"Tzimtzum" in the Teachings of Rav Nachman

  • Rav Itamar Eldar
Our previous shiur provided a general introduction to the principle of tzimtzum in the teachings of the Ari z"l.  We concluded the shiur on a note of tension between the two possibilities concerning the nature of the "empty space" that is left after Hashem withdraws Himself, as it were.  This tension is expressed in R. Nachman's teaching no. 64, where it is garbed in a highly existential message.  We shall study this teaching in stages.
For the blessed God created the world out of His mercy, for He wished to reveal His mercy; if the world had not been created, then to whom could He display His mercy? Therefore He created all of Creation, from the beginning of Emanation up until the innermost point of the material world, in order to display His mercy.  And when the blessed God wished to create the world, there was no place in which to create it because all was (His) infinity.  Therefore He drew back the light to the sides, and by means of this withdrawal an empty space was created.  And it was within this empty space that all of time and space came into being - i.e., the creation of the world (as is written at the beginning of Etz Haim):
And this empty space was vital for the creation of the world.  For if it were not for the empty space, there would be no room in which to create the world, as explained above.  This withdrawal of the empty space is impossible to understand or to grasp except in the future world.  For it entails the simultaneous assertion of two opposites - existence and nothingness.  For the empty space is created through tzimtzum, where God "withdrew" Himself from there, as it were, and there was no Godliness in that space, as it were, for otherwise it could not be empty, since all is (part of God's) Infinity and there would be no room for the creation of the world at all.  But in truth, of course despite this there must be Godliness there too, for of course nothing can exist without His vitality.  And therefore it is impossible to grasp the concept of the empty space at all, until the future time.
In this passage R. Nachman teaches nothing new; he simply describes the teaching of the Ari z"l concerning tzimtzum. But the way in which he presents it already assumes certain significant principles.  We shall divide the above excerpt into three parts and treat each of them individually:
  1. the "Primary Will"
  2. tzimtzum
  3. the empty space
The "Primary Will"
R. Nachman's first assertion pertains to the reason for Creation.  "For the blessed God created the world out of His mercy." This simple statement has significance on two levels:
  1. It is specifically the principle of tzimtzum, which tends towards a rather mechanical description of how the world came to be, that may lead one to a perception that shrinks the Divine intention and will to almost nothingness.  To illustrate this point let us turn our attention to the conclusion drawn by one of the great students of the teachings of the Ari:
The results of our study shed new light on the nature of tzimtzum (contraction) itself: the act of contraction is a sort of breaching of the Infinite One Himself.  It is not God's will to elevate the universes and to make room for their existence that is of primary importance, but, rather, the need to remove the strict judgment from within Himself; in other words, the softening of God, that brings about the chain of creation of the universes.  And this softening is impossible to achieve except through contraction, in other words, through breaching and inner breaking.  Contraction pulls apart the essence of Infinity and disturbs its peace - in order to ensure its absolute purity, the 'merciful purpose' of His being.  (Y. Tishbi, "Torat ha-Ra ve-ha-kelipah be-kabbalat ha-Ari" pp. 57-58)
This excerpt, together with others in the same vein concerning the teachings of the Ari z"l, has two immediate ramifications:
First, it posits the absence of Divine will in Creation.  The Divine infinity is almost "forced" to vomit the evil and the harsh judgments from within itself.  And this process of "vomiting" is accompanied by contraction and the creation of the worlds.
Second, it relegates the creation of the world to the sidelines of the process of formation.  It becomes almost a "side effect" of the excision of harsh judgments from within the Infinite Being.
Both conclusions are completely nullified in R. Nachman's presentation of the concept of tzimtzum. First, tzimtzum involves God's completely free will.  He is not forced to perform this contraction, nor is it required for His 'perfection,' as it were; rather, it is purely a result of Divine desire.  Secondly, the creation of the world lies at the foundation of this desire, and the creation is the central - if not sole - reason for the contraction of the Divine Infinity.
Another teaching of R. Nachman which describes the idea of contraction appears at first to contain a note of "forcing," but of a fundamentally different nature:
For prior to Creation the light of the Holy One was infinite.  And the Holy One wished His kingship to be revealed, but there can be no King without a nation, and so He needed to created human beings who would accept His kingship (Likutei Moharan 141 49, 1.  See also Likutei Moharan 141 78).
Here, too, God's initial free will to be revealed is preserved, but this teaching emphasizes a point that was somewhat obscure in the previous one: the need for Creation.  This need, according to R. Nachman, involved not only contraction, but also the concrete reality that God's free will to be revealed assumes: the creation of human beings.
R. Nachman does not shy away from relegating the world and human beings to a secondary significance, with all that it entails, but even this significance is meant to realize God's free will.  Here again, according to this distinction, Creation is not a "side effect" of processes that are unrelated to the world and man, but rather a means - even if it is bediavad (a posteriori) - towards the realization of God's free will.
  1. Another ramification of R. Nachman's presentation is the assertion that the first Divine act in the whole process of the coming into being of existence was an act of mercy.  Contraction is an act of harsh judgment.  It contains a hiding of God, distancing, disappearance.  Beginning with this act means placing strict judgment at the foundation of existence.  R. Nachman's contention that "the blessed God created the world out of His mercy" is a soothing balm for the terror that overcomes us when faced with the original description of tzimtzum. Every revelation of strict judgment - every plague, every punishment, every atomic explosion that threatens to destroy the entire world - assumes different proportions if we keep in mind that "the blessed God created the world out of His mercy."  This assertion does not nullify the existence of strict judgment: the act of contraction will surely come, and its effects on the world will echo throughout human history for all generations, but we should always know, according to R. Nachman, that something more fundamental, more primal and therefore more eternal stands at the foundation of the world: mercy.  (Rav Soloveitchik also addresses the subject of tzimtzum, and writes similarly as follows: "Out of love for man and the world, God abandoned Infinity and, as it were, moved aside." [Divrei Hagut ve-Ha-Arakhah, 'Gaon ve-Anavah,' 221])
The second principle mentioned by R. Nachman in his description is that of tzimtzum. As we discussed in the previous shiur, the transition from Infinity to a finite reality must follow the path of contraction, such that the Infinity removes itself and confines its light to the side.
The principle of contraction, which is the key point in the coming-into-being of reality, according to the Ari z"l, affects not only the initial stage in the process, but is rather a guiding principle in every stage of Creation.  In order that a limited revelation be revealed, it is necessary that there first be a removal of the unlimited.  There can be no direct and consistent transition from the Infinite and abstract to the finite and limited.
In the kabbala of the Ari this is a fundamental principle pertaining to the creation of the universes, but in Chassidism in general, and the teachings of R. Nachman in particular, it assumes an existential, spiritual - sometimes even psychological - dimension in a person's religious life.  (The phenomenon whereby kabbalistic models of the Ari are translated into existential concepts in a person's religious devotion is commonly found in chassidic works.) Rabbi Nachman learns two significant lessons from the concept of tzimtzum and applies them to our lives.
The first and more fundamental lesson is that in order to reveal Himself to man, in order to create contact with him, the Holy One had to contract Himself.  This principle is meant to be applied in every instance where man encounters Divinity, and R. Nachman deduces from this a lesson concerning the relationship between student and teacher:
A concept of the Divine cannot be attained except through many contractions.  From the superior to the inferior, from the Supreme Intelligence to lower intelligence.  We see this in our own experience - it is impossible for a great intelligence to be accessible unless it assumes the garb of the lower intelligence (which seeks access to it).  For example, a teacher who wishes to explain a difficult concept to a student must clothe it in simpler and more basic terms in order that the student will understand.  In other words, he first provides an introduction and some simpler related ideas in order that through these he will understand the real message - which is a most great and complex concept. (Likutei Moharan Kama 30:1)
Later in the same teaching R. Nachman instructs a person to find himself a good and worthy teacher, who is able to contract the Divine concepts that he wishes to convey and to clothe them in such garments as will match the student's ability.  R. Nachman demands of the teacher that he imitate the Divine action of contraction - but this involves no special mystical powers.  The teacher's ability to take an elevated idea and to present it in a form that the student will understand, is an ability derived from the principle of contraction.  R. Nachman concludes that the younger the student, or the less his ability, the greater the talent required of the teacher:
For the smaller or more distant he (the student) is, the greater the teacher that he needs - a true artist, who will be able to clothe and present such great intelligence - i.e., Divine concepts - to one as small and distant as he is. (ibid).  (It is interesting to note that popular belief assumes that the greater the age of the students, the better the teachers need to be.  R. Nachman maintains precisely the opposite.)
In the above excerpt R. Nachman applies the concept of contraction, again according to the same structure: the teacher, who is the "middleman" between Godliness and the student and whose task is to reveal the Godly concepts, must know the secret of contraction.
The second principle that R. Nachman learns from tzimtzum is the fact that the contraction of the Infinite One was aimed at allowing the world of space and time to come into existence.  Measurement, boundaries, definition - all of these are the results of that contraction.  This principle brings R. Nachman to take one step further:
And it is known that the Torah - i.e., the middot (attributes), i.e., time, is infused with God's love.  As it is written in the holy Zohar (Balak 191:, Bereishit 46), "In the day Hashem will command His lovingkindness" - for lovingkindness, i.e., love (as it is written in Yirmiyahu 31, "I have loved you with an everlasting love, [therefore I have drawn you with lovingkindness]") is the day that goes with all the days - in other words, the middot.  For the attributes are contractions of His Godliness in order that we shall be able to understand Him through His attributes, as it is written in the holy Zohar (Parashat Bo 42:) "so that we might know him," for without His attributes it is impossible to understand Him.  And out of His love for Israel and His desire that they would cleave to Him and love Him from this material world, He clothed His Godliness in the middot of the Torah. (Likutei Moharan Kama 33:4).
Here, R. Nachman, in effect, makes this process a two-way street.  Just as God's descent to man in order to be revealed to him requires contraction and a transition to the world of middot, so the same applies in the other direction: when a person wishes to come close to God and to cleave to him, he has to seek the place where God contracts Himself - i.e., the Torah.
The Torah's central principle is that of middot and boundaries.  Starting with Creation, whose central foundations are those of separation and demarcation.  As the narrative moves through the stories of the forefathers and of Bnei Yisrael, God's various attributes and modes of operation find expression, and culminate in the world of mitzvot, which demarcate a person's life in every possible sphere.
Between the Torah and the Divine Infinity stretches the great abyss of the "empty space," and a person may be tempted to try and cross that great abyss in order to gain direct access to the Infinite.  R. Nachman teaches that just as the Holy One Himself did not jump directly from His Infinity to man, but rather undertook the process of contraction, so a person in his path towards God cannot omit the world of middot and boundaries, which is a "garment" for the Infinite.
But R. Nachman applies this principle even further:
For prior to Creation the light of the Holy One was infinite.  And the Holy One wished His kingship to be revealed, but there can be no King without a nation, and so He needed to create human beings who would accept His kingship.  But it is impossible to grasp the revelation of His Kingship except through the middot, for it is through the middot that we may grasp His Godliness and know that there is a Master and Ruler.  And so He contracted the Infinite Light to the sides, leaving an empty space.  And within that empty space He created the universes (as explained in Etz Haim), and these themselves are His middot.
The heart is the axis of the middot - i.e., the wisdom of the heart, as it is written (Shemot 31:), "And in the heart of everyone who was wise of heart."  Creation was performed mainly through wisdom, as it is written (Tehillim 104), "You have made them all with wisdom."  Thus the heart is the axis, as it is written (ibid. 73), "the Rock of my heart."  And when a person thinks evil thoughts, he dulls the empty space of Creation, where the middot are revealed.  For the heart is the Rock of the universes - i.e., the strength of the middot.  For by the flames of the heart of a Jewish person, a revelation from the middot is impossible.  For the light of his flames is infinite, and there is no end to his desire to come close to God.
Therefore he has to limit his enthusiasm in order that an empty space will remain in his heart, as it is written (Tehillim 109): "And my heart is empty within me."  And through the contraction of his enthusiasm, he may come to a revelation from the middot, i.e., to serve God gradually and in the proper measure." (Likutei Moharan Kama 49:1)
Here, a person, in his desire to come close to God, is required not only to seek God's contracted revelation but also to contract himself.  A person is compared, as it were, to God in the sense that he must contract himself in his effort to attain closeness.  Obviously, this contraction is meant not for the benefit of God but rather for the person himself.  Nevertheless, in this teaching R. Nachman compares the inner enthusiasm and desire for God with the Infinite.  This being so, this desire is also unable to be translated into the language of action.
If we understand R. Nachman correctly, his innovation here is that sometimes a person's infinite enthusiasm is itself an obstacle to his progress in coming close to God.  Sometimes he is required to make room, to push his enthusiasm aside, and then, quietly and calmly, he can enter the empty space in a controlled manner, and this gradual movement will allow his enthusiasm to be constructive. 
This principle of contraction, which assumes that sometimes power and illumination must be set aside in order to create a space in which the power and light may be gradually rebuilt, applies to a person's life as well.  We saw one such application above in relation to a person's Divine service.  There is another application, which is to be found in other contexts:
He said: There are tzaddikim who have great Torah knowledge and are completely fluent in many books and teachings of the Sages, and it is specifically because of this that they are unable to bring about a new understanding of the Torah - because they are so well-versed.  Because when they begin to say words of Torah and wish to convey some new idea, their great proficiency confuses them, and they immediately begin to give long introductions and to say many things that they know from books, and as a result their words are mixed up and they are unable to bring to light any proper new idea.
And then he brought, as an example, a great scholar of his generation who was unable to teach Torah for this reason.  What he meant to say was that when one wishes to bring new ideas he must contract his mind, and not allow it to become carried away and to confuse him with introductions that are not necessary for what he wants to say.  And he should make himself as one who does not know, and then he will be able to bring to light many original ideas, gradually and in an orderly fashion.  And (he also said) something else on this subject, but it is impossible to explain such a matter in writing, and a wise person will understand on his own. (Sichot Moharan 266).
The above teaching applies to the collection of information that exists in the mind of a talmid chakham.  The ability to translate this river of knowledge into a defined and intelligible idea is dependent on his ability to "contract his mind."  This contraction, in R. Nachman's view, requires not only patience and orderliness, but also much more: "He should make himself as one who does not know"!  R. Nachman demands not a reorganization of the light, but a truly empty space.  It is a person's ability to erase his knowledge and to stand before his students as an empty vessel that bestows upon him the talent of being able to construct a defined and understandable structure of knowledge.
I believe that this is not mere "methodological advice," but rather a profound message.  A person who brings to light new revelations in the Torah, according to R. Nachman, does so not from his own mind alone.  The innovation that he introduces is a lofty Divine influx that flows in the spring of knowledge of that scholar.  A teacher who wishes to drink himself and to allow others also to drink from that spring must place himself in a spiritual position of listening.  Many lecturers and teachers teach Torah to their students, and sometimes one senses that there is no living spirit in their study.  In order for God to breath the spirit of life into the "knowledge" of the teacher ("One who breathes out does so from his innermost self"), the teacher must contract himself, to listen, to make himself into an empty space - like one who does not know.
In this chapter, we have seen R. Nachman apply the Ari's principle of tzimtzum to the world of the religious Jew, a servant of God: the Beit ha-Mikdash, the giving of the Torah, teacher and student, desire for closeness to God, new revelations in Torah.  All of these concepts, and others, express the principle of tzimtzum, which is immanent in them as in every other phenomenon that exists in the world.
Of what significance is the application of tzimtzum in every step of our lives?  It would seem that the way in which Rav Soloveitchik employs the principle may serve as a contrasting model to that of R. Nachman.  Rav Soloveitchik, too, applies the idea of tzimtzum to different subjects.  In one instance he identifies the principle of tzimtzum as the psychological movement required in order to liberate oneself from a position of existential loneliness, towards society and towards God.  He describes tzimtzum as a movement of contraction whose foundation is in the secret of the Godly contraction.  (Ha-Kehillah, in "Divrei Hagut Ve-Ha'arakhah, p. 230).  Elsewhere, he speaks of faith's demand that a Jew sometimes arrest his inborn drive for conquest, step back, and acknowledge that not everything can be conquered and not everything is worthy of being conquered.  This applies to the world of science, the world of esthetics as well as the world of religion.  ("Tzeruf," ibid. p. 244 onwards.)
The scope of this shiur prevents a full discussion of the significance of the movement of withdrawal according to Rav Soloveitchik and a comparison with that of R. Nachman.  Suffice it to say that R. Soloveitchik, too, teaches that the contraction and withdrawal are meant to allow man to encounter something greater that comes in the wake of the withdrawal.  Rav Soloveitchik focuses on the aspect of refinement accompanying the withdrawal as a foundation for rebuilding, while R. Nachman focuses on the making room and the deeper listening that are created from the deathly silence that reigns after the withdrawal.
But it seems that the central difference between R. Nachman and R. Soloveitchik in this context is related to the status of the principle of tzimtzum in the world.  R. Soloveitchik writes as follows:
Let me pose the following question: Is the Lurianic teaching concerning tzimtzum solely a kabbalistic secret, devoid of any moral ramification for us, or is it perhaps the very basis of our moral approach? If God indeed withdrew, and from this act of contraction the creation of the world was drawn, then we are called upon to walk in His ways, in the light of the principle of imitating God.  Therefore Jewish ethics requires of a person that in certain circumstances he steps back. ("Gaon ve-Anavah," in Divrei Hagut Ve-Ha'arakha, p. 221).
Rav Soloveitchik sees the tzimtzum of the Ari as a movement of God at the stage of the world's coming-into-being.  In light of the principle of imitating God, we must walk in His ways and continue the same movement.
This instruction takes the form of a Divine command that is external to man.  It is possible that the command is not neutral but rather corresponds to the nature of the world - which is logical in light of the fact that we are speaking of an act that represents the basis for the world.  But it still remains a command that requires the moral backing of the principle of imitating God.
For R. Nachman the situation is entirely different.  The act of tzimtzum as described by the Ari is not, to R. Nachman's mind, an act that belongs to a certain moment or a certain time in history, such that thereafter our relation to is historio-ethical.  The act of tzimtzum, which is the hiding of the Divine light in order to reveal it anew, is a Divine movement that has never ceased since the beginning of Creation until now.  The Divine light that was hidden in every corner, in every creature and in every person continues to disappear and to reveal itself at every moment.  When a person is required, according to R. Nachman, to step back and to contract himself, this is not an external command that is imposed upon him, but rather a response to the Divine movement that is occurring in the world outside of man and within him.
Man's infinite thirst for God is itself an infinite light that exists within a person and seeks to be revealed, and by contracting it a person joins with God's essence in the movement of hiding and revealing.  A person who covers the light and contracts himself is not similar to God, as R. Soloveitchik proposes, but is rather responding to the impression of God that is found within him and outside of him.
Perhaps the basic difference between R. Soloveitchik and R. Nachman relates to their perception of God - an issue we began to address in the previous shiur, and which will be our main occupation in the next.  The principle of imitating God has at its foundation a transcendental perception of Divinity.  Just as He - distant, infinite, elevated and sanctified above man - is merciful, so shall you be merciful.  Tzimtzum, from this point of view, is perceived as an historical event which, although it engraved in the nature of Creation a fundamental principle and law that is relevant to us as well, still remains an historical event.
The immanent view - which R. Nachman adopts wholeheartedly (as we shall see in the next shiur), and which identifies the Divine Light that operates within all of existence including within man himself - sees in every derivation, both general and specific, the movement of the Divine Light, which continues to disappear and to reveal itself.  The Divine contraction discussed in the teachings of the Ari is, in this sense, here and now, and a person's task is to respond, to join himself and flow together with this Divine movement. 
This partnership, as addressed by R. Nachman, when undertaken consciously, brings a person to constant cleaving to God - even while he weeps with the suffering of contraction and hiding, for he senses that his suffering is the suffering of contracted Divinity, and their hardship is shared.