Rabbi Isaac Luria proposed that man’s existence and independence became possible when God “contracted” (tzimtzum) in order to allow for the creation of the material universe and all that would exist within it. This also allowed human beings the “space” to exist, to think, and to act — in other words, it enabled free will rather than a will that is controlled or constrained by God’s very existence.
I prefer to express this thought with the language of restraint rather than contraction. God limited his power so that the material creation could exist and restrained his middah of judgment so that humans would not be destroyed upon the first sin. Within that space of God’s self-limitation, humans can choose to draw near to God or distance themselves.
-Rabbi Carl Kinbar
Commentary on the middah of adaptability
I was thrilled to discover this commentary on adaptability was written by one of my favorite people both within the Messianic Jewish movement and in general. I’ve often wished I could access more of his writing than I’ve done in the past.
I’d read before about God and the (supposed) act of tzimtzum but hadn’t seen it expressed within the current context. God restrained Himself to give humanity not only room to exist, but room to have autonomy and free will.
“Everything is in the hands of Heaven except the fear of Heaven.”
Looking back over my life, both distant events and recent ones, I sometimes wish God didn’t restrain Himself and that His thoughts automatically became my thoughts. No free will, just the will of God. Life would be so much easier, but would this then be paradise or enslavement? Without free will, we cannot sin against God but then neither can we choose Him. There’s no merit in good deeds if we follow God only because His Presence makes it impossible to reject Him.
Free will makes victory over the self sweet but the defeat is all too bitter. But while free will gives us something in common with God, we, like God, can also exercise tzimtzum, as Rabbi Kinbar states:
Professor Mordechai Rotenberg of the Rotenberg Center for Jewish Psychology applies the concept of tzimtzum to his therapeutic practice. According to Rotenberg, tzimtzum (or self-limitation) applies to all interpersonal relationships, which are based on either an “I and Thou” pattern or an “I or thou” pattern.” In the “I or thou” pattern, there are hostile relations between the “I” and the “you”. They are constantly contending for the same space at the expense of the other. In the “I and thou” pattern, “I” and the “other” act in co-existence. They demonstrate the middah of adaptability when “I” evacuates space for “thou” and “thou” is willing to expand into the evacuated space.
When one person chooses to limit himself so that the other can thrive, the other can feel free to expand into the vacated space. Thus the process of self-limitation and self-expansion exist in a dynamic process that is expressed differently in different relationships, different situations, and different times of life.
The blogosphere can be very “I” oriented, with various bloggers jockeying for position to take the upper hand in some sort of theological or other argument. I saw it just the other day in a debate on Facebook, and it’s a very familiar dynamic.
I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You’re a plague and we are the cure.
-Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving)
from the film The Matrix (1999)
But as we see, we are designed by God to have a choice. We don’t have to possess and consume everything within our sphere of influence. We don’t have to control and dominate every situation or person we encounter. We can withdraw so that others can advance:
The middah of adaptability expresses itself in both self-limitation and self-expansion. It does not require that we limit ourselves when this is not appropriate for a healthy relationship; neither does it require us to expand simply because the other person limits himself. Instead, it requires individuals to work together in their relationships, both expressing the middah of adaptability.
I think our relationships, both face-to-face and online, would be a lot more healthy if we practiced this middah more consistently and effectively. But it’s not just between two or more people where this middah is appropriate and necessary:
We need to follow the rules, but that alone doesn’t produce virtue, which is the goal of mussar. To arrive at virtue we’ll have to adapt, to grow, to change. It occurs to me during this month of Elul (which is traditionally a time of spiritual preparation leading up to the High Holy Days) that teshuvah or repentance is the height of adaptability. It means not just adapting to this or that circumstance, but rending our hearts, not our garments, and returning to the Lord (Joel 2:13).
-Rabbi Russ Resnik
“Adaptability and Teshuvah”
Commentary on the middah of adaptability
Teshuvah or repentance is an act of adaptability because it requires sometimes radical change to completely turn around and return to God. But it also requires that we limit ourselves and withdraw to allow more of God to advance in our lives.
You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but, ‘I have been sent ahead of Him.’ He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been made full. He must increase, but I must decrease.
–John 3:28-30 (NASB)
Like John (Yochanan) the Baptist (Immerser), we must decrease to let God increase in our lives. This is necessary to accomplish the goal of Mussar which R. Resnik defines as producing virtue in our lives.
God is infinite and all-powerful and it took an act of His Will to withdraw or restrict Himself so He didn’t simply overwhelm us with everything that He is. He made a choice and thus allows us to make choices as well. To the best of my knowledge, we are unique in all of God’s Creation because He chooses not to barge into our lives. We have to invite Him in.
Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me. He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne.
Many Christian Pastors and teachers often take verse twenty from this letter to the community in Laodicea out of context to make it say (probably) what it doesn’t actually say. I’m doing the same thing here, but first of all, I admit it, and secondly, I’m doing so to make a point. God, like the Kingdom of Heaven, is always present and “standing” just on the other side of the door, so to speak. God (and the Kingdom of Heaven) can enter at any moment, but we are in control of when (or if) that moment will occur.
Obviously, I’m speaking (writing) metaphorically, but as difficult as it may seem, all we really have to do is open the door and invite Him into our living room, or, speaking of eating, kitchen. It’s Chanukah. Maybe He likes latkes.
I’m at a point in life, though, in which radical change looks difficult. The pathways are worn deep and it’s hard to break out. But the prophets that we read during this season remind us that adaptability – even in its most radical form, teshuvah – is a gift, like all the middot. Hashem says “Return to me and I’ll return to you” (Zech. 1:3, Mal. 3:7) and in response we can say “Turn us back to you and we shall return” (Lam. 5:21).
OK, so maybe it’s not all that easy, even if change, by inviting God to occupy more of our lives, seems simple at its core. But as Rabbi Resnik says, change and teshuvah are a gift from God. If we return to God, He will return to us, if we invite Him in, He will enter.
The Talmud says, “The righteous are considered alive even after their death, whereas the wicked are considered dead even when they live” (Berachos 18a). The Torah considers the essence of human life to be spirituality rather than biology. Animals, too, breathe, look for food, seek shelter, reproduce and care for their young. Some show a degree of intelligence. Man is more than just an animal with greater intelligence. Man is a creature that can be master of his biology rather than a slave to it. A human being without spirituality is nothing more than an animal with intellect. He lives biologically, but is spiritually dead.