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Rabbi Larry Tabick

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Tzimtzum & Creativity

Today’s session presents me with a uncomfortable challenge, a challenge intensified by being our first session together. On the one hand, I usually prefer to speak extemporaneously and gauge the response of my listeners as I speak, and on the other, I am not accustomed to think very much about my creative process, let alone share what goes on in my head with others. Nevertheless, because of the translation issues involved in our seminar and as an aid to my articulation of my creative process, I have written down the thoughts that I intend to present to you during this session.

Let me begin with a few very brief words about Judaism and Jewish mysticism. Judaism is a very wordy religion. Words – specifically Hebrew words – their meanings and connotations, are at the very heart of all things Jewish. This includes Jewish mysticism, much of which focuses on Hebrew names of God, for example, and employs word-plays and deconstructions of words in the search for truth. This fixation on words and language almost certainly stems from the opening chapter of the Bible, the Hebrew Scriptures, where God creates the universe by speaking: ‘Let there be light…,'

‘Let the earth bring forth every kind of living creature…,’ and so forth. It is also based on the notion of the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, as the word of God. If God is infinite, then God’s words could be capable of infinite meaning, well beyond the obvious meaning of the text in its original context. But some Jewish mystics, like mystics of all traditions I would suggest, seem to have asked themselves, ‘What happened before there were words, before there was language? What did God do, as it were, before saying ‘Let there be light’?

One of those was Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as the Ari HaKodesh, the ‘Holy Lion.’ The Ari was born in Jerusalem in 1534, and raised in Egypt. He was a merchant, and a legal scholar, but also immersed himself in Kabbalah, the foremost branch of the Jewish mystical tradition, while living in seclusion on an island in the Nile. In 1569, he came to Tz’fat (Safed), a hill-top village in the Galilee, and joined a community of scholars and kabbalists already there. Within three years, he was dead of a plague, but his personality and his mystical teachings meant that he left a powerful legacy. Combining and expounding earlier kabbalistic theories, Luria created a scheme to illuminate divine creativity before divine speech created the world. His scheme can be summed up in four Hebrew terms: tzimtzum (withdrawal), atzilut (emanation), shevirat ha-kelim (the breaking of the vessels), and tikkun (repair). I’ll explain each briefly in turn

Tzimtzum: Before time and space (as if one could speak of a ‘before’ when time does not exist), there was only God, the Infinite. Nothing else could have independent existence, because all was God. When God (for whatever reason) decided to create the universe, with independent entities, God withdrew the divine essence from around a single central point, a process called tzimtzum.

Atzilut: Now there was a ‘space’ within which the universe could come into being. And into that space, God emanated ten sefirot, ten aspects of God, that would become ten aspects of all that would be created. (Sefirot is a plural term; the singular is sefirah.) This process is known as atzilut. It is at this point that language is said to begin, because the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet represent the 22 channels that are said to allow interactions between the sefirot. But speech occurs only at the lowest of the ten. I will say more about the sefirot in a moment.

Shevirat HaKelim: The sefirot then extended into the space, shining divine light down into vessels (kelim) in the regions where the world would come into existence. But for some reason, some of these vessels were not strong enough to contain the divine light was pouring into them, and they broke. Hence, the term shevirat ha-kelim (‘the breaking of the vessels’).

Tikkun: When the vessels broke, the light that they were meant to contain fell as sparks into the space where the world would come into being, while the broken pieces of the vessels themselves also fell into that space, where they became known as kelippot (‘shells’). These kelippot are like nut-shells, containing the sparks of divine light (the ‘kernel’) and preventing them from ascending to rejoin their Source in the Infinite beyond the empty space. The task of the Jew who is spiritually aware is to liberate the sparks from the shells in which they are imprisoned, so that they may return to their Infinite Source. And this is done by observing the ritual and ethical precepts of Judaism with the proper kabbalistic intention.

The Ten Sefirot : Page 2 >>>

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