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Crossing the River th the Promised Land
by Rabbi Zvi Homnick
PROMISE LOST
 
Amongst the numerous circles of friends and acquaintances that I picked up along the way during my yeshiva years, there was a loosely knit informal network of “wild geniuses.”  Unlike the secular categorizations of “nerds” or “geeks,” these guys tended to be extremely gifted intellectually as well as larger than life characters socially.  The social environment that they developed around themselves was a fascinating mix of egalitarianism and elitism.  Generally, they took great pleasure in deflating the self -importance of the academic elites in their respective yeshivas, while being generous with their time and friendship towards those who had little to offer in terms of intellectual stimulation.  Well-meaning fools and idiots would be tolerated and even befriended if they weren't too annoying, but the pretentious fool or idiot was informed in no uncertain terms that he was not welcome.
 
Within that group, there were a number of fellows who would speak wistfully of the Chassidic days of yore, when in places like Mezeritch and Liozna, Lublin and Kotzk, and yes, even the Lubavitch of the Rebbe Rashab, simple Chassidim sat shoulder to shoulder with the great minds of the movement.  In that egalitarian environment of brotherly love, those great minds were given the tools and guidance to grow and take their place as leaders, even as they worked to assimilate the tenets of Chassidic love for even the simplest Jew.  Contrariwise, in today's world they felt as if they didn't really belong anywhere, since the modern yeshiva world represented the old world Lithuanian elitism based on scholarship real or imagined, and the modern Chassidic world had become about building large institutions and had lost any real appeal for the truly gifted.
 
I remember in particular one such conversation, when a friend suggested that in fact Lubavitch represented the greatest disappointment.  In a relatively short period of time, it had gone from an educational system that accepted only the best and the brightest, enlisting the rank and file of the movement to help support that system, and creating a social environment where both groups felt that they were part of the same family, to an open door educational system that threw together any and all comers, thus lowering the level for all.  In the push for quantity, quality had been sacrificed to the point that it was no longer even appreciated by most.
 
Later, when I raised this issue with Lubavitchers whom I encountered over the years, at different stages in my personal evolution, I heard many explanations for why this had to be so, whether due to the spiritual descent of the generation or the needs of the time for broader educational opportunities.  Whatever the reason given, my sense was that even within Lubavitch there was a clear acknowledgment of a major downward shift, with some seeing it as a tragic byproduct of exile and others as another painful but necessary step toward redemption.  So, even before I ever seriously considered Chabad Chassidus as a way of life in contemporary times, I felt a sense of mourning for the glory days when the world held such promise and opportunity for the spiritual seeker.
 
PROMISE SACRIFICED
 
In the first week of the month of Nisan, there are numerous historic days of significance.  To list a few; Rosh Chodesh Nisan, the day of the dedication of the Mishkan in the desert; 2 Nisan, the yahrtzeit of the Rebbe Rashab; on 7 Nisan spies were sent by Yehoshua and on 10 Nisan they miraculously crossed the Jordan River.  What these three events have in common is that each represents a major step forward in the fulfillment of the Divine Plan, while also being associated with a qualitative spiritual decline.
 
Although there are differing opinions as to when the original commandment to build a Mishkan took place, Rashi in Chumash follows the view that it was after the sin of the Golden Calf and its purpose was to house Hashem's presence amongst the Jewish People as a sign of, and as a result of, His forgiveness.  However, that forgiveness extended only so far.  The removal of the “spiritual filth” remaining from the sin of the Tree of Knowledge at the giving of the Torah was reversed.  Once it returned the people again became desensitized to G-dliness, and illness and death once again became an integral part of the human experience.  Additionally, they were commanded to remove the “crowns” that they received at Mount Sinai, which signify the ability to perceive and relate to transcendent G-dly revelation.  These tremendous qualitative declines remained in place even after the fire descended unto the altar on Rosh Chodesh Nisan, indicating forgiveness.
 
Even according to Ramban who holds the view that the command to build the Mishkan preceded the giving of the Torah, since its purpose was to contain and house that very revelation even after the event was long over, the actual building and inauguration took place after the sin of the Golden Calf and Moshe's pleas for forgiveness and his receiving the second set of Luchos (usually translated as Tablets).  That being the case, the people were no longer on the level of experiencing the full revelation present in the Mishkan, so in effect, although it brought the Divine Presence to all the people, all the time, its qualitative impact was significantly reduced.
 
***
 
The same seems to hold true regarding the 2nd of Nisan and the passing of the Rebbe Rashab.  The Rebbe explains the significance of this event (see Likkutei Sichos vol. 27 p. 24-28) in the context of the Rebbe Rashab's pronouncement prior to his passing, “I am going to Heaven, and the writings I leave for you.”  The Rebbe says that the definitive contribution of the Rebbe Rashab in the realm of Chassidic teachings is the “bringing down” of the teachings of Chassidus in such a way that, and creating a yeshiva where, they could be studied “like a sugya in Nigleh” (like a topic in Jewish law). 
 
Legal analysis requires one to delve into the underlying reasoning of the law, primarily by means of contrast or comparison, which is driven by questioning and finding seeming contradictions and inconsistencies.  However, in the study of the concealed portion of the Torah, there are strong warnings against raising and considering challenging questions and contradictions, since it deals with the absolute truth of G-d and His reality.  What the Rebbe Rashab accomplished was that one could apply legal type analysis to the mysteries of the divine without compromising his absolute faith and acceptance of the absolute truth.  This allows one to gain a better and more concrete understanding of ideas and topics that are inherently abstruse and abstract, thus also making it more accessible to a wider audience.
 
The statement that “the writings I leave to you,” is an indication that the Rebbe with his “going to Heaven” on the 2nd of Nisan would be empowering each and every Jew to gain greater access to and understanding of an entire dimension of Torah that had been previously beyond their reach.  This is a great step forward and yet appeared to come along with a huge qualitative spiritual drop.  At that time, the Communists were consolidating their power and beginning their push to stamp out religion.  The yeshiva, which had begun fracturing during WWI and the ensuing Bolshevik revolution, became completely splintered with small groups studying in different places.  The Rebbe Rayatz announced that the main call of the hour was to fortify Jewish Education in the face of such religious persecution, and many young students were sent out to teach little children the most basic tenets and skills for Jewish living and learning.  Any idea of limiting enrollment, at any level, to the gifted and/or the extraordinary was jettisoned.  It would seem that as a matter of policy, spiritual quality was being intentionally sacrificed for the need to reach and save as many people as possible.
 
***
 
When Yehoshua led the people into the Promised Land on the 6th of Nisan, this was a great historic leap forward, as they were ostensibly coming to achieve the final purpose for which the world was created.  Their mission was to transform a physical plot of earth into a holy place where the Divine Presence would be revealed to the entire world.  This entailed leaving the purely spiritual environment of Torah study and meditation within the “clouds of glory” in the desert, and becoming involved with mundane earthly activities.  These included wars, home renovations and becoming immersed in the labor intensive fields of agriculture and animal husbandry.  Here again, we seem to see a calculated sacrifice of spiritual quality for the sake of expanding the reach and realm of holiness.  As the Sages summed it up, “the face of Moshe (shone) like the face of the sun, and the face of Yehoshua (shone) like the face of the moon.”
 
***
 
All of the above would seem to indicate that this is the way that it is meant to be.  Every advance in holiness, in “bringing G-d down” to ever lower levels of existence, so that they too are part of the “dwelling for G-d,” requires that those who carry out the work be themselves “lower” and that even they must sacrifice their spiritual ambitions and gifts for the greater good.  That would seem to bolster the view that in the final generation of exile, and especially the final moments of that generation, we must focus on action and reaching out to as many as we can at the calculated cost of personal spiritual growth and quality.
 
PROMISED LAND
 
“And they shall build for Me a sanctum and I will dwell within them.”  The Sages explain the wording of the Divine instruction to build a Mishkan and a Mikdash to mean that “I will dwell within each and every one of them.”  The purpose of constructing a physical “home” for G-d is not simply to provide Him a place where He can reveal His presence within a lowly finite world, but its ultimate purpose is that He wishes to be revealed and present within the heart and mind of each and every Jew.  This would seem to indicate that He is not looking so much for a house as for a home.
 
The same holds true regarding the ultimate design and purpose of creation, “HaKadosh Baruch Hu desired a dwelling in the lower realms.”  His desire to make His dwelling, which is explained in Chassidus to mean the place where He can be His true self uncloaked, in this lowly world, is ultimately for the purpose of dwelling within each and every Jew.  Since it is our mission to provide and construct this dwelling, we need to construct the dwelling in the world and we need to construct the dwelling within ourselves.
 
When it comes to measuring the quality of a “home,” one does not use the same standard of measure as for a house.  A home is more about how comfortable and welcome you feel there than about the size and design features, or the perks and amenities.  In order to make a house for G-d inside a particular heart and mind, they both have to be used to fulfill the mitzvos of the heart and mind to the extent that the person is capable of.  Yet, that is still far from being a place where G-d “feels at home.”  Since these are the seat of the human consciousness they are also where there is the strongest sense and awareness of self.  And as Chassidus explains, the sense of self as an independent existence is antithetical to G-d's Oneness and “I and he cannot dwell together.” 
 
In order to make G-d feel at home inside you, you need to get the “me” part of you out of the way.  This is accomplished by giving oneself over entirely to G-d, including sacrificing one's spiritual goals and ambitions in order to fulfill the Divine Will.  And since the ultimate goal of all spiritual seeking is to become a home for G-d and to become one with G-d, the true quality of that home and that oneness is built more during times of spiritual darkness and sacrifice than during times of spiritual bounty.
 
The Mishkan was not built by people still on the lofty spiritual level they reached at the giving of the Torah.  It was built by repentant sinners who had experienced that huge spiritual drop and were still prepared to give anything so that G-d would dwell amongst them.  Similarly, the advances made in bringing down a grasp and understanding of the finer points of divinity as taught in Chassidus to those of lower spiritual capacity and ability is measured not by how spiritual those people become but how much they are prepared to sacrifice themselves for the higher cause of building a home for G-d.
 
The Jews in the desert had reached the highest levels of insight and understanding of G-d that a person can possibly attain.  They had experienced and witnessed the giving of the Torah, and had spent forty years secluded in a world of Torah study and divine service.  They were told that was not good enough.  They needed to cross the “river,” which represents intellect and understanding and is therefore limited, and enter into the physical land, which is the place where G-d's infinite Essence will ultimately be revealed. 
 
Whatever spiritual heights a person might achieve through building a relationship with G-d “based on reason and knowledge,” he must eventually cross his “river” and put his own understanding and seeking “on the side” to do the physical work of conquering the land and building a home for G-d.  Conversely, one may not become so involved in building the physical structure that he forgets that the real home is “inside each and every one,” and remember that it is necessary to fill your mind and heart with G-d through the study of Chassidus and prayer.
 
ULTIMATE PROMISE
 
That is the message that the Rebbe gave us so many years ago regarding the “final shlichus.”  We need to prepare the world and we need to prepare ourselves by studying the topics of Moshiach and Geula in Torah, “especially in the Torah (maamorim and Likkutei Sichos) of the leader of the generation.”  This is not about sacrificing quality for quantity or for anything else.  It is about attaining the ultimate qualitative achievement that the true spiritual seeker can hope for.  It is about doing everything in our power to bring about, during this month of Nisan, the “I will dwell within them” of the True and Complete Redemption, immediately, NOW!
 
[Corrections for last weeks’ article: 1) It is Chapter 3, not 4, of Shaar HaYichud V’Ha’Emuna that ends with the question; 2) “Chabad demands pnimiyus” is attributed by the Rebbe Rayatz to the Alter Rebbe; 3) The talk took place in 5696, not 5692.]
 

 


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