These selections are from a little book written by Rami M. Shapiro—Rabbi, poet, and author—to introduce his students to the nondualistic teachings in the Kabbalah. He formulated the text as if it were written to his father’s father (his Zayde) by Reb Yerachmiel Ben Yisrael. Though the Rabbi is fictional, his teachings are authentic. The presentation represents the heart of Mystical Kabbalah.
19 Tevet 5636
Dear Aaron Hershel,
You ask me of God: to define the Nameless, to place in your palm the ultimate secret. Do not imagine that this is hidden somewhere far from you. The ultimate secret is the most open one. Here it is: God is All.
I am tempted to stop with this—to close this letter, sign my name and leave you with this simple truth. Yet I fear you will not understand. Know from the first that all that follows is but an elaboration on the simple fact that God is All.
What does it mean to be All? God is Reality. God is the Source and Substance of all things and nothing. There is no-thing or feeling or thought that is not God, even the idea that there is no God! For this is what it is to be All: God must embrace even God’s own negation.
Listen again carefully: God is the Source and Substance of everything. There is nothing outside of God. Thus we read: “I am God and there is none else [ain od]” (Isaiah 45:5). Read not simply none else,” but rather “nothing else”—not that there is no other god but God, but that there is nothing else but God.
Let me illustrate. It rained heavily during the night, and the street is thick with mud. I walked to the Bet Midrash (House of Learning) this morning and stopped to watch a group of little children playing with the mud. Oblivious to the damp, they made dozens of mud figures: houses, animals, towers. From their talk, it was clear that they imagined an identity for each. They gave the figures names and told their stories. For a while, the mud figures took on an independent existence. But they were all just mud. Mud was their source and mud was their substance. From the perspective of the children, their mud creations had separate selves. From the mud’s point of view, it is clear such independence was an illusion—the creations were all just mud.
It is the same with us and God: “Adonai alone is God in heaven above and on earth below, there is none else” (Deuteronomy 4:39). There is none else, meaning there is nothing else in heaven or on earth but God.
Can this be? When I look at the world, I do not see God. I see trees of various kinds, people of all types, houses, fields, lakes, cows, horses, chickens, and on and on. In this I am like the children at play, seeing real figures and not simply mud.
Where in all this is God? The question itself is misleading. God is not “in” this; God is this.
Think carefully about what I have said. It is the key to all the secrets of life.
17 Shevat 5636
Dear Aaron Hershel,
You are quite right to raise the verse from Deuteronomy: “And you shall know this day and reflect in your heart … that He is God, there is no other” (4:39). My teacher the Maggid of Mezhirech, may his memory be for a blessing, taught me concerning this verse, and I will do my best to pass on his wisdom.
Torah cannot be saying that there is no other God, for it is superfluous to even state this. Instead, Torah is saying there is no other reality besides God. Both the physical and the spiritual are aspects of God, the one true Reality.
Some would argue that God is a divine spark inside each being. Others would argue that God is above and outside Creation. I teach neither position. God is not inside or outside, God is the very thing itself! And when there is no-thing, but only empty space? God is that as well.
Picture a bowl in your mind. Define the bowl. Is it just the clay that forms its walls? Or is it the empty space that fills with soup? Without the space, the bowl is useless. Without the walls, the bowl is useless. So which is the bowl? The answer is both. To be a bowl, it must have both being (the walls) and emptiness (the space).
It is the same with God. For God to be God, for God to be All, God must manifest as both Being (Yesh) and Emptiness (Ayin).
Yesh is the manifestation of God that appears to us as separate entities—physical, spiritual and psychological. Ayin is the manifestation of God that reveals all separation to be illusory: everything is simply God in differing forms. God is All, there is nothing else (ain od).
This teaching is called shlemut, the completeness of God. To be shlemut, God must contain all possibilities and paradox. To be shlemut, God must transcend the notion of opposites and reveal everything as complementary.
God must be both Yesh and Ayin, Being and Emptiness, simultaneously. Yesh and Ayin both reside in and are expressions of God’s wholeness (shlemut). These three terms are crucial to understanding God and almost everything else. It is vital to everything we will discuss that you understand these three words. They are the key to your spiritual awakening and tranquility. Learn them well.
17 Iyyar 5636
My Dear Aaron Hershel,
It seems my last letter did little to enlighten and much to confuse. That is not bad, for we learn by questioning. Let the answers I offer accompany you through life. In time, they may make sense. Now on to your current query: Why did God create the world? What is the purpose of Creation?
Why did God create the world? Because it is God’s nature to manifest shlemut, divine wholeness and infinite possibility. Infinite possibility must include Yesh and Ayin, Being and Emptiness. You see, I told you these words would return again and again. Everything can be understood through them.
Do not imagine God as a separate Being apart from Creation who decides to create. God does not decide as we decide. God’s will is only to fulfill God’s nature, and God’s nature is to manifest Yesh and Ayin, Being and Emptiness. This is God’s nature, this is what God is: the Source and Substance of All and Nothing.
Recall my analogy of the magnets. Remember how the two poles, positive and negative, go together and only when they are together can there be a magnet. Can we say the one pole precedes the other? Can we say the one pole creates the other?
No. Each pole arises with the other. Each pole depends upon the other. There is no first and second, there is no primacy of one over the other. There is only co?arising and interdependence. The magnet does not decide to make this happen; this is simply what the magnet is: two poles held in a greater unity. It is the nature of the magnet to hold these opposite poles in a greater unity; the magnet cannot be otherwise.
So, too, with God. Yesh (Being) and Ayin (Emptiness) are the poles of God. God cannot be God without them; they cannot be themselves without each other and God. Thus all arise together. This is what is meant by God’s shlemut, God’s wholeness. The shlemut of God necessitates both Yesh and Ayin. The manifestation of Yesh and Ayin is what it means to be God.
Thus those who tell you that our everyday world, the world we see from the perspective of Yesh, is illusory and without consequence are wrong. This everyday world is of supreme value, for it—no less than Ayin—is of God.
Our world is fragile and impermanent, but the temporal and fleeting world of Yesh is needed to reveal the powerful and eternal presence of Ayin. And both are needed to express the completeness of God.
As always, it is a matter of wholeness: God’s unity expressed through the polarity of Yesh and Ayin. Think well on this.
29 Tishri 5637
My Dear Aaron Hershel,
You suggest that I did not go far enough in my last letter. You want to know how the practice of self?emptying works. If the answer helps you to stay with the practice, good. But if it distracts you from it, do not worry about the how and stay with the practice. The wisdom you seek will not come from abstract knowing, but only from direct experience. Nevertheless, here is how it works.
By following the breath, we quiet the mind. Our sense of separateness and independent being comes from the mind’s incessant chatter. When we just sit, watch and breathe, when we refuse to follow this or that thought or feeling, and simply allow them to rise and fall of their own accord, the mind slowly ceases its chattering. A deep quiet emerges. Thought ceases.
When thought ceases, the self fades. This is what the Psalmist meant when he sang, “Kalta Nafsbi” [my soul is obliterated] (Psalm 84:30). The “I”—ani—becomes “Empty”—ayin [in Hebrew the two words are spelled with the same three letters: aleph, nun, yod]. This is what our sages call bittul she—me—’ever le?ta’am va?daat, annihilation beyond reason and knowledge, the end of thought.
Do not imagine, however, that the end of thought is the end of the matter. The dissolution of self is not yet the fullness of God. Avodah be?bittul, the meditative emptying of Yesh into Ayin, finds its completion in tikkun ba—olam, repairing the world of Yesh with love and justice. Empty of ego, we experience a selfless love for all things as an extension of God. Overwhelmed with love, we naturally return to the world of Yesh where love can be articulated. We feel commanded to bring our experience of unity, love and compassion to bear in the world of Yesh, the world of seemingly disparate beings.
The emptying of self and the repairing of the world with love are two sides of the same spiritual practice. We are not seeking to escape the world; we are seeking to transform it. We do this by recognizing that we are God’s vehicle for revealing holiness and acting accordingly.
4 Tevet 5637
Dear Aaron Hershel,
Your last letter spoke eloquently of your excitement over discovering the unity of bittul and tikkun, emptying the self and repairing the world, and I shall do my best to explore this with you further.
Following the model of the angels ascending and descending Jacob’s Ladder, the task of each human being is to learn ratso va—shov, ascent and descent. Ratso, ascent, means to perceive the world from the emptiness of Ayin. Shov, descent, means to perceive the world from the fullness of Yesh, separate being. The first is achieved through the practice of avodah be?bittul, the second through the practice of tikkun ha?olam.
While I speak of these as two separate practices, they are really one. The emptying of our separate self awakens us to the unity of all in God. This sense of unity is experienced as a deep love for all creation and a sense of being commanded (mitzaveh) to reveal God in the world by seeing that the world is shaped by love and justice.
Judaism is not simply the way of bittul. It is also the way of tikkun. This is the meaning behind God’s commandment: “Be holy because I, Adonai, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). We are to be in our way what God is in God’s way. How? The prophet Micah reveals this to us: “Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
To do justly, one must know and honor the diversity of Creation. Justice is the establishment of fair and equitable means of interaction between beings. Justice is the right running of the world of Yesh. To do justly, we must learn to respect and honor the seemingly separate entities that comprise the world of Yesh, both human and otherwise.
To love mercy is to be compelled by compassion. Compassion arises from a sense of shared suffering. Shared suffering arises from our awakening to the oneness that underlies our diversity.
To walk humbly is to do what needs to be done. The more empty of self we become, the more filled with purpose we become. Every moment addresses us with an opportunity to hallow life.
If we are empty enough to hear the address, we are powerful enough to accomplish the task. In this way, bittul (self?emptying) becomes tikkun (world repair).
In this way, we each become holy. A difficult challenge to be sure. But one worthy of your highest efforts.
15 Kislev 5638
My Dear Son,
May I call you son? Our sages say that a parent is one who raises a child, not simply creates one. Have I had the honor of raising you a bit? I allow myself the conceit of thinking so.
It has been quite some time since I last wrote. Your letters have arrived and were read to me, for my eyes grow dim. I was too weak to think clearly and too tired to respond. This letter is being written for me.
My dear Aaron Hershel, I am dying. There is no easy way to say this. By the time you read this, I suspect I will be dead. I am ready to die. All my adult life I have attempted to live with attention to the moment and to respond with my whole self to whatever life presents. Only now will I be able to give my self completely.
Death is the ultimate self-emptying, and to one who practices avodah be-bittul, death is not a stranger to be feared but a friend to be embraced. So much depends upon your practice of avodah be-bittul, Aaron Hershel. Make every moment a moment of bittul, emptying yourself to make room for others. Do not give it up.
I am tired and I ask for your forgiveness if I do not answer the many questions you posed in your last letters. I write only to say goodbye and to thank you for your love. There is nothing a rabbi cherishes more than a student who trusts enough to question.
Listen, my son, death is real in this world. Do not deny it. Do not cover it over with dreams of Gan Eden (afterlife) or gilgul (reincarnation). All this is a denial of death’s simple reality: being is temporary, and its passing is often tragic. But Yesh is not the whole of reality.
When we look at the world from the perspective of Yesh, we see birth and we see death. But when we look at the world from the perspective of Ayin, there is no birth and no death. Yesh and Ayin, Being and Emptiness, are poles of God’s Greater Unity. Only God is real, for only God is whole and complete: Yes, Reb Yerachmiel ben Yisrael is gone, but the One who wore his face these many years is ever-present. And that One wears your face, dear friend, as well. What we truly are is God manifest in time (Yesh) and eternity (Ayin). Know this, live well, and die easy.
You have been a blessing to me beyond what words can convey. Remember, love is stronger than death (Song of Songs 8:6). Shortly, I will be no more. Let our love grow ever stronger.
Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Ph.D., is an award-winning poet, teacher, and author. His congregation in Miami, Florida is open to all faiths and guides members in a meditational approach. His books include: Wisdom of the Jewish Sages and Minyan: Ten Principles for Living a Life of Integrity. www.RabbiRami.com