Angels are running and returning,
G‑d is touching and not touching –
The rhythms of the universe…
Nothing stays still… all is in flux. The inexorable flow of time is synonymous with the existence itself. Indeed, everything exists in time. However, from where does the time come? This is, perhaps, the greatest mystery of science.
In modern physics, we do not know what time is, let alone from where it comes. We only know how to measure it – by counting the number of periodic intervals, which we accept as a unit of time. For example, in antiquity, people used a night-day cycle as the basic unit of time. This cycle was born out of observations of the apparent rotation of the sun around the earth (although, in reality, of course, it is due to the earth’s rotation about its axis). We still use this period and subdivide it into 24 units that we call hours, which we further subdivide into 60 units that we call minutes, etc. Thus, we count days by counting the number night-day cycles; we count year by counting the number of the earth’s revolutions on its orbit around the sun. A precise atomic clock uses the resonance frequencies of atoms. As we can see, measuring time always involves counting some periodic intervals, which have a constant frequency.
Everything has a frequency. In String Theory, properties of elementary particles are modeled as frequencies of tiny strings vibrating in a multi-dimensional space, just as musical notes correspond to various frequencies of vibrating strings in a string instrument. Every object has its resonance frequency. Every person has a frequency of heart bit. The breath of life comes with its frequency of inhaling and exhaling. Even every subatomic particle, as De Broglie discovered, has its frequency proportionate to its energy: ν = 1/h × E, where ν is frequency, E is energy, and h is the Plank constant (Usually, this equation is written in the form E = hν).
Already Aristotle understood that time is change. In Kabbalah, time is synonymous with change. We measure this change by counting periodic cycles. The bit of time is the frequency of existence and the music of life.
The physical rhythms parallel the rhythms of spiritual realms. Our soul trembles, oscillating between the suicidal tendency to merge with the Divine and expire in what is called klot hanefesh, “dissolution of the soul,” and the realization that the ultimate purpose is to serve its Maker in a body in this physical world. The soul runs up, as it where, burning with the desire to cleave to G‑d, but as it does, it is inspired with the higher purpose to return to its mission in the body… only to repeat this cycle again and again. To be or not to be… That is the question with which every soul must struggle. Perhaps, this is why the soul of man is compared to a candle – the soul’s oscillations are akin to the flickering of the candle’s flame.
The soul of man is a candle of G‑d”. (Proverbs 20:27)
Ezekiel, in his vision of Maaseh Merkavah (the Workings of the Chariot), saw angels running and returning – ratzoh v’shov:
And the Chayot ran and returned as the appearance of a flash of lightning.” (Ezekiel 1:14).
(Chayot, lit. “living creatures,” mean angels of a higher order.) This endless cycle of running and returning, ratzo v’shov, is seen in the Kabbalah and philosophy of Chabad as the source of time. I wrote about it in my post, Paradox of the Red Heifer.
The rhythm of ratzo v’shov (running and returning) that plays out from the World of Beriah (the World of Creation) and below is a reflection of a higher rhythm of mati velo mati, “touching and not touching” or “reaching and not reaching,” which plays out in the highest realms of the Seder Hishtalshelut, i.e., the emergent “Creative Order,” or the “Order of Unfolding” – the chain-like descent of spiritual worlds. This expression, mati velo mati, is used by Rashi to explain the verse in Deuteronomy where mother eagle is hovering over her chicks:
As an eagle that stirreth up her nest, hovereth over her young…” (Deut. 32:11)
The Hebrew word for “hovering” used in this verse is yirachef. Rashi explains it as “touching and not touching” – mati velo mati. The mother eagle is hovering close enough to her chicks to feed them and to protect them, but not so close as to crush them. This is an expression of parental love. A similar word appears at the very beginning of the Torah describing the creation of the word:
Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of G‑d hovered over the face of the waters.” (Gen. 1:2)
The word for “hovered” used in this verse is merachefet, which shares the same root with the word yirachef used in Deuteronomy. We see from this juxtaposition that the notion of mati velo mati played a key role in the creation of the world. As the mother-eagle, our Creator is “hovering,” as it were, over the world He created, touching and not touching it – mati velo mati. This mati velo mati “oscillation” is the ultimate source of time, according to the Kabbalah and Chabad philosophy.
Strings vibrate, souls tremble, angels are running and returning, G‑d is touching and not touching – the rhythms of the universe merge into a polyphonic symphony of existence we call time.
There is a deeper meaning of the expression mati velo mati. Since this mode of G‑dly revelation happens on the level above time, both aspects – touching and not touching – happen simultaneously, as it were, as they operate in a timeless domain. One, however, is the negation of the other – lo mati (not touching) is the negation of mati (touching) (in Hebrew, lo means “not” and velo or v’lo means “and not”). It presents a logical paradox. As I explained in my essay On the Nature of Time and the Age of the Universe, it is precisely the resolution of a paradox that sets off the flow of time. Attempting to construe the meaning of self-referential and self-contradictory construct makes it impossible for two opposites to co-exist, which necessitates splitting the thesis and its antithesis into two different moments in time – if a thesis occurs in one moment, the antithesis must occur in the next moment, and so on, unlashing the flow of time. Consider, for example, a written sentence, “This statement is false.” For as long as you don’t think about it, nothing really happens. However, if you try to construe the meaning of this statement, you come to the following chain of conclusions: if it’s true then it’s false, but if it’s false then it’s true, but if it’s true then it’s false…, etc. There you have it – it is the Love of G‑d, who hovers, as it were, over His world touching and not touching it, that not only creates time but unleashes the flow of time.
As Rabbi Menachem Medel of Lubavitch – the third Rebbe of Chabad, the Tzemach Tzedek – explains in Derech Mitzvatecha, mati velo mati is the process through which the vessels are created from the light (Ohr). This is the process of creation of something from nothing, creation ex nihilo. We can only appreciate the light that is vested in a vessel. Thus, mati velo mati is both the process of creation of the world (creatio ex nihilo) and the process of creation of time through the “hovering” – touching and not touching – the act of Divine love and benediction. Is it then coincidental that the existence is synonymous with time?
To be or not to be? – That is the question
That poor Hamlet asks me every night.
I search for answers looking for suggestions
To lay to rest the soul’s eternal plight.
To run and to return – with each succession,
The angels turn the clock for world to last.
The time flow’s unstoppable progression
That sweeps away the future into past.
To touch or not to touch – a contradiction!
Construe its meaning and unleash the light.
The secret of Divine benediction,
The vessel for the light that will delight.