis, competitivity, devotion, comunicativity and receptiveness[6]), from which all elements of his “miniature universe” are derived. These mirror the ten supernal sefirot—the “character” that G-d projected from Himself to form, sustain and relate to His creation.[7]

Tohu, too, was a world comprised of the ten supernal sefirot. However, there they existed as ten distinct elements, devoid of all relationship with or even tolerance for each other. In the terminology of kabbalah, they existed “one below the other” in a single column, each on a plane of its own, without any common ground or interaction between them. If we were to draw a diagram of Tohu’s “character,” it would look like this:


Imagine a person in whom the attribute of “attraction”–his capacity for attachment, love, desire, giving, etc.–excludes any involvement of his “rejective” faculty—his capacity for restraint, apprehension, reverence, etc. Or one whose competitive faculty does not possess any of the consistency and staying power of his faculty of “devotion.” Or whose mind conceives of ideas it cannot retain since his faculty of “conception” is utterly devoid of the grasping power of “comprehension.” As these examples demonstrate, the integration of our various faculties is not only necessary for a well-balanced personality, but is also crucial to the function of each individual faculty. Unless each faculty “borrows” of the characteristics of its fellows, its own excesses and one-dimensionality will destroy it.

That is what happened to the collapsed world of Tohu. The lack of interaction between the sefirot meant that, ultimately, they each proved too intense not only for each other but even for their own “vessels”—their own defining parameters. Tohu’s “vessels” shattered from the untempered potency of the forces they were meant to form and embody. Then, on the debris of Tohu, G-d created our reality, the world of Tikkun (correction).

In Tikkun the sefirot form a partzuf, a “face” or configuration:

Conception                  Comprehension


Attraction                        Rejection


Competitivity                      Devotion



Here, the various forces to comprise a world relate and interact with each other. Each force thus includes in itself elements of all others, allowing it to mitigate and constructively focus its powers. Love is tinged with restraint, so that a father can hug his child without crushing him to death. Desire is touched with enough inhibition, justice with enough compassion, drive with enough commitment, not to self-destruct.

Scattered Sparks

But something is undoubtedly lost in the process. The integrated world of Tikkun has the capacity for stability and constructive development its chaotic predecessor could not sustain, but it lacks Tohu’s passion and intensity. This is why G-d began His creation with the “false start” of Tohu: He desired to plant “sparks” of an infinite, uninhibited essence in the foundations of the “correct” world of Tikkun. Our mission in life is to unearth these potent potentials and unleash them within the Tikkun framework, combining the best of both worlds—the power of Tohu with the focus of Tikkun.

Therein lies the deeper significance of the talmudic statement: “The people of Israel were exiled among the nations only in order that they gain converts.”[8] A “convert” is a reclaimed remnant of the world of Tohu, a fallen spark of great potential that is unearthed and “corrected.” Our dispersion to the ends of earth has brought us in contact with souls that stem from this volatile period of spiritual prehistory and have been scattered by Tohu’s collapse among the many peoples of the world; the conversion of these souls to the covenant of the Torah–G-d’s blueprint for a life of Tikkun–results in the constructive realization of their tremendous power and intensity.

The Talmud, however, is not only speaking of human converts. Sparks of Tohu are buried in all creatures and elements of our world, and our contact with these elements (also facilitated by our dispersion to all corners of the globe) affords us the opportunity of “converting” these sparks. Every time we involve a part of the material reality–a physical object, a scientific discovery, a cultural phenomenon, etc.–in our implementation of the divine commandments (mitzvot) of the Torah, we achieve the correction and integration of the Tohu spark it contains.

A Doctrine of Relationship

A soul from the columnar world of Tohu, attracted by the promise of realization that Torah holds, came to the great sage, Shammai. “Teach me the Torah,” he requested. “But I want it on one leg.”

Shammai was incredulous. “On one leg?! This, my friend, is the three-tiered world of Tikkun. Here, we do things measuredly and constructively. Go back to where you came from.”

The soul then sought out Hillel, who patiently explained: “You are searching for focus, because you sense yourself filled with intense potentials that threaten to self-destruct at your unilateral attempts to realize them. So you must learn to love your fellow as yourself: to recognize that there is something of him in you and something of you in him. This is what Torah and Tikkun are all about: relationship and integration. The rest is commentary…”[9]

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber.

[1] The Talmudic sage Shammai was a builder by profession.

[2] Thus, all tenses of “past” and “present” employed in this essay are not to be understood in terms of linear time, but as connoting the immediate reality we experience (“present”), and a higher reality on which this reality is predicated (“past”).

[3] The ten Sefirot are central to all kabbalistic and chassidic writings. Their are numerous mentions of them in Zohar, and a major portion of Sefer Yetzirah deals with them. See also Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar 14:24.

[4] Talmud, Brachot 10a.

[5] Genesis 1:27.

[6] See note #10 on Wet Matzo, WIR vol. VI no. 34.

[7] Thus Job proclaims, “From my own flesh, I perceive the Divine” (Job 19:26). By contemplating the make-up of ones own soul and the dynamics of its relationship with our body, we gain insight into the divine forces of creation and the manner in which G-d chooses to relate to our existence.

[8] Talmud, Pesachim 87b.

[9] Based on Ohr Hatorah, Chanukah 313a.


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17 years ago


i was wondering they say that the erev rav came from the world of tohu. too much desire. is there any way to correct them , those souls that are living in this world. that have soo much desire. can they be fixed as well?
how can one tell where ones soul came from tohu or tikune?

thank you

16 years ago


Beautiful synthesis/integration of Torah, kabbalah & mathematics.
Pondering taking the analogy a little further with the concepts of our cosmos (ordered reality -universe) embedded in chaos -(multiverse/superspace/quantum vacuum?)…

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