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At The Core Of Our Beings

With Mind And Soul

With Unified Purpose

Understanding What We Cannot Understand

Because He Is

Avoiding Errors

The Paradox Of Our Existence

Getting To The Core Of It All

The Way G-d Knows

One, As Only He Can Be

Looking From His Vantage Point


What We Believe
A Series Of Essays On Fundamental Principles Of Faith
Based On Chabad Chassidic Teachings

Chapter Seven
The Paradox Of Our Existence

Adapted by: Rabbi Eliyahu Touger

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  Avoiding ErrorsGetting To The Core Of It All  

Sources: Tanya, Shaar HaYichud
VehaEmunah, chs. 1-3,
Iggeres HaKodesh, Epistle 20;
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. VI, p. 17ff., Vol. XXIV, p. 41ff.

Once,[92] after Rosh HaShanah, the Alter Rebbe asked his son, the Mitteler Rebbe, what had been the subject of his meditations during his prayers.

The Mitteler Rebbe answered that he had meditated on a lofty mystic rung in the spiritual cosmos. He then asked his father what had been the subject of his own meditations.

"The lectern," his father answered. And in response to the puzzled expression on his son's face, he explained: "I meditated on the concept that yesh, material existence in this world, is the expression of the true yesh, G-d's essence."

Gnawing Issues

For years, philosophers have struggled with questions concerning the very nature of our existence. Is our life genuine or is it just an illusion? And if it is real, does it have true meaning and purpose, or are we existing in an existential framework without any goal or direction?

Chassidic thought explains that these questions - and the resolution to them - stem from the fact that our world was created yesh me'ayin, something from nothing. We, as created beings, feel ourselves as yesh, something, an entity that exists. And yet, intellectually, we realize that this existence had to come from somewhere. The very fact our reality is made up of finite, limited beings who live in a continuum of time and space forces us to conclude that this existence did not exist for all time. It had a beginning.

What existed before that beginning? We do not know. Because we cannot know. As created beings, we cannot appreciate anything beyond the set of creation. For that reason, we call the source for our existence: ayin, nothing, i.e., something that we do not - and cannot - comprehend or know.

Now since there was a state[93] in which our world did not exist, there is room to say that even now when the world appears to exist, its existence is not genuine. To cite an example: Our Sages[94] relate that only streams that flow continuously are considered as "living water" and may be used for the purification process involving sprinkling the ashes of the red heifer. If a stream dries up once in seven years, it is not considered "living water" and may not be used for this process.

Similarly, one might argue that since at the outset, the world did not exist and ultimately, the world will cease to exist, even at present, its existence is not genuine. Chassidus, however, dismisses this approach, citing as a proof the Torah's statement:[95] "In the beginning, G-d created the heaven and the earth."

Proof is not derived from the fact that we feel that the world exists, for that feeling is part of our set of existence and thus could itself be an illusion. Instead, since the Torah - an objective standard that transcends our world - states that the world came into being, we accept this as the truth[96] and this is what grants validity to our existence.

A Different Type Of Craft

To understand these concepts, we have to appreciate the uniqueness of creation yesh me'ayin. It is not like shaping a utensil from clay or metal. For in that instance, the clay and the metal existed previously and have the potential to be shaped as the craftsman desires. With regard to the world, by contrast, nothing existed previously, not the matter nor the potential for the matter. Everything was brought into being from absolute nothingness.

Now, since it was brought into being from absolute nothingness, its true state is nothingness. Even as it exists, it still has the tendency to return to nothingness. To cite an example, when a person throws a stone upward, because of the power of gravity, the stone has a natural tendency to fall downward. Why does it continue to rise? Because something - the force imparted by the person who threw the stone - pushes it upward against its nature. As soon as that force dissipates, the stone resumes its natural tendency and begins to fall downward.[97]

Similarly, with regard to our world, since the natural state of our existence is non-being, it is constantly seeking to revert to that state.[98] Why does it remain in existence? Because G-d's creative power that brought the world into being is continuously present, pushing the world against its natural tendency to revert to nothingness and in this way, keeping it in existence.

Continuous Creation

The Baal Shem Tov[99] explained this concept in his interpretation of the verse:[100] "Forever, O G-d, Your words are standing in the heavens." G-d's words, i.e., His command:[101] "Let there be a firmament," are standing in the heavens at all times, maintaining their existence. If for one moment, His word would be withdrawn, the heavens would cease to exist, like the stone that falls downward when the force pushing it upward dissipates.

This is true, not only for the heavens, but for all existence. Not only was it brought into existence by G-d's word 5760 years ago, today, at this very moment, it is being brought into existence by the same Ten Utterances of Creation.[102] Were G-d to cease this creative power for one moment, the world would cease to be. He does not have to do anything to destroy the world. Instead, were He to desire that it cease, it would be sufficient for Him simply to withdraw His energy and cease bringing it into being. That would cause all existence to return to nothingness.

Creation is thus not merely an activity that took place thousands of years ago, but a present-day event, taking place every moment. As we say in our prayers:[103] "He renews each day, continuously,[104] the work of creation." At every moment, each entity is being brought into being by G-d's creative energy.

Veiling His Hand

Thus every entity has two elements to its existence: its physical form and the creative force enabling that physical form to be. Now, were a creation as it exists in a physical form able to sense the spiritual life-force that maintains its existence, it would not be able to exist. Looking directly at the sun scorches the cells of the retina. In a far more powerful way, were limited material existence to perceive this spiritual life-force, it would cease to be.

For that reason, the process of creation requires concealment. G-d's creative power must be hidden from the entities it brings into existence.[105] And since the created beings do not perceive their source, they perceive themselves. For the first time in the spiritual cosmos, there is an entity other than G-d that feels "I exist." Instead of seeing themselves as one link - and in this instance, the last link - in a spiritual hierarchy, the created beings perceive themselves as independent and genuine entities; as they look at themselves, they are the beginning and end of existence.

The Source For Self

On one hand, this is obviously a disadvantage, for this perception runs contrary to the truth. Simultaneously, we are forced to say that the feeling of self is not solely a handicap stemming from concealment. It must originate somewhere. Since it is a feeling of power and strength, it must have a source. It cannot come about merely because of the withdrawal and concealment of G-d's light. Nor does it come from the spiritual forces that serve as the immediate source for the world's creation. Since these forces have no conception of self - they are totally subsumed to G-dliness - they cannot be the source for self-consciousness in this world.

Where is there a feeling of "I am"? In G-d's essence. For He truly is. As explained above,[106] He exists as Primeval Being. He was not made or brought into existence. He is.

For this reason, it is within His potential to create the world. As Tanya states:[107]

His Being is of His essence, and He is not, heaven forbid, caused by any other cause preceding Himself. He alone therefore has it in His power and potential to create something out of absolute nothingness, without this something having any other cause [obviously][108] preceding it.
Every entity that is brought into being is brought into being in a specific manner. It has a set of potentials which it is given and it cannot extend itself beyond them, for they define its existence. Now, for an entity to bring into being an entity that it has the potential to make cannot be considered as creation of a new entity, for it is just expressing the potential it was given. It is not bringing about a new development. Conversely, for it to make something that is beyond its potential is impossible. Therefore no being that was created or that emanated from Him has the potential to create.

Where does that potential lie? In His essence. For His essence is totally undefined. There is nothing He is, and there is nothing He isn't. He has no boundaries or limitations whatsoever, and hence can create entirely new frames of reference. Since there is no structure or rules that define Him, He can change structures and rules at will, bringing into being realms of existence that are new entirely, that did not exist previously even in potentia. Since He is true existence, He can be the source for the existence of other entities. As the Rambam writes:[109] "All the beings of the heavens and the earth... came into existence solely from the truth of His being."

At The Top And At The Bottom

Now the feeling that "I exist; I am not dependent on anything else," exists only in our material world and in G-d's essence. No other entity in the spiritual cosmos has such a feeling; they are all - to one degree or another - aware of G-d's presence and hence, subsume their existence to Him.

Why can man and the other creatures of our material world have such a feeling - although it is a mistaken one? Because He invests a dimension of His very essence in creation. On the higher, spiritual planes of existence, His light and His qualities alone are revealed. In this material world, however, He imparts His very essence.

This leads to the paradox of our existence mentioned at the outset. On one hand, because He has invested Himself in our world, we feel our existence powerfully. On the other hand, because He created the world through a series of intermediaries - expressing and then concealing and withdrawing His power as explained by the Kabbalists - we are forced to intellectually acknowledge that our existence has a source above itself. And this enables us to reach the ultimate purpose of our being, to identify our existence with G-d, the ultimate source of existence.

In this vein, our Sages comment:[110] "The world was created solely for Mashiach." For it is in the era of Mashiach that we will no longer be concerned with selfish, individual goals, but instead will identify with G-d and His purpose "to perfect the world under the sovereignty of the A-lmighty."[111]



  1. (Back to text) Igros Kodesh, of the Rebbe Rayatz, Vol. IV, p. 316.

  2. (Back to text) We cannot say there was a time when the world did not exist, for time as we know it is also a creation and came into being together with the creation of our world. See Moreh Nevuchim, Vol. II, ch. 30; Siddur Im Dach, p. 75d ff.

  3. (Back to text) Parah 8:8.

  4. (Back to text) Bereishis 1:1.

  5. (Back to text) A proof can also be brought from Torah law: With regard to the laws of sorcery, Sanhedrin 67b differentiates between a person who practices witchcraft and one who creates an illusion. Now if our entire existence would be no more than an illusion, there would be no place for such a distinction (the series of maamarim entitled Mayim Rabim 5636, ch. 158).

  6. (Back to text) Tanya, Shaar HaYichud VehaEmunah, ch. 2, conveys this concept using the example of the splitting of the Red Sea. There also, due to the influence of the wind, the water stood up like a wall, against its natural tendency. Were that wind to have stopped, the water would have flowed downward, resuming its natural tendency.

  7. (Back to text) This concept parallels the scientific concept of entropy.

  8. (Back to text) As cited in Tanya, loc. cit., ch. 1. See also Midrash Tehillim on the verse cited in the following note.

  9. (Back to text) Tehillim 119:89.

  10. (Back to text) Bereishis 1:6.

  11. (Back to text) As indicated in Tanya, loc. cit., through various permutations, these Ten Utterances produce the life-force, not only for the specific created beings mentioned in the Ten Utterances, but for the totality of existence.

  12. (Back to text) Daily liturgy, Siddur Tehillat Hashem, p. 43.

  13. (Back to text) I.e., the renewal is continuous, at every moment. "Each day" is mentioned, for the renewal of creation is made obvious through the daily cycle of our existence (Likkutei Torah, Vayikra, p. 26a).

  14. (Back to text) Tanya, loc. cit., ch. 3.

  15. (Back to text) See the essays entitled: "Understanding What We Cannot Understand" and "Because He Is."

  16. (Back to text) Iggeres HaKodesh, Epistle 20.

  17. (Back to text) I.e., the yesh, the material existence of our world has a cause which precedes it. For it is brought into being by the higher levels of the spiritual cosmos. Nevertheless, this cause is not apparent to the beings of this world and according to their perception, they are independent entities without a prior source.

  18. (Back to text) Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Yesodai HaTorah 1:1.

  19. (Back to text) Sanhedrin 98b.

  20. (Back to text) Daily liturgy, Siddur Tehillat Hashem, p. 84.

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