I had planned to write about something altogether different, but as I type these words it is Tuesday, the 24th day of Teves which is the yahrzeit of the Baal Hatanya and Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Rav Schneur Zalman Boruchovitch from the city of Liadi.
This coming Shabbos, G-d willing, we will bless the month of Shevat, on the tenth day of which our Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, ascended to the helm of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, succeeding his father-in-law, Reb Yosef Yitzchak, who had passed away the year before on that date.
The Baal HaTanya passed away in the village of Piena, fleeing from Napoleon whom he had opposed in his political campaign against the Czar. It was motzaei Shabbos and the Alter Rebbe, who was already ill and in the throes of death, described a burning sensation in his stomach. This is significant in light of the Gemara, I believe in Kesubos, which states that all tzaddikim suffer from stomach ailments.
The Alter Rebbe requested Havdallah before Ma’ariv, which he made on a cup of coffee, though he didn’t end up drinking it, as it was spilled seemingly inadvertently. The Hebrew word for coffee is kaveh, which means “to hope.” The sentiment is that even as we are engulfed in darkness, taken over by the throes of death both physically and existentially, we have to embrace hope in navigating the darkness and ultimately discovering the light of the infinite buried at the backdrop of that darkness. For those adept in the study of Kabbalah and Chassidus, the word kaveh, or kivuy, which means hope, originates in the word “kav,” which describes that re-emergent light after G-d withdrew from His primordial light in an event known as tzimtzum, making space for the existence of worlds and ultimately a dwelling place for G-d within the lowest worlds, a mission we are still in the midst of.
One of the Torahs that the Alter Rebbe said prior to his histalkus was a ma’amar in Igeret Hakodesh known as V’Nefesh Ha’Shefeilah, meaning the lowly soul, which more or less gives expression to the above idea that the purpose of the creation of the world and all the spiritual revelations within Torah and above that is for the purpose of manifesting it within the lowly physical world. You see, when we think of tzaddikim, we often perceive them as transcendent beings who occupy a different realm within creation. But the true benchmark of a tzaddik isn’t in his sense of aloofness and detachment but to the contrary—by his ability to descend within creation on the playing field of everyday life without compromising his spiritual achievements.
What this means for us, in our lives, is that we often feel—and I saw this written on a WhatsApp chat—that familial life stands in the way of advancing our spiritual avodah in life. This means to say that instead of being able to daven and learn for extended periods of time, we often have to sacrifice that and be involved in the needs of our household. So often we want to go to a minyan or to a shiur or some other exercise that gives us spiritual nourishment and wholesomeness and that is met with an obstacle or resistance in the form of something that seems petty in relation to the transformative and world-changing initiative in which we are seeking to engage. The assumption is that G-d created a physical world with mitzvos to marry and procreate and to ultimately leave all that behind to engage in avodah at the expense of our wife and children. What the Alter Rebbe is teaching us in this insertion of V’Nefesh Ha’Shefeilah is that our ultimate mission and responsibility in this world is to be active participants within this world, not seeking transcendence, and in that way we will fulfill the purpose of creation. We have to come to the realization that the purpose of the shiur or the davening is to hammer home the importance of being around for the family when they need us most and not the other way around.
One of the most notable aphorisms of the Alter Rebbe was a line that he would say in moments of true dveikus. “G-d, I don’t want Your olam ha’ba, I don’t want Your Gan Eden, all I want is You alone.”
The Alter Rebbe was saying, “I have no desire for G-dly accessories; all I want is G-d.”
He wasn’t seeking to expire in coming face to face so to speak with G-d, as G-d told Moshe, “No man can see me and live. To the contrary, while it seems somewhat counterintuitive, it is the accessories of G-d, the kavanos and the like, that require transcendence, whereas one can experience G-d in His essence engaging in a physical mitzvah in this world or simply helping out around the house to advance the spirit of peace within it.
The Rebbe Rashab writes in a sichah that he delivered one Simchas Torah, explaining the verse: “L’oseh nifla’os gedolos levado” the word l’oseh refers to the lowest level in creation known as asiyah, and levado means something that only He, G-d alone, can accomplish. The Rashab explained that only an infinite G-d can create a physical world and manifest His transcendent light deeply within it.
Although by the time you read this, the yahrzeit will have already passed, it seems like there is a strong relationship between the Alter Rebbe and our Rebbe whose big day lies ahead on the 10th day of the month of Shevat. The ma’amar that the Friediker Rebbe distributed, and ultimately would become his last will and testament, and the ma’amar that marked the Rebbe’s ascension to the leadership of Chabad and kicked off the dor hashvi’i, the seventh generation, whose mission it is to bring the glory of G-d back into the lowest realms of existence, is rooted within the last Torah of the Alter Rebbe, V’Nefesh Ha’Shefeilah. If the Alter Rebbe is a representation of chochmah and our Rebbe of malchus then it only makes sense, following the system of abba yosad barta, where ultimately chochmah, yesod, and malchus are linked, that the end of the Alter Rebbe’s life should give way seamlessly to the avodah of dor hashvi’i.
In the ma’amar Basi Legani, the Rebbe, in unique fashion, gives expression to his deep feelings of inadequacy when he says, “Kol ha’shvi’in chavivin v’lo kol shvi’in chavivin”—meaning, that the fact that he was chosen as the leader of the seventh generation is something that was completely beyond anything that he’d done to be placed in this position. In characterizing what it means to be the seventh generation he writes: “I am but the seventh in relation to the first,” in doing so drawing a direct line from the Alter Rebbe to himself.
In thinking about these two juxtaposed months, that of Teves and Shevat, it occurred to me that the letters comprising the month of Teves are tes, beis, saf, and Shevat is shin, beis, tes. The letter shin with the dot on the left is phonetically similar to the sound of the saf, allowing both Teves and Shevat to be similar. It is our hope that in understanding the intense spirituality that is hidden in our day-to-day actions we will arouse the merit of the Alter Rebbe, the Friediker Rebbe, and the Rebbe, the aspects of chochmah (Abba), yesod, and malchus (barta), and merit to see the coming of Mashiach in our days.
Yochanan Gordon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more of Yochanan’s articles at 5TJT.com.s