Two Shades of Black

By Yisrael Kugel, New York, NY
Essays 2016

MyLife Essay Contest 2016


A Story:

The third Chabad Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek of Lubavitch, had a custom to share a Chassidic discourse specifically with the working class on days they would be spending at the market. Before daybreak on market days, businessmen would gather in the shul to hear the Chassidic discourse given by the Tzemach Tzedek in order to infuse meaning into their otherwise mundane day. On one such occasion, as the Rebbe began the mamer1 , the Rebbe’s Chozer – mental scribe , Reb Shmuel Betzalel, stood between the room’s only candle and the Rebbe’s table. Facing the Rebbe, Reb Shmuel noticed that his shadow was being cast on the Rebbe’s table. He thought to himself, “I should probably move. Why burden the Rebbe with my darkness?” but after further contemplation he decided to stay put. “If the Rebbe is truly a Rebbe, he should be able to elevate even my dark side.” At that moment, as if part of the discourse, the Tzemach Tzedek said in Yiddish, “Ah shuten is choshech, un choshech ken men nit maaleh zain. – A shadow is darkness and darkness cannot be elevated.”


The Lubavitcher Rebbe Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, related this story at a Simchat Torah Farbrengen in 1975.2 The Rebbe was puzzled by this statement by his predecessor, the Tzemach Tzedek: ‟Darkness cannot be elevated.” According to Chassidus Chabad3, the purpose of creation is to make a dwelling place for GD in the most mundane and lowliest of places, to transform the darkness of the world into a place where GD can feel at home. The reason why GD troubles a soul by putting it into a body – a body that has aspirations to things other than GD – is so that the soul can elevate the body. We are charged with a mission, both personally and to the world that we inhabit, to elevate the darkness. What then, the Rebbe asked, did the Tzemach Tzedek mean when he said that darkness cannot be elevated?

The Rebbe continued with a question,“Is darkness a creation? Is it a tangible entity just like any physical creation? Or is it just an absence of light? At the creation of the world GD states,Vayehi or – And there was light.” This implies that darkness is only an absence of light. G-d does not say “like all others. However, there is another verse in Yeshaya that says Vayehi Choshech – And there was dark,” which would imply that it is a creation6 “Yotzer Or uBoreh Choshech, – He forms light and creates darkness,” which seems to imply that the darkness is an actual creation.

So which is it?

Personally, we all can relate to darkness, when our service and commitment to G-d is challenged. Our dark side is made up of both forms of darkness: Darkness that is an absence of light and darkness that is an actual tangible entity. They are both dark, but one is vastly darker than the other.

7The tangible form of darkness represents a passionate desire for things, feelings, and ideas that are not G-dly. When we have a strong desire to behave against the directives of the Torah, when we have strong feelings towards things that are not permissible, or when we are intellectually passionate about an idea that does not jive with the light of Torah – these characterize the influence of ‟tangible darkness.”

The darkness that is a result of an absence of light corresponds to feelings of apathy towards our heavenly mission: When someone has doubts as to what their purpose truly is. Thoughts that point to agnosticism an uncertainty about G-d’s existence. Depression is also a result of this form of darkness. This person finds himself in the shadow of darkness that is the absence of light. There is no passion here at all – just the absence thereof.

Which form of darkness is harder to overcome? Which form of darkness is darker?


While I was running the Chabad summer camp in Fairfax, Virginia, a group of Jews for Jesus missionaries started proselytizing in the area. To combat their influence, a Chabad rabbi invited a wonderful organization called Jews for Judaism to speak about the issue and raise awareness of it among Jewish people in Northern Virginia.

On the night of the event, hundreds of people packed into the JCC auditorium. A representative from Jews for Judaism opened the evening with a question. He asked, “with a raise of hands, how many of you know Jesus’s mother’s name?” Everyone raised their hands. Then he asked, ‟How many of you know the name of Moses’s mother?” At that question, very few people raised their hands.

He continued and said that the worst thing plaguing Judaism today is Jews for nothing, not Jews for Jesus. Jews for Jesus are passionate about something, albeit very misguided; but there is a passion there that can be transformed and redirected. But when there is a Jew who is not passionate about anything spiritual…where will they find the energy to direct towards a proper path?

The Talmud states that if one is praying and a snake slithers by, he should continue with his prayers.8 If, however, a scorpion gets close to him, he should immediately stop praying. 9 Seemingly, they are both equally dangerous. Why continue with the snake and run away from the scorpion?

Prayer is a time of connection with the divine, and our evil inclination tries anything in its power to interrupt that. The venom of a snake is hot, while the bite of a scorpion is cold.10 Spiritually, this represents two different types of conflicts that might transpire while someone is engaged in prayer.

  1. The evil inclination might plague a person with thoughts that are not
    G-dly. For example, it tries to arouse a passionate desire for something worldly.
  2. The other way it operates is to cool off the excitement of the person who is passionately praying.

The Talmud is saying that when a person is praying and is plagued with a passionate thought that is not appropriate during prayer (or anytime for that matter), he should acknowledge the thought for what it is, but then he should do his best to try to transform that energy and elevate it by directing it towards G-d. If someone experiences a feeling of apathy, a cooling of his drive towards G-dliness, since it is just a feeling of despair, there is nothing to elevate. His prayer has become empty, so why continue praying? He must therefore stop his prayers and reassess his devotion to G-d before continuing. The absence of light, although not a perceptible force, is infinitely darker than its passionate counterpart. It is not elevatable.

That is what the Tzemach Tzedek meant when he said that a shadow cannot be elevated. A shadow is a darkness that is “merely” an absence of light. A form of darkness that cannot be elevated.


Interestingly, Amalek – the nation that must be eradicated (not transformed) before the coming of Moshiach – represents “cooling off” the Jewish people when they were most passionate.11 The members of Amalek were the first ones to wage war with the Jewish people just as they finished crossing the Red Sea. The verse states, “Asher karcha baderech – They encountered you as you were on your way.” The Hebrew word “karcha” has the same origin as the Hebrew word for cold “kar,” meaning ‟cold.” Amalek did not throw us off-course through tempting us with the passions of the world. Rather, its people attempted to cool us down from our hot desire to receive the Torah. Amalek has the same numerical value as the word ‟safek” which means ‟doubt.” They did not confront us with passionate worldly views and opinions. Instead, Amalek simply sowed doubt into our holy pursuits. We must destroy Amalek because there is nothing to elevate.

Everyone, in some way, shape, or form, experiences these two shades of darkness. Even the most pious and motivated person has a side of him that feeds him desires that are unholy. What does one do to overcome them? How can one elevate and how can one shine light upon these dark thoughts and feelings? How does one free himself or elevate the thoughts that are holding him back from spiritual connection with G-d and leading a productive Torah life?

Now, when a person finds himself simultaneously passionate for G-dly pursuits and the pleasures of the world, this person is a healthy, “normal” human being.  We will never blot out 12 our worldly impulses, and the sooner we come to terms with that, the sooner we can work on controlling and elevating the strength that is behind the worldly passions. A person experiencing the darkness in this example is a person that has personal struggles but is not controlled by them. He is merely plagued by these impulses. Through avoda – a process of personal transformation – his G-dly passions have the power to elevate and control those struggles.

Spiritual rock-bottom is when a person has no passionate feelings of any kind towards G-d. In 13 this example, a person might technically “perform” all the Mitzvot, but he does so with no excitement at all. While for a brief period living like this is sustainable and in practice he remains an “observant” Jew, in the long run this is a deadly blow. This person ends up experiencing a general, all-consuming erosion to his holy pursuits. He becomes far more disconnected from his Judaism and spirituality than the occasional straying that might take place in the previous example when someone follows through with a baser impulse.

The biggest problem is that there is no G-dly passion at all to generate a comeback. This is like a person in danger, who knows he is in danger, yet he has no energy to run or even crawl away  from it.

So what does one do?

Chassidus does not prescribe a quick-fix solution for freeing oneself from these shades of dark that block one from his spiritual freedom. The Alter Rebbe states emphatically that the way of14 Chassidus is the “long short path.” This path requires more effort, but ultimately gets one to his destination.

Knowing the precise problem is already halfway towards a cure, but here I will propose some of the direction that Chassidus gives to overcoming these two very personal struggles. Both scenarios are dark, and the way to get rid of darkness is through light. The way to elevate, transform, and simultaneously brighten the passionate, “warm” evil inclination is through avoda – self-development. If one has already transgressed, this avoda includes a process of teshuva – returning to our true self.

Avoda is deeply personal and requires specific direction and guidance by a mashpia – a Chassidic mentor. The specifics are beyond the scope of this essay, but, in general, all avoda pnimius (personal transformation) requires the following steps. The Exercise:

The Exercise: Iskafia – Through refraining from indulging in those passions, a person can change his nature and ultimately not be imprisoned by those impulses and desires. Once cannot even attempt to stand above his temptations while he is still actively engaged in them.

The Pill: Vigorous study of Chassidus and passionate prayer – Working on deepening one’s understanding as to what truly is going on will remind a person that he has a mission, and all his external drives are just there for them to overcome. This inspiration will allow him to elevate the energy that is in the physical drives and direct it towards service of G-d.

The Diet: We are social creatures. One must connect with people, be it a mentor or a friend, who will encourage spiritual growth, and not the opposite. This is the importance of connecting with people who are a good influence. Through joining and participating in farbrengens, Chassidic gatherings, a person will better adapt to his “new” lifestyle of overcoming all obstacles. He can use the energy for good.

Just as when a doctor prescribes many items that will change a patient’s general state of health, a person must combine these strategies. Were the patient to adhere to just one and not all of the doctor’s directives, his health would not be ensured. So too must a person fighting his inner darkness take advantage of this three-pronged attack.

What do we do when we are feeling spiritually cold? We are cautioned from entangling 15 ourselves in conversation with these thoughts. Our attention to them gives them their vitality, so ignoring them breaks them.  But how can we find the strength to ignore and forge ahead especially when we are feeling so uninspired?

We should contemplate this idea: While we may not feel connected to G-d, that does not mean that in fact we are not connected to Him. On the contrary, every Jew, no matter how apparently disconnected from his heritage he might feel, possesses a neshama (soul) that is constantly connected to G-d. While we might not be conscious of it, the neshama remains16 always very conscious of this connection. The Ah yid, nit er vil un nit er ken zain upgerisin fun Getlichkeitneshama’s17 only aspiration is to connect with its source, G-d. As the saying goes, “A Jew does not want nor can he in actuality disconnect from G-d.”  The fact that we might not be cognizant of this does not take away from that statement’s inherent truth. Here we are, feeling despondent and uninterested, yet within us there is an extremely passionate force that is experiencing the exact opposite. It is excited and motivated – in fact, it is desperate to connect with its true vitality. Acknowledging this through deep contemplation can help us generate the feelings of what the soul is experiencing.

Another thing that we should contemplate is that when we are disinterested, experiencing a spiritual “coolness,” we might feel that G-d is somehow upset with us. We might fear that He no longer wants to associate with us. This could cause us to feel depressed and therefore unmotivated to lift ourselves out of our complacency. This could not be further from the truth! While G-d wants us to connect to Him through Torah and mitzvos, He is at the same time connected to us on a level that transcends that connection. Just as the soul is constantly connected with G-d even though the body might be dragging it down, G-d is constantly connected to us even though our connection through Torah and mitzvos might be in decline. A parent is deeply connected to his child regardless of how the child behaves, and G-d feels just the same.18

Interestingly, the less people feel about themselves, all the more powerful is the realization that G-d wants to be close to them. They realize that G-d is interested even in such “outcasts.” This is a very powerful and inspiring insight.

We should think deeply about this and realize that we are always, no matter our dire spiritual decline, extremely valuable to G-d. We are never unworthy. This thought process and the internalization of its ideas will generate light into our lives and ultimately transform, elevate and illuminate this word with the coming of Moshiach.19




1 A chozer is someone that is tasked with memorizing and then later transcribing all the teachings of the Rebbe

Sichot Kodesh 1926, Leil Simchat Torah

Basi Ligani 1951

4 Sefer Hamamarim Kuntreisim Beis, page 342 and on  Genesis 1.3

5 Yeshaya 45.4

6 Likutei Sichos volume 1, page 12.

7 Likutei Sichos volume 2, page 374.

8 Brachos 30, 2

9 Likutei Sichos volume 2, page 375

10 Sefer Erchei Kinuyim, Ma’ Nachash and Akrav

11 Likutei Sichos volume 21 pages 97, 192.

12 Sichos Kodesh 1981 chapter 41.  Tanya Chapter 12-15

13 Tanya Chapter 27-29

14 Opening page of the Tanya

15 Tanya Chapter 29

16 Tanya Chapters 2, 18, 19th of Tamuz

17 Hayom Yom, 25

18 Broadly based on Likutei Sichos volume 11 page 1-7, and Likutei Sichos volume 17 page 205-214

19 Tanya Chapter 46