Rabbi’s Corner: “Tzimtzum” – Making Space for Other Voices

(The above graphic spacing is intentional – see below)

One of my favorite Hebrew words is “tzimtzum” (pronounced “TZEEM-tzoom”). This is a Kabbalistic (mystical) concept of contracting oneself to make space for others. When we do this, we take a deep breath, intentionally pause, hold our thoughts and words, and take time to deeply listen to those around us. According to the Jewish mystics, if we each practice tzimtzum in our personal and communal lives, we’ll enable the world to come to a state of wholeness and perfection.

We live in a very fast-paced world, a world where everyone speaks constantly, technology allows communication 24/7, and we expect instantaneous replies to all our texts/calls/email. Isn’t it called “Instant Messenger?” People speak over each other, under each other, around each other at meetings. Often, it seems cacophonous and you can’t hear your own thoughts. It’s easy to get caught up in the noise, in the world of trying to make your opinions, your voice heard and known. I am guilty of this as well. We speak when we should be listening. We respond or react when we should be contemplating and reflecting, making decisions only after thoughtful and careful consideration.

This week, we begin reading the fifth and final book of the Torah, the Book of Deuteronomy or D’varim. The word D’varim means, “Words.” The Torah scroll indicates that a new book begins by placing a very large empty space between the end of B’Midbar (Numbers) and the beginning of D’varim. It is an intentional pause of sorts. A virtual breath. We pause to reflect on everything we learned, to express gratitude for the gift of Torah, for what we are about to learn. We sit in silence. We don’t begin something new until we pause and reflect.

The remarkable sofer (Torah scribe) Rabbi Gedaliah Druin taught me that when we look at a Torah scroll, it’s very important to examine not only the letters and the words, but most importantly, we need to examine all of the spaces in between and around the letters and words. He reminded me that without the empty spaces, all of the letters, words, paragraphs and books would be jumbled together and would be impossible to read. The spaces represent tzimtzum – that act of contraction which allows us to read and understand with clarity and sense of purpose. It permits us to take the time to intentionally pause and contemplate what we’re reading, learning, and processing.

As a k’hilah kedoshah, a holy community, taking time for pause and reflection requires concentration, coordination, patience, skill and effort. As a community, we too, will reap many rewards if we take the appropriate time, train ourselves on how to intentionally pause, and communally reflect. Yes, this week we begin the book of D’varim, the Book of “Words.” Like with Torah, we too will gain greater clarity of purpose, understanding, wisdom and insight into many areas of our congregational life when we perform those acts of “tzimtzum.”

Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Sharon L. Sobel
Senior Rabbi, Temple Beth Sholom

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