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The Long But Short Of It

For the mitzvah which I command you this day… is something that is very close to you, in your mouth, in your heart, that you may do it… (30:11-14)

The Talmud1 relates:

Said Rabbi Yehoshua the son of Chanania: "Once a child got the better of me."

"I was travelling, and I met with a child at a crossroads. I asked him, 'which way to the city?' and he answered: 'This way is short and long, and this way is long and short.'

"I took the 'short and long' way. I soon reached the city but found my approach obstructed by gardens and orchards. So I retraced my steps and said to the child: 'My son, did you not tell me that this is the short way?' Answered the child: 'Did I not tell you that it is also long?' "

Also in life there is a 'short but long' way and a 'long but short' way.

In his Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi sets down the fundamentals of the Chabad-chassidic approach to life. On the cover page of this 'bible of chassidism' he defines his work as follows:

"Based on the verse, 'For it [the Torah and its precepts] is something that is very close to you, in your mouth, in your heart, that you may do it' - to explain, with the help of G-d, how it is indeed exceedingly close, in a long and short way."

The Torah and its mitzvos are the Creator's blueprint for creation, detailing the exact manner in which He meant life to be lived and His purpose in creation to be fulfilled. But is a life that is ordered utterly by Torah indeed feasible? Can the ordinary Everyman realistically be expected to conduct his every act, word and thought in accordance with the Torah's most demanding directives?

The Torah itself is quite clear on the matter: "For the mitzvah which I command you this day, it is not beyond you nor is it remote from you. It is not in heaven… nor is it across the sea… Rather, it is something that is very close to you, in your mouth, in your heart, that you may do it." Torah is not an abstract ideal, a point of reference to strive toward, but a practical and attainable goal to achieve.

But how? In the Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman develops the chabad approach, a 'whole person' approach to life in which the mind and intellect play the leading and pivotal role. First, a person must study, comprehend and meditate upon the quintessential truths of existence: the all-transcendent, all-embracing, all-pervading reality of G-d; the root and essence of the soul and its intrinsic bond with its Creator; man's mission in life, and the resources and challenges - both external and internal - that are extended to him to fulfill it. Since these concepts are extremely subtle and abstract, one must toil "a toil of the soul and a toil of the flesh" to grasp them and relate to them. Then, because of the innate superiority of the mind over heart that the Creator has imbued in human nature, the understanding and assimilation of these G-dly concepts will unilaterally compel the development of the appropriate emotions in the heart: the love and awe of G-d. Love for G-d is the unquenchable desire to cleave to Him and be unified with His essence; awe of G-d brings is the utter abhorrence toward anything which violates His will and thus erects barriers between Him and man. Finally, when a person has so oriented his mind and transformed his heart, his observance of the Torah's precepts becomes a given. He craves the fulfillment of the mitzvoswith every fiber of his being since they are the bridge between him and G-d, the means, and only means, by which he can connect to his Creator. And any transgression of G-d's will, no matter how attractive to his material nature, is literally revolting to him, since it disrupts his relationship with G-d and runs contrary to his own true self.

But a person may argue: Why spend a lifetime pursuing this demanding regimen of mind and heart? Why must I toil to understand and feel? Why not take the direct approach - open the books and follow instructions? I'm a simple Jew, he may maintain, and the attainment of such lofty spiritual states as "comprehension of the Divine", "love of G-d", and "awe of G-d" are way beyond my depth. I know the truth, I know what G-d wants of me - the Torah spells out the do's and don'ts of life quite clearly. I have a material and egocentric nature? An inborn inclination towards evil and self-destructive desires? I'll control them. My faith, determination, and willpower will do the job.

This, however, is the short but long way. As the most direct and simple line between two points, it is misleadingly the surest way to town; but in truth, the direct approach is a dead end. As with the route which Rabbi Yehoshua first chose, it seems to lead straight to the city - only somehow it never quite makes it. For it is a path of never-ending struggle, the scene of perpetual duel between the self-oriented animal soul of man and his upward-reaching G-dly soul.True, man has been given free choice and furnished with the necessary fortitude and spiritual staying power to meet his every moral challenge; but the possibility of failure, G-d forbid, also exists. No matter how many times he will triumph, tomorrow will bring yet another test. On the short and long road one may win battle after battle, but there is never a decisive victory in the war of life.

On the other hand, the long but short way is winding, steep, tedious, and long as life itself. It is full of ups and downs, setbacks and frustrations. It demands every ounce of intellectual and emotional stamina the human being can muster. But it is a road the leads, steadily and surely, to the aspired-to destination. When one doesfinally acquire an aptitude and intellectual taste for the G-dly, when one doesdevelop a desire for good and abhorrence for evil, the war has been won. The person has transformed himself into someone whose every thought, deed and act is naturallyattuned to his quintessential self and purpose in life.


1. Talmud, Eruvin 53b.
2. A classic example of the 'short but long way' can be seen in the story Who's Boss recounted on page --- of this volume. Contrast this with the 'long but short' life described in Catch-30 on page ----.It is important to note that the Chabad-chassidic approach to life does not preclude the short but long way - obviously, doing good and resisting evil cannot wait until the last curve in the long but short road has been turned. Unlike the metaphorical traveler through physical space, who can only follow a single road at a time, our spiritual journey calls for us to follow both routes simultaneously. In the journey of life, the choice at the crossroads is not an either/ or decision but a question of priority and emphasis.



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