Unknown concepts

What does new and completely different mean if not that which cannot be imagined?

Painting by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Painting by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
THE ABILITY to create something out of nothing, ex nihilo, is frequently viewed as one of God’s powers. Man, we all agree, cannot bring something out of nothing.
With this in mind, let us redefine the term “creativity” as the ability to compose, to make and combine things out of different elements that are available to us.
This description makes sense when we think of objects in the physical world, or consider our physical-biological inability to imagine colors that are not a combination of primary colors. All “other” colors are known vicariously by means of mathematical formulae.
Even our capacity to imagine is limited to the familiar. We can only imagine that whose parts are already known to us. Yes, humanity dreams of ideal states or utopias. Yet, despite the fact that the word ‘utopia’ in Greek literally means “no-place,” they are built on the negation of characteristics known to us, that is to say, of “this place,” and on the idea or concept of “a place” that consists of modifications of the real and the known.
However, the essence of the story of the exodus from Egypt is hinged on the need to grasp hitherto unknown concepts. God says to Moses, “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God almighty, but I did not make myself known to them by my name YHWH … say unto the children of Israel: I am YHWH, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage, and I will redeem … And I will bring you in unto the land…” Thus the Israelites are confronted with the total otherness of three unfamiliar elements, God as YHWH, redemption, and the promised land.
YHWH denotes an equivalent of the English “to be” in all its potential permutations of “being” without an attached attribute or tense. Thus, in spite of its being a name of God, it stands as the epitome of mystery and of the indefinable.
The ideas of redemption and of a promised land are just as completely incomprehensible to a people defined by life in Egypt, the quintessence of exile. Redemption is not simply “that which is not enslavement.”
The states of existence known to the Israelites are two opposites, those of masters and slaves, but redemption has a positive content that is not on that spectrum.
Similarly, the promised land is not merely “that which is not Egypt.”
It has a positive content independent of the negation of Egypt. Rather than a negation of the known, Redemption and a land are obscured by their otherness to the known, leaving no elements with which to conjure even a vague picture of either.
Moses is asking them for a leap of faith to put their trust in a God, whose most sublime name denotes “I will be who I will be,” and to subject themselves to an inconceivable transformation. It is not surprising then that “they would not listen to Moses.” After all, their horizon has been defined by “cruel bondage.” Because he cannot ignite their imagination, Moses is forced to approach Pharaoh, and ask of him “let the children of Israel go.”
In this psychological-theological drama Pharaoh is a symbol. The name Pharaoh in ancient Egyptian means “high/great house” and “a ruler”. However in Hebrew, its root letters can form the words for rampage or a mass of wild hair. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav teaches that “Pharaoh” stands for the deepest agnosticism, heresy and disbelief.
It is a kind of heresy that cannot be refuted by any intellectually learned argument. Its elusive nature is due to the fact that heresy bears no positive content in and of itself. It is an infinite void, a mental confusion emanating from negation in its pure form, which is indeed formlessness. Considering Nachman’s view we may say that only in this state can we be open to unimaginable possibilities. The possibility of “I will be who I will be.”
Thus, we understand Moses’ call to Pharaoh not as “let my people go” that is to say, Pharaoh as a passive agent, but as instructions “to deliver the Israelites from the land of Egypt.” The spell of living between binary options such as master and slave can be broken only by approaching Pharaoh, by encountering one’s deepest confusions and wildest demons.
Only this path can lead to deliverance from the known, and an openness to the ungraspable, yet rewarding, unknown. Maybe then one can attempt to imagine that which is completely different. 
Rabbi Haim O. Rechnitzer is Associate Professor of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati, and a poet. He is the author of ‘Prophecy and the Perfect Political Order; The Political Theology of Leo Strauss,’ ‘Songs of the Third Exile’ and ‘Shibolet – Poems’