"Moshiach is ready to come now-our part is to increase in acts of goodness and kindness" -The Rebbe

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Chassidus: Follow a derech taught by a Rebbe

Recently a certain trend has developed. Although many people have come to study Chassidus (and may they increase), some do so in a way that lacks a commitment to a particular derech (path in serving Hashem, pl. derachim), and a relationship with a particular Rebbe or dynasty of Rebbeim who teach that derech. Instead, these people take different practices from different derachim, according to whatever they feel, and they will connect to varying degrees with various Tzaddikim and Rebbeim, but will stop short from identifying themselves as the chossid of any one.

In effect, they (though fully well-meaning) create their own derech. I submit that the “derech” of choosing one’s own derech is faulty. Especially if one wishes to follow the path of Chassidus, one should know that at the core of Chassidus lie the relationship of Rebbe and chossid, and the concept that only a true Tzaddik and Rebbe can create a derech in avodas Hashem.

As explained here, the Rebbeim pave the way for us through their example (there it is said in the context of the Chabad Rebbeim, but I would think that it applies to the Rebbeim of other groups too; in any case, this post is not about the specific idea of a Chabad Rebbe). The reason that they do this and that we do not, is that they are pure and holy Tzaddikim who are vastly superior and in a different league from us.

However, when the person hasn’t submitted to any one derech, he must “pick and choose.” He doesn’t do everything, because that would be overwhelming and impossible. So he selects different practices and approaches from different sources. What he fails to grasp is that such spiritual things are not given for regular people to understand with direct knowledge and thus make their own assessments about. They are not worldly matters about which every Beryl and Shmeryl is equally entitled to an opinion, as they are, let’s say, when it comes to which political party to vote for.

As the Rebbe puts it (Igros Kodesh, Vol. 3, p. 412):

Why should we go around making our own calculations, and calculate ourselves what is better for us spiritually—what do we know about spirituality altogether? If only we would know its existence [“metzius”]; we certainly don’t know its essence [“mehus”]. [How can we make such calculations of our own, when] we have been issued a directive [on the matter] by the Nasi HaDor [Leader of the Generation]. The Nasi is the heart of the Jewish people, and the level of heart is higher than the level of mouth.

Moreover, as explained in Chassidus, the Nasi HaDor is the “intermediary who joins” [“memutza hamechabeir”—for further explanation, see here] us with the very Essence of the Infinite One, may He be blessed. So if he directed one to a place of spiritual livelihood, this is surely the best thing possible for the Neshama and for the health of the body. And the Neshama will be healthy when it is a vessel to carry out G–d’s will.
As far as the present discussion is concerned, we see from the above that someone who thinks that he can make assessments about spiritual matters on his own is foolish. What does he know about spiritual matters? Spiritual realities [“mehus”] are completely beyond his powers of perception. Even with regard to their external effects [“metzius”], he lacks understanding. Thus, the humble person will recognize that he should follow a Rebbe, who is a far superior kind of person (for more on the topic of Tzaddik and Rebbe in general, see here), and one who sees the reality of G–dliness (see here). From this incomparably superior vantage point, the Rebbe can truly guide the person to connect with Hashem.

Even someone who is without doubt significantly more inspired, intelligent, and spiritually sensitive than an average person is simply not qualified to formulate his own derech. He is not capable of taking into consideration all the sublime calculations that Tzaddikim and Rebbeim can through their superior perception and wisdom, and through their ruach hakodesh. A non-Rebbe will most likely err, whether on the side of being overly lenient, or being overly stringent. (This is all aside from the fact that every person has biases that cloud his judgement, which necessitates that heu consult with an objective outsider.)

Along these lines, the Talmud states (Eruvin 6b): “The halachah is like Beis Hillel. If one adopts the stringencies of both Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel, he is a fool who walks in darkness; if he adopts the leniencies of both, he is a rasha (wicked one).” I am not saying that someone who does not have a Rebbe and a specific derech is necessarily guilty of the above, but he is definitely more susceptible to doing so.

Moreover, what will the person do if he learns that there’s an inherent conflict between some of the elements within the two (or more) paths? Such a person will choose the one that makes more sense to him, and/or with which he feels more comfortable. But what if he doesn’t even notice that conflict? In addition to all that was said above about the fallacy of making such a mishmash, understand that some approaches and practices are just not meant to be combined, and when they are, the results are not favorable.

By way of analogy, a cook knows that certain foods taste well when mixed together in the correct proportion, but others clash and may even create a dish that is inedible, despite the tastiness of each individual ingredient. Another analogy, carrying on from the analogy of a path to a particular destination, is that if a person tries to travel down two different roads simultaneously, he will not reach his destination. Yet another analogy is from medicines. Chassidus is described (see this post) as the medicine for the exile. Perhaps it can be extrapolated from this that the derech that each Rebbe prescribes is akin to a specific prescription of medicine, and mixing medicines is not safe, as is obvious.

Moreover, the one who takes a little from here and a little from there, according to whatever he feels “turns him on” or makes sense to him, is not approaching Torah with bittul (humility) or with emunah (faith) in Tzaddikim. He should whole-heartedly accept and obey the word of Hashem through the sages and Tzaddikim whom He sent to teach us, and do so even when he doesn’t understand their words, and has great difficulty accepting them. Instead, such a person inflates himself to the position of arbiter over matters of the spiritual that are completely beyond him.

Finally, the Rebbe-chossid relationship, in which the chossid obeys the Rebbe as his master (“adoneinu”) even if he doesn’t understand, keeps the chossid in check. The Radziner Rebbe, Reb Gershon Chanoch Henech Leiner, OBM, once commented when he saw someone who declared himself a chossid without a Rebbe: “Git a kuk oif a hunt ohn a baal haboss!”—“Look at a dog without an owner!” (I heard this story in the name of Rabbi Groner of Melbourne, alav hasholom, related by his son-in-law.) Likewise, chassidim have an animal soul, which may even at times be akin to a dog. By following a Rebbe, the chossid keeps his animal soul in check and inculcates in himself a sense of subservience so that his animal soul is appropriately sublimated. But when the dog is his own master ...

In summary, a chossid should choose a specific Rebbe and derech in avodas Hashem because these are fundamental to the derech of Chassidus. One who fails to do so, and picks and chooses, in effect arrogates to himself authority to which he is not entitled, because only a Rebbe, by virtue of his lofty spiritual level, is capable of creating a true derech. The person may choose too many stringent or too many lenient ideas and practices, and different elements selected from various derachim may clash. However, when the chossid has the humility to follow a Rebbe and that Rebbe’s derech, doing so subdues the chossid’s animal soul and enables him to sublimate it.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Chassidus Chabad: Not Just for Intellectuals

Chassidus Chabad: Not Just for Intellectuals

Rabbi Y. Oliver

There is a widespread belief that although the path of Chabad is very holy and sublime, not everyone is cut out for it. Since it focuses on in-depth study, the argument goes, it is suitable only for those of a more intellectual bent. The more unsophisticated, however, are incapable of finding the guidance and inspiration they need by following this path.

The Previous Rebbe clearly rejects this notion:
Chassidim never made a point of seeking gifted people. In other words, good talents and a good head were never a precondition. The main thing was that one engage in avodah [toiling at self-refinement], each one according to his ability. This was the [Alter] Rebbe’s approach—to make people receptive regardless whether the person’s talents were exceptional, average, or mediocre. ... [The Alter Rebbe] created a broad path for the entire Jewish people [“klal Yisroel”], a path that is paved [see here], equally effective for the greatest scholar and intellectual, and for the most simple Jew [“dem gor, gor posheten Yidn”].

Sefer HaSichos 5691, pp. 172-173.
Elsewhere (Likkutei Dibburim, Vol. 2, p. 414), the Previous Rebbe explains further:
When the Alter Rebbe founded his well-known chadorim, and he hand-picked his students—great scholars, with true minds of genius, and wild talent—the regular and simple people who wanted to become chassidim became dejected, thinking that they were nothing. Yet soon they saw that they made a great mistake, and they were very happy that to see that the Alter Rebbe saw to it that they receive their spiritual sustenance just the same as the greatest of his students who were famous geniuses.

The Alter Rebbe, being extremely orderly, and having the greatest talent in organization, and being born to be Hashem’s anointed guide and leader, immediately established a certain structure for the study of the teachings of Chassidus in a manner that every kind of person, even the most simple Jew [“dem gor, gor posheten Yidn”] would have a place of his own.

The Alter Rebbe, whom Hashem elected as the Shepherd of Israel, gave him the unlimited divine powers and talents to be able to create such a masterpiece as the teachings of Chassidus Chabad. It is a chamber with room for all kinds of people, from the greatest geniuses and intellectuals in the most profound concepts of Chassidus, to the most simple laborer...
In Likkutei Sichos (Vol. 4, p. 1137) the Rebbe goes further and declares that the path of Chabad can even elevate the avodah of a simple Jew to a level higher than that to which Chassidus Chagas can bring him:
... Chassidus Chabad accomplished that even simple Jews, who are apparently unable to reach thorough comprehension [of Hashem’s greatness as explained in the teachings of Chassidus Chabad], can be elevated by Chassidus Chabad, and to a level even higher than is possible through the general teachings of Chassidus [“toras haChassidus haklolis”—i.e., a branch of Chassidus that is not according to the teachings of Chabad].

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Light Vs. Ego: Different Types of Existence

Light Vs. Ego:
Different Types of Existence

Rabbi Y. Oliver

Generally speaking, there are two fundamentally different types of beings: those that reflect Hashem’s existence, which are termed ohr, “light,” and those that feel and project themselves as independent from Hashem, which are termed yesh, “ego.”

This is relevant to the different levels of Seder Hishtalshelus, the system of four spiritual worlds—in descending order, Atzilus, Beriah, Yetzirah, and Asiyah (the latter three are commonly abbreviated as “b’ya”). These terms describe the vast distinction between the world of Atzilus and the worlds of b’ya. Atzilus is called ohr, while b’ya is called yesh.

The world of Atzilus and the Sefiros (“divine attributes”) in it are termed “gilui ha’he’elem”—literally, “the revelation of that which was hidden.” In Atzilus, the G–dliness that shone before the tzimtzum (lit., “contraction”—when G–d’s Infinite Light was totally hidden), becomes revealed.

This is also alluded to in the etymological meaning of the word Atzilus. Although Atzilus is usually translated as “emanation,” it is related to the word “ha’atzalah,” which means separation. We find this word used when Hashem declared that He would invest Moshe Rabeinu’s spirit in the seventy elders: “I [Hashem] will separate [ve’atzalti] from the spirit that is upon you, and I will put it upon them” [Bamidbar 11:17—cf. Torah Ohr, Vayera, 14a].

To explain this, Chassidus employs the analogy of light. The fundamental purpose of light is to reveal its source—the luminary from which the light emerges. Light has no purpose and function other than to declare the existence and nature of its origin.

Likewise, the entire purpose of the G–dliness in Atzilus is to reveal the sublime G–dliness of before the tzimtzum.

In contrast, b’ya is a yesh, a self-conscious entity, an entity that senses itself as separate and independent from Hashem. Although b’ya stems from Atzilus, it does not reveal Atzilus. The reason for this is that b’ya is created through a process of tzimtzum by which Hashem hides Himself from His creations to the extent that they are able to feel themselves as independent from their Creator.

It should be emphasized that this is the way that the creations in b’ya feel; however, this feeling is illusory, for in reality nothing exists or can exist separately from Hashem.

Now, it is true that when one examines the world, even our physical world, which is the lowest of all levels, one can and should come to the realization that a Creator exists. However, this awareness is a result of investing the mental effort necessary to reach this conclusion. After contemplation, one should realize logically that the universe, a limited being, cannot create itself; rather, it must be created by an unlimited Creator. Similarly, after studying various realms of science one will correctly conclude that the complexity in nature points to an all-powerful Designer.

Although these and other such arguments are valid and true, they are not automatic and instinctive. They involve a certain distance from the physical reality of the world before us. No matter how convinced a person may be of these proofs, he does not sense the reality of Hashem with the same immediate conviction as his sense of the table at which he sits.

Sefer HaMa’amarim 5713, misheteshka hachamah.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Where does our heart lie? I

The Talmud says[1] that the time for the Mitzvah of kindling the Chanukah lights is “from when the sun sets until passers-by cease from the marketplace.” The Talmud explains that this time extends “until the steps of the people of Tarmuda’i cease.” Rashi explains that the people of Tarmud, who would sell wood in the market-place, were always the last to leave. Every night they would wait until everyone else had gone home, in case they needed wood for their fires.

On a deeper level, the word Tarmudai is etymologically related to the word meridah, rebellion, and represents rebellion against Hashem (may He save us). This is analogous to the moredes, “insubordinate wife,” a woman who refuses to engage in marital relations. The husband-wife relationship is fundamentally one of giver and recipient; the husband is the giver, and the wife is the recipient or “vessel” for what the husband gives. In a proper marriage, through the first act of intimacy, the husband forges a deep emotional bond with his wife that makes the wife desire to act as a mekabel, a recipient from him. An insubordinate wife, however, does not desire to receive from her husband.

Likewise, the Jewish people are compared to Hashem’s wife (this is the basis of the entire book of Shir Hashirim). We are also referred to a vessel, as King David said, “I will lift a cup of salvation.”[2] The Jewish people are likened to a “cup” that receives Hashem’s blessings of salvation. This implies that they should yearn to receive from Hashem alone, from holiness, and that when they do, they are living as they ought to, as they were meant to.

This concept is not only true of the Jewish people as a collective; it also applies to each individual Jew. A Jew’s desire and yearning should be to receive only from Hashem. This means that the Jew’s bond with Hashem is not just about following the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law. It is about where his heart lies.

If a Jew fulfills the Shulchan Aruch meticulously, but sets his heart, dreams, and strivings elsewhere, his bond with Hashem is fundamentally lacking. Every desire that a Jew has for something independent of the framework of serving Hashem is a kind of inner rebellion against Hashem, a kind of subtle infidelity in this personal relationship with Hashem. Chanukah represents refining the inner self of the Jew to the point at which all his desires and yearnings are related to serving Hashem.
[1] Shabbos 21b.
[2] Tehillim 116:13.

Adapted from Sefer HaMa’amarim 5713, Misheteshka hachamah.
See also the follow-up post here.

Monday, December 13, 2010

"It depends on your feeling"

I often hear it asked, “Do we recite tachanun on Hei Teves?” The question is understandable, as one needs to know what to do in practice.

Reb Michoel Seligson related to me (also printed in Otzar Minhagei Chabad, Elul p. 23) that in 5749, he davvened as the chazan on Gimmel Tammuz, and did not recite tachanun. After several people protested, he wrote a letter to the Rebbe asking whether his conduct had been acceptable, and added that he wishes to know the same concerning whether to recitetachanun on Chai Elul. Next to the words “Gimmel Tammuz and Chai Elul,” the Rebbe wrote: “בענינים התלויים ברגש — אין לשאול כיון שזוהי הוכחה שאין רגש”—“In areas that are dependent upon feeling, one does not ask, because asking demonstrates that one does not have the feeling.”

This seems to mean: “True, the Rebbeim never declared it our official custom to recite tachanun on Chai Elul, nor have chassidim kept such a tradition. After all, Chai Elul was a day of celebration carefully hidden until the Previous Rebbe revealed it, and as much as he extolled it, the Previous Rebbe never instructed that one should abstain from reciting tachanun on this day. Likewise, Gimmel Tammuz, the day on which the Previous Rebbe was released from prison (but then exiled), was never formally declared a day of celebration on which chassidim collectively refrained from reciting tachanun.

“However, the halachic exemption from reciting tachanun depends upon your feeling. If you feel truly inspired about the day, and indeed feel it to be a tremendous day of simcha, then you won’t recite tachanun. But if you don’t feel this way, and if you are even unsure about whether you do, then you should recite tachanun as you do normally.”

Perhaps the same principle can also be applied to Hei Teves and other similar days. On the one hand, Hei Teves is a relatively new day on the chassidishe calendar, so there’s a certain resistance to creating “new customs.” After all, “anyone who deviates [from the established custom] has the lower hand” (Bava Metzia 76a). But its recentness is also its greatness. Hei Teves happened with our own Rebbe, the Rebbe of our generation, and this makes it special in a way not found by the Yomei Depagra (chassidishe days of celebration) associated with the earlier Rebbeim.

So, do we recite tachanun on Hei Teves? In this case, the custom is not prescribed. Don’t look inside a book to find the answer, as holy as the book may be—look inside your heart. If you don’t feel filled with joy and elation at his victory and the victory of the Chabad community, then you have no reason not to recite tachanun. (Even for the less emotive types, some simple ways of discerning whether they find the day profoundly meaningful is by seeing whether they enthusiastically fulfill the Rebbe’s directive to purchase seforim on this day, and whether they make a point of attending a farbrengen.) And while you’re reciting tachanun, along with your teshuvah for other things, add to the list the fact that you lack the feeling of joy that a chossid should feel in rejoicing in the Rebbe’s simcha. And hopefully by next year you’ll have grown enough in your avodah that you will indeed rejoice as a chossid should, with a tangible, deeply-felt joy, such that refraining from reciting tachanun will indeed be justified.

Some postscripts:

1. If you derive your joy on Hei Teves from the very opportunity not to recite tachanun, because you donoot find the avodah of teshuvah burdensome, or simply because you want to skip some of the prayers so you can leave shul sooner, may Hashem save us, then it would seem clear that on a day about which we have received no explicit instruction to recite tachanun, you should davka recite tachanun—for that very feeling.

2. Choosing to recite tachanun is not in itself a proof that one is truly joyful. As in all matters of avodah, one must be thoroughly honest with oneself. As the Mitteleh Rebbe so pointedly said, “If you fool yourself, what have you accomplished by fooling a fool?”

3. Obviously, on days like Yud-Tes Kislev in which the Rebbeim have explicitly declared that we do not recite tachanun, one who considers himself a chossid should not recite tachanun even if he knows that unfortunately he is lacking the proper feeling. (Of course, he should do everything possible to prepare for such days so that he will indeed experience the appropriate feeling when they arrive.)

4. I have heard some say that personal “hergeshim” (conduct based on strong feelings), are all very well, but they should be kept in private. I find it significant that the written response above was addressed to a chazan. When the chazan does not recite tachanun, then the minyan should go along, and the minyan in this case was clearly not necessarily feeling this way. Despite this, the Rebbe implies that if the chazan feels this way, it is legitimate not only for him to abstain from reciting tachanun, but also for the entire minyan to follow his lead. I am not drawing any practical conclusions from this, as that would be the province of a Rov moreh hora’ah, which I do not presume to be; I simply note it as significant.

5. This is just one example of the concept of “tolui behergesh,” but there are numerous other applications. One such instance can be found in connection with singing the Alter Rebbe’s niggun, which chassidim are careful only to sing at certain prescribed times. The Rebbe was asked (Igros Kodesh, Vol. 16, p. 222) whether one may sing this niggun on a certain day of rejoicing—the Rebbe does not specify which—that was not a day in which the niggun was traditionally sung. The Rebbe responded that if the questioner feels that for him, the day in question has the same significance as the days in which this niggun was permitted to be sung, then it would be appropriate for him to sing it. As a precedent for this, the Rebbe mentioned that some chassidim would sing the Alter Rebbe’s niggun on Yud-Beis Tammuz, the day in which they celebrated the release of the Previous Rebbe from exile, because they considered it an extension of the liberation of Yud-Tes Kislev.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Chassidus: The Antidote to Spiritual Near-Death

Chassidus: The Antidote
to Spiritual Near-Death

Rabbi Y. Oliver

A colleague of the Maggid of Mezeritch once noticed a manuscript of Chassidus lying in the dirt, and this upset him. He was upset that these sublime, infinitely priceless secrets had come to be treated so carelessly, and so he wished that they would remain hidden, as, in his estimation, the generation clearly did not deserve them. 

This episode in our world caused a similar action to be taken in the Heavenly Court: The prosecutor in the Heavenly Court came forward with the same argument against allowing the revelation of the teachings of Chassidus to continue.

The Alter Rebbe sensed this negative feeling and the danger it was causing on high, and responded to it by drawing an analogy to justify the revelation of these teachings. The Heavenly Court accepted this defense, and Chassidus continued to be taught. The analogy was as follows:

A prince once fell gravely ill. The doctors diagnosed that the prince’s sickness could only be cured by grinding down certain priceless jewels, mixing them with water, and administering this potion to him. However, these jewels were so rare that they could not even be found in the king’s treasury. The only such jewels available were embedded in the king’s very crown. In the meantime, the prince’s health deteriorated to the extent that  his lips became tightly shut together, bringing the doctors to doubt whether the prince would even be able to swallow the potion. The king then declared that nonetheless, it is worthwhile to grind down this jewel, the centerpiece of the king’s crown, on the slight chance that a drop might enter the prince’s mouth and heal him.

Likewise, the Alter Rebbe said, the Jewish people are compared to Hashem’s children. While in exile they are in a very low spiritual state, and are in danger of spiritual death. Our spiritual doctors, the great Tzaddikim, starting from the Baal Shem Tov, realized that the only cure for this malady is the most sublime, precious secrets of Torah, which had until then been completely hidden—the teachings of Chassidus. Even a minute amount of this life-giving potion is enough to illuminate the darkness of exile and enable the Jew to continue living as a Jew, strong in his faith and Mitzvah observance.

Now one may no longer stand on the side and declare that he chooses to follow the previous approach and not study, or not teach, Chassidus, because of his concern that such study may not be appropriate. Now that this prescription has been given, not only is it appropriate, but it is mandatory: everyone must follow it and share it with others.

This justification for revealing Chassidus was even true in the times of the Alter Rebbe, before the Enlightenment Movement, Reform, Zionism, and all the sundry isms that have decimated so many of our people, may Hashem save us. This is all the more relevant in modern times, when the majority of the Jewish people have assimilated, may Hashem save them, and even many who are still basically observant are lacking true faith and inspiration, their observance weak from the insidious influences of secular culture (see here).

Now, more than ever, Chassidus is the elixir of life for a Jew. It implants in his heart true love and fear of Hashem and devotion to Torah and Mitzvos. A Jew who takes the medicine of Chassidus is fortified against the tempting enticements of the secular world. He is G–d-fearing, proud and happy to be a Jew, and enthusiastic in his observance of Mitzvos, even to the point of being willing to undergo self-sacrifice. He is a healthy Jew.

Adapted from Likkutei Sichos, Vol. 4, pp. 1256, 1258.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Don't Distort the Message of Chanukah

Don't Distort the Message of Chanukah

Rabbi Yehoishophot Oliver

These gems of wisdom below (and others like it in many locations worldwide) ...

From "Governer Tweets From Lighting":

"The United States allows freedom of relgion and not freedom from religion. Chanukah delivers the message of religous freedom, where the few believers won over the many oppressors."
From "Arizona Gov. Shows Soft Side":

"The menorah serves as a symbol of Arizona's dedication to preserve and encourage the right and liberty of all its citizens to worship God freely."
... impel me to draw my readers' attention to these past posts: The true message of Chanuka and Chanukah: Absolute truth, not pluralism!

I applaud all those who did not succumb to the temptation to follow this trend, choosing instead to speak words of pure, uncompromised faith. 

Instead of twisting Chanukah into an American holiday celebrating the secular American values of pluralism and freedom of religion, the speakers at these events should have followed the Rebbe's directive to use this opportunity to promote awareness and observance of the Noahide laws out of a pure belief in the Torah:

There is another matter of primary importance in connection with the public Menorah lighting—influencing non-Jews. Lighting the Menorah “in the entrance of the home, on the outside”[1] affects all those on the outside, including non-Jews. ... Therefore the opportunity of the Menorah lighting, which should be held in the most public, central places, should be utilized in order to inspire non-Jews to observe the Noahide Code. It should be stressed that they should fulfill these laws “because G–d commanded them [these laws] in the Torah.”[2] This abolishes rebellion against G–d, which is the theme of the lights of Chanukah.

[1] Shabbos 21b. [2] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, 8:11.

Hisva’aduyos 5747, Vol. 2, p. 133.
Note that the Rebbe says that the message of the lights of Chanukah is the abolition of rebellion against G–d. It is clear that other religions, which reject Torah in one way or another, constitute rebellion against G–d and His Word. Although it is likely counter-productive to attempt to abolish this rebellion through a "frontal attack" of outright condemnation, the desire to avoid doing so does not justify uttering a falsehood. Declaring that Chanukah itself represents some sort of endorsement of the legitimacy of other religions, or using any similar language, G-d forbid, is a hideous distortion of Chanukah into its diametric opposite.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Why Won't Chabad Support Some Worthy Causes?

The Rebbe writes:
Our Rebbeim, the Nesi’im [of Chabad] ordered that they [Chabad chassidim, in particular communal activists in Eretz Yisroel] distance themselves as much as possible from any form of support for a political party, regardless of which party, even the best one.

They also explained the reason behind this command in writing, and to a further degree orally: Our role is to be in the midst of the Jewish people in general in order to disseminate Jewish observance, and its inner dimension, to disseminate the teachings of Chassidus, in a way that one reaches even those who are still on the “outside.”

Thus, we are duty-bound to stay as far away as possible from anything that is liable to diminish the opportunity for this dissemination. This is so much so that if one harbors doubt, even a remote doubt [that one’s actions might detract from one’s ability to spread Chassidus], one should follow the strict path.

Igros Kodesh, Vol. 19, p. 251.
I often hear it said: “A Lubavitcher chossid should not act in such and such a way because it will cause a chillul Hashem, and this will make those who observe or hear about this conduct less inclined to learn about Torah and Mitzvos in general and Chassidus in particular from chassidim.”

However, the above letter takes this a step further. The Rebbe is not saying that the Chabad movement should not openly affiliate with a political party because politicians are notoriously untrustworthy, or because most parties put forth platforms that contain principles somehow not consistent with Torah, or the like. Even if every politician in the party were scrupulously honest, and every part of the platform would be consistent with Torah and even with the teachings of Chassidus (unlikely as this may be), it would still be unacceptable for the Chabad movement to use its influence to promote this party, to in anyway participate in promoting the party, or even to publically endorse the party.

The reason for this is that some people who strongly identify with another party will then choose not to want to have anything to do with the Chabad movement and its teachings, because their affiliation with their own political group makes them unwilling to associate with those who support a rival group.

However, by maintaining a distance from such an affiliation, Lubavitchers can rightly say: “We are not only here to serve those who affiliate with a certain party—we are here to serve every single Jew.”

If we should be so careful in our public conduct that sometimes, in the interest of pursuing the goal of our movement, we should refrain from supporting otherwise worthy causes, all the more so should we be ever vigilant not to behave in any way inappropriately.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Chof Kislev: Overcoming the inner misnagid

Chof Kislev: Overcoming the inner misnagid

Rabbi Y. Oliver

The Yom Tov of Rosh Hashanah of Chassidus lasts for two days. Chassidim mark not only Yud-Tes Kislev, but also Chof (20) Kislev, and even refrain from reciting Tachanun on that day. What event occurred on Chof Kislev that is so significant that it warrants that this day be regarded as a day of liberation and celebration on a par with Yud-Tes Kislev?

On this day the Alter Rebbe, en route to his home, got stuck in the house of a misnagid who caused him tremendous pain through his callous and derogatory questions and challenges. Finally, after much searching, the chassidim found the Alter Rebbe and escorted him out.[1]

Thus, on Chof Kislev, we celebrate the fact that the Alter Rebbe was freed from the house of the misnagid. But how can being stuck for three hours, and in the home of a Jew, compare with suffering in prison for fifty-three days?

This demonstrates that for the Alter Rebbe, this experience was so painful that it was comparable, and in a sense even more difficult, than the imprisonment.

For when a Jew, chosen and elevated, opposes the forces of holiness, it is much worse than when a non-Jew does so.

What is the lesson from this?

Every one of us has two types of evil inclination: One that is comparable to a non-Jew[2]—the non-Jew within us, that seeks to entice us to commit various sins, G-d forbid. But then there is another evil inclination, one that is “Jewish.” It allows one to study Nigleh, to follow Shulchan Aruch, and even to follow various stringencies, but it insists that one do so as a misnagid. It resists studying Chassidus, and most of all, it resists the inner change that Chassidus can bring. It distracts the person in whatever way possible from taking the time to develop himself or herself as a chossid, and always has up his sleeve a sophisticated explanation for how something else takes priority. 

And even when the person does follow many practices in the path of Chassidus, this inner misnagid seeks to limits the extent of the involvement, to limit the constant inner growth that is a vital part of being a healthy chossid. For some, it entices the person to study only avodah’dike maamarim (those that focus on personal growth) and not haskalah’dike maamarim (which focus on intellectually grasping Hashem’s greatness). Others suffer from the opposite malady. For some, it encourages them to davven, but not learn; to others it does the opposite. And so on.

Chof Kislev shows how much the inner misnagid is a part of our inner exile, and what a great accomplishment it is, with Hashems help, to overcome the inner misnagid, and thereby accomplish a true inner redemption, thereby bringing the true and complete redemption for the entire Jewish people and for the entire world.

[1] For the full story, see Beis Rebbi, Heilmann, (Hebrew edition), p. 66.
[2]  Cf. Shabbos 105b.

Monday, November 29, 2010

A chossid is a frummer

The term chossid predates the Chassidic movement. Literally it means means “a pious Jew.” The Talmud [Niddah 17a] identifies the chossid as the highest level of divine service. This is discussed in connection with the prohibition of allowing one’s cut nails to fall on the floor, as for Kabbalistic reasons, this may cause a pregnant woman who steps on them to miscarry. A wicked person casts away his nail clippings, not caring about the damage his carelessness may cause to others. A righteous person buries the clippings, while a chossid burns them. He does so despite the Talmudic warning that destroying a part of one’s body may have an adverse spiritual effect on a person. He would rather bring upon himself certain damage than allow the remote possibility that the nails he cut may at some point be unearthed and come to harm others.

This is also one of the qualities of a chossid in the sense of a member of the Chassidic movement. Chassidus comes to promote a higher standard of observance, and so in addition to all the other aspects of being a chossid, a chossid is devoutly religious. Not only is he particular to follow everything in Shulchan Aruch, but he strives to go “beyond the letter of the law.” And he does so because the path of Chassidus infuses him with passion in his service of Hashem. Since the chossid yearns to come close to Hashem, he is constantly on the lookout for new ways and opportunities to draw yet closer, even if it involves spending time, effort, and money.

Examples of the above include following Chassidic customs that involve a stricter standard of observance: wearing two pairs of Tefillin; woolen Tzitzis; a full, untrimmed beard; and scores of other customs too numerous to mention.

By the same token, a chossid is extra careful to avoid anything that may somehow involve or remotely lead to sin.

The Chabad chossid in particular attains this sensitivity by studying the lengthy explanations in Chassidus of Hashem’s greatness and reflecting upon them, thus infusing him with a sensitivity to G–dliness and a desire to come as close to Hashem as possible. Since he knows that every extra observance constitutes a chance to come yet closer to Hashem, he seeks them. Conversely, this same sensitivity makes him naturally all the more careful to avoid sin, by undertaking chumros, extra precautions against sin (provided that doing so doesn’t simultaneously create an unacceptable leniency in some other area).

Thus, one of the answers to the oft-asked question, “What is a chossid?”  is: “A chossid is a frummer (one who is very religious).”

Based on Kuntres Inyanah Shel Toras HaChassidus, p. 1.

Holy vs. unholy kindness

Holy vs. unholy kindness

Rabbi Y. Oliver

According to Chassidus, no emotion is inherently good or bad. Not all severity is bad, and not all kindness is good (see here). This article will discuss Chessed (kindness), and show how to differentiate between Chessed of holiness and Chessed of Kelipah.

Chessed of Kelipah is driven by self-interest. It may stem from a lust for honor, power, influence, fame, or praise. Yishmael epitomized this kind of Chessed.

In contrast, Chessed of holiness stems from a feeling of bittul (humility). A humble person feels completely unworthy of his prosperity, and thus feels an urge to give away his possessions to others, whom he regards as far more notable and deserving of having such resources than he.

Hence Avraham, who epitomized Chessed of holiness (see here), declared of himself, “I am but dust and ashes.”[1] It was this feeling that drove him to be kind to everyone, even the primitive pagan desert nomads.

This difference also manifests itself in the source of the kindness. Since Chessed of Kelipah is selfish, it will only motivate one to give when it is convenient. Once all one’s own needs and desires have been provided for, if excess funds remain, the person may be willing to donate them to charitable causes instead of using the money to indulge in a life of luxury (and even then, only with a selfish intent, as mentioned).

In contrast, one who operates according to the Chessed of Kedushah is not only willing to forgo luxuries; he is even willing to give up his own necessities, if he sees that others desperately need them.

One should constantly introspect and examine one’s motives in sharing with others to determine whether they are truly worthy, and stem from Kedushah, or they are spurred by self-interest, and stem from Kelipah.

Charity need not involve the physical; one can also give spiritual charity, as our sages say: 
“The only rich person is one wealthy in [Torah] knowledge; the only poor person is one poor in [Torah] knowledge.”[2]This is when the more spiritually “wealthy” and blessed person shares his or her knowledge of Torah and Mitzvos, Chassidus, and proper conduct with others.

But unfortunately, spiritual charity can also be driven by ulterior motives. Although one is conveying spirituality, one may be motivated, at least on the external, conscious level, by an unworthy desire. 

Likewise, one can give in a selfish manner, with a feeling of superiority to the recipient, and/or with the intent of some kind of personal gain. Or one can give in the opposite way, out of a sense of humility and unworthiness, and a sense that others deserve this wisdom more than oneself.

Here, too, one’s motives will be reflected in the way in which one gives. A selfish giver of the spiritual will only ever be willing to share with others once he has satisfied his own legitimate spiritual needs. If he then finds that some time and energy remain that he can devote to assisting others, he is willing to do so. However, he will never help others at the expense of his personal growth.

Needless to say, it is foolish to take this concept to an extreme and completely neglect one’s personal growth because one is so preoccupied with helping others. This is analogous to a philanthropist who gives away all his money to charity and must then turn to becoming a beggar. Rather, it means that the person is willing, from time to time, as needed and appropriate under the circumstances, to forgo his own spiritual necessities when he sees that others desperately need his guidance.

[1] Bereishis 18:27.
[2] Nedarim 41a.

Based on Toras Menachem 5712, Vol. 4, pp. 183-185.

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Thursday, November 25, 2010

19 Kislev: Rosh Hashanah for Chassidus

It’s Yud-Tes Kislev! Gut Yom Tov! I take this opportunity to express my best wishes to all my friends, all chassidim, and all Jews: l’shonoh tovoh b’limmud haChassidus uvedarkei haChassidus tikoseivu veseichoseimu—may we be written and sealed for a good year in the study and ways of Chassidus (I discuss the difference between the two here).
The Rebbeim refer to Yud-Tes Kislev as Rosh Hashanah, and it’s not just meant as a cute metaphor. Chassidus teaches that on Rosh Hashanah the heavenly court decides all the blessings that the person will receive in the coming year. The degree to which the person is blessed depends upon the extent to which he accepts the yoke of divine sovereignty, kabolas ol Malchuso yisboreich, on Rosh Hashanah.
So, too, in the case of Yud-Tes Kislev, which we are taught is “Rosh Hashanah for
Chassidus.” This title comes to teach us that our success in all areas related to Chassidus stems from the divine blessings bestowed upon us on this day. This in turn depends upon our devotion to accepting the yoke of being a chossid, i.e., committing whole-heartedly and unreservedly to internalizing all the teachings and implementing all the guidance of our Rebbeim, such that we will live our lives in the way that they prayed for and yearned for.
Put differently, we need to ask ourselves two main questions:
1. What exactly does it mean to be a Chabad
chossid? What does he represent, and how is he expected to behave? What practices and standards are expected of him?
Some basic answers to this question: In-depth study of
Chassidus; Avodas HaTefillah in order to internalize the Chassidus one learns and attain true ahavah v’yirah, love and fear of Hashem, and ahavas Yisrael, love of one’s fellow Jew; spreading Yiddishkeit in general, especially through the holy Mivtzo’im (Mitzvah campaigns); spreading Chassidus to every single Jew; more recently we have been told to study and teach others about Moshiach and the redemption, and spread the Rebbe’s message that the redemption is imminent. Then there are various other instructions of the Rebbeim that are too numerous to mention.
2. Are we truly committed? Are we “walking the walk” and doing the things expected of us? And even if we aren’t doing them to the fullest extent, are we taking them seriously? Are they a priority? Are they constantly in our thoughts, or are they an afterthought? Is our commitment and
chassidim real, through and through, or is it wishy-washy? Do we behave as chassidim should no matter what our environment and what our company, or do we say to ourselves subconsciously, “Here I am a chossid, but there I’m not”? If we were stranded on a desert island, would we still act as chassidim just the same?
The answers to these questions naturally depend upon one’s personal situation. The common factor, however, is the need to make a
cheshbon nefesh, an unflinchingly honest self-examination, so that we may know in which areas to improve. This then leads to hachlotos tovos, good resolutions to improve in whatever areas require fixing, and/or to advance yet further in the areas in which one already excels.
Gut Yom Tov

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Chassidus: Study and ways

We will soon celebrate the chassidishe Yom Tov of Yud-Tes Kislev, when we wish one another to be written and sealed for a good year in the study and ways of Chassidus. What is the meaning of this distinction? Below is a simple example of the difference between the study of Chassidus and the ways of Chassidus, and the way that they go hand in hand (on this topic, see also here).
The Previous Rebbe once taught:

G–d runs the world by Hashgacha Pratis, personal Divine Providence. Thus, if someone loses a two-ruble coin and experiences pain, he is a fool. By the same token, if one earns well and therefore straightens his posture [i.e., feels arrogance], he is also a fool. For everything occurs by Hashgacha Pratis. G–d runs the world, and we can rely on Him to guide us for the good and with precise deliberation. We need only ask that this too become manifest in the form of visible, revealed blessings.

Once, in a time of distress, great Jewish leaders convened to seek a solution. A simple Jew entered and said: Why are you worrying—G–d is our Father!

Shemu’os V’Sipurim, Vol. 3, p. 116.
In this case, the study of Chassidus involves thoroughly grasping the principle of Hashgachah Pratis as taught in depth in Chassidus.

The ways of Chassidus, however, consist of the effort to bring this awareness to affect one’s emotions, to the point that it informs one’s responses in daily life.

As explained at length in the Rebbe Rashab’s Kuntres HaTefillah and other sources in Chabad teachings, intellectual knowledge can only be truly internalized through the discipline of Avodas HaTefillah, in-depth meditation in prayer according to the Chabad tradition. So as far as cultivating sensitivity to Hashgachah Pratis is concerned, in-depth meditation on this concept before or during prayer will bring the person to sense this awareness to the point that he is neither distraught at material loss, nor elated at material gain. And even if he does not actually attain this goal, he will come ever closer to it.

May we merit to suceed in our efforts in both the study and the ways of Chassidus in the coming chassidishe year.

Monday, November 22, 2010

How the Avos Prepared Us to Receive the Torah

How the Avos Prepared
Us to Receive the Torah

Rabbi Yehoishophot Oliver

Every child who learns Chumash knows the story of the beginnings of the Jewish people. The first Jew was Avraham, followed by Yitzchak and Yaakov, who altogether comprise the Avos, the forefathers, of the Jewish people. And yet despite their lofty status as our Avos, and despite their observance of the Torah even before it was commanded,[1] they did not receive the Torah at Mount Sinai. Why wasn’t the Torah commanded to them?

Now, our Sages state that “The Avos were a chariot [for Hashem].”[2] This is explained to mean that the light of Atzilus (the highest spiritual world) shone into our world through their souls, for their souls were souls of Atzilus. In particular, each of their souls acted as a conduit for a different Sefirah (divine attribute) of Atzilus, to the extent that in a sense (because of course, the Sefiros themselves are utterly spiritual entities), they personified these Sefiros:[3]
  • Avraham personified Chessed, kindness of Atzilus
  • Yitzchak personified Gevurah, severity of Atzilus
  • Yaakov personified Tiferes, beauty of Atzilus
uAlthough this sounds wondrous, what did it accomplish? Our sages compare the Torah and Mitzvos that the Avos observed to an insubstantial fragrance.[4] Although the Avos studied Torah before it was given and kept the entire Torah, all this was done of their own initiative, as an optional undertaking. Only later, when the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, did Torah observance (beyond the Seven Noahide Laws) become a strict obligation for every single Jew.

To explain further, let us digress to discuss a general concept in Chasidic philosophy. There are two directions of influence: When the initiative comes from below, and rises upward; and the opposite, when it comes from above, and descends downward.

Each of these modes of influence has both an advantage and a disadvantage.

When the one below strives to ascend, this refines him in a much deeper and more lasting manner. However, he is only able to rise as high as his limited strength can reach.

Conversely, when the higher one reveals himself to the lower one, since this revelation occurs on the terms of the higher one, the quality and intensity of the revelation is far more powerful. Yet for the very same reason, since the recipient has not truly earned the revelation, it does not last.

Likewise, the ultimate goal of all that came before the revelation at Sinai was for the Jewish people to serve Hashem “from below to above.” However, in order for this to succeed, it had to be preceded by a divine revelation “from above to below.”

This is comparable to the reaction of an average student when a world-class genius attempts to impart to him a phenomenally profound lesson. The student finds the concept so mind-blowing that he enters into a state of shock and speechlessness. Although at this time he is completely unfit to assimilate the concept, this experience does accomplish something. When the teacher repeats the lesson on another occasion, this time the student is no longer flabbergasted. With the novelty gone, the teacher can now go about the lengthy process of explaining the concept to the student.

The Avos represented the first stage in the process. They revealed G–dliness “from above to below,” and this began from the relationship of their souls to their bodies. They never needed to engage in the arduous task of refining their bodies, for their bodies were innately refined to the point that they were fit vessels for the intense divine light of Atzilus that shone in their souls.

In light of the above, we can understand the Alter Rebbe’s words concerning the above statement of our sages, “The Avos were a chariot [to Hashem].” On this he comments that “All their limbs were holy and distant from worldly matters, and they acted as a vehicle for Hashem’s will alone throughout their lives.”[5] This means that the souls of the Avos were so lofty that they illuminated their bodies from above.

The impact of the Avos on the outside world was of the same kind. The entire task of the Avos in the world was to shower G–dliness upon it from above, not to refine its gross physicality from below. Thus, they were not endowed with the capacity to infuse holiness into the physical, and so the G–dliness that the Avos brought into the world did not remain in it. This is the reason that they were not commanded to observe the Mitzvos.

However, their spiritual accomplishments paved the way for their descendants to receive the Torah. Through the Torah, the Jewish people were granted the ability to refine the world “from below to above” by their souls refining their bodies, and their performance of Mitzvos refining and infusing holiness into the world.

For further explanation of the topic of “paving the way,” see Our Rebbeim Paved the Way.

[1] Genesis 32:5
[2] Bereshis Rabba 47:6.
[3] Pardes 22:4. Sefer HaMa’amarim 5689, p. 97.
[4] Shir Hashirim Rabah 1:3.
[5] Tanya ch. 34.

Based on Sefer HaSichos 5688, pp. 18-21. Sefer HaMa’amarim 5678, pp. 168-169.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Humility and Appreciating Others

Humility and Appreciating Others

Rabbi Y. Oliver

When a person lacks a true awareness of Hashem (as discussed in the previous post here), he is selfish even as he serves Hashem. Part of this selfishness is a kind of vanity. Not vanity that necessarily involves preening in front of the mirror, but an excessive preoccupation with oneself, a kind of spiritual narcissism. One unfortunate consequence of this feeling is a lack of appreciation for others, and a deficient capacity to love them.

We relate to others from the outside-in. First we notice their external character traits, and then, with time and effort, we become familiar with the deeper ones as well.

Every Jew possesses fine character traits, whether apparent and hidden. (Everyone also has both apparent and hidden negative character traits, but that is not the focus of this article.) As the Talmud states: “There are three indications that one belongs to this nation [the Jewish people]: [they are] modest, compassionate, and generous” (Yevamos 77a).

A narcissistic person is so smitten with his own imagined virtues and preoccupied with satisfying his own wishes and desires that his perception of others is warped. Part of the reason for this is that his arrogance leads to laziness and cockiness, and so he is not motivated to go to the trouble to view others in a true light. Instead, he jumps to conclusions based on a cursory assessment of them. He notices only their faults, which grab his attention immediately. This leads him to dismiss them and want to disassociate himself from them.

Furthermore, since he is filled with a sense of his own importance, he subconsciously regards others as a threat to his ego. This insecurity spurs him to seek their faults, and blinds him to their virtues.

In contrast, a wiser, humbler person, who is permeated with a sense of Hashem’s presence, will see the world in a true, objective light. Aware of the Talmud’s words that every Jew possesses fine character traits, he does not dismiss his fellow Jews as worthless, even when he sees only negative character traits. Rather, he continues interacting with them, secure in the belief that they possesses fine character traits that have simply not yet come to the fore, and committed to waiting patiently and investing the necessary effort to uncover these hidden treasures.

Adapted from the Previous Rebbe’s Sefer HaMa’amarim 5689, p. 88.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Da'as: Developing G-d-consciousness

Binah versus Da’as
We are warned: “Beware, lest you forget Hashem your G–d!”[1] What does it mean to forget Hashem, and what does it mean to remember Him?

Forgetting implies that despite intellectual knowledge and acceptance of a belief, it slips one’s mind and fall away from conscious awareness. This is one’s state when he has only reached Binah, abstract intellectual comprehension. He knew, but he forgot.

In contrast, Da’as means that what the person recognizes intellectually to be true remains in the forefront of his consciousness even after he has finished figuring it out in his mind, and this then spills over into his emotions, and from there to his behavior, which consist of thought, speech, and action.

There are several verses that express this concept. It is written, “Know (veyadata) today, and take it to your heart, that G–d is the L–rd, in the heavens above and on the earth below, there is no other.”[2] Similarly, King Shlomo was exhorted, “Know (da) the G–d of your fathers, and serve Him with a complete heart.”[3] In both these verses, expressions of Da’as are followed by a reference to the service of the heart. Chassidus interprets this as indicating that only through attaining Da’as can one transform one’s emotions, and attain true love and awe of Hashem.

The faculty of Da’as specifically means internalizing one’s relationship with Hashem, along the lines of the verse, “The ox knows (yoda) its master.”[4] Just as the ox feels a deep-rooted bond with its master, so does the person with Da’as attain a fully internalized and integrated consciousness of his MasterHashem.

The fragility of Da’as
However, the state of Da’as is fragile. The vicissitudes of life, and in particular the preoccupation with earning a livelihood, can easily distract the person and pull him out of a Da’as state, even if he was until then a devout servant of Hashem. This is called hesech haDa’as, a distraction from Da’as.

The detriment of lack of
Da’as is particularly acute when one prospers. The businessman is so caught up in his exuberance at his riches, and in his craving to amass yet more wealth, that he no longer feels Hashems presence. Once Hashem is not on his mind, on some level he attributes his financial success to his own supposedly superior business acumen. He declares, “My strength and the might of my hand has accumulated this wealth for me.”[5]

So losing Da’as means losing the sense of awareness of Hashem’s presence and the concomitant sense of subservience to Him in one’s life. This is liable to bring the person to degenerate further and further, until he can succumb to the temptation to sin. Of this it is written: “[The people of] Yisrael did not know (yoda) ... My nation did not think.” This is followed by, Oh, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity ... ”[6] This does not mean that lack of Da’as alone makes the nation sinful and laden with iniquity. Rather, it means that lack of Da’as will naturally lead to sin.

Thus, the Torah warns us: “Be careful, lest you forget Hashem your G–d!” Don’t allow yourself to slip from a state of G–d-consciousness. Your life as a Jew depends on it.

[1] Devarim 8:11.
[2] ibid. 4:39.
[3] I Divrei HaYamaim 28:9.
[4] Yeshayah 1:3.
[5] Devarim 8:17.
[6] Yeshayah 1:3-4.

Adapted from the preface to the Mitteler Rebbes Sha’ar HaEmunah, pp. 1-2.