The Concept of Reality According to Chassidus

Let us begin with the Alter Rebbe’s concept of reality.

Torah begins with the account of Creation. Prior to Creation, there was nothing in existence except G-d. The Torah teaching is that G-d created the universe ex nihilo, out of nothingness. This phenomenon is certainly in defiance of all laws of nature. Anything that occurs against the laws of nature can exist only as there is a force to maintain its existence, otherwise it reverts to its natural state. For example, the law of gravity dictates that a rock lying on the ground will not lift off the ground unless there is a force stronger than the gravitational force that keeps it on the ground. If someone throws the rock into the air, it will remain aloft only to the extent of the energy that propelled it. When that energy is exhausted, the rock returns to its natural place, on the ground.

Inasmuch as creating something out of nothing is against the laws of nature, it follows that the universe can continue only as long as there is a force maintaining its existence. If such a force were to be withdrawn, the universe would immediately return to the natural pre-creation state: nothingness.

The Alter Rebbe states, therefore, that the Divine utterances that brought the universe into existence were not a one-time thing, but are ongoing, and it is these utterances that maintain the existence of the universe. This is the meaning of the verse, “Forever, Hashem, Your word stands firm in heaven” (Psalms 119:89).

Although the Torah refers to the Divine utterances of Creation as verbal commands, i.e., “G-d said,’ that is because we have no other way of grasping a command. However, G-d does not speak as humans do. Just as words reveal a person’s thoughts, the phrase “ Hashem said” is used to describe the Divine will. The “utterances” were emanations of G-dliness that brought into being and gave form to everything in the universe. Everything that exists does so only because of the nucleus of G-dliness that is within it that maintains it. If the nucleus of G-dliness were withdrawn, the object would cease to exist.

Although we can have no concept of the Divine essence, we use whatever words we possess to refer to G-dly attributes, with full realization that these are inaccurate and are essentially parabolic. Thus, the Torah says, “May G-d illuminate His countenance for you” (Numbers 6:25), and in the amidah we refer to “the light of Your countenance.” The Divine blessings are conceived of as emanations of His light. Inasmuch as the Divine emanations share in G-d’s infinity, their “light” is infinitely great.

If one held a lit match in front of a searchlight that had a million watt illumination, the flame of the match would not be detectable, because it would be obscured by the overwhelmingly greater light of the searchlight. Similarly, if the nucleus of G-dliness that is of infinite “brightness” and that is within everything in existence were visible to the human eye, it would so obscure everything that nothing in existence could be visible.

This can be extended even further. The flame of the match that is obscured by the powerful searchlight nevertheless does have an independent existence. It is just that it cannot be seen because it is overpowered by the much greater light of the searchlight. However, objects in creation do not have an independent existence. Their entire existence is the word of G-d, which is shielded in such a manner that we perceive them as independent objects.

It is because it is His wish that there be a physical world which will enable a person to do mitzvos that G-d so shielded the nucleus of Divinity in everything so that physical objects are visible to us (much as one can look at the sun only through heavily smoked glass). However, if we could perceive the real truth of existence, i.e., the Divine nucleus that maintains objects in existence, the objects themselves would not exist for us.

(It is jokingly related that a group of Chabad chassidim were discussing this chassidic philosophy deep into one Friday night, long after the candles had extinguished. They were focusing on the teaching that the only true existence is G-d. On the way out of the shul in the darkness, one chassid collided with the wood-burning stove, sustaining a blow to his forehead. He remarked, “Even if nothing in the world exists, the stove for sure exists.”)

There are thus two “realities:” (1) the true reality, which is that G-d is the only being in the universe, (2) the reality that G-d wishes us to perceive, in which there are physical objects, which enable us to carry out the Divine will of performing the mitzvos. This is a reality in which G-d’s presence is obscured, but one must know that all that we can see and touch is totally dependent on G-d for its existence.

A rebbe was sitting with several of his chassidim, and asked, “Do you believe in G-d?” They were taken aback and said, “Of course we believe in G-d.” The rebbe said, “Well, I don’t believe in G-d.”

The chassidim were stunned. Then the rebbe asked, “Do you believe that this is a table, or do you know that it is a table? There is no need to believe in something you see. You know it is there. Similarly, I don’t believe in G-d because I know he exists.”

Great tzaddikim knew that everything in existence is sustained by a Divine nucleus within it. We must believe it.

The Alter Rebbe elaborates on this concept, but for our purpose of understanding the psychology in Tanya, this general idea suffices.