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Who Turned Off the Lights?

Who Turned Off the Lights?

The radical reversal we call world


You may have heard of figure-ground reversal. That’s when you switch the foreground for the background and vice versa. For instance, looking past the vase to see the faces that form its background.

And that is how we create new ideas. We are the vase, the faces are the idea. We put ourselves in the background, quiet and out of the way, to let this new idea take the foreground and center stage.We put ourselves in the background to let this new idea take the foreground.

The same applies to teaching a student, raising a child or counseling a fellow human being. Those who are good at these things know the secret of being there by getting out of the way.

Yet, ironically, the reason we are getting out of the way is because, eventually, that is the way we will be most present. We will be present in our idea as it becomes a tangible creation, or in this other person as the seed we planted in his or her mind begins to grow.

That’s a divine experience, because drawing on this experience allows us to have a sense of G‑d’s act of creation and His purpose in doing so.

Radical Switch

Originally there was only One, a singularity without bounds. The Kabbalists use the term “Infinite Light.” Trying to imagine infinite light is a self-defeating venture. If the light is infinite, there’s no room left for anything else, not even for someone observing this light—even from his own imagination. How can you imagine a situation that leaves you no room to exist?

And that’s really the most wondrous thing about the Infinite Light: that a finite, bounded creation could emerge from there. But it does, because when there are truly no bounds, even the impossible is possible.

Creation, then, was a figure-ground reversal of this state of the Infinite Light. It was the Infinite stepping aside, hiding behind the curtains so that a finite world could take center stage. Previously, that finite world may as well have been a movie projected onto a screen in the bright sunlight of midday, or a 20-watt light show dancing deep within the orb of the sun. Even those examples are woefully insufficient to describe what it means for a finite impossibility to be utterly subsumed within an infinite context. And now, as the Infinite Light recedes within itself, this world takes on a life of its own. Now all the parameters and patterns that we call the laws of nature step into the foreground. A profusion of disparate events and distinct particles emerges. A world.

Could there be a oneness behind this plurality, a singularity from which all of nature emerges? Rationally, it would seem so. A powerful mind could even attempt to visualize how this must be so. But the tangible, maddening experience of life drowns that sense of reason with its clamor, declaring the very opposite. What was a radical proposition in the original state now becomes the mundanely obvious.

Now look at this: What was a radical proposition in the original state—the act of existence—now becomes the mundanely obvious. And what was most apparent and obvious—the singularity of the Infinite Light—now becomes a wondrous concept beyond our imagination.

Radical Fix

This, then, is the goal of our labor of life, the meaning behind our struggle with the everyday world to wring out its hidden treasures: We are healing this reversal. With every purposeful act, we are bringing the world to such a state that it itself should openly express the harmony of its underlying oneness. So that the singularity of the Infinite Light—that which we call G‑dliness—will be as apparent as before the creation.If the background steps back into the foreground, won’t all of existence once again be swallowed back within its womb?

But not so simple: If the background steps back into the foreground, what have we accomplished? Doesn’t that simply void the original reversal? Won’t all of existence once again be swallowed back within its womb?

This is where our metaphors of creator and creation, teacher and student, parent and child, counselor and counseled become useful once again. In all of these, the purpose of getting out of the way is not in the absence itself. It is to be present even more so, which is possible only within a space that seems so far outside of us.

Here is a world that seems so far outside the oneness of its Creator. Yet the further it seems from Him, the more He can be expressed within it.

Radical Wonder

How will it occur? Perhaps, in a future time of plenty, peace and harmony, men and women will be disillusioned with materialism and dedicate their minds to focusing on inner truths. Such was the case in ancient Israel, when prophets and enlightened souls were to be found on every hilltop and in every orchard.

Certainly, something of that sort will occur, but it would not present any healing. If the Infinite Light can be found only by transcending the physical world, then what have we accomplished in all our labor with this place?

Perhaps it will be through some massive revelation, by a great light from above—as was the case in Solomon’s Temple, where any person who entered lost all sense of self and was lifted to an entirely new world.

But that, too, would be a failure. It would not be this world speaking, but some supernal light. The world itself would remain unhealed.

Rather, the world will remain a material world, our eyes will remain physical eyes, and all of human experience will function just the same. The rods and cones by which we see, the drum and tendrils by which we hear, and the gray matter that processes all those stimuli—they will see and hear and process G‑dliness as clearly and as evidently as today they see material objects and hear physical sounds. The little child jumping rope outside, the construction worker drilling steel girders, the ocean’s roar and the big blue sky will all speak of the oneness that breathes within all of them, without the need to sit and ponder. It will be the foreground experience. Because that is what they all truly are.The material world will be the device through which we can perceive the Infinite Light.

The material world will no longer conceal the light. Quite the contrary, it will be the device through which we can perceive and absorb that light. Because that is the purpose for which it was originally created.

“I will pour my spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters will prophesy . . .” (Joel 3:1)

“And the glory of G‑d will be revealed, and all flesh shall see . . .” (Isaiah 40:5)

Will there still be wonder? Yes. What will be wondrous and astounding is that this could actually be happening in a material world. That the infinite could be expressed within finite bounds.

There will always be wonder.

Maamar V’nachah Alav 5725.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Craig Hamilton Sandwich, MA May 16, 2014

Our Relationship With Gd Can Get Better Over Time Through Learning The conclusions we are capable of as adults helps us study Gd. For instance, when I was young, I used to imagine Gd with attributes of a person. I had an image of what Gd looked like in my head. It was a man with a yarmulke with an attached propeller, such that if he walked it would cause the propeller to move. I had never heard of “The hand of Gd,” but if you had asked me, I probably would have imagined real hands in an otherworldly state. Now I know that the hand of Gd etc. is a metaphor. Though I never thought of it as a child, now I know things like Gd has no genitalia. We are capable of relating to Gd in a much deeper way in adulthood, and I wouldn't discredit that. Reply

Tzvi Freeman May 15, 2014

Plato's Cave inverted It seems what Brett is saying is this: Plato sees the artifacts of this world as a mere shadow (or shadow of a shadow) of a higher, ideal reality. What we are saying here is that, on the contrary, the light had to step aside to allow the presence of a world that will eventually become the ultimate expression of reality. Reply

Anonymous May 15, 2014

This explains why G-d doesn't "show" Himself anymore!
I find Plato's allegory rather ambiguous.What is reality?Even the English definition might be deemed wanting.Does it mean reality is limited to what we perceive?Does it mean if I fail to perceive, it doesn't exist?

Craig Hamilton Sandwich, MA May 13, 2014

When Authority Violates The Week How we explain suffering is an important debate. Sometimes those in power have chosen to violate the very people that trust in them as authority figures. Of course this is terrible. Yet freewill, including the ability to violate the weak, is a Gd granted attribute of mercy. Nobody gets off the hook. Inescapably, what happens in creation is a reflection of Gd, and His will for creation. Gd said, “Let them rule,” taking Himself out of the picture, stepping aside, and allowing us to rule with freewill to reign over creation. Thus, it is such that creation is growing up like a son before Gd’s eyes. Some are abused, and some are not. At a distance this seems unfair, yet Hashem is raising us with the intention that the sins of our youth will be counted ideally as merit upon repentance. Reply

Tzvi Freeman May 12, 2014

For Brett Brett, that's a very interesting insight. I'm going to have to ponder that for a while. Reply

Brett Alberta May 12, 2014

It seems to me that what you are presenting is the exact opposite of "plato's cave" .
Thank goodness!!!

Am i understanding? Reply

Rodolfo Carlos Rabonza Sherman Oaks, CA May 11, 2014

Wow! Today's Mother's Day. And i read various dedications to moms everywhere in social media. I read how strong, caring, and warm their moms are.There were undertones of courage, overcoming hardships, immense selfless love -- very melodramatic. But in my case, my Mom is far from melodramatic. We grew up to be having a Mom that is just in the background all the time. She did her job well by getting out of the way and letting her kids grow up to be the way they would become. And that is awesome in its own amazing way. After reading this article, it just made sense -- how my Mom is like the Creator who is Light but always in the background and allows us to be at the centerstage. Thank you for sharing this timely piece. Reply

Leah May 11, 2014

the only question remaining: when? when already will it be?
I don't know about others, but I have difficulty seeing the vase. I know it's there.
But what you call the "background" to me is the "foreground" and I was always drawing those faces as a kid long before I learned they were a psychology tool. Reply

Robert Rubin Acton, MA May 2, 2014

Thank you Rabbi for this amazing discourse. It is a road map to understanding Hashem and creation or attempting to. Please illuminate more. Reply

Yocheved England May 2, 2014

so clear Thank you Rabbi Freeman for the clarity of your article. Reply

Paul Bourgeois May 2, 2014

Maimonides says that the soul has an intellectual aspect and one can come closer to an understanding of God through our intelligence. Nachmanides suggests that an understanding of God - the substance of the soul - goes beyond that. Nevertheless, Rambam emphasizes reason and a grounding in scientific thought ( an understanding of the natural world). Certainly guide to the perplexed discusses both the Big Bang Theory and The Steady State Theory via Aristotle. The 15th c description of the Sephirot takes from optics theory of the time...

I'm babbling and I can only speak for myself. I think my point is, I am searching. But if I want to understand any of this, it helps me to have a grounding in an understanding of the physical universe as Rambam suggests. I really like the perspective of Rabbi Freeman; I am seeing echo's of Rambam in Rabbi Freeman's thoughts, and it helps. Reply

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