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Posted on November 30, 2009 By Rabbi Yaakov Feldman | Series: | Level:


Let’s digress a bit now and talk about time — about “before” and “after”, as well as about “nothing” and “something”, and about “reality” and “non-reality” [1].

We’re conditioned to think that there has never been a time when there wasn’t “time” and that there’ll never be a time without it, as if time were a set and fundamental element of reality. Speaking of the latter, we’re also conditioned to think of “reality” as we know it as a fundamental element of the cosmos, and that without that “reality” there’d simply be no existence or life (either as we know it or beyond it). And it’s also true to say that everything we know of (and most of what we don’t know of) is “something” and certainly not “nothing”, otherwise it wouldn’t be. But none of that’s true, as we’re about to learn.

The truth is that everything but everything had to have been created by G-d, hence nothing — not even things as seemingly fundamental as the air we breathe, which is also up for grabs — is indispensable. Oh, they’re indispensable as far as we’re concerned, but not indispensable in G-d’s reckoning. “Time” was created fresh [2], each instance of “something” was created anew out of the essential no-thing that preceded it, and “reality” as we know it was, too [3].

They all could have come about, to be sure, since G-d certainly had the wherewithal to create them. But they didn’t have to exist; it’s not like they were just waiting in the wings, if you will, lingering in the background and anxious to fulfill their potential while knowing all along that they would. Time, reality, and everything else in the here-and-now could have always been un-created, forever subsumed in the vast and terrible never-to-have-been.

Some have misunderstood that last point, though. They actually believed that whatever exists in the world somehow waited to exist beforehand in a realm they’d perhaps term “the (invisible and inchoate) world of potentiality” [4]. As a consequence they likewise believed that reality and the cosmos always existed, without G-d having created all that. But that’s obviously not what the Jewish Tradition teaches.


In short, not only do we firmly believe that “In the beginning, G-d created the Heavens and the Earth” (Genesis 1:1) out of the no-thing state that preceded it; we also believe that the no-thing state is G-d’s own, and that it’s inexplicable as a consequence [5]. It’s inexplicable for the most part because not only is there no-thing there, there’s also no “before” and “after” there, and “reality” as we know it is actually a form of “non-reality” there which we simply cannot fathom.

And there’s certainly not anything like a state of “potentiality” in which things are waiting to be brought to “actualization”, which is actually Ramchal’s main point here.

Rather, G-d purposefully and specifically created the phenomena of potentiality and actualization when He created the universe altogether. Potentiality was created with the very first of the Ten Utterances, “In the beginning …” [6], and all instances of actualization flowed forth from there, by means of the emanations that G-d instituted that we cited in the previous chapter.


[1] Let’s not forget that the subject at hand, despite the sidetracks we’d been taking along the way, is the whys and wherefores of wrong and injustice (see 3:1). We discussed the emanations G-d uses to manage the cosmos (3:2), we learned about the role of G-d’s will in those emanations (3:3), and we’re about to discuss the rather abstruse subject of “potentiality” versus “actualization” in this chapter and to reflect upon whether they’re intrinsic parts of the universe or not.

The latter is brought up mainly because believing that potentiality and actualization were intrinsic parts of the universe would deny that G-d created the universe ex nihilo (since the phenomena of potentiality and actualization would have been part of the universe’s hard-wiring rather than add-ons just as everything else was), and the Tradition adamantly asserts the truth of creation ex nihilo (as we discussed in section 2 of Ramchal’s Introduction).

We’ll touch on other things seemingly tangential to the issue of the place of wrong and injustice soon after this chapter, too. Ramchal does tie this chapter in with the idea of G-d’s emanations at the very end of the chapter, though, as we’ll see.

All that seeming obfuscation is unavoidable, we’re afraid. For as we’d said very early on, one has to keep his “eye on the ball” when studying Da’at Tevunot (see 1:1:1), as so much is discussed in depth that is of such importance that a lot of groundwork has to be laid in order to understand the truths revealed. That’s all the more so true of the ancient concern known as “Theodicy”, the place of wrong and injustice in a good and loving G-d’s universe. We’ll try to tie all the loose ends together further on in this section.

Much of what’s touched on in this chapter will be discussed in ¶ 194 later on; also see 1:19:2 above. See Moreh Nevuchim 2:18, as pointed out in R’ Shriki’s note 69. That note also has Kabbalistic references, for which also see R’ Goldblatt’s notes 4-6 here, and his very thorough notes 39-43 on pp. 479-482 of his edition.

[2] First off, notice that the sun and the moon which we use to reckon day and night were created on the fourth day (see Genesis 1: 16-18), proving that days 1 – 3 were not actual time-bound days but were simply termed “days” so that we could relate to and follow the sequence that was presented in the creation story. The point is that “days” and “time” weren’t part of the fabric of reality but were instead created outright by G-d; and that so-called time only exists (better said, it only functions) for our sakes.

Others (aside from Albert Einstein, of course) spoke of the relativity and hence “wobbliness” and non-essentiality of time. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler pointed out in his Michtav Ma’Eliyahu (vol. 2, p. 150) that “man’s impressions of time are relative to his sensations”, and they’re thus not stand-alone real and absolute. And so for example he points out that “a ‘year’ in a child’s life seems to him to be far longer-lasting than the one we know of, since everything is new to him”, and he packs more into the year while experiencing it as being far fuller than we do.

[3] Pre-creation no-thing and actual reality — G-d’s realm, if you will — is far beyond our ken, as we’d pointed out before.

[4] Plato and the Neo-Platonists, for example, spoke of “The world of Ideas” within which ideal potential forms existed in the abstract, waiting to serve as ideal models to their earthly phenomena. And Aristotle’s referred to a realm of pure potentiality.

[5] We tried to depict the G-dly realm that preceded the creation of all things as non-material as possible and so we termed it “no-thing”. We didn’t want to refer to it as “nothing” per se, as that would seem to label G-d “nothing”, Heaven forefend.

[6] Which we’re taught was an Utterance unto itself rather than just the introductory phrase for “G-d created the heavens and the Earth” (see Rosh Hashanah 32a).

Rabbi Yaakov Feldman has translated and commented upon “The Gates of Repentance”, “The Path of the Just”, and “The Duties of the Heart” (Jason Aronson Publishers). His works are available in bookstores and in various locations on the Web.

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