The Book of Radiance: Tales from the Zohar
By Rabbi Yaakov Feldman
Arguably the best known sentence in all of world literature is this: “In the beginning, G-d created the Heavens and the Earth” (Genesis 1:1), which sets in motion the laying-out of just how G-d created the cosmos. But what does it mean that “G-d created Heaven and Earth”? How did He do that?
Well, according to the Zohar it come to this: “When the King’s Will began to manifest itself, a Firm Spark made an engraving within the Supernal Light that emanated from The Most Concealed and within the mystery of The Infinite One. (That Firm Spark) assumed a Formless Form which was then placed within a circle that was neither white nor black nor red nor green, nor any color at all. And when (that Firm Spark) began to assume size and dimension, it then created radiant colors (Zohar 1, 15a).
Very well, but then what does that mean? The Kabbalists have their explanations, to be sure, but since our task here is to simply catch sight of the wondrous ways the Zohar expresses its truths in all their glory, we won’t offer those explanations.
Before we present a number of other Zohar depictions of creation, though, let’s see the mysterious ways that other early sages depicted creation without recourse to the Zohar’s imagery.
But let’s make a couple of things clear. First off, that when the Zohar and other traditional sources speak about the creation of “the world” they aren’t simply referring to the formation of planet Earth, or even of our galaxy or the entire universe. They’re addressing the creation of reality itself, its known and unknown parts, its physicality and non-physicality: that’s to say the formation of everything other than G-d Himself! And second, let’s underscore the fact that none of this is meant to be taken literally to be sure; it’s all a process of depicting the undecipherable and of laying out the unfathomable.
As such, we’re taught for example that seven things were created before the rest of reality came into being: the primordial Torah, repentance, the Divine Throne, The Garden of Eden, Gehenom, the primordial Holy Temple, and the name of the Moshiach (Pesachim 54a). And interestingly enough, we’re also taught that G-d actually created whole other forms of reality we can’t even imagine — more than a thousand of them in fact (Zohar Chadash 9a)– before He created this one which He then rejected (Breishit Rabbah 3:7, 9:2; Kohelet Rabbah 3:11).
Our sages referred to some strange amorphous “primal stuff” from which the world was created, including unknowable forms of “fire”, “water”, and “wind” (Shemot Rabbah 15:22); of “light”, “darkness”, “chaos”, “the void”, and “the deep” (Pirkei d’Rebbi Eliezer 3); and of “water within water” which then turned to “snow” before turning to “earth” (J. T. Chaggiga 2).
And we’re taught that a number of other non-material things played a role in creation, including the twenty-two letters of the primordial Aleph–Bet (Midrash Konen 23-24) which were then arranged into three orders (see Ch. 3 of Sefer Yetzirah), the original Ten Utterances (Pirkei Avot 5:1), and Wisdom (see Proverbs 8:22-29),
But wait a minute, now — haven’t we been taught that G-d created the world ex nihilo — out of sheer nothingness? Yes indeed, and the Zohar (as well as many other sources) says as much when it declares that “when the Holy One, blessed be He, created His worlds, He created them out of nothingness” (Zohar Chadash, Breishit 17b). But as it makes the point elsewhere, that the “nothingness” or “non-materialness” spoken of here refers to “a single hidden light out of which all revealed lights emerged and shone” and from which everything else was formed (Zohar 1, 156b). The point is that the series of attenuating lights of “nothingness” all morphed into the universe, and each sage described the process his own way (based on his own insights as well as on his generation’s stature).
Let’s explore another series of fascinating statements found in Tractate Chagigah (12a) before we return to the Zohar’s revelations.
We’re told there that the world was created by means of ten things: “wisdom, understanding, reason, strength, rebuke, might, righteousness, judgment, loving-kindness, and compassion”. (Students of Kabbalah would easily catch reference to the Ten Sephirot here, but once again, that’s not our area of concentration.) And we’re also taught there that the world is founded upon “pillars” (either one alone, or either seven or twelve in all), which stand upon “the waters”, which stand upon “mountains”, which stand upon “the winds”, which stand upon “the storm”, all of which are “suspended on the arm of the Holy One, blessed be He”.
So let’s now return to the Zohar and see how it differs.
“Come and see!” we’re adjured, that “when it arose in The Holy One’s Mind, blessed be He, to create the universe, He brought forth a Single Flame from a Black Spark which brought about spark after spark . It then darkened and came aflame. And The Holy One, blessed be He, then brought about a Single Drop from the recesses of the Deep, and joined them together in order to create the universe” (Zohar 1, 86b).
But at one point at another depiction of creation, the Zohar likens the world to a “house” that sits “at the very center of all there is” and is surrounded by “hidden holy places where the birds of Heaven build nests” upon “a huge and mighty tree” which “ascends up to the clouds of Heaven”. This “house” which is “nourished and watered by the tree” somehow or another “conceals innumerable heavenly and secret treasures”. At certain points every single day, the Zohar seems to be saying, “when darkness sets in” — that is, when all is studded with mystery and rich wonder — “spirits flit about in the air trying to enter … it because they’re curious about what’s in it”, this world (Zohar 1, 172a).
The point seems to be that though reality was formed in all sorts of G-dly ways, at bottom it’s a single, solitary house lying deep in the fold’s of G-d’s bosom, if you will, with life abounding, secrets yet to be deciphered, and wonders yet to be unearthed. If you, too, are “curious about it” like the spirits who revel in its secret messages, you’ll also catch sight of the “Firm Spark”, the “Formless Form”, and the “Single Flame (that emits) from a Black Spark”. And you too will know that G-d Almighty alone is behind it all, fashioning the “house” and residing smack dab in the middle of it.
(c) 2010 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman
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Rabbi Yaakov Feldman has also translated and commented upon “The Path of the Just” and “The Duties of the Heart” (Jason Aronson Publishers).