Friday, November 27, 2015

What is the “Self?”

Photo (c) Dovid Sears 2011

Some Speculations by Dovid Sears

In the Introduction to the Tikuney Zohar, the Prophet Elijah describes how the various sefiros (Divine powers) correspond to the human form (“chesed / kindness is the right arm, gevurah / might is the left arm,” etc.), and then states that nevertheless G-d transcends them all, as well as all Divine Names: “There is none who can know You at all… Each sefirah has a specific Name… However, You have no specific Name, for You permeate all Names, and you are the perfection of the all (‘shelimu de-khulhu,’ in Aramaic)…” The Tikuney Zohar concludes that all powers and emanations, and all Divine Names, are related to the world and therefore limited, while the Divine Essence is indescribable and beyond all limitation entirely. (Also see a similar teaching from the Baal Shem Tov cited in Ohr ha-Meir, Shoftim, that G-d’s “true greatness” transcends His Essential Name [YHVH], which exists only for the sake of creation.)

This may be related to a cryptic statement of the Rebbe preserved in Reb Avraham b’Reb Nachman’s Chokhmah u-Binah (printed in Kokhvey Ohr and Siach Sarfey Kodesh I, 413): “Ich hobb shum nomen nisht—I have no name whatever.”

That is, just as Hashem transcends all Names and Divine manifestations, so does the tzaddik transcend his own “personality” and presence in the world. The essence of being remains unmanifest and nameless.

The Rebbe also teaches that “the name is the self.” Thus, mesirus nefesh, which is usually understood to mean martyrdom or self-sacrifice, also may denote the defamation of one’s name (Likutey Moharan I, 260). Since the name is the “self,” it may be subject to defamation—or its opposite, glorification or adulation.

In Likutey Moharan I, 52 (“Ha-nei’or ba-Laylah”), the Rebbe outlines the path of hisbodedus and the spiritual realization or breakthrough that is its goal. He explains that in truth, everything proceeds from and is nullified within the Mechuyav ha-Metziyus (“Imperative Existent,” a term borrowed from Maimonides, meaning “Absolute Reality,” or the indestructible essence of being”—which is Divinity). In his recent collection of chiddushim and bi’urim on Likutey Moharan, “Mayim Amukim” (ad loc.), Rabbi Shmuel Moshe Kramer of Yerushalayim equates this with the mystical experience often related to the verse “Ein ode milvado” (Deut. 4:35, according to the interpretation of Shnei Luchos ha-Bris and the Maharal of Prague; also cf. Chullin 7b, Nefesh ha-Chaim III, 12-13, and elsewhere)—that is, despite all appearances, nothing but Godliness truly exists. On that higher plane, what names may we invoke? Who and what are we to invoke them at all?

Also in the above-mentioned Torah 260, the Rebbe describes the souls of Israel as “chelkey ha-Shekhinah / portions of the Divine Presence,” and individually with the phrase “chelek HaVaYaH (YHVH) mi-ma’al mamash … an actual portion of Divinity above” (which interestingly is also the language of the Tanya, as based on the 17th century kabbalistic work, Shefa Tal). This seems to be a mystical reading of the verse from Deuteronomy, “chelek HaVaYaH (YHVH) amo… the portion of Hashem (YHVH) is his people…” If so, this “actual portion of G-dliness above” is who we really are, collectively and individually.

In Likutey Moharan II, 82, the Rebbe cites the retort of Moshe to the rebellious Israelites in the wilderness, “Vi-nachnu mah—and what are we?” The Rebbe interprets this as an expression of “no-ego,” no “self” to impose on others, or to defend from insult or opposition. (And he recommends this model to us all when we are faced with opposition and conflict.) Thus, the concept of a solid or fixed self is negated.

Elsewhere, the Rebbe describes both the tzaddik and the Jewish people as personifying the Divine Name (Likutey Moharan II, 66, 67). For as Chazal state, “Hashem meshutaf bi-shmeinu … G-d’s Name is bound up with our names” (Rashi on Numbers 26:5). Given this principle, it would seem that our names are somewhat provisional. And as the Tikuney Zohar observes, from the Divine perspective, Hashem transcends all Names.

Yet another relevant source is Sichos ha-Ran 40, a Chanukah teaching that I once translated for this website as “The Wheel of Transformation.” There, the Rebbe describes the Holy Temple as being like the dreidel or toy top which children spin on Chanukah, because it embodies the principle that everything in creation is constantly changing, and nothing retains any permanent existence. (See that teaching for how these symbols specifically connect.)

Toward the end of that teaching, the Rebbe mentions that the prima materia (“hyle”), which is the “nothingness” from whence all creation in all of its diversity comes forth, is called “chokhmah.” As in other kabbalistic works, he parses chokhmah as  koach-mah, the “power of nothingness?” This is the same concept as found in Torah II, 82, cited above, and Moshe’s rhetorical question, “Vi-nachnu mah? What are we?” (Meaning: “We are nothing.”)

Therefore, the Big Question is: what is the “self?”

And the person to whom this question expressly must be addressed is oneself—whoever that may be!

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