Separateness That Leads to Closeness

Levi Berger, Bal Harbour, Florida
Concepts in Chassidus / Essays 2019

I grew up in Ottawa, the capital of Canada, in a Chabad home on Shlichus and I always felt very connected with the Rebbeim of Chabad. When I was 12 years old my father hired a tutor to teach me Tanya, the foundational work of Chabad Chassidus. I enjoyed it very much and felt there was something special about it although I was a little young to grasp the depth of Chassidus. Throughout my years in yeshiva I enjoyed Chassidus but felt a little distant from its practical application. Throughout the years since I left yeshiva I turned to different methods of modern psychology to deal and to cope with all the noise of life.

Around a year and a half ago I read a book that really resonated. It was all about experiencing life from your place of essence. The way to do this was to start tracking what you are experiencing, and by doing this, creating a distance between the mental and emotional noise and the essential you, the essential you which was now tracking all the thoughts and emotions. This really opened me up to a new experience, being able to be with the essence of things as they were, the ability to notice my experience as opposed to merging with my thoughts and emotions.

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidic philosophy, says that what you see in others is what is really in yourself, and vice versa, by experiencing yourself through your essence you are able to see the essence in every thing.

Around this same time, I started to learn Chassidus more in depth. As I mentioned earlier I always enjoyed Chassidus and appreciated that it was G-dly wisdom but at the same time failed to realize its practical application. One example of this is in Tanya, in Likutei Amarim, chapters 15-31, it talks about different ways to deal with the Sitra Achra, the other side of holiness. In general I found four different ways that the Alter Rebbe tells us to deal with it. In Chapter 28 of Tanya, the Alter Rebbe, the author of the Tanya, tells us that when we are serving Hashem and a machshava zara, illicit thought, falls into our mind we should completely ignore it as if it doesn’t exist. The reason given is that it is something dirty and if you wrestle with something dirty you become dirty yourself.

In chapter 27, the Alter Rebbe advises that if we start contemplating thoughts from the other side we should push it away with both hands. In chapter 29, the Alter Rebbe advises that if we are struggling with an unholy desire you should arouse your good inclination over your evil inclination and overpower your evil inclination.

In chapters 15, 26, 29, 31, the Alter Rebbe advises that if a person has blockages in the heart which are holding him back from feeling his connection with Hashem he should set aside time to think of his sins and feel bad and become broken-hearted over them. This regret and broken-heartedness will then break this blockage between him and Hashem and after he will be able to rejoice in Hashem with extra joy like the joy of light out of darkness.  I never really was able to relate to this advice, these four levels, moving from non-reaction to consciously being broken hearted. Firstly, it didn’t resonate with what I had seen in modern psychology and secondly because I didn’t fully understand when each of these methods were meant to be used.

I recently went through Tanya in more depth and started seeing it as something more than I have seen it until now. I think that Tanya is explaining the essence of a Jew and what a Jew’s struggle is down in this world. I started to view the advice that the Alter Rebbe gives not as a point blank statement of ‘what needs to be done when…’, but rather how to connect with your essence as a Jew. I think that is the point of Chassidus, to bring out the essence of everything, and when we do that we truly see that the essence of everything is a revelation of G-d.  I see the advice the Alter Rebbe gives us in different situations as ways to stay true to our essence.  In that light, the four methods of dealing with outside noise, with each one increasingly more active then the next, depends on how distant we are from our essence.

To explain this further in depth, I want to introduce a maamer, a chassidic discourse, that I learned which the Rebbe Rashab taught in the year 1900.  The Rebbe Rashab explains that there are three levels in G-dliness before the contraction, which enabled the creation of the world. We will see how these levels correlate to our different relationship with our essence.  The last level before the contraction is the will to rule.  This will to be a ruler is what caused all creation outside of oneself because you can only rule if you have a separate existence. Even before actual existence this will to rule created a “theory” of outside existence within G-d. This level is related to the level of thought. Thought is the last level before actual existence outside of oneself (speech). This leads to the next level within Hashem.

The second level is what caused this ‘will to rule’. This is the pleasure he would have from being a ruler. This level is more connected with Hashem and less connected to outside existence because this level exists as pleasure before the will to make it happen even exists. This is called exaltedness within oneself, in other words, the experience of exaltedness before being exalted over anything. This is the level preceding the original thought of creation and it is called, koach hamachshavah, faculty of thought.   It’s what gives strength to the thought of wanting to be a ruler.

And finally, the first level is the experience of G-d’s knowledge of his essence. Before there is any experience of pleasure, intellect, emotion, thought, or speech, there is pure essence. Just Hashem’s own knowledge of His essence.

Let’s take this back to where we left off in Tanya. I believe that when a person is at a level where he can completely non-react to any outside noise and recognize it for what it is he is deeply connected to his essence. This is what the Alter Rebbe is teaching us in chapter 28 of Tanya, that when you are connected to yourself, your true essence, all you have to know is that nothing can come in the way of who you truly are and you can completely ignore any outside noise and it will not impede on your experience of our essential self.

In chapter 27 when the Alter Rebbe advises to push away contemplative thoughts from the other side with two hands we are already contemplating our thoughts. The term used in Tanya is ‘hirhurei machshavah’, that we are already contemplating thoughts from the other side we are already disconnected slightly from our essence. Nevertheless these thoughts didn’t enter the realm of desire yet. We still have our essence level of desire still intact. I believe what the Alter Rebbe’s advice on this level is to push away these thoughts with two hands and not let it enter our desire.

The Alter Rebbe advises in chapter 29, that one should arouse his yetzer tov, good inclination, over his yetzer hara, evil inclination, when he already desires something from the other side and he is contemplating fulfilling his desire. This can be deduced from what the Alter Rebbe explains is Torah Ohr that when we say yetzer tov or yetzer hara it refers to the heart, the emotions. This shows that on this level the other side exists in our emotions already and it is necessary to arouse our good emotions over our negative emotions. On this level we are even further disconnected from our essence and it is already within essence level of desire and is threatening to manifest into action. This is the level of machshava, thought, the level before action.

When the Alter Rebbe explains in chapter 15, 26, 29, 31 and in other places, about consciously thinking about your wrongdoings to break your heart this is when the negativity or other side has already manifested inside us and is not allowing us to connect with our essence. As the Alter Rebbe explains when you break your heart you break the separateness. This shows that the separateness is already manifest inside you and is not allowing you to connect with your essence. This is the level “after the creation of the worlds” in reference to the three previous levels where it was all pre- creation “pre-separateness” so to speak, where it takes conscious effort to connect with our essence.

Esoterically, these four levels of how close and distant we are to our essence also align to the four worlds of atzilus, briya, yetzira, and asiya.   In the world of atzilus, everything is fully G-dliness.  It is a world of pure essence, with no room for anything outside. When a person is in this state of consciousness he need not be threatened by anything outside. The foreign thoughts appear and remain foreign.  In the world of briya, it is the first possibility for perceived existence outside of G-d.  Because of its close proximity to the world of atzilus it is still mostly good and the negativity doesn’t pose much of a threat. In this state of consciousness all you have to do is push it away.  In the world of yetzira, separateness starts to be formed.  It is a world of half good and half evil. In this state of consciousness it’s our choice to be associated with our essence or not our essence. This also fits in with the words from the Alter Rebbe that “ a person should always arouse his yetzer tov over his yetzer hara”, implying that they are equal on this level.  The world of asiya is a world of separateness. This is where it takes conscious effort to feel our essence. Like the Alter Rebbe’s advice in Tanya to set aside time to contemplate our separateness and this will lead us to closeness.