29 May Shavuot-Spiritual Tools-The Rebbe RaShaB on Torah Study
Rav Shalom Dov Ber (ben Shmuel) Schneerson, the Rebbe RaShaB, was the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe (1860-1920). His Kuntres Etz HaChayim, employs far more technical wording than many other Chassidic sources. There are extensive quotes from the Zohar, the Etz HaChayim, and other Kabbalistic texts, as well as passages from the Talmud and the Midrash. The Rebbe Rashab begins with an abstract Chassidic concept, proceeds to develop its practical applications, and then, on the basis of these theoretical constructs, gives direct, pointed advice to the students of the yeshivah.
The Kuntres begins with the theme of dirah bitachtonim, that our world be transformed into a dwelling for G-d. In such a world, the material plane will continue to exist, but it will see itself solely as a medium for the revelation of G-dliness.
This is made possible through the interplay of three Divine attributes: Malchus (sovereignty), Ratzon (will), and Chochmah (wisdom). Malchus is the medium which brings into being a world which sees itself as a separate entity, for a king is never given absolute sovereignty over equals. It is only when there is a distance between him and his subjects that such a relationship can be established.
In the earthly realms, a nation feels the need for a king, and when they discover a person whose level is “from his shoulders up, taller than all the nation,” they grant him this position. In the spiritual realms, the sequence works in reverse. Because G-d possesses the attribute of Malchus, a framework of seemingly independent existence — entities that feel themselves separate and lower than Him — comes into being, allowing for this attribute to be manifest.
Ratzon, will, is a channel for the expression of the soul’s inner thrust. When a person wants an object, he is entirely focused on his desire. From the person’s standpoint, the object is significant only inasmuch as it fulfills his will.
In the spiritual realms, a world that is created from G-d’s will would not see itself as a separate entity. It would exist only to express G-d’s intent.
Thus the two attributes of Ratzon and Malchus bring about two diverse conceptions of existence. Ratzon makes the world a dwelling, a place where G-d’s essence is revealed, and Malchus causes that dwelling to be in the lower worlds, in a realm which sees itself as separate from G-d.
These two motifs are interrelated and harmonized through the attribute of Chochmah, wisdom. For wisdom recognizes the gestalt of independent existence established by Malchus and yet is sensitive to the purpose expressed by Ratzon. This makes possible the synthesis of the two thrusts; that the independent existence brought into being by Malchus takes on the design of Ratzon, causing the world to become batel, and rise above the level of self-concern.
This bittul is established primarily through Torah study, an expression of G-d’s Chochmah. For Torah study represents an advanced level of bittul. When a person studies the Torah, he has the potential to step entirely beyond the level of self. For the thoughts on which his mind focuses are not his own, but G-d’s.
There is, however, a possibility for negative consequences even within Torah study. Since the Torah is enclothed in worldly affairs and operates with the framework of human logic, it is possible that a person will look at it as no more than a system of wisdom, forgetting about G-d, the Giver of the Torah. When the Torah is studied with such an approach, it can become “a potion of death,” encouraging a person’s self-concern. Instead of serving as a tool to bring about the refinement of the world and the person studying, the study of the Torah can inflate the person’s ego and cause him to become more materially oriented.
For this reason, it is necessary for one’s Torah study to include P’nimiyus HaTorah, the inner, mystic dimensions of the Torah, which focuses attention directly on the Torah’s G-dly and spiritual core.
Kuntres Etz HaChayim goes to the mystic core of the issue. Nigleh, the revealed dimension of Torah law, reflects the dimension of the Torah which relates to our material world, while P’nimiyus HaTorah reveals the dimension of the Torah which transcends this framework. In the scheme of the Sefiros, the Oral Law, the fundamental expression of Nigleh, is identified with Malchus, the Sefirah which brings about the limited framework of existence of our world. This Sefirah is described as the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. P’nimiyus HaTorah is identified with the attribute of Tiferes, the Sefirah which reveals G-dliness which transcends our material framework. It is thus described as the Tree of Life. Adam’s sin involved partaking of the Tree of Knowledge without first partaking of the Tree of Life.
The Kuntres then relates the above concepts to the themes of yichuda tata’ah, the lower unity, and yichuda ila’ah, the sublime unity. Yichuda tata’ah refers to the manner in which our world sees itself connected to G-dliness: the world exists and yet it is subservient to G-dliness. Yichuda ila’ah reflects an entirely different frame of reference; all that exists is G-dliness. There is no conception of independent existence.
Yichuda tata’ah is the gestalt which should prevail within our Divine service, firstly, because we have to be honest with ourselves and realize our spiritual level. And also, because this was G-d’s intent when creating the world, that the material world should recognize and acknowledge G-dliness within its own context.
Nevertheless, yichuda tata’ah alone is not sufficient. For the positive dimension of yichuda tata’ah — its recognition of the limitations of our world — is itself its drawback. The bittul of yichuda tata’ah does not lift a person above our world’s limited framework of reference. To refer to a classic Chassidic concept: a person whose Divine service is characterized by yichuda tata’ah is still in Mitzrayim, Egypt; he is bound by the limitations of worldly existence.
For this reason, it is necessary for a person to have a taste of yichuda ila’ah, an appreciation of a higher level of spiritual awareness. The experience of this elevated perspective weakens a person’s material disposition and refines the coarseness of his body and his animal soul, mitigating his attraction to worldly concerns. And it strengthens the power of his G-dly soul, empowering it to overcome the body and the animal soul and refine them. Such awareness is encouraged by the study of P’nimiyus HaTorah.
The Kuntres continues to speak against the protestation of humility by people who say: “Who are we? What is our Divine service [worth]? [How can] we experience genuine love and fear of G-d? How can we approach P’nimiyus HaTorah when we are on such a low level?”
It explains that the very foundation of this approach is erroneous. The mitzvos of loving and fearing G-d are among the 613 mitzvos of the Torah, whose observance is incumbent upon every member of the Jewish people. And G-d does not come with over-imposing demands to His creations. He asks of them only what is within their potential. Thus if one would say that it is impossible for every individual to attain the love and fear of G-d, how could he be commanded to express these emotions?
In truth, the Kuntres continues, love and fear are attainable by any and every individual. They are qualities inherent to every Jew. And it is through the study of P’nimiyus HaTorah that these attributes come within our grasp. In the early generations, the Kuntres explains, P’nimiyus HaTorah was hidden, for it was not an absolute necessity for our nation’s spiritual welfare. But from the time of the AriZal onward, and particularly after the revelation of the Baal Shem Tov, it became “a mitzvah to reveal this wisdom.”
The Rebbe Rashab then explains that he founded Yeshivas Tomchei Temimim with the intent of furthering that motif, giving students the opportunity to study P’nimiyus HaTorah with the same concentration as they usually devote to the study of Nigleh.
At this point, the tone of the Kuntres changes. The abstract, scholarly discussion becomes transformed into a direct, down-to-earth message from the Rebbe to the students of the yeshivah. The Rebbe states:
The young men with whom our association was founded knew the purpose of its establishment, and they chose and desired this [as their mission]. They eagerly accepted and carried out [the mission] of occupying themselves with Chassidus… They studied well, and, thank G-d, their efforts brought forth fruit and were crowned with success.
In the present time as well, there are many young men who follow this path and adapt themselves to this ultimate purpose…. There are, however, many others who… lost sight of this ultimate purpose…. Over the course of time, there came and gathered new students for whom the concept of involvement in Chassidus was foreign to them. Not that they are opposed [to it], heaven forbid, it’s just that Chassidus is an unknown for them. They came to study Nigleh.
This brought an unfamiliar atmosphere into the hall of study…. [This is also reflected in] their conduct. [It is obvious] that their main intent is to study Nigleh, and they study Chassidus only to fulfill their obligation….
Therefore, on this occasion, I want to make it known to you that this is not the purpose of our intent. Not at all.
Instead, the intent of the establishment of our association is for the study of Chassidus, for it is the essence of our lives, and this will grant vitality to your study of Nigleh. And this will make you and your study of the Torah pleasing to G-d, the Giver of the Torah.
In clear and precise terms, the Rebbe outlines — to the hour — the schedule he expects the yeshivah students to keep. He tells the students that anyone who does not uphold that schedule is benefiting from the yeshivah unjustly.
He counsels them against seeking to develop chiddushim (innovative explanations) for the sake of having feelings of accomplishment, and instead delineates clearly how a Talmudic passage should be studied, which commentaries to look into, and what their study goals should be.
And he concludes with a heartfelt prayer which reflects the intensity he invested in the Kuntres:
After all the above statements, I ask you: “Apply your hearts to all the words” stated in this text. May these words be upon your hearts at all times, for it is very difficult for me to make these statements and repeat them continually. Therefore, have these words before your eyes at all times, so that they will not be forgotten by you. For they are your lives and the length of your days, and indeed, they will bring you eternal life.
I lift up my hands to G-d in prayer and in supplication. May it be G-d’s will that the light of the Torah of truth which our ancestors, the holy and revered Rebbeim revealed, will be internalized within you.
This selection is published with permission from Sichos in English; The Text and Translation are available Here.