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The Cosmology of Giving

The Cosmology of Giving

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In order to get to work by 8:00 AM, I pray with the first minyan (6:30 AM) at the Lubavitcher Yeshivah along with an assortment of fellow work horses, insomniacs, and irritatingly cheerful morning larks. Included in this group is a friend and neighbor, who also davens early due to the demands of his job. Although both of us are pressed to leave for work, we have developed the custom of sharing a few Torah thoughts as we hurry home from shul. Most often, one of us (usually me) has a question which the other (usually him) is able to answer. My friend is quite learned, and I look forward to these little exchanges as short reprieves from the headaches that await me at the office.

One morning, a few months ago, as we dashed homeward, I told my friend that I was having difficulty with a particular chassidic discourse that dealt with Esser Sefiros HaGenuzot. Esser Sefirot HaGenuzot are the source of divine attributes as they are concealed in the essence of Divinity. This subject is one of the most abstruse in the literature of Chassidus. My companion chuckled, and said that for as long as he knew me, I had been having problems with Eser Sefirot HaGenuzot. He admitted that he had been wondering, for some time, why I expended so much effort on such hopelessly difficult subjects. Why did I not content myself with simpler, more pertinent material abundantly available in the published anthologies of the Rebbe's talks? What is the practical point of struggling with abstract theosophical concepts, that in essence, transcend mortal comprehension?

The question is a good one and it would appear that the weight of logic is with my friend. His viewpoint is further substantiated by the obvious fact that times have changed. We are not living in a 19th century eastern European shtetl. The societal forces that created MacDonald's, drive-in banks, and Internet have inevitably effected the Chassidic world. In view of the frenzied pace and complexity of modern life, is it realistic to engage in, much less advocate, profound study and lengthy absorbed reflection on esoteric themes?

Change, of course, is not all bad. Technological advances can, and must be used to illuminate the world with Torah. Nonetheless, the environment, at present, does not seem to favor classical Chassidut. Moreover, considering the many urgent challenges with which we are confronted; assimilation, the threats to Jewish survival in the Holy Land, the resurgence of global antisemitism, etc., emphasis on unworldly pursuits, such as the study and contemplation of arcane chassidic concepts, seems hopelessly impractical, if not irresponsible.

As is often the case in this perverse world, the "logical" and the "obvious" are false. Contrary to intuition, those who devote themselves to the study of the deepest concepts in Chassidut and lengthy reflective prayer are, in fact, hard-nosed realists.

The reason for this is simple. The myriad details of creation, the complex variety of Divine emanations, the subtle balance between the finite and the infinite, the dynamic tension between revelation and concealment, the order of worlds, are all designed by the Creator essentially to provide growth opportunities for His Children. Thus, the most trifling of our actions, e.g. depositing a penny in a pushka, justifies and substantiates the entire chain of being. Conversely the most awesome and ineffable modes of Divine manifestation imbue our every Torah action with eternal significance. The loftiest esoteric concepts in Kabbalah and Chassidut, such as Esser Sefirot HaGenuzot are, therefore, of real and immediate relevance to the ordinary, bill-paying, car-driving, working Jew.

To this we may all nod in impatient assent. Yes, of course, and yes, our holy Rebbes sacrificed themselves to inculcate this awareness in the Jewish people, and yes, these concepts are the very heart of Chabad Chassidism. We even expect certain individuals (older chassidim, teachers) to actually talk in this vein. In truth, however, we are not too sure of what it all really means, and more than a few of us, yeshivah students included, have trouble relating to it. Indeed, beneath the vigorous approbations there often lurk the rudiments of an uncomfortable question. How, in fact, does an awareness of tzimtzum or an appreciation of sefirot effect my daily life, or, for that matter, my learning, praying, and performance of Mitzvot?

The best way to approach the question is through a concrete example. Let us consider the cosmological significance of giving, as exemplified by putting a penny in a pushka. In order to begin to understand the spectacular implications of this seemingly trivial action we must begin by looking at the design of creation. Remarkably, the paradigm for creation is presented, in diagrammatic form, in the Kabbalistic work Etz Chaim (Heichal A'K, Drush Iggulim v'Yosher). A copy of the diagram is shown here:


Diagram 1

Do not be deceived by the apparent simplicity. This diagram depicts the conceptual framework underlying all of existence. There is a voluminous literature in Chassidut and Kabbalah devoted to exploring its truths, and it has occupied the minds of our holiest sages since the ARI'zal (the holy rabbi Yitzchak Luria of blessed memory).

What then, has it got to do with us? Indeed, much of the information conveyed by this diagram is beyond us. Nevertheless, major insights into the Divine purpose that animates creation are manifest in its geometry.

Although we can not know why the Almighty chose to create, since He did so choose, we can, by studying the design of creation, fathom something of the divine intent that produced it and currently vivifies it. Furthermore, this diagram and the concepts that it represents were revealed to us in Torah, which the Creator has given to us to study and to learn.

In order to understand the import of putting a penny in a pushka, we do not have to delve into all of the ramifications of this diagram. We need only analyze, in a very general way, the relationship of the line to the circle. To begin with, therefore, we must have some idea of the meaning of the circle. However, before we begin, a warning is in order. The application of physical imagery and geometric terminology, although useful, can lead to serious misconceptions. We must constantly keep in mind that these terms refer to spiritual dimensions and that they are meant to be taken metaphorically.

Prior to creation, all that existed was G‑dliness. G‑dliness can be thought of as a manifestation of G‑d to Himself. G‑dliness is essentially unknowable, since it reflects G‑d who is unknowable. It is a self-manifestation without end, limit, or measure.

Creation is also a manifestation of G‑dliness. However, as we well know, creation consists of particulars, dimensions, and limits. Each created being, whether a rock, a person, or an angel, is limited by properties that define it and set it apart from all other beings. If G‑dliness is a manifestation of G‑ds ability to reveal His infinite singular Presence, creation is a revelation of His power of self-limitation. Since His power to limit is subsumed in His infinite Being, it is negated to and concealed within G‑dliness, which is limitless. How is it possible to segregate finite modes of G‑dly expression from their infinite source, to enable the existence of a limited circumscribed creation?

In order to help us understand the question as well as the answer, we must find analogies from daily life to which we can relate. How are we to understand the necessity for, and the means of isolating a specific finite mode of expression from a limitless source? Actually, anyone who owns a 35 mm slide projector is familiar with this process.

Consider the simple act of turning on the projector and afterwards, inserting a slide depicting one's house. The white light that appeared on the screen when the projector was first turned on is instantaneously replaced by an image of the house. When the slide is removed, the house disappears and is replaced, once again, by white light.

The picture of the house, of course, doesn't really disappear. It is simply subsumed within, and nullified to the white light that is its source. White light contains within itself all possible images, colors and shapes Because light embraces infinite visual possibilities, it transcends limiting characteristics such as color or form. To isolate and reveal only one of the infinite possible images, one must interpose a slide. The slide is a barrier that admits only certain wavelengths of light in a rigidly defined pattern to reveal, for example, the house. A different restrictive barrier (slide) will permit a different possibility (image) to emerge from the infinite source of potential revelations. Thus, by concealing the infinite source in a specific way, one of the endless variety of images latent within it can be actualized.

Although the example of a slide projector illustrates the necessity of concealing the boundless in order to reveal an individual possibility, it does not address the nature of the concealment. The slide and the light are, after all, two different things. G‑dliness, which is referred to in metaphoric terms as Or Ein Sof (limitless light), is the only reality and, therefore, it must conceal itself.

In order to appreciate this process of Divine self-concealment, let's examine a second analogy, complementary to that of the slide projector. Consider a sublime mathematical genius whose 14 year old grandson can't seem to get the hang of elementary high school algebra. Understandably, he asks his brilliant zaideh (grandfather) for help. This puts Zeidy in a serious bind, since thinking in elementary algebraic terms is infinitely beneath his current mindset. His concept of mathematics so far transcends high school algebra that there is simply no way that he can relate to his grandson's problems. Nonetheless, dormant within grandpa's endless mathematical insight, at a remote subconscious level, is also knowledge of elementary algebra. In order, therefore, to interact with his grandson, he must find the algebraist latent within himself. To this end, he must clear his mind of his present state of mathematical awareness, that is, he must put his thoughts, which reflect himself, aside. When no longer inundated with himself, i.e., with his customary brilliance, concepts and language appropriate for a 14 year old can be identified, isolated and subsequently developed.

By setting aside or concealing the limitless self-manifestation called G‑dliness, "space" is created in which the finite can be segregated and expressed independent of its limitless source. This is symbolized by the circle in the above diagram. The hiatus in G‑dliness, indicated by the interior of the circle, is referred to as makom panui or chalal both of which mean a void. This process of self concealment, referred to as tzimtzum harishon (the primal self-concealment) thus results in the establishment of two domains: the endless area outside the circle in which infinite G‑dliness is manifest; and the "region" of self-concealment , i.e. the makom panui within the circle in which finite creation can now be revealed.

Prior to the process of self-concealment referred to as tzimtzum, the act of putting a penny in a pushka was inconceivable for the obvious reason that pennies and pushkas are finite definitive beings. It is only with the creation of the makom panui that finite existence becomes a possibility. The next step is the actualization of this possibility, and this process is indicated by the line, or kav. The line has a beginning, an end, a position, and a direction, and is, therefore, a "something". The restricted flow of G‑dliness, symbolized by the line encompasses all of finite existence. It is a chain of being in which each creation occupies a specific point.

At this stage, it would seem, that the possibility of putting a penny in a pushka is very real, since restricted modes of Divine expression such as pennies and pushkas can now exist as individual points on the line. A chain of finite being is not, however, in and of itself, sufficient to allow for giving. Not any line will serve. Giving is feasible only because the line extending from the circumference of the circle terminates in the center as a radius. If it traversed the circle as a diameter (indicated in Diagram 2), the concept of giving would not exist.


Diagram 2

This issue is raised by the Etz Chaim and is expounded upon at length in Chassidut. The line (finite chain of being), in such a case, would be united with limitless transcendent G‑dliness represented by the totality of space beyond the circle, at both ends (A & B). There would be no beginning and no end, and thus, there would be no progression of sequentially graded levels. A point on the line closer to A has no advantage or disadvantage with respect to one closer to B. Since no point lacks what another has, giving is inconceivable. Most importantly, there would be no terminus, no radical break in the flow of Divinity necessary for the emergence of physical, as opposed to spiritual existence. The bi-directional current of Divine beneficence indicated by such a design, would produce a spiritual world in which each creature is self-sufficient. Although this may strike us as a very attractive way to structure creation, the fact that the Almighty did not select this scheme but rather chose one that engenders inequality and deficiency, underscores the centrality of "giving" to G‑d's purpose.

In order for the act of giving to occur there must be a potential giver who is superior in some respect to a potential recipient. One being (point on the line) must be deficient with respect to another. This is why the kav is designed as a radius. At its origin as a point on the circle, the kav is united with transcendent G‑dliness. As it extends inward, the kav becomes progressively more distant from G‑dliness , and the terminus of the kav is as far as it is possible to be from the interface with transcendent Divinity (i.e. the circumference of circle). Thus, there are "higher" levels of reality, closer to the circle and "lower" levels which are more distant.

Since there can be no giving without taking, both "higher" and "lower" are necessary to fulfill the Divine purpose in creation. Moreover, since the soul originates in transcendent limitless G‑dliness and is represented at multiple levels on the kav, each individual has the opportunity to give and to take.

Thus everyone has something to give, be it money, time, a smile, or an encouraging word. Furthermore, because there can be no giving without a recipient, taking is as central to Divine will as giving. Indeed, it is the recipient who allows the giver to give. Thus, paradoxically it is the taker who is the real giver since he or she provides someone else with the miraculous opportunity to bring satisfaction to the Creator by fulfilling the purpose of creation.

There is much more to be said. We have not considered the nature or the role of the circle (iggul hagadol) in contributing to independent existence, nor have we mentioned the reshimu, the "impression" of Divinity remaining in the makom panui following tzimtzum. We have also omitted discussion of the mechanism by which the kav emanates from its origin. These, and a myriad of other concepts are beyond the scope of this essay. It should be clear, however, from the few ideas that we did touch on, that the Almighty revealed to us something of His thoughts and methods so that we should know precisely who we are and what we are here for.

This brings us back to our original point. The only way to succeed in this chaotic confusing world is to pursue a life of Torah and Mitzvot with the vigor and conviction that stems from the knowledge that "for me the world was created". The Almighty has made this vital knowledge available to us in the inner dimension of Torah that we call Chassidut.

It is true that this knowledge is not acquired easily. The learning of Chassidut demands serious and disciplined effort. The exertion, however, is richly rewarded by the joy that comes from knowing that the entire creation is fashioned the way it is so as to confer cosmological significance on our seemingly ordinary lives.

A few weeks ago, on Thursday afternoon, I positioned myself, as best I could, in the midst of an aggressive swarm of customers waiting to be served at the cold cuts counter at a local deli. With my non-adversarial philosophy of food shopping, I was no match for the seasoned deli-counter commandos who pushed, maneuvered, brow beat, and ultimately wormed their way ahead of me. I sighed in resignation, as I have every Thursday for the past 15 years, knowing that it would be at least 25 minutes until I could procure the miserable two pounds of cole slaw for which I suffered weekly.

While waiting, I caught sight of Mrs. Meir (not her real name) from our community, trying to navigate a large, overstuffed shopping cart through the crowds. With her was a rather frail looking elderly woman. It did not take me long to realize that Mrs. Meir, a busy mother and teacher, was not shopping for herself but rather for her companion. She struggled with the cart, fought for the attention of the food counter personnel, and attended to her companion's requests. Once past the cashier, she shlepped huge quantities of groceries to her car and drove her friend home.

From the foregoing, it should be clear to us that Mrs. Meir had just fulfilled the entire intent of existence. It is for Mrs. Meir's shopping expedition that G‑d created the world the way He did, and we should rejoice in this ostensibly trivial incident as we would rejoice in the revelation of the Shechinah.

Dr. Yaakov Brawer is Professor Emeritus of the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University. He is the author of two books of Chassidic philosophy, Something From Nothing and Eyes That See
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Anonymous Dallas, Tx/USA June 10, 2008

I don't know from cosmology, but I know about waiting in the deli department for cold cuts.

People become aggressive and pushy because they assume (as the author did) that someone might cut in front of them, and so hackles go up as egos are jeapodized, After all, who wants to be the runt who gets elbowed out of his rightful place?

It is futile and maddening to try to put yourself "above" all this pettiness when in fact you are NOT above the pettiness. It won't work.

What you must do is step out of your ego before going before the deli counter. Only then will you discover that this is a sacred, joyous occasion...a fine opportunity to be with God and to show your neighbors how to behave like a grown-up. . Reply