Friday, May 3, 2019

Letting in the Light, Part I

(c) Dovid Sears

Letting in the Light, Part I
A Shiur on Likutey Moharan I, 172
Dovid Sears

It is told that when the notoriously acerbic Chasidic master Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1789-1859) was a little boy, his schoolteacher once jestingly remarked, "I'll give you a penny (or whatever a small coin was called in Poland back then) if you can tell me where G-d is!"

            "I'll give you two," the child shot back, "if you can tell me where He isn't!"

G-d is absolutely transcendent - infinite, omnipotent, above all change, all limitations; an absolute unity and not a compound. Yet at the same time, He is right here with us, for "His Glory fills all of the world."[i] G-d is also immanent.

In Likutey Moharan II, 7 ("For a Compassionate One Shall Lead Them"), Rebbe Nachman relates these two ways of thinking about G-d to a passage from the Shabbos and Yom Tov prayer service.[ii] The congregation quotes the words of the Ministering Angels, who ask: "Where is the place of His Glory (i.e., G-d's Revelation)?" - which is a rhetorical question meaning that G-d is unknowable. Yet in the next breath, the worshippers declare "His glory fills all of the world!" How these two perceptions fit together is a paradox that the rational mind cannot grasp; but in truth, they are two sides of the same coin. G-d's essential nature is a total mystery; the kabbalists call Him "E-l Mistater . . . G-d Who Conceals Himself."[iii] Nevertheless, solve this riddle we must - for the very purpose of creation is, in the Zohar's phrase "bi-gin de-ishtimodin lei . . . in order to know Him."[iv] Certainly this can’t mean intellectual knowledge, for it is utterly above our heads. It is mystical knowledge.

Another story is told of Rabbi Barukh of Medzhibuzh (1757-1810). Once his grandson and a few friends were playing a game of hide and seek. After awhile the little boy came out of his hiding place, and realized that his companions had run away without even bothering to look for him. Crying, he ran to his grandfather and complained about his uncaring friends. Rabbi Barukh's eyes, too, filled with tears. "G-d says the same thing,” he explained. “He hides, but no one bothers to seek Him!”

The first thing we must realize is that encountering G-d's hiddenness is not the end of the story, but only marks the beginning of our quest - even if we must begin anew again and again, even if we must do so seemingly ad infinitum.

The Chasidic Way
The Baal Shem Tov paved a unique path for seekers of G-d, a way not only to understand something of G-d conceptually, but also to experience Divinity.[v] To understand Rebbe Nachman's teachings, we must have at least an inkling of the approach of his illustrious great-grandfather, which he imbibed in his very mother's milk.

The Baal Shem Tov wanted us to realize that the world and the self are no more than a mask for G-dliness. Thus, he taught:

"Shema Yisrael . . . Hear, O Israel, the Lord, our G-d, the Lord is One" (Deuteronomy 6:6). When you recite the word "One," you should contemplate that the Holy One, blessed be He, is all that truly exists. A person must realize that he is nothing - for the essence of a human being is the soul, and the soul is but a "portion of G-d Above." Therefore, nothing truly exists except the Holy One, blessed be He.[vi]

This particularly applies to those times when G-d seems to be completely hidden from us:

It is written, "And I will surely hide (haster astir) My face" (Deuteronomy 31:18). As soon as you realize that the Holy One, blessed be He, is hidden, there is no longer any concealment, and all negativity disappears. Thus, the verse uses a double expression of concealment - haster astir. There are times when G-d will also hide the knowledge that He is present in the midst of His hiddenness.[vii]

That is, G-d is only concealed when we let the world fool us. In truth, “no place is empty of Him.”[viii] G-d is right here, because there is nowhere else for the universe to exist but within G-d. Anything less than this would contradict the basic belief that G-d is infinite and absolutely one. The Baal Shem Tov also insists that perception of G-d's omnipresence is not only attainable through "peak experiences," but can illuminate our most ordinary activities:

When you realize that the Master of the Universe is actually present in your every word and gesture, however great or small, all confusions disperse that eclipse the light of the Mind.[ix]

This is the solution to the problem of suffering, which is only possible when a person becomes alienated from G-d. As the Baal Shem Tov states:

It is written, "I, I am the One Who consoles you" (Isaiah 51:12) [repeating the word "I"]. When you realize that the true "I" is G-d, and nothing exists aside from Him - then [the divine assurance is fulfilled that] "I am the One Who consoles you."[x]

Thus, the Baal Shem Tov paved a path illuminated by and directed toward this perception of G-d's Oneness. The only catch was how to open our eyes so that we, too, might share it. As we shall see in the following teaching, this was Rebbe Nachman's concern, no less than that of his holy great-grandfather.

Light and Shadow

In this brief lesson, Rebbe Nachman further develops what scholars of religion term the Baal Shem Tov's panentheism - the belief that G-d is present within all things, despite His ultimate transcendence. And he zeros in on our most practical concern, namely how one can penetrate the illusion of the world and glimpse the Divine Essence within all things. Rebbe Nachman explains:

Whatever one lacks - whether concerning children, livelihood, or health - everything is from the side of the person himself. For the light of G-d flows upon one continuously; however, through evil deeds, each person makes a shadow for himself, so that the divine light does not reach him.[xi] According to one's actions, a shadow is cast which obstructs the light of G-d. The deficiency is commensurate with the deed that created the shadow.

Now, a shadow is produced by a physical thing that stands before a spiritual thing [i.e., something of a more subtle nature] - just as a physical stick or stone placed opposite the light of the moon or sun will cast a shadow. Likewise, a solar or lunar eclipse is due to the shadow of the earth.[xii] Moreover, the sun itself is physical in relation to that which is above it, and casts a shadow against it.[xiii]

Therefore, according to one's materialistic attachments and actions, one creates a shadow within him that prevents G-d's light and bounty from reaching him. However, if a person nullifies himself and no longer exists in this [illusory] world at all, he no longer casts a shadow, and receives the light of G-d, may He be blessed.

The essence of the divine light is glory; for "all that the Holy One, blessed be He, created, He created for His glory, as it is written: 'For My glory I created it…' (Isaiah 43:7)."[xiv] 

This is the meaning of "The entire world is full (mi-lo kol ha'aretz) of His glory" (ibid. 6:3). That is, if one is "not of the world altogether [mi-lo kol ha'aretz, a play on words]" and has no part in this world at all - then he receives the light of G-d, which is the divine glory.

This, too, is the meaning of "The wise will inherit glory" (Proverbs 3:35), for "wisdom comes forth from nothingness" (Job 28:12).[xv] Therefore, the wise, who are "nothing," are granted a perception of glory. Having overcome all materialism, they do not create an obstructing shadow.

            The concluding paragraph of this lesson introduces the idea that mystical perception also depends on one's emotional state:

When G-d, may He be blessed, displays a joyous face (panim), this brings life and good to the world; and the opposite is also true, G-d forbid. Similarly, when the tzaddik displays a joyous face, it is good - and vice-versa.[xvi] This is the meaning of the verse "See, today I have placed before you [lifneykhem, which is etymologically related to the word panim, meaning 'face'] life and good, as well as death…" (Deuteronomy 11:26) - that is, lifneykhem, according to your face.

At a glance, this may seem to have a somewhat tenuous connection to the previous theme. The lynch pin is Rebbe Nachman's reference at the beginning of his teaching to both a solar and lunar eclipse and the cosmic hierarchy. Let’s take a closer look at his words: “Likewise, a solar or lunar eclipse is due to the shadow of the earth. Moreover, the sun itself is physical in relation to that which is above it, and casts a shadow against it.” In kabbalistic terms, the sun and moon correspond to mashpi'a, the "giver" or source of influence, and mekabel, the receiver. On the one hand, the tzaddik is like the moon, being a receiver in relation to G-d. On the other, he is like the sun, being a giver in relation to the world, particularly to those on lower spiritual levels. Only a perfect tzaddik can attain total bittul - absolute nullification of ego that eliminates every trace of the shadow. Thus, in order to fulfill our potential, we who occupy lower levels must receive illumination from the tzaddikim.[xvii]
With his last remarks, Rebbe Nachman lets us know that this illumination is conditioned by our approach, the "face" we display. G-d's "face," or manner of revelation, depends on our "face," meaning our spiritual state.[xviii] If we wallow in coarse materialism, we block the light. If we detach ourselves from worldly vanities and let go of our all-consuming self-interest, we immediately become receptors for G-dliness - and, by implication, the light of the tzaddik, who transmits the divine light to us, just as the sun illuminates the moon.[xix]


Elsewhere, Reb Noson adds that he heard a slightly different version of this teaching from another disciple of Rebbe Nachman. This version is even more lucid:

You must nullify each of your negative traits until you have annihilated the ego completely, as if it were utterly non-existent.

Begin with one negative trait and nullify it completely, until not a trace remains. Then work on your other negative traits, one at a time, until they no longer exist. As you nullify the ego, G-d's glory will begin to shine through and be revealed. G-d's glory is like light, as the verse states, "And the earth is illuminated with His glory" (Ezekiel 43:2).

After reiterating the analogy of the physical object placed before the sunlight that casts a shadow, this second version of the teaching concludes:

Thus, it is written, "The entire world is full (mi-lo kol ha'aretz) of His glory" (Isaiah 6:3). When there is nothing to cast a shadow and thereby obstruct the light, His glory is revealed through all the earth.[xx]

This corresponds to the path of hisbodedus Rebbe Nachman outlines in Likutey Moharan I, 52 ("HaNe'or baLaylah / One Who Awakens in the Night"). Through hisbodedus - going out alone at night to a secluded place where people do not commonly go even by day, and speaking to G-d in one's own words - one may systematically nullify all negative personality traits until one attains bittul, total self-effacement. Rebbe Nachman's descriptions of this process in both lessons are almost identical. By removing these negative traits, we remove the shadow, allowing the light of G-d, Who is the “Imperative Existent,” to shine forth. (We should add that bittul is not to be confused with low self-esteem or self-hatred, traits that are merely the "flip side" of self-importance. We are supposed to hate our evil traits, but not become morbidly obsessed with ourselves in so doing. Rather, bittul denotes transcendence of the ego - seeing through the illusion of the self as something that exists apart from G-d.) Thus, it seems that the most basic way to put this teaching into practice is through hisbodedus.

[i] Siddur, based on Isaiah 6:3.
[ii] Musaf, Kedushah.
[iii] Rabbi Avraham Maimon, a disciple of 16th century kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, composed a mystical song paraphrasing Isaiah 45:15 ("For You are a Self-Concealing G-d") that is still widely sung today during the Third Sabbath Meal.
[iv] Zohar II, 42b. This concept is often cited by the Chasidic masters, e.g. Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, Me'or Einayim, Chayei Sarah, Ma'amar "Vi-Avraham Zaken."
[v] Thus, when Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezeritch, first visited the Baal Shem Tov, his future mentor challenged his understanding of a passage in the Arizal’s Eitz Chaim that discussed the names of various angels. When the Maggid countered by asking the Baal Shem Tov to offer a better explanation, if indeed he knew one, the Baal Shem Tov began to speak. The room immediately became suffused with light, and the Maggid actually beheld the awe-inspiring angels in question. Later, the Baal Shem Tov explained, "Your interpretation was not incorrect - but it had no soul!" (Keter Shem Tov, Kehot 1982 ed., sec. 424).
[vi] Likkutim Yekarim 161; in the Breslov literature, cf. Rabbi Nachman Goldstein of Tcherin, Otzar haYirah, Emes vaTzedek, "Bittul el Ohr Ein Sof,” sec. 9 (citing Likutey Halakhos).
[vii] Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polonoye, Toldos Ya'akov Yosef, Bereshis.
[viii] Hakdamah, Tikuney Zohar.
[ix] Rabbi Yitzchak Eizik Yehudah Yechiel Safrin of Komarno, Nesiv Mitzvotekha, cited in Sefer haBaal Shem Tov, Vayelekh, note 6.
[x] Rabbi Gedaliah of Linitz, Teshu'os Chen, Tzav.
[xx] Also cf. Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, Me'or Einayim, Noach, s.v. va-tishaches ha'aretz (New Square 1997 ed., vol. I, p. 30).
[xii]It is almost certain that Rebbe Nachman was familiar with Rabbi Pinchas Eliyahu Horowitz of Vilna's Sefer haBris (Brunn, 1793), the first half of which attempts to integrate 18th century science with rabbinic and kabbalistic thought; see Mendel Piekarz, Chasidut Breslov (Jerusalem 1972), p. 193ff. In Sefer haBris I, 4:12-13, Rabbi Pinchas Eliyahu states that a lunar eclipse is caused by the shadow of the earth, while a solar eclipse is caused by the shadow of the moon. Therefore, it is unclear if Rebbe Nachman disputed this, or if there is an error in the text. Perhaps significantly, a similar version of this teaching appears in Sichos HaRan 136 that does not mention this point.
[xiii] That is, the terms "physical" and "spiritual" are relative. This is implied by the Midrash, which states, "The light of the sun is dark when compared to the light that G-d created on the first day of creation" (Bereishis Rabbah 3:6). Similarly, the Zohar declares, "Even the Supernal Crown (Keser Elyon) is considered 'black' before the Cause of Causes" (Tikuney Zohar, Tikkun 70, 135b).
[xiv] Avot 6:11.
[xv] We have translated the verse in keeping with its context. More literally, it should be rendered "Wisdom - from whence (me-ayin) does it come forth?"
[xvi] This is because "tzaddikim resemble their Creator" (Likutey Moharan II, 52); also see Rabbi Gedaliah Aharon Kenig, Chayei Nefesh, chap. 18, passim.
[xvii] I am grateful to Rabbi Symcha Bergman for this insight.
[xviiii] Rebbe Nachman interprets the verse "And Hezekiah turned his face to the wall" (Isaiah 38:2) to mean that he turned his awareness within, "for one's true 'face' is one's state of mind" (Sichos HaRan 39).
[xix] Thus, Abraham interceded on behalf of Sodom (Genesis, chap. 18), and Moses interceded on behalf of Israel (Exodus 32:1-14), as did the subsequent prophets. Another testimony to the role of the tzaddik as intermediary is the tradition of the Talmudic sages that the Children of Israel heard the last eight of the Ten Commandments as if uttered by Moses; see Rashi, Exodus 19:19, citing the Mekhilta. The prophets repeatedly intercede for Israel. However, this does not mean that we do not have a direct relationship with G-d. The tzaddik is an intermediary only in the sense that a prayer leader serves as an intermediary: he represents the congregation, yet each member must pray to G-d directly on his own. In the Breslov literature, see e.g. Rabbi Nachman Goldstein of Tcherin, Zimras Ha'aretz I, 52; Rabbi Avraham ben Nachman Chazan, Biur haLikkutim 10:17.
[xx] Sichos HaRan 136 (abridged). 

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