Rav Nachman Shiur #16a: Silence (part II) – Wordlessness Before God (Part 1 of 2)
By: Rav Itamar Eldar
In the previous shiur we discussed R. Nachman's view of how the very act of speech entails a "missing of the mark," a failure. The first effect of silence is to prevent the false prophets, who seek a hold on holiness, from receiving power. Not everyone who wants to hear your words has pure intentions, R. Nachman warns. Since speech, by definition, will externalize, concretize, and clothe, it may be exploited to your detriment and to the detriment of the very ideal that you seek to glorify with your words.
In this shiur, we shall focus again on those who seek someone's harm; this time, however, R. Nachman discusses the target himself and the silence that enables him to attain a new level through which he can withstand the threat.
R. Nachman writes:
"Every person must give as little honor as possible to himself and as much honor as possible to God. One who pursues honor does not merit the honor of the Lord, but rather worldly honor ("the honor of kings"), as it is said (Mishlei 25), "The honor of kings is to inquire about a matter." Everyone inquires about him and asks: "Who is the person that receives such honor?" They then object to his special treatment, claiming that he is not worthy of such honor. On the other hand, one who runs away from honor, giving little honor to himself and much honor to God, merits the honor of the Lord. Consequently, mortals neither inquire after his honor nor debate whether he is worthy of it or not. Concerning him it is written (ibid.), "The honor of God is to conceal a matter." It is forbidden to inquire about that honor. Furthermore, it is impossible to acquire this honor except through teshuva. This may be learned from the simple fact that the word kavod (honor) itself requires the (letter) "kaf." The "kaf" stands for "keter" (crown), a reflection of [God's name] Ehyeh, which represents teshuva. "Ehyeh" signifies one's summons to life; before his teshuva, it is as though he does not yet have any existence (havaya). As such, he has not yet been created in the world and it would be better had he not been created. However, when he comes to purify himself and to engage in teshuva, he enters the category of "Ehyeh" that reflects existence in the world. The crux of teshuva is remaining speechless and silent when a person hears himself being shamed or dishonored. This is (the sefira of) Keter, which means waiting, like teshuva. As our Sages, of blessed memory, taught (Yoma 38b, 39a): "One who comes to purify himself receives (Divine) aid. He may be compared to a person who comes to purchase a fruit. He is told, "Wait," etc." This too is Keter, as it is written (Iyov 36): "Wait for me a bit and I will tell you…." Prior to his teshuva, "Ehyeh" was hidden from him, because he had not yet readied himself for the experience of the world. The hiding of the face of Ehyeh, in gematria, is blood (dam) – i.e., spilling of blood and shaming, as in (Shemuel I 2): "Those who despise Me shall be accursed." The blood that is in the left part of the heart, where the evil inclination resides – as it is written (Kohelet 10), "the heart of a fool (inclines him) to the left" – is still powerful and strong. As a result, shame and spilling of blood come upon him, representing the hiding and returning of the face of Ehyeh, whose numerical value equals "blood" (dam) in gematria. The remedy for this is to turn the blood (dam) into silence (dom): He should become one of those people who hear themselves being shamed and do not respond. He should not be particular when his honor is disgraced. When he achieves this silence (dom) for God, the Holy One makes bodies fall before him, as it is written (Tehillim 37): "Be silent before God and wait longingly for Him" – "and He will bring down bodies before you" (as our Sages explain in Gittin 7). Understood like the verse (Tehillim 109), "My heart is wounded within me," this process causes the lessening of the blood in the heart's left side and represents the sacrificing of the evil inclination. The Sages teach (Sanhedrin 43b) that a person who undertakes such a task merits Divine honor because the verse (ibid. 3), "Whoever offers up (sacrifices) praise, honors Me," refers precisely to the offering up of the evil inclination." (Likutei Moharan Kama 6, 1-2)
R. Nachman begins this teaching with the statement that one should give little honor to himself and much honor to God in order to merit honor from God. Whereas this Divine honor is the type that no one doubts nor disputes, the honor of kings is susceptible to criticism and controversy. He also teaches us that the way to merit this honor is through teshuva, the essence of which is remaining silent while being shamed. The equation that R. Nachman depicts in this teaching is as follows:
One who hears himself being shamed and remains silent = teshuva = Ehyeh = Keter = "kaf" = kavod (honor).
The Sefira of Keter
Let us first try to clarify the concepts before discussing the connection between them.
As we learned earlier, Malkhut is the lowest of the ten sefirot. It represents a movement of receptiveness and of emptiness, waiting expectantly for the outpouring and the light to fill it.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Keter is the highest of the sefirot. A person's "keter" (crown) is not part of his body, but rather something that surrounds his head and sits upon it. Chokhma (wisdom) and Bina (understanding), which are the next two sefirot, exist inside a person's brain and are therefore part of him. Accordingly, the sefira of Keter should be understood as sitting above existence, rather than as part of it. Insofar as it is distinguished and separated from finite existence, its essential quality is infinity. Therefore, Keter represents Divine infinity, undefined and immeasurable.
We must add a further characteristic to Keter, which arises specifically from the definition of Chokhma, the sefira that follows it. Chokhma is the beginning of "yesh" (existence), and it is the first instance of active Divine intervention in the world. The first movement, the first coming-into-being, begins with Chokhma. Although this movement lacks clear boundaries and, therefore, remains indefinable, it exists and is tangible. Keter, then, is not "something," and if it is not "something" (yesh) then it is "nothing" (ayin) – and this is the second principle appellation for the sefira of Keter. Keter is the Divine nothingness, the unknown, hidden Divine will – the "Will of wills."
These characteristics make Keter unfathomable, so to speak. A person who climbs the ladder of spirituality and wishes to attain lofty, Divine insights, may ascend from one sefira to the next, from one revelation to the next, from one Divine name to the next. Each sefira is another step on the ladder whose foot rests on the ground – in Malkhut – and whose head reaches the heavens. The inherent connection between a sefira and its predecessor makes it possible for a person to create a path for himself from Malkhut to Yesod, from Yesod to Hod, from Hod to Netzach, from Netzach to Tiferet, from Tiferet to Gevura, from Gevura to Chesed, from Chesed to Bina and from Bina to Chokhma. As he rises from one level to the next, the person leaves behind him another covering, another "garment." By doing so, his path becomes increasingly abstract, while his soul is gradually revealed by the progressive disappearance of all that separates it from infinity. Although this is all true and applies up to Chokhma, what happens beyond it?
In fact, Keter is not just another step on the ladder. It is not just a higher level: How is one to jump from "yesh" to "ayin," from the finite to the infinite? Thus Keter remains a sort of ancient dream, looking down towards Malkhut with a sense of: "Before you, you shall see the land but you shall not come to there" (Devarim 32). By presenting Himself as "Ehyeh asher Ehyeh" (I shall be what I shall be) (Shemot 3), the Holy One scolds Moshe, seeking to clarify to His nation Israel, via Moshe, His infinite and unfathomable nature. There is a supreme level that is not "I" – first person, nor "You" – second person, but rather something like "He" – the third person [in Hebrew, "nistar" – literally, "hidden"]. Based this message to the people, the scholars of Kabbala identify the name Ehyeh with the sefira of Keter.
Any attempt to touch, to understand, or to define, will immediately cast us towards the finite, existent yesh. Simultaneously, it will distance us light years from the hidden, supreme, and infinite ayin. Thus Keter seemingly becomes an aim that is, by definition, unattainable. Our existence and essence belong to the world of yesh. As a result, the fundamental characteristic inborn within us that allows us to encounter existence via defining concepts is what seemingly prevents us from touching Keter for all eternity.
To be or not to be
Along comes R. Nachman with his bold assertion that it is possible to have a taste of Keter. This "Keter" comes from the exact expression that would seem to testify to distance and concealment: Ehyeh. Based on the role of Ehyeh as "to be," a person can touch Keter when he prepares himself "to be" in the world, or – in R. Nachman's words – "that he will have existence." Keter is the inner vitality that is connected neither to content nor meaning, but rather to existence in and of itself. It is embodied by the very idea of "being," the concept of Ehyeh, giving every thing and every creature its life force. The degree of concealment in Keter, says R. Nachman, depends on the person's consciousness. "To be or not to be," R. Nachman declares, "that is the question." When a person acts in order that he will have existence, he merits the aspect of Keter. When he does not act, Keter is hidden from him.
Many Chassidic and Kabbalistic teachers have addressed man's ability to encounter Keter. What is common to all of them is that the only way to achieve this is to stop "being." As long as a person exists, even if only in his consciousness, there is an impenetrable barrier between him and the infinite. "Nothingness" is unattainable in so far as a person "is." In contrast, R. Nachman teaches that in order to attain Keter one must simply "be." Therefore, the path towards Keter begins in the most simple of places: where a person is; not in relation to God or to visions, but rather in relation to his surroundings.
R. Nachman opens with the assertion that when a person attains worldly honor, others around him will sooner or later attack him because of it. This attack can come in the form of "shaming and spilling of blood." (The intention of the expression "spilling of blood" here seems to allude to the teaching (Bava Metzia 58b) that "a person who embarrasses his friend in public is considered as though he spilled his blood.") R. Nachman teaches that the shaming and spilling of blood are only an expression of the same hiding of the face of Ehyeh. This is a situation in which God's honor is concealed and hidden, while worldly honor is what fills all of the person's Malkhut (kingdom). The same Malkhut that is supposed to clear space for God's honor to fill is garbed in the external "honor of kings."
The shame and humiliation that a person absorbs, R. Nachman enlightens us, actually serve as an indication or "warning light" that helps him to perceive the level on which he lives. The insults and abuse remind him that "when he dies he will take nothing with him; his honor will not descend with him [to the grave]" (Tehillim 49:18). Those who seek to "spill a person's blood" indicate that his life is being lived on a level on which his blood is dominant. The left side of his heart, which represents the place of his drives and desires, is filled with blood, the expression of a person's most basic existence. This person is full of himself and of his most primal, lowly materiality; he leaves no place for something higher to enter.
This is not existence. From this perspective, the person is living like an animal and "there is no difference between man and beast, for all is vanity" (Kohelet 3). Perhaps we may interpret this, from a Chassidic angle, as teaching that man's advantage over animals is only in the ayin and Keter. Everything else would be associated with the notion of yesh, in which there is no difference between man and animal. As we have seen in the past, "two kings cannot share the same crown." When a person is full of his own honor, the honor of kings, there is no space available within him to receive and to be nourished by the Divine infinity that is concealed in the recesses of his soul.
Those who spill a person's blood try to create an empty space in his soul. By attempting to injure someone else, one demonstrates that the level on which the injured party lives is a level on which human honor occupies space, and it is therefore relevant to humiliate him.
Just as this situation simply reflects the concealment of Keter from this person, so too the remedy for it involves revealing anew the face of Keter.
When a person hears himself being insulted and refrains from responding, he is elevated from the level on which he lived to a completely different plane. Within one second he has forgone his worldly honor. Silence here is not just an "absence of response;" it is an act of relinquishing, of paradigm shifting. In R. Nachman's words, he turns his blood – dam – into silence – dom. However, not just regular silence, but silence unto God – "dom la-Hashem." Immediately, the person is emptied of all the hot blood that flooded him when he was faced with all the insults and shame, and he is left with a big empty hole inside. Subsequently, from the depths of his soul, from the ayin, the Divine Keter, the honor of the living God, rushes to fill the space.
Attention should be paid to the double meaning that R. Nachman gives to the expression, "the Holy One makes bodies (chalalim) fall before him." It may refer to the empty space (chalal) that is created in the left side of the person's heart. On the other hand, it perhaps represents those who insult and abuse, who fall before him with God's help.