Playing with Negative Space : The Nation of the Void

One of my 'active activities' is not only to notice coincidences, but at a deeper level to notice synchronicity. This is the experience of being present, and actively feeling God's support. I recently had such an experience while studying the Esh Kodesh.


The teacher's own revelation and the revelation that comes to him because he is teaching are analogous to the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. The Written Torah comes from a greatly exalted place, higher than the Oral Torah and Kabbalah. Nonetheless, the Written Torah has been drawn down into our world, the universe of Assiya (Action). The Oral Torah and the Kabbalah, which were initially lower than the Written Torah and derived from it, are now in the exalted worlds, the universes of Atzilut (Archetypes), Briyah (Creation), and Yetzirah (Formation), as is well known….
Esh Kodesh: Parshat Bo (January 24, 1942).

In this teaching from the Esh Kodesh, Kabbalah starts out lowest and ends up highest, and the Torah starts out the highest and ends up the lowest. This is like comparing a rock to a human being. In this world, the rock is the least differentiated and therefore the lowest, but at the level of creation, the soul of the rock is at the highest level. At the level of creation, the less differentiated, the less something 'talks back', the less cognitive, the more in tune it is with Hashem. The human being, because of his powers of cognition, has the greatest potential for rebellion, for going against the will of God. This is the inner meaning of ad she lo yada - the experience of drinking on Purim until we 'don't know', which raises us to a level higher even than that of knowing. From the Kabbalalist perspective, our souls start out from a very low place - much lower than the source of the soul of the rock. Yet our souls have the potential to ascend to the highest place - the world of Atzilut - Emanation, whereas in this world the rock, as the most inanimate of things, descends to the lowest place.

The Esh Kodesh continues:

…There is a well-known teaching in the Talmud (Yebamoth 97a): "When anyone repeats the Torah of a dead scholar, the lips of the dead, though lying in a grave, mutter along with the speaker." That is, particularly the lips and particularly in the grave, because in the upper worlds, in the Academy of Heaven, everyone learns Torah all the Time anyway.

This is a very odd, very challenging teaching. At what level is this happening? It is not occurring at the level of the soul, and it is not occurring at the level of the physical cells of the body. We are not told exactly where it is happening. The Esh Kodesh continues:

For someone to speak Torah in his grave, someone living must be repeating the dead person's Torah. The dead man had a connection with his students during his lifetime, and so the students were in his mouth and his Torah was in their hearts. His students retain this powerful connection with him even after his death, and thus his lips move "in the grave". Furthermore, anyone who repeats the Torah of a dead teacher becomes his student even after the teacher's death, and the lips of the dead teacher begin to speak in the grave as this new student begins to draw Torah from the mouth of the teacher, as we said above, "And the lips of the cohen will guard knowledge, and the Torah will be sought from his mouth…" It is only when the teacher has students and they fill his mouth with Torah that he transcends his own personal understanding. It follows, therefore, that even after a teacher has died he still remains connected to his students in this world.

The general theme of this passage is transcendence of all limitations. The teacher teaches from the essence of his experience, but he also teaches below his experience, in a collective way, using the minds of all the students. He transcends both his own understanding, and the collective listening reality of all of his students. Through this transcendence, everyone connects with Torah that is otherwise inaccessible. This is a connection that transcends understanding.

In this experience, the Tree of Death becomes the tree of 'Not Knowing' - which is the experience of drinking on Purim until we 'don't know'. This is a 'not knowing' that transcends the limitations of knowing. It is a healing of the Tree of Knowledge.

I recently had such an experience.

Teaching the Esh Kodesh is incredibly difficult. We stay for weeks on a single commentary and go deeper and deeper, looking up more and more sources, working on different aspects. It is the oddest feeling.

On Rosh Hodesh Elul, I was reading the passage from the Esh Kodesh quoted above, and I started crying. There is a Midrash that says that when a person cries during the 30 days before Tishrei, he is being judged at that moment. Throughout the month of Elul we undertake a conscious review of the year. Rosh Hashannah is called Yom Hazicharon - the Day of Remembrance - because we are bringing the unconscious to consciousness.

In this sense, Purim and Rosh Hashannah form a reciprocal pair, each providing helpful opposition for the other. It is opposites that don't seem connected that bring revelation, through the radical amazement we experience when we grasp the connection.

When I started crying on Rosh Hodesh Elul, I knew that this was my moment of judgement. I was very moved by this passage from the Esh Kodesh, and as soon as I had read it, I re-read the footnote added to the commentary on Parshat Ekev (see previous chapter, 'Ekev - the Greatest Light). As I was reading I could viscerally feel the lips of the Rebbe of Piacezna moving, and at that moment I knew that I had become the heref ayin - the 'blink of an eye'. I could actually feel the radical amazement of the Rebbe. Out of the utter hopelessness of the Warsaw Ghetto, I could hear his laugh of amazement at the mystery of it all. My experience was exactly the same as the one he described.

From the perspective of the Esh Kodesh, there would be no logical way to explain this connection. For him, this would be a radical moment of revelation. By tapping into this process, the new student becomes a rebbe - he becomes both the student and the teacher of Aggadah.

Another key question asked by the Esh Kodesh in this same commentary is, why did the Jewish people run out of water after crossing the Yam Suf? (see Exodus 15:22) To understand this question we need to understand how people move into their emptiness.

Most addicts report that they use their drug of choice in order to try to fill the void.

In order to leave Egypt, the first thing the Jews needed to do was to move through the Yam Suf. One in five Jews made the decision to go out into the desert, in spite of all they had learned in Egypt - that the desert is the desolate, empty place, full of demons snakes and scorpions, and negative energy. Depriving them of water after the miraculous crossing of the Yam Suf was not a punishment - it was literally God's greatest act of compassion. According to the criterion we have defined in previous chapters, the void in which they found themselves could either be a toxic void full of poison, or it could be a pregnant void, which is going to give birth. The void in which the Jews found themselves three days after crossing the Yam Suf gave birth to the Mitzvah of not going more than three days between reading the Torah in synagogue, because water is synonymous with Torah.

The teaching here, as in the Esh Kodesh, is about how to address emptiness. We have the empty desert, the empty water jug, the empty stomach, the empty womb. And we have the emptiness of loneliness in our lives.

Man emerges from God's hidden-ness. The definition of man, the integrity of man, emerges from the Ttzimtzum- Divine Self-Contraction.

The Kabbalah describes the Tzimtzum as part of God's play. Playing with the emptiness is a critical part of the process, because if we don't play with it, it becomes far too serious, and then it becomes self-defeating.

We are left with the terrible paradox of Tzimtzum as simultaneously the source of all darkness and pain, and the source of the integrity of the 'imperfect other', which, quid pro quo, cannot possibly exist unless there is a Tzimtzum.

The Tzimtzum is preceded by a need for an imperfect other, and this need comes from an even earlier loneliness, which is "as if God were lonely". This is a primordial Loneliness. Another way of saying this is that the motivation for the void is an earlier void. Inside the stasis of God's undifferentiated Will, there is "as if" a loneliness.

This is the only way we can understand it. It is not like our loneliness, but it is as if God is lonely. Abraham Joshua Heschel describes it as God in search of man; man in search of God.

From within this primordial loneliness comes the concretization of that loneliness into the Tzimtzum. The primordial loneliness makes itself more manifest in the actual tzimtzum -which is darkness - the apparent absence of God's light.

The Tzimtzum is like the primordial womb, out of which is born the dynamic Will. This dynamic Will is the first 'baby', the first cause - the first birth of creation, which then evolves into the spheres of life. This Will is the speck of impetus for wanting dynamic tension (represented by the Sephirot) in the world.

The Sephirot - the second "baby" - are the first manifestation of differentiation. But before this, there must be a will for the differentiation, and the will is preceded by 'as if' a loneliness.

The question of why God would want to create a world is very difficult to understand. The Hindu-Buddhist tradition avoids it altogether.

A practical way of making these connections and understanding this difficult to comprehend principle is to contemplate the work of Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher, who was renowned for his ingenious spatial perspectives. Escher's work includes the sense of playing with positive and negative space, in that the same space can be both positive and negative. Being able to see negative space is a very pragmatic skill, and it is something we need to train our mind to do.

We can also understand this principle by way of concrete example.

The whole activity of 'playing with the loneliness' is modelled and ritualized every morning, in the morning blessings.

The Zohar explains that there is a correspondence between words and the physical action they describe.

The very first act of the day - getting up and going to the bathroom - is the physical realization of voiding - of making empty space. This is a unique Torah moment. Understood in this context, the first thing we do every morning is to appreciate negative space.

To the rest of the world, this is an embarrassing moment, a negative moment, but in the Torah painting it is a critical moment, because nothing else can happen unless we first define this space, by eliminating the toxins.

The first four morning blessings bear this out:

  1. Blessed are You, Hashem our God, King of the universe, who gave the heart Binah-understanding to distinguish between day and night.
  2. Blessed are You, Hashem our God, King of the universe, who did not make me a gentile.
  3. Blessed are You, Hashem our God, King of the universe, who did not make me a slave.
  4. Blessed are You, Hashem our God, King of the universe who did not make me a women/who made me according to His will.

People generally have a very hard time with these four blessings, because the mind does not enjoy embracing the negative. We don't like to think about what we are not.

But this is the essence of the Escher painting - this play between positive and negative space.

The first thing we need to do is define the negative space, and this is very difficult. It boggles the imagination.

From hypnosis, we know that the mind will not take negative suggestions. People naturally see positive space, while having to see negative space rankles their natural way of thinking. In an Eschel drawing, or in a sculpture or other work of art, it takes a great deal of effort to be able to perceive the negative space.

The Conservative movement, in its new prayer book, has changed all of these blessings, because as they are, they naturally offend people. So, "who did not make me a gentile" becomes, "who made me a Jew"; "who did not make me a slave" becomes "who made me free".

These may conform to contemporary ideas relating to the power of positive thinking, but they reject the basic image of man emerging from God's hidden-ness.

This is the teaching of the Book of Esther - that the Hester Panim/hidden-ness of God is the womb of man. This is why the total emptiness in the footnote of the Esh Kodesh is the birth of my connection with him. Through this, I become his student, and through it he supersedes death and his lips move in his grave.

We were slaves in Egypt in order to learn what we're not. People don't want to know what they're not. It is widely accepted that people do not like to say these morning blessings, and that those who do say them, generally don't like them. Yet we need them.

The first blessing tells me that my heart has the capacity to understand positive and negative space. If I am going to participate in this divine play with the Tzimtzum, I must use my Binah-understanding. I can't use my Sechel-rational intelligence, because the Sechel perceives only positive space. My Binah, on the other hand, has the capacity to understand the interplay between day and night, to differentiate between light and dark. We need to look at Escher paintings with our Binah. To really see them, we have to change the whole focus of our eye.

With this first blessing, we change the focus of our perception.

This corresponds to the Korban Ola/holocaust, all-burnt offering that was brought to the Beit Hamikdash. With this offering, the physical was totally voided, in order to see that which can't be seen.

The next blessing, "who did not make me a gentile", defines the negative space. I am saying, "I am not going to be a goy/gentile nation, but I am going to be a goy kadosh/holy nation. Allowing the negative blessing to give rise to a question is a way of playing with the negative space. It is the same as the Jewish people, upon finding no water, asking, "Is there a God of compassion here, or is there nothing?" (Exodus 17:7)

The habitual eye, the eye of the addict, sees nothing. Yet, in the same empty place, the eye of Binah sees compassion.

When I say "who did not make me a gentile", there is automatic confusion. I can't be a nation like France, I can't be a nation like America. I have to be a nation of the void. I have to be a nation born in the void of Egypt. I have to be a nation for whom the first year in Eretz Yisrael is a year of Shmita, which means abandonment. The first act of acquiring Eretz Yisrael is abandoning it. The first act of being human is the act of voiding.

I can't be who I am, unless I am first nothing. Unless I identify the negative space first, I have no identity at all. Tvhis is very difficult for contemporary Jews, who are conditioned to accept and to perceive only the positive. This is why the Conservative movement felt compelled to re-write only those blessings that were originally composed in the negative.

The phrase 'negative space' is not even within the rubric of positive and negative thinking. It is not about 'negativity'. The concept of negative space is not about promoting the negative instead of the positive. It is a concept in which the negative space is the positive space. We cannot go anywhere unless our eyes are trained to see the negative space.

This is very disconcerting for some people, because at first view, most people are literally unable to see negative space, just as in time of Hester Panim, it is very difficult to see God hidden in the world. As with an Eschel painting, we can look for hours and hours, and still not see it. And so the Torah teaches that we must practice this way of seeing and perceiving negative space over and over, with many different tools. Once we understand this process, what at first seemed a very negative teaching becomes very positive and affirming.

The next blessing, "…who did not make me a slave", sets up the contrast between 'slave of Hashem' and 'slave of Pharaoh'. But it is important to understand that nothing here is clear. The negative space always presents itself as a question.

One of the Torah's most confronting questions is, 'why were we born in the void of Egypt?' The Torah teaches that we were born in the void of Egypt in order to learn how to be a slave - to learn how to submit ourselves to be a slave of God. Being a slave is not an option, the only choice involved is to whom we become enslaved. The Torah teaches that the only possible freedom is in slavery to God. The experience of Egypt made slavery part of the repertoire of the Jews, so that when the time came, we knew how to be slaves of Hashem.

The last blessing differentiates between men and women. Women do not say 'who did not make me a woman', because they literally contain the negative space. The male anatomy, on the other hand, incorporates positive space, and so men must say one more blessing - 'who did not make me a woman' - in order to cancel out the sexual organ.

The challenge presented by these blessings is to put on tefillin, and as we put on tefillin the whole rubric of prayer becomes a process in which we make of ourselves an empty receptacle. In this way, we re-make ourselves as the feminine, as the receptacle, because this is the premise and the entire context of prayer. In order to pray, we have to make of ourselves an empty space.

In this way, daily prayer becomes a practical guide to perceiving and experiencing negative space.

The process is repeated in the notion of Tisha b'Av and Elul as preparation for Rosh Hashannah, in cleaning and emptying out one's houses as a preparation for Pessach, and in night as the prelude to day.

The tefillin are protrusions and very masculine images (little boys build towers and little girls build enclosures). So putting on tefillin represents the culmination of a process that begins with utter voiding and creating the negative that can then interact with and give birth to the positive.

The void is always connected with the world of Assiya, because the void is always the first of four steps, which are the four worlds of Assiya, Yetzira, Beriya and Atzilut.

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 74b) has an acute appreciation of this process. At the end of a general discussion about when a person is obliged to kill and when a person is obliged to die, the Gemara explains how addictive behaviour, by attempting to exclude the first step of the void and the negative space, cannot give birth to anything:

Rab Judah said in Rab's name: A man once conceived a passion for a certain woman, and his heart was consumed by his burning desire [his life being endangered thereby]. When the doctors were consulted, they said, 'His only cure is that she shall submit.' Thereupon the Sages said: 'Let him die rather than that she should yield.' Then [said the doctors]; 'let her stand naked before him;' [they answered] 'sooner let him die'. 'Then', said the doctors, 'let her converse with him from behind a fence.' 'Let him die,' the Sages replied 'rather than she should converse with him from behind a fence.'

This dialogue between rabbis and doctors is very relevant to contemporary attitudes and behaviour regarding relationships, sex and addiction, as the subsequent, very complex and subtle passage indicates:

Now R. Jacob b. Idi and R. Samuel b. Nahmani dispute therein. One said that she was a married woman; the other that she was unmarried. Now, this is intelligible on the view, that she was a married woman, but on the latter, that she was unmarried, why such severity? - R. Papa said: Because of the disgrace to her family. R. Aha the son of R. Ika said: That the daughters of Israel may not be immorally dissolute. Then why not marry her? - Marriage would not assuage his passion, even as R. Isaac said: Since the destruction of the Temple, sexual pleasure has been taken [from those who practice it lawfully] and given to sinners, as it is written, Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant. (Proverbs 9:17)

If R. Samuel b. Nahmani is correct and the woman who is the object of the man's passion is unmarried, why can he not simply marry her and assuage his passion? Because, respond the Rabbis, marriage would not solve his problem or bring him any peace of mind, because he is sunk in addiction and fantasy. It is, they say, the forbidden and illicit that arouses his desire, and so marriage would not assuage this.

R. Isaac concludes by saying that since the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, obsessive, addictive, fantasy-driven sex has become the norm.

This statement becomes less mysterious if we understand the Beit Hamikdash as a process. In the Beit Hamikdash the key activity of 'playing with the emptiness' transforms the emptiness into a 'burning womb' of korbanot/sacrifices. Without this Beit Hamikdash process, people become disassociated and alienated from reality. After the destruction of the Temple, the negative space became the place of addition, where the very fact that something is forbidden or secret makes it compellingly attractive. A hallmark of all addicts is their attempt to fill the void with their addiction.

The Esh Kodesh understands that if the void is put in the context of the Beit Mikdash process, it ceases to be a place of addiction and becomes the revelation of God. In this context, we can experience running out of water as God's total compassion, whereas taken out of context, it is perceived as God's total sadism. Thus, the Churban/destruction of the Temple itself is God's compassion, from which were born the Talmud and the Kabbalah, which, says the Esh Kodesh, "are now in the exulted worlds, the universes of Atzilut (Archetypes), Briyah (Creation), and Yetzirah (Formation), as is well known…."

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