By Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov
The story is told of a mystic who once said to his friend the philosopher: “You know, I think I finally figured out what lies at the heart of our disparity.
“How do you mean?” asked the philosopher.
“Well,” continued the mystic, “While I am forever thinking about myself, you are constantly thinking about G-d.”
Though not too sure about the precise meaning of the mystic’s remarks, the philosopher could not help but feel somewhat flattered by what seemed like a generous compliment. Upon further reflection, however, it dawned on him that his good friend may not have been quite that generous after all.
It occurred to him that in the mind of the mystic G-d is, no doubt, the very essence of reality. The Divine truth a given, the mystic ponders his own subjective reality: “Do I exist? What significance, if any, is there to my existence? What possible legitimacy can a finite and transitory existence have within the all-transcending, all-pervading reality of G-d?”
“As for myself,” he continued to muse, “Intellectual that I am, I know that I exist and do not give it a second thought. So I am preoccupied pondering the existence of G-d: Does G-d truly exist? How does His existence affect us humans?”
“This, then, is what the mystic was alluding to in his contention that I am ‘constantly thinking about G-d.’ Not quite the tribute I had in mind.”
Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, a student of the great Maggid of Mezritch, once knocked on the Maggid’s door to ask a Talmudic question that had perplexed him.
“Who is it?” Asked the Maggid.
“It is I,” Reb Shneur Zalman responded.
“Come in, Zalmanu,” the Maggid said, recognizing the voice.
R’ Shneur Zalman posed his question. After satisfactorily resolving the issue, the Maggid unexpectedly said, “Good-bye, Zalmanu. Have a good journey.”
R’ Shneur Zalman was perplexed. Good-bye? Journey? Where to? But it was not for him to ask. The Maggid had instructed him to go, so he picked up his tallis and tefillin and began traveling.
He trekked well beyond Mezritch. As he made his way along the countryside he heard from afar the cry, “Hey there, you! Come here!”
From afar, R’ Shneur Zalman saw someone beckoning him from beside an isolated house. As he approached, several people welcomed him. “You’re G-d-sent,” they said. We are celebrating a Bris (circumcision) and we would like to have a Minyan. We are only nine, and you are the tenth.”
After the Bris, the group sat down to a festive meal and invited the R’ Shneur Zalman to join them. When the meal was over, R’ Shneur Zalman was about to leave, when the mistress of the house announced that a silver spoon was missing from the silverware. All eyes turned to the stranger.
The master of the house approached R’ Shneur Zalman. “Look,” he said, “we are grateful to you for completing the Minyan, and if you wish, we will give you some alms, but stealing silver is not acceptable. Please return the spoon.”
“But I did not take any spoon,” R’ Shneur Zalman protested.
“We know all our friends here as honest men,” the master said. “It could not be anyone other than you who has taken it. Give it back!”
“It was not I,” R’ Shneur Zalman again protested.
“You are a liar as well as a thief,” the master said. “You are the thief.”
“Not I,” R’ Shneur Zalman said.
“Yes, you,” the master said, this time accompanying his words with a rough shove.
“No, not I,” R’ Shneur Zalman said. Soon the group gathered around him, shouting at him, then beating him, while he vainly protested repeatedly, “Not I.”
After awhile, the maid, unable to watch an innocent man being beaten, confessed that she had stolen the silver spoon. The group then apologized to R’ Shneur Zalman and sent him on his way.
R’ Shneur Zalman then reflected, “The Maggid obviously sent me away because I deserved a punishment for something. Now that I have collected what was due me, I may certainly return.” With that he directed his steps back towards Mezritch.
The Maggid was waiting for him at the door. “Nu, Zalmanu,” he said, “How many times did you have to shout ‘Not I’?
“You see,” the Maggid continued, “when you knocked on my door and I asked who it was, you answered, ‘It is I.’ Zalmanu, there is only one being in the universe who has the right to say ‘It is I.’ Anochi Hashem Elokecha, I am the Lord thy God.
A human being should always see himself as if standing in the presence of G-d. This should result in a total Bittul (self-effacement). Under such circumstances, there can be no ‘I.’
Your statement, ‘It is I,’ was inappropriate and something which you had to undo. Divine Providence gave you the opportunity to do so. Just see how many times you have to repeat, ’It is not I,’ to undo a single inappropriate self-assertion of ‘It is I.’”
What has Chassidus, or Chassidic philosophy, contributed to Judaism? In what way is Chassidic doctrine inimitable from Jewish thought that preceded the Baal Shem Tov and his successors? While Chassidic culture is vast, its central and overriding innovation and novelty is not easily discernible since its teachings are not presented in encyclopedic format.
Furthermore, the various qualities for which Chassidism has become renown, such as Divine joy, fervor, love and devotion, not to mention its insight concerning Divine essence and attributes, can hardly be considered Chassidic innovation. The various components of Chassidic doctrine and practice are for the most part culled from Scriptures and Talmud.
Neither does the fact that Chassidus contains a significant measure of esoteric code render it novel, since the mystical dimension of Torah is part of the “Oral Torah,” which according to Jewish tradition, dates back to the revelation at Sinai.
The same is true regarding its emphasis on the “Tzadik” and his unique role in Jewish life. This phenomenon is rooted in ancient Jewish text as well, and can hardly be regarded a Chassidic innovation.
Given the fact that the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov and his successors are essentially found in writings that predated the Chassidic works, the question emerges as to whether Chassidus has in the end contributed significantly to Judaism and Jewish belief and how so?
The answer is yes. Not only has Chassidus substantially enhanced Judaism and Jewish life, it has in actuality revolutionized it. It can in fact be argued that nothing, since the very presentation of the Torah at Mount Sinai, has so impacted Jewish theology and Divine service as have the teachings of Chassidism.
Chassidus has revolutionized Jewish theology by virtue of its comprehensive analysis and view of the inner human-self. The description of our human identity and operating system, articulated in Chasidic text, is paralleled by no other intellectual discipline, be it religious or secular.
Despite the great strides made in the field of psychology in its attempt to understand the mysteries of human nature – advanced as scientific knowledge may be with regards to understanding our personality – it pales in comparison to the insight held by Chassidus vis-a-vis the nature of human thought, emotion and behavior.
Not unlike the vocabulary belonging to physical and sociological elements of existence, which is used to describe the state and condition of persons, places and things, Chassidus has introduced a vocabulary of its own vis-a-vis man’s inner mental and emotional dimension.
This lexicon, which is thoroughly deficient in the various secular disciplines of psychology, allows Chassidus to identify key elements of the human psyche, which in turn permits us a peek into our true and inner state. This of course, is in itself a prominent component in the aforementioned revolutionary contribution made by Chassidus towards Jewish theology, yet there is more.
A far greater advantage inherent in the Chassidic system over the various other psychological disciplines is the fact that it perceives and depicts man’s psychological existence in the context of his soul. Whereas the scientific systems begin their analysis with the brain, Chassidus’ insight into human identity begins with man’s Divine soul. In fact, Chassidus identifies no less than five different levels within man’s Divine soul.
The distinction as to whether we commence our assessment of man’s identity with his brain or with his soul is huge. It can hardly be overstated. It may be compared to the examination of a person’s internal organs by prodding and probing in the dark versus the benefit of a cat scan.
To perceive man’s essence beginning with his brain, as opposed to his soul, is to perceive only half the person, and the smaller half at that. For if man is comprised of body and soul, the soul is certainly the more significant partner. Hence, to try and construct a model of the human entity without the soul factor is like stabbing in the dark, at best.
Far more important however, is the consequence of these divergent systems. They lead to as opposite a place as you can possibly get. The secular psychological system inevitably leads to selfishness. For the more you follow that system the more you discover your corporeal core, and the more you discover your corporeal core, the more corporeal you become.
In other words, if your intellect and feelings are the highest essence of your existence – cogito ergo sum – then it only makes sense to do everything to enhance and vindicate that essence. So you end up serving yourself, which is the definition of selfishness. The evil and sorrow to which selfishness leads shall be left for another discussion.
Thanks to the esoteric dimension of Torah, as articulated through Chassidus, we are fortunate to know our essential human-self in the context of our soul. This system inevitably leads to selflessness. For if at our core lies a Divine soul which is a essentially a sliver of the Almighty G-d, who is the only true being and source of all beings, than we are naturally humbled by that all-transcending reality. For who am I and what am I in face of that all powerful and all pervading existence.
In the above light we are able to understand the meaning of the sacrifices discussed in this week’s Parsha, Tzav, as well as the various other sacrifices discussed throughout the book of Leviticus.
The sacrifices represented the quintessential service of the Jew in the Temple. While at one point in history there was a physical Temple, where actual animal sacrifices were offered, the Temple and its service go well beyond their physical characteristics and composition. Indeed, the Temple and its services are ongoing phenomena unbounded by time and place.
The place of the spiritual, eternal Temple is the heart of man. The spiritual, eternal sacrifices, which as stated earlier, are the quintessential services within the Temple, involve man’s will.
By commanding us to build a Sanctuary for G-d and offer sacrifices to Him, we are reminded that we are not the center of all existence but it is rather G-d, to whom we sacrifice, who is the center and core of all existence.
May our self-sacrifices and self-abnegation hasten the coming of the righteous Moshiach.
– Rabbi Kahanov is a Shliach in Jacksonville, Florida, and Director of Chabad of Northeast Florida. He welcomes your input and feedback: [email protected]