Hear O Israel, the L‑rd our G‑d, the L‑rd is one (“echad”)
We usually think of the cosmic struggle in terms of good versus evil. But according to the Kabbalists, good and evil are but spinoffs of unity and divisiveness. G‑d is the ultimate oneness, and everything G‑dly in our world bears the stamp of His unity. Evil, simply stated, is the distortion of this oneness by the veil of divisiveness in which G‑d shrouds His creation.
Creation, as described in the teachings of Kabbalah, is an evolution from the utterly singular to the plural and dichotomous. The entirety of existence originates as the divine yen to create—a desire as singular as its Conceiver. But latent in this desire is also another face of the divine—the infinite possibilities implicit in G‑d’s unlimited potential. Thus, the singular desire for creation gives birth to our plural world, a world whose immense detail and complexity bespeak the infinite potential of its Creator.
None of this, in and of itself, is the negative phenomenon we call evil. Yet the seeds for evil are here. Plurality begets divisiveness, and divisiveness begets conflict. As long as a plural reality still echoes its singular source, divisiveness will not take root and spawn strife; but with the development of each particular entity in the diversity of creation into a self that is distinct of the cosmic whole, divisiveness/strife/evil rears its head.
How does one restore the divine unity to a fragmented world? By delving even further into its plurality.
For such is the paradox of life: the more something is broken down to its particulars, the more we uncover opportunities for unity.
Take, for example, two physical substances. Your five senses perceive them as different and unconnected; but place them under a microscope and you will discover that they are comprised of similar components—they might even share an element or two. The deeper you delve, descending to the molecular, atomic, and subatomic levels, the more unanimity you will find—and the more ways you will discover to harness these diverse substances toward a singular end.
Or take two nations. On the surface, their goals and aspirations run counter to each other, giving rise to conflict and strife. But dissect these goals, item by item, and you will inevitably find areas in which they overlap and complement each other. This common ground may cover but five percent of each nation’s collective will, but a beachhead of harmony has been achieved. Delve deeper yet, and this beachhead can be expanded. Explore the inner workings of each individual of each nation’s millions, and the countless particulars of each individual’s will, and additional areas of common interest and mutual dependency will come to light. The differences will remain, but instead of fueling strife, they will serve as the building blocks of harmonious coexistence.
Thus we introduce a new factor into the cosmic equation: harmony. We evolve from the ultimate singularity to plurality to diversity, but diversity need not disintegrate into strife. Instead, the diversity can be further dissected into the ingredients of harmony—a harmony that mirrors the singularity out of which the entire process was born.
A harmonious world, however, does more than reflect the tranquil singularity of its origins; it reaches beyond it to uncover a new, hitherto unexpressed, face of the divine reality. Life on earth is more than the endeavor to come full circle, to undo creation by restoring its primordial unity. The descent from singularity into diversity is an investment, and (like any self-respecting investor) G‑d expects to realize a profit from His outlay. The profit is harmony, which is a deeper, truer expression of the divine unity than the pre-creation singularity.
If there is one phrase that encapsulates the Jewish faith, it is the Shema, the verse recited by the Jew every morning and evening of his life, and the last words to issue from his dying lips: “Hear O Israel, the L‑rd is our G‑d, the L‑rd is one.” But why, ask our sages, does the verse employ the Hebrew word echad (“one”) to connote G‑d’s unity? The word “one” can also be used to refer to something that is one of a series (as in “one, two, three . . .”), or to something composed of several components (as in “one loaf of bread,” “one human being,” “one community”). G‑d’s unity transcends such “oneness,” as Maimonides states in the opening chapter of his Mishneh Torah. Would not the Hebrew word yachid (“singular,” “only one”) have been more appropriate?
But singularity is a challengeable oneness, a oneness that may be obscured by the emergence of plurality. As we have seen, when G‑d’s infinite potential is expressed in the countless particulars of a diverse creation, this results in a concealment of His oneness. The life-endeavor of the Jew is to effect a truer expression of G‑d’s oneness—the oneness of echad. Echad is the oneness of harmony: not a oneness which negates plurality (and which plurality therefore obscures), but a oneness that employs plurality as the implement of unity.
Three Divine Echoes
Ultimately, the unknowable, indefinable essence of G‑d transcends and embraces both singularity and plurality. Neither description—by virtue of its being a description—can be attributed to Him; nor can either be dis-attributed to Him, since, ultimately, a dis-attribution would be as much a definition (that is, the identification of areas to which His reality does or does not extend) as an attribution.
So our reality cannot—indeed, no reality can—express His quintessential truth. But it canexpress certain elements of it, elements His truth includes by virtue of its non-definitive all-inclusiveness. Three such elements find expression in the various stages of creation:
a) G‑d’s singularity—expressed in the featureless, objectless reality that precedes, transcends and pervades creation.
b) His infinite potential—expressed in the vastly particular world He created.
c) The divine harmony we manifest by effecting a synthesis and unanimity of purpose in G‑d’s diverse creation.
Of the three, harmony is the deepest expression of G‑d’s truth. For its echad-oneness embraces the polar phenomena of singularity and plurality, expressing the truth that the divine reality cannot be confined to either mode of being.
When man, confronted with a fragmented and strife-torn world, responds by extracting the potential for harmony implicit therein, he elevates creation beyond its surface plurality, beyond even its singular origins, fashioning it into a model of the quintessential unity of its Creator.
Based on the Chassidic discourse Heichaltzu 5659 by Rabbi Shalom DovBer of Lubavitch; adaptation by Yanki Tauber.