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Redemption Overcoming Spiritual Fears
by Rabbi Zvi Homnick
FEAR OF EXERTION
 
I have a theory.  You, dear reader, may think it a far-out, off-the-wall, crackpot theory, and nothing more than a projection of my own inadequacies, but I remain convinced that it is correct.  Some of those who disagree may react with incredulity and/or derision, from mild (snort, eye roll) to severe (“this guy is nuts”), and some with annoyance and/or ire, from mild (snort, eye pop) to severe (“this guy is dangerous”).  Whatever your initial response, I only ask that you give it some serious consideration.
 
In my journey from being an outsider looking in to trying to become an insider looking in, I was able to resolve many earlier questions and criticisms that make the world of Lubavitch and Chassidus seem foreign to the rest of observant Jewry.  However, there is another set of questions and criticisms that focus not on the differences between Lubavitch and other streams of Jewish practice, but on the differences between modern day Lubavitch and earlier generations.  Some raise these issues only to provide another excuse to attack, but then there are those who are genuinely interested in Chassidus and feel that the latter day mode of Lubavitch practice is anathema to the true spiritual seeker.
 
These questions and criticisms focus primarily on what is seen as a trend away from spirituality in general, and those avenues of spiritual labor and growth unique to Chabad Chassidus.  Areas such as the pursuit of love and fear of G-d, contemplating and meditating at length upon G-dly ideas and concepts, prayer at length and with great inner exertion, character refinement as well as true love for another Jew, are only some of those seen as being neglected and relegated to the annals of history. 
 
I have encountered many people who despite not having satisfactorily resolved these matters, felt drawn to the truth of Chassidus and the greatness of the Rebbe, and yet, even many years after joining the club, still remain disappointed and long for the days of yore.  Even amongst the born and bred, there are many who feel somehow cheated by history, despite the knowledge that we are in the most amazing time in history and have been granted the peerless privilege of playing a pivotal role in the transition from exile to redemption.
 
It is necessary to point out that there are many who argue that this trend is due to a premeditated shift of focus from the spiritual to the realm of action, and as such, is actually a progressive state of affairs reflecting the Chassidic concept that those on the lowest level of spirituality are actually closer to the Divine Essence that manifests specifically in the physical.  Being that the Divine Essence is infinitely removed from even the loftiest spiritual manifestation of G-d, and that the purpose of creation is to reveal the Divine Essence in this physical world through the physical actions of Mitzvos, one must be prepared to forgo all spiritual ambitions to achieve this.  Thus, the call of shlichus in our generation demands of us that we sacrifice those labor intensive and time consuming spiritual pursuits in favor of fulfilling the ultimate “Divine Intent.”
 
Although, there are many teachings of the Rebbe that can be seen as supporting this view, there is only one itty-bitty teensy-weensy problem – the Rebbe himself says that this is absolutely false.  When asked if it was true that the Rebbe did not emphasize “exertion in prayer” because it no longer held a place of prominence in our generation, the Rebbe at the next farbrengen (Ki Sisa 5740-Parashas Parah) rejected that notion outright and cited the verse in which Pharaoh scolds the Jews, “Loafers, you are loafers” and that is why the people are trying to get out of doing the work.  This response of the Rebbe would seem to indicate that the determinative issue influencing ideological inertia is indolence, or in just plain English, folks is just plain lazy.
 
Yes, I know, dear reader, that I have not been forthcoming with my theory just yet, and I beg your forbearance for just a bit longer (plus you gotta love the buildup).
 
FEAR OF HEIGHTS
 
As part of our preparations for the upcoming Pesach holiday, we read Parashas Parah (the Torah portion of the “red heifer”), which describes the ritual whereby one could be cleansed from the impurity of contact with the dead, the week prior to blessing the new month of Adar.  When the Holy Temple stood in Yerushalayim, those who were ritually impure needed to begin purifying themselves for the Pesach offering.  In our times, the preparations are purely spiritual.
 
The Alter Rebbe in Likkutei Torah explains the spiritual aspect of the commandment of the red heifer as the ability to synthesize “ratzo” and “shuv.”  In this context, “ratzo” (to run) is the spiritual inspiration to “go out” of the trappings of the physical body and physical world and connect to G-d and G-dliness.  “Shuv” (to return) is the recognition of the soul that it was sent down here for a purpose and that being the case, “going out” is not an option, and the soul must return to the moorings of the physical body and physical world to fulfill G-d's Will through Torah and Mitzvos. 
 
Certain commandments such as those of love and fear, faith and prayer, require that we try to shed that which anchors us to the physical and aim for the spiritual heights, whereas most other commandments are about actualizing the Divine Will in the tangible and material world.  Each one alone represents a danger associated with death.  Over-involvement in the physical world, even if begun with good intentions, can lead to promoting the physical over the spiritual, which is exactly what death is – when physicality reigns supreme.  Chasing after spiritual heights beyond one's capacity to “bring it down” presents the danger of the soul exiting the body, as the Ohr HaChayim explains regarding the deaths of Aharon's sons, Nadav and Avihu.  Therefore, we have the Mitzva of the red heifer to empower us to strike a working balance.
 
The above is an oversimplified condensation of many lengthy and detailed discourses on a range of deep and complex issues, but for the purposes of our discussion the message is that you must seek to scale spiritual heights, you can succeed in scaling those spiritual heights, and oh, by the way, it can be pretty dangerous up there so you better make sure that you have struck the perfect balance and have a valid return ticket back to terra firma and corpus vitalis. 
 
In addition to the story of Nadav and Avihu, we have the classic tale in the Talmud (Chagiga 14b) of the “four who entered the Pardes.”  Of the four, one died, one went crazy, one became an apostate, and only Rabi Akiva “entered in peace and exited in peace.”  Along those lines, there are horror stories and warnings from the early Kabbalists, as well as many cautionary tales and admonitions from Chassidic tradition.  In fact, Chabad Chassidus has its own rich tradition of berating and humiliating those who tried to reach for the “heights” as this was seen as showing a lack of self-nullification. 
 
Only when someone had truly demonstrated that his drive for spiritual growth was genuinely motivated by subservience to the Divine Will rather than personal ambition, was he accorded any degree of acceptance (with the occasional verbal “cold shower” just to keep him in his place).  For the true seeker, all of this information is extremely useful in guiding him so that he avoids any pitfalls or minefields along the way.  But what about the “not so sure” seeker?  Some of this stuff can scare anybody, if not to death, at least to paralysis.
 
FEAR OF FAILURE
 
Laziness, or at least situational laziness, can have many different underlying causes.  For example, in Tanya ch. 26, the Alter Rebbe speaks of laziness and lethargy caused by depression and/or emotional desensitization or worry and sadness.  Shlomo HaMelech in Mishlei addresses different aspects of the indolent slacker, including his proclivity for making excuses.  Some of the excuses he suggests seem quite silly, such as, “There is a lion outside, I will be killed in the streets.”  Clearly, there is no real cause for fear, since everybody else seems to be managing just fine.  But what if everyone was really convinced that there was a lion out there?  Could you blame the fellow who just wants to roll over in bed and skip a day's work, when the workaholic is just as paralyzed into inaction as he is?
 
And that is where (part one of) my theory comes in (the more controversial conclusion of this theory will appear in the next installment).  I am convinced that there are hundreds, probably thousands of Lubavitcher Chassidim and “friends” of Lubavitch (plus untold millions not yet aware), men and women, young and old, who would love to know how to navigate the pathways of spiritual service and would be prepared to exert themselves prodigiously in that service.  However, they are simply scared.  They are afraid to go it alone.  They would gladly confront their fears of working too hard, of flying too high or landing too hard, shattering the vessels and cracking up, if they felt that there was a support system behind them.  Fear, more than any other emotion, can be completely paralyzing and debilitating.  It is also one of the hardest emotions for some to admit to.  So, we make up all kinds of philosophical rationalizations for why it is not for us.
 
Repeatedly, throughout a vast number of sichos and maamarim, the Rebbe prods, urges, exhorts and even at times tries to browbeat us into stretching beyond our spiritual fears and inhibitions, promising us that we have been given the tools and the necessary soul powers to “enter in peace and exit in peace.”  For example, there is the well-known sicha regarding the Purim story brought in the Talmud about how Rabba and Reb Zeira became extremely intoxicated and “Rabba stood and shechted Reb Zeira.”  The next day, when he saw that Reb Zeira was no longer among the living, “he asked for [divine] mercy and resurrected him.”  The Rebbe explains this in terms of Rabba exposing Reb Zeira to such a lofty level of the secrets of the Torah [alluded to by wine] that he experienced Kelos HaNefesh (lit. expiry of the soul – i.e. due to great spiritual longing).
 
The Rebbe concludes that sicha (Likkutei Sichos vol. 31, 2nd sicha Purim) by saying that the lesson from the obligation cited in the Code of Jewish Law to become inebriated to the point of not knowing, is “to study the secrets of the Torah in a way of obsessive love until he reaches a state of 'drunkenness' and the nullification of his own existence.  This is because on Purim, the power is given to each and every Jew, each with his own 'b'chol me'odecha' (ability to love G-d beyond the personal limits of one's individual spiritual makeup) according to his measure, to carry out such an 'imbibing' and attain such an attachment (d'veikus) to the secrets of the Torah that negate his very being. [This] without any worry  that from such an avoda, he will come to conduct himself in a manner of seclusion and reclusiveness from the world...but on the contrary...it will increase his chayus in the service of Hashem throughout the entire year...'he will enter in peace and exit in peace.'”  (See also conclusion of earlier edited longer version of this sicha – Likkutei Sichos vol. 27 – appendices p. 267-276).
 
The point is that we have the powers and the means to scale and reach unbelievable spiritual heights and we are told how each area of spiritual growth is an essential ingredient in preparing ourselves and the world for redemption.  So, after all the excuses and explanations, we still need to do it.  We need to take those powers that we have from Purim and from the Parah Aduma to experience and integrate the highest spiritual attainments to prepare for the ultimate revelations of redemption in the month of Nisan.  And in the spirit of Ahavas Yisrael expressed on Purim by sharing with friends and looking out for the poor, and expressed in the administering of the ashes of the red heifer by the Kohein becoming ritually impure even as he cleanses his spiritually inferior fellow Jew, we should join together in helping and supporting each other in overcoming our fears and attendant laziness as relates to spiritual growth.
 
In the merit of even the smallest effort on the part of any individual Jew to “go out” of him/herself and in turn, “bring G-d down to earth,” may we all “exit in peace” this final interminable exile and “enter in peace” into the True and Complete Redemption, immediately, NOW!
 

 


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