Eliyahu Dessler was born in Lithuania in 1892 and died in Israel in 1953. In a sense, his life was almost a microcosm of the transition that Orthodoxy went through during that 60 year period. He was educated amidst the best that the Mussar world could offer, at the famous Kelm Yeshiva. He left Lithuania for England in 1928 becoming a leading rabbinic figure in London. He then left London early in World War II to the safer location of Gateshead in northeastern England. Mussar teachings were always at the center of his focus. From his considerable writings it is evident that he never saw Talmudic study as an end in and of itself, but as a means of combining the Torah scholar with the Torah mensch.
His last few years were spent in the new city of Bnei Brak in central Israel. When he arrived in the late 1940’s it was hardly on the map. The recently relocated (from Lithuania) Ponevezh yeshiva asked him to be the spiritual director of the program. The yeshiva and the town grew rapidly, ultimately becoming a mecca for what would eventually be called Haredi Judaism.
Rav Dessler’s role in the yeshiva was to inspire the students, all of whom were quite advanced in their Talmudic learning, in all matters relating to the ethical and spiritual aspects of Torah. In this he was already an established master, but in Ponevezh his ideas reached their apex. This was a leading Torah institution in a growing Orthodox city. Both the institution and the city were destined to become trend-setters for the ultra-Orthodox world of the future. Rav Dessler’s role was essentially to help lay the foundations for the Haredi society of Israel.
His writings were preserved by some of his most dedicated students and collected in a book called Michtav M’Eliyahu (The Letter from Eliyahu). This eventually became a 5-volume set that is widely studied in yeshivot around the world. Parts of it have been translated into English books (called Strive for Truth) which have had widespread influence in the Orthodox resurgence that began in the 1970’s. He deals with a considerable variety of Jewish subjects, frequently cutting to the very core of the issue in almost no time at all. He never shied from dealing with the toughest of issues, including the nature of free will, the Jewish approach to love and kindness, and, of course, the purpose of creation. At the end of volume 5 (p. 313) is a lecture he gave at Gateshead around 1942 to the Kollel entitled ‘The Unity of Creation and the Unity of the Heart’. He gets right down the big question within a few lines:
'For the entire creation is for the purpose of revelation of the glory of Hashem to His creations…the vast variety of different people were only created so that each one could be a different aspect for God’s revelation....and similarly all of the other creations, and each moment of existence of each thing in creation is a unique aspect of revelation, since two different moments cannot be for the same revelation. This is the meaning of (the verse in prayer) ‘He renews every day continuously the work of creation’, since in each moment a new world is created. The purpose of the past moment is not the same as the purpose of the present moment. Consequently, if a person should waste a single moment in pointlessness that revelation will be missing...'
'However, even more than this is the matter of the combination of these revelations, for each revelation isn’t only according to its number (its individuality), but it is multiplied infinitely through the unity of them all together…'
When read in translation, this appears like something out of a New Age primer on spirituality. It is hard to believe that this was written by a pioneer in Haredi Judaism during the 1940’s. What does it all mean?
Rav Dessler introduces what should by now be a familiar theme in the purpose of creation question – to reveal the glory of God. We’ve seen this several times already, in Talmudic, philosophical, and mystical contexts. It should be no surprise appearing in the works of a scholar whose expertise spanned all three domains. The only question might be what it is doing in the work of an exponent of Mussar.
But there are more pressing questions with this tantalizing answer. Each person, each thing, each moment of each thing, reveals another aspect of God’s glory. The final sentence magnifies the possibilities again since even more intricate levels of revelation come about through the infinite combination of different creations. Obviously, there is no end to this process. Every single iota of time, space, matter, energy, and all the combinations of them, is another revelation of godliness. It does start to sound a little familiar. Isn’t this just panentheism all over again, as seen through the eyes of a pre-Haredi rabbi? Second, what happened to milk and meat, the old God of the Bible, the Chosen People, the obliteration of idolatry, the condemnation of evil? Where do all those very Jewish icons fit into this harmonious blend of glory?
Two possible answers could be given to these questions. One is traditional and likely the answer the Rav Dessler himself would have given. The other is non-traditional. It takes us into uncharted territory that lies outside of any definition of Orthodox, Haredi or otherwise, and thus, would be unacceptable to Rav Dessler.
Beginning with the traditional approach, these divine revelations all come in their own package. No package is the same as any other package. The Jewish package is not the same as the non-Jewish package. The package associated with milk is not the package associated with meat, and neither is the same as the package associated with milk and meat cooked together. Some packages are extremely conducive to revealing the godliness that they were created to reveal. Others do more to conceal than to reveal and should be avoided, at least by those whose preoccupation is to find the godliness wherever, whenever, and however they can. Hence the need to shun evil and cultivate good; to forbid idolatry which hides the true glory of God and promotes cheap imitations. All things Jewish and Torah-related can be explained in this way, even though more often than not it will seem a bit of a stretch.
As far as the old God of the Bible and the panentheism question are concerned, we must venture a little into non-traditional waters here. If we haven’t seen it already, we certainly see it now – the image of God has changed through the centuries. Old notions of God that may have worked in Biblical times no longer satisfy the modern mind. Whether these new images were always ‘around’ in the good old days is anybody’s guess. God, by now, is everywhere and in everything. Every moment reveals a new manifestation of God’s glory, like the sun shining through an arrangement of brilliant and intricate crystals blowing in the breeze. Every instant the crystals reflect a new combination of lights and shades and hues, what is seen in one moment may be almost the same as another moment but it may be vastly different. Each little light contributes in its own way to the whole picture, forming a web of great complexity woven with indescribable unity.
Is this panentheism? Maybe, but it’s panentheism with a God who is passionately involved in the world. The God that lies behind this ever-changing, ever-revealing light show is not an indifferent ‘force of nature’ that really couldn’t care less if those random creations are amazed by those revelations or play on their iPhones. The God who allows those revelations to be and who is within those revelations, does all this to fulfill the very to purpose of creation. Each creation plays a different part of the plan. Each one chooses its own way to reveal, thus unveiling previously hidden aspects of the unfolding of the revelation. Each combination of creations, each fleeting chance encounter, each long-term relationship, reveals some other element that would not have been present otherwise. Conversely, each thing destroyed or hampered, each relationship undeveloped, every moment squandered, is a revelation that can never be, even though it may have been intended. How can we go through life uninspired and indifferent to this vast display of wonder and glory that we and everything around us are intricate parts of? We make that glory as glorious and wondrous or as inglorious and mechanical as we choose. Instead of ‘Let Us make man’, it is ‘let us make God’.
Where do the Jews fit in this version of God? Who knows? But what the Jews or anybody else who choose to play an active part in this revelation do with their time and their lives sure makes a difference as to how God will be revealed to them and to everybody else. This is our shot at revelation, our opportunity to see the world as it truly is and maybe to help it along in our own small way. A moment wasted is a moment lost, and the godliness that could have been must come about some other way. The purpose of creation is to reveal godliness, and we creations are not the spectators but the actors.
That glory is waiting to be revealed. Every moment is another reflection that somehow differs from the others and adds in its own way to the infinite picture. If even one moment is lost, the picture is a little incomplete. We all sense this when we squander away a large chunk of time. We may sense it in a subtler way when we don’t put in quite as much as we could have into any given situation. Those moments are our unique opportunities to contribute to the great revelation and if we waste them we feel a touch of a let-down. Every bit of you is your chance to add something of your own. Every decision, every word, every action, every thought, every relationship, is another door opening and closing. Why not use as much as you can to make your part as glorious as it can be. Shape it in the way that you feel adds what is missing and can only be filled in by you.
One more element of all this is recognizing the greater glory. It is not just you who contributes. It is everyone else, everything else. They all play their indispensable role. Any combination of them is another revelation and deserves to be recognized as such. Perceiving the little piece of glory that is revealed in a tiny corner of nature, in the chirp of a bird or the bark of a dog, in the changing of the seasons or the pass of another day, is being a part of the unity. A symphony sounds perfect when each instrument plays its part in unison with the others. If one is too loud it drowns out the others. Appreciating what the others are doing is the reward for fitting in. Amazingly enough, even those huge stretches of time before we were here, and those equally unknown spans that will go on after we have played our part, also fit in with whatever role we have at the present. Seeing it all as a revelation of God’s glory is to be alive for that moment and forever.
Food for Thought
This idea opens up vast avenues for infusing life with spirituality. Once experienced, it is almost impossible to not seek it again. How can Judaism, with its laws and traditions, its complexities and restrictions, be reworked to stimulate this experience?
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