Tzimtzum and Pulling Ourselves Out of Exile
Tzimtzum – “Reduction”
In his introduction to the Book of Exodus, the Ramban calls this section of the Torah the book of Galus and Geulah, of Exile and Redemption. But what do these terms mean? “Exile” from what? Rabbi Yaakov Lainer (d. 1878) offered a completely novel idea about what it really means to be in “exile” on an existential level, something that all of us experience at different stages in life.
You may be familiar with a kabbalistic concept called “tzimtzum,” which literally means “reduction.” It describes an action that G-d employed when creating our universe. Because nothing truly exists outside of G-d, it became necessary for G-d to “reduce” Himself at the time of Creation in order to make room for our universe and its contents to exist independently of this all-encompassing G-d. According to the kabbalists, just as we are meant to emulate G-d in a variety of ways, we’re also meant to emulate G-d’s trait of “tzimtzum.” That is, I should strive to “reduce” myself, especially in the presence of others, to make room for them and allow others to have a presence, even though my tendency, as a being created in G-d’s image, is to be all-encompassing.
Tzimtzum happens when man encounters the Divine. Not only does man seek to emulate Divine reduction; the closer he encounters Divinity, the more he realizes that “אין עוד מלבדו”, that one has no true independent existence outside of G-d. In his effort to attach himself to the Divine, man also seeks to diminish himself. Tzimtzum is thus a natural reaction to a Divine encounter. When a person feels distant from G-d, namely, one feels in “exile,” this instinct for tzimtzum begins to disappear.
Yosef’s Death & Exile
When looking at the opening to the whole story of our ancestors’ slavery, the Torah lets us know that (1:6) “וַיָּ֤מָת יוֹסֵף֙ וְכָל־אֶחָ֔יו וְכֹ֖ל הַדּ֥וֹר הַהֽוּא:” – Yoseph, his brothers, and their entire generation passed away. Only after Yoseph died did true exile begin, because even in Egypt, Yoseph was able to represent the idea of tzimtzum. Not only did he provide his people with the clarity of vision to discern G-d in their everyday lives. The entire story of Yoseph being the great conservationist, in that he collected and saved food during the years of plenty in order to have what to eat during the years of famine, represents that very wise trait of tzimtzum. One type of “reduction” is to freely choose to deny oneself available pleasures and indulgences, in order that one can save up for a rainy day. One limits one’s consumption of goods, and in so doing, makes room for there being a future when those goods will come in handy. Exile begins when one no longer sees any point in doing anything for tomorrow, and instead focusing only on the joys and needs of today.
These two features of tzimtzum – reducing oneself and planning for the future – are negated in existential “exile.” When one feels distant from Hashem, one no longer feels the need to reduce oneself in order to make room for G-d to enter in. One also lacks the clarity of vision to anticipate and plan for the future. The two features of “exile,” then, are rapid expansion (instead of reduction) and living only for today (instead of having a long-term plan).
Immediately after reading about Yoseph’s death, we read about how Bnei Israel’s population exploded exponentially. We also read how Pharaoh was able to trick the Jews into becoming his slaves, realizing that upon Yoseph’s death, the Jews lost their clarity of vision and their power of conservation, and could not see what was happening to them.
While at face value, expanding the Jewish population with lots of babies is a great thing. But on a deeper level, it represents a horizontal growth of a nation which has lost its vertical connection to the Divine. This is why we can note a fascinating contrast in population growths. For the 210 years that the Jews were in Egypt, they grew from 70 families to 600,000 families. In the following 40 years, when the Jews were traveling in the desert, the population remained essentially unchanged. Why? Because in Exile, one compensates for the lack of Divine connection with terrestrial expansion. Once the Jews left Egypt and lived the next 40 years in Hashem’s presence with daily miracles, they no longer felt the need to expand, but instead reduced their growth aspirations in order to bask in Divine light.
When we go into exile, it’s easy to forget who we are and why we are here. This is one reason why this book is called Shemos – “Names.” One only needs a name when they need to identify who they are. If I’m in danger of losing my identity and forgetting who I am, my name acts as my “name tag” to remind me that I’m me. This is one of the features of Exile, to require a name so that I don’t completely lose myself. In fact, we have a tradition then once we die, we’ll be asked to identify ourselves by name, which is why we recite verses after our daily prayer that remind us of our name. Heaven wants to make sure that we didn’t forget ourselves during this life.
Finally, when considering that Bnei Israel experienced this growth in Egyptian exile, we note that Egypt was a place where Pharaoh and his subjects believed that they could expand as much as they wanted. As masters of their own destiny, their ambitions were completely unrestrained. This attitude rubbed off on the Jewish people. Hashem instructed Moshe, through a series of warning and plagues to Pharaoh, to re-educate Pharaoh and all of Egypt about the need for “tzimtzum” in everyone’s life. One can read the entire Exodus story in this light.
Personal Exiles, Personal Redemptions
My takeaway from this very esoteric discussion is that we all go through periods of Exile and Redemption in life. We have our hungry years, when we are ambitious to grow and make a name for ourselves. This hunger is borne from a deep-seated desire to connect with something much larger than ourselves, and when we fail to clearly see that Divine source, we compensate for it by trying to fill the void with as much expansion of ourselves as possible. This void can be addressed quite directly through overeating, which leads to a literal expansion of one’s body. But there are other ways to fill that void, sometimes in even more harmful ways. The pursuit of fame, of fortune, or even the pursuit of alcohol, cannabis, and other mind-altering drugs to deaden the pain of that void are all symptoms of exile. When we go through these iterations of exile, it’s easy to forget who we really are.
But then, we have periods in life, usually as we get older and start to gain more clarity of vision, when we realize that there is greater glory to our lives when we reduce ourselves so that we can receive the Divine light. We don’t eliminate our ambitions entirely, but we’re able to put them into the perspective they deserve of being a secondary priority to the real objective, which is to walk humbly before G-d.
The goal, of course, is to work towards redeeming ourselves from exile. At times we undergo experiences in life that help to shake us out of our exilic state. The experience can be of a very personal nature, such as an illness or a breakdown of a relationship. Other times, the experience can occur on a societal level, impacting an entire population. During the pandemic, we were forced to undergo some level of “tzimtzum” despite being in Exile. Our material freedoms and luxuries were curtailed, and we were forced to take stock of social systems and structures that we had taken for granted for decades. We were shaken awake from our stupor and confusion so that we could regain clarity about our very purpose.
Rav Lainer concludes his thought with a consoling prospect: The prophet Zechariah calls the Exile a “planting” of the Jewish people among the nations (Zech. 10:9). When you plant a seed, you expect it to rot and decompose before germinating and growing into something much larger and grander than the original seed. Being placed in exile is a necessary preparatory stage that will bring us to Redemption. Although we may expand and lose our connection with G-d, it is ultimately to allow us to reconnect and reduce ourselves before Him in the future.
Let’s repair the acrimony borne amidst the stresses of daily living. Let’s all become reconnected with the Divine and experience Redemption. May we all see it writ large, bb”a.