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Bringing Moshiach Do You Believe?
by Rabbi Zvi Homnick
BELIEF IN SELF?
 
As I began my initial journey in studying works of Chassidus from the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples, I discovered that many of the ideas expressed could be found in Chazal and in earlier classical Torah works.  This left me wondering what the whole fuss of the early war against Chassidus was about.  The popular cultural explanation, that the whole difference between Chassidim and Misnagdim is one of emphasis only, didn't satisfy.  The degree of persecution on the part of the persecutors and the degree of self-sacrifice on the part of the persecuted, to my mind, had to be about a lot more than a dispute over emphasis, or a handful of customs, or subtle exegetical disputes regarding mystical esoterica.
 
A theme that seemed to repeat itself throughout a number of the early seminal works of Chassidus is “that the Baal Shem Tov came to reveal the neshama (the soul) of all things.”  Based on this, I began to analyze each Chassidic teaching to understand how it was perceived prior to the revelation of Chassidus, and what new soul-aspect Chassidus revealed on this given topic.  Therefore, when I encountered a teaching of Reb Nachman of Breslov that a person has to have emuna/faith in himself, I couldn't help but wonder what was uniquely “Chassidic” about that idea.
 
Any American kid who grew up with “The little engine that could,” should have absorbed from an early age the importance of self-confidence, and in fact, the entire culture (at least before the age of political correctness) celebrated those who achieved great things as a result of believing in themselves.  Even in the culture of the yeshiva world I grew up in, there was a tremendous emphasis on inculcating the belief that one was capable of achieving “greatness” in Torah, and the strong encouragement of personal ambition in Torah and spiritual growth.  So what exactly is the Chassidic idea of “emuna in self,” and how is this the result of revealing the “neshama/soul”?
 
This was not simply an analytical exercise for me, but a key issue in my internal spiritual wanderings.  I never doubted my gifts, talents and abilities, and unlike the little engine burdened with an inferiority complex, I was more than confident that “I could.”  The part that was difficult to navigate was not about “could,” but about “should.”  So what if I can, but why should I bother?  Is it all just about personal achievement and the attendant rewards, or avoiding the horrific punishments in store?  The answers that I was given at that time were less than satisfactory.  So, perhaps if I could unlock the mystery of “emuna in self,” I might progress from “could” to an inner sense of “should” so as to motivate and invigorate my “would.”
 
The answer is actually contained in the Hebrew word emuna.  It doesn't mean simply to believe, but rather it means a faith in that which is beyond human comprehension.  Self-confidence comes as a result of knowing and understanding what you are capable of.  To believe in anything beyond that is delusional.  Even ambition in Torah for those who are less gifted, comes from the understanding that if “I put in the effort,” G-d programmed the Torah and the person that “I will find” and enjoy success beyond my natural abilities and efforts.  This too can be demonstrated as a rational cause and effect.  Even without a belief in the absolute truth of the words of the Sages, I can rely on the experiences and testimony of those who came before me, and as such this does not require “emuna.”
 
However, the belief that I have a neshama that has powers beyond anything I can imagine and the belief that G-d loves and cares about me beyond my wildest imagination, and the belief that every move I make is of profound significance to G-d and the entire course of history; that requires a huge leap of faith, as well as assiduous reinforcement if it is actually to impact my daily life and behavior.   Reb Nachman goes on to posit that there are many people who had great faith and great talents but remained spiritually stunted due, primarily, to a lack of emuna in themselves.
 
No, don't worry, this is not a treatise on Breslov philosophy!
 
A few years later, as I began looking tentatively into Chabad, I would pick the brains of people I encountered who had any prior experience with Lubavitch.  At that time, I encountered a Breslover Chassid who told me that the reason he left Chabad for Breslov was because Chabad was all about telling you how you are nothing and nobody in the name of bittul/self-nullification, which in Chabad is considered all-important.  And yet, despite all that, most Lubavitchers comport themselves in a forceful, sometimes even brash, manner.  Breslov, on the other hand, was all about building you up and the importance of believing in yourself, and still most of the Chassidim were self effacing and humble.
 
Aha!  Now I had something very specific that certainly bore looking into.
 
SEEING AND BELIEVING
 
Shortly before the passing of the Alter Rebbe in the village of Piena on the 24th of Teves, he penned a missive addressing and elaborating upon many deep Kabbalistic concepts.  This letter was later published by his sons in the fourth section of Tanya, Iggeres HaKodesh, chapter 20.  The core point of the letter was to show that despite the seeming lowliness of the physical in relation to the spiritual, in actual fact the physical originates from a higher source since spirituality cannot create physicality.  And so, the “bringing into existence of the physical is from Atzmus” (the Essence of G-d himself) as opposed to it coming from any spiritual, albeit infinite, revelation and manifestation of G-d.
 
In a talk given on Acharon shel Pesach 5694 (Last Day of Pesach, 1934), the Previous Rebbe provides a colorful and captivating description of how this letter was received by the Chassidim of that time and the impact it had upon them.  He concludes, regarding the aforementioned point, “When this statement was first revealed, not only did it lend the physical world a more beautiful countenance in the eyes of  Chassidim, but it released a wellspring of exuberance in the fulfillment of the practical mitzvos” (for English version, Likkutei Dibburim vol. 2 ch. 1).  In fact, the Alter Rebbe himself concludes that letter:
 
“And after these words and truth, knowledge comes easily to the discerning, to understand through all the above the great loftiness of the practical commandments, which are the ultimate purpose for the descent of souls to this physical world.  As it says, 'Today, to do them,' and 'better one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world, than all the life of the World to Come.'”
 
In the tradition handed down by Chassidim regarding the actual passing of the Alter Rebbe, it is reported that the Alter Rebbe told his grandson the Tzemach Tzedek, who was present at the time, that he no longer could see the physical ceiling, only the “Word of G-d” that creates and sustains it.  This is consistent with what the Alter Rebbe writes in chapter 3 of Shaar HaYichud V'Ha'Emuna, “However, if the eye were permitted to see and to apprehend the life-force and spirituality which is in every created thing, flowing into it from 'that which emanates from the mouth of G-d' and 'His breath,' then the physicality, materiality and tangibility of the created being would not be seen by our eyes at all.  Since it is completely nullified in relation to the life-force and spirituality within it.”
 
We know that the end of the life of a Tzaddik in this world is the culmination of his divine service throughout his lifetime, and yet regarding the final days and moments of the Alter Rebbe we seem to be getting conflicting messages.  At the time that he reached the pinnacle of his life, he revealed for the first time the superior quality of the physical over the spiritual as will be revealed in the future time.   And yet he is described as experiencing the total nullification of the physical to the spiritual life-force within so that he no longer saw the tangible physicality of the ceiling [indicating the total worthlessness of the physical relative to the spiritual].
 
YOU BETTER BELIEVE IT
 
Long after I had overcome the inner psychic inhibitions to exploring the study of Chassidus that I had absorbed from those opposed to Chassidus in general, I still found myself wrestling with the issue of Chabad versus other Chassidic points of view.  This entailed confronting many issues, some more obvious and others more nuanced.  One of the protests I heard came from a friend who said, “All they talk about in Chabad is bittul, bittul and more bittul.”  So yes, even though Chabad Chassidus addresses myriad aspects of a person's inner world, it all revolves around bittul.  Love of G-d, and certainly fear of G-d, prayer, Torah study, mitzva performance, inner refinement and character development; it all has to be with bittul.  Because after all, who are you to perceive yourself as a separate being and who do you think you are trying to serve G-d?
 
Superficially, this may seem to be a very limited and limiting approach to divine service.  However, once a person fully processes the philosophical teachings of Chabad Chassidus, to the point that he actually experiences reality that way (even if only for brief moments in time), then it becomes obvious that the experiential impact of true inner bittul actually frees the person from his prior limitations in all areas of divine service.
 
The more one is capable of perceiving his own nothingness in relation to G-d, the more he is able to function as an extension of the Divine Will which is infinite.  Internalizing the concept that if we saw the G-dly energy within the physical then we would not see the physical object at all, and applying that to oneself and the world around us, enables us to achieve levels of love of G-d, fear of G-d, climbing the spiritual ladder of prayer etc, far beyond our natural abilities.  It is not about “be all you can be,” but “be all that being one with G-d enables you to be.” 
 
The more you transcend “belief in self” as a result of nullifying yourself to G-d, the more you believe that your not-self can accomplish, due to being a part of the larger G-dly reality.  The more you “see” the nothingness of the physical “ceiling,” (the finite and limiting aspect of physicality), the more you can truly appreciate the physical as a manifestation of the Divine Essence, “lending the physical world a more beautiful countenance and releasing a wellspring of exuberance in the performance of the practical mitzvos.”
 
It is true that a lack of belief in self at the outset can cause a person to not even take the necessary steps to transcend belief in self.  As the Rebbe expressed it, self-doubt in the form of the question “who am I and what am I” is one of the most destructive forces of our time.  But the ultimate goal is to leave “belief in self” behind because it is actually limiting relative to the belief in what G-d can accomplish through me (not-me) and my (not-my) actions.  Yes, if one sees the physical as the primary reality, he will never transcend its limitations and will be pulled away from G-d and G-dliness.  One must first “see” how the physical is totally nullified to the spiritual, but this is only in order to see the truly infinite source and potential of the physical.
 
And that is the apex of the Alter Rebbe's life and teachings on the 24th of Teves, to not see the physical “ceiling” and to reveal the futuristic reality, of the physical being higher than the spiritual.
 
This is also the concept behind the institution of shlichus.  Through “bittul, bittul and more bittul,” before G-d and “Moshe, His servant,” the Rebbe, even people of limited strengths and abilities can accomplish things that are “impossible” and require “infinite” power to execute.  As the Rebbe said regarding the transformation of France into a place that is hospitable to and actually a base of operations for, holiness, it could only be accomplished with the “power of Atzmus.”  The ability to access that power doesn't come from “belief in self,” it comes from nullification of self.  When you truly believe that you can accomplish anything because it's not you who are doing, it is G-d doing through you, then your demeanor is strong and forceful, sometimes even brash.  Self effacement is for when you are operating as “you.”
 
The week following the well publicized talk of 28 Nissan 5751 when the Rebbe said that “I am giving it over to you to do all that you can to bring Moshiach,” the Rebbe addressed the objection that people might have as to “Who am I to bring Moshiach?” (see sicha Shemini 5751).  The answer is simple.  If you think it’s about you and your abilities, then at best you are delusional.  There is a long letter from the Rebbe Rayatz where he addresses a whole host of questions sent to him by the correspondent, at the end of which he writes, “this that you write that you feel that you have a special role to play in bringing Moshiach – yevaker eitzel rofei nerven mumcheh (you should visit an expert psychologist).”
 
It is only when we undertake this mission with the realization that this is what G-d wants from us at this time, as He revealed it to us through the Rebbe, and we nullify ourselves to this will – then you better believe that we have been given the ability to get the job done, immediately, NOW!
 

 


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