Chassidus: Not Just a Problem Solver

By Moishe Kaltmann, Brooklyn, NY
Essays 2017

MyLife Essay Contest 2017


As Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai lay on his deathbed, surrounded by his students, he moaned and cried out.[1] “There lies before me two roads, one to heaven and the other to hell… and I do not know on which one they will take me!”

Such a story needs explanation.

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was described as [2] “having never walked four cubits without Torah or tefillin” and he was the leader who had [3]single handedly saved the Jewish people from annihilation during the destruction of the Second Beis Hamikdash. How could it be that such a great sage did not certainly know that he was deserving of the rewards of the World to Come?

The Rebbe explains that ultimately Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was [4]“so busy, so unified and so consumed with fulfilling his shlichus (mission)” that he didn’t pay attention and reflect on which rewards and benefits he would receive for his avodah (service/work).

 Such a message must be applied to our general approach to Judaism and the learning of Chassidus.

A story[5] is told that once the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, heard a heavenly voice call out to him and decree that “ he has no portion in the World to Come” as punishment for his prayers nullifying a divinely pre-ordained decree against a widow and her children. Upon hearing such, he broke out into ecstatic dancing because only then did he recognize that his G-dly service was without predispositions and was not in a way of [6]“serving the Master on the condition of receiving a reward”.

There are innate aspects within Chassidus that can provide us with a wide range of tools to refine and better ourselves. Chassidus can truly help someone to overcome issues and ultimately assist in living towards a meaningful life. The Alter Rebbe describes Chassidus in [7]a parable as being like “the crown jewel” of G-d, which He lowered down into this world to be used as a “medicine” to revive the Jewish people in order to overcome the last “birth pangs of exile”.

However, despite these naturally beneficial aspects of Chassidus, what is truly demanded of us is total bitul (nullification) without any ulterior motives. The Talmud states that eventually one must arrive to the level of acknowledgment that [8]“I was only created to serve my Master.” Chassidus explains that a person’s reality should be geared to the singular goal that he was created solely to serve G-d by [9]“making a dwelling place for Him in the lowest of worlds”.

This essay will discuss how through four steps of 1) Recognition 2) Yegiyah (Toil) which is through Hiskashrus (Connection) 3) Bitul (Nullification) 4) Hafotzah (Spreading out) one can achieve and internalize what Chassidus demands of all of us.

1) Recognition
At first glance, this may sound like a redundant step. But we are found in the times of [10]“the footsteps of Moshiach” which is the “lowest of levels, in the lowest generation…in which there is a multiplied darkness.”

Based on the Chassidus of the Mittler Rebbe a parable[11] has developed amongst chassidim to describe these turbulent times. Once, there was a cruel landlord who would punish families that were indebted to him by incarcerating them within an abandoned well. Every day a minimal amount of food would be lowered down into the well and this continued for many years until there were several generations descending from the original families in the pit. One day, an argument broke out amongst the descendants about whether there was truly a world outside of the pit. One side claimed that the stories told by their parents of the wide world were true and the other claimed that there was nothing more to life than the abyss in which they lived and due to the “world’s nature” food descended daily from the “heavens” to them.

While our age is one of ‘modernity’ and ‘progression’ it is also one of immense spiritual darkness in which it is difficult to see the ‘wide world’ of spirituality. Chassidus describes this period as a [12]“foot” compared to a “head”. Just like how in a body it is difficult to compare the exaltedness of the head to the lowliness of the foot, so too it is with previous generations and us. In Europe and the shtetl there was a greater ‘simplicity to life’, when one could manage with meager possessions and be easily locked away from the world. However our age is one of when[13]”one must have a Hollywood Kitchen…television…and a wall to wall carpet” which distract from the true goal of  “making a dwelling place for G-dresulting in it being more difficult to recognize and connect to spirituality.

Nevertheless, it is necessary to acknowledge that our generation also has an advantage. Only a “foot” and not a “head” can [14]“dip itself in scalding water”. Only our generation is to complete the avodah of bringing Moshiach through kabolos ol (accepting the yoke of Torah and mitzvos). However, [15]a crucial part of being a “leg” is that “it does not contain the intellect of the head”. A ‘leg’ carries out what is demanded of it without questions and certainly does not ‘search’ for its own benefit.


2) Yegiyah through Hiskashrus
At the Rebbe’s first farbrengen (Chasidic gathering) as the leader of the Chabad movement, he described one of the key differences between Chassidus Chabad and other Chasidic sects primarily originating from Poland. Simply, chasidim cannot rely solely on the [16] “faith in a tzadik to give us life” rather, that “we in Chabad need to work ourselves.” If one desires to connect, then work is required and all cannot come from a Rebbe because Chassidus demands, [17]“toil until one finds” and to the extent that it[18]“changes and breaks our tendencies.”

A story to illustrate such, is that [19]once the Alter Rebbe called his grandson the Tzemach Tzedek into his room and informed him that he would like to give him “[matters of] Torah as a gift”. Upon hearing such, the Tzemach Tzedek refused, because Torah is meant to be “received according to our own toil”.

Despite this story demonstrating the importance of one’s personal avodah, the hiskashrus (connection) between a Rebbe and a chosid is much like a partnership, [20]“I am connected to you and you with me.” However, hishkashrus goes even deeper then that to the extent that the love which is between Rebbe and chosid, is [21]greater than that of the bride and groom described in King Solomon’s Shir HaShirim and [22]“transcends time and place”.

Through the relationship between Moshe and Israelites we can also see parallels between the hiskashrus a Rebbe and chosid. During the times of the Exodus it was only through Moshe [23] “the sustainer and supporter of Israel”, that the people were redeemed from their enslavement in Egypt and survived the challenges of the desert. In addition, just as Moshe, the “faithful shepherd” worried for the physical needs of “his flock”, so too was his connection to the people so deep that he cared also for their spiritual needs. It was Moshe, “the intermediary and connecter” between Hashem and the Jewish people who ascended to Mount Sinai and gave us the Torah, which is called by his name, [24] Toras Moshe. Both physically and spiritually the Israelites were bound to Moshe, just as a chosid is bound to a Rebbe.

However, one might ask how we can even conceive of attaining such a level of hiskashrus after Gimmel Tammuz, after which one can no longer physically see the Rebbe?

 It is written about Ya’akov Avinu that the Egyptians [25]“embalmed him” and he was later “buried in the cave of Machpelah” and yet [26]“Yaakov never died”. Chassidus explains[27] that this is due to the fact that if “his descendants are alive, he is alive”. The same is written regarding Moshe Rabbeinu[28] “who continues to stand and lead”. Even more so, Moshe [29] “never left his flock” and was even willing to forgo entering the Land of Israel to stay in the desert with the sinners of the Exodus.

 A story is told[30] that when the Rebbe Maharash passed away on the 13th of Tishrei 1882, that it was only during the festive dancing of Simchas Torah did one of his chasidim, Rav Dovid Tzvi Chein (Radatz) hear of his passing, causing him to immediately faint. Despite all their efforts, none of the other congregants could revive him, until his father, Reb Peretz, whispered into his ear, “chasidim have a tradition that a Rebbe can never truly be departed”. Upon hearing such, the Radatz was revived and continued to dance and celebrate with reinvigorated joy.

The Zohar[31] states that there is a “Moshe in every generation”. If we conduct our avodah in the manner in which it is required of us, hiskashrus is possible now more than ever.


3) Bitul (Nullification)
The Rebbe Rashab in Hemshech of 5666[32] describes the difference in avodah of two types of servants. One type is a “faithful servant” who works out of  “a great love and connection that he has in his heart and soul” to the master. This faithful servant recognizes the greatness of his owner and he performs his duties with happiness and without burden because he “only desires to give the master pleasure”. The other category is “the simple servant” who fulfills his duties because of the “heavy yoke placed upon him”. This servant breaks his nature and is nullified to his duties not because of that “benefit he finds for himself”, but rather due to “the fear and burden that has been placed upon him”. But nonetheless, due to his bitul he causes a “greater satisfaction to the master”.

The avodah of the ‘simple servant’ is an example for the bitul that Chassidus demands of us. If one’s davening (prayer) performing of mitzvos and learning of Torah is with a natural love and is due to the benefit one receives then it is [33]“external” and he is “not called a G-dly servant”. Despite the hardships, Chassidus demands that if a person truly desires to connect to G-dliness then it is through the way of a ‘simple servant’ serving [34]“only to fulfill the will of Hashem” by “ consistently breaking and going higher than his nature” and through that one causes the “greastest nachas”.


4) Spreading out (Hafotzah)
The Rebbe describes [35]the Frierdiker Rebbe as being someone who vehemently opposed the notion of a ‘tzadik in peltz’ (lit- a righteous personal in a fur coat). Such an individual is surrounded and ‘warmed’ by prayer, learning and holiness around him. And yet, he refuses to help another and pays no attention to the fact [36]“that the world is being ruled by a bitter coldness” to spirituality.

In 1967 as a multitude of Arab armies amassed on Israel’s borders, the Rebbe initiated Mivtza Tefillin (the Tefillin Campaign). While launching the movement, the Rebbe expounded[37] upon the verse “the people of the earth shall see that G-d’s name is upon you and they shall stand in fear”, explaining that tefillin was not only for the strengthening of the Israeli soldiers, but also for the “unity that is needed when the army of Israel sets out.”

Upon hearing such, chassidim both young and old, from the Negev to the Galilee, set out and donned tefillin with thousands of Israeli soldiers of which eventually led Israel in its miraculous victory in the Six-Day War. Despite the tremendous success of Mivtza Tefillin, some months later several rabbinic leaders (primarily of Lithuanian origin) began to criticize the halachic permissibility of the campaign. The Rebbe in a farbrengan not only responded thoroughly and meticulously to their ‘halachic claims’[38] but also labeled such critique as an example of a ‘tzadik in peltz’-  “who only think of themselves…yet it is their responsibility to also help another” because only through such actions of “the spreading of Judaism…and the wellsprings [of Chassidus]” will the future Redemption be achieved.

 If one desires to learn, live and be impacted by Chassidus then it must be understood that the [39]name Lubavitch means the ‘town of love’, built on “loving your neighbor the same as yourself”.

Despite recognition, avodah through hiskashrus and bitul, if one does not spread their ‘warmth’ then it can all be in vain.  The notion of a ‘tzadik in peltz’ is the contrary to the message of Chassidus since [40]“the purpose of bitul is to be revealed” and ultimately spread.




Sources and Footnotes

[1] Berochos 28b

[2] Succah 28a

[3] Gittin 56b

[4] Sefer Hamamarim 5711-5712, ‘Lo Siyeh Mishekaylah’ page 233

[5] Toras Menachem, Volume 11, pages 21-22

[6] Pirkei Avos 1:3

[7] Likutei Sichos, Volume 30, page 170

[8] Kiddushin 82a/ Toras Menachem 5752, Volume 1, page 148

[9] Tanya, Chapter 36/ Likkutei Sichos, Volume 15, page 140

[10] Toras Menachem 5751, Volume 4, page 169

[11] Bedarkei Hachassidim, page 38

[12] Sefer Hamamorim 5685, page 262

[13] Toras Menachem, Volume 34, page 155

[14] ibd /Sefer Maamerim, Volume 2, page 52

[15] Likkutei Sichos, Volume 4, page 1168

[16] Toras Menachem, Volume 2, page 213

[17] Megiliah 6b/Toras Menachem, Volume 7, page 307

[18] Tanya Chapters 15/44

[19] Likkutei Sichos, Volume 15, page 81

[20] Sichos Kodesh 5714, Volume 5, page 117

[21] Saying by Reb Eizik Homerler, Likkutei Diburim (Hebrew) Volume 5, page 1084

[22] Hayom Yom, 26th of Shevat

[23] Sefer Melukit, Maamer ‘Ve Atah Tehzaveh,’ Volume 6, page 129

[24] Likkutei Sichos, Volume 4, page 1087

[25] Genesis 50:2/ 50:13

[26] Taanis 5b

[27] Likkutei Sichos, Volume 30, page 227/

[28] Toras Menachem, Volume 3, page 35/ Sotah 13b

[29] Ibd, Volume 11, page 28

[30] Stories by Rabbi Sholom Dovber Avtzon,

[31] Tikkunei Zohar, Tikkun 69, page 112b

[32] Maamer ‘Mikneh Rav’

[33] Tanya Chapter 15

[34] Hemshech 5666, Maamer ‘Ayleh HaDvorim’, page 324

[35] Toras Menachem, Volume 34, page 56, footnote 231

[36] Likkutei Sichos, Volume 3, page 880

[37] Toras Menachem, Volume 49, page 430

[38] Ibd, Volume 51, page 204/222

[39] The Lubavitcher Rabbi’s Memoirs, page 6

[40] Basi LeGani 5737, section 4