At times, when studying Chassidus, a student confronts a concept and accepts it more or less as an axiom. Afterwards, when he thinks about it a little more deeply, he wonders: What am I saying? And how can that be?

For example, somewhere in his or her early stages of the study of Chassidus, just about everyone has been introduced to the passage from Etz Chayim that says that at the outset, Or Ein Sof, G‑d’s infinite light, filled the entire cavity and there was no place for worlds to come into being. Afterwards, G‑d moved His great light to the side, bringing about the tzimtzum.1

However, other sources explain that G‑d’s intent was not that His infinite light should be withdrawn from the world entirely, but that it should be drawn down by man. Through our Divine service of studying Torah and fulfilling its mitzvos, we can build a dwelling for G‑d on this material plane, drawing down the pristine light that shone before the tzimtzum — and, indeed, even higher lights — into the world that was created through the tzimtzum.

We all have heard these concepts and accepted them. Nevertheless, when one contemplates the idea and probes beneath its surface, a fundamental question arises: How can this paradox be resolved?

After all, it was the intense revelation of G‑d’s light that existed before the tzimtzum that made it impossible for finite existence to come into being. And it was only through the tzimtzum,the self-concealment of G‑d’s light, that such finite existence was made possible. If so, how is it possible for G‑d’s infinite light to be revealed in our finite world, whose very name (עולם) discloses the concealment (העלם) that defines it?2

The more one thinks about the question, the clearer it becomes that, according to the pattern that permeates our present existence, such a revelation requires a fusion of opposites, like putting an elephant through a needle-hole.3 Indeed, it is even more difficult than that, for an elephant and a needle-hole are both finite, whereas here we are speaking about bringing together polar opposites — taking a light that is absolutely above limitation and having it shine within a limited world. How, then, is that possible?


Sixty-Five Years of Analysis

The Rebbe Rashab4 addresses that question in the classic series of maamarim entitled BeShaah SheHikdimu, which he began delivering in 5672 (1912), specifically in the maamar entitled Matzah Zu.5 With the methodical style of explanation that earned him the title “the Rambam of Chassidus,”6 he debates the issue, proposing — and rejecting — several possible resolutions, and ultimately arriving at a conclusion.

In his maamarim and sichos, the Rebbe summarizes and expands the germ of the concepts expounded by the Rebbe Rashab. To communicate these clarifications to the English reader, we have chosen three texts in which the Rebbe focuses on this issue:

a) the maamar entitled VeNiglah Kevod Havayah, delivered during Mashiach’s Seudah in 5715 (1955),7 40 years after the Rebbe Rashab’s maamar was delivered. This maamar is presented below with a vocalized Hebrew text and a facing translation.

b) selections from the maamar entitled VeNachah Alav, delivered during Mashiach’s Seudah in 5725 (1965),8 50 years after the Rebbe Rashab’s maamar was delivered.

c) selections from Likkutei Sichos, Parshas Shemini, 5737 (1977).9


Skew Lines

One of the resolutions that the Rebbe Rashab and the Rebbe propose is that essentially, there is no conflict between the tzimtzum and Or Ein Sof, G‑d’s infinite light. The light of the kav, the Divine light that is innately defined and finite, The kav may be described as defined and finite, inasmuch as it is radiated in a manner that enables it to give rise to finite worlds. At the same time, however, it also possesses an undefined and unlimited quality (see pp. 27 and 33 below). was affected by the tzimtzum and caused to undergo contractions. Since this light is finite by nature, its limitation became even more pronounced through the tzimtzum. This cannot be said about the infinite dimension of Or Ein Sof. It was unchanged by the tzimtzum. The only effect brought about by the tzimtzum is that before the tzimtzum, this infinite light shone in a revealed manner, whereas as a result of the tzimtzum, it became withdrawn and concealed within its source. Since this infinite light did not undergo any intrinsic change, one might say that it is possible for it to become revealed in the framework of existence that was brought into being through the tzimtzum, because that light and the tzimtzum are not in conflict. They are simply two different frames of reference that share no common ground.

This proposition is, however, untenable. True, G‑d’s infinite light was unaffected by the tzimtzum and indeed, is present in every dimension of our existence, as it is written,10 “Do I not fill the heavens and the earth?” Nevertheless, that light is hidden. To that extent, the tzimtzum did affect it. Were it to be revealed, it would nullify the framework of existence established by the tzimtzum.

At times, G‑d’s infinite light is revealed in our material world. This is what constitutes a miracle. The limits of nature are temporarily suspended and the G‑dly light which has no limits or bounds is revealed — for G‑d can place the laws of nature aside and reveal a phenomenon that runs contrary to our ordinary pattern of existence, manifesting infinite G‑dliness in our material world. Nevertheless, a revelation of this kind does not solve the question raised above. Since miracles suspend the natural order of the world, they do not reveal G‑d’s infinity within the natural order. Though the miracles take place in our material realm, the spiritual pattern that governs that material framework is temporarily bypassed and a higher reality is enabled to prevail. In contrast, the desired intent of our Divine service is that the natural order will continue to prevail and yet, within it, infinite G‑dly light will be revealed.


“You Cherish the Work of Your Hands”

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In conclusion, the Rebbe Rashab and the Rebbe emphasize that a fusion of such polar opposites cannot take place by means of a “downward” revelation initiated from Above (gilui milemaalah lematah). It is only through the “upward” efforts initiated by the Jewish people in their Divine service down here below (haalaah milematah lemaalah) that G‑d’s infinite light can permeate the framework of our existence.

The phrase “Divine service” translates the Hebrew term avodah (עבודה). This Hebrew term also shares a root with ibud (עיבוד), which is the process of tanning leather. Just as the tanning process takes a raw animal hide and transforms it into a useful product, so too, the Divine service of the Jewish people transforms the framework of concealment and limitation brought into being by the tzimtzum into a medium that reveals G‑d’s infinite light.

The Divine service of a Jew makes such a transformation possible, because a Jew combines both these opposites within his own person. On one hand, his soul is “an actual part of G‑d Above,”12 and yet that soul is housed in a body and an animal soul that are very much part of the gestalt of limitation and concealment that characterizes our world. When a Jew works13 on himself, endeavoring to highlight and bring into expression the essential G‑dliness within his being and within the world at large, he is, in microcosm, bringing about the fusion of opposites described above. By carrying out this service within his own self and in his corner of the world, a person makes possible the revelation of essential G‑dliness in the world at large.


“I have Inscribed and Transmitted Myself”

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Even a Jew’s G‑dly soul has to descend through the framework of the Spiritual Cosmos15 and, to a certain extent, has to assume the limitations of that framework. As such, one might think that a person’s efforts of self-refinement could draw down only a limited light, in proportion to the extent to which the G‑dliness revealed within his own soul has been limited. Thus one might think that a person’s avodah could not draw down the light that shone before the tzimtzum which is above all limitations. Nevertheless, since his Divine service of refining himself and the world at large draws on the essential G‑dliness that is vested in the Torah and in its mitzvos, it is possible for a Jew to draw down infinite light.

When G‑d gave the Torah to the Jewish people, He invested His essential power in them — and through them, in the world at large — giving them the potential to remake the nature of the world at large and transform it into a dwelling for Him, a place where His Essence is revealed.16 Although the Torah also descends through the Spiritual Cosmos and takes on the external trappings of the world in which it is vested,17 its fundamental G‑dly nature remains unchanged.18 Therefore, as it is studied and observed within the world, it redefines the world,19 enabling it to reveal essential G‑dliness.20


The Purpose of All Existence

At the very beginning of his commentary on the Torah,21 Rashi states that G‑d created the world “for the sake of the Torah and for the sake of the Jewish people”; i.e., through their observance of the Torah and its mitzvos, the Jewish people bring about the revelation of G‑dliness within the world.

This teaching is highlighted frequently in Chassidus, because it explains how the revelation of G‑dliness that the Jews draw into the world through the Torah and its mitzvos is part and parcel of the world’s own makeup.

To downscale this concept from the cosmic to the individual level: When a person masters a teaching and even if he thoroughly internalizes it, it remains no more than an incremental element of his nature. It is not who he is; it is merely what he has been trained to recognize. Similarly, with regard to the world at large: by emphasizing that the revelation of G‑dliness through the Jews’ service of the Torah and mitzvos is the intended purpose for which G‑d created the world, the Rebbeim are underscoring that this revelation is not an incremental element within creation. It is the inner truth of the world’s makeup. It is as if the world’s innermost desire is that this purpose be accomplished. The world desires as it were, that G‑dliness be revealed through the Torah and the mitzvos that are observed by the Jewish people.


From Inside Out

The above explanation, however, is not entirely sufficient. As was mentioned above, the gestalt of the world (עולם) is characterized by concealment (העלם),2 so that even though its innermost dimension is aligned with G‑d’s intent, it is in the very nature of the world that its purpose is not manifest within it. Thus, the G‑dliness drawn down into the world through the performance of mitzvos would appear to be merely an incremental factor. And if this were to be the case, the dwelling for G‑d to be established by man’s Divine service could never fully be an innate element of the world’s existence.

This difficulty is clarified by the concept that the revelations of the Future Era are dependent primarily on “our actions and Divine service throughout the duration of the exile.”20

To explain: To make it possible for man to carry out the intent of its Maker and transform the natural, material world into a dwelling for Him, He created the world in a manner that would reflect that ultimate purpose. Therefore, one of the natural patterns within the world is that our power of will has greater control over our heels than over our heads. To cite an example frequently given: When a person is confronted by very hot or very cold water, it is far easier to immerse his foot than his head.

One might argue that this is not due to the superiority of the heel, in that it is more closely linked to the power of will, but rather due to its inferiority, in that it lacks sensitivity — whereas the greater sensitivity of the head prevents the power of the will from being expressed. The Alter Rebbe, however, offers a different explanation:22 “From this standpoint, the foot can be called the head....” I.e., just as the head possesses an advantage over the heel with regard to the manifestation of our conscious faculties, the heel possesses an advantage over the head with regard to its link to the person’s will.23

Similarly, in the analogue, the concealment of G‑dliness and the lack of spiritual sensitivity that characterize the era of exile (the heel)24 have created a spiritual climate that is more responsive to the inner G‑dly intent within the world. Therefore, as explained in several sources in Chassidus,25 the power of mesirus nefesh is revealed more powerfully during the era of exile than during the time of the Beis HaMikdash, for that power surfaces specifically in response to the hiddenness that characterizes the era of exile.

Why, then, do the revelations of the Ultimate Future “depend on our actions and Divine service throughout the duration of the exile?” — Because this mesirus nefesh26 in the era of the exile27 reveals that the concealment that characterizes our worldly ambiance has an underlying purpose, namely, that it calls forth the revelation of G‑dliness through the Torah and its mitzvos. Thus the revelation of “the Glory of G‑d” in the Ultimate Future is not in conflict with the world’s makeup. On the contrary: it is its ultimate expression.


Paradigm Shifts

In the course of their discussions touched upon above, the maamarim of both the Rebbe Rashab and the Rebbe employ two pairs of terms: Elokus bipeshitus and metziyus behischadshus, and metziyus bipeshitus and Elokus behischadshus.

Elokus means G‑dliness. Peshitus means one’s simple perception of what appears as the obvious reality. Metziyus means existence,the feeling that something apart from G‑d appears to exist. Hischadshus meansa newly-acquired awareness that runs contrary to one’s initial assumptions.

These maamarim explain that before the tzimtzum, Elokus was bipeshitus. What was perceived as the simple and obvious reality was G‑d’s light which was then revealed in its infinity, shining forth in an unbounded variety of options. All of these expressions of His light were, however, subsumed in their bittul to Him. That was their peshitus, their natural perception. By contrast, their own metziyus, their own existence, was behischadshus, a newly-acquired awareness.

The tzimtzum brought about a radical change. Ever since the tzimtzum,28 on even the highest levels of G‑dly light, metziyus is the peshitus; it is conceivable that something other than G‑d can exist. Elokus, the awareness of Him, comes behischadshus, as a newly-acquired perception. On certain levels, that perception is so overwhelmingly powerful that the very framework of existence becomes entirely batel, subsumed in the Divine light. Even so, however, that is not its natural state; it is an acquired trait.

In the Ultimate Future, all existence will return to the state of Elokus bipeshitus, a state in which29 “the world will be filled with the knowledge of G‑d as the waters cover the ocean bed.”

To understand the simile: The immense variety of creatures that live on the dry land are readily discernible as separate entities. A vast multitude of creatures likewise inhabit the ocean. Nevertheless, when looking at the ocean, what we see is the ocean as a whole and not the particular entities that it contains. Similarly, although in the Era of the Redemption the world will continue to exist, individual creatures will lose consciousness of their separate identity and will be suffused entirely with the knowledge of G‑d.

In the Ultimate Future, as a result of the Jewish people’s Divine service, this realization will be appreciated even within the context of material reality. In that era, in contrast to the awareness of G‑d that existed before the tzimtzum, humanity and the other created beings of our world will be conscious of their own existence, yet they will appreciate that existence as nothing more than an extension of G‑d.


Souls for Whom the Screen has been Pierced

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One of the ways the Rebbeim illustrate this concept in the maamarim cited is by comparing the Divine service of different tzaddikim. There have been some gifted souls that attained elevated levels of G‑dly awareness. Nevertheless, their initial perception was of worldly existence, and even when they reached the highest rungs, they did not divest themselves of worldliness entirely. For example, Avraham had G‑d speak to him directly. Yet how did he come to his awareness of G‑d? By contemplating the order and wisdom vested in this material world. In this way, he realized that the world had a Master.31 After he arrived at this realization, the Master revealed Himself to him, but that revelation came behischadshus. As a result, even after that revelation, his fundamental material orientation prevailed — metziyus bipeshitus.

However, as these maamarim proceed to explain, there are individuals, for example, Yosef and Moshe, whose souls, even when they have descended into this material realm, maintain the awareness they had Above, without being affected by the tzimtzum. Their orientation is the same as existence was before the tzimtzum: G‑dliness is bipeshitus. This is their reality. A person with such a soul has to labor to bring proof that there exists anything other than G‑dliness.

Moreover, the maamarim point out that what is unique about the lives of Yosef and Moshe, is that they did not withdraw from worldly existence. On the contrary, they were immersed in the day-to-day realities of existence, yet still maintained their inherent awareness of G‑d.


Spiritual Lighthouses

In his maamar, the Rebbe gives a further example our Rebbeim, the nesi’im of Chabad. We may guess at an obvious explanation for this addition: Moshe and Yosef lived thousands of years ago, whereas the Rebbeim are much closer to our reality. But beyond that, the true greatness of the Rebbeim does not lie only in the uniqueness of their spiritual vision, but also in their willingness to share that vision with others and encourage them to adopt it.

True, there is no way ordinary people like ourselves can fully identify with the mindset and soulset of the Rebbeim. If even Avraham our Patriarch perceived the world from the perspective of metziyus bipeshitus, to what can we aspire?

And yet, through hiskashrus, by cultivating a spiritual bond with the Rebbeim, we can borrow the Rebbe’s mindset, even if we cannot internalize it entirely. By way of analogy, it’s like having the picture of a jigsaw puzzle in front of you while you try to put the pieces together. Though a certain measure of work is still demanded, the fact that you see the larger picture makes it far easier to put each piece in its place. Similarly, in the analogue, when guided by a person for whom G‑dliness is the inherent and obvious reality, it is easier to appreciate and highlight the G‑dly dimension that exists within every situation that we encounter.

And in doing so, we create the setting for that G‑dliness to surface and become the prevailing reality with the coming of Mashiach.

Sichos In English

25 Adar, 5772 (2012)