The Torah begins at the beginning, with the creation of the world.
We often think of creation as making something out of nothing. An artist takes a blank canvas, marks it up with colors, and voila: a painting. A builder takes an empty plot of land, builds on it: a house. A baby is born, and there’s a tiny human where before was just…air?
But wait. Something was there before the baby…I can almost remember…oh yeah, it was what I called “my life”!
Because I am a freelance musician and teacher, “my life” included working until 2 a.m., scheduling six-hour rehearsals without paying a babysitter, going to see bands that hit the stage at midnight, watching movies on planes, and traveling without checking three bags, a stroller, a carseat, and stuffing my carry-on with diapers.
I worked hard, and lived cheap, and I knew I was incredibly lucky to have that level of control over my life. I knew I’d be giving up some flexibility when I had a baby. Now, as the mother of a toddler, I know I had no idea.
Don’t get me wrong. She is a miracle. She is an absolute joy. She is the single best thing that ever happened to me. When she toddles over to hug me, my heart breaks open like a rainbow geode. I’ve been known to stay up late looking at pictures of her after she goes to sleep.
And yet! “My life,” the life I used to have, is over.
A year and a half in, I’m just beginning to get used to that idea. It might sound selfish, or trivial, but it’s been a profound challenge for me to let go of my old life and build a new one. I wanted to become a mother, and I’m infinitely grateful for it. And sometimes a little surprised at how hard it is to say goodbye to the life I had before.
Reading the creation story this year, I wonder: did God have to give something up to create the world, too? According to the mystical Jewish scholars, the answer is yes. In the very beginning, God was everywhere–this infinite light that filled the universe from one end to the other. There was no space for heavens, earth, oceans, humans, clouds, or chocolate.
In order to create space for this universe, God had to withdraw. In Hebrew this is called tzimtzum. Sometimes it’s translated as contraction, which I love, because…how great is it to imagine God in labor?
Tzimtzum. God couldn’t take up all that space and create a world, too. So God pulled that luminous God-self back to make a sort of black hole. Only then was there room. Room for the planets and the sky and the jungles and the dinosaurs and the stars and the trees and eventually, people. Our oldest ancestors, all the way down to you and me. And our little human babies.
This year, as I start to get back on my feet in this new life that is mothering, I think about tzimtzum. I think maybe it’s not just selfishness or privilege that makes it difficult to give up control over my days. Maybe it’s not just the extended adolescence of Americans or the particulars of my freelance life; after all, the Kabbalists talked about it back in the Middle Ages. Maybe it is actually a basic spiritual truth: to create a life, you have to pull your own life back. It hurts sometimes. And it is so worth it.
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