In a recent post on the New York Times Opinionater Blog “The Stone,” Yoram Hazony discussed the question, “Is G-d perfect?” While I didn’t find the article as a whole particularly compelling, I did find his discussion of the problems of perfection illuminating. The following passage gives us a very accessible way to visualize the failure of tohu:
“What would we say if some philosopher told us that... a perfect horse would bear an infinitely heavy rider, while at the same time being able to run with perfectly great speed? I should think we’d say he’s made a fundamental mistake here: You can’t perfect something by maximizing all its constituent principles simultaneously. All this will get you is contradictions and absurdities. This is not less true of God than it is of anything else.”
Indeed, tohu is the simultaneous maximization of all the constituent principles of existence. The result of such perfection is the contradictory absurdity of the terrestrial realm. The following discussion of tohu and tikun is based on a discourse by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (Torah Ohr, 8c-10b).
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Tohu and tikun may best be described as two alternative blueprints for the inner workings of reality. While these two systems are very different, they both are composed of the the ten modalities (sefirot) via which G-d chooses to be manifest. Moreover tohu and tikun actually function in tandem; the physical world that we inhabit exhibits much of the divisive chaos that results from tohu, and yet can be subjected to a regime of order and cohesion that stems from tikun.
Paradoxically, the divisive chaos of tohu actually represents a more intense manifestation of divinity. Here, each of the ten sefirot is manifest with such intensity that no other form of divine manifestation can be tolerated. As Rabbi Shneur Zalman explains in the present discourse, “The illumination and vivification is manifest with great intensity... Therefore the different modalities [of the ten sefirot] did not harmonize with one another... the one could not be balanced in accord with its opposite, and each was isolated onto itself...”
Due to its intense illumination, tohu fails to communicate the full panorama of divine manifestation. Consequently, each individual modality acquires an autonomous identity and loses its transparency to the divine source. The physical world as we know it is filled with a multiplicity of apparently discordant beings, each of which asserts its individual presence, autonomy, power and importance, and tries to grab our full attention. All of this immense diversity stems from the failure of tohu, and yet holds within it all the vast potential that tohu embodies. Tohu is intense illumination and unity masquerading as intense darkness and discord.
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Tikun is the antidote to tohu. As Rabbi Shneur Zalman explains, “In order for creation to survive there must be tikun - limited streams of illumination, different forms harmonized and tempered with one another... The illumination and vivification is not manifest with intensity... therefore... it is manifest with tolerance and, contrary to tohu, two complete opposites can coexist.” In the normal order of things, divinity can only be manifest in a limited form. Each of the sefirot must recognize and validate the role of the other forms of divine manifestation, though in doing so its own intensity is minimized. In the normal order of things, divinity is not manifest in a manner that fully reflects the infinite, absolute and eternal potency of G-d’s most essential being.
Ultimately, however, the purpose of tikun is to repair tohu, and allow the true intensity of the divine self to be fully manifest. The soul of man is an agent of tikun. When the soul is forced to struggle with the burden of making a living, and other worldly endeavors, it is brought into direct contact with a more intense expression of divinity than it could ever have experienced in the celestial realms. This intensity is often perverted, giving rise to the banalities and profanities of earthly existence, but tikun empowers the soul to turn the failure of tohu around. Through prayer, acts of charity and the performance of the ritual commandments, the soul unleashes the vast reservoir of divine potential that lies dormant or misused in the mundane realm, and gives full expression to the absolute intensity of divine essentiality.
For a post on Yud Tes Kislev, see here.