The New Nothing

New ways of thinking require new sets of words.

For most thinkers. Here’s an exception: Every chapter of R. Schneur Zalman’s classic work known as Tanya provides a distinctly new way of thinking about life, purpose, and the world about us. Yet R. Schneur Zalman chose to retain the old words, just revealing in them a deeper meaning.

The word bittul is a case in point.

Bittul plays a central role in R. Schneur Zalman’s writings. It’s a crucial concept in explaining how existence as we know it is always relative and never absolute, and why a good life depends on seeing and truly feeling how that applies to you.

Bittul makes the difference between choosing to dwell in a fractured universe where each fragment makes a whole lot of noise, or choosing true life in a harmonious universe, where the parts find their greatness within a wondrously greater whole.

But to do that, bittul required a whole new depth of understanding.

Existential Bittul

So what is bittul? Or, using its adjective form, what do we mean when we say something is buttel?

In common use, bittul means something’s not there. Cancelled, negated, wiped out. Gone.

“What happened to our study group today?”


Simple, easy, no explanation needed.

Not so the bittul of Tanya. Here, there’s not just one, but two layers of complexity and depth.

First, R. Schneur Zalman, the eminent halachist he was, borrowed a concept of bittul as it appears in halachah (Talmudic law). There, bittul is often what you might call situational. Or contextual.

For example, a Jew is forbidden to eat a mixture of meat and milk. A cheeseburger is out of the question. But what if one teensy drop of milk finds its way into a monstrous vat of beef broth?

There’s no way anyone would be able to taste the taste of milk in that mixture. It’s so diluted, it’s insignificant. So we apply the rule of bittul—if there's so little no one could taste it, it’s like it’s not there.

Which doesn’t mean it’s not there. And that’s the important point. Milk is milk, even a drop of it. And indeed, if drop after drop falls in, each drop accumulates until all those drops cry out in unison, “We are here! We are here! Taste and see!”

But right now, that lonely drop is ineffective, insignificant and experiencing the tragic drama of bittul within its exile to a foreign land of beef broth, like an immigrant who threw his weight around back home and now finds himself completely disregarded upon landing on new shores. As though he doesn’t exist—even though he does.

There’s a popular art-book called Zoom by the Hungarian artist, Istvan Banyai that vividly and literally illustrates bittul. An initial lively scene of children playing ball looks very real and inviting—until we zoom out to discover it’s only a postage stamp being pasted on a letter by a young man in a very different scene—which then turns out to be painted on a billboard on the highway—which then turns out to be nothing more than some kid’s toy cars—which then is lost in yet a wider context.

Each context is not simply larger. That would only render the previous scene insignificantly small. Rather, each scene provides a whole new frame of reference in which the reality in which we were immersed just one page earlier suddenly and almost mystically is exposed as an irrelevant fiction, soon to vanish altogether within the even greater context of the coming page.

There were never any kids playing ball. Banyai played a joke on you. It was a postage stamp, not a reality. Which means that, once you’ve arrived at this new frame of reference, what you thought you saw never was.

That’s not just a quantitative bittul, like one piece of non-kosher beef among many kosher ones. Neither is it just a qualitative bittul, like the quality of the taste of milk within the broth. It’s an existential bittul. Something like revoking a birth certificate.

That’s what we mean by “existence is relative.” Existence depends on meaning. Meaning depends on context. Change the context, you change the meaning, and that which was a reality a moment ago suddenly goes poof.

Original bittul

That’s one layer of meaning and depth to work with: Situational, or contextual bittul. In one context, you can be rich with meaning. In another, all that meaning suddenly vanishes and nobody knows you even exist. And maybe you don’t.

But how does that apply to my life, its purpose and meaning?

Hang in there. Here’s the next layer:

What if this new context is not a foreign environment such as beef broth to dairy, Ellis Island to Anatevka, or the frame of a postage stamp to any particular scene?

What if the new context is your origin?

By origin I don’t mean like a cow is the origin of its milk. No, more like the two rich and juicy examples R. Schneur Zalman himself provides: What if the reality of our world is like light inside a luminary? What if we are all like words before they have emerged from the soul? What if we are all like words before they have emerged from the soul?

Best way to explain those two examples is to first tell a story.

Richard Feynman was a great American physicist and a brilliant teacher. He wrote that he got that way because he had a father who prodded him to ask questions. But there was one question his father asked him that he was never able to answer. Here’s how Feynman described their conversation:

“I understand that when an atom makes a transition from one state to another, it emits a particle of light called a photon.”

“That’s right,” I said.

He says, “Is the photon in the atom ahead of time.”

“No, there’s no photon beforehand.”

“Well,” he says, “where does it come from, then? How does it come out?”

I tried to explain to him—that photon numbers aren’t conserved; they’re just created by the motion of the electron—but I couldn’t explain it very well. I said, “It’s like the sound that I’m making now: it wasn’t in me before.” (It’s not like my little boy, who suddenly announced one day,when he was very young, that he could no longer say a certain word—the word turned out to be “cat”—because his “word bag” had run out of the word. There’s no word bag that makes you use up words as they come out; in the same sense, there’s no “photon bag” in an atom.)

Solid evidence that Prof. Feynman studied Tanya. Almost.

R. Schneur Zalman was writing long before we spoke in terms of photons and electrons. Instead, when he wanted to describe the relationship of light with a light-source, he talked about the light of the sun within the sun. Same thing.

The sun, you see, is not light. Light is something that emerges from the sun. But the sun itself is its own entity.

So is there light within the sun, the source of light? Yes and no.

Yes, because, as R. Schneur Zalman writes, if it shines down here on earth outside of the sun, how could it not exist within the orb of the sun? On the contrary, he writes, certainly it must exist in a far more intense state within its source than outside its source.

Yet, on the other hand, no.

Because within its source, the light is in a state of thorough bittul. It is not an entity of its own that we could call light. It is nothing more than a certain capacity the sun has, that it can generate light.

Just like something much closer to human experience: words within the soul.

You begin speaking a sentence, not even knowing how it’s going to end. Where did those words come from? From your “word bag” inside you? Or did they just appear out of nowhere, unprecedented?

No, there’s always a precedent: Not scrabble words in a bag, but a reaction to something someone said, an emotion, a flash of insight.

It’s just that we’re not aware of what’s going on inside us—until those inner churnings emerge in some articulate form. Such as words, imagery, perhaps even drama in our minds. Or just words that suddenly jump out of our mouths like aliens making a blitzkrieg on Planet Earth.

So words emerge out of emotions and insights.

But if I could travel in my magical school busIf I could travel in my magical school bus deep into your emotions, would I find words there? deep into your emotions, would I find words there?

No and yes.

No. Just think of the last time you saw someone in an intense emotional state, and you asked them to please explain what on earth is going on. No words jump out. Not until the hysterics burn out and the tears cease to flow. Then maybe you’ll get a few words. Until the flames of emotion rise again. Inside emotions, there’s simply no place for words.

But definitely yes. Because you don’t grasp in the air for words to express your emotions. The words fling open the doors and jump out. So they must have been inside there somewhere before they jumped out. Somewhere in your emotions.

What do they look like inside their spaceship of emotions? They don’t. They’re in a state of extreme, existential bittul. They are too powerful to exist.

Now this is neat: When we spoke about milk-taste bittul or zoom bittul—bittul within a foreign context—their right to existence was revoked because they had become so weak and impotent.

But here, when things are buttel within their origin, they lose all sense of existence because they are at the ultimate extreme of being. They’re chillin’ deep within their own homes, being who they truly are: A possibility of their origin.

So, on the one hand, their existence is annihilated to the absolute extreme, incomparably beyond any of our other examples. And on the other hand, this is where they experience true existence.

To Be and Not To Be

Now, you might feel frustrated at this point (even if the words to say so have yet to emerge). How do we answer both yes and no, exist and don’t exist, to the same question?

Because it depends on what you mean by exist.

Light exists within the sun. Photons exist within electrons. But not as a discrete entity. They exist as a feature of their source, not a thing of their own.

The words exist within your emotions. But not as discrete words. An emotion has expression, definition, direction, intensity, a beginning and an end, and a need to be shared. The words are all already there within all those qualities of this emotion. They are intensely there, shining bright.

So bright, they don’t exist yet as words. All that exists is an emotion burning.

In fact, in philosophical Hebrew (as in philosophical Arabic and Persian) we use two different words to describe these two different concepts of existence: מציאות metziut and מהות mahut. English has some catching up to do.

Metziut is your identifiable presentation as a something all its own. Like the word “is” in “That is a horse.” Or just “That horse is.”

Mahut is the fundamental concept of what you are, sometimes called “essence.” The “that” of “That horse is.” Even if this horse never came into existence, even if it presented itself as something other than a horse, its mahut still is.

What is it in essence? We can dance around that question—which is precisely what classical philosophers do—but in essence it can’t be said. You would have to be that to know.

To bring it home: We all have some messy cobweb idea of our metziut. How we think others see us. How we see ourselves. How we think others think we see ourselves. How we think others think we see them seeing us. It gets very complex.

Your mahut is simple: You are an agent of the divine creative will. You are you because the Creator—who regenerates the metziut of this universe out of nowhere at every moment—wants someone to go in there and fix His world.

Put yourself into that context and all that metziut mess dissipates like pixie dust.

Practical Bittul

So do we exist? I mean, as a metziut. An identifiable something.

Yes and no.

Yes, because G‑d spoke and a world came to be. All the universe is an artifact of divine speech, ten utterances of speech to be specific, as recorded in Genesis, packets of creative articulation that contain all the information for all that will ever be, themselves beyond the spacetime continuum that they generate, and so, ever-present, continually sustaining our reality.

If G‑d Himself says so, we must exist.

And for precisely the same reason, no, we do not exist. Because, unlike our words, those words never left their origin. Because there’s no place for them to go. G‑d is one, so there’s nothing outside G‑d.

So all those cosmic words that call us into being are like the rays of the sun’s light within the sun, like your words of speech and thought before they have emerged from their chrysalis of emotion and insight.

But does that make this reality of ours any weaker? No, quite the contrary.Within your source, you shine infinitely brighter. All you’re missing is the delusion of otherness. Within your source, you shine infinitely brighter. All you’re missing is the delusion of otherness. Because now you’re one with your origin.

It comes out that, in a certain, crucial way, this deeper understanding of bittul expresses quite the opposite of its simple understanding. Something or someone who has true bittul has certainly not auto-cancelled, self-abnegated, or self-annihilated. Rather, quite the contrary, in bittul, each thing finds its true place and power.

Everything receives life, R. Schneur Zalman wrote, by virtue of its bittul, and commensurate to its degree of bittul. A creature entirely locked inside its own shell cannot survive. Life is a function of self-transcendence—perhaps a close-enough translation of bittul.

Plenty of good evidence-based research has demonstrated this for human beings, as well. “Personal spirituality “—defined for research purposes as ”a strong personal relationship with the transcendent” (if that’s not bittul, what is?)—has been shown to be key to human survival, especially at the most crucial times in life. For just one example, a teen who has been nurtured with such spirituality/bittul is 80% less likely to suffer ongoing and recurrent depressions and 60% less likely to become a heavy substance user.

Which makes it all a matter of choice. What will be my frame of reference?

I can choose to remain blind to all that is beyond my bubble, deaf to the grand symphony, oblivious to my Creator, clinging to the delusion of autonomous power as though my ego is the vortex of all existence—in which case I end up as nothing more than a blip flashing for its grand moment on the screen of space-time.

Or I can find my glorious place within the Infinite Light, my true context where I as a discrete, autonomous entity cease to exist. And there find eternal meaning and true greatness.

Where is the place of union with your origin in this life on Earth? It is in your bittul to your Creator as you carry out the mission He has assigned to you. As Hillel said in the Mishnah, “Make your will buttel before His will.” Transcend yourself by connecting to the Transcendent.

For a Jew, that transcendence is the study of Torah and the performance of all G‑d’s mitzvahs out of love and joy.