Sunday, July 10, 2005

When A Rebbe Takes A Step Back

By the grace of G-d
When A Rebbe Takes A Step Back
By Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Ginsberg

Reb Mendel Futerfas used to tell the story about a certain Chassid of the Rebbe Rashab who was an affluent and successful businessman. Whenever he came to Lubavitch, he would listen when the Rebbe delivered a maamer, then sit down with the talmidim of the yeshiva for a chazara.

Unlike the other Chassidim, however, a single chazara wasn’t enough for this particular Chassid. Despite the fact that he was a learned Jew and could repeat the Rebbe’s words as well as anyone else, he would insist on hearing the chazara several times from the official chozrim.

At this point Reb Mendel would pause in his recitation, and repeat one of his favorite sayings of our Sages:

“It states in Pirkei Avos,” Reb Mendel would always say, “that when a wise man hasn’t heard something, he admits that he hasn’t heard it. Indeed, this is one of the identifying marks of the chacham — ‘and the opposite is true of the golem.’ But what does this have to do with wisdom? If the golem claims to have heard something he really didn’t, doesn’t that make him a liar rather than a fool?

“The answer lies in the exact wording of the Mishna: ‘Concerning what (ma) he has not heard he says, “I have not heard.”’ Even if he heard what was being discussed but a certain ‘something’ (mashehu) — even the tiniest detail — is still vague, he refuses to claim to understand it. The chacham will not pronounce himself an expert until the entire picture is clear and understood.

“The golem, by contrast, becomes an instant expert, even if he has no idea what it means. He immediately announces ‘I have heard’ and stops listening.”

(Author’s note: Reb Mendel Futerfas was the embodiment of this adage, and was never ashamed to admit that he “had not heard.” Throughout his life he never claimed to understand an issue until his knowledge of the subject was thorough and complete.)

Reb Mendel would then resume:

“As mentioned before, this Chassid was very wealthy, so to slake his unquenchable thirst for hearing the Rebbe’s maamarim, he would handsomely pay any bachur who was willing to repeat a maamer for him. As the students of Tomchei Tmimim rarely had a cent to their names, this was a wonderful and welcome opportunity.

“One time the Rebbe Rashab delivered a maamer which employed the analogy of a rav teaching his talmid an intellectual concept. As the rav’s understanding is vastly greater than the pupil’s, in order to convey the thought to the student, he must first ‘constrict’ it down to his level.

“The Chassid listened to this chazara intently, then, as was his custom, asked that it be repeated several more times.

“There was one bachur, however, whose manner of speaking was particularly effusive. When he got up to the part about the rav’s seichel being immeasurably superior to the talmid’s, he was extremely enthusiastic in his description.

“At that point the elderly Chassid interrupted him. ‘Wait a minute,’ he said. ‘From the way you’re talking, it would seem that the difference between the rav and the talmid is only quantitative — that the rav has learned much while the talmid has learned only a little. But that is not the case; there is a qualitative difference! The rav’s essence is utterly beyond that of the talmid, to the point that they have nothing in common!”

“One might say,” the Chassid continued, “that the maamer is referring to a situation of a Rebbe teaching a Chassid. In this case, the Rebbe is infinitely superior to the Chassid, and the concept of ‘understanding one’s teacher after 40 years’ and thus being able to attain the same level simply doesn’t apply. For no matter how hard a Chassid works, no matter how great a Chassid he is, he can never begin to approach what it means to be a Rebbe!

“The situation you are describing,” the Chassid concluded, “pertains to a rav and talmid from the times of the Gemara, when both are great Tannaim or Amoraim, yet one has the advantage of having had an opportunity to learn more. In the beginning, the talmid is far removed from the teacher’s level. Yet if enough effort is expended, he can not only attain the same greatness, but surpass it. The same rule applies to two Rebbeim, when one Rebbe receives knowledge from a previous Rebbe. A Rebbe is a Rebbe from birth, but he still must work hard for many years with his own powers to reach the level of the previous ones…”

* * *

Chassidus uses the analogy of a rav who is infinitely above his talmid (see Seifer HaMaamarim 5670), yet at a certain point decides to elevate him to a higher level than he would ever be able to attain under his own power. (When this is accomplished, “the talmid’s faculties become like the rav’s.”)

In the beginning of the process, the concepts revealed to the talmid are completely above his understanding, and the student flounders in darkness. A state of nesira (separation) exists between the two. The talmid acutely feels the distance between himself and the rav.

In the most literal sense, nesira implies breaking down the beams of an existing building, in preparation for the establishment of a new structure. But nesira is not a simple matter of destruction for a later good. Rather, nesira is an integral part of the process of elevation and tikkun.

To illustrate: When a tailor cuts out his fabric to sew a suit, he is not “destroying” the fabric for a higher cause; the cutting is an important part of the procedure. Similarly, in the case of nesira between a rav and a talmid, the descent is an essential part of the desired ascent.

To continue with the analogy of construction, when the teacher sticks to concepts that are easily understood by the student, “they both share the same wall.” The advantage of the rav over the talmid is not readily apparent. The situation is mutually satisfactory for the both of them, but the talmid receives only the “external part,” or chitzoniyus, of what the rav has to offer. The talmid is indeed learning, but he is limited by his own intellectual capacities. The rav’s p’nimiyus and essence remains completely beyond his grasp.

In this instance, the talmid is not aware that there is something missing. Step by step he increases his knowledge, progresses in his studies and feels fine. Yet because he doesn’t know that anything else even exists, he will never be inspired to strive any higher.

When the time comes, however, that the rav wants to “boost” the talmid upward with a hashpaa that comes from his p’nimiyus, a period of nesira is required. In order for there to be a “yichud panim b’panim,” an inner union between teacher and student, the rav must step back and temporarily separate from the talmid. In other words, the talmid must be made to perceive the unbridgeable gap that exists between them.

This can sometimes lead to state of dejection, when the student realizes that even after all his hard work he has achieved nothing. But it is this feeling that will ultimately spur him on to more elevated heights of which he was previously unaware.

When the student realizes that he has yet to access the rav’s p’nimiyus, it produces a state of longing. His efforts take on an entirely different tone as he strives for “an inner union” and tries to elevate himself to the rav’s level.

The phenomenon of nesira, the whole purpose of which is to bring the talmid to realize that something infinitely higher exists, can also be accomplished through revelation, as the rav gradually reveals higher and higher “lights.” In the initial stages, however, the illumination is too intense for the talmid to absorb.

In Kabbalistic terms, this is known as “chesed cutting through the trunks.” The chesed, the G-dly revelation, “saws through” the “stems and leaves” of hispashtus and separates the rav from the talmid. (The root of the Hebrew word “nesira” means to saw.) Yet it is the awareness of this separation that causes the talmid to strive upward.

Again, this is not a simple situation of “descent for the purpose of ascent,” nor does the analogy of the rav temporarily diverting his attention from the talmid to be able to convey a loftier concept apply. In these cases, the rav actually does briefly “abandon” the talmid, albeit for a higher cause.

With nesira, however, the rav never abandons the talmid and is always with him. On the contrary, because the initial revelation is so bright and blinding, the talmid may not even realize that he has received anything. This is because he has actually been given a “jolt” of the rav’s p’nimiyus.

In Chassidus, these other analogies are used to illustrate the descent of exile (and the inner meaning of Tisha B’Av, etc.), where destruction actually occurred for the purpose of a later ascent.

The analogy of nesira, however, illustrates what happened at mattan Torah, where the concepts of descent and destruction do not apply, even though the revelation of G-dliness when the Torah was given was so intense that “their souls departed from their bodies.” The framework of the natural order first had to be broken (i.e., “their souls departed from their bodies”), but afterward, the revelation of G-dliness was actually absorbed (“the Holy One, Blessed be He, revived them with the dew He will use to resurrect the dead, the dew of Torah”).

* * *

On Gimmel Tammuz 5754 we received a traumatic shock from which we have yet to recover. There is no possible explanation or justification that can alleviate our pain.

There is no Chassidus without a Rebbe. There is no Yiddishkeit without a Rebbe. Indeed, the world cannot exist without a Rebbe. Without a Rebbe, there is nothing. Although the concept is fully elucidated in Chassidus (see Likkutei Sichos, Volume 26, for example), the principle itself is fundamental and axiomatic, and something we all take for granted.

Before Gimmel Tammuz, we felt fine. There was hardly a need for emuna, because the Divine truth of Lubavitch was evident to the physical eye. It was the most wonderful thing in the world to be a Lubavitcher Chassid.

We could tangibly see the Rebbe conquering the world and leading it to the Redemption with giant strides. We merited to hear the Rebbe’s holy words every few days. We were surrounded by the Rebbe’s miracles wherever we turned. The Rebbe provided us with guidance for every detail in our lives. It was our normal mode of existence, the most elevated way of life a Jew could aspire to.

(Also, before Gimmel Tammuz, we all thought the same thing and shared the same consciousness. Nothing could stand in the way of the mighty army of the Rebbe’s Chasidim, as we all acted with the power of the Rebbe behind us.)

Then, suddenly, it was the first Zach Adar, followed by the second. Then the final blow of the hammer fell on Gimmel Tammuz.

It was the ultimate example of nesira, a nesira which seemed to separate us from the Rebbe shlita. In the strongest possible terms we were suddenly aware of the great distance that exists between us. We do not see the Rebbe; we cannot attend farbrengens. There are no Sunday dollars or Kos Shel Bracha. There is no more ziseh lekach; no yechidos, general letters, tzetlach, or verbal answers from the Rebbe. To the physical eye it appears as if the captain has abandoned ship, G-d forbid.

But in truth, “the Rebbe foresaw everything.” There was no destruction for a higher cause, or a “descent for the purpose of ascent.” For years the Rebbe drummed it into our heads that we would be facing a great nisayon which would not reflect the true reality. Indeed, the word “nes” means a banner or a flag; the whole purpose of a nisayon is to raise us up, to elevate us from “an external union” to “an inner union.”

For this to occur, the talmid must be able to correctly interpret what is happening. He must understand that the nesira is an integral part of the ascent, a necessary component in the progression toward the true and complete Redemption. The Rebbe wants us to go above and beyond everything we’ve ever done before, in order to reach a new and more exalted state.

Take, for example, emuna and hiskashrus as they existed before Gimmel Tammuz, when we obeyed the Rebbe’s directives without regard for what the world might say. We internalized the Rebbe’s words, lived with Moshiach and demonstrated ahavas Yisroel for one another with true unity.

In retrospect, however, it was only “an external unity.” What is required of us now is to strive toward the next level.

Before Gimmel Tammuz, our emuna was limited. We had emuna because we could see, hear and understand; everything was presented to us on a platter. Now, however, we must go beyond that, and attain a level of emuna that is independent of outside influences.

Before Gimmel Tammuz, our hiskashrus was limited. We might even have thought that there were moments when the Rebbe wasn’t looking at us or aware of what we were doing, G-d forbid. Intellectually, we realized that this was not so, but because the Rebbe was visible to us we could sometimes become lazy.

The nisayon we are now going through is for the sole purpose of raising us to the ultimate level of hiskashrus and emuna. Our entire essence must be completely bound with the Rebbe MH”M.

Indeed, the awareness that the Rebbe transcends all limitations has grown after Gimmel Tammuz. More and more people are consulting the Rebbe about every aspect of their lives, and the sense that the Rebbe is guiding us is stronger than ever.

Before Gimmel Tammuz, we longed for Moshiach, we learned about Moshiach and lived with Moshiach, but in a limited fashion. Today we must be “crazy about Moshiach,” as the Rebbe once said in reference to himself. Awareness of Moshiach must fill our consciousness, until it spills over and affects the very lowest planes of existence.

Another fundamental point: Before Gimmel Tammuz, there was achdus among Chassidim because it was easy. Everyone had the same emuna and beliefs, and acted the same way.

Now, however, we must love each other because it’s the right thing to do, independent of any other motivation. We will love each other despite our differences of opinion, simply because the Rebbe Melech HaMoshiach has taught us to do so.

The Rebbe wants us to understand what’s going on, to raise us up to the ultimate level of all. For the true and complete Redemption is about to commence.


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