From Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, Kedushas Levi, Parshat Bereishit.
Marc Chagall’s painting of creation on the Paris Opera Ceiling
בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth… Genesis 1:1
The principle is that the Creator created everything, and is everything, and never ceases to give to the world, for in every moment the Creator gives abundantly to all His creatures and to all the worlds and to all the celestial palaces and to all the angels and to all the holy beasts (1). So we say in our morning prayers, “Who forms light and creates darkness,” and not “Who formed light and created darkness” — we speak in the present tense because in every moment God gives life to every living thing, and everything is from God, and God is one, complete, and yet included in every separate thing. So when we come to the state of Ayin, “nothingness,” and understand that we are nothing, only that the Creator gives us strength, then we name God “the One Who forms,” for even now God is forming the world. But when we have our sights fixed upon our [physical] selves and not on the Ayin, then we are in the state of Yesh, “being,” then we call God “the One Who formed,” as if the deed is over and done. So we say [in the Asher yatzar prayer] “Who formed us in Wisdom,” for Wisdom is the state of being, Yesh (2), and so “Who formed” is more appropriate than “Who forms.” This is why in the writings of the Arizal it is said that “The Lord is King” refers to the state of Ayin, the ever-present state of nothingness, in which we are nothing but what God gives us (3).
Now Ayin governs everything above nature, and Yesh governs everything within nature. We join Yesh with Ayin through a mitzvah or Torah study, which is referred to by the verse “the living beings ran and returned” (4). About this the Zohar says that the mitzvot and the Torah are hidden and revealed — hidden in the Ayin, revealed in the Yesh — and in the deed they are joined together, Yesh in the Ayin and Ayin in the Yesh. This is why it is called a mitzvah: [the first two letters] mem and tzadi are in the atbash code yud and heh, which are Ayin, and [the last two letters] vav and heh are Yesh, and so the letters yud and heh are hidden [and the letters vav and heh are revealed], for Ayin is hidden [and Yesh is revealed] (5).
And we will clarify what is the hidden and what is the revealed that are in a mitzvah. Our performance of a mitzvah brings joy to God, and this is the hidden, for we do not see it; we only see the revealed, which is the benefit it brings us. This is the meaning of the verse, “The hidden things belong to the Lord our God, and the revealed things are for us.” And this is the meaning of In the beginning God created, that is, in the beginning God created Yesh, which is called “beginning,” for it came first from Ayin, “nothing,” which existed even before “something” (6). This is why the Targum Yerushalmi translated this verse, “With wisdom God created…” for Wisdom is the state of Yesh (7).
Sources: Who forms light and creates darkness… the Kedushas Levi is actually citing the source text from Isaiah 45:7, not the emended version from the morning prayers, which reads “Who forms light and creates everything”; Who formed us in Wisdom… from the Asher yatzar prayer recited upon leaving the bathroom, to give thanks for a functioning body; Wisdom is the state of being, Yesh from Ayin…Zohar III: 239a, Parshat Pinhas; “The Lord is King” refers to the state of Ayin; Pri Eitz Haim, Sha’ar haZemirot 3; The living beings ran and returned…Ezekiel 1:14, Zohar III:53b; mem and tzadi are in the atbash code yud and heh…Tikkunei Zohar Tikkun 29, 63a; yud and heh are Ayin…Zohar I:21a; vav and heh are Yesh…Tikkunei Zohar (in Zohar Hadash 101, column b); for Ayin is hidden…ibid.; The hidden things belong…Deuteronomy 29:28
1) That is, the four creatures of Ezekiel’s vision, which are understood in the Kabbalah to be celestial entities. 2) “Wisdom,” or Chochmah, is the primary name for the second sefirah, the first to emerge from Keter/Ayin, “Nothing.” It is the first existent thing that can be called “something.” It seems that the Kedushas Levi is contrasting the Yotzer Or prayer before the Shema, in which our focus is on God and hence is spoken in the present tense, with the Asher Yatzar prayer, in which in a sense the focus is on our own physical bodies, for which we are grateful, even down to the workings of each duct and orifice, and hence is spoken in the past tense. 3) Such as in the liturgical refrain, “The Lord is King, the Lord was King, the Lord will be King for ever and ever,” in which all three tenses appear. 4) Chayot, “the living beings,” is read as chayut, “the life force” (the letters are the same in the Hebrew). This is a classic prooftext for the liminal nature of the spiritual life, ever passing back and forth between this world and the next, the natural and the supernatural, the physical and the spiritual. 5) The atbash code is a Kabbalistic way of transmuting letters, in which mem and tzadi become yud and heh, the first two letters of the Ineffable Name (YH of YHVH). Thus the word mitzvah has hidden within its first half the first half of God’s Name, while the second half is openly identical with the second half of the Name. 6) The Kedushas Levi doesn’t cite it, but he assumes you know the famous midrash in which reishit, “beginning,” is read as Torah (see Bereishit Rabbah 1:1). This was later developed according to the concept of the sefirot. 7) Targum Yerushalmi, literally, “The Jerusalem Translation,” is an Aramaic paraphrastic translation (or, more accurately, collection of translations which all go by that name) of the Torah which integrated midrashic readings, as here, in which the reading of “beginning” as “wisdom” (i.e., Torah) is translated literally.
There’s a bumper sticker out there I particularly like: “God is too big to fit into one religion.” While Levi Yitzhak was no religious relativist, he did struggle with the idea of trying to squeeze the infinite and ineffable Divine into a working religion filled with words, ideas, and prescribed actions. His language for this, which he received directly from his master Dov Ber the Maggid of Mezeritch but which of course goes all the way back to medieval Kabbalah, is that of Ayin and Yesh, which you might translate Nothingness and Being or Nothing and Something. One of Levi Yitzhak’s most central beliefs was that religion, like anything else in the world of Yesh, cannot fully express the Infinite One, the Ayin, but that it can connect us to the Infinite One, and connection is exactly what we, as finite beings living in a finite world, need. Our powerful but vague sense of God needs some kind of container — in this case, Torah and mitzvas — but at the same time we need to remember that God does not fit in any container — but at the smae time we can’t do without the container — but at the same time…