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The "Empty Space" (Part 1)

  • Rav Itamar Eldar
Before approaching the second section of R. Nachman's teaching no.64, which we began to study in shiur no.5, let us summarize the principal points that we have covered thus far:
We encountered two basic approaches to the perception of Divinity and to its relationship with the world – the transcendental approach and the immanent approach.  We saw how each of these views has ramifications for the relationship between man and God.
           The immanent approach, in chassidism in general and in R. Nachman's teachings in particular, brings with it significant change in two realms with regard to the dialogue that man maintains with God.
i.   The first is that it is possible to serve the Holy One and to maintain a dialogue with Him in (or through) all of man's actions, and not only through "religious acts" that are related to Torah and mitzvot.
ii.  The second relates to coping with spiritual falls, failures, and heresy.  R. Nachman teaches that since Godliness exists permanently in the world and in man, the consequences of heresy and spiritual failure is simply a change within the framework of the relationship between man and God.  Just as heresy and spiritual falling is an expression of hiding, so too  teshuva and ascent are expressions of revelation, exposure, encounter and finding God in that same place where man lost Him.
On this second realm, R. Nachman describes two ways of "finding" that arise from different spiritual situations and different levels of Hashem's concealment and revelation within those situations.
1.   One level refers to a spiritual reality in which the Holy One is present but concealed.  In such a place man's task is to expose the hidden Godliness, to bring it to consciousness and to maintain a dialogue with it.  Man achieves this through "utterances of holiness," prayer and speech that facilitate the exposure of the Godliness that exists in that place and in that person.
2.   The second level is a spiritual reality in which the Holy One is absent.  Here Divinity is revealed not through speech and definitions, but rather through the experience of seeking; through the sense that Hashem indeed exists in this place, but the person cannot find, sense, or define Him.  This feeling, according to R. Nachman, is THE FINDING OF GOD in that place, for this is the very essence of that sort of revelation: the essence of not-knowing.
On both of these levels, R. Nachman's basic assumption – and one that he is not prepared to question for even a moment – is that "there is no place that is devoid of Him."  He insists that there is no reality that does not contain Godliness, and therefore any experience of "absence of God," any heresy, is no more than an instance of concealment.  By looking deeper and turning one's heart towards Godliness, one shall surely find it.
As we saw in shiur no.6, R. Nachman also addresses in teaching no.64 a new element in the thought of the Ari z"l, the "empty space."  This space, as we have seen, is enormously paradoxical.  On one hand it must of necessity be completely devoid of Divinity, in order to facilitate the creation of the world, with its boundaries, limitations, and multiplicity.  On the other hand, the power of the rule that "there is no place that is devoid of Him" still applies; there can be no existence, no reality, without God.
R. Nachman concludes the first section of teaching no.64 by stating that "therefore it is completely impossible to comprehend the nature of the 'empty space' until the future time."
We have also seen that since Divinity prevails throughout all the worlds and in all of existence, R. Nachman regards the principle of "tzimtzum" as being a type of movement which is immanent to the dissemination and inspiration of Divinity.  As such, it assumes existential expression in daily existence, including man (shiur no.7).
In the section that we shall study presently, R. Nachman continues to attempt to identify, in the reality of man and of the world, that Divine movement that expresses the "empty space," which itself also represents a fundamental element in existence.  It is a profound philosophy:
Know that there are two types of heresy.  There is a heresy that comes from external wisdoms, concerning which it is written (Avot chapter 2), "Know what to answer a heretic."  For this heresy has the possibility of an answer (teshuva), because it comes from external wisdoms, which are left-over remainders, since they represent (or result from) the shattering of the vessels.  For the greatness of the light caused the vessels to shatter, and it was from this that the "kelipot" (shells) came into existence, as we know.  And external wisdoms come from there – i.e., from the shattering of the vessels, the left-over "waste" resulting from holiness.  Just as man has many types of left-over wastes, such as nails, hair and perspiration, as well as other wastes and excretions, likewise every external wisdom comes from left-over conscious waste from holiness.   Similarly witchcraft comes from left-over conscious waste.
So far there is nothing new in relation to previous shiurim.  Again R. Nachman translates into existential terms the spiritual reality of concealed Divine existence.  This time, R. Nachman relates to kelipot that carry with them the left-over Divine light that was not gathered back into the vessels.  This light is hidden in the depths of the kelipot and gives them their vitality.  This is a negative phenomenon, but it carries within it the Divine vitality that gives it its existence.  R. Nachman thus regards heresy that comes from external wisdoms as the tangible revelation of that Divine reality.
It should be noted that the expression "external wisdoms" is appropriate to that mystical essence to which R. Nachman attributes their source.  "Wisdom," in kabbalistic terminology, is the Divine source, the fundamental root of reality.  When R. Nachman speaks of a Divine light that emanates from "the left-over waste of holiness," the appellation "external wisdom" describing a Divine light that is external, that exists outside of holiness, is certainly apt.
This appellation also suits the existential experience of the encounter with external wisdoms.  On more than one occasion R. Nachman depicts philosophers as trying to be too clever, for they make capricious and excessive use of the intellectual powers given to them.  They try to exceed their capacities, causing a shattering and a loss of control, and – consequently – a scattering of the light in an uncontrolled and unbounded manner.  He writes,
Therefore, one who falls into this type of heresy – and one should certainly run and distance oneself from it; nevertheless, one who stumbles into it may find salvation to extricate himself.  For he may find the blessed God there, if he seeks and hunts for Him there.  For, since they originate in the shattering of the vessels, they contain some sparks of holiness and some letters that were shattered and fell to there, as we know.  And therefore he may find Godliness and good sense there, to answer the questions posed by this type of heresy that comes from external wisdoms, which originate in the left-overs of the shattering of the vessels.  For there is Divine vitality to be found there – i.e., the INTELLECT (GOOD SENSE) AND THE LETTERS that were shattered and that fell to there.  And therefore there is teshuva (or "an answer") for this type of heresy, and concerning this it is written, 'Know what to answer the heretic.'
As in teaching no.3 (which we addressed in shiur #8), here too the order is most instructive:  "It is possible for him to find salvation to extract himself, FOR he can find the blessed God there….  And therefore he can find Divinity and intellect there to answer the questions posed by this heresy….  It is not the answers to questions and the extrication from the trap of heresy that bring a person to Hashem, as we might think, but rather Hashem and the closeness to Him that bring the answers and the extrication.  Since heresy arises from Hashem's concealment, His exposure dissolves the heresy.  And since we are speaking of a situation in which Divinity is only hiding, all that man needs is to reveal it and thereby solve his problems.
The reality described by R. Nachman in this description, and the means of escaping it, seem to me to correspond to the reality of doubt into which man may fall and as a solution to which R. Nachman proposes speaking "utterances of holiness" (see shiur #8).  He describes this aspect of Godliness as an intelligible reality that may be defined.  It is composed, as he describes it, of intellect and letters that have fallen into kelipot.  It has content and may therefore be spoken about.  "For so long as I speak about Him, I shall surely continue to remember Him."  One may hereby receive answers to his doubts and questions.
In the previous shiur (no.9) we spoke about a different category of doubts, where the Godliness within them is a reflection of the "sealed utterance."  The sealed utterance as we saw is not defined and is the root of all defined utterances.  It is connected to the "silent aleph," which is likewise unable to be defined or understood, in contrast to the other letters, which are differentiated, each with its own specific pronunciation.
The reality of Godliness that is a "sealed utterance" or a "silent aleph" is the antithesis of intellect and letters, the reality of Godliness described above.  Intellect provides the possibility of understanding, defining and responding to doubts, in contrast to the "sealed utterance," and the letters allow a person to speak utterances of holiness, in contrast to the silent aleph.
In the case of doubts and heresies that arise from a reality of Godliness which reflects the "sealed utterance," a person remains with his questions, and reveals Godliness by addressing the doubt (that remains with no answer) toward the Godliness.  Then the question changes from a "kashia" (an abbreviation – see previous shiur) to "Hear, Hashem, my voice when I cry out" (sichot 146) – i.e., the question itself becomes the encounter with Hashem.  Yet in the case of doubts and heresies arising from a reality of Godliness that reflects intellect and letters, a person speaks utterances of holiness and reveals the Godliness, thereby enlisting the intellect and the letters that exist within that heresy to solve and respond to the question.
R. Nachman now moves on to a different type of heresy:
But there is another kind of heresy, which is "wisdom" that is not wisdom at all, but because it is deep and people do not understand it, it therefore appears to be wisdom.  Such as, for example, when a person makes a false deduction in his study of Gemara, Rashi or Tosfot, and since there is no-one learned enough to counter this deduction, it therefore appears that he has uttered a great and wise conclusion, even though in truth it is no insight at all.  In this manner the scholars have several puzzles and questions, which are in truth no wisdom at all, and the questions are nullified in their essence.  But since human intelligence is unable to answer them, they appear to be wisdoms and true questions.  And in truth it is impossible to answer such questions, for such questions of this type of heresy come from the "empty space," and in that empty space there is no Godliness, as it were.  And therefore these questions, which come from there - from the aspect of the empty space – are completely impossible to find any answer to them, i.e., to find the blessed God there.  For if the blessed God could be found there, then it would not be empty, and all would be Infinity.  Therefore concerning this heresy it is written (Mishlei 2), "None who go to her (this foreign wisdom) return."  For there is no teshuva (or "answer") for this heresy, since it comes from the empty space, from which Hashem contracted His Divinity, as it were."
Until this point, R. Nachman has described two different types of questions.  One type is a question that has an "answer" (a "teshuva").  Here Godliness exists in the "teshuva" that is concealed within the question.  In other words, Godliness is revealed in the form of the answer (the "teshuva").  The second type is a question that has no "answer" (no "teshuva").  Here Godliness is concealed within the very question itself when it is addressed in the form of a cry, "ayeh."  In other words, Godliness is revealed here in the form of the question.  What is common to these two situations is that we are speaking of a reality in which Godliness is concealed, and through our adoption of the correct course of action (utterances of holiness in the first instance, or a cry of "ayeh" in the second), the hidden Godliness can be revealed.
Now R. Nachman describes a spiritual reality of a different sort.  It differs from the two situations described above with reference to their common element, the hidden Godliness.  The empty space, the spiritual foundation underlying the heresy and doubts that R. Nachman describes here, is different from every other spiritual reality in that it is meant to be devoid of all Godliness.  Godliness is not hidden or concealed but rather absent!
Yet things are not so simple.  R. Nachman defines quite clearly the nature of the questions and doubts that arise from this reality.  On one hand, he concludes that these questions have no answer (there is no "teshuva" for this heresy) since they originate in the empty space.  If teshuva and the solution to a doubt are the presence of Hashem, then in the absence of Hashem, heaven forefend, there can be no teshuva and no solution. 
On the other hand, R. Nachman teaches that these questions, originating in the empty space, are not questions at all, and in fact they are just an exploitation of man's weakness.  They stem from his inability to understand and to see that they are not questions that may or may not be answered, but rather questions that never even begin.
How do these two concepts coexist? Are we speaking of good questions that have no answers, or of pseudo-questions that are really not questions at all?  The solution to this difficulty lies in the nature of the empty space as described by R. Nachman in the previous section of this teaching.
     The empty space, as we saw in shiur no.5, expresses the extreme polarity of our understanding of Godliness.  We are speaking about the very first, most initial stage in the coming into being of existence.  We are not yet dealing with a complex reality containing Divinity and containing garments, a reality comprised of revelation and concealment, lights and vessels.
The polarity is absolute.  At one moment there is the Infinite that fills everything.  An Infinity with neither revelations nor concealments, neither vessels nor kelipot.  One Infinite light with no room for doubt, for consideration, for heresy or for absence.  And the next moment there is an empty space, which likewise contains no revelation and no concealment, no lights and no vessels.  Only a space containing nothing.  No Godliness and no impression thereof, no intellect and no letters – not even vitality.
R. Nachman, as we saw in the previous shiur, refuses to accept this polarity.  He insists that we assert both things together concerning this empty space.  It is empty and devoid of Godliness, for if this was not so, we could not speak of Creation or of man.  But it is also full, for "there is no space that is devoid of Him."  These two concepts cannot exist together, and the peace between them will be made only at the end of days, but until then, the echo of this contradiction leaves its impression on man's reality and finds its place in the world of doubts and heresies.  And it is thus that R. Nachman defines the reality of doubt and heresy arising from the empty space.
The fact that heresy and doubt arise from the empty space – i.e., from a reality of absence of Godliness rather than concealment of Godliness – has two ramifications.
The first pertains to the authenticity of the questions.  R. Nachman is prepared to accept the reality of concealment, but not the reality of absence.  "We say these words," R. Nachman reluctantly asserts, "because we have no choice.  Because we cannot understand in any other way the transition from Infinity to the bounded and limited.  But within ourselves we know with certainty that there can be no reality that is devoid of Godliness." Therefore he concludes that this heresy, whose source is not in concealment but rather in absence, is actually unfounded.  It is based on a virtual assumption that is uttered only out of our intellectual weakness and our inability to understand things otherwise.  This is analogous to a scholar who exploits his partner's lack of knowledge by presenting an apparent difficulty that in reality has no basis.  The entire reality of the doubt that is born out of the empty space has its source in the "human" point of departure which, in this instance, does not reflect the objective reality. 
Our perception that there exists a spiritual reality in which Divinity conceals itself is a perception that accurately reflects the objective reality, because humans have been given the ability to understand the Divine steps describing the coming-into-being of situations of concealment.  Therefore the doubts and heresies that rest upon this Divine reality are authentic, and require our authentic attention.  However, doubts that are born in the empty space have their foundation in the false assumption of the absence of Godliness.  It is a "human" assumption that does not reflect the objective reality, and therefore such doubts have no real existence.
The second ramification, according to R. Nachman, arises from the necessity of saying – despite all the above – that the empty space from which these heresies and doubts arise is indeed devoid of all Godliness.  If we say that this difficulty arises from the absence of Godliness – and, as we have said, the way to free ourselves from the clutches of such questions and heresies is through finding the Godliness that is concealed within them – then a person who falls into this type of doubt has nowhere to turn.  He cannot find and expose the Godliness within this reality, since, as it were, God is not there at all, and therefore he remains with his doubts, with no answer and with no encounter.
As we have seen above, we have already encountered a reality in which R. Nachman concludes that it is impossible to find answers to doubts, but this reality is completely different.
Not every Divine revelation, explains R. Nachman, provides an answer and solution to a person's doubts.  There are some revelations which themselves represent the doubt.  A person who calls out to Hashem, "Where ("ayeh") is the place of Your glory?" does not find the solution to his doubts, but he finds the Godliness that is concealed within this question.  It is an elevated Godliness, approached through lack of knowledge and lack of answers.
The lack of answers in the doubt described in this section is an absence that does not arise out of concealment or out of the nature of the Godliness that is concealed, but rather from absence.  A person who falls into this type of doubt cannot even shout his "ayeh."
We may perhaps illustrate the difference between these two experiences as being comparable to the difference between a woman whose husband is killed by terrorists and a woman whose beloved is captured, and concerning whom she receives signs of life from time to time.  The second does not know where he is, nor can she even be certain that she will ever see him again, but she knows that he still exists.  She knows that he is thinking about her right now; she is alone, but at every moment he is with her.  His living heart beats within her and she is full of hope that one day her love will be realized and they will meet again.  The first woman lacks any spark of hope.  Her world is dark, with no light upon the horizon.  No heart beats within her, and she sits in terrible, incurable isolation.
A person who has fallen into the empty space – the empty space that, from a certain perspective, is devoid of all Godliness – is like someone whose God, heaven forefend, has died, as it were.  The existence of God for a person allows him to convert all the distances, all the concealments, into a longing that is part of the relationship.  But when God does not exist for a person, there is no way out and no purpose: "None who go to her, return."
Having described this doubt and its difference with the previous type of doubt, we will in the next shiur, present Rav Nachman's plan to cope with this situation.  
(Translated by Kaeren Fish)