An explanation of G-d’s True Existence

Edited transcript* of a public lecture, October ’03, Pittsburgh, PA, based on a Chassidic discourse by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson:

Hadran al Sefer Mishneh Torah 5745

What was the beginning of creation?

We read in Genesis the story of creation – how the world was created – and of course Genesis doesn’t start in the beginning. It starts with the Hebrew word “B’reishis,” which starts with a letter beis [the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet], not with an aleph [the first letter]. [This indicates that there was a “First” which preceded “In the beginning…” (Genesis 1:1)] And it’s written B’ [ = In] -reishis [ = the beginning],” instead of Reishis [The beginning]. But what was the beginning? This the Written Torah doesn’t tell us.

We learn in Chassidic teachings that G-d created the world from [His attribute of] Malchus [Kingship, the lowest of the ten Divine sefiros (attributes)]. In Kaballah, it says that the world was created from [His attribute of] Chochmah [Wisdom, the highest of the ten sefiros]. So the world was created from Malchus, and the world was created from Chochmah, and that of course precedes “And G-d said, ‘Let there be light.’ ” (Gen. 1:3) But even that’s not the beginning. What does it mean that “Malchus created the world”? And where does Malchus come from? Malchus was not an original existence. [As the Zohar explains,] “There is no King without a people.” Malchus is something that already is connected to existence (the existence of a people), so it can’t be the beginning of existence. And the same is true of Chochmah. Chochmah is the first of the ten sefirot, but it’s still Chochmah – which is a definite notion, a definite feeling of existence. Where did that come from?

When we talk about the theory of cosmic evolution, for example [as a possible description of the beginning], it is not even debatable [as a possible original beginning], because it doesn’t begin in the beginning. If you notice what happened with the theory of cosmic evolution – it started off being an explanation for the origins of the universe. “Where does the world come from? An evolution.” But, of course, it doesn’t tell you where it came from. Because it starts off with existence – there existed some primordial “stuff.” But I asked you where it came from! This doesn’t give the answer at all. It only [attempts to] tell you what happened after the “stuff” already existed. Then the scientists realized that they were not answering the question, so they changed the question. Now it’s not a discussion of the origins of the universe; it’s a question of the age of the universe. But I don’t care how old the world is. I want to know where it came from! So this whole discussion of creation and cosmic evolution is not the same thing. Any evolution theory discusses what happens after something exists, and creation discusses – or is supposed to discuss – how it all began to exist.

If we look at creation only from the Chumash [the Five Books of Moses], it also doesn’t begin in the beginning. It tells you what happened after there was already Tohu V’vohu [“astonishing emptiness” (Gen. 1:2), and the esoteric “shattering of the vessels” as explained in Kaballah]. Then if you look at Chassidic teachings, it tells you that it came from Malchus – also not the beginning. Then you can go higher and find out it comes from Chochmah, but Chochmah is also not the beginning. So what really is the beginning? Where does existence really begin? Now it’s logical that existence begins with a principle, not with a substance. Nothing begins with a thing; it all begins with a principle.

With this little introduction, let’s take a look at what Rambam [Rabbi Moses Maimonides] says right in the beginning of his Mishneh Torah. “The pillar of all pillars and the foundation of all wisdom…” That sounds pretty impressive, huh? You’re about to hear something awesome. “The pillar of all pillars”! What is this awesome piece of information?

“..the knowledge [and the awareness] is that there exists an Original Being [an Original Existence], and He causes all else that exists to exist. All that exists in Heaven and Earth and everything in between exists only from His true existence.”

The obvious question on this whole statement from Rambam is, what is the new thing that he is teaching? Is this is an “awesome” piece of information? Didn’t even the early idolaters know that there was an Original Being?

What is it that you believe in?

I once had a discussion with a chutzpa (impudent) teenager. He said he doesn’t believe in G-d; that “There is no G-d!” So as we debated back and forth, finally I went over to him and said, “What don’t you believe?” He said, “I don’t believe in G-d.” I said, “I don’t understand. What is that? What is G-d?” He said, “I don’t know.” I said, “So what don’t you believe in?” He said, “Well, what do YOU believe in? Whatever you believe in, I don’t believe in!” I said, “What do I believe? I believe that there was something that existed at the beginning of everything. You don’t believe that? In fact, it’s not even a ‘belief.’ It’s a logical imperative! In the beginning there was a beginning! There was that which existed in the beginning. I call it ‘G-d.’ What do you want to call it? And that you don’t believe in?” He answered, “Well, that? That I believe in!”

So what is Rambam saying? “The foundation of all wisdom…” This is Rambam, OK? The famous philosopher, writing in the beginning of his most famous Torah book, that in the beginning there was something. Who doesn’t know this?! You ask anybody – a believer or a non-believer. Ask anybody who knows anything about G-d. They’ll all tell you, “What is G-d? He’s the Original!” This is not profound. This is like Theology 101.

Let’s go on to the second halacha [precept of Torah law] in this book: “And if it should enter your mind that He [the Original Being] does not exist, then nothing else can exist.” Is this very profound? What is he saying? That there’s an Original Thing, and everything comes from It; if It doesn’t exist, nothing else can exist. So the simple meaning of the text is that he’s trying to emphasize the necessity of recognizing an Original Existence. So he says, “You have to know that there’s an Original Existence, and if you don’t think there is, then where did everything else come from?” Again, this is like childishness. To say that if there was no Original Thing, there wouldn’t be anything else. And he makes this is a separate rule!

But there’s a bigger problem. Rambam said that this book, his greatest work of halacha, is giving you Torah rules. He’s giving you the halacha – right/wrong, kosher/not kosher, permissible/not permissible. So he starts out by saying, “You have to know that there exists an Original Being, and if you think He doesn’t exist…” What would you expect the end of that sentence to be? Since this is a book of halacha, [it should read,] “If you think that He does not exist, … then you’re an apikoras [heretic].” That’s sinful thinking! Then you’re a nonbeliever! And as Rambam says later, a nonbeliever has no portion in the eternal World to Come. That’s what you would have expected to read. So what’s Rambam’s problem? Is it that if you don’t think that G-d exists, then where does everything else come from? If you don’t believe that G-d exists, you’ve got a much bigger problem! You’re an apikoras, and you have no portion in the World to Come! But this is not a philosophical discussion. These are halachos. So how is it that Rambam’s only problem is that if you don’t believe in G-d, then how are you going to explain where everything else came from? OK, so I can’t explain it – so what’s the problem?

The insights that Chassidic teachings provide:

Now listen to what a Chassidic teaching [from a discourse by the Lubavitcher Rebbe] does with this simple statement from Rambam. Chassidic teachings say that G-d created the world with six Divine emotional attributes – the six “days of the week.” These are the six midos [Divine emotional attributes] from Chesed [Kindness] to Yesod [Foundation]. The first day of creation was Chesed, the second day was Gevurah [Severity/Judgement], and so on. But you can’t start with Chesed as actual Chesed, because kindness is already a creation. Of course, [as a Divine attribute] it’s a very delicate creation, it’s a very refined creation. But it can’t be the beginning of existence, because it’s already an existence!

The beginning of existence is a principle. What does all of existence have in common? Everything that exists from the highest existence to the lowest existence has one thing in common. They are governed by principles of “yes” and “no” – positive or negative. It either is or isn’t. That’s the principle: something either is or it isn’t. All of existence is governed by this principle. The highest souls, the highest creations – they exist and therefore they aren’t nonexistent. If it’s nonexistent, it can’t exist.

So here’s the beginning of the first principle of existence. If you are, then you are. If you’re not, you’re not. You either exist or you don’t. Then once you have existence and nonexistence, you can have a combination of the two. Something can be, and have some properties of existence and some properties of nonexistence. This breakdown of these three possibilities – yes, no, and in between – is what ChaBaD is [the Divine intellectual attributes – Chochmah/Wisdom, Binah/Understanding, and Da’as/Knowledge]. Before Chochmah is Chochmah and Binah is Binah and Da’as is Da’as, there is first the principle of “yes” and “no.” And that’s why there are three [Divine intellectual attributes], because there is “yes,” “no,” and the combination of the two. All the Divine attributes can be pictured as being divided into three columns: right, left and center. Chochmah is on the right, Binah is on the left, and Da’as is in the center.

So what is the first principle that governs all of existence? The fact that something either is or isn’t, or is a combination of the two. That’s [abstracted] Chochmah, Binah and Da’as before they become actual Chochmah, Binah and Da’as. So when Chassidic teachings say that creation began before the six days of creation, it means that it began in the plan of creation, which is the ChaBaD [intellectual attributes] of creation. It means the principle of “yes” and “no.” There is no existence that isn’t governed by these principles. The world of Atzilus, the highest of all [spiritual] worlds – it is. And therefore it doesn’t not exist; it does exist. It is governed by this principle of “yes” and “no.”

Then there’s a second set of principles that governs all existence, and it follows logically. The second set of principles is “cause” and “effect,” or mashpia and mushpa: everything that exists is influenced and influences. Nothing anywhere in all the spiritual worlds can exist without having an effect and being affected. Just the very fact that it exists means it was caused to exist – it’s an effect. And once it exists, it has an effect. So everything in creation, everything in existence, is influenced by that which is [spiritually] above it and influences that which is below it. Everything is a mashpia [a source of influence], or a mekabel [a receiver of influence], or a combination of the two. That’s what [the higher Divine emotional attributes], Chesed, Gevurah and Tiferes (Mercy) are [in an abstract sense] before they become actual Chesed, actual Gevurah, and actual Tiferes. The principle behind those three things is the principle of effect. Having an effect, and being affected. Mashpia and mekabel.

This causes a third set of principles which governs all of existence, and that is “increase” and “decrease.” Improvement or deterioration. Growth or loss. In the effect that a thing has on another thing, it can either have the effect of increasing it or decreasing it. It either builds it up, or it causes a bittul [nullification] – i.e., it makes it humble, it makes it less, it diminishes it. It’s got to be one of these two possibilities. If you have an effect on somebody, the effect has to be one of the two. Either you increase it or you decrease it; either you build it up or you’ve torn it down. You’ve either done some good, or you’ve done some harm. And there can also be a combination of the two. These are the principles behind [the lower Divine emotional attributes of] Netzach [Victory], Hod [Resplendence] and Yesod [Foundation].

Presenting and resolving a dilemma:

Now we have a little bit of a problem. If all of existence and all of creation begins with the principle of existence and nonexistence, and that is a limitation that applies to creation, then what does it mean that G-d “exists”? If He “exists”, then He doesn’t “not exist”; but then He’s part of creation. Is G-d Himself also governed by this principle of “yes” and “no”? Is He a “yes,” and idol worship is a “no”? Then He’s not the Creator. Then He is a creation [G-d forbid]. So when the Rambam says the first thing you need to know, and the most fundamental and most important thing you should know, is that G-d “exists” – we’ve got a problem with that. And if you think He does “not exist,” that’s no good – then G-d is governed by yes and no. If He “exists” then He doesn’t “not exist” – if He does “not exist,” then He doesn’t “yes exist”. So there is a problem with saying that G-d “exists”! Because existence is a definition – it is a description, and it’s a limitation. [But G-d is unlimited].

Now there are other expressions that are used to describe G-d’s existence. There is an expression, for example, that says that everything in creation is a possible existence, whereas G-d’s existence is a necessary existence. Then we’re saying that G-d has to exist? That’s a compliment? Theologically that’s a big problem! Generally, the simple meaning of this expression is that G-d has to exist, because if He doesn’t, then where did everything else come from? So that’s why G-d has to exist? So that you can explain where everything came from? What does it mean, He has to exist? He’s G-d – He doesn’t have to!

There’s another expression. “G-d’s existence is unique [unlike anything else], because His existence comes from His Essence.” Everything else comes from something else, but G-d’s existence comes from Himself. He exists by Himself – of Himself.

[Question from audience: “Are you saying that G-d wills His own existence?” Answer: “Yes.”]

Here’s what we’ve arrived at. When Rambam says, “You should know that there is a First Being,” and then later he says “everything else comes from G-d’s true existence” – what does “true existence” mean? G-d doesn’t “exist” the way you think existence really is. G-d’s existence is a true existence. What is Rambam trying to tell us by that? That G-d is not make-believe? That He’s not fake? What does “true existence” mean? I think now we understand a little bit better. Existence and nonexistence – these are the conditions of creation. There’s an existence that is the opposite of nonexistence.

Rambam says this is not how G-d exists. G-d’s existence is a true existence, which does not mean the opposite of non-being. That would be creation, and that is what most people think G-d is. That He is, and that’s the opposite of non-existence. But that’s not G-d. That’s what even the idolaters understood. The idolaters also said that G-d is a necessary existence. Every non-Jewish philosopher says the same thing. The existence of G-d is necessary. But when they say “His existence,” they’re talking about the created existence. What’s a created existence? A state of being that is the opposite of non-being. That’s not G-d’s existence. G-d has a true existence. What is a true existence?

There’s the other expression: “His existence comes from Himself,” which means you can’t say G-d has to exist. How then does He exist? He exists because He wants to. So “He exists from Himself” doesn’t mean “by Himself.” It doesn’t mean He needs no help. It means that He can exist or not exist, and He chooses to exist. Is that a problem? Of course, it’s a problem! What does it mean, that He can exist or not exist, but He chooses to exist? Who chooses to exist? You see, that’s G-d. And this is something you can’t put into words. Existence is already a state that G-d chooses. But what is G-d? An original substance? G-d forbid! That is not much better than evolution which says that in the beginning there was some “power,” and that’s it.

G-d’s existence is a true existence. There’s nothing else you can say. And true existence means He exists voluntarily. Not as a result of any principle, because principle causes creation. It can’t cause Creator. So if somebody says, “Give me a logical proof for G-d’s existence,” that’s an oxymoron. A logical proof means a logical imperative. G-d is not the result of an imperative! G-d’s existence is true.

Now listen to this [the Rambam’s second halacha]: “If it should enter your mind that He is not existent…” What is Rambam trying to tell you? That you shouldn’t think that? That if you think that, you’re an apikoras? [In the literal meaning of the Hebrew, the Rambam says,] “If you go up to a higher level of knowledge …” In other words, if you want think more deeply, more refined, then you will come to the conclusion that G-d does not “exist” in the simple sense of the word. And what’s the result of that? Now you’re on a higher level. And you realize that G-d doesn’t exist like everything else exists. Therefore, the result will be that you will look at all creation, and you will see that it doesn’t really exist either. Now you’re on a much higher level. If G-d’s existence is not an ordinary existence, then neither is the existence of the world.

The biggest problem that people have with faith:

The biggest problem that people have with faith is not the belief that there is a G-d. Nobody can really have a problem with that. The problem is this: we just finished explaining this profound and deep and impressive concept about G-d’s true, ultimate, necessary existence, and people listen to this and they say, “Wow, that’s amazing. So far we’re doing great.” Then you turn around and say, “Now this G-d, whose existence is absolute, whose existence is necessary, whose existence is real, He gets very upset if you eat a sandwich that His Torah says you shouldn’t eat. [“Non-kosher” meat means “treif,” which is forbidden for a Jew, or “meat taken from a living animal” which is also forbidden for a Gentile.] To that they say, “I’m sorry, this does not compute! It doesn’t make any sense! You’ve just been explaining how great G-d is, and now you’re telling me that He cares about a sandwich?! I can’t understand. It’s not possible! That’s totally irrational!” People don’t have a problem with G-d’s existence; people have a problem with G-d wanting. This awesome Thing wants? That doesn’t make sense.

This could be the essence and the core of Eastern religion: there’s a G-d, He is perfect, He is wonderful, He is great, He is everything, and He doesn’t want anything. That makes sense! But if you come along and say, “You think an atom is real? That’s nothing. G-d is watching over you. You think the principle of yes and no is real? That’s nothing. G-d is really real!” And then you’re going to turn around and say that this real, true, substantial Being gets upset? That doesn’t make sense! So it’s the will of G-d that people have a problem with.

Why then is this the beginning of [the Mishneh Torah by] Rambam – the premier book of halacha? Before the Rambam can tell you the halacha, which is the details of what G-d wants, he has to explain to you how is it that G-d can want. Because that’s the biggest problem people have. Even those people who stood at Mount Sinai and heard G-d say, “I want …” – they couldn’t believe it. G-d said, “Don’t make graven images!” (Exodus 20:4) They couldn’t believe it! So they made one, just to see if He really meant it. So the Rambam tells you, “Do you understand what G-d is? Do you think G-d’s existence is like everything else’s existence? The ultimate difference between G-d’s existence and every other existence is that G-d wants to exist. Everything else was created and didn’t have a choice [of whether or not to exist].”

In other words, what conclusion do we come to? What is the ultimate Original – “Substance,” “Being,” “Idea” – that began at the beginning of all things? What’s the answer? G-d wants. That’s the beginning of all existence. So we had it backwards. We think that First Something is, and if it’s not happy, then it has wants. But if it’s happy, it doesn’t have wants. Rambam is turning it upside down, according to Chassidus. First there is want before there is anything, including G-d’s “existence.” First G-d wants, and that causes Him to be, and from that true existence everything else comes into being. So what does that tell us about halacha? It tells us that everything that exists is existing from His true existence, which means that the truth of every created thing is that G-d wants. So it all exists out of G-d’s will.

So now you come along and say, “What does He want? He wants you to eat only what’s kosher for you to eat.” Makes perfect sense. Now the will of G-d is not a startling idea! Will is where it all began! The startling idea is existence. But G-d’s will? That came before everything else. And that’s why the Rambam said, “If you go up in your knowledge…[to think that He does not ‘exist’ in the way that we think of existence].” If you go past the childish stage of “Yes, there is a G-d,” you go to a level where there is no existence [that is essential] to G-d. It’s that He wants. Well, in that case, everything that exists as a result of Him also exists by want – by His choice, by His will. Not simply by His existence. The Alter Rebbe [Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi] said that if we could see the truth of a beam in the ceiling, we wouldn’t see a beam – we would see G-dliness. What would you see? You would see the truth of that beam. What is the truth of that beam? That G-d wants it!

Making room for the creation:

Now let’s go on to something else. In Chassidus there’s an explanation for how the world came into being. The Zohar says, “In the beginning, G-d was everywhere, and there was no room for an existence of the world. So what did G-d do? He removed His Infinite Light to the side, left an empty space, and into that empty space He created the world.” This process is called tzimtzum [contraction and lessening]. So if I ask, “How did there come to be finite, limited, small, inanimate objects?” people will say, “Tzimtzum!” That’s a very serious mistake. An object comes to be finite and small and inanimate only because G-d can be small, finite and inanimate. That has nothing to do with tzimtzum. That has to do with G-d being unlimited, so He can be the biggest of the big and the smallest of the small. As it says in Jewish philosophy, “If you say that G-d is capable of infinity, but is not capable of finiteness, then you have diminished His completeness.”

So how does an object get to be a small thing? G-d doesn’t have to be big. G-d is so perfect that small is also Him. What then did tzimtzum do? Tzimtzum did only one thing. It prevented the physical world from knowing that G-d wants it. So without tzimtzum, what would happen to a physical thing? Absolutely nothing. It would look exactly the way it looks and function exactly the way it functions, but it would know that G-d wants it.

It says in Isaiah, in the description of the Time to Come, that G-d will be revealed, and everyone will see. In order for everyone to see G-d, doesn’t something else have to happen also? Like we have to change our eyes? We have to be elevated to a higher level? G-d has to come “down”? Take away the tzimtzum? The answer is that tzimtzum only causes G-d to be concealed. When G-d is revealed, that’s all we need. So what will the world look like after G-d is revealed? Exactly like it does now. That [the physical appearance of things] is not the result of tzimtzum. So if you take away the tzimtzum, things will still appear as they do now. What’s the only thing that will be different? We’ll all see G-d’s interest – we will see G-d’s will, we will see G-d’s want – in every physical thing.

Maybe this is why the Rambam concludes [his Mishneh Torah] with halachos about Moshiach and the Messianic Era, but it doesn’t talk about the Resurrection of the Dead. Isn’t there one more thing we need to know – that after Moshiach comes, there will be the time of the Resurrection? So when the Rambam tells us the Thirteen Fundamental Principles of Faith, he includes Resurrection, but in his halacha book, he doesn’t mention Resurrection. A possible explanation is that Resurrection doesn’t change anything. Let’s be honest – it will be very nice for people who are dead to be resurrected. And, of course it’s going to happen, but that in itself won’t [intrinsically] change anything.

Once G-dliness is revealed – as the Rambam ends his book [with the verse from Isaiah], that “The world will be filled with the knowledge of G-d like the waters fill the oceans” (Isaiah 11:9) – and the tzimtzum is over, the hiding [of G-dliness] is gone, there’s no more concealment of G-d – we will see G-d’s interest, we will see G-d’s want. And what’s going to happen? What’s the difference! Will every tree produce fruit. Yes! So big deal. Will the dead come alive? Yes! But it will be the same world – the world that G-d wants. The difference is that we will see G-d’s want. The Alter Rebbe explained, “If the eye would be given permission, we would see G-dliness.” If the eye were given permission, then we would see. That’s all it takes? Won’t we have to have a completely “reborn” set of eyes that can see G-d? No! We can see G-d, because G-d is here, G-d is every thing. What don’t we see? We weren’t given permission.

Why can’t we see G-d?

Which leads us to one more thought. Why, in fact, don’t we physically see G-d? There are two common answers, one worse than the other. The answer that the “modern” rabbis use: Why don’t we see G-d? Because G-d is a ‘spirit,’ and you can’t see a spirit. A spirit is in your heart, and G-d is in your heart.” This is pure nonsense. G-d is the ultimate true existence! Why don’t you see Him? If you could see something that doesn’t really exist, then you should certainly be able to see that which does really exist. So here’s the second answer. The second answer’s a little bit different. The reason we don’t see G-d is because we are very gross. We are very low, we’re very corrupt and callous, and our eyes are not good (i.e., pure) enough to see G-d. And those who do have good (pure) eyes, those great tzadikim [righteous and holy people] who can, do see. That answer’s also not right.

To say that G-d’s existence is so limited that you have to have a certain kind of eyes to see Him is not correct. King David says in the Psalms, “If I go up to the highest Heavens, what am I going to see? There You are! And if I go down to Sheol – the lowest, grossest level – You’re right there.” Then why don’t we see Him? Now, it’s true that holiness can only be seen by holy eyes. That makes sense. Holiness is not the truest existence – it’s a certain quality. If you match that quality, then you have it. If you don’t match that quality, you don’t. Why don’t we see infinity? Because infinity is not finite, and finite is not infinite. So if your eyes are finite, you can’t see infinity. But that cannot apply to G-d. G-d [in His Essence] is not holy, He is not infinite, He’s G-d. He is true. He is real. Why don’t we see Him?

We don’t need special eyes to see G-d. Which might explain an interesting thing. Moses asks G-d, “I want to see you” (Ex. 33:18). And G-d says, “Well, you can see my back, but you can’t see My face” (Ex. 33:23). But then we’re told that Moshe is special because he spoke to G-d “face to face” (Deut. 34:10). But he can’t see G-d’s “face.”

[The Midrash says,] “The simple maidservant saw at the splitting of the sea what the greatest [subsequent] prophet did not see.” How? They [the millions of people that crossed through the sea] didn’t have holy eyes. Another thing. Moshe says to G-d, “Let me see You.” G-d says, “You can see my back, not my front.” G-d has a back and a front? Obviously not. But whatever that means, no matter how refined you made that concept, there’s still two sides. But there are no “two sides” of G-d. So it must mean that Moses wanted G-d to reveal His purpose, His plan, His justice, the way He functions, the way He thinks. To this there is a front and a back. There’s the internal dimension of intent, and the external dimension of intent. So to this G-d said to him, “At this stage of your existence, you can’t see that. You don’t have eyes for that.” At the end of his life, Moses did have eyes, so he did see. But G-d Himself? You don’t have to have eyes all together! So why then don’t we see G-d?

There’s only one possible answer, and that is that He doesn’t want us to see. Well, let’s understand that. A human being has freedom of choice. I have freedom. Therefore, if I want to be seen – if I want you to see me – what do I do? I come into the room and I stand here, and you can see me. If I don’t want you to see me, what do I do? I stay home. I hide in my closet. Can’t see me! See, I have free choice. However, there are times when I’m standing right here, and I don’t want you to see me – because my socks don’t match, and I’m embarrassed, I don’t want you to see me. So I can do what babies do: I’ll cover my eyes, and then I’ll think you don’t see me! But other than that I have no options. When I’m here, I cannot prevent you from seeing me. On the other hand, you know that commercial, “I’ve fallen down and I can’t get up” – if a person is in trouble in his own home, and he desperately wants you to see him, G-d help him! Nobody sees him. So why is it that I cannot control my being seen? If I’m here, you’re gonna see me whether I like it on not. If I’m not here, you’re not gonna see me no matter how much I want you to. What? Don’t I have some freedom of choice? Obviously my choices are limited. I can choose my location, I can choose my presence. I cannot control my visibility.

What this teaches us about ourselves:

What does that tell us about ourselves? In Chassidic language, it means a human being is a construct. He is not a pure being. Which means I’m composed of parts that are not related to each other. For example, I have a soul, and I have a body. They’re not related, they’re opposites. They’re antagonistic. And yet G-d puts these two things together and makes the combination work. By the same token, I am me – that’s part of who I am – and I’m also a little bit you. That’s how G-d put me together. He never created me to be completely me, and that’s why to some degree, I can choose when you see me, because I can choose my presence or absence. But to some degree, you control me. You decide whether you’re going to see me or not. Because once I’m in your presence, then you determine this.

Which explains why teenagers have a complaint. “Why do I have to be concerned about what other people think? I have to behave in a certain way because people are going to look? I don’t care what they think.” Or even more – there is the concept of bringing an “accusing eye.” [As an observant Jew,] I’m not allowed to go into a non-kosher restaurant to make a phone call, or to use the bathroom. Why? [Because of the risk of arousing] an “accusing eye.” Somebody will see me walking in, he’ll assume that I’m eating there. He’ll take that to mean that it’s kosher, and he’s going to go in there and eat the non-kosher food. And that’s why I can’t go in there to make a phone call. Isn’t this pushing it a little too far? I’m not lying to people or misleading them; I’m making a phone call. I’m completely innocent. But I’m not allowed to do that, because of what somebody might think!

Why am I obligated to go out of my way because of what somebody might think? The answer is very simple. It’s not “out of my way” – it’s half of what I am! Half of what I am is social. I am not a purely private creature. And the proof of it is, I can’t do without other people. A human being is a social being by his very nature, and therefore, I have to take into account what they’re thinking because that’s part of my existence. It’s my social part. But now there are people who think that since G-d doesn’t want to be seen, what does He do to prevent us from seeing Him? [They say that] He stays away – He removed Himself to the side, and He’s hiding – that’s why we don’t see Him. This is a terrible concept!

Human beings have to go away in order not to be seen, because a human being can’t control His visibility. G-d doesn’t have to go away to not to be seen. G-d is here, and He chooses not to be seen. He doesn’t have to go away. Besides there’s no place to go. There’s no closet big enough for Him to hide in. So why don’t we see G-d? Because G-d is in charge over His visibility, and although He is here, everywhere, even in Shoel – “even when I go down to the darkest, ugliest, most evil place” – G-d is there. Why don’t I see Him? Because He chooses not to be seen.

Now comes the obvious question: Why is G-d so mean? If we can [in principle] see Him, and He is here, and in order for us not to see Him, He has to do something special to prevent us from seeing Him, why does He do that? Why won’t He let us see Him? The answer is not that G-d wants to be hidden. There is a story of the Baal Shem Tov. He once saw a little girl crying, and he asked her why she’s crying. She said because she and her friends played a game of hide-and-seek, and she went to hide in her best hiding place and found out they were not looking for her. So he came into the study hall and he said, “Here’s the lesson from this story. G-d hides, but not because He doesn’t want to be seen. He hides because He wants you to find Him.” So what does that mean? G-d doesn’t let you see Him because if you see Him, you’ll never see Him. What we see with our eyes limits what we really see.

And so G-d hides. He doesn’t let us see Him so that we will get to really see Him. How do you say that in simple words? In simple words it means that G-d is practicing tznius [modest behavior and modest dressing]. What is the purpose of tznius? To really be seen. So if you’re seeing G-d just through your eyes, you’ll never get to see Him.

When Moses was inspiring the Jewish People before they were to go into the Land of Israel, he said, “Do you remember when we stood at Mount Sinai? What do you remember? Do you remember that we saw nothing?” (Deut. 4:15) Is that very inspiring?! This is supposed to get people excited? “You didn’t see anything. Remember that? That was great!” Moses was telling the Jews, “Understand G-d correctly. See G-d the way you’re supposed to see Him. Don’t you remember that at Mount Sinai, your eyes saw nothing? Why? So that you would see Him. That’s a very unusual insight into what tznius is all about. Chassidus calls it t’mimus (earnestness, wholeheartedness). If you don’t display your visible self on the surface, then people are forced to look at you a little deeper and get to know something much more precious.

A higher level of knowledge:

So this might be what the Rambam is saying. “If you go up in your knowledge…” If you want to go up to a higher level of knowledge, to a level that can’t be seen by the eye. Because after saying that G-d is the Original Being, He is the True Being, then the question is, “So why don’t I see Him?” So the second halacha says, that’s because if you want to go up to a higher level of Daas (Knowledge), then you have to realize that G-d doesn’t “exist” in a way that you can see with your eye. His existence is deeper and truer than that. That’s why He doesn’t let you see Him – because then you might be content with that, and that’s not the real Him. If you feel that [superficial] way about G-d, then you’re going to look at everything else that exists in the same way.

Nothing is really what it appears to be. A dollar bill is not a dollar bill: it’s a potential for a mitzvah [of charity]. In everything, it’s not what you see that is the truth of that thing. You’ll see the truth of that thing when you close your eyes. Or as the Alter Rebbe said, when the eye is given permission to see what eyes don’t see, then you will see the real thing. So this tells us in practical terms: because we cannot control our visibility, we appreciate much better our responsibility to each other. I cannot keep you from seeing me because I belong to you to a certain degree, and therefore I have to be responsible for you, for what impression I’m making on you.

Secondly, the fact that G-d doesn’t let us see is not that G-d is being stingy or mean, but that He really wants to be known. Which is why Rambam concludes [the Mishneh Torah] with the ultimate goodness – “the world will be filled with the knowledge of G-d…” (Isaiah 11:9) And that tells us the importance of being tznius. When it comes to the True Being, to the Intimate Being, seeing is the worst thing. That makes it shallow; it blocks the process, so that we’re much better off not seeing what the eye could see, and thereby we see what only the mind can see. That gets us closer to the truth.

So now that we’ve completed a yearly cycle of learning Rambam’s Mishneh Torah once again, and the Rebbe promised that this is going to help bring Moshiach, and we even had the talking fish that said that Moshiach is coming… so if you want signs and indications you know we have them up to here. And now we need what the Rambam promises at the end of his book.

On a personal note, I went to the Land of Israel. I was going to visit all the holy places. I didn’t know what I was supposed to think or feel when I’m standing at the Cave of Machpelah (the burial place of Adam and Hava, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rivka, Jacob and Leah). What am I doing there? What am I supposed to think? I didn’t know what to think or what to feel. Alright, so it’s awesome. But standing by the Rambam’s grave [in Tiberias] the thought that came to mind was, “Thank you for telling me how Moshiach is going to come. [Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, chapters 11-12]. Without you I wouldn’t know.”

Then I was by Rabbi Akiva’s grave. What came to mind? “You’re the one who said that Bar Kochba was the Moshiach [of his generation]. Which is an indication of how you’re supposed to expect Moshiach, look forward to Moshiach, and so on and so forth. So now that we’ve learned the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah so many times already, and the Rambam says that it has to happen – that in the End of Days, the whole world will be filled with the knowledge of G-d. Which means that everyone will know what G-d wants, because wanting is the ultimate truth of everything. So it’s time that it should happen right now, and for the whole world – even those who least suspect they’ll ever come around to this realization. Then even the most fleshy, most physical eyes will see that the reality behind everything is the word of G-d, which means the will of G-d. And this should be the last time that we have to talk about G-d’s being or not being, visible or not visible. Because when what the Rambam says will be fulfilled, there will be nothing to talk about. The world will be full of the knowledge of G-d.

*(With great appreciation for the professional transcription and editing services of D.J.F.)