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The Baal Shem Tov on Perpetual Creation

The Baal Shem Tov on Perpetual Creation

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Creation Ex-Nihilo

The Metaphor of Keeping a Ball in the Air

Belief in creation ex-nihilo – something from nothing – has been a bedrock of Jewish belief throughout the ages. In fact, many Jewish commentaries explain that implicit in the meaning of the verb bara – which is used in the first verse of Genesis, and is commonly translated as "create" – is the idea that something totally new and unprecedented has been produced; i.e., creation ex-nihilo.1 This is very different than human creations, which are crafted of materials that already exist.

The difference also expresses itself in the "created" product. An entity created ex nihilo can never be independent of its creator, as opposed to an object crafted from pre-existing substances.

For example, a carpenter takes wood, cuts it to the right dimensions, attaches legs to it, and produces a table. Once the table is made, the carpenter can move on to his next project, and the table will continue to exist. In the case of creation ex-nihilo, on the other hand, the created thing needs to be constantly recreated.

This can be understood by considering the case of someone who wants to fight gravity and keep a ball from touching the ground. Since there is a natural tendency for the ball to fall, the only way it can be kept off the ground is if there is an opposing force – someone either holding it or throwing it – to keep it from touching the ground.

Similarly, the very idea of something (apart from G‑d) existing, is a novelty. Creation's true state is non-existence. The only way a created being can exist is if there is something continually creating it, to counter its natural state of non-existence.

Continuous Creation by G‑d's Word

The Metaphor of an Electric Lamp

Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, explained the process by which G‑d creates something from nothing. Like many of his teachings, it is revolutionary at the same time that it merely elucidates traditional, age-old teachings.

The Mishnah states: "With Ten Utterances the world was created."2 The biblical support for G‑d's utterances being the method of creation3 is the verse: "By the word of G‑d the heavens were made, and by the breath of His mouth, all their host."4

Further citing the verse, "Forever, O G‑d, Your word stands in the heavens,"5 the Baal Shem Tov explains that unlike human speech – which once spoken is gone – G‑dly "speech" is everlasting. This means that the Ten Utterances used to create the world continue to stand, constantly re-creating the world.6

This can perhaps be illustrated by using an electric lamp as an example. When one flips the switch of a lamp, one creates a circuit, causing electrons to flow back and forth through the circuit, and the light to go on. But merely flipping the switch is only half the story. In order for the light to stay lit, there must be a constant renewal of energy, for the moment the energy runs out – poof – out goes the light.7

The same is true of creation. In order for the world to continue to exist, G‑d's words of creation need to constantly fuel its existence.8

Just as when one looks at a lamp, the separate bursts of energy that are constantly lighting it are not apparent, so too, when one looks at the world, the separate acts of creation that put it into existence are not readily discernable, and existence seems to be flowing in a steady stream, the product of a single act.

Since the world's existence is solely dependent upon its constant re-creation, there would be no need for any Armageddon or disaster of cosmic proportions to destroy the world and cause it to revert to nothingness. All that would be needed is a cessation of its re-creation.

The World Is G‑d's Word

Analogy from Modern Physics

We look around us and we see tables made of wood, chairs made of metal, and cups made of glass. Everything appears to be made up of its own unique materials. Nowadays, however, we know that the difference between these items is really only in the way that various subatomic particles have been put together to form atoms, and various combinations of atoms have been put together to form molecules of different materials. From a wooden table to a metal chair, everything is made up of a bunch of electrons, protons, and neutrons jumping around together in various formations—essentially, everything is made of the same stuff.

The same is true in a spiritual sense. The building blocks of all of creation, in all its variety, are the same Ten Utterances.

This does not only include the creation of those things that are specifically mentioned in the Ten Utterances in Genesis (such as the sun or the moon), but also all items not explicitly mentioned (such as a rock).

Rabbi Isaac Luria9 explains that in every single thing, whether it is an animal or plant or an inanimate substance like stones or water, there is a spiritual life-force, a soul. The soul of each thing is made up of the letters of the Ten Utterances.

Some creations, like the sun or moon (which are mentioned explicitly in the Ten Utterances), are able to receive their life-force directly from the actual Ten Utterances recorded in the Torah. Other specific creations, like a rock, can only receive their life-force after it descends and is progressively diminished.

This takes place through a process of substitutions and transpositions of the letters that make up the Ten Utterances, until the life-force is condensed enough so that the particular creation can be brought into existence.

(This system of substituting and exchanging the letters of the Utterances is known as the "231 gates, backwards and forwards." Each letter of the Hebrew Aleph-Bet can be combined with any other letter. For example, an aleph can be combined with a bet, gimmel, or daled etc. There are 22 letters in the Aleph-Bet which gives us 462 possibilities (22x21=462). However, since each one can be read backwards or forwards (for example, aleph bet or bet aleph) we are left with 231 possibilities (462/2 = 231). In turn, the various combinations of these substituted letters make up different words, thus leaving us with an almost infinite set of possibilities.10

Each substitute further diminishes the brightness of the Ten Utterance in their original form, thus enabling the more mundane and coarse creations to be created.)

Divine Providence

This understanding of creation leads us to another famous teaching of the Baal Shem Tov, which is that everything that happens in this world is due to hashgachah pratit, "divine providence": not even a leaf falling is a result of mere happenstance.11

For if every detail of creation is constantly being put into existence by the custom-mixed and substituted letters of the Ten Utterances, this means that every single facet of the world is constantly being created afresh for some specific purpose.

Happiness

When we keep this in mind, we have the power to overcome any obstacles that we may come across in life. Knowing that G‑d constantly re-creates the world gives us the fortitude to trust that even if things may seem bad, all can change in an instant for the good. Reality has no independent existence.

Furthermore, the knowledge that every moment is being recreated from nothingness by the Creator also changes the way we view the present, and allows us to be joyous even when things don't seem to be going well. After all, this circumstance that we perceive as negative is actually being created anew every moment by a benevolent G‑d. In the words of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi12:

Now when a man will . . . picture in his mind how he comes into being ex nihilo at every single moment, how can he entertain the thought that he is suffering, or has any afflictions related to "children, life [i.e., health], and sustenance," or whatever other worldly sufferings? For . . . G‑d's wisdom is the source of life, goodness and delight . . . except that, because it is not apprehensible, one imagines that he is suffering, or afflicted. In truth, however, "No evil descends from above"...

Footnotes
1.

Saadya Gaon, Doctrines and Beliefs, ch. 1; Nachmanides on Genesis 1:1 and 1:21; Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, 2:30. See, however, the commentary of Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra on Genesis 1:1, where he is of the opinion that the verb bara does not necessarily denote creation ex-nihilo.

2.

Ethics of the Fathers 5:1.
The Ten Utterances consist of the nine times it says "And G‑d said…" in the story of creation at the beginning of Genesis, together with the first verse, "In the beginning, G‑d created the heavens and the earth." For a listing of the Ten Utterances, see Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 17:1; Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer 3.

3.

It should be noted that the Divine Will also plays a part in the creation of the world. For there is an apparent contradiction between two verses. One verse states: "Whatever G‑d desired, He did" (Psalms 135:6), which implies that the creation of the world stems from G‑d's desire and will. And yet it is also written: "With the word of G‑d, the heavens were created," implying that creation stems from G‑d's utterances and speech, and was not brought into being by will and desire alone.
The explanation: It is known that every entity possesses matter and form. Matter refers to the actual body of the entity as it exists in general; for example, the heavens in general or the earth in general. Form refers to the configuration and picture of the entity and the form in which they appear. Thus the matter is created through "the word of G‑d," through the Ten Utterances of creation. Through the statement: "Let there be light," the light was created something from nothing. And similarly through the statement: "Let there be a firmament," the firmament was created something from nothing. The manner in which the firmament was formed, its image and its likeness, was brought into being through G‑d's desire which is not at all revealed through speech or utterances. This is the intent of the statement: "Whatever G‑d desired, He did." – See Kuntres Eitz Hachaim ch. 1.

5.

Ibid., 119:89.

6.

Tanya, Shaar Hayichud Veha'emunah, ch. 1. It has been noted that this explanation from the Baal Shem Tov was already written in the Midrash Shocher Tov on Psalms, ibid. However, the innovation is commonly cited in the name of the Baal Shem Tov since he was the one who popularized and explained the teaching of the Midrash.

7.

See A Commentary on the Tanya, Shaar Hayichud Ve'emunah Ch. 1, by Rabbi Adin Even-Yisrael (Steinsalz).

8.

See Likkutei Sichot, vol. 25, p. 200 and vol. 29, p. 29-30, where it is explained that not only is the world's continued existence constantly dependent on the Ten Utterances that "stand in the Heavens," but these Utterances actually permeate every created being—making them one and indivisible.

9.

See Sefer Eitz Chaim Shaar 50:2, 10.

10.

Sefer Yetzirah 2:4-5; see alsoSefer HaPardes, Shaar HaTziruf, ch. 5.

12.

Tanya, Igeret Hakodesh, epistle 11.

Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
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Yehuda Shurpin (Author) July 27, 2016

It would seem that part of the issue is faulty translations of the bible (no translations are a substitute for the original hebrew). If one were to translated literally it would read "The Beginning was created by G-d...." Then the next verse goes on that "Now the earth was astonishingly empty..." In other words "Tohu Vovohu" is after creation not before.

In any event, indeed, some, like Nachmanides who is cited in Footnote#1 of the article as one of the commentaries that explain the verb "bara" to mean creation ex-nihilo, at the same time also explain that "Tohu Vovohu" similar to what you are saying.

In short, he explains that G-d first brought into being from absolute nothingness a very tiny basic material, which seemed as though it didn’t exist at all, but it had within it the power to bring forth other creations, prepared to receive shape, to develop from the potential to the actual… and all was created from it. Thus "Vohu" can mean “all is in it.” This however does not contradict the idea of creation ex-nihilo which himself proscribes to.

For more on how Nachmanides would explain the first few verses of Geneses, see Genesis - A Kabbalistic interpretation of the first four verses of Bereishit See also How Real Is Stuff? Part I - The Mystery of Matter, a three-part series Reply

David Chester July 20, 2016

I find the claim that the world (not universe) was created from nothing (as in this article of perpetual creation), to be not Biblical in its expression, where we read in Genesis that there was "touho ve vohuo" or confusion, in the beginning. This implies that there was something material existing before the 6 Days of Creation began. Before light was created there had to be space-time which implies that a sort of pre-creation stage was necessary! So I would like to see (if not to write for myself) a scientifically acceptable explanation for the Creation of our universe, that fits as closely as possible and provides a better explanation, about where and why Genesis is close but not the whole story!

Also the implication of evolution following first creation, again a scientific reality, suggests that after the Acts of Creation, G-d had and still had and has an Eternal Plan. Lets treat the matter logically. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma December 21, 2012

difficult concepts to grasp on this "plane" we do experience intense suffering, and we must not condone this. It could be, on another plane, it's all for a reason, and not "suffering" but still it's man's experience, and as such needs to be recognized, and we can help each other through this. As a plane in carpentry shaves away at layers, so there are planes of existence and it is possible to walk through many planes simultaneously but not necessarily be able to "ex plain" this so others comprehend the deepening layers of meaning. I have been writing thousands of commentaries demonstrating the power of words, the deconstruction of letters, that very "wheel of letters" you are referencing, and I would say, so far, people think it's some kind of clever "word game" but it's not. The letters come to me and I had a profound mystical experience that began this for me.

As to any act of creativity, ALL bear the mark of the creator, and we see this, as in we easily recognize a "Picasso" or a "Matisse". Reply

Learn about the life and teachings of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the 18th century mystic who permanently changed the Jewish landscape.
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