From Torahs to Stories – Part 2

Rav Yair Dreifuss • 2012

Rav Kook calls upon a person to pay attention, to quiet oneself: to look at the light of the Shekhina that permeates one’s surroundings. We are all together here – trees, hills, people, the very being of this place. You are to be found where you are, with this book. “Know yourself and your world” – wherever you are is where suddenly something will happen.

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Speech that Opens to Something Beyond

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Here I’d like to bring in a selection from Rav Kook. The same shift by Rav Nachman – from words to story- can also be seen in Rav Kook’s shifting from words to song, a move that happens often in his writing. This excerpt is called “קריאה להסתכלות עליונה” – A Call for an Elevated Contemplation”:

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“If you wish, human, look into the light of the Shekhina in all creation, into the Eden of heavenly life, how it spreads to every corner and angle of existence – spiritual and physical – that faces your physical eyes, your spiritual eyes.

Contemplate the miracles of creation – their lives, energies of divinity – not as some sort of opaque, obscure program that appears in your vision from afar: know that this is the reality in which you live.

Know yourself, your world; know the insights of your heart, and that of every thinker and mind. Find the source of life within you, above you and around you, the splendors of life that you are immersed in.

The love within you – raise it to the core of its strength, the peak of its glory. Expand it in every direction, to every manifestation of the soul of Eternal Life, whose light is diminished by the shattering of the place of the sound.

Look at the lights, into their depths. The names, the phrases, the letters – they will not swallow your soul. They are placed in your hands; you are not in their grasp.

Rise above, rise! For you have great strength, you have wings of spirit, the wings of noble eagles. Don’t deny them (lest they are denied to you): demand them, and they will immediately be found.

They are dear and holy to us, the shapes that robe the world; they must be ours, and especially for those limited beings with their spiritual perspectives. Yet always, when we come to our scientific lives, we must not move from this high point – for it is only from the imperceptible (מהבלתי נתפס) that the light spreads into the perceptible (נתפס), through the process of atzilut (אצילות, emanation), from the Infinite, Ein-Sof light.

We are called to take pleasure in heavenly delights, up to the very details of awareness that are in the great summation of it all, from which all of life results.”

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Rav Kook calls upon a person to pay attention, to quiet oneself: to look at the light of the Shekhina that permeates one’s surroundings. We are all together here – trees, hills, people, the very being of this place. You are to be found where you are, with this book. “Know yourself and your world” – wherever you are is where suddenly something will happen.

Let us pause a little while and take in this phrase: “ריצוץ המקום של ההגה” – the shattering of the place of sound. The Rav here is speaking of the sound, – the word. When a word is spoken, it diminishes radiance, dims the light. Let us, for example, take a look at this cup, on top of the book. As soon as you say, “This is a cup,” “This is a book,” something has already gone sour – that instantaneous nature of the thing that cannot be contained in the frame of the word. Using that technique of quieting described by Rav Kook, the artist can let go of the word and see the thing about which nothing can be said – and then to paint or sculpt it. In this way, it is possible to touch upon the reality of what stands before us.

“The words are placed in your hands; you are not in their grasp.” Oftentimes, we find ourselves taken in by the word: to the clarity, stability, security that it offers. Calling for an elevated contemplation is a call for liberation from the captivity imposed by words. To see the world not from a familiar, spoken-of place but rather to try and break free from linguistic mediation and arrive at the thing itself. “You have wings of spirit” – the same wings that, according to Rav Nachman, are at the source of speech. These same wings are destined to bring us to somewhere beyond words; to speak in such a way that language leads us to a place that transcends it.

It is possible now to see an opening into Rav Kook’s own writing. Some see his writing as too poetic; but Rav Kook’s transition from structured writing into allusion and song comes from the very place he discusses here. The inspiration that hovers over his writing is of words born from light, traces of infinity in finite writing.

In the second part of the segment, Rav Kook takes a complex approach to language. Even when we “come to our scientific lives” – conscious lives – “we must not move from this high point,

for it is only from the imperceptible (מהבלתי נתפס) that the light spreads (מתפלש) into the perceptible.” In those moments when we are doing self-aware, spoken work, we must maintain ‘eye contact’ (so to speak) with that mystical point, the point of stillness that cannot be expressed, but which alone gives meaning to what is pronounced. I am speaking with you at this very moment, and at the same time I am influenced by something specific that occurred this morning. I am not talking about this book, but about the idea that somehow, there’s something in the background that is not in words: a world of sounds from which I’ve come from in order to be speaking here, now. It is from there that my utterances gain warmth, texture and energy. This discussion, of course, also raises the question of writing, upon which we will dwell at a later point.

Without that original ‘background’ from which the individual speaks, the unspoken sound that is behind the words remains narrow-minded, immature (במוחין דקטנות). To some extent, one cannot speak the words themselves alone: in such a situation, one begins to speak and immediately feels that they do not reflect his actual position. If they are listening well, the people around him, too, will sense this immediately. In one of his torahs, Rav Nachman brings the teaching of Elisha ben Abuya from Pirkei Avot:”One who learns as a child is compared to what? To ink written on new parchment. And one who learns as an elder is compared to what? To ink written on scraped parchment.”  In typical Breslov fashion, Rav Nachman reads “one who learns as a child” (הלומד ילד) as referring to learning that is born in that moment, learning in which the speaker is currently engaged. On the other hand, “one who learns as an elder” (הלומד זקן) is someone who ‘opens the notebooks’: someone who isn’t speaking from where he actually is in that moment. There’s no ‘birth’ in his speech: he is simply describing intellectual constructions that are recorded on yellowing pages.

Rav Nachman, however, was a “man living in truth,” as was Rav Kook: he wrote his words in a notebook that he carried everywhere, and it was there that he recorded his insights. The Rav essentially ‘wrote himself,’ the words – merely hints. So, too, when we read the stories of Rav Nachman, we must see them as a ‘light that spreads to the perceptible.’ Rav Nachman wrote the stories from life, as an instantaneous expression. In Chayei Mohara”n, R Natan explains the origins of ‘Story of a Prince and Pauper Who Switched Places.’ Rav Nachman often asked for the news, and that day Rav Naftali had told him about the Napoleonic wars. In that discussion, they both wondered about Napoleon’s transformation from a simple slave to an emperor. Rav Nachman remarked that sometimes souls switch in the exchange halls, and it would appear that a king’s soul had descended into the body of a son of slaves. From here, Rav Nachman began to tell a story of a midwife who switched a king’s son and a maid’s son – and the story that followed is the one published in the book Sippurei Ma’asiyos. This story – the product of wondrous thought, rich in ideas that can be interpreted in endless directions – was born from a conversation on contemporary politics, from the context of that time and place.

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