LIMITS OF THE MIND
R’ Gedaliah Aharon Kenig
PHILOSOPHICAL INQUIRY & THE VACATED SPACE
According to the Zohar, human beings are called by the name “Adam” by virtue of intellect and wisdom. It is impossible to separate intellect from the concept of a human being. Without intellect, the concept of “Adam” would not exist, since da’at, higher knowledge, is what defines a human being. For this reason, we possess a will and desire to know everything—to increase da’at. Thus, the human being and intellect are one and inseparable.
In this light, Rebbe Nachman writes, “It is a great mitzvah to sharpen the intellect in order to come to a clear understanding of what God has limited to the human mind.” It is important to note the precise language of Rebbe Nachman: “…what God has limited (higbil, from the word g’vul, meaning limitation) to the human mind”; this indicates that human intellect is inherently limited. The obligation to sharpen the intellect is only according to one’s intellectual capacity. A person should not attempt to reach beyond this limit, since it will cause what is termed, in the language of the Arizal, shevirat ha’keilim, “shattering of the vessels”—meaning destruction and collapse. The human mind is a type of receptacle made to receive the “light” of the intellect according to its capacity. If this measure is breached, the vessel soon reaches its breaking point and shatters. It then loses the ability to receive anything more.
For this reason, we must correctly gauge the receptive capacity of our intellect and guard it by not exceeding its limit. Even though we generally have the ability to estimate this limit for ourselves, it would be greatly beneficial if we had expert guidance from someone knowledgeable in this matter. This would make our desire and search for enlightenment much easier, since the danger would be removed, and we would have a greater likelihood of success.
This is exactly what Rebbe Nachman has accomplished. He paved a path for us to increase and broaden the intellect, as well as a way for us to guard it from all harm. With divine wisdom, deep understanding, and expertise in every philosophical path, he established that we must divide our philosophical inquiry into two types: 1) investigations that possess no danger whatsoever; and 2) investigations where it is impossible to escape from inherent dangers.
The first category we can enter, since such investigation will broaden and increase our intellect. Every question has a correct answer and each investigation can be fully concluded. This is not the case with the second category. It is forbidden to enter it, since the human mind does not possess the ability to resolve any of the difficulties that arise. The deeper the investigation, the more confusion is generated, since the very essence of this second category is comprised of contradictions and opposites. Any solutions reached will be incorrect and untrue.
Rebbe Nachman bases his conclusions on a kabbalistic explanation of Genesis. Based on a teaching of the Arizal, he writes that when it became God’s Will to create the universe, there was no “place” for it, since everything was Ein Sof, God’s Infinite Being. The place where we exist today was originally the Infinite Divine Light called the Ohr Ein Sof. Therefore, when it arose in the Divine Will to create the universe, He constricted His light to the “sides” so to speak, and through this constriction (tzimtzum), He created a “Vacated Space,” termed the Chalal ha-Panui. Inside of this space, the entire creation came into being. The Vacated Space was fundamentally necessary for creation, since without it, there would have been no place to create anything. However this produces a philosophical paradox. Is God present or absent in the Vacated Space? God can’t be truly absent, for nothing can exist without God’s animating force; yet if He were present in the Vacated Space, there would be no “place” for the universe—all that would exist is the Ein Sof, as prior to creation.
Presently, the paradox of the Vacated Space is impossible for the human mind to understand. It can only be comprehended in the future, when the capacity of the human mind will greatly expand. For the time being, there is no way to comprehend it since it contains two opposites, yesh and ayin, “somethingness” and “nothingness.” On one hand, we state that God constricted His unlimited essence to the sides to make the Vacated Space. Without it, there would have been no “place” to create the world. The Vacated Space is thus termed ayin, “nothingness.” On the other hand, however, even this Vacated Space must contain His Godliness, since nothing can exist without the Divine life force. This is the Yesh, “somethingness.”
Thus, we have before us three divisions: 1) the Ein Sof; 2) the preparation for creation; and 3) creation. We exist in a lowly physical world, which is also the focal point of creation. When we begin to investigate and search for the meaning of life and the true path, we encounter many problems and doubts. These difficulties can be divided into two categories: 1) problems engendered by the creation itself; and 2) problems originating in the Vacated Space that preceded creation—the preparation for creation.
In the first category, we need to know that God created everything in the universe through His spoken word, which our sages call the Asarah Ma’amorot, or “Ten Divine Utterances.” These Ten Divine Utterances through which the world was created are made up of the twenty-seven Hebrew letters of the Torah (twenty-two consonants plus the five final letters) and their various combinations.
However, the second category, involving the act of constriction, which formed the Vacated Space preceding Creation, was not made through letters at all. It came into existence solely through the Divine Will. No letters are present there.
Now we can understand that as we search for a way to draw closer to the Infinite God, we must pass through the creation, as well as the Vacated Space. This journey is fraught with inevitable difficulties and doubts. However, it is vital to understand and examine the source of these difficulties in order to determine into which of the two categories they belong. If a question is rooted in the first category of creation, comprised of the twenty-seven Hebrew letters of God’s creative word, then an answer exists which is accessible to human intellect. It may be solved through discussions, explanations, and speech, and there is no inherent danger in these types of investigations. They are even worthwhile to embark upon, since they will bear the fruit of increasing intellectual understanding, as well as grant the ability to teach and clarify the way for others.
This is not the case with the second category. When we engage in questions rooted in the Vacated Space, which contains no letters, then difficulties and doubts will always remain with no solution whatsoever. This is because there are no letters or words in the Vacated Space which would enable us to find an answer. Therefore, extreme caution must be taken to avoid entering and investigating problems and doubts in the second category. Those who do enter remain submerged and trapped in a sea of doubt with no hope for rescue. Every conclusion they reach will be negative, since it is the opposite of true existence upon which the first category is based. Since the entire essence of the Vacated Space is built on two irreconcilable opposites, yesh and ayin, “somethingness” and “nothingness”, questions originating from this paradox are irreconcilable and no words exist in creation to address them.
One who is careful and travels on the first path expands the intellect properly. They are protected from all damage and possess a healthy mind. Such a person is called “Adam”—the quintessential human being. Rebbe Nachman brings everything one step further by concerning himself with those who have faltered on the second, forbidden path. He reveals a wondrous way for such individuals to be rescued through the awesome power hidden in music. He tells us that it is possible to extract even those caught in the sea of doubt originating in the Vacated Space through the influence of the melody of the “Tzaddik in the category of Moses.”
I concluded my previous talk with one of these melodies attributed to Rebbe Nachman, who attained this lofty level. Therefore, his song can lift up all souls from their fallen condition and return them to their holy place of origin. Understandably, there is much more to explain on these topics and perhaps, God willing, we can explain further at another opportunity. ♦
1. Likutei Moharan I, 62:2
2. Likutei Moharan I, 64
NOTE: Reb Gedaliah did not live long enough to provide a second installment of this talk given during a series of two radio broadcasts on station WBAI in New York in 1979. He passed away in 1980 at the age of 59 while visiting Manchester, England on behalf of rebuilding the City of Tsfat. Many have since requested further clarification on this idea of the hidden power in this type of melody. Reb Gedaliah once said that any of Rebbe Nachman’s niggunim without words are part of this melody of the “Tzaddik in the category of Moses.” An audio recording of one of these melodies that Reb Gedaliah sang on the first broadcast is published here on this site under “Audio.”