By Rabbi Dovid Markel
There is a famous episode related by R. Mendel Futerfas of his sojourn in a Siberian labor camp for his crimes of spreading Judaism and helping Chassidim emigrate from communist Russia. Ever the Chassid, R. Mendel sought to learn a lesson from the various occurrences that he witnessed. Amongst the various characters that he met in the gulag was an individual that had been a tightrope walker before he had been sent to Siberia for some crime.
Once, on May Day following Stalin’s passing, the guards relaxed the rules and allowed for a makeshift circus to be constructed and invited the tightrope walker to perform his stunt. In a recording that I heard of R. Mendel relating the story, he tells that the tight-rope walker “fell like a cat” before succeeding in his stunt.
After the fabulous performance, the tight-rope walker asked R. Mendel if he figured out had he had done the stunt and if he understood the true skill behind tightrope walking. After minutes of contemplation, R. Mendel replied: “It’s all in your focus. During the entire time, your eyes were completely fixated and riveted on the opposite pole.” When the man continued to ask what he believed the most difficult part of the act was, he responded: “The most difficult part is the turn when you cannot envision the opposite pole.”
While generally, the point brought out from the story is that we must constantly keep our eyes on the point and we will not falter, I believe that there are several other lessons to be gleaned from this episode as well.
In life, there are times that we fall: even a professional tight-rope walker falls at times—but we must fall like a professional—like a cat. Though we falter and tumble, we should do so like a cat, and not be decimated in the fall, rather we should get back up and continue in the feat of life.
This is thought is conveyed in King Solomon’s statement (Mishlei, 24:16) “For a righteous man will fall seven times and rise, but the wicked shall stumble upon evil.” The difference between a tzaddik and a rasha is not that the tzaddik does not fall—but that he knows how to get back up.
Tanya (Chinuch Katan) explains that this falling is a necessary step in a person’s development; for in the moment of leaping from one level to another—while the individual is in flight, and his feet not firmly planted on the level that he is on—he has essentially fallen from his previous level, and has yet to achieve a higher one. In the words of Tanya: “Between one level and the next, before he can reach the higher one, he is in a state of decline from the previous level.”
This conceptual falling is experienced by the successful tight-roper as well. At the moment that he turns around, he is at a loss of where he is and it is difficult to find his bearing. This is true in a person’s growth as well, as he graduates from one point of understanding, to reach a deeper one, he is perplexed about his path in life, his spiritual standing, and is at that moment in a state of decline.
The trick though is, that even in moments of conceptual darkness he should find a point that he can focus on.
In philosophical terms the above can be applied to the laser focus that an individual is to have that in reality, “ein od milvado,” there is nothing apart from Atzmut—the essential point of all that is. For in truth all existence is a manifestation of the point of His existence—as in actuality there is and can be nothing else but Him.
All that we perceive is the manifestation of the point of God as it expresses itself in the circle of all that exists, and the decimal points that are a part of the One—in reality though there can be nothing separate from His pure oneness—the ultimate point of all other points.
This singular focus on His unity elicits in us that we see His manifestation in all that is; we don’t lose focus on that point and constantly study Torah, and perform mitzvot to reveal this oneness in our conscious thought and in the world.
There are moments though that we lose focus of the point, either because we perceive God’s contraction and tzimtzum instead of the ohr and light, or because we fall into sin and are unable to perceive Him.
At those moments when we don’t observe God outright, we need to delve deeper and see that there too is a manifestation of His point—as there is nothing else besides Him.
In kabbalistic terms what this means is the conception of R. Yisroel Saruk, that not only is the limitless revelation and expression a manifestation of God, but the contraction and tzimtzum is as well. Indeed, Chassidic thought explains that the contraction is a deeper expression of God than the light.
Now, while experientially man is unable to relate to this in an observable manner, and he must focus on ohr, the commandments and Torah, the knowledge that tzimtzum, and folly are not truly a distraction of the point, but a manifestation thereof gives him the ability to rise back up and refocus on the point—for in truth he was only apart from it in his own conception.
Because in truth we are constantly in the presence of Atzmut—the essential point. The only difference is that times we turn our backs to the point—and do not see Him, and at other times we turn our faces to Him and experience Him.
So, essentially God is always in our presence, the question merely is, are we in His presence? Do we experience the statement of Yirmiyahu (2:27) “they turned to Me their nape and not their face,” or do we turn to Him, face Him, and become enveloped in His unity? In reality, however, the only entity that can be apart from God is the free choice of our own conception and ego.