(Photograph by Rabbi Dovid Sears)
This two-part shiur was first published online by Yeshivat Har Etzion: Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash (VBM). It is posted here with their kind permission.
Introduction to the Thought of Rav Nachman of Breslov
By Rav Itamar Eldar
Shiur #11: Speech, Part 1 – “Day by day uttering speech”
Previously, we saw that, R. Nachman warns of the doubts and questions that originate in the “empty space,” and advises anyone who wishes to guard his soul to distance himself from such wisdoms and principles that come into being because of the eternal existence of the empty space in existence. In section 3 of this passage, which we shall deal with in forthcoming shiurim, R. Nachman expresses some reservations or exceptions about his earlier statement. He focuses on the place of the tzaddik, relying upon two key concepts in his teachings, speech and silence. Therefore, before addressing the ideas introduced in this section, we must explain the significance of speech and silence in R. Nachman’s thought.
We encounter speech for the first time in the creation of the world, when Hashem’s voice breaks the silence of the chaos that had prevailed in all the worlds: “And God said, Let there be light.” At this moment Hashem’s speech creates the world exnihilo, separates what was previously joined, and sets limits to these creations. With ten utterances, Hazal teach, God turned the unformed chaos into a built-up, established and defined world.
We have two possible ways of relating to this speech. One way is based on the framework of the transcendental approach, which understands God’s speech as an expression His intention, command and instruction. Hashem’s speech is simply an expression of the Divine will. But an “instruction” which is nothing more than a statement. “Blessed is He who spoke and the world then came into existence.” The realization of Hashem’s word requires no means or agents of execution. “For He said – and it was; He commanded – and they were created.” Therefore, the expression of this will, and the revelation of the intention, is identical with the fulfillment and realization of the will and intention.
The second way arises from R. Nachman’s words concerning Divine speech. He writes,
Know that with each utterance that emanated from the Holy One, an angel was created, and each utterance was divided into many sparks – as it is written, “As an anvil shatters the rock.” And so many, many angels were created, like the great number of sparks. And from an utterance that includes all the sparks, an angel was created that is the master and leader of all the angels (that were created from the sparks), and they are his camp. And each angel is responsible for some particular thing. Even the trees and herbs have angels appointed over them, as our Sages taught, “There is no blade of grass below that does not have an angel above…” And every angel receives its vitality from the Word, and influences the thing over which it is appointed – i.e., the grass or whatever else it is responsible for… (Likutei Moharan Kama 57:1)
The Divine word, in R. Nachman’s view, is not mere instruction, nor is it as ephemeral as a passing breath. Hashem’s word assumes a from of tangibility and existence. Once Hashem’s word enters the world, it never leaves it.
The difference between R. Nachman’s approach to Divine speech and the view described above arises from the difference between the two views concerning the creation of the world. According to the first view, Creation was a one-time event. The significance of Creation’s limited duration impacts the autonomy bestowed upon the created world. The world was created by Hashem’s utterance, but now it exists in its own right. This opens the door to two possibilities:
The first possibility is to sever the Creator from creation, just as the carpenter must be regarded as separate from the table that he has created (a metaphor brought by the Maharal to describe this approach, which he himself rejects outright). Hence, the world exists according to a regular and natural law that the Creator may well have implanted within it, but the world no longer needs His guidance. The classical philosophers followed this path.
The second option is to preserve the connection between the Creator and the creation on the transcendental level. Hashem watches over and guides the world in one way or another. He is able to intervene in what is going on if He so desires, and may overturn the natural law that exists there by inertia. Contact does exist between God and the world, but only through Divine guidance, knowledge and decree. This was the view adopted by some medieval Jewish thinkers who, on one hand, adopted the transcendental model, but on the other hand, were not prepared to relinquish the connection between God and man – a connection that stands at the foundation of Jewish belief.
The second approach, presented here by R. Nachman, accepts neither the “carpenter model” nor its variation which leaves the carpenter in the picture. The relationship between God and the world, according to R. Nachman, is like the relationship between the living spirit within man and his body. Man was created “dust from the earth,” and this clod of earth was not a “living spirit” until the breath of life was breathed into him. But this breath of life needs its own “oxygen.” It cannot be cut off for even a moment from the source of its vitality, for “a moment in His breath is a lifetime in His will.” Similarly, the world is indeed created with its laws, out of the material from which it is formed, but all of this is like a body without a soul until the Holy One breathes the breath of life into it. Moreover, this breath is not a one-time event. “The breath that sustains us is the Mashiach (anointed) of Hashem.” In this sense, the autonomy granted to the world is reduced to nothing. “In the beginning God created…” is nothing but an indication of the starting point of an odyssey that will never end, and “the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters” is simply a description of the permanent presence of the Divine spirit which resides within the world as well as above it.
This Divine spirit, claims R. Nachman, is the Divine utterance, which has never ceased to echo over the world. “Let there be light” is uttered not only every morning anew, as we recite, “…Who renews the act of Creation every day, continually,” but each and every moment that light exists in the world. “… And for Your wonders and kindnesses that are at all times, evening and morning and noon; the Good – for Your mercies have not ended, and the Merciful – for Your kindnesses have not ceased.” It is in these terms that R. Nachman describes the appointed angel that brings Hashem’s word to that plant, goading it at every moment and telling it, “Grow!”
Hashem’s word, states R. Nachman, is the Divine reality that dwells within the world and literally gives it life at every moment. Hence the following traits that R. Nachman ascribes to the Divine word:
“For the Word – which is the breath of the Holy One’s mouth – is a reflection of “malkhut (kingdom) – mouth.” It is a reflection of the sea, to which all rivers flow, as it is written: “All rivers flow to the sea.” And it is a reflection of Adonay, as it is written, “God (Adonay) – open my lips….” (Likutei Moharan Kama 38:2)
The images that R. Nachman uses to describe the Word overlap and express the same thing: Malkhut (kingdom), which is the tenth ‘sefira,’ the sea, and the name “Adonay” are all expressions that describe the presence of God in the world, and the flowing of Divinity - in all its range of manifestations – towards the limited, bounded reality. He concludes his series of images of depicting the Divine Word with the following:
“And speech is a reflection of ‘malkhut,’ as Eliyahu said: “kingdom of mouth.” And it is a reflection of the Shekhina, too, for it dwells with them always, without a moment’s break, as it is written: “Who dwells with them within their impurity.” And it is a reflection of the “mother of children”; i.e., just as a mother is always with her children and does not forget them, so the Divine speech – which is reflection of the Shekhina – goes always with man.” (Likutei Moharan Kama 78).
(At a later stage we shall hopefully address the ramifications of this excerpt with regard to the status of mortal speech.)
At the end of this teaching, R. Natan felt that the matter was not sufficiently well arranged, and therefore he attempts to provide an interpretation:
“Apparently, the intent of R. Nachman is to indicate the lofty level of Hashem’s speech. For Divine speech is a reflection of the Shekhina, it is a reflection of the spirit of Mashiach, a reflection of Divine inspiration, a reflection of resurrection, a reflection of the unification of the Holy One, blessed be He, and His Shekhina. And all of this is made clear within the words of this teaching…” (ibid.)
The Shekhina, which is also listed among the names given to the ‘sefira’ of ‘malkhut,’ is the substantive expression that best exemplifies this sefira – the presence of God in the world. Not “providence,” not “knowledge,” not even “decree,” but rather “presence” – Shekhina. This presence is immanent to existence itself: “I exist,” “he exists,” “we exist” – all of these mean that the Divine spirit moves within us. Hashem’s word, then, is not a passing breath, but rather an act; this act is Hashem’s taking up dwelling within the world that He has created. (At a later stage we shall hopefully deal with the element of ‘tzimtzum’ of God into a limited and defined world.)
We mentioned at the end of shiur no. 7 that Divine Immanence is the meaning, the intelligence and the wisdom that exists within everything:
“For a Jew must always look at the intelligence of every thing, in order that the intelligence in each thing may illuminate his way to becoming closer to the blessed God by means of that thing… But since the light of the (Divine) Intellect is very great, it is impossible to attain it other than through the aspect of “nun,” which is the aspect of malkhut….” (Likutei Moharan Kama 1)
Divine speech, identified by R. Nachman as the Shekhina, is the meaning and the significance of each and every creation. Just as speech in human terms is simply a revelation of the person’s ‘da’at’ (knowledge), so too is Divine speech:
And speech is the revelation of ‘da’at,’ for one cannot know what exists in the ‘da’at’ (of someone else) except through speech, as it is written, ‘Every night expressing knowledge.’ “Expressing” (yehaveh) is derived from the idea of speech, for speech expresses what exists in the “da’at”… (Likutei Moharan Kama 43).
There is no creature, no thing, that does not have Hashem’s voice emanating and arising from it. A person with spiritual sensitivity must listen to the voice and speech of Hashem that arises from within things, He will thereby reveal their essence, and in fact, will also reveal the intention and will of Hashem.
But this is not so simple, as we have seen in previous shiurim, for there are many coverings, garments and kelipot. Even Hashem’s word itself is no longer quite so complete and harmonious “… For at the moment of Creation, worlds fell downwards, and these worlds are letters, and they were dispersed in the form of many sparks…” (Likutei Moharan 75) Divine speech is a perfect expression of Hashem’s will and thereby the world, whose every detail is connected with this will. But “the worlds fell,” and speech was cut up into words, and words into letters. These are the Divine sparks that fell together with the worlds.
The letters are simply sparks of the great light that no longer shines with its concentrated, perfect prism. The letters fly through the air, carrying meaning and content, but the meaning is fragmented and the content severed and dispersed. Divine speech was exiled and the letters were scattered. The “exile” of the Shekhina is simply an expression of the severing of any object or any creature, from the Wholeness and Unity “that declares, ‘glory.’“
The world of separation is a world in which the Divine word is heard only in fragmented form, and even this voice – which is really only letters of the speech and sparks of the light – is muffled and swallowed up by the coarseness of the material in which it is imprisoned. The disappearance of Divine speech, according to what we have already learned, is nothing more than the disappearance of the “da’at.” In other words, Hashem’s will and intent are cast into exile; they are not revealed and known.
“And this is the meaning of an “open utterance” – it is faithful and simple. This open utterance is a reflection of the revelation of da’at, for speech is the revelation of da’at as it is written, “From His mouth – da’at and understanding.” And in Egypt, where da’at was exiled, as it is written, “And My Name Hashem was not known (lo noda’at) to them,” speech was likewise exiled – reflecting the state of “clumsy of mouth and heavy of tongue.” And when they left Egypt – when da’at left its exile – the speech also left and was opened, and this is the meaning of an “open utterance” – that speech was opened and da’at was revealed.” (Likutei Moharan Kama 56:7)
R. Nachman, remaining true to his view of historical processes as being nothing more than another application of the model that sets out reality and God’s relationship with it, identifies the phenomenon of the “exile of the Shekhina” and the “exile of (Divine) speech” with the Egyptian exile.
R. Nachman’s wonderful innovation here lies not in his addressing of the phenomenon of the “exile of the Shekhina” as a result of the “breaking of the vessels” and the dispersion of the light, but rather in handling this phenomenon with a new language: “the exile of speech.” This terminology sharpens the perception that we are dealing not with a theological-philosophical fact, but rather with existential experience. Treating the Shekhina as speech highlights two of its characteristics. This first is its meaning. Speech carries meaning; it conveys content and reflects intention. When it is exiled, the content and meaning of revealed reality are weakened in our eyes. The second is its appeal. It is specifically in the view of R. Nachman, who views Divine speech as an expression of tangibility and presence, that the Shekhina as speech expresses God’s continuous appeal to man, as we have explained in previous shiurim. When this speech is exiled, then the appeal of the Holy One to man is also somewhat diminished and muffled. The exile of speech, then, is the blurring and weakening of the meaning and content of the reality surrounding man. When the meaning gradually disappears, then God’s appeal to man is also weakened.
Let us conclude on an optimistic note, which will serve as the bridge to man’s coping with this reality – the subject of the next shiur. Although this quote comes from the Sefat Emet, a different Chassidic figure, it relates directly to our topic.
“Ramban raises a question concerning Hashem’s command of “Lekh-lekha” to Avraham without any prior mention of his merit. And the Holy Zohar explains that this (“Lekh lekha”) itself is the Torah’s praise for him; that he heard this command of “Lekh lekha” that was given by the Holy One to all of mankind at all times... (Sefat Emet, Lekh Lekha 5632)
The Sefat Emet, quotes the Ramban, asks why do we not find, prior to Hashem’s revelation to Avraham, any background explaining why Avraham was chosen from amongst the rest of humanity. In contrast, for example, in the case of Noah, we find prior to Hashem’s command to him a statement that “Noah found favor in the eyes of God.”
The Sefat Emet answers, in accordance with the Zohar, that Avraham’s greatness lays in the very fact of his hearing Hashem’s voice calling to him – “Lekh lekha.” This voice was not particularistic; it was merely the call of the Holy One that echoes throughout the world from one end to the other. It is a call that is not heard clearly, as we would expect or hope, but a person who is really listening, who succeeds in removing the various screens that divide between Hashem’s word and man, will certainly hear his own private “Lekh Lekha” call. And thus he is shown the meaning, the explanation and the content that are hidden in reality within the fragments of words – the letters seeking their redemption.
(Translated by Kaeren Fish)