This essay is an excerpt from an unpublished work tentatively entitled “The Seven Beggars’ Gifts” (previously “The Chandelier of Imperfections”—and who knows, maybe the old title will be restored if the book ever gets published). End notes have been eliminated from this online version, although source references have been restored to the text.
Letting in the Light
Based on Likkutei Moharan I, 172
By Dovid Sears
In this brief lesson, Rabbi Nachman further develops what scholars call the Baal Shem Tov’s panentheism, the belief that G-d is present within all things, despite His ultimate transcendence. And he zeros in on our most practical concern, namely how to penetrate the illusion (or at least quasi-illusion) of the world and glimpse the Divine Essence within all things. The Rebbe explains:
“Whatever one lacks, whether concerning children, livelihood, or health, everything is from the side of the person himself. For the light of God flows upon one continuously; however, through evil deeds, each person makes a shadow for himself, so that the divine light does not reach him. According to one’s actions, a shadow is cast which obstructs the light of God. The deficiency is proportionate to the deed that created the shadow.
“Now, a shadow is produced by a physical thing that stands before a spiritual entity (i.e., something of a more subtle nature)—just as a physical stick or stone placed opposite the light of the moon or sun will cast a shadow. Likewise, a solar or lunar eclipse is due to the shadow of the earth. Moreover, the sun itself is physical in relation to that which is above it, and casts a shadow against it.”
Therefore, according to one’s materialistic attachments and actions, one creates a shadow within him that prevents God’s light and bounty from reaching him. However, if a person nullifies himself and no longer exists in this world at all, he no longer casts a shadow, and receives the light of God. To continue:
“The essence of the divine light is glory; for ‘all that the Holy One, blessed be He, created, He created for His glory,’ as it is written (Isaiah 43:7): “For My glory I created it…” (Avot 6:11).
“This is the meaning of ‘The entire world is full (mi-lo kol ha’aretz) of His glory’ (Isaiah 6:3). That is, if one is ‘not of the world altogether [mi-lo kol ha’aretz, a play on words]’ and has no part in this world at all—then he receives the light of God, which is the divine glory.
“This, too, is the meaning of ‘The wise will inherit glory’ (Proverbs 3:35), for ‘wisdom comes forth from nothingness (ayin)’ (Job 28:12). Therefore, the wise, who are ‘nothing (ayin),’ are granted a perception of glory. Having overcome all materialism, they do not create an obstructing shadow.”
The concluding paragraph of Rabbi Nachman’s lesson introduces the idea that mystical perception also depends on one’s emotional state:
“When God, may He be blessed, displays a joyous face (panim), this brings life and good to the world; and the opposite is also true, God forbid. Similarly, when the tzaddik displays a joyous face, it is good; and vice-versa. This is the meaning of the verse ‘See, today I have placed before you [lifneykhem, which is related to the word panim, meaning “face”] life and good, as well as death…’ (Deuteronomy 11:26); that is, lifneykhem, according to your face.”
At a glance, this may seem to have only a tenuous connection to the previous theme. The linchpin is the Rebbe’s reference at the beginning of this teaching to both a solar and lunar eclipse and the cosmic hierarchy.
Let’s take a closer look at his words:
“Likewise, a solar or lunar eclipse is due to the shadow of the earth. Moreover, the sun itself is physical in relation to that which is above it, and casts a shadow against it.” In kabbalistic terms, the sun and moon correspond to mashpi’a, the “giver” or source of influence, and mekabel, the receiver. On the one hand, the tzaddik is like the moon, being a receiver in relation to God. On the other, he is like the sun, being a giver in relation to the world, particularly to those on lower spiritual levels. Only a perfect tzaddik can attain total bittul, absolute nullification of ego that eliminates every trace of the shadow. Thus, in order to fulfill our potential, we who occupy lower levels must receive illumination from the tzaddikim.
With his last remarks, Rabbi Nachman lets us know that this illumination is conditioned by our approach, the “face” we display. God’s “face,” or manner of revelation, depends on our “face,” meaning our spiritual state. Rebbe Nachman interprets the verse “And Hezekiah turned his face to the wall” (Isaiah 38:2) to mean that he turned his awareness within, “for one’s true ‘face’ is his state of mind” (Sichot ha-Ran 39). If we wallow in coarse materialism, we block the light. If we detach ourselves from worldly vanities and let go of our all-consuming self-interest, we immediately become receptors for Godliness—and, by implication, the light of the tzaddikim, who transmit the divine light to us, just as the sun illuminates the moon.
Elsewhere, Reb Noson adds that he heard a slightly different version of this teaching from another disciple of Rabbi Nachman. This version is even more lucid:
“You must nullify each of your negative traits until you have annihilated the ego completely, as if it were utterly non-existent.
“Begin with one negative trait and nullify it completely, until not a trace remains. Then work on your other negative traits, one at a time, until they no longer exist. As you nullify the ego, God’s glory will begin to shine through and be revealed. God’s glory is like light, as the verse states, ‘And the earth is illuminated with His glory’ (Ezekiel 43:2).”
After reiterating the analogy of the physical object placed before the sunlight that casts a shadow, this second version of the teaching concludes:
“Thus, it is written, ‘The entire world is full (mi-lo kol ha’aretz) of His glory’ (Isaiah 6:3). When there is nothing to cast a shadow and thereby obstruct the light, His glory is revealed through all the earth (Sichot ha-Ran136).”
This corresponds to the path of hitbodedut Rabbi Nachman delineates in Likkutei Moharan I, 52 (“Ha-Ne’or ba-Laylah/One Who Remains Awake At Night”). Through hitbodedut—going out alone at night to a secluded place where people do not usually go even by day, and speaking to God in one’s own words—one may systematically nullify all negative personality traits until one attains bittul, total self-effacement. The Rebbe’s descriptions of this process in both lessons are almost identical. By removing these negative traits, we remove the shadow, allowing the light of God, who is the “Imperative Existent,” to shine forth. (We should add that bittul is not to be confused with low self-esteem or self-hatred, traits that are merely the “flip side” of self-importance. We are supposed to recognize and eliminate our evil traits, but not become morbidly obsessed with ourselves in so doing. Rather, bittul denotes transcendence of the ego—seeing through the illusion of the self as something that exists apart from God.) Thus, it seems that the most basic way to put this teaching into practice is through hitbodedut.