Rav Nachman evokes the powerful image of wisdom as a kind of trap, a vicious loop that the king’s son enters (even after every ‘awakening’) where he wishes to once again “use his brain.” This process leads to heresy, and then after some time the king’s son is jolted into awareness and he ‘moans and sighs,’ and – God forbid – falls back into the cycle. This sigh is of great importance, specifically because of the inability to fully free oneself from such a cycle.
Here Rav Nachman offers a beautiful description of a world filled with wisdom. It is not simply that “everyone dealt in matters of wisdom”; the nature and mode of wisdom itself crafted a pervasive intellectual culture in society. Yet this mode of wisdom is described as something that leads to loss of faith, shaping a god-less world. In the previous chapter, we spoke about the historical context of this description, namely: the rise of the Enlightenment and the proliferation of secularism. In this world, magic and innocence were lost and connections to parents and traditions were severed: in other words, a kind of late iteration of eating from the Tree of Knowledge and being banished from the Garden of Eden.
Rav Nachman described a world where, in the sphere dominated by wisdom, inhabitants “forgot the tactics of war.” Why is wisdom in opposition to the tactics of war? I wish here to use kabbalistic terms which differentiate between a light that fills (אור ממלא) and a light that surrounds (אור סובב). Wisdom is a light that fills: it paints a picture of a stable world, one in which every part is connected in a defined way to the other. Wisdom is moved by a will to know, to see and understand everything, to see the ‘whole picture.’ The light that surrounds, on the other hand, is that which - by its very definition - goes beyond the picture, resisting the scholarly appraisal of wisdom’s gaze. This is why the ‘surrounding’ [light] is that which defines the place of surprise, miracle, revelation; for Rav Nachman, this is also the space of faith. For this reason, he comes out quite strongly against ‘research’ studies’ in a number of his articles. Rav Nachman understood the laws of nature as building a block-by-block deterministic world, one with no open space for surprise and renewal. The world of wisdom, the filling light, is (according to Rav Nachman) an ingredient for heresy; it is the very opposite of prayer, which is an opening to the surrounding light, to miracle and to revelation.
The world of wisdom then neglects and forgets the ‘tactics of war’, for it is war which - in all its components - demands vigilance, live senses and expecting the unexpected. The static world as described by wisdom and its ability to know all the possibilities in advance - these conditions keep the person locked in a ‘predictable’ space, lowering his vigilance and sensitivity to sudden, random threats. This is the problem of information: sharpness and intelligence can close a person up in a theoretical world, blocking sensitivity to surprise and sudden danger (which comes from the surrounding light and overflows into actual, unfolding events).
The tension between the light that fills and the light that surrounds is also related to the description of the king’s son, who shifts between investing in wisdom and awakening positive traits within himself. Where does this awakening come from? What prompts a person living in a world of wisdom to wake up one day and think “Where am I in the world, and what am I doing”? How many people wake up in the morning and ask “Where am I”? Usually, a person wakes up and rushes off to work, with no time for such questions - questions of the beginning, questions of the hollow space.
We live in a world of wisdom, a world that has been entirely ‘sequenced.’ This is a rectified world of ‘tikkun’ in its diminished state: everything is properly identified; every person is in her place and knows how to function properly in it. Knowledge breeds an internal logic for this world, and in doing so helps us understand ourselves and conduct our lives. But Rav Nachman argues that this knowledge may itself mediate and estrange us from our lives, causing the loss of a connection with the ‘surrounding’ light, the loss of that first question: where am I in this world? For this question to ‘wake up,’ a person must remove herself from this sequenced routine. It is told that Rav Nachman would often come to a state described as “he does not have words” - a state of emptiness, a complete lack. After this, he would describe new insights he had been granted, and would be in awe of his own abilities and spiritual heights. This rather radical act, this dramatic renewal, is made possible only through the process of emptying - the descent from kingship. Wisdom is important and beneficial, but one cannot lose a capacity for wonder, for seeing things anew, asking over again the very first questions that one cannot yet answer.
Rav Nachman evokes the powerful image of wisdom as a kind of trap, a vicious loop that the king’s son enters (even after every ‘awakening’) where he wishes to once again “use his brain.” This process leads to heresy, and then after some time the king’s son is jolted into awareness and he ‘moans and sighs,’ and - God forbid - falls back into the cycle. This sigh is of great importance, specifically because of the inability to fully free oneself from such a cycle. The sigh ensures that one doesn’t fall ‘asleep’ or lose a connection with the light that ‘surrounds’, the place that momentarily takes a person beyond the system to ask “Where am I? What does God want from me? Am I fulfilling my purpose?”. The sigh is a moment for remembrance with-nothing, a wordless awakening with a quality that precedes wisdom. It is a minor bursting-through of the ‘surrounding’, which gestures towards the tikkun that the king saw in the stars: happiness.