In a rare interview, the mashpia and choizer Reb Yoel Kahn puts forth in his inimitable style why Chassidus is relevant to everyone and how it should be studied.
From an interview with Perspectives Magazine in 5773/2013.
Reb Yoel. The name says it all. It would be safe to say that there is not a Lubavitcher chossid, man woman or child, who is not aware of his stature. That is, besides one great Lubavitcher chossid – Reb Yoel himself.
At his place, directly across from the Rebbe, Reb Yoel stood for forty years, absorbing, integrating and then transmitting on paper thousands of hours of Torah. Even when in the later years he was assisted by his students, nothing was printed without his approval. The Rebbe had fully entrusted his written Torah in his hands.
Apart from his work as chozer, Reb Yoel is the undisputed teacher of teachers of Chabad, and unquestionably the man who influenced Lubavitch today more than any other chossid. No yungerman or bochur today is not a talmid of his, or of one of his talmidim.
Yet another revolution spearheaded by this gentle, lovable genius: the transformation of hafotzas hamayonos. Through the printed word, and via audio shiurim, Reb Yoel’s lucid explanations of Chassidushave found their way into tens of thousands of minds and hearts world over.
Indeed, to the thousands who fill the stadium in Eretz Yisroel during his visits, he is their life cord, connecting them to Chassidus. How he simultaneously managed to fashion the revolutionary Sefer HaArachim (popularly pronounced as Sefer HaErchim), forging an original path in expounding Chassidus; to serve as a master mentor to hundreds of bochurim; to be active in attracting thousands from outside Chabad circles; is unfathomable. How at his age, and despite his health condition, he still travels the world and delivers ten shiurim a week in New York, advises the publication of the Rebbe’s Torah and publishes periodical articles, farbrengs with the bochurim and invests painstaking work on Sefer HaErchim, can be explained only one way: his true admiration and love for his Rebbe.
Before I had the chutzpa to ask for an interview, I discussed it with one of his students. He suggested I spend a Friday night with the mashpia, and only then propose my request. Let me share the experience.
After Mincha on erev Shabbos, upstairs in “the little zal” in 770, Reb Yoel sits down with the bochurim, and begins, in a throaty voice, to teach a sicha. I am told he sat till late last night farbrenging in Borough Park, and has worked all morning on Sefer HaErchim. The fatigue is apparent. Within minutes, however, his voice begins to carry – as if the sicha itself, which he is now reading for the hundredth time, invigorates him. Soon enough, he is plowing through the holy words with the lively energy of a bochur.
The shiur lasts well past two hours, through which he patiently deals with difficulties posed to him, expounding, elaborating and elucidating. Apparent on all sides is the love and respect the bochurim have for him. Now, after davening, multitudes throughout the bustling building meet, greet, and exchange trivial talk; upstairs, surrounded by his eager listeners on a peaceful island of his own, Reb Yoel takes them on a journey through the depths of Chassidus and the innovative insights of our Rebbe.
The shiur draws to a close. As Reb Yoel clarifies a textual difficulty for one bochur, the others prepare for seder niggunim. Reb Yoel, renowned for his phenomenal aptitude in Chabad negina, leads the singing. I cannot help but be reminded of those sweet days, when his warm voice would lead the niggunim at the Rebbe’s farbrengens. The walk home is difficult for the mashpia. Surrounded by his closest talmidim, he stops to rest every few blocks. Yet while his weary feet may rest, his mind is working ferociously. He is still talking about the second addition to footnote number 37…
He stops for a moment, and I decide that this is my chance. I bend over, and begin to make my request. Immediately, I hear someone hissing through my ear: “Not now! He’s thinking…” I apologize, and await the next opportunity. We make our way to his modest home, where the table has been set for twelve – for the lucky bochurim who are going to join him at his table this week. It won’t be long, and the folding chairs will be brought out, and so will the standing space be utilized. I learn that the not-so-lucky bochurim also want to be here…
Reb Yoel has barely tasted his food, and he begins talking. Again he is talking about the sicha, but this time from another perspective. He describes the farbrengen at which this sicha was heard, the Rebbe’s expressions, the niggunim, and the questions that he later asked the Rebbe. He is filling in the picture, and in full color. For fifty minutes, while forty bochurim sit and stand in silence, he walks them through the annals of Chassidus, making associations with previous maamorim they had learned, and spicing that discussion with anecdotes of chassidim he had known.
A niggun is begun, but stops short. Reb Yoel had smiled softly, and motioned with his head. He begins to teach the niggun in its correct version, but doesn’t stop there. He begins to talk about the niggun itself. “What do you think?” he asks his students. “Is this a niggun of devotion, or of yearning?” And so, he teaches the subtle nuances of Chabad negina.
A question is asked. Something about Reb Sheiel [Bruk], Reb Yoel’s mashpia from Tel Aviv in the 1940s. I don’t know the mashpia, I don’t understand the question, but even I can see the pleasure spreading across his face. Within moments we all fly back in time, to Tel Aviv, and make our acquaintance with the figures of his youth – Reb Meishke [Gourary], Reb Nochum [Goldschmidt] and Reb Chaim Moshe [Alperovitz]. With his acute sensitivity to the subtle varieties of chassidishe avoda, he distinguishes between the diverse ways in which they experienced their learning, their davening and their farbrengens.
The clock ticks and moves clockwise, but we are moving anticlockwise, as the pioneering luminaries of Lubavitch themselves are now invited to the table – Shilem [Kuratin] and Chatshe [Feigin], Chonye [Morozov] and Itche [Horovitz] der Masmid. Swept up in the glory and greatness, for a moment we forget New York 2013.
It’s time to bensch. I know it’s now or never. I ask the chozer if he will sit with me, for an interview for the English-speaking public. He has been interviewed in Hebrew numerous times, I plead, but the English-speaking Chabad has yet to enjoy a comprehensive interview with the mashpia. He smiles, and apologizes: he doesn’t speak the language… I assure him that I speak Yiddish, and will translate.
“Nu, so ask… “.
“No, no,” I say, “it’s for a few hours…”
Dozens of wrinkles spread up his ample forehead, and a spark ignites in his eyes. “Fine,” he replies. “Make it Sunday.”
A bochur whispers to him that Sunday he will be busy with editing the new sefer on Tanya, but Reb Yoel assures me that he will take me to his office when he has some time.
Two weeks pass, and time has been found. Accompanied by a student, I go up to his office at 788 Eastern Parkway, the building adjacent to 770. The room is small and messy. Hundreds of seforim lie earmarked, open and in piles. As I enter, he seems not to notice. He is otherwise occupied. The great chossid is sitting by a PC with Microsoft Word, typing furiously.
I later learn that after his eight o’clock shiur to the bochurim at 770, he immediately makes his way here, where he will remain the entire day. He works hours that would be back-breaking for a man half his age, on Sefer HaErchim, the encyclopedia of Chabad Chassidus- the task designated to him by the Rebbe, for “he has been given unique capabilities.”
He still has not noticed me, and I take the time to watch. His brow furrowed, he reaches for the delete button, and as I watch, entire pages of intricate notes are erased. The differences between the various drafts would be detected by few, but Reb Yoel’s vigilance for precision is immovable. Oh, how some of his students would wish to get their hands on some of the disregarded drafts, and pore over his “mistakes”…
I was already regretting my chutzpa. How could I take his time? I turned to go, but it was too late. He had noticed me.
Reb Yoel’s white beard is flowing down his chest, and his forehead doesn’t end. He turns to me with a kindly smile, his wise eyes twinkling, as if ready for a conversation with an equal. I was at first overwhelmed. I was looking into the eyes that directly faced the Rebbe’s for forty years.
But there was something so human about him. Perhaps it was the pencil sticking out of his front shirt pocket, shifting clumsily as he spoke. I could not help but think of what insight has passed through that pencil over sixty years.
I cleared my throat, and began:
As an opening question, we would like to ask: What is the point of learning Chassidus? Chassidus introduced a beautiful and vibrant path of avodas Hashem which elevates our day-to-day life – but why is it necessary to study the ideas behind them? Can’t we be good chassidim just by following the directives of Chassidus?
Reb Yoel smiles, removes his pencil from his pocket, and begins his shiur:
In order to answer this question, we first need to take a look at the nature of the Torah’s teachings in general. When the Torah teaches us a mode of behavior, its purpose is not merely to instruct us in our behavior, but to reveal the truth of the matter.
I was once speaking to a Yid who took an interest in Chassidus, but from his questions, I gathered that he had an altogether different understanding of what Chassidusis about. To him, the ways of Chassidussimply added up to guidance on how a person should behave, though in a more elevated manner than otherwise.
I told him: The fact that 2 + 2 = 4 results in many resolutions and decisions. Would you say that this principle is an instruction on how we should think? Suppose there were no people on the planet, would the principle still stand true? Of course it would! – because this is the true nature which Hashem created in our world. The same is true of avodas Hashem: the virtues taught in the Torah are true and are a result of a deeper understanding of the world.
In other words: the first principle we have to understand is that Chassidusis not a mere self-help, personality-development manual. Chassidusteaches us to realize that the world does not begin and end within ourselves. The truth is beyond us and independent of us.
To explain this practically: The Torah instructs a person not to follow the desires of his heart, certainly when this would involve an explicit prohibition. Without Chassidus, this is a tremendous struggle. In front of his eyes he sees all the temptations of this world, and though he wishes to enjoy them, he is forced to abstain. He employs various tricks to counter his temptation: he will delve into Torah, remember the reward awaiting him in Gan Eden or the punishment in Gehinnom, or will consider the negative worldly consequences that will result if he succumbs to the temptation.
In contrast to this approach, Chassidus reveals the true nature of things and cancels the conflict from the beginning. When one studies Chassidus, he comes to recognize that this very object which he desires is not so desirable after all. When he understands that the pleasure of this item is essentially an expression of Divine energy in a severely concealed form, he is naturally drawn to seek out something that is powered by more Divine energy than this trivial physical temptation.
Furthermore, Chassidus explains that everything in the world is created for the purpose of the Torah and the Yidden. It is therefore impossible that there exists anything that is a contradiction to them. This is true both for permissible items and for forbidden ones.
With permissible items, the objective is that they be used for G-dly service, that they be raised up to Hashem, like a korbon. Forbidden things were created for the sole purpose that we overcome our temptation and refrain from indulging in them. They arouse within us a greater love to Hashem than there would have been without the challenge, like a rushing river after a dam is opened.
When one recognizes that an enticing object was created to enable him to serve Hashem – either by using it for a mitzva, or, if it is forbidden, by abstaining from it – the temptation is far weaker, since that object has lost its lure.
In other words: Chassidus expresses the truth and reality of the Torah’s orders. Of course, one can and must observe mitzvos even without a deeper understanding, but there is no question that this understanding makes it much easier and more real.
I can now see what the bochurim are raving about when they talk of Reb Yoel’s clarity. Even I understood. However, I am not satisfied. I dare to probe further.
Okay, we know of many chassidim in earlier generations whose lives fully exemplified the ideals of Chassidus. Today, let us be honest, due to yeridas hadoros, such chassidim are few and far between. What then is the purpose of a comprehensive study of Chassidus for the average person, if it will anyway not produce a genuine chossid? Seemingly one would be better off simply reading inspirational passages and receiving practical advice.
The truth is that having the correct beliefs is in itself a necessity. One cannot say, “As long as I observe all the mitzvos, what difference does it make if I believe in the Thirteen Principles of Faith?” We need to have the right understanding.
To highlight this, I will share with you a story, but I must first preface:
When the Frierdiker Rebbe first arrived in America he proclaimed, “America is nisht andersh!” – meaning that the very same Torah lifestyle of Europe should now flourish in America. He toiled assiduously, yet fifteen years later there still remained a trace of the American perspective, that one must consider the demands of the modern world. This belief even penetrated, albeit in a more subtle form, some families of chassidim.
For example, in the cheder in Europe children were not taught any secular subjects, even basic math. A young child knew nothing other than Hashem and his Torah, and the Chumash or Gemara that he was learning. But in America, in order to attract children from other homes, a small amount of secular studies was included on the side.
The Rebbe spoke several times about how young children, “breath without sin,” must be involved only in holiness, in learning Hashem‘s Torah. To those who claimed that it was necessary to teach them a trade, the Rebbe would answer that this could be taught to them much later, when they were closer to that time.
In a fiery sicha on Simchas Torah 5715 (1954), the Rebbe said that the only reason for admitting secular subjects was to attract outsiders, but for their own children, chassidim should want the maximum degree of kedusha possible, and have them learn only holy subjects.
I remember after that farbrengen a number of parents gathered together to discuss the issue. One chossid exclaimed that whatever had been done until then was a mistake and now they must immediately hire a melamed to teach their children only limudei kodesh.
Amother parent countered, “In general, I agree with what you’re saying. However the children also have to learn a bit of math, geography, history, and so on. They can’t be completely ignorant about the world.” The first parent replied that the children could learn any of these subjects later on, and besides, it wouldn’t be so terrible if they wouldn’t know about them at all. He argued: “Since in truth the only reality is Hashem , what value do these matters have? Aside from Torah and mitzvos there is nothing that the children need to know!”
Hearing this, the second parent retorted, “You’re speaking so loftily as if you were on the level of Reb Binyomin Kletzker, who lived his entire life in an environment of Hashem ‘s unity!”
The first chossid told his colleague, “You’re an apikores!”
His friend, taken aback, wondered, “If I’m not Reb Binyomin Kletzker, I’m an apikores?!”
The first chossid replied, “Surely so! In belief, I am no different than Reb Binyomin Kletzker. In fact, if I would perceive the oneness of Hashem one iota differently than him, that would smack of kefira. The difference between us is in feeling: Whatever Reb Binyomin Kletzker believed in his mind, he felt in his heart, but I struggle with taivos of the yetzer hara.
“However, when to comes to my children, I have no yetzer hara. Every parent wants for his child the best that he can imagine. If so, the thought to educate your child in worldly matters stems from a belief that there is something real besides Hashem . That is a serious problem. I therefore say to you: if you cannot serve Hashem as Reb Binyomin did, that is understood. But if you disagree with him, and this expresses itself if you differ from him while making objective decisions, then indeed you have an outlook of kefira.”
It’s the same with Chassidusin general. Although it may not change the entire person, the recognition of Elokus itself will certainly leave its impact when he is making major decisions. The objective truth will force him to take the right path in the education of his children, in the basic standards of his home and the like.
Reb Yoel had finished talking, and turned to his sefer. I sat there in silence, mulling over his words for a few minutes. Pretty sharp. There’s no question about that.
I ask Reb Yoel if I may continue. He doesn’t hear. After a few attempts, I catch his attention, and he readily agrees.
Does that mean that in our generation the concepts in Chassidus are purely theoretical, with no practical implications in our daily lives? Isn’t the ultimate purpose of studying Chassidus to refine a person’s character?
Not at all! That was not my intention at all. Even an average individual in our times is affected by an understanding of Chassidus, for the understanding that he recognizes in his mind will have a direct impact on his actions.
Let us begin with the impact of Chassiduson the three central elements of creation: Hashem, Yidden, and the Torah. In each of these areas, Chassidustransformed the perspective of a Yid to such a degree that it changes his day-to-day behavior. This is true in varying degrees for every individual who learns Chassidus.
When discussing the quality of a person’s avodas Hashem, even a minute difference is a whole new world. A little bit of authentic recognition and emotion is infinitely superior to a superficial belief in which one merely repeats words or thoughts.
It should be noted that although everyone can benefit from recognizing the worldview of Chassidus, there are different levels with regard to how essential it is to their avoda.
Just as Chassiduswas revealed in recent generations to combat the darkness of golus that is increasingly challenging in these later times, whereas in previous generations it wasn’t needed to the same extent, so too within each generation: people vary in the extent to which their neshama shines in their life, and accordingly how much they need Chassidus.
Every individual will grow by learning Chassidus; for some it is beneficial, while for others it is crucial.
Chassidus explains that the oneness of Hashem does not merely mean that there is no other deity besides him, but there is no other true existence at all. Everything that we see is being constantly powered by Hashem to exist, and were He to withhold His creative energy for one moment, they would all return to nothingness. This is not only a theoretical possibility, but it proves how even now the world doesn’t have its own existence.
Though this may seem like an abstract belief, understanding and realizing this concept gives a Yid a new perspective on many happenings in his life.
Imagine the following scenarios:
Reuven is a G-d-fearing frum Yid, who spends most of his day doing business. One day, he happens to meet a wealthy entrepreneur who is impressed by him and together they clinch a deal that brings him quite a profit.
When Reuven comes home, he shares with his wife his excitement over his great success. “I always knew of my special talent,” he tells his family, “but today my business mind really served me well. With the right words, I managed to win the trust of the entrepreneur. Of course, it was siyata diShmaya and we have to thank Hashem.”
Exactly the same scenario occurs with Shimon. He, too, is a successful businessman. Arriving home at night and sharing his story, he concludes, “I always knew that Hashem runs the world, but I never saw it as clearly as I did today. It was really a special hashgacha peratis that I met that businessman, but the greatest miracle was the wording that came out of my mouth. Hashem literally placed those words in my mouth.”
Both of these Yidden mentioned the help from Above, and both spoke of a business deal in the natural world, yet the difference is clear: For Reuven the perception is that he succeeded thanks to his own ability. Mind you, he won’t say that outright, for chas veshalom that a Yid should speak like that… On the contrary, he speaks of the siyata diShmaya and so on. But the question is, what does he feel inside? In his mind and heart he feels proud of his success. For Shimon, however, the natural feeling is that Hashem is guiding him at all times.
Without the perception of Chassidus, davening to Hashem for help and mentioning His help can become a ritual which a person is obligated to carry out; Chassidus helps it become the reality of his life.
When viewed superficially, the value of a Yid might appear to depend on his observance of Torah and mitzvos. This means that a Yid who does not observe all the mitzvos is of less value than one who does. Chassidusteaches that it is not so. The Alter Rebbe explains in Tanya that the essence of a Yid is his neshama, which is an actual part of Hashem. Therefore, regardless of his conduct, a Yid is holy because of the neshama within him.
This is why the Baal Shem Tov would draw close the simple Yidden, even though they were ignorant in Torah, for each of them had a neshama exactly like the neshama in the greatest of his talmidim.
About bnei Yisroel it is written, “You are children to Hashem, your G-d.” The love of a parent to a child is an essential one, not dependent on the child’s qualities. When one person loves another it is because of their special qualities, and therefore, as time passes, that love can fade. In addition, even when the love exists it is an external one, where one person’s emotions are drawn to the qualities of the other, but not to the other person himself. By contrast, the bond of parent and child derives from the essence of the parent to the essence of the child.
Similarly, the love of Hashem to the Yidden is likened, as in the above possuk, to the love of a parent for a child. Hashem loves every Yid, not because of his conduct, but because of his essence.
This knowledge affects how we think of Yidden who are distant from Yiddishkeit, and consequently, it determines the way we relate to them. If the value of a Yid depends on his observance of mitzvos, a person who is not frum is unimportant to Hashem and there is no value in convincing him to fulfill a mitzva. Only after learning Chassidus does one appreciate the value of every Yid to Hashem and the preciousness of his mitzvos.
Thus, the study of Chassidusis vital to practicing mitzvo’im. Without the above understanding, one cannot practice mitzvo’im with full dedication and care.
This perspective is also relevant to how we perceive ourselves. If chas veshalom we stumble in our avoda, we are likely to feel distant from Hashem and unworthy, and this is likely to push us even further away. Recognizing our essential value as a Yid, we are uplifted to come closer, no matter what state we are in.
On the surface, the Torah might appear to be a series of concepts that Hashem shared with the Yidden. In this view, the concepts themselves are just like any other wisdom, except that they are more advanced since Hashem is of course the smartest Being…
In Chassidusone discovers that the Torah is not only wisdom from G-d, but is G-dly wisdom. In fact, Hashem invested Himself in the Torah, so that when any Yid learns a passage in any part of the Torah, he connects with the essence of Hashem. Such an understanding will understandably change the enthusiasm and the dedication a person has for studying Torah.
The same applies to mitzvos:
At first glance, mitzvos are positive activities that Hashem commanded us to do and aveiros are negative behaviors that we were told to avoid. And since we on our own do not know which activities are good and which are bad, Hashem revealed to us what they are.
Chassidus explains that the opposite is true: Mitzvos and aveiros have no intrinsic good or evil. Hashem, with his pure unrestricted Will, chose these activities, and that is why they now affect a person in the above-mentioned manner.
With this we can understand the significance of what happens when a non-frum Yid observes even one mitzva.
Had a mitzva been an expression of a person’s elevated state, then a Yid who is not so elevated would accomplish nothing with a quick, one-time mitzva. In fact, we would first have to give him an appreciation of the act. (This was indeed the misconception of those who opposed the mivtzo’im campaigns.) However, because a mitzva involves carrying out Hashem‘s will, beyond reason and mortal accomplishment, any mitzva fulfilled according to the halacha is effective.
Until now we’ve discussed the impact of Chassidusin the realm of Torah and mitzvos.
However, even with regard to one’s middos, Chassidusstill has an impact in our generation. Although we may not be able to completely transform our negative middos as people could do in earlier generations, through a proper understanding of Chassiduswe can weaken them significantly.
This can be explained with a mashal, which, though not so pleasant, highlights the message well.
Both a toddler and an adult discard waste from their body, but there is a difference between them. When an adult has to relieve himself, he enters a bathroom and privately does what he has to do. He understands that relieving oneself is an embarrassing fact of life that should be kept private. A small child, on the other hand, carries out his needs publicly and even gleefully. He doesn’t realize that this is anything to be embarrassed about.
Similarly, we all have spiritual “waste.” That is a fact of life for anyone less than a tzaddik. The question is how we view it: Are we embarrassed about it and try our best to cover it up, or do we expose it publicly with pride?
Take for example the following situation:
Yankel is a fine Yid and a respected member of his community. One day Berl, a less respectable fellow, publicly insults him, and as a result, Yankel is infuriated. The following day he wakes up and remembers what Berl had done to him, and though he isn’t as angry as he was the day before, he is now more convinced of Berl’s wrongdoing and actually feels hatred towards him. As time goes on, he becomes less heated, but feels more justified at his hatred.
Now suppose Yankel is a Yid who learns Chassidusevery day and even dedicates some time to contemplate and appreciate the truth of what he has learned. At the moment that Berl insults him, he will be just as upset, burning with anger by the outright embarrassment. However, as he recovers from his rage and reconsiders what happened, he will realize the foolishness of the matter.
When he learns Chassidusand thinks it over throughout the following days, he will realize how utterly trivial the matter is in comparison to the truth of creation. He will be bothered by his initial anger over such a minor incident, and may even go out of his way to do a favor to the person who wronged him.
While Chassidusdid not rid Yankel of his instinctive reaction, it did change his perception so that he can make the right choices later on. Often a person has a desire to do a seemingly holy act, when in truth it is a ploy of the yetzer hara for a negative cause. Chassidusgives him clarity of mind to differentiate between that which originates from the nefesh ho’elokis (and is thus for Hashem) and that which originates from the nefesh habahamis (and is for his personal gain). He will no longer convince himself that he eats tasty delicacies only to elevate them, that he is embroiled in a machloikes solely l’sheim Shamayim…
I had already broken all the rules. I now muster all the chutzpa I have, and challenge the mashpia:
Is knowing these concepts enough to change a person’s behavior? Why do we find many individuals who know these ideas but don’t seem to be affected by them?
In order for Chassidusto make a change in a person, it must become his reality, and not just a theoretical idea.
To clarify what we mean when we say that Chassidus should be felt as a reality, let me share with you the following episode:
Reb Chaim Moshe Alperovitz, a simple tomim from Lubavitch, lived in Tel Aviv and worked as an ordinary laborer. Because of his job, he was forced to work during Chol HaMoed Sukkos, yet every night of Chol HaMoed he would farbreng all night. He would repeat a vort he heard from Reb Groinem [Esterman], the legendary mashpia in Lubavitch, that at Simchas Beis HaShoeivah there is a revelation of ‘Pnimiyus Atik’.
I remember that once, when it was after 1 a.m., one of those present got up to leave since he had a headache and he wanted to go to sleep. Reb Chaim Moshe couldn’t understand him. “I think you’re acting foolishly,” he told him, and explained himself with a mashal:
“Suppose someone offered you a million dollars on condition that you pay him a penny, would you hesitate? The same here: Reb Groinem said that at Simchas Beis HaShoeivah there is a revelation of ‘Pnimiyus Atik’ and you want to forego that because of a headache?!” Those assembled chuckled, but he insisted, “You don’t believe me? I heard it myself from Groinem!”
This statement is a modest degree of “Elokus bipshitus – for Reb Chaim Moshe, the truth of Elokus was a reality. Now of course we can’t expect of ourselves that we should have the same level of perception that Reb Chaim Moshe had, but by understanding Chassidusproperly we can all reach some level of seeing the world with the reality of Chassidus.
In certain areas we see how the Rebbe trained the world to recognize the reality of Hashem.
In the past, when there was a robbery in the house, the poor locks or loose windows were to blame. The Rebbe quoted a well-known passage in Shulchan Aruch that the mezuzah protects the home and those who live in it and if the safety of the home was compromised it is a sign that the mezuzos are problematic.
The Rebbe was not teaching a segulah or a special zechus that would bring a special merit, the Rebbe was teaching us that the truth of Torah is the reality. Torah says that with a mezuzah Hashem watches over the house, so this is the way it is.
Today it has become common practice to check mezuzos for protection. There is some level of recognition that the hashgacha pratis is a reality.
You mention that a person will undergo a change by “understanding Chassidus properly.” Can you explain what this means? Isn’t hisbonenus only for advanced students of Chassidus?
In order that the Chassidusthat a person learns should impact him, he must internalize it. This is done through thinking it over, which is commonly known as hisbonenus. The meaning of hisbonenus is simply understanding and internalizing whatever one has learned.
Say, for example, one is learning about hashgacha peratis. The first step is to understand the matter: what it means, how it can be, where it applies, why is it so, and so on. One understands this exactly as he would understand any other concept that he heard from someone. One cannot develop a genuine feeling of kabolas ol malchus shamayim merely through reciting the words of the beginning of perek mem-alef in Tanya.
Reciting holy words of Tanya is a wonderful thing and it beneficial for purifying the environment, but to change our perception we need to understand what we are learning.
The next step is to internalize it. After all, one can thoroughly understand the concept of hashgacha peratis, without actually believing that Hashemis guiding every single aspect of his individual life. Hashgacha peratis is not a natural phenomenon that causes occurrences to come together in wondrous ways; it means that Someone is actually orchestrating all of these happenings. This type of thinking is different than the previous one, and they are both necessary.
Though one who learns without thinking into what he learns will surely be affected, he is not deriving the full value from what he is learning. He is missing the real experience of Chassidus.
[To illustrate: In 5739 (1979) the N’shei Chabad convention took place in Detroit MI. During the convention a severe blizzard brought the city to a standstill and the women were unable to return home. Quite disturbed, they wrote to the Rebbe, bewailing their unfortunate situation. In a handwritten note the Rebbe responded (Likkutei Sichos, vol. 23, p. 468):
I was greatly surprised that after so much has been spoken about how everything that happens is a lesson from Above, and even [you yourselves] also lecture about this topic, yet when something actually happens, [you] think of various strange reasons for it, all except for the simple reason – that [you] were detained there in order to further spread Yiddishkeit, in addition to whatever was already accomplished through the convention… – ed.]
Oh, how I am so quickly becoming his talmid. If only I would have more direction!
Which areas of Chassidus should one learn in order to acquire this perception?
Learning Chassidusdoes not only mean, as some believe, learning profound maamorim. Chassidusincludes sichos of the Rebbe on Torah, mitzvos, Hashem and the Yidden.
In fact, learning Chassidus from those sources has an advantage over the more profound maamorim. Since the purpose of the study is that one should internalize them, learning profound maamorim can sometimes be unproductive. One should learn tangible concepts in Chassidus that he can truly relate to.
A woman once called and asked me to give a shiur in Chassidus to a women’s learning group and I was happy to agree. Curious, I asked her what they usually learned. Her response shocked me – it was one of the most profound maamorim of the Mitteler Rebbe!
Reb Yoel’s face darkens, as he expresses his frustration:
Women are surely obligated to have a correct worldview and a feeling of love for Hashem, and for this reason, the Rebbe encouraged women to learn and appreciate concepts of Chassidus. But such maamorim are far beyond the average chossid, and are clearly not what the Rebbe had in mind.
We must always remember our goal when learning Chassidus – to penetrate our conscious mind with a new perspective on life and with a feeling of love for Hashem. In order to achieve this, it is preferable to learn selected perokim of Tanya, and maamorim and sichos that discuss the meaning of Yiddishkeit and life. Only once one has internalized these, can he proceed to learn more advanced maamorim.
If there is one topic I would want to broach with Reb Yoel, it would be hiskashrus. This is the very essence of his being – his connection to the Rebbe. Indeed, even in times of old, this was a sensitive topic, one that needed much fine-tuning and direction from a mashpia. How much more so today.
However, today it is not about fine-tuning. I want to begin from the basics.
What is the purpose of hiskashrus? How does one accomplish this today?
Reb Yoel straightens up in his chair. Perhaps he was awaiting the question, perhaps it was a natural reaction to the importance of the issue. His face became serious, and his words measured, as he responded.
Today we are witnessing the amazing dedication of chassidim who are quick to follow the Rebbe’s instructions, even when this requires traveling to a distant destination with little hope for money or glory.
However, this is not enough. Chabad Chassidus demands that a chossid recognize and appreciate his Rebbe’s values in a real and intellectual manner. For this one needs to learn the Rebbe’s maamorim and sichos, to internalize the Rebbe’s perception of the world.
A bochur once shared with me his schedule of learning Chassidus as follows: For haskala, the understanding of the concepts of Chassidus, he learns a maamar of the Rebbe Rashab; for avoda, an emotional appreciation of Chassidus, he learns a maamar of the Frierdiker Rebbe; and for hiskashrus, he learns a maamar of the Rebbe. I asked him: If your mind thinks like the Rebbe Rashab, and your heart absorbs the teachings of the Frierdiker Rebbe, what are you offering the Rebbe…?
(Of course, this should not be understood to mean that out of hiskashrus one should not learn the maamorim of the previous Rebbeim; this was only said in order to demonstrate the mistaken understanding of hiskashrus that this bochur had.)
Hiskashrus means permeating our minds with the Rebbe’s understanding of Hashem and the world. _is can only be reached through a thorough study of the Rebbe’s Torah, and through reflection that will bring it into our reality.
CHASSIDUS – G-DLY REVELATION
However, an important note must be made:
While proper hiskashrus raises a person to a higher understanding of Hashem and the world, one should not mistakenly think that he can reach this understanding on his own.
Chassidus is not as it may seem to be – a logical understanding of the inner essence of the Torah as understood by a wise Rebbe. Rather, Chassidus is a revelation of G-dliness as experienced and ‘seen’ by a tzaddik.
In fact, although throughout the generations various prominent chassidim wrote essays of Chassidus, chassidim always made a point of studying Chassidus from its original source, and used the writings of chassidim for explanation only.
This can be explained with the following mashal: When an artist draws a portrait, he draws two circles for the eyes, a curved line for the nose and so forth. Now a non-artist may do the very same, but it is nevertheless not identical. Why the difference?
The explanation is that when the non-artist draws circles and a curve, these are merely symbolic of what should really appear there, but the drawing is dead, lifeless. The artist, however, was blessed with a power to capture the image in his mind and convey it to a canvas, creating a living portrait.
The same is true of Chassidus.
Both the Rebbeim and their chassidim occupied themselves with understanding and teaching Elokus, yet they were far from the same. The chossid understood the concept with his mind, each to his degree, and explained it accordingly. The Rebbe ‘saw’ the concept – and that is what he transmitted.
This is what we experience when we hear the Rebbe or learn his writings. We are listening to a first-hand report of the existence of Hashem and His involvement in this world. This is something we can never reach on our own. And that is why Hashem sent us the tzaddikim, to open up our eyes.
This is particularly true of our Rebbe’s Chassidus.
The Rebbe in his maamorim and sichos applies the truths of Chassidus to the most worldly subjects, so that there is no area of life that is void of Elokus. Whoever studies the Rebbe’s sichos comes to recognize how even the most mundane occurrences are of great spiritual significance.
Even a sicha discussing “current events” such as Mihu Yehudi, or a moment of silence, expresses the Rebbe’s message – the recognition of the oneness of Hashem in the world.
A certain rov who came to the Rebbe’s farbrengen for the first time shared with me his astonishment at the number of times the Rebbe mentioned Der Eibershter in the course of the farbrengen.
This is what real hiskashrus is about: that to some degree we, too, should be elevated to recognize Hashem in everything.
This once-in-a-lifetime experience, with a man larger than life, has come to a close. My head is spinning, from the hours of heavy discussion. As I thank him for his time, and turn to leave, I see Reb Yoel, as energetic as ever, turning back to his computer, with a Likkutei Torah open on his lap.
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