The Educational Virtues of Learning Chassidus

- Rabbi Yaakov Winner, Mashpia -

With the advent of Rabbi Yisroel Baal Shem Tov (literally, “Master of the Good Name”; 1698-1760), founder of the Chassidic movement, began the process of disseminating P'nimius HaTorah (the inner or esoteric part of Torah) to all Jews, which had until then been confined to select individuals in each generation. This process was continued by the Baal Shem Tov's disciples, and in particular by the founder of the Chabad school of Chassidic thought, the Alter Rebbe (literally, “the Old Rebbe”; 1745-1813) and his successors.

Chabad is an acronym for Chochmah, Binah and Daas – wisdom, comprehension, knowledge – the three stages of a complete intellectual process. No wonder, then, that Chabad-Lubavitch, widely acknowledged as the most intellectual branch of the Chassidic movement, stresses the importance of engaging the intellect in serving Hashem, and that the study of P'nimius HaTorah through Chassidus is an integral part of the curriculum in the Tomchei Temimim network of Chabad-Lubavitch Yeshivos, as founded in 1897 by the Rebbe Rashab.

Over the past two hundred years, the seven Chabad Rebbes have written prolifically on Chassidus. To date, over 500 volumes of Chabad Chassidus have been published. In our own time, the edited discourses of the Lubavitcher Rebbe (known as Likutei Sichos) numbers 39 volumes.

In this short transcript, it is impossible to comprehensively explain the vast and elaborate system of thought that Chabad Chassidus represents. Instead, a few points on the positive impact of learning Chassidus:

1. THE ESSENCE OF JEWISH LEARNING

The objective of a Yeshivah education in general, is to enable each student to become self-sufficient in learning independently. It goes without saying then, that part of the goal is for each student to achieve self-sufficiency in learning and internalizing P'nimius HaTorah. In fact, a Halachic ruling in the Alter Rebbe's Shulchan Aruch (code of Jewish law) requires us to learn P'nimius HaTorah, in order to fulfill the Mitzvah (commandment) of learning the entire Torah. Similarly, the Rambam rules that the obligation of learning extends to all facets of Torah.

Of course, Torah, the whole of Torah, is the ultimate truth and blueprint of the whole of creation. Nevertheless, if the hallmark of youth is thirst for the innermost of explanations, then P'nimius HaTorah, and especially Chabad Chassidus - which aims to uncover and explain the spiritual core behind material phenomena - will quench that thirst. For, the most basic definition of P'nimius HaTorah is the "Inner Dimension of Torah"; i.e. the part of Torah which cuts through layers of interpretation until it reaches the very core of each and every detail.

2. TORAH AND THE GIVER OF THE TORAH

“Many studied Torah and forgot the Giver of the Torah;” so wrote the seventeenth century Torah giant, the Maharal of Prague. (See introduction to “Tiferes Yisroel”, and also Bach to Orach Chaim, chapter 47.) He distressed over those who learned Torah; those who achieved mastery in Torah – all without the Torah mastering them.

A student of Chassidus learns how the Torah, as manifested within all planes, from the highest and most spiritual of the “Four Worlds” down to our very own materialistic world, is the will and wisdom of Hashem. He discovers that he, a Neshomo (soul) enclothed within a body, sitting and learning Torah selflessly, becomes intimately united with the will and wisdom of Hashem. The student grasps that this unification is the whole point of learning Torah – to connect with Hashem, to remember and feel the Giver of the Torah. Thus, the student is well protected against exploiting the Torah as an arena for intellectual prowess; he is well fortified against forgetting the Giver of the Torah.

3. KNOWING HASHEM

“Know the G‑d of your fathers, and serve Him with a whole heart” (Divrei Hayomim I 28:9). The implication: It is possible, at least to a degree, to know Hashem, and that this knowledge is a prerequisite to serving Him with “a whole heart".

The Rambam, at the beginning of his magnum opus, Yad Hachazoko, writes: “The foundation of foundations and pillar of wisdoms, is the knowledge that there is a Primordial Being, Who brings into being all existence; all that exist in heaven and earth and between them, exist only by virtue of His existence". The Rambam maintains further: “This knowledge is the positive commandment included in the first words of the Ten Commandments ‘I am the L-rd your G‑d.’”

The words “I am the L-rd your G‑d” embody the duty of faith. Yet, even here, the Rambam uses the term “knowledge”. Thus, the Rambam espouses an obligation to know Hashem as far as intellectually possibly, and only beyond that, does one ascend with faith.

When a student learns Chassidus, he learns about the Sefiros (divine attributes) of Hashem; about the creation of the universe ex-nihilo; about Hashem’s simultaneous immanence and transcendence of the whole of creation; about the nature and attributes of the Neshomo; about the special relationship between Hashem and the Jew – as an individual, as well as a nation. The student learns about a host of other topics in P'nimius HaTorah, which is impossible to enumerate here exhaustibly. But in short, the student learns about Hashem – to the fullest extent enjoined by the above-mentioned verse in Divrei Hayomim, and by the Rambam.

Furthermore, in Chabad terminology, “Daas”, or knowledge, is more than just knowing something in the ordinary sense of the term. Daas is knowledge which is conclusive; one feels and recognizes its truth. Daas is knowing something so intimately that one becomes completely united with the subject. Daas leads to personal commitment; it leads to “serve Him with a whole heart”, with love of Hashem and fear of Hashem.

In effect, the verse “know the G‑d of your fathers and serve Him with a whole heart” instructs us to use both mind and heart, so that the whole person serves Hashem. The intellect guides and controls the emotions and is simultaneously enlivened by them, thereby yielding clearly positive results in a person's life.

By knowing Hashem through learning P'nimius HaTorah, one can attain that which the Rebbe Rashab described as a P'nimi. What is a P'nimi? A P'nimi is one who is totally involved in what he is doing, be it learning, davening, doing a Mizvah, or helping a fellow Jew. With Da'as, everything he does in imbued with sincerity, earnestness and wholeheartedness – because he is immersed and subservient to the subject matter at hand.

4. CHANGING ONE’S NATURE

The Tzemach Tzedek, the third Lubavitcher Rebbe (1789-1866) once asked his grandfather, the Alter Rebbe, to explain the purpose of Chassidus. The Alter Rebbe replied that the purpose of Chassidus is to change the nature of one's personal traits. The Alter Rebbe was not referring to the requisite task of controlling and supplanting one’s undesirable character traits, such as envy, anger and gross self-indulgence. Rather, he meant that even one’s desirable character traits must be remolded. They ought not evolve from one’s preoccupation with self-perfection; sublime egotism ought not be the motivating force. Rather, one does what is right only because that is the will of Hashem, and one’s character traits are developed on that foundation.

In other words, following our nature – even when good – is not the summit of achievement. The summit of achievement is to weigh and refine each and every character trait – through the study and practice of P'nimius HaTorah – so that our own inner core, our own P'nimius, is reconstructed. The result is that each and every one of our character traits and emotions is used to serve Hashem, and not our own ego. We become multi-faceted individuals who have realized their potential, for, like a diamond, the gem of the soul shines most brilliantly when it is multi-faceted.

This is the Chassidic concept of going out of Egypt – “Yetzias Mitzraim”. Egypt, “Mitzraim”, is closely related to the Hebrew word “Meitzarim”, straits or limitations. Going out of Egypt means surpassing the static limitations, the Meitzarim, of our own natures, and instead becoming free and enlivened people who continually ascend in our service of Hashem.

Can we really change so much? Ultimately, are we not all prisoners of our own personalities? Chassidus explains that each and every one of us possesses a Nefesh Elokis – a Divine Soul – which is truly a part of Hashem, and shares His boundlessness; hence, our ability to achieve transcendance. Therefore, by actively uncovering and exercising our Nefesh Elokis, we can surpass even our own “noble” natures. We can conduct ourselves, in thought, speech and deed, the way a P'nimi does – according to whatever is the true will of Hashem for the needs of the hour.

5. AHAVAS YISROEL

Hillel taught that the whole Torah is summed up in the verse “And you shall love your fellow like yourself”. But can one really love another Jew as much as he loves himself?

Chassidus explains that the differences separating one from his fellow are only bodily ones. On the level of Soul – in terms of the Nefesh Elokis – we are all united and stem from One Source, because each soul is an intrinsic part of Hashem. The assembly of all Jewish souls, like pieces in a vast jigsaw puzzle spanning the totality of creation, forms a spiritual whole whose significance is beyond measure. In this jigsaw puzzle, one cannot blend in and find his “place” without his fellow pieces finding their “place”. Only when all Jews fit together and find their unique place is the puzzle complete. Only then is the meaning of Hashem's plan for creation clear.

When perceives the Mitzvah of Ahavas Yisroel in the light of Chassidus, one begins to understand why, as Rabbi Yisroel Baal Shem Tov taught, a Neshomo may come down into this world and live for seventy or eighty years, just to do a physical or spiritual favour for another Jew.

The emphasis on Ahavas Yisroel in Yeshivah Gedolah is not only confined to helping other Jews materially and spiritually. It also flows from the Hanholo to the Talmidim, and vice-versa. In Yeshivah Gedolah, utmost attention is paid to each individual's character development, so that he realizes his full potential – to be all that he can be. The Yeshivah imbues within him an unadulterated, lasting commitment to Torah and Yiddishkeit. The Yeshivah aspires to produce solid and sincere Yidden, with Mesiras Nefesh (self-sacrifice) for Torah, Yiddishkeit, and for their fellow-Jew.

Each student who enters Yeshivah Gedolah is seen as a beacon of light, a Menorah, of positive influence. The Yeshivah sees it as its duty to kindle the flame, so that each individual student will become a “Ner L'Hoir”, a lamp which illuminates the environment with the light of Torah and Chassidus. Just as light naturally attracts attention, so too, each student is encouraged to become a beacon and role model for others to follow.

6. DIROH B’TACHTONIM: MAKING THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE

Another teaching of Chassidus, especially of Chabad Chassidus, is the concept of Diroh B'Tachtonim; of perfecting a “Dirah”, a dwelling, for Hashem in the lower worlds, and specifically in this world. Diroh B'Tachtonim means that one’s striving to ascend and advance ever closer to Hashem must be tempered by the overriding realization that Hashem desires that He be served in this world. By utilizing the material of everyday life, in thought, speech and deed, for the sake of Torah and Mitzvos, one refines and elevates his little corner of this world, and turns it into a fitting dwelling for Hashem. Thus, despite all of one’s spiritual yearnings, one may not retreat from the physicality of this world; man's mission is to be inclusive, not elitist.

The concept of Diroh B'Tachtonim greatly reinforces the significance of the concept of Ahavas Yisroel, for Diroh B'Tachtonim emphasizes that one cannot retreat from his fellow Jews. Although each Jewish soul has its own unique destiny and mission in this world, Ahavas Yisroel is the cement through which we build this world into a dwelling for Hashem. Without it, the dwelling is unfit for Hashem to inhabit.

On a deeper level, the concept of Diroh B'Tachtonim – of serving Hashem in and with this world – flows forth from the Chassidic idea of the Unity of Hashem; that ultimately, “Ein Oyd Milvadoy”, there is nothing apart from Him. Service of Hashem is not only a part of one's life, in which he is a Jew at home and in the synagogue, and something else elsewhere. Rather, the service of Hashem encompasses the totality of one’s life; everything which one sees and hears serves as an instruction in serving Hashem. The notion that this mode of serving Hashem can take place in this, the lowest and most materialistic of all the Four Worlds, and that even here “there is nothing apart from Him”, emphasizes His boundless Unity to the utmost.

With such an approach, one cannot remain a smugly private individual, aloof of his environment. One is impelled to bring Hashem into this world; to reach out and help other Jews find their “place”; and to make this world a better and more holy place – or Dirah – for Hashem.

When the Rebbe Rashab founded the Tomchei Tmimim network of Lubavitcher Yeshivos, he described his students, the Tmimim, as “Neiros L'hoir” (lamps to illuminate). Each Tomim  illuminates his life and his surroundings with the light of Torah and Chassidus. Just as light spreads and automatically pushes away darkness, similarly, the influence of the Tmimim spreads and pushes away the darkness of the Golus. Ever since 1897, the Tmimim have not stopped caring for the physical and spiritual plight of their fellow Jews. Outreach work? Community involvement? In Lubavitch – literally, the “city of love” – it's an old story.

SUMMARY

One of the definitions that the Concise Oxford Dictionary gives for "education" is the “development of character or mental powers.” Chassidus illuminates and enlivens a student's character and mental powers, by teaching him – in great depth – how a Jew's essence is to live as the unifying link between the Creator and Creation.

As mentioned at the outset, it is impossible to properly describe the richness of Chassidus and Chassidic life in such short a space: About how prayer is a ladder whose foot stands on the ground but whose top reaches Heaven. About how lack of joy in serving Hashem is akin to denial of Hashem. About how self-sacrifice means putting oneself aside. About the Chassidic concept of trust and faith in Hashem. About how the concept of Bitul (self-effacement that comes from being enveloped by the truth of a G‑dly principle) does not crush a person, but instead leads to the greatest joy and inner strength. About why Chassidim maintain that what a Chassidic get-together, or Farbrengen, can accomplish, even the Angel Michoel cannot.

The only way to savour what Chassidus has to offer is through regular exposure, which the Yeshivah Gedolah can offer aplenty!