The value of getting out of the way and experiencing radical wonder
(photos from chabad.org)
You may have heard of figure-ground reversal. That’s when you switch the foreground for the background and vice versa. For instance, looking past the vase to see the faces that form its background.
This is how we create new ideas. We are the vase, the faces are the idea. We put ourselves in the background, quiet and out of the way, to let this new idea take the foreground and centre stage.
The same applies to teaching a student, raising a child or counseling a fellow human being. Those who are good at these things know the secret of being there by getting out of the way.
Yet, ironically, the reason we are getting out of the way is because, eventually, that is the way we will be most present. We will be present in our idea as it becomes a tangible creation, or in this other person as the seed we planted in his or her mind begins to grow.
That’s a divine experience, because drawing on this experience allows us to have a sense of G-d’s act of creation and His purpose in doing so.
Originally, there was only One: a singularity without bounds. The kabbalists use the term “Infinite Light.” Trying to imagine Infinite Light is a self-defeating venture. If the light is infinite, there’s no room left for anything else, not even for someone observing this light – even from his own imagination. How can you imagine a situation that leaves you no room to exist?
And that’s really the most wondrous thing about the Infinite Light: that a finite, bounded creation could emerge from there. But it does, because when there are truly no bounds, even the impossible is possible.
Creation, then, was a figure-ground reversal of this state of the Infinite Light. It was the Infinite stepping aside, hiding behind the curtains so that a finite world could take centre stage. Previously, that finite world may as well have been a movie projected onto a screen in the bright sunlight of midday, or a 20-watt light show dancing deep within the orb of the sun. Even those examples are woefully insufficient to describe what it means for a finite impossibility to be utterly subsumed within an infinite context. And now, as the Infinite Light recedes within itself, this world takes on a life of its own. Now all the parameters and patterns that we call the laws of nature step into the foreground. A profusion of disparate events and distinct particles emerges. A world.
Could there be a oneness behind this plurality, a singularity from which all of nature emerges? Rationally, it would seem so. A powerful mind could even attempt to visualize how this must be so. But the tangible, maddening experience of life drowns that sense of reason with its clamor, declaring the very opposite.
Now consider this. What was a radical proposition in the original state – the act of existence – now becomes the mundanely obvious. And what was most apparent and obvious – the singularity of the Infinite Light – now becomes a wondrous concept beyond our imagination.
This, then, is the goal of our labor of life, the meaning behind our struggle with the everyday world to wring out its hidden treasures. We are healing this reversal. With every purposeful act, we are bringing the world to such a state that it itself should openly express the harmony of its underlying oneness, so that the singularity of the Infinite Light – that which we call G-dliness – will be as apparent as before the creation.
But, it’s not so simple. If the background steps back into the foreground, what have we accomplished? Doesn’t that simply void the original reversal? Won’t all of existence once again be swallowed back within its womb?
This is where our metaphors of creator and creation, teacher and student, parent and child, counselor and counseled become useful once again. In all of these, the purpose of getting out of the way is not in the absence itself. It is to be present even more so, which is possible only within a space that seems so far outside of us.
Here is a world that seems so far outside the oneness its Creator. Yet the further it seems from Him, the more He can be expressed within it.
How will it occur? Perhaps, in a future time of plenty, peace and harmony, men and women will be disillusioned with materialism and dedicate their minds to focusing on inner truths. Such was the case in ancient Israel, when prophets and enlightened souls were to be found on every hilltop and orchard.
Certainly, something of that sort will occur, but it would not present any healing. If the Infinite Light can only be found by transcending the physical world, then what have we accomplished in all our labor with this place?
Perhaps it will be through some massive revelation, by a great light from above – as was the case in Solomon’s Temple, where any person who entered lost all sense of self and was lifted to an entirely new world.
But that, too, would be a failure. It would not be this world speaking, but some supernal light. The world itself would remain unhealed.
Rather, the world will remain a material world, our eyes will remain physical eyes, and all of human experience will function just the same. The rods and cones by which we see, the drum and tendrils by which we hear and the grey matter that processes all that stimuli – they will see and hear and process G-dliness as clearly and as evidently as today they see material objects and hear physical sounds. The little child jumping rope outside, the construction worker drilling steel girders, the ocean’s roar and the big blue sky will all speak of the oneness that breathes within all of them, without need to sit and ponder. It will be the foreground experience. Because this is what they all truly are.
The material world will no longer conceal the light. Quite the contrary, it will be the device through which we can perceive and absorb that light. Because that is the purpose for which it was originally created.
“I will pour My spirit upon all flesh and your sons and daughters will prophesy….” (Joel 1:1)
“And the glory of G-d will be revealed, and all flesh shall see….” (Isaiah 40:5)
Will there still be wonder? Yes. What will be wondrous and astounding is that this could actually be happening in a material world, that the infinite could be expressed within finite bounds. There will always be wonder.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at chabad.org, also heads the Ask the Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. This article is based on Maamar V’nacha Alav, 5725. To subscribe to regular updates of the Freeman Files, visit chabad.org.