By Yochanan Gordon
This Shabbos, Parashas Bo, the tenth day of the month of Shevat, is the yahrzeit of the Frierdiker Rebbe, Rav Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson. In the days leading up to the tenth of Shevat in the year 1950, the Frierdiker Rebbe had distributed a ma’amar to be studied that Shabbos in observance of his grandmother’s yahrzeit. Fate would have it that he would pass away on that Shabbos morning, and that ma’amar would end up serving as his own last will and testament.
Exactly one year later, on the tenth of Shevat in the year 1951, Reb Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the son of the great mekubal and gaon Reb Levi Yitzchak and son-in-law to the late Rebbe, ascended to the helm of the Chabad movement.
The ma’amar that the Frierdiker Rebbe distributed, which ended up being studied in observance of the day of his own passing, was titled “Basi L’Gani” and is based upon this verse from Shir HaShirim: “I have come to my garden, my sister, my bride.” The original ma’amar was 20 chapters, which the Rebbe would march through methodically, one chapter every year, and recite his own ma’amar in explanation of what the Frierdiker Rebbe was teaching in that particular chapter.
Last Shabbos I was reading a story retold by Rav Yitzchak Meir Morgenstern about the late Rav Pinchas Hirschprung, whose yahrzeit he observed. Rav Hirschprung was a prodigious gaon and a student of Rav Meir Shapiro. He ultimately succeeded his rebbe in administering the farhers for acceptance into the yeshiva. It was said that he would have to master 700 blatt Gemara by heart to achieve this position, which he did.
His rebbe’s grandfather was known as the Maharam of Biirzan who had a tradition of finishing the masechtas of Shabbos and Eiruvin in Gemara every Shabbos, as Rav Morgenstern explained, because the secret to every holy day is hidden within its dedicated masechta. As such, instead of just reminiscing about stories from the time of that original farbrengen in 1951 when Chabad, in the Rebbe’s words in his first ma’amar, would enter into the dor ha’shvi’i, the seventh and final generation, I felt it would be appropriate to reflect on specific themes that are highlighted throughout the eleventh chapter of the Frierdiker Rebbe’s ma’amar, coupled with some ideas that the Rebbe fleshes out in his own ma’amarim in the years 1961 and 1981 that are being studied this year, marking 70 years since that momentous day.
The ma’amar begins with the verse from Shir HaShirim, “I have come to my garden, my sister, my bride.” The word used for “garden” in this verse is “gani,” which is connotative of the word “genuni,” which means a bridal chamber. The Frierdiker Rebbe is highlighting the fact that G-d’s primary place of dwelling with the creation of the world and prior to the sins of Adam and Chava, Kayin and Enoch, dor ha’mabul, and dor haflagah was particularly right here in the lowest realms.
This is a very empowering idea, one that sheds great light upon the enthusiasm and positivity that Chabad chassidim maintain in galus regardless of how distant they are from other Jews in a socially comfortable setting. The mission with which the Rebbe had charged his shluchim, and really all chassidim and all people with whom he came into contact or communicated via letters, was to capitalize on the opportunity to take G-d’s hand in marriage in living life dedicated to His mission.
The notion that this world, with all of its impurities and imperfections that day in and day out push people further away from a life of wholesomeness and meaning, is the place that G-d had chosen to make His residence is a difficult one to comprehend. What exactly did the Frierdiker Rebbe mean?
The Midrash Tanchuma famously asserted that G-d had a Divine desire to dwell in the lowest realms of reality. On this Midrash the Alter Rebbe explained that a desire is such that it precludes the possibility of questions or rationalizations. Therefore, despite the fact that the Ramchal, the Zohar, and Eitz Chaim offer alternative reasons with which G-d willed our world into existence when seemingly He wasn’t lacking anything before this world was created, this one represents the deepest and most essential reason.
The message that the Frierdiker Rebbe is ultimately driving home is that everything in G-d’s world is good and G-dly. Inevitably, following myriads of contractions and evolutions from the source of all things on high until it is manifest physically in this world, the appearance that certain things assume may be vain and even at times lustful, but if you follow that path, level upon level, you will come to realize that even the reality that seemed so distant from G-d was precisely the path to G-d.
Let’s take the Mishkan, for example, which possessed beams that the Torah refers to as “kerashim.” The singular form of the word “kerashim” is “keresh,” which possesses the same letters as the words “sheker” and “kesher,” which are polar opposites in their representation of a life of deceit and dishonesty (sheker) and a life of connection and affirmation of the G-dly mission (kesher). The Frierdiker Rebbe writes therein that it is indeed our mission to transform the word “sheker” into “kesher” through suppressing our evil urges, which is akin to offering sacrifices atop the altar and ultimately building a personal Beis HaMikdash in of our lives, as the verse states: “And they made for me a Temple and I will dwell within you,” which Chazal expound upon to mean within each and every one individually.
In his ma’amar expounding upon the eleventh chapter of the Frierdiker Rebbe’s original ma’amar, the Rebbe launches into a profound analysis of the names of G-d and the Kabbalistic idea of lights and vessels, which is the system, according to the Arizal, that G-d had set up with the purpose of streamlining His infinitude into our seemingly finite world.
But there is a teaching in the sefer Emek HaMelech that states that just as G-d is unlimited in the sense that He can transcend nature, in the same manner He can shrink His essence to fit within the confines of nature. That means to say that G-d’s involvement within nature is as much a miracle as His ability to transcend the limits of nature.
The marriage of infinitude and finiteness are facilitated by the vessels that house, as it were, the light, allowing them expression within this world without overwhelming its limitations. However, where do these vessels come from? The answer to that, as brought in Eitz Chaim, is that the vessels are rooted in light as well—light that descended and as a result became concretized in relation to the ephemerality of the light that is closer to its source in Divinity.
This enters into a monumental area of Kabbalistic analyses with regard to the sefiros and which aspect of the sefirah, namely the vessel or the light, constitutes G-d in His essence and which part His attributes. The verse in Devarim states: “And which great nation is so close to Elokim like Hashem our G-d when we call out to Him.” On the concluding words of this verse the Sifri comments, “To Him as opposed to his attributes,” cautioning that when engaged in prayer it’s essential to direct the prayer to the essence of G-d and not to one of His sefiros.
There are three shitos that the Rebbe lays out in understanding what “to Him” refers to. The Ramak, in his magnum opus Pardes Rinonim (Orchard of Pomegranates), famously asserts that “to Him” is referring to the ohr before it becomes encompassed in the vessels. The Ba’al Shem Tov taught that we achieve direct communication with G-d through directing our prayers to the light within the vessels themselves, whereas the Alter Rebbe, the Ba’al HaTanya, taught that “to Him” points in the direction of atzmus, which is His essential light.
The practical difference between these shitos is that according to the Ramak, G-d’s essence is spiritual, and according to the Besht, His essence can be found within all of physicality whose root is even higher than the light as a result of which it fell much further down, creating greater distance from its source. However, according to the teaching of the Ba’al HaTanya, seeing the light in atzmus relates everything in this world back to its most pristine root without entering into a realm of hierarchical existence.
In describing the ultimate G-dly experience, the Rashba famously wrote that He is Nimna HaMimnaos, which means that G-d is ultimately the most paradoxical experience. That is, out of the moment of the greatest tension and ultimately fusion between the limits of finiteness and infinity is where the essence of G-d, so to speak, lies.
The lesson that I see emerging from here is in the manner in which we ultimately perceive G-d, the G-dly experience, and the nature of His people and our fellow Jews. In a sichah on that very day of 10 Shevat 1951, before the Rebbe would formally accept his role at the helm of the Chabad movement, he said that in America it is customary for people in positions of leadership to make an impactful statement, a mission statement, if you will. He then said that the world says that there are three types of love: love of G-d, love of Torah, and love of the Jewish people. The Rebbe continued that these three loves are essentially one and interconnected. That is, that someone can only claim to truly love G-d and His Torah if he loves every single Jew. What’s more, he was saying that the path towards achieving true love of G-d and love of His Torah is through love of the Jewish people.
The phrase that chassidim use to describe the difference between seeing the essence of G-d through lights and vessels or from the vantage point of the indivisible essence is the difference between the worldviews of “G-d is everything” or “everything is G-d.” To say that G-d is everything is to say that all physical reality is subsumed within the spiritual reality. However, to say that everything is G-dliness is to say that things could maintain their unique dimensions and characteristics and yet be seen here within nature as a G-dly entity.
What often happens when someone starts to climb the ladder of piety and dedication to learning is that he or she grows more and more impatient with anything that exists within his or her periphery. Take, for example, Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai who emerged after 12 years in the cave and began burning, with his eyes, every place that seemed in relation to his ascetic self to be engaged in futility. Ironically, however, just one year later when he emerged for the second time, no longer did he grow impatient with the creations, who in all probability were engaged in the selfsame preoccupations, but he began to see them as agents of G-dliness. Clearly, there was something in the way that Rashbi viewed them that changed.
This is not a criticism of people who grow impatient in their great piety for people who are left stagnating in the backdrop of their reality but more precisely an exhortation to keep going in order to reach the level wherein we see our cohorts as equal partners in bringing the essence of G-d back to the lowest realms.
The Ba’al Shem Tov famously quipped towards the end of his life, “After all the levels of faith that I achieved I am jealous of the unpretentious and simple faith of an innocent child.” This is not to say that one is meant to maintain childlike faith his entire life. It is, however, what we have been describing—to climb the levels of religiosity and sanctity that will inevitably give way to feelings of holiness and greatness but stay the path until one reaches the domain of G-dliness wherein the entire world begins to bear testimony to the handiwork of the Creator.
As these ideas kept swirling through the highways and byways of my consciousness, I found a Gemara and a verse in Melachim that conveys this very idea. The Gemara in Berachos relates that Rav Sheshes was blind. There was a convocation of people going to greet the king who was coming to town, and he had decided to follow suit.
A certain heretic who was among the group said to Rav Sheshes, “The intact jugs go to the river, where do the broken jugs go?” In other words, he was asking him mockingly: Why are you going to greet the king if you can’t even lay your eyes upon him?
Rav Sheshes replied, “Come see and I will demonstrate that I can identify the king a lot quicker than you can.”
The first troop passed and when the noise grew louder this heretic said to him, “The king is coming!”
Rav Sheshes replied, “The king is not coming.”
The second troop passed and when the noise grew louder this heretic said to him again, “Now the king is certainly coming!”
Rav Sheshes again replied that the king is not here yet. The third troop then passed and when silence reigned Rav Sheshes said to him, “Certainly now the king is coming.”
When the king arrived, the heretic looked at Rav Sheshes askance and wondered how it was that he knew this. Rav Sheshes went on to explain that the kingdom on earth is like the Kingdom on high. G-d told Eliyahu the Prophet to stand on the mountain before G-d, and behold the L-rd passed by. And a great and strong wind rent the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the L-rd, but the L-rd was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the L-rd was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the L-rd was not in the fire. And after the fire a still small voice. And it was so, when Eliyahu heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out, and stood in the entrance of the cave.
G-d’s revelation was specifically at the moment of silence.
Often, in their quest to reach G-d, people make a lot of noise and claim to be representing the best interests of G-d and His Torah. As we see clearly here, the vantage point from the essence of G-d is that everything bears testimony to the handiwork of the King because ultimately everything is from the King. It is our job to work through the cobwebs and opaqueness of exile, find clues to the existence of G-d, and show the world that this is His rightful abode from all time, and that it is indeed a garden and a bridal chamber.
Yochanan Gordon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more of Yochanan’s articles at 5TJT.com.