THE EXPRESSION IS, “You only get one shot at a first impression,” and in life, a first impression can mean everything. A good one can open doors for a person who might not be that worthy, and a bad first impression can leave a worthy person always fighting uphill.
The Hebrew word for impression is roshem, which may not mean that much…unless you learn Kabbalah. Then it means a ton, because the Roshem is why we’re here at all, and why we have all that we do and so much more than we don’t yet even know about. The amazing thing about this roshem is how so very little can result in so very much. It’s like watching a rough building sketch in the sand rise into a state-of-the-art skyscraper on the spot, and then some.
I have chosen to write about this now because I am currently involved in translating some material on the topic and am super amazed by the idea. I am also writing about it now because the material is from Rabbi Shlomo Elyashiv, zt”l, whose yahrzeit is next Monday, b”H, on the 27th of Adar. And you may notice that “Leshem Shevo v’Achlamah” is mentioned in this week’s parsha (Shemos 39:12), which also happens to be the name of all of Rabbi Elyashiv’s seforim. How’s that for hashgochah pratis!
The problem is that understanding and appreciating the idea of the Roshem requires a lot of background information, some of which I have mentioned piecemeal over the years, and most of which I have written about in my books. It would take too long and too many pages to do that here, so I feel like that rabbi who succumbed to temptation and golfed a hole-in-one one Shabbos morning on his way to shul. As God told some very confused angels (even a hole-in-one on a Shabbos morning is Divine Providence), “Who’s he going to tell?” In my case it is more like, “What am I going to tell?”
Maybe we should start with an analogy. It’s like a class that is supposed to have a new teacher. If the teacher introduces themself to the class on their first day, they’ll have a tough time from the beginning. But if the principal, whom the students fear, is the one to introduce the new teacher and ask for cooperation, the teacher may have a more respectful environment in which to begin. Even after the principal has left the room, the impression he leaves behind is usually enough to set the proper stage for the new teacher.
Now comes the hard part: translating a simple analogy into a sophisticated kabbalistic idea.
God can do anything He wants, any way He wants to do it. We can’t even confirm if our reality is actually occurring, or just taking place in our minds, whatever our minds may actually be. The mishnah in Pirkei Avos (5:1) questions why God made Creation in 10 statements because it knows that God could have done it in one, even none. When a human does something a specific way, it is often because of some limitation. When God does, it is only to give us the greatest good, and perhaps teach us something about life along the way.
We haven’t strayed from our topic. We’re just working our way towards the answer.
THERE ARE DIFFERENT levels of appreciation. The average person walking the street might marvel at a fancy car or enjoy a good steak, but rarely thinks about how amazing life is, or the world that supports it. A scientist who studies that world and pays closer attention to how it works should have a higher level of appreciation, but may pay little regard to how any of it became possible in the first place. He may not care about the process God used to make the potential that is the basis of all existence, especially if He has a difficult time believing in Him.
There is a difference between being God and just a god. All kinds of ancient societies believed in several gods at one time, which meant that each one had limited existence and power. Even though Zeus in Greek mythology was the boss, he was still dependent upon others to do his bidding. His thunderbolts could only do so much. He was limited.
God, on the other hand, shares nothing. He is infinite, omnipotent, and omniscient. He is not in the world. The world, by definition, is within Him (though He does an amazing job of hiding this from the unworthy). That’s a problem, because according to our understanding of infinity, nothing else should be able to exist besides God’s infinite light, especially us and our finite world.
We don’t know how that works, just how it came to be. God told us. God wanted to reveal Himself to something, though we don’t know why, other than that He is all good and wanted to do good to something else. Go figure. So He emanated a spiritual light from His Essence, which we don’t understand or talk about, and created a concept called Tzimtzum—Constriction. Nevertheless, this only resulted in Ohr Ain Sof—Light Without End, a spiritual light that was still very infinite except that it also possessed the potential for the future world of man.
The next step was to constrict that light even more, and this resulted in a spherical area called the Challal—Hollow. Compared to infinity it is very small, but compared to our universe, it is massive beyond comprehension though—and this is really important—quite limited. In fact, so limited that it resulted in something we take totally for granted but, which is what allows us to exist and make life meaningful: measurement. Without measurement nothing finite can exist, and there can be no up or down, right or left, small or big, etc.
The Challal therefore, was the net result of withdrawing Ohr Ain Sof back from a single point to a certain “area” beyond that point. What God was left with was a spherical area in which Ohr Ain Sof is no longer, surrounded by nothing but Ohr Ain Sof infinitely on all sides and in every direction, kept in place by nothing other than the will of God. The Challal is a spiritual “hole” that God “excavated” within Ohr Ain Sof in order to be a “construction site” for the future Creation.
Only one problem (at least). Excavating a hole only provides a place for future construction. Construction itself requires all the necessary materials which have to come from somewhere else, in this case the Ohr Ain Sof that was just evacuated. The Challal meant that Creation could now happen, but seemingly at the cost of losing the very potential to make it happen.
Unless of course, the Ohr Ain Sof, on its way out, left something behind…like a roshem, for example.
IN GENERAL, THE word means “residue.” If you let the water out of a bathtub, some water will remain on its walls that you can’t do much with, perhaps together with a soap film, but it certainly tells you that water once filled the tub. That’s the “impression” the water left on its way out.
Likewise, the roshem left by the Ohr Ain Sof on its way out, compared to the Ohr Ain Sof from which it came, was like residue of residue. Relative to its source, it was practically non-existent. And yet, it contained all the potential for any world that would ever exist, everything that would ever exist within it, and all that would ever occur. Compared to the Ohr Ain Sof it was next to nothing. Compared to anything we know, it is everything.
Nothing would have ever come of that potential though had God not let some more Ohr Ain Sof (Kav Ohr Ain Sof) back into the Challal to actualize the potential in the Roshem, but that’s an even longer story. Excavating for a skyscraper leaves nothing but a hole. “Excavating” for Creation left the possibility of a finite world and everything necessary to make it happen.
This was not the only level at which this occurred. This process of emanation and withdrawal happened all the way down, and still does. The emanation brings the potential down to a new and lower level, and the withdrawal leaves that potential behind in roshem form to later be actualized.
Even more amazing is how we, human beings, are the product of the same process and live by it as well. From birth we have all this potential that we do not know about or even sense, until something comes along to make us access it. The light that first led to our conception gave it to us, before withdrawing to another plane.
When it comes time to actualize a specific potential, God will emanate a new light that will result in some kind of event, perhaps a crisis of some sort, to cause us to act in a way to bring that specific potential into reality. It’s very similar to how the Kav Ohr Ain Sof later re-enters the Challal to activate potential in the Roshem to create new worlds and everything in them.
The point is that we have no idea of our potential unless we have already actualized some of it. We tend to look at life as just one random event after another, at least the ones that we don’t plan. But God knows exactly what we’re capable of, and when we need to find out for ourselves, the events of lives occur to help us do exactly that.
Change your approach to daily life. Get used to asking: What potential might this event, planned or unplanned, help me to actualize?
Ain Od Milvado, Part 32
THIS WAS THE Mishkan. Yes, it was a house of worship and spiritual focal point for the Jewish people. But it was also an “event” God sent our way to push us to new spiritual heights, just in the building of it. The events that led up to its construction, including the incident of the golden calf, were custom-designed to move the Jewish people to the next level at that stage of history. That’s the way it always works.
But what is it all leading towards? What is all our potential supposed to help us do? To become increasingly real with the realization that there is nothing other than God, because this is the ultimate potential waiting to be actualized. It sounds kind of trivial, but it is the basis of the ultimate prophecy for mankind: “God will be King over the entire earth. On that day, God will be One, and His Name, One” (Zechariah 14:9).
Obviously billions of people need to move up quite a few levels with respect to ain od Milvado. But even people who believe that they’ve got this idea down are capable of reaching much greater heights. It’s one thing to quote it, paint it on your car window, or make it into a bumper sticker, but it is something that is supposed to be forefront in our minds no matter what we experience.
For example, this means never getting frustrated or angry. God is behind what you’re going through, and it is for your good, as bad as it seems to you. If you watch the news, you shouldn’t hear a human anchorman, but God talking through their mouth saying, “Hi, I’m God. You want to see what I did today, as crazy as it may seem to you?”
You constantly hear today, “This world is so crazy!” or “People are so crazy!” It is true, but it is also all God. When Rebi Akiva said after his personal misfortune, “All that God does He does for the good,” he wasn’t simply just calming himself down. He was accepting that all of it had been to push him to a higher level of ain od Milvado, and it did.
The rabbis of the Mishnah said that they’d rather not live during the time of Moshiach’s arrival. They knew how confusing and difficult it would be to stay spiritually aligned. Today, you can’t afford to only talk ain od Milvado. You have to walk it too, and that is what all of the events of today have been sent to lead us to.