21 Shevat 5772 / February 14, 2012
The Talmud relates that the wise men of Athens asked Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananya: “Where is the center of the universe?” He raised his finger, and said, “Here!” They asked: “Who could prove it?” He replied: “Bring ropes and measure it” (Bechorot 8b).
Rabbi Yehoshua did not have the arrogance of the many who instinctively consider themselves as the center-point of the universe, for whom time began the day they were born and will end with their death… and “après moi, le deluge” (“after I’m gone, let there be a flood for all I care”). Rather, R. Yehoshua gestured to a point outside of himself, yet directly before him.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in his teaching in Likutey Moharan I:24 explains that the elders of Athens were really asking R. Yehoshua how one may apprehend the light of Eyn Sof, the Infinite One, Who is the “Center of the Universe” from which all draw life and sustenance. By raising his finger, R. Yehoshua indicated that through our blessings and prayers, the mind ‘strikes’ Keter, the Crown, source of all creation, thereby producing ‘chambers’ in the mind through which we may fleetingly glimpse the Infinite Light, which is intrinsically beyond our comprehension.
The Good Point
Without investigating the mystical depths of this pathway of devotion, we may also make a simple connection between R. Yehoshua’s pointing directly in front of him and Rabbi Nachman’s fundamental teaching about how we may dispel depression and attain joyous connection with God through searching until we find some life-giving “good point”. This “point” may lie within ourselves, it may be in other people around us, or in the Tzaddik to whom we attach ourselves as our guide in life (Likutey Moharan I:282 & I:34). Every day, at every moment, God is sending us hints through our thoughts, through everything we and others say, and through all that is happening around us (Likutey Moharan I:54). These are all “points of connection” with God.
For the Infinite God – the Center of the Universe – is always present in the “point” directly before us, here and now, just as He is present in every “point” and detail of creation! For that reason, if we ask where is the Center of the Universe, we may justly lift a finger and point right here!
The Vacated Space
The Kabbalistic narrative of the beginning of creation explains that initially there was only Eyn Sof, the Infinite God, and since all was infinity there was no finite “space” in which a limited, created universe could exist. For that reason, the first act of creation was Tzimtzum, (a “contraction”) whereby God “contracted”, occluded and withdrew His infinite light to the sides, leaving an “empty” or “vacated space” (chalal panui) in the middle, in which a finite universe could exist without being obliterated by the all-encompassing infinity. It was into this vacated space that God radiated a single point of light that steadily extended as a line, and filled the space with what became the created worlds. “And there was light” (Genesis 1:3; Eytz Hayim Introduction).
Rabbi Nachman explains that the concept of this “vacated space” involves a self-contradiction that is beyond our ability to resolve in our present state of existence. For this “space” (or “meta-space”) within which place and time as we experience them exist, is apparently devoid of Godliness. Indeed, most people seemingly do not naturally see or feel God all around them but have to search in order to find Him. Yet nothing can exist without God, so He must be present even in the “empty space” (see Likutey Moharan I:64).
It would be futile to attempt to unravel the conundrum of the “Vacated Space”, but we may surely connect the idea of the “point” of light from which all creation begins with Rabbi Nachman’s teaching about the “good point” that a person finds amidst their inner darkness, which is the start of all personal redemption. For Rabbi Nachman teaches that our own personal self-creation and spiritual development follows the stages of the macrocosmic creation, starting with Tzimtzum, a willful self-limitation that enables us to begin to reveal our inner potential in a graded, steady manner (see Likutey Moharan I:49).
In the Kabbalistic narrative or parable of creation, the “Empty Space” is brought into being through God’s Infinite Light being withdrawn “to the sides” so as to occlude or conceal His Infinity from the inhabitants of created space. Metaphorically, this finite space in comparison to Infinity is a mere speck or dot. It is “surrounded on all sides” by the all-encompassing Infinity, just as the dot or point at the center of a circle is surrounded equally on all sides by the curved line of the circle. No one point on the circle is any nearer to or further away from the center-point than any other: every single point on the circle is equally far or near to the center, because that is the nature of a circle.
Rabbi Yehoshua’s raising his finger to point to the dot right in front of him as the center of the universe seems outrageous, because anybody else anywhere else in the world could equally point to the dot in front of them! “How could you prove it?” protest the men of Athens. When Rabbi Yehoshua mockingly challenges them to “bring ropes and measure it”, he is surely saying that the Center of the Universe must not be confused with the physical center of created space (which also cannot ultimately be measured, and all of the cosmological speculations seeking to quantify the age or size of the universe are obviously more ridiculous than ants trying to measure the bredth and depth of the oceans). The Kabbalah is not speaking about a physical circle, but employing the image of a circle in relation to its center point as a graphic metaphor expressing how God’s Infinity surrounds us all equally on every level.
Thus the true center of the universe is always right here in front of us, just as it is always everywhere for all people, if they will but grasp it. This is because the Infinite God totally encompasses all created space, time and soul on every level. Anywhere and everywhere in created space is a mere dot in relation to the surrounding Infinity, and no one dot in the material world is nearer to or farther from the surrounding infinity than any other. At different times in life people may feel themselves or others to be “nearer to” or “farther from” God, but in actual fact God is equally near to and far from everyone, from the highest to the very lowest!
God is always present
This is a tremendously liberating idea, because it means that at this and every other moment, wherever and in whatever situation I may be, God is always equally near to me, for His encompassing Infinity surrounds me at all times on all sides.
God is not just “big”. He is called “the great one” (hagadol, Deuteronomy 10:17) not because of being “large” in the mere physical sense, but because He is simultaneously present on all planes, vitalizing every level from the highest to the lowest. Indeed, one of the marks of God’s greatness is His “humility”, His ability to extend to the very tiniest, lowliest levels of creation and dwell with the meek, the poor and oppressed. God is to be found in the smallest details of the world, each completely unique.
Thus the sages taught that “In every place where you find God’s greatness, you also find His humility” (Megilla 31a). A mortal ruler may at best mass-produce coins, stamping each with the same imprint so that all are identical. But God stamps each and every individual in the mold of Adam yet not one of them is similar to any other (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5). Thus God’s loving, attentive and responsive detailed providential rule over every tiny dot in creation (hashgachah pratit) is called His “greatness” (see Likutey Moharan I:250).
This is why even the tiniest point of good that we find in ourselves or in some other person or situation is truly a power-point of divine potential that we may with God’s help succeed in expanding, manifesting and actualizing, if we make the right efforts.
Extending the point to make a line of light
In the Kabbalistic narrative of creation, this steady expansion and actualization of the potential contained in the “point” is expressed in the idea that the tiny dot or residue of God’s light that radiates into the Vacated Space extends as a line that successively expands until it fills the entire space. (A line by definition is an extension from some initial “point”.)
Thus Rabbi Nachman teaches that all our spiritual work is to bring different kinds of projects that we initially conceive in our minds and hearts “in potential”, stage by stage to their complete actualization in the time and space in which we live. This is accomplished through praying to God about all the details of what we seek to do, thereby “birthing” the project in question (Likutey Moharan I:66, 2 & I:60, 5).