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Living with Moshiach for Heaven's Sake
by Rabbi Zvi Homnick


I can vividly recall sitting in my study sometime in the early nineties and going through the talks of the Rebbe Rashab recorded in Toras Sholom, when I encountered the talk where the Rebbe Rashab says, “Only a Misnaged would say that he is acting purely l'sheim shomayim (lit. for Heaven's name).”  Having grown up in a Misnagdic environment, I could readily attest to the veracity of that statement except for the “only” part, as I had no real way of knowing whether other groups did or did not claim purity of motive with any kind of regularity.

In fact, I had long puzzled over this phenomenon well before reading what the Rebbe Rashab had to say on the topic.  That is because the need for purity of motive in the study of Torah and the performance of Mitzvos was a central issue of debate in the early years of the Chassidic movement, with the Misnagdim taking the more lenient approach and legitimating the service of G-d based on motives of reward and punishment.

Reb Chaim of Volozhin, although having adopted a more measured approach in terms of his opposition to Chassidus than his mentor, the Vilna Gaon, was the only respected leader of his time that attempted to codify the theological basis for the Misnagdic point of view in his Nefesh HaChayim, beyond the tired arguments against change or the libelous accusations fabricated from whole cloth.  In that work, he adopts the position that since most people are incapable of achieving the fullest degree of selflessness in the service of G-d, it is actually preferable to serve G-d for the sake of reward than to focus one's energies on trying to “cleave to G-d” so as to transcend any personal ulterior motives outside of love for G-d.

According to R’ Chaim, the closest one can likely get to the idea of lishma in Torah study is to make the focus on the desire to know and properly understand what one is learning one's primary conscious intention.  The inability to reach beyond that for the overwhelming majority of people is such a foregone conclusion that to take precious time away from learning in order to work on one's inner motives and intentions would fall under the category of bittul Torah (wasting time from Torah study).  This position was hardly anything new, and in fact almost mirrors that of the RaMChaL in his classic work Mesilas Yesharim, where he actively discourages most people from even attempting to reach the level of “Chassid,” one who serves G-d for His sake, warning that it is not only unattainable for the majority of people but can also be dangerous since it is very easy to fool oneself and stray into the arena of self-delusion.

Stop!  Okay, although I could go on for many pages, since this is not meant to be a scholarly treatise, let it just suffice to say that the Chassidic view is, as the Rebbe Rayatz puts it in Kuntres Toras HaChassidus, “Our teacher, the Baal Shem Tov, opened the pipeline of ability in the service of Hashem, with instruction and guidance that each and every Jew can serve G-d with love and fear.”  Thus, the position of the Chassidic movement was based not only on the views of almost every one of the Rishonim (early Talmudic commentaries and legal codifiers) and the overwhelming body of Kabbalistic writings (see Yesod HaAvoda, Slonim), but also on the fact that the “diminishing of the generations” argument had no standing in the face of the new revelation of Chassidus and the “opening of the pipeline” by the Baal Shem Tov.

In light of all of the above, I found it more than passing strange the frequency with which I heard declarations of acting purely for the sake of Heaven from self-identifying Misnagdim, great and small. Although this question had bothered me on and off over the years, and even more so after I became more knowledgeable on the subject, when I encountered the same observation from the Rebbe Rashab, I felt that I had to get to the bottom of the matter.


The Mishna at the end of Tractate Taanis (4:8, Talmud Bavli 26b) says, “...that there were no celebratory holidays for the Jewish people like the fifteenth day of Av and Yom Kippur when the daughters of Jerusalem would go out and dance in circles in the vineyards...”  The Mishna cites what the girls would say so that the young single men would choose them, but the Gemara (31a) goes into more detail, “The beautiful amongst them, what would they say?  Set your eyes on beauty, because [as the Sages say] a woman is only for beauty.  Those of good lineage amongst them, what would they say?  Set your eyes upon family, because [as the Sages say] a woman is only for children.  The homely amongst them, what would they say?  Acquire your purchase for the sake of Heaven, as long as you crown me with golden jewelry.”

Obviously, there is much that needs explaining regarding this account of the twice yearly courtship expo that took place back in the Temple era, but listing all the questions that come to mind (although essential for training the mind in analytical thinking) might induce tedium in those that only signed on for a brief article.  So let's take a look at what the Mishna there cites as the Biblical allusion to this practice.

The verse is from Shir HaShirim (3:11) and begins with the words, “Tze'ena U're'ena,” “go out and see.”  The Chassidic interpretation of this expression, quoted in different versions in the name of the Alter Rebbe, is that in order for a soul that has been sent down to inhabit a human body (in the verse; Bnos Yerushalayim) to “see G-dliness,” it must first “go out” of “self” along with the constraints of the body and animal soul.

“Going out” of one's self can be understood on many different levels, and in the broadest sense of the term is a lifelong labor-intensive process.  However, on its most simple level, Chassidim have always understood this to mean training the mind to think about loftier, G-dly ideas, and not about me and my thoughts, feelings and desires, etc.  For the lofty souls of the Tzaddikim, simply focusing their thoughts and feelings towards G-d, especially as He is revealed in Chassidus, is enough for them to become enraptured by the transcendent beauty and “glory of the King,” and completely lose themselves in “cleaving to G-d.”

However, for those who are more earthbound by their less refined physicality, the first step in this direction is alluded to in the first Mitzva in the Torah, to be fruitful and multiply through reproduction of the species, as the early Chassidim would say, “The first Mitzva is to make another Jew.”  By investing my time and energy into putting another person's material needs and spiritual growth and development before my own, I am able to transcend my own self-centered orientation and connect to G-d and G-dliness.

Then there are those whose inability to “see G-dliness” is not only due to the concealment of this world and of the animal soul and body, but is also due to the fact that “your sins are separating between you and your G-d.”  For such an individual (as most of us are), it is not enough to study Chassidus and meditate on G-d and G-dliness, nor to channel his energies and thoughts into doing for others and putting them before himself, there has to be teshuva – repentance.  True penitence can only come through the realization accompanied by deep regret that the source of all my iniquities is the focus on self. Nobody ever committed a sin without first thinking, “I want,” “I need,” I think,” “I feel,” and so on.

Through repentance, that same person who was so steeped in self-interest and self-gratification that he could actually defy, wittingly or unwittingly, a direct commandment from G-d Himself, becomes so disgusted with and distrustful of his own thoughts and desires that all he wants is to “go out” of himself, and this actually enables him to do so in ways that his spiritual betters cannot.

For Chassidim the first step in spiritual growth and development in the service of G-d has always been “stop thinking about 'me.'”  In Judaism, and especially in Chassidic teachings, a big part of the spiritual significance of marriage is that it empowers and enables one to grow beyond and transcend the pettiness and self-absorption of the child who has all his material and emotional needs (hopefully) provided for by his parents, to start thinking about others and their needs and to stop thinking about “me.”

And the aforementioned account in the Mishna and Gemara lays out the spiritual steps that each type of person needs to take to “go out and see” G-d on “the day of His marriage [Yom Kippur – the day of the giving of the Second Tablets] and the day of His rejoicing [the rebuilding of the Temple in the future time, represented by the 15th of Av, the day of the full moon following the destruction].”  And it also emphasizes that the ultimate celebration of “going out and seeing” is associated with the approach of the Baal Teshuva – the penitent – as these celebration take place on days associated with forgiveness of sins and rebuilding that which was destroyed.


Theoretical theological disputes have practical real life implications.  The Chassid knows that every thought that he has that begins with “I” is suspect and should either be rejected out of hand or at the very least avoided to the extent possible.  A Chassid who “works on himself” (as opposed to one in name or affiliation only) will be deeply ashamed and broken by such thoughts, feelings and desires, and will work tirelessly to focus his thoughts “Heavenward.” The notion of claiming for himself absolute purity of motive, even as he totally believes that of his Rebbe, is so completely beyond the pale that he is shocked in disbelief or overcome with hilarity upon discovering that there actually are people who make such claims regarding themselves, let alone people who don't learn and even oppose the teachings of Chassidus.

The Misnaged, on the other hand, has no option but to continue thinking about himself, as he has been told that according to Torah he is doomed to do so.  The best he can hope for is to immerse himself in his learning to the extent that he is so caught up in the subject matter that he forgets himself for a brief moment, but even then he will quickly come back to “I say,” “I think,” “I hold.”  When a person has no means to step outside of himself and get any kind of objective sense of who he is and where he is holding from a higher perspective, it is almost inevitable that he will delude himself, and that is why, “Only a Misnaged would say that he is acting purely l'sheim shomayim.”

And yet, in our generation, the Rebbe speaks to us in terms of the highest levels of selflessness, acting only for the sake of bringing about the divine revelation of G-d Himself and fulfilling His desire for a dwelling place in this world, to the extent that one feels that his entire existence from the moment he awakens to his last waking moment of the day is only “to bring to the days [day = revelation] of Moshiach.”  How do we reconcile that with a two-hundred-plus-year-old tradition that has trained us to be suspect of our personal motives and to focus on “go out and see?”

The answer is that starting with the Baal Shem Tov, Chassidus has not been simply about a different tactical approach, but the idea that the Rebbe of each generation gives the people of his generation the ability to “go out” of the constraints and challenges of that time and “to see” and acquire the spiritual revelations and powers that he/we drew down through the very “pipeline” opened by the Baal Shem Tov. And starting with the Baal Shem Tov, it has always been about tapping into the divine energies shining forth from the impending Redemption and using them to make the final Redemption a reality.

It is exactly in the Chassidic tradition of suspecting one's own motives in the face of G-dly truth that compels us to stop trying to analyze our own motives and those of others, and focus on fulfilling the Rebbe's “instruction and guidance” in how to “go out” and what we need “to see.”  This must be done with the complete confidence and belief that we have been given the strengths and abilities and that Hashem Himself is waiting impatiently for us to bring about the rebuilding of the Holy Temple with the coming of Moshiach, immediately, NOW!



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