Nothing Is Everything

Many years ago, a friend of mine, who had lost his faith in Hashem as a result of the horrors of the Holocaust, told me that the experience of his child’s birth had altered his course in life, renewed his sense of emunah, and triggered a process that culminated in his return to the observance Torah and mitzvos.

Indeed, the birth of a child is a deeply emotional experience that can awaken hidden facets of a person’s soul. The experience must have been even more soul-stirring for my friend, who had survived the destruction of war and was now seeing the dawn of a new generation. However, on a deeper level, one that even he might not have been aware of himself, there was something more profound that moved him to reverse the path to abandon his faith, despite his terrible personal experiences during the war.

Birth is perhaps the closest that man comes to experiencing what creativity means in the purest sense of the word. Of course, we use the term “creation” all the time. An artist creates a picture and a scientist creates a theory, but, in truth, this is a borrowed term.

True creativity is typified by the concept of “yesh mei’ayin,” creating something from nothing, ex nihilo. Conversely, all of the creativity that we encounter as human beings is merely re-forming existing materials into new combinations and arrangements that produces another entity in a different fashion. This is a process of ‘yesh mi’yesh,’ of transforming that which already exists, a concept that the human mind can grasp. Even if we lack the skills to construct a table, we understand how a carpenter might do so with the necessary supplies and tools.

In contrast, Hashem’s creation of the universe epitomizes a process that is totally beyond human comprehension. Man cannot begin to fathom how a physical world could emanate from a Creator Whose existence defies anything described in physical terms, let alone taking any corporeal form.

The mystery of creation is not limited to the idea that there once was no universe and then, suddenly, there was. The maamin, who has internalized the reality of the Omnipotent G-d, will easily accept the fact that such a thing occurred and is in perpetual renewal. Yet, to witness a creation that bears no identifiable connection to its source of existence, to observe a process that simulates the essence of the “yesh mei’ayin,” creative process is something that is totally beyond the human mind.

This, I believe, is what lay at the subconscious core of my friends teshuvah dynamic. During a moment of despair, he was done with anything resembling the spiritual, and he confined himself to a world limited by what is within the rational grasp of man. But then, the phenomenon of birth, a physical brush with authentic yesh mei’ayin creation, defied this approach and forced him to re-evaluate. His intellectual honesty demanded that he admit to himself that his mind had reached its outer limits, and that the incomprehensible, indeed, exists.

A proper experience of Yom Kippur gives one precisely the same opportunity. Teshuvah and the day itself is not merely a process of confession, regret, and forgiveness. Even a human who is kind and understanding has the ability to forgive an offense that was committed against him, especially when cognizant of the offender’s sincere repentance.

But Chazal tell us that Yom Kippur and proper teshuvah have the power to transform an aveirah, a misdeed that was by all accounts an act of spiritual destruction, into something absolutely positive. That is a phenomenon that is beyond human comprehension.

As difficult as it may be to comprehend, an aveirah contains the potential to become the polor opposite, a mitzvah — the mitzvah of teshuvah. This is rooted in the principle that Hashem is constantly involved with creation and that, as a result, there is no room for anything that exists to remain negative. It must transform into something positive. Therefore, aveiros eventually turn into zechuyos.

The anatomy of plant life is based on this. Manure acts as the most effective fertilizer, and before a kernel can sprout it must rot and dissolve into the ground. An aveirah too, cannot be doomed to remain an act of destruction eternally; it must contain the potential for creativity.

There is a key difference, though, between us and the seedling. The kernel is compelled by the nature that the Ribbono shel Olam endowed it with to actualize the cycle of decomposition and rebirth. Man, on the other hand, must wilfully build within himself a desire for his misdeeds to disintegrate, allowing them to sprout and grow into something new and beautiful. We must use our unique quality of free will to disconnect ourselves from what brought us to sin, and bring out a sincere desire to renew our existence.

This is the heart of Yom Kippur, a day when every Jew can reach down to the depths of his soul and pull out a desire to grow, to become someone new. The more we mention our past sins, something we repeat many times throughout the day’s avodah, the more we emphasize our commitment to put these acts behind us and become people who do not relate to the idea of rebelling against Hashem’s Will. Our tears are not meant to mourn the past; rather they represent confidence in the future.

This transformation is at the root of the tremendous simchah inside the Jewish heart on Yom Kippur. In a sense it is elation over the fact that our dark past has been turned into light. On a deeper level, it is an experience that connects us with the very root of creation, yesh mei’ayin. It infuses us with a visceral emunah that is tangible.

Gmar Chasimah Tovah.