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Redeeming Dibbur

Shabbat HaGadol - The Shabbat Before Passover

One of the core themes of Passover is liberation from exile, especially the liberation of the Israelites from exile in Egypt. The masters of Kabbalistic and Hasidic teachings saw the this-worldly exile of the Israelites from Egypt as symbolizing the exile of the divine word that is in constant need of liberation.


The aspect of the Divine that is core to this constant process of exile and redemption is called “dibbur.” In the spiritual psychology of the Kabbalah, dibbur, “speech,” is the lower emanation of “Kol,” the “Voice of the Divine.” Kol is at the heart of the system of the 10 Emanations that symbolize the mind of God. In the Kabbalah, the Voice of God is a completely mystical idea. The Voice of God in the Kabbalah also refers to the Voice of Torah, the meaning of Torah, before it becomes a languaged text. Dibbur can refer to the written Torah, itself imagined in the Midrash an “unripened fruit” of the Upper Wisdom.


Hasidic psychology takes these Kabbalistic ideas, Kol and Dibbur, and directs them toward the human being. What does this idea of the “Voice of God” and “Speech of God” mean for the inner life of the human being?


The Voice of God within does not mean a voice that one hears or the things we say. The Kol does not even refer to the meanings behind our words. Kol is connected with Truth, Truth toward which our speaking, and even our inner thoughts, should aspire.


We know that our thoughts can go wrong, and therefore our meanings can go wrong, and therefore the words that we say can go very wrong.


This is a small part of what the spiritual masters meant when they said that just as the word/speech of God was in exile in Egypt, the word of God was in exile in each of us. The dibbur can be understood as an intermediary between divine consciousness and our consciousness. But the dibbur can be hijacked, imprisoned, enslaved.


Arthur Koestler captures the idea brilliantly in his Darkness at Noon, from Job 5:14, “They encounter darkness by day and grope at noon, as if it were the night.” Koestler writes from the perspective of an accused staunch Communist party loyalist, apparently during the Stalinist purges of the late 1930’s. The accusations are fabrications. In his interrogations, language is completely inverted. He must confess to falsehood. His accusers know that the accusations are fabricated. Everyone knows it’s false. Truth is what the Party says it is. The Party is a quasi-religion, a rigid one at that. A loyal Communist, a member of this quasi-religion, will admit to what is false if the Party requires it.


A grim Stalinist era joke comes to mind. A prison guard in Siberia asks an inmate what he’s in for. “Serving 20 years, for absolutely nothing.” The guard says, “Let me investigate that for you. ‘Absolutely nothing’ usually gets you only 15 years.”

The theme is sharpened by George Orwell’s 1984, and many other masterpieces. We know this: the first thing that ideological tyrants do is pervert the meaning of words. Regular tyrants want power over what you do. Tyranny that becomes a quasi-religion employs a thought police that want power over your words and the meaning of words, so that eventually words will mean what the thought police and inverters of language will say they mean. Eventually they have power over your thoughts.


Recall Alice’s conversation with Humpty-Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass:


‘When I use a word,' Humpty-Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.'


‘The question is,' said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’


‘The question is,' said Humpty-Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that's all.'


Holy Words, such as Love, Justice, Truth and Beauty, are uttered by the Heart of the Universe, the Kol, into human consciousness. Holy words arrive with meaning. Holy words are rooted in pure Divine thought. The words are emanated into the filter of human consciousness, the dibbur – the intermediary that attempts to translate God’s meaning into our meaning. Our inner life, seen as an inner Egypt, resists truth and authenticity.


From an inner life perspective, there are destructive forces within us that want to tear apart the meaning of Holy Words and replace them with our own fabrications. The Yetzer Ha-Ra becomes the master. The Yetzer Ha-Ra has its own thought police.


I think it terrified the Hasidic masters to contemplate the idea that the problem is not just how we behave and how we speak, how we think and what we mean. The problem is rooted in the substratum under all meaning, a substratum imprisoned in a darkness at noon.


In their moments seeing into the shadow, the Hasidic masters saw through the darkness at noon. They could see the dibbur imprisoned in an exile, a wasteland of semantic inversion. For the Hasidic masters Passover was, at its core, about redeeming the dibbur from exile. A core purpose of our lives, from a Hasidic perspective, is redeeming dibbur and mastering a language of truth, so that a language of truth will be established forever (sefat emet tikon l’ad – Proverbs 12:1)


The dibbur is in exile in each of us. Passover is a yearly reminder that there is a darkness at noon in each of us, yearning to be redeemed with the Voice of God.

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