R. Nachman is drawing on Biblical mysticism, which understands God’s presence in the world through the model of the sefirot, the framework of ten interacting and counter-balancing aspects of the divine. While each individual sefira has its own particular characteristics, every sefira also contains within it an ‘imprint’ of all ten aspects of the divine whole. In the words of one modern mystic, “Each individual part of the picture contains the whole picture in condensed form. The part is in the whole and the whole is in each part… the part has access to the whole.” Whilst describing perfectly the ancient Jewish mystics’ view of the world, this last quotation in fact describes a far more recently observed material phenomenon: the holograph.
A holograph uses a laser to record a diffraction pattern on a holographic plate. Then one can project a three dimensional pattern by shining a laser though this plate. The amazing part of the holograph is that if the photographic plate is broken into parts, a laser beamed through any part will still project the whole image. Much like a broken mirror, which reflects the image of the onlooker in each of its broken segments. In mathematics, we will see, this phenomena is expressed by fractals.
A ‘holographic’ view of the world does not only exist in the teachings of a nineteenth century master: it is familiar to us in all walks of life. The geneticist will tell us how any one DNA cell from one part of the body contains encoded information specifying the characteristics of every organ and limb throughout the body. The reflexologist will explain to us how the whole body is mapped out on the soul of the foot. The therapist will tell us how they listen deeply to their clients’ every sentence and attend to every gesture, for in every word can be heard the whole paragraph, and in every physical intimation or intonation can be seen the entire saga of one’s life.
One of the most beautiful expositions of the holographic idea in mystical literature is to be found in the writings of mystic Abraham Kuk:
and the nature of every particular creature,
and the life-story of every unique person and his deeds,
must be surveyed in one encompassing glance
as one content with different parts,
then will the light of wisdom which leads to Teshuva
[Lights of Return 4:4 (my emphasis)]
The Blessings of the Hungry
Even the Jewish calendar attests to spiritual holography. The months of the Jewish years originate from Babylon – the names for the months are not Hebrew names, they are Babylonian. When Ezra and Nechemia left exile in Babylon to rebuild the second Temple in Jerusalem, they insisted that the names of the months be based on their Babylonian names so as to celebrate the great joy of the rebuilding of the Temple.
However, if truth be told, the second Temple period was notoriously difficult. The second Temple lacked most of the divine revelation of its precursor, and the Jewish people were politically oppressed for most of the period. It was at best a fragmented and partial redemption. Nonetheless, say the Rabbis, any redemptive moment should be celebrated as if it were all of redemption. For indeed, teaches R. Nachman’s holographic reading of the universe, it is. And so to this day Israel’s schoolchildren use the names of what were Babylonian months. The fact that we were allowed to return to Israel, to rebuild and once again to experience the sanctity of the Temple, even for a limited amount of time, even though this period was not always joyful, is reason for celebration and commemoration. Every month, as Israelis write down appointments in their diaries, Ezra and Nechemia call to us through the generations, teaching us that in transient moments of success, in fragmented pieces of redemption, we can experience all of divinity and all of redemption.
Life is, at best, partial in the fulfillment it offers. It is, however, all too true that the enemy of the good is the best. The key to spiritual health and growth is the ability to live fully in even one moment of goodness, transforming it from a passing flash to a guiding light.
The text that most stunningly captures this notion is a strange symbolic conversation between God and his angels recorded in Berachot 20b. “Why,” the angels ask of God, “do you accord the people of Israel your favor even when they are not deserving?” God responds, “How can I not? After all, in my Torah it says, ‘And you shall eat, be satisfied and give blessing.’ And the children of Israel give blessing even if they have only eaten an ‘olives worth’ of food.”
The text refers to the biblical verse which seems to indicate that one is only required to give blessing in thanks for food if one is fully satisfied. The simple rationale is that one can only give thanks if one is full. It is hard to experience blessing in a way that moves you to give thanks when you are still hungry. Nonetheless, continues the Talmudic passage, the children of Israel give blessing over food even when they are not satisfied, even when they have only eaten an olives worth.
Mystical master Aaron of Karlin unpacks the powerful wisdom of the text. What the text suggests is that if you wait to be satisfied, to be ful-filled (kedai Seviah) you will never be able to give blessing; you will never experience your life as blessing. Spiritual greatness is about being able to experience blessing even when we only have an olives worth of fulfillment, even when we are still hungry. The feeling of blessing emerges from the ability to experience the fullness of divine reality in every fractal of goodness. [….]
Two spiritual assumptions underlie this path.
Biblical thinking affirms this way: to experience wonder and core certainty of being in the fleeting, redeemed moments that arise even in a starkly unredeemed world.