Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Silent Spaces Without, Silent Spaces Within

Towards the end of the Book of Numbers, the Torah describes the cities of the Levites. Each city is surrounded by a 1,000 cubits wide clearing, free from vegetation and buildings. Around this clearing is a second outer band, also 1,000 cubits wide, where farming is permitted, but, not buildings. What this communicates to me is that fundamentally space is not simply a “container”. We humans easily mistake space for a container since space does that as well, in the sense of containing everything in the universe.

If fundamentally space was created to function as a container then what the Levites did by leaving 1,000 cubits of empty area is a waste of space’s potential. Waste of potential is something which the Torah seeks to avoid. So what could have been the function of space in this context?

The well known Medieval Biblical commentator Rashi relates that the purpose of the open area was for aesthetic beauty. Unfilled space has a certain effect on the mind and heart. It calms. The Levites were the Biblical equivalent of a monastic clan. The space around their cities set a mood of expanded consciousness. Their space wasn’t encroached upon by the pressures of real estate development and farm work. Their minds and hearts were more free for a contemplative spiritual life.

The same seemed to apply to the early pietists. The Talmud relates that they’d wait an hour before prayer, pray for an hour and wait an hour after prayer. They encased their prayers with an “empty hour” before and after. What the Levites did in space, they did in time. I think that both versions of a clearing, whether in time or space, lead to a clearing in the soul.

Time, space and soul are the same entity, just in three different expressions. Physics already knows that time and space is a single continuum. “The Book of Formation” teaches that soul is also part of this same continuum.  This is why what may look like a waste in one of these three, might really be in the service of another of these three. For example, if the universe didn’t have it’s current size and contours, it’s likely that we wouldn’t experience time the way we do. 

Similarly here, a clearing around the Levite cities and the early pietists encasing their prayers in a clearing of time must have formed a clearing in the human soul. A clearing in the human soul is very valuable. It’s a space for divine light to freely enter. It’s an inner meeting room for the human and the Divine. 

Since, we all have an “inner Levite”, we all need to cultivate an inner clearing to meet with our Best Friend. For me, it’s these pages.    

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