The recent attempt on behalf of scientists, physicists, psychologists and countless others to uncover the depth and basic form of reality awakens certain questions and murmurings. Why now? Why ever? If reality as we know it in our individual, as well as universal consciousness works, if the way things are just seem to flow naturally with the external stimuli we experience, why question it?
Many a man has attempted to tear the delicate quilt of waking reality asunder in the hopes of finding a subterranean significance within the chaotic abyss, and all return with a face full of ash as the traumatic abyss stares right back at them.
This movement, this drive to uncover the basic makeup of our reality is not without precedent. From time immemorial mankind’s greatest minds have embarked on this “journey to the center of the earth.” From Platonic investigations to Bohr’s quantum mechanics, the flow of inspiration propelling mans anxious quest for knowledge has always been the need to peer into that which isn’t here, that which is hidden.
At first glance, a rudimentary appraisal of our reality, our lives, and ourselves awakens within us a sense of calm security. The world works. The sun rises and sets at its appointed time. We go to sleep and we wake up. We watch the weather report and believe wholeheartedly that as human beings we can know exactly what to expect. As much as our anxieties and fears attempt to convince us that all is lost, we embrace each new day with a newfound confidence in the regularity and precision that seem to rule over existence.
The continuity of life as we know it enables us to continue. If we were constantly aware of the Kafkaesque dread that Gregor experienced when he “woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, and found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin” it would be nearly impossible to appreciate the fluidity of life. We are who we are, everything is something and not the other thing, and as a result we live out our lives with quiet faith in the order of things.
Peer a bit deeper and the image quickly shifts. The tranquil calmness and calm tranquility of perceived reality spirals into what can only be described as a tumultuous sea of confusion. The boundaries and edges separating and altering one thing from the other begin to blur, as the haunting claim of Jane Kenyon, that “it could’ve been otherwise” comes to life.
At this abysmal level, the coincidence of opposites and the opposition of coincidences threaten to swallow whole, through the hole, the ordered system of our lives. The myriad expressions and manifestations of infinite possibility, swirling around unhinged and unbound by the categorical categorization so desperately demanded by man gives birth to bewilderment. As Rashi comments, at the beginning of Bereshit (Chapter 1:2), regarding the primordial chaotic condition of an immature reality, “...it was called chaos for it confounds the human psyche.” It is this rumbling depiction of reality that awakens Zarathustra’s nihilistic laughter, or as Foucault referred to it, “a laughter that shatters.”
Once we have glimpsed the disorder upon which order has been forcefully built, the insanity lurking in the shadows of sanity, we are banished, never to return to the Edenic memory of clarified existence. All that once seemed familiar crumbles to vagueness. The trust and faith which once filled our nocturnal minds as we lay down to sleep dissolves into fear. Who will bring the next morning? In the ruins of our prior tranquility we find nothing but emptiness. Similar to a dream, we have lost the ability to distinguish the oasis from the mirage. This divisiveness seeps through the cracks and fissures of our repression and casts its dark glow on our daily lives. What was once light and clear has crumbled into the disarray of darkness.
Looking at the world and our lives we see only confusion. We see disasters, both natural and irrational playing, revolving on television. We sense dissension and dissonance in the various parts of our lives. Our physical interests swallow our spiritual needs just as our spiritual interests swallow our physical needs.
David, the perfectly imperfect poet of Israel describes the “depths calling unto the depths.” Within the subterranean darkness lies an opening. As our stare penetrates the foreboding emptiness we begin to catch a shimmer, a ray, a trace of the depth beneath the depth. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liady writes, concerning David’s primal scream from within the howling solitude of his soul, “from the depths I have called out to God,” that the word “depths” is written in the plural. There is the depth, the abyss whose echo shatters our calmness, and there is the depth beyond the depth, the cave within the cave. Within the within we also find confusion, a bewilderment, a murmuring, but of a wholly different type. Here beneath the disparity and difference we find unity. Here beneath the sadness and loss we find wholeness. Beneath the beneath we find the unifying principle, the infinite, the ineffable.
Our Sages, ascribing the symbolic imagery to the Greek exile, chose the descriptive term “darkness.” In the dark winter months we are assaulted from all around. The trees, the life, and the soul of the world seem to whither and die. The stability of our light days gives forth to the endless groundlessness of winter’s darkness. These Sages have a tradition that the anthropomorphic quality of Kislev, the winter month, is sleep. As the darkness envelopes what was once enlightened the world falls into a deep sleep. We, us, I, you slip into the nocturnal world of dreams, of confusion and into the initial stage of absence and everything and everyone seems profoundly broken.
Enter the light of Chanukah.
The “unbearable lightness” of the unity, the absolute oneness of the most basic element of existence, the “He Who Will Be Who He Will Be” bursts through the subterranean depths, elucidating the bewilderment and illuminating the darkness. The hidden light, embedded deep within the crevices of reality, represented by our small candles, reveals and unveils the unified oneness, the achdus of our existence.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook, the high priest of Israel, writes, “Before the eventual purpose of existence is revealed, it seems to us that the numerous and particular representations of reality are separate and disconnected. At times there will be disharmony and separation as a result of these boundaries. And at times this separation and disunity will lead to a confusion of the mind, some will focus on one specific representation, assuming that those who focus on other representations are diminishing from his specific focus. However, these separations will not last forever and the final rectification will be when we all recognize that the myriad expressions, in all of their separateness are but one light. Therefore on Chanukah we bless ‘on the light’ of Chanukah, as opposed to the ‘lights of Chanukah’ - looking towards the redemptive ideal of ultimate unity.”
As the thinkers of our time shatter the ground upon which we stand, searching, searching, searching for the core, we are left groundless. On their hands and knees they peer beneath the delicate quilt of our external reality, arising, terrified and disoriented, for they have seen the abyss. They have seen the oceanic traceless murmuring, bubbling beneath our delicately assembled meaning and order, and they return to their laboratories crestfallen. If they only knew the song of the Chanukah flames, the unified light that yearns for the cracks, rushes towards the tear, hoping to burst through like tears. The light tells of a forgotten place, a placeless memory, the unity from which we are revealed and that we hope to unveil.
One light, many vessels.
Joey Rosenfeld is currently finishing up school for his MSW and rabbinic ordination. He lives in Queens with his wife and son. You can watch more of his work here.
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