By Larry Gordon
On January 29, 1988 a farbrengen was held in 770 Eastern Parkway, presided upon by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, z’ya, in commemoration of the 10th of Shvat, marking thirty years since he ascended to the helm of the Lubavitch movement. As an expression of homage on this momentous occasion, Rabbi Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik famously attended this farbrengen where he sat for over two hours in close proximity to the Rebbe as he weaved a most exquisite tapestry running through the various realms of Torah in celebration of that occasion. In the car ride on the way back from the farbrengen, the late Rabbi Herschel Schachter, father of Rabbi JJ Schachter who is a professor of Jewish History and Jewish Thought at YU, asked the rav for his impressions of the farbrengen that night. The rav replied: “Er iz a gaon, er iz a gadol, un er iz a manhig yisrael.” “He is a prodigy, a great personality, and a leader of the Jewish people.”
The next morning somebody entered the rav’s office and exclaimed: “I heard that Rav Chaim Volozhiner and the Baal HaTanya made shalom last night in 770.” The rav in his inimitable style shot back: “Nein, nein, zei hut shoin g’macht sholom in Auschwitz.” “No, No, they already resolved their differences in Auschwitz.”
I retell this story here and now due to a heated exchange of ideas that has played itself out in the pages of the Mishpacha magazine and on social media with regards to the way yeshiva bochurim often spend their bein hazmanim and the argument that the philosophy of the Baal Shem Tov and a greater awareness of the oneness of G-d within the walls of mainstream yeshivas would go a long way in enriching the overall religious experience of its students regardless of how much or how little they learn. As somebody rooted in both worlds this has been an issue that has been deeply implanted within my heart for decades. And while I, just as much as anyone else, would like to see the mainstream Jewish world embrace the path in service set out by the Baal Shem Tov and his students throughout all the generations, I fear that the publicity and the tone within which these ideas have been debated of late will not bring anyone, at least on an institutional level, closer to the path of the Besht.
I was planning on writing about this regardless but when I realized that it would coincide with the observance of Yud-Tes Kislev I could not help but reflect on the irony and unique divine providence at play here. I must preface by saying that it has always been my life’s calling to resolve the differences between chassidim and its opponents and I viewed my upbringing, straddled between these two worlds, as uniquely suited to get this daunting task done. I can vividly recall as a young beis medrash bochur, reflecting on my situation as a chossid, be it locally in Yeshiva Darchei Torah or later in Waterbury, which considered itself as an arm of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin, and the responsibility that I had in attempting to merge these two great worlds.
Chassidim have long been persecuted and oppressed by their hostile brethren since its inception under the leadership of the Baal Shem Tov. I recently ordered a sefer called, “The Great Debate” which is a series of letters between two friends: Rabbi Mordechai of Slonim and Rav Yosef from the city of Nemirov in which Rav Mordechai levels a number of strong charges against his old friend for switching sides to the camp of the chassidim, which carries on for hundreds of pages as Rav Yosef of Nemirov allays the concerns that his friend harbored against him in his decision to become a chossid.
The Alter Rebbe himself ended up in prison on trumped-up charges, that the money he was sending to Reb Mendel Vitebsker in Eretz Yisrael was counterrevolutionary activities against the Czarist regime. When he was liberated after a period of fifty-three days in incarceration he was first brought to the home of Reb Avigdor the Misnaged who was responsible for having him arrested in the first place. The Alter Rebbe, after leaving Reb Avigdor’s house, said that the experience in his company was far more painful than the 53 days that had spent in prison. It is for this very reason that Chabad observes the 19th and the 20th of Kislev as yoma arichta, one long day, borrowing a term describing the Rosh Hashanah of the first day of Tishrei which the 19th of Kislev, the Rosh Hashanah of chassidus represents the penimiyus of. In his Yud-Tes Kislev Farbrengen earlier this week, Rabbi Yussie Zakutinsky of Kehillas Mevakshei Hashem dwelled on the irony of the Alter Rebbe ending up first in the home of Reb Avigdor, suggesting that it is that detail in the story that perhaps holds significance in understanding the qualitative difference between the Torah of the Baal HaTanya pre-incarceration and the tome of his teachings, which exponentially increased in the years following his liberation.
He noted that the Alter Rebbe in his letter titled, “Katonti” exhorted his chassidim to react to the kindnesses that G-d had bestowed upon him with greater expressions of humility. Not, G-d forbid, to showboat, or act haughtily towards their detractors, which would bespeak arrogance and has no place in our relationship with Hashem.
Rabbi Zakutinsky then laid out a plan based on an understanding of the origin of the souls of the Baal Shem Tov and the Vilna Gaon together with an interpretation of Reb Shalom Sharabi regarding the situation of the four worlds, to unite the students of the Gra with those of the Baal Shem Tov and ultimately bring a close to this long and bitter exile. The Vilna Gaon had written during his lifetime that his soul was the soul of Yosef HaTzaddik. Anyone with a keen understanding of the philosophy of the Baal Shem Tov can deduce that his soul was rooted in the persona of Yehuda. Yehuda and Yosef of course represent two divergent paradigms of tzaddikim whose differences seem initially unbridgeable. Yosef, the son of Rochel, is from the revealed world, whereas Yehuda, the son of Leah, is rooted in the concealed world. The Torah makes it a point to tell us about the beauty of both Yosef and his mother Rochel, while the characteristic that sticks out about Leah is her bloodshot eyes. However, the Maharal points out that Yosef had a hei added to his name because he sanctified G-d’s name privately, whereas Yehuda’s name has G-d’s full name within it as a result of his sanctification of G-d’s name in public. This however, seems to be at odds with the characterization of Yosef, as the revealed tzaddik, and Yehuda as the concealed tzaddik.
In order to resolve this seeming discrepancy Rabbi Zakutinsky brought out an idea in which the higher tzaddik, the Baal Shem Tov, who is rooted in the world of atzilus, is drawn towards this world in seeking to create a dwelling place for the divine glory specifically here; whereas the Vilna Gaon, whose soul is rooted in the world of asiyah, seeks to escape the seeming impurities of this world to be reunited on high with his source in divinity. It seems that this is a division that is impossible to resolve. However, in thinking about the worlds, we often do so in a hierarchical manner where atzilus is above and asiyah is below. However, Rabbi Shalom Sharabi, known by his acronym Rashash, explains that the worlds don’t stretch upward in a hierarchical manner but exist depth wise within each other, asiyah representing the outermost facade of reality and atzilus representing the most inward perspective of the soul. For any chassidim who may be uncomfortable with an interpretation that they haven’t before been exposed to, the Maggid of Mezeritch was known to have said: “Atzilus is oich da,” meaning atzilus is also right here. Elon Musk isn’t capable of transporting anyone to the world of atzilus. If we want to access the world of atzilus or beriyah, if the world of atzilus is not within our grasp, we would need to retreat inward. The rav explained that although when the Vilna Gaon was engaged in a mitzvah he was focused on the spiritual aspect of the mitzvah despite the fact that he was physically engaged. The Baal Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe, who descended from Yehuda, were focused on the actual mitzvah and the impact it could have in a physical manner in this world. As such, it seems much less problematic to bridge these two tzaddikim and to make peace between them. All that needs to be done is to inform and educate with this idea, regardless of which aspect it is one is focused on. If they retreat inward, they will be able to look at another Yid and identify immediately that he is a piece of divinity.
Listening to this idea, I could not help but think of the three opinions that the Gemara delineates in the order in which the world was created. Beis Shamai maintains that the heavens were created before earth based on the opening verse of the Torah, which precedes the creation of heaven to earth. Beis Hillel maintains the earth was created first based on a later verse: “B’yom asos HaShem Elokim eretz v’shamayim,” “In the day Hashem made earth and heaven.” The Gemara then cites the opinion of the Rabbanan who state based on the verse, “My hand has also founded the earth, and My right hand has stretched forth the heavens. I [G‑d] call to them, and they stand up together”—that heaven and earth were created simultaneously. I wanted to posit that the opinion of the Rabbanan is not a third opinion, rather it is the synthesis of the opinions of the houses of Shammai and Hillel.
Similarly, when Chazal speak of the transition in the messianic era to the opinion of Shammai over Hillel it isn’t referring to the inverse of the halachos we are now following now, rather it is a view within which the severity of Shammai is sweetened by the kindnesses inherent in the view of Hillel.
This is the understanding in the conclusion of the Braisa D’Rebbi Yishmael that we commence davening with daily: “And so two verses which contradict each other until the third verse comes and synthesizes them.” The nature of the third verse is beyond the two competing verses that enables it to unify the two of them.
I’m not a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but as a participative observer in the trajectory of history I sense that we are entering into a phase in history that sees these personas of Yehuda and Yosef, the Gra and the Baal Shem Tov, Heaven and earth synthesized into one amorphous whole.
Lately, I have been thinking about the words that Moshiach answered the Baal Shem Tov when he asked him: When will the master reveal himself? The first part of his answer was when the wellsprings of your teachings are disseminated outward. In Hebrew the words are: “lichesheyafutzu maayenosecha chutzah.” It occurred to me that the roshei teivos of these words are: machal as in the circle that the tzaddikim will form in the messianic era. The nature of a circle is that there is no beginning or end; everyone is equidistant to G-d in the center. May we discover the third verse and experience this moment speedily in the merit of the Alter Rebbe and his Torah, today.
Yochanan Gordon can be reached at email@example.com. Read more of Yochanan’s articles at 5TJT.com.