The Light and the Vessels
By Rami Aloni
Much is spoken in Kabbalistic and Chassidic thought about ohr and kaylim, which translate as light and vessels. The two form a very important and basic concept that has wide application.
Let us now understand the meaning and importance of these terms.
Light requires an illuminator or a source. It does not exist by itself but rather it is derived from a source, like the sunlight comes from the sun. In mystical thought, G-d is referred to as the ultimate source, or even more so, as the Source of sources. Before the world was created, there existed only G-d in total permanence and expansion. When G-d decided to create the world, he did so by creating a place within Himself and then creating within that place a void as will be explained.
The void that he created is not to be understood as a real void with nothing in it, but rather a void that is a place where the existence of G-d could not be comprehended or revealed. It is not that there was nothing in the void, but rather the essence of G-d contracted to create an empty place in which a world could be built.
However, both inside the void and outside of it, G-d’s presence exists with equality, just as it existed before the void was created. The difference was that now there existed an area that had the dimension of non-revelation of G-d.
To create a place within Himself cannot be understood simply like a person making a hollow area in his stomach. G-d does not have a body that he could create within Himself something. What mysticism explains is that He emanated light – light being the aspect of revelation – and it was within this light (revelation) that the void (non-revelation) was formed.
Now the concept of light first comes into existence in mystical thought as a place. Light is used only as means of describing something that really cannot be described. What really happened cannot be described in the actual terms of what happened; therefore, the Cabbalists use the metaphor of light. It means that something was created outside of G-d through a means that is totally external to Him. Like the reflection of light from a sun that comes not as an effort of the sun, nor is the sunlight the same as the sun, but a secondary happening that is totally external to the sun in a manner that no matter what is done to the sun light will not effect the sun - it is merely a power given off by the sun. So too here, the ‘light’ emanated from G-d, irregardless of the high potential of power and holiness has no effect on G-d Himself.
Like G-d, light has no dimension and cannot be seen or felt by the traditional methods yet we can easily realize its presence. In the void space, the light was divided into a light that could not be seen (the void) and the light which could be apprehended (the area outside of the void).
It was into this void that a small amount of visible light was introduced from beyond the void. It was from this ‘introduced light’ that the entire physical universe was created. Created first were the upper worlds, the worlds of the angels and of the souls. Although we consider the worlds of the angels to be a spiritual world, and so it is, however in relation to G-d, even the spiritual is physical.
Last of all was created this lower world upon, and in which, we live. Each level of creation became a vehicle from which the world below it was created. Each level of creation constituted a reduction in the original light that was originally introduced into the hollow void.
The purpose and reason behind the reduction (which in Hebrew is referred to as tzimtzum) of the light was to prevent the worlds from ceasing to exist. For had the created world been exposed (or had seen) the light of the world above it, which is its source, it would leave the world in which it resides and melt into that light, its origin and cease its existence.
The light fulfils two purposes: one, it creates and sustains that which is created through the will of G-d and two, it hides and conceals the Creator from being exposed and revealed.
Until now we have explained the aspect of light, now we shall turn our discussion towards that of vessels. A vessel as we understand one is something that holds something else. A coffee cup holds coffee. If I wanted to drink coffee, I would have difficulty in drinking it unless I put it in a cup. The cup is a vessel. I may not particularly want a cup for itself, but I want it and need it for something else – the liquid that is inside.
In our case, it is necessary for the creation of lower worlds to create vessels that could hold the light. The original light was too great to create a world since the original light was of the dimension of the infinite and the concept of worlds are from the dimension of finite. To transcend from the infinite to the finite requires a radical transformation. The first vessel was created to contain the infinite light; it had the dimension of the infinite at the same time the finite.
A great part of Kabbalah deals with the primordial vessels shattering from the introduction of light, but we are not going to deal with this aspect. This is called the worlds of tohu, anarchy. Perhaps another time we will discuss this important subject.
What did happen was that the light went into the vessels and the lower world and worlds, which were to be created, were shielded from the light that exists above it and is it source of existence. This was the aspect of tikun, building or repair.
Now the vessels in turn became a source of light for the world below it creating another world in the same fashion until this lower world for which there is no world below was created. The light that radiated from the upper vessels was greatly reduced from the light that entered the vessel. Hence, the upper worlds became a light for the lower worlds. In this manner, the lower worlds could never see its source (and hence self-destruct) and a constant source of energy could be directed down into the lower worlds.
Realize that not all vessels can hold light; the vessel must be equal to the very light that it contains. The higher level from which the light emanates requires a vessel of purer character. The lower level of light can utilize a vessel of coarser quality.
As an example, in the iron mills where iron is produced from raw material, the iron is poured out of the furnaces at a very high temperature into a cup that is designed to hold molten iron. A cup such as that would never be used to hold wine; rather a wine glass would be used for wine. If we were to pour wine into the crucible used for holding molten iron, we would in effect take away the specialness of the wine. Conversely, if we were to pour molten metal into a wine glass we could expect to see the glass burst and shatter. The cup must be appropriate for the liquid that is poured into it. Similarly, the vessels must be appropriate for the light that is put into it.
If the vessel is too coarse, then the light will not illuminate and radiate from it. Conversely, if the light is too great in intensity, it will shatter the vessel. Each vessel must be appropriate for the light that is put into it.
In a similar manner, many people desire to become spiritual. If they do not refine themselves, they are similar to a vessel that is very coarse from which no light can emanate. We say that the vessel is too thick and no light (spirituality can penetrate). On the other hand, we have seen people who choose to live a spiritual life and yet they seem to have lost their bearings, living a weird life style, much different from the rest of us. Here we say that they have too much light and not enough vessel.
The purpose of life in this world is to make one’s self into a vessel in which light can emanate and then refine the vessel and draw down a light that is even greater. The body is the basic vessel and the light of G-dliness is to be drawn down into it to the point in which it begins to emanate from the person. This can only be accomplished through two processes: realization and denial of the limits of the physical and realization of the G-dliness in this world and other worlds.
In order to purify the body from the body’s natural tendency to accept the physical as being the total reality requires denying the body its indulgence in physical pleasures. (Here we stress indulgence, as opposed to moderation.) This together with contemplation and meditation on G-d in all of His manifestations in this world and the upper worlds will bring about two changes. The body (vessel) will loss its coarseness and an awareness of the spiritual (light) will permeate the being. This is only accomplished by studying of the Torah in a manner that allows one to immerse the entire mind into holiness for extended periods of time. In this manner, an awareness of G-d’s presence and desires in this world will become apparent and the correct manner of using this world will cause a further purification and moderation in the physical pleasures.
from the June 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine