Hey Rabbi:

The Daily Dose often mentions “becoming a nothingness.” That sounds very Buddhist. Is there a distinction? How does Buddhist nothingness differ from Jewish nothingness?

Hey Reader:

Buddhism comes in many shapes and flavors, each with its own teachers who have their own ways of expressing things. And the Jewish smorgasbord of ideologies isn’t any less varied. So rather than chasing a thousand wild geese and catching none of them, let me present you with one idea that I think will be of use to you in your own life.

In Chabad thought, we often discuss bittul bim’tziut. I can’t translate that, but I’m foolish enough to try: It means an entity of nothingness.

This paradoxical state of somethingness/nothingness is presented as an ultimate goal. And not just for your own ego, but for the entire world in which you live. Somehow, the very earth we touch must become acutely aware of its absolute nothingness while remaining a complete something. And you and I are given the responsibility to accomplish that.

To explain that, I need to tell you a core teaching of the master of Kabbalah, Rabbi Isaac Luria. He described the World of Tohu, a realm that preceded our world, and was really much higher. But it was incapable of fulfilling its purpose, and shattered from its own intensity.

The problem with Tohu was that everything was absolute. Everything felt itself and its meaning in an absolute sense, exclusive of anything else. The fragments of Tohu fell to our world, and our egos are one of its most exquisite artifacts. But then, the very physicality of this world is also an artifact of Tohu: the phenomenon that no two things can occupy the same space.

Our souls are here to reassemble those Tohu fragments into a world of Tikkun. Tikkun means “repair.” The World of Tikkun is one in which opposites coincide and balance one another in perfect harmony.

Rabbi Shalom Dovber was the fifth rebbe of Lubavitch. He had an amazing way of relating Kabbalistic teachings to common psychological issues. Here is how he did that with Tohu and bitul bim’tziut:

A Tohu person, he wrote, is one who has yet to repair his ego. As such, he either feels he absolutely exists, or he feels he does not exist at all. He’s either all there is, or totally absent and meaningless. And there can’t be any compromise between the two extremes.

A Tikkun person, on the other hand, is one who has repaired and harmonized everything in his life. And that includes the very opposites of being and not-being.

After all, a person is here to get something done—to learn, to pray, to change the world. Which means being a something. How much can you change the world if you feel you’re not really here?

That itself is the key to blending these opposites—that idea of purpose: When a person feels “I am not here just because I am here. I emerge out of my Creator’s desire for my purpose”—then he has harmonized both being and not-being into a single melody.

When he taxes every power of his mind to understand an idea in Torah, he says, “I am granted a mind, because my Creator desires understanding.”

When he prays to G‑d for his needs with all his heart, he says, “I exist out of my Creator’s desire to give love and be loved”—for that is the meaning of prayer.

When he goes out of his way to help another, or exerts every fiber of his body to do a mitzvah, he says, “I exist because my Creator desires kindness and beauty.”

And then he feels, “I haven’t attained even an iota of what I could have achieved in any of the above, but my Creator still has the love to sustain my existence!” So that the nothingness fuels his passion to become a something even more.

In each thing, he both is and is not at once.

After all, the ultimate paradox is G‑d, the Creator. He doesn’t just create stuff out of other stuff. He generates the very concept of being—and of not-being. If so, He contains the capacity for both, yet is neither.

It comes out that by us fulfilling this harmonization of opposites, we fulfill our purpose: to be an exquisite expression of that ultimate paradox of the Creator, who stands beyond being and not-being, for He creates both.

Further Reading: Be Something

Sources: See Hemshech 5672, p. 562; Bachodesh Hashlishi, 5729.