Finding G-d in the Empty Spaces
Concepts in Chassidus / Essays 2018
Each person is called an ‘olam katan,’-a miniature world. As someone whose Jewish life has spanned the 20th and 21st century, with all its individual and concomitant social challenges, I have struggled to find a sense of meaning and purpose in ‘my olam katan,’ and have been guided primarily from above in that endeavor. I would like to write about how Chassidic ideas and teaching have accompanied me throughout a lifetime of challenges. My aspiration is that readers will be inspired enough by my life quest to search for those teachings that can light up their own personal journeys and destinies.
I am 74 years old, but only recently realized that when I was a baby, I must have cried a lot. I was an only child of welfare parents. My father was deaf and so he couldn’t hear me, and my mother was crippled so she couldn’t get to me too soon. Consequently, I must have cried out to the only One who could be there for me. My search continued throughout my life, amidst many such crying moments of loneliness, and sometimes hopelessness, but I didn’t give up the search.
In my early, solitary years, I watched lots of cartoons. One character that intrigued me was Felix the cat. Often he used to get stuck in places where there was no way out, -no exit as Sartre put it-but he would always pull out his ‘magic chalk,’ and draw a doorway to freedom. Around 8 years old, and still looking for the chalk, I went to an overnight camp. At times, overcome by lonely moods, I would ‘pretend’ to sink into the lake where we went swimming. I often felt like I was drowning in a world that was hostile and cold. Without much human guidance, I was searching for an ark that could lead me through the turbulent and inhospitable waters surrounding me.
Then in my teens I discovered Chassidus! It was like finding that magic chalk, the chalk that led me through my emptiness to a teaching of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement: ‘wherever a person is, G-d is there too.’ Still, there was a yawning gap between concept and implementation. I turned to secular books for a while, but without solace. In my twenties, I was at times preoccupied with the idea of actually taking my life. Once, however, during those days, I was returning some library books and got stuck in a traffic jam. I took one of the books that I hadn’t yet read but needed to return before the due date. And opened it ‘at random.’ It was a psychology book called ‘The Transparent Self.’ I saw on the open page, something like, ‘If you feel like your life has no meaning, it is because there is a part of yourself too small or too tightly squeezed by your expanding soul. Slip out of that part like a snake sheds its skin, and you will be ready to be a new person.’
As I struggled to slip out of the Egypt of my constricting skin, I revisited Torah sources and sought out counsel from what I learned in Jewish day school. The principles seemed important but didn’t really speak to the preoccupations of a post adolescent who kept swinging on a pendulum between extremes of spiritual escapism and material indulgence. In college, I kept searching for a theological unified field perspective. One book that stood out for me in this search was ‘Language in Thought and Action,’ by S.I. Hayakawa. The book’s premise: words that seemed to be opposites, like hot and cold, light and dark, etc. were really different points on a continuum. But how could Hayakawa’s theory relate to Torah? I turned back to Chabad sources and found so many ideas and stories, both radical and traditional, which spoke to me personally and answered a myriad of questions and doubts. On one hand, Chassidus addressed many instinctive perspectives I had, and on the other hand propelled me into new concepts and ways of thinking.
For example, the idea that we have two souls, divine and animal, was the first to intrigue me. It suggested that all our thoughts and behaviors stem from one or the other and we are given both the ability and responsibility to enlist both in Divine service. Thus, I discovered an overarching and reoccurring theme that kept me afloat for much of my adult life. It was the concept that any conflicting premises, paradoxes, or axioms, from the most cosmic to the most internal, can be resolved by turning to the ‘empty space’ –the window leading to Source of life-the space of Oneness transcending all opposites. It was like a win-win approach to conflict resolution by finding a common bond.
The last Lubavitcher Rebbe provides a relevant text, based on a verse from Psalm 121: ‘Esa einai el he’harim, mei’ayin yavo ezri.’ I lift my eyes to the mountains; from where does my help come. Chassidus explains that the word ‘mei’ayin’ which is usually translated as the question, ‘from where,’ can also be a statement. In other words, my help comes from a place called, ‘Ayin,’ no-thingness, which I take to mean, the empty space where one can move from despair to hope and can then find the necessary ‘magic chalk’ of liberation from conflicting boxes.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov gave a similar fundamental teaching about a verse from Psalm 139. ‘If I ascend to heaven, there You are, and if I go to Sheol, behold You are (there).’ He explains the need for constant movement. The first part of the verse means that no matter how high a person is, there is still further to advance. The second part, in contrast, insists that no matter how low a person falls, G-d is there to pick us up. These teachings are so precious in my life, and help to restore my balance whenever, as in bipolar language, I veer too high or too low. How do I move out of those stuck positions? By returning to the empty space that transcends all paradox. Answers may or may not come; the important thing is letting the question keep us open- open to both transcendence of conflicting ideas and open to an all-encompassing embrace of Divine Presence.
Another important concept in Chabad teachings, is: just as G-d is so beyond definition, and has ultimate free choice, so too do we on earth express our divine image through free choice. And since G-d is everywhere, even if we take lots of detours during our lives, G-d’s ubiquitous ‘GPS’=G-d’s Personal System’ will find a way to lead us back. Our job is to recognize our mistakes and see the signs of ‘Hashgacha Pratis,’=Divine supervision, that can get us back on track. One personal illustration:
Around 1973, during one of the many questioning stages of my life, on December 24th, I lived in a house that caught on fire from a tree that downstairs tenants had left illuminated. I escaped with nothing on but a nightgown and a bathrobe. As I stood shivering on an icy New England sidewalk waiting for the fire engines, I cried again to that Higher Presence I knew was still there: after I recovered, I discovered that the Torah portion of that day was Moshe confronting a burning thorn bush. I felt like I was that thorn bush, and it was Chassidus that brought me the voice of G-d.
In fact, a diary entry from the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe on that Hebrew date of the fire was a teaching from the Baal Shem Tov: ‘When you meet someone carrying water, you should say in the name of the Baal Shem Tov, that it is a very good sign.’ Indeed for me, as I reflected on the firemen who arrived with water on the scene of the conflagration, that day forward, it was ‘a very good sign.’ Perhaps even my youthful camp experiences were attempts to find cleansing and healing waters that could bring me hope. After all the Hebrew word for a ritual bath, a Mikvah, is the same root as the word, Tikvah, hope!
There is a contemporary poet, David Whyte, who wrote a poem called, ‘Fire in the Earth.’ In it he, like many poets throughout history, was fascinated with the image of Moshe and the burning bush. His last lines are, ‘Like the moment you too saw, for the first time, your own house turned to ashes. Everything consumed so the road could open again.’
The last Rebbe once wrote to an artist about how both light and darkness are part of a work of art. When I have found myself stuck in the shadows, I cling to this idea. In fact, several years ago, I began studying daily chapter 11 in the section of Tanya called Igeres Hakodesh. My impetus was reading how the Rebbe’s mother used to recite it to her saintly husband, Reb Levi Yitzchak, when he was imprisoned in Siberia. I figured that if it helped that holy couple, it could also help me. The main theme of that chapter was about challenges and darkness actually having such a high source in blessings that they can’t come down in a revealed way.
To return to my earlier snake image, there is a powerful teaching from Likutei Torah, from the first Chabad Rebbe, that in the Biblical episode when the Israelites are complaining and are then bitten by snakes, G-d tells Moshe to erect a snake on a pole. Whenever the people look up, they are healed. The Rebbe explained that the very source of evil, represented by the snake, is also a divine creation. When one can see the higher source, the frustrations from the dichotomies I referred to before, can be healed.
I am now approaching three quarters of a century and have often been propelled toward that higher source. I have faced many close brushes with loss of life…illnesses, fires, floods, and a serious car collision a few years ago. What has pulled me back up spiritually? I can attribute it primarily to Chassidic wisdom. When I’m down, I usually find some gem of a concept to buoy me up and raise my spirits. I have been particularly drawn to the last teaching of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, entitled, ‘Bosi L’gani,’ from a phrase in Song of Songs, meaning, ‘I have come to my garden.’
This year on the tenth of Shvat, the actual date of the previous Rebbe’s yahrzeit, I was learning the first chapter of Bosi L’gani with a few Jewish businessmen. Before we even finished the chapter we discussed the idea of this world being G-d’s special garden, even more valued than all the heavens. One of the men shouted to me, ‘Now I know why you smile so much! Who wouldn’t smile if they felt they were in a potential Garden of Eden!’ The concept of earth being G-d’s ‘dirah ba’tachtonim’-dwelling place below (or as I like to say, ‘a basement apartment’) has kept me grounded when I felt like ‘moving elsewhere.’
The Jewish festivals also provide apertures to a higher reality. On Pesach we make sure the matzah is perforated, and we remove our puffed up chametz, so that no trace of unholy pride is able to fester. On Shavuos, the veils separating heaven and earth are pierced. On Sukkos, the empty space in the Sukkah is reminiscent of the Temple’s Holy of Holies, which contained only the Holy Ark- a structure that was solid and yet took up no earthly space. Above the ark sat the golden cherubim and from the hollow area between the cherubim the word of G-d was manifest. Aside from these three pilgrimage festivals, we celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. On Rosh Hashanah the emptiness of the shofar produces the sound that stirs G-d to move from the throne of judgement to the throne of mercy and hollows out our hearts. Finally on Yom Kippur, it is our own selves, literally in our kishkes, our guts, that through fasting we create a place to let G-d into our lives.
Speaking of Yom Kippur, this year I was sleeping on a flip bed so I could be near a shul where I wanted to pray. When I awoke in the morning, I had trouble getting up from the bed. I tried and tried to no avail. I reminded myself of doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Then I remembered how, per Chassidic custom for women, I had gone to the mikvah the day before, and how Chassidus explains that the Hebrew word for immersing is ‘Tevilah’, which share the same letters as ‘Ha’bitul’, meaning self-nullification. I thought of the teaching that nothing exists until it comes into being anew at every moment. I closed my eyes, went into my ‘empty space’ mode, began to lie down flat, rolled over, and easily was then able to rise from that position. To me this was a perfect instance of ‘applied Chassidus’!
I have found out more and more how much of an impact the last Rebbe, who was the very embodiment of the essence of Chassidus, had not only on individuals but on the world at large. Just one example among so many: There was a very prominent and influential person who at one point in his life, could not lift himself from despair. After World War Two, the now famous psychologist Victor Frankl was ready to give up when he saw that his positive philosophy of ‘a will to meaning’ was a lone voice among the more popular perspectives of his day that viewed ‘a will to pleasure’ as the most dominant human drive. As he was filling out his immigration papers for Australia, a woman appeared in his Vienna home bearing a message from the Lubavitcher Rebbe saying ‘Remain strong! Continue your work with complete resolve. Don’t give up. Ultimately you will prevail.’ As a result Frankl did continue and today so much of modern psychology centers on hopeful and positive attitudes in life. One example that prevails today is a system called ‘learned optimism,’ teaching that even those who may have a pessimistic personality, can learn differently.
For me too, my Chassidic application was actualized by the merit of speaking directly with the Lubavitcher Rebbe on several occasions. Relevant to my personal growth, I present here a few instances. Once I asked him, ‘If we are not sure of taking a particular action that seems to be ethically neutral, how do we decide?’ He gave me a one word answer- ‘Uv’chain.’ This word means, ‘and so’, implying that one needs to anticipate as far as possible, the consequences of one’s choices.
With regard to my feminist tendencies, the Rebbe encouraged me over and over to learn Chassidic teachings, which he stressed applied to women as much as to men. Finally, for purposes here, I once came to the Rebbe feeling very depressed. The Rebbe asked me, ‘What makes you happy?’ I responded, ‘writing.’ With a big smile on his holy face, the Rebbe replied, ‘So…write!’ and that’s what I am doing. I feel blessed to have written in these pages how Chassidus has helped me overcome obstacles.
In this essay I have not attempted to provide Chassidic solutions for the entire world. My takeaway message is to encourage readers to not only learn Chassidic teachings and appreciate their depth and relevance, but to also see how each step and stage of their lives can be guided by this wisdom which can uniquely integrate so many divergent and conflicting paths. I am convinced that each person’s life can be made whole and holy by these teachings. Chassidus captures Essence, as explained in Inyana shel Toras Hachassidus, a short, brilliant treatise from the previous Rebbe. He posits that Chassidus reaches a level beyond even the four tiers of Pardes, the orchard of Torah understanding, and incorporates them all. Our immersion of mind, heart, and body in its waters can call forth Moshiach from his place of concealment. Then will be fulfilled all the promises and visions throughout Jewish history, to make this earth a dwelling place for the Divine, both internally within the hearts of humanity, and externally through all phases and forms of creation.
The most important personal message I continue to live with from Chassidus, is that throughout life’s challenges, by continuing to trust the ‘Ayin,’ the ‘empty space,’ I found as a baby, I can access that eternal ‘pilot light’ of the soul. As the folk troubadour Leonard Cohen, of blessed memory, sang: ‘Forget your perfect offering. There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.’ Perhaps by means of trusting that ‘empty space’, that’s also how the hidden light can get out.