If you were to create a world, the first thing you would need to master is tsimtsum. Tsimtsum is a way of being present in your absence. Get that one down, along with creating something out of nothing, and everything else is a piece of cake.
Tsimtsum literally means “reduction.” For a Kabbalist, a tsimtsum is a reduction of the divine energy that creates worlds—something like the transformers that reduce the voltage of the electric current leaving the turbine generators, until it’s weak enough for a standard light bulb to handle. So too, the divine energy needs to be stepped down so that the created worlds can handle it.
Tsimtsum is also like turning down the amplification on quality stereo speakers: If they are good speakers, none of the signal is lost, just that much of it becomes inaudible to our ears. So too, the more tsimtsum applied, the less the resulting world will be aware of the divine energy which is creating and sustaining it. Distortion and corruption of the light can also occur—but that’s for another essay.
Kabbalists describe innumerable such tsimtsums (tsimtsumim is the actual plural form) that generate innumerable worlds. Our world is the final stop, since at this point the degree of tsimtsum is so extreme that the divine energy is almost imperceptible. As a result, our world contains created beings that feel they are here just because they are here, no further questions asked. One tsimtsum more, and nothing at all could exist. Existence requires some sort of connection to the initial source of everything—meaning, to the Creator.
There’s another type of tsimtsum, described by the master Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as “the Ari.” It is the primal tsimtsum, and it is unique from all other tsimtsumim.
Much like the irrational number pi, the primal tsimtsum transforms an infinite circle into a measured line. The Ari described an initial, pre-creation state of infinite light, within which there was no place for anything at all to be. Before creating any worlds, the Creator withdrew that energy completely, resulting in a total void within the infinite light. Only then did He extend into this void a metered line of light from the encompassing infinite light, with which He generated an innumerable series of worlds.
Tsimtsum, then, is the way G‑d makes space for us to have our own world. He hides His light from us, so that we can make our own choices. But He remains immanently present within that hiddenness. In a way, He is yet more present in His absence than in His presence.
Tsimtsum is how G‑d makes space for us to make our own choices.
Yes, that sounds quite paradoxical. You can’t expect the Creator, after all, to make perfect sense within the confines of His creatures’ minds. But a parable will help bring the idea at least within the range of human reason. It is a parable about parable itself:
The Sage and the Child
To grasp this parable, imagine yourself as an ancient wise teacher teaching a fresh young pupil. You have deep wisdom to provide, wisdom that you gained through much effort—by sitting at the feet of enlightened sages in your youth, sipping in their every word. By years of contemplation of those words, removed from all disturbance, immersed in serene thought. Through your many travels and experiences. And through those days the sky opened for you, and with sudden clarity you saw how all the pieces fit together as a single, simple whole.
You wish to transmit all of that to your young pupil—but how can you? The youngster lives in an entirely different world than yours, shares none of your experiences, has never tasted the depth of insight achieved through hours of endless meditation on a single theme. Pour out all your knowledge, and your pupil will gain nothing but shock and confusion.
But there must be a way. You begin to think yet more deeply about this wisdom which you wish to transmit, more intensely than you have ever thought before. You seek out its very essence, the point from which it all extends. But to do that, you must transcend the form this wisdom takes in your own mind, shedding the context of your own thoughts and world, so that you are left with only the core, the quintessential, zero-dimensional, simple point.
To find the quintessential point, you need to put yourself aside.
Once you’ve isolated that point, you then look at the world of the pupil—not as the pupil sits there with you, but as the pupil lives in his own world, sees and understand his own world, experiences life from his own perspective.
Only then can you draw a line from the quintessential point you’ve found, down into the pupil’s world. You’ll attempt to think as though you were using this pupil’s mind and not your own. You’ll seek out ways the pupil might grasp the point on his own. Each time you find a mode to express this wisdom, you won’t be satisfied with that. Again and again, you’ll find ways to step it down yet more, bringing it closer and yet closer to the world of your pupil.
But the job is yet incomplete. Problem is, with all that stepping down, it still remains an idea. The pupil does not live within a world of ideas. The pupil lives in a world of things he can touch, people he can know, and happenings with which he is familiar.
So there’s yet another step for you to take: To create a parable. A parable will dress your idea in the artifacts of this pupil’s world. You’ll create a story that the pupil can easily follow and remember, that makes some sense to him right away, and which he feels comfortable to explore. His own space, in which he can experience your ideas, not as ideas, but as elements of a story that could happen in his own life.
When you think through this parable, you see in every detail all that you wish to teach. To you, the teacher, there is really no parable—there are only your thoughts, told in story form.
But to the pupil, there are no ideas, just a story. And that is as it must be. At first.
Now you, the elderly teacher, must leave this student be. If he is a sincere student, he will tell the story to himself again and again. As he gains more knowledge, experience and wisdom, he begins to unravel the story, understanding the parable, reaching into the layers upon layers of insight hidden within it. Until, after perhaps forty years of earnest seeking for truth, he begins to understand this wisdom as his teacher once did.
Indeed, all this time, his teacher was living within him.
G‑d in Dark Places
What did you, the teacher, do? You applied tsimtsum. You found a way to reduce and package your wisdom within the world of the pupil. But to do that, the first step was to leave your own self out of the picture. Only then were you able to find a point of wisdom stripped of your own understanding.
Yet, even then, to bring that point into the world of your pupil, you had to put your own mind aside repeatedly, to think with the mind which you desired to reach.
In the presence of your own thoughts, there was no room for the pupil’s thoughts. By transcending yourself, you gave of yourself. So that now, in your absence, you are acutely there.
By transcending yourself, you gave of yourself.
So too, the Creator puts aside His infinite light to make space for a creation. For us, the created beings. Yet the very emptiness of that space is Him as well, and for Him the light shines as intensely as before.
Of course, there are differences. You had a pupil. The Creator begins with nothing. He must conjure up the pupil as well. You gave only of your mind. The Creator gives of His essence and being.
So next time you feel yourself in darkness, having to pick yourself up from the ground and start all over again, to make tough decisions and meet gruesome challenges—at those times, think of all your life and all your world as nothing more and nothing less than a parable. A deep, rich parable. And in that parable, in every detail, hides G‑d Himself.
Most conspicuously, in the dark corners. In the tsimtsum.
Here are two animations that will help you understand tsimtsum even better:
The Secret of the Bagel
eXtreme Bicycle Training